Steal it from Magic

On a recent episode of Something From Nothing, we had a question come up about balance. Specifically, how to go about balancing a game with factions that have unique abilities. My answer was simple: Steal it from Magic. I foolishly assumed this was something that everyone did, but to my surprise, that simple comment got a good deal of attention.

So, I’m here to explain myself a little further.

This year, Magic the Gathering turns 22 years old. In the past 2 decades, there have been 82 sets and thousands, upon thousands of unique card designs. The foundation of the game is simple:

On your turn, you draw 1 card. You may play 1 resource (land) and any number of additional cards you can afford using your available resources. Your units have a strength and toughness and you can use these units to attack the other player. The other player may defend with their units, or take the damage themselves. If you reduce your opponents life to 0, you win.

Obviously, that his a very high-level overview of how the game is played, but fundamentally, it really is that basic. So, how do you make thousands of cards that fit in a system that is so fundamentally simple? You break the system. It’s easy to look at a card’s mana cost and assume that is the only cost in the game… but, you’d be wrong. All of the things mentioned above are resources. Your life, the cards you draw, the cards in your hand, your land, the strength and toughness of your creatures, your ability to attack, your ability to defend… etc. While Land is the primary resource that drives the game, if you look at the system from this top-level, you can see that there are actually dozens of resources available for the mechanics of the game to manipulate… and that’s exactly what WotC has done.

If you are working on a card game, chances are, Magic has already done it. Do you want to draw a bunch of cards? Done. Do you want to spend points to play cards? Done. Do you want to have hand manipulation? Done. Do you want to have hard resets? Done.

With all this history behind it, Magic has succeeded because of the willingness WotC has to push the limits of the game. If all we had, 20 years later, were the same old 1 cost 1/1’s and 2 cost 2/2s and a spell or two that does a little damage… well… the game would suck. Instead, the team is constantly looking at ways of pushing the boundaries of this simple card playing system… and we, as game designers, can take advantage of their work!

 Cost vs Ability

Your card game has a cost. All card games do. You must think about this up front because it’s the mechanism that you balance all other things against. I’m not talking about the physical cost of components either… sure, in Magic, they have rares, and legendaries… which can be more powerful than commons… that’s part of the whole collectible thing. But, These cards still aren’t so overly powerful that they must be included in your deck if you want to win.

The cost I’m talking about here is the resource used to play cards. In Magic, it would be mana. In Android: Netrunner, it is Credits. It’s not always something tangible though. In the simplest form, something like Smash Up for instance, there is no resource requirement to play a card… instead, you may only play 2 a turn; one Minion and one Event. While this doesn’t, at first, appear to be a “cost”, it truely is. It restricts the players action on their turn in some fashion. Chances are, your card game does that also. Identify that cost, because that’s what you’ll balance everything elese against.

9When looking at Magic, we have to compare everything to a baseline. That baseline is 1 mana.

  • 1 mama = a 1/1 with some ability, or maybe a 2/1
  • 1 mana = 2 damage
  • 1 mana = give a creature +3/+3

Once you’ve looked at the baseline, you can now begin to build off of that. If you keep looking at Magic for inspiration, what you’ll find is that the cost/ability ratio is actually on a curve. The more a card costs, the more value you are getting out of it. You can choose to build your game this way… or not, that’s going to be entirely up to you.

So, set your baseline up like Magic and go from there. For the sake of argument, we are going to assume our game has a simple resource mechanism in place: Each turn, gain 5 Energy.

Now, we have to decide what Energy is worth. On turn one, we can play 1 card that costs 5 Energy, or 5 cards that cost 1 Energy. Also, if we want to be tricky, we can play no cards, and instead, have 10 Energy to play with on turn 2. So, in this energy system, we have to balance everything against that idea. We are allowing players to bank energy, so we can get away with some crazy powerful cards just by making their cost high.

ImageBUT, in reference to Magic, let’s say we want to have a card that lets the player draw 2 cards. In Magic, that card would cost (about) 4 Mana. To clarify, I say “about” here because in actuality, it would probably be 1 Blue and 3 Colorless mana and colorless mana is slightly less valuable to colored mana. So, it’s more like 3.6(ish) mana. So, all things being fair, you could draw 2 cards on turn 4. So, in our game, if we want to let the player draw 2 cards, it should be a heavy cost. Maybe 20 or so would guarantee it doesn’t happen until turn 4, like Magic… but that’s not being fair. In Magic, you don’t just do nothing on turns 1, 2, and 3 so that you can draw 2 cards on turn 4. So, in reality, we should let the player have some slack. Card advantage is huge in games like this, so we don’t want to make it too easy… maybe it costs 12. You still can’t do it turn 1 or 2, but to do it, even on turn 3, you’re going to have to sacrifice some momentum.

Once you have that baseline set, you know what the resource cost of your cards is, it becomes easy to design new cards when we use Magic as a model. It would be very difficult to design a card ability that Magic hasn’t already tried… and frankly, when I’m beginning a new design, I’m perfectly happy with testing my basic system without any fancy new ideas. Once the game engine is running smoothly, then you can try to design your own card ideas. It’s pointless to attempt that before balancing the basics though. You’re just wasting your time.



Half of playing the game of Magic is building a deck. There is a whole discipline of math involved in building an optimized MtG deck and… in fact… this study is what inspired me to make my own games. I loved solving the puzzle of deckbuilding. Before “net decking,” we did things the hard way, we built ideas and tried them.

There’s nothing quite like sitting down and analyzing the mana curve of your deck and balancing that according to the current meta. I’ve witnessed intense arguments built on the discussion of whether a deck should run 22 or 23 lands. There’s a whole game built into just how to construct your deck efficiently.

And that’s true in game design also. It’s often an issue of how many of each card type do you include in your game. For your first build of your prototype, I often suggest you just wing it. Put in more copies of your “basic” cards, and less copies of the heavily tricky cards. Once you get everything working, you’ll be able to tune it up from there.

Regardless of how you tune your deck, you must be conscious of your cost/benefit analysis to make it work. If your game’s “cost” is that you can only play 1 card a turn, having a bunch of cards in the deck that do relatively nothing… maybe, +1 strength… is going to make for a very dull game. You could truthfully get away with just about anything if your game is that restrictive. In fact, you could get away with having nothing but “broken” cards in your game as long as they are all balanced against each other.  It’s all relative. Look at Pokemon: 1 Energy gets you 10 damage! That would be crazy in MtG, but in Pokemon, it’s just normal.

So, in our game, spending 5 Energy shouldn’t be a big deal. That’s one turn’s worth of Energy. Spending 10, however, can be slightly more dramatic. We do nothing for 2 whole turns but play a single card. That should be a slightly higher value than playing 2 cards that cost 5 Energy. Why? Well, a card that costs 5 Energy actually costs 5 Energy, 1 Turn, and 1 card. So, playing 2 of those costs you 10 Energy, 2 Turns, and 2 cards… but you have the added flexibility of not being STUCK playing just those 2 cards. Maybe, you play one, then on the next turn, you need to play something else. Fine.

To play our 10 cost card, however, it costs us 10 Energy, 2 Turns, and only 1 card. We are already getting a little extra value out of the card, because it only costs us 1 card… which gives us a slight edge on card advantage, but that advantage came at the cost of flexibility.

ShockSo, for our game, let’s set a value of 5 damage to 5 Energy. That’s roughly equivalent to Magic’s Shock which is 2 damage for 1 Red mana, all things considered. If we have 2 cards in our hand which deal 5 Damage for 5 energy, we could spend 2 turns and cause 10 damage. Great! We can even be flexible with that damage and split our damage between 2 targets. On the other hand, if I play a card that costs 10 Energy, and it only deals 10 Damage… to a single target… well, that’s just not great value, now is it?

So, what would a good value be for this card? Probably something around 12 or 13 damage for 10 Energy. Maybe even as high as 15. This is raw intuition, I’m just guessing here, it would need tested… but let’s go back to deckbuilding.

In our game, we can balance these cards by how many copies are included in the deck. Let’s say, for the sake of simplicity, that our game uses 50 card decks. If we have 6 copies of our 5 Energy – 5 damage card, and only 1 copy of our 10 Energy card… we could make that 10 Energy card do 20 damage if we wanted and it would likely be balanced. There’s only one. It can be a little crazy powerful. If we want to have more high-damage, high-cost cards, then we’d need to tone it down a bit… maybe there are 3 copies and it’s 10 Energy for 15 Damage. Again, this is just me speculating.


Magic is Your Baseline

All this is to say, you don’t have to re-invent the wheel every time you want to design a new game. Magic has an extremely rich history of card abilities and types for you to lean on when designing your game. I always recommend that you start with the basics first, and test your idea immediately… but when it comes time to flesh out your system with new abilities and effects… well, there’s a reason why every card game is compared to Magic. It is the foundation of everything that has come since. It’s the baseline. Use it.

I may not enjoy playing the game anymore, but I regularly keep up with new developments. You don’t even have to buy cards to understand what I’ve talked about above. If you haven’t played the game before, and you are trying to design a card game, do yourself a favor and at least read the rules, then go find a few set lists online and look at the wealth of existing work that has already been done for you. Once you understand that everything is a resource when playing a card game, it’s relatively simple to transpose the work of some of the most talented card game designers in the business into your own game. Take it, make it yours, and have fun designing your version of the best card game ever.

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