The Custom Magic Space

A primer/cheat sheet for creators of custom Magic: the Gathering cards.

Getting Started

Magic Set Editor is the best card creation program out there. Download it and get started!

The program itself is fairly intutive — the "Add card" button (in the Cards menu) creates a blank card, and you can click on the relevant sections of the card to fill in information.

When writing symbols, use the listed codes. Much of the time MSE will detect it automatically (you may need to finish your line), but if it doesn't you can highlight it and press CTRL + M. You can also use this to turn a symbol back into a letter.

You can change the style of the card (for split cards, timeshifted cards, planeswalkers, etc.) by going to the Style tab. The program comes with post-8th Edition templates, but you can download the post-M15 templates (and many others) at the MSE Forums. Check the MSE FAQ for more information.

Magic Set Editor is only available for PC, though there is a workaround using WineBottler. If you can't use it then MTG Cardsmith is a fast web-based rendering program.

Name Example Code
White W
Blue U
Black B
Red R
Green G
Colorless C
Generic , , 1, 2, X
Tap T
Hybrid W/U
Twobrid 2/U
Phyrexian H/U
Snow S
Untap Q

Essential Reading

Mark Rosewater is the Head Designer of Magic, and has probably written more about designing cards than anyone else in the world in his Making Magic column. Start with the basics:

His Nuts and Bolts series go into explicit details about designing a set.

Rosewater also applied Dieter Ram's Ten Principles for Good Design to Magic.

These two articles cover issues of complexity, especially in commons.

And for matters of the color pie, the best overview is here.

Also, Reuben Covington has written a number of excellent primers specifically for designers.

Finally, a very comprehensive FAQ on the MTGSalvation forums

Reference Documents

As well as all of these, check the bottom of the page for community projects and discussion hubs.

To calculate the number of cards your set needs at each rarity and CMC, enter your total set size here. Note that some rounding occurs, but these numbers should only be a guideline for your set anyway.

Thanks to Pichoro, Imp Elemental Spirit Guide, and Ocb777 for the calculations.

Rarity Ratio
Common
Uncommon
Rare
Mythic Rare
CMC Ratio

Evergreen Mechanics

This table shows where each evergreen mechanic falls in the color pie. Colors tertiary in a mechanic should be used very sparingly, and never at common.

Mechanic Primary Secondary Tertiary
Deathtouch (Any amount of damage this deals to a creature is enough to destroy it.)
Defender (This creature can't attack.)
Double strike (This creature deals both first-strike and regular combat damage.)
Fight (Each creature deals damage equal to its power to the other.)
First strike (This creature deals combat damage before creatures without first strike.)
Flash (You may cast this spell any time you could cast an instant.)
Flying (This creature can't be blocked except by creatures with flying or reach.)
Haste (This creature can attack and as soon as it comes under your control.)
Hexproof (This creature can't be the target of spells or abilities your opponents control.)
Indestructible (Damage and effects that say "destroy" don't destroy this creature.)
Lifelink (Damage dealt by this creature also causes you to gain that much life.)
Menace (This creature can't be blocked except by two or more creatures.)
Prowess (Whenever you cast a noncreature spell, this creature gets +1/+1 until end of turn.)
Reach (This creature can block creatures with flying.)
Scry (Look at the top N cards of your library, then put any number of them on the bottom of your library and the rest on top in any order.)
Trample (This creature can deal excess combat damage to defending player while attacking.)
Vigilance (Attacking doesn't cause this creature to tap.)

Color Pie

The five colors of Magic each hold a unique place, mechanically and philosophically, in the game's universe. One of the most important aspects of design is ensuring that your cards are correctly placed in the "pie" of colors. The definitive work about the color pie is by Mark Rosewater, and you can find it here. You can also read more on color philosophy in the articles below:

Monocolor:

Allied Pairs:

Enemy Pairs:

Shards:

Wedges:

Color Order

In Magic Set Editor, the mana cost of a card is automatically templated correctly for you, but in the rules text you have to work it out yourself. Generic mana will always go first, but depending on the number of colors being used the rest of the order is variable. The symbols for the articles above indicate the correct colour order for pairs, shards, and wedges. Note that the wedges have been ordered inconsistently (compare Intet the Dreamer with Surrak Dragonclaw), as three-color cards in Khans of Tarkir emphasised a particular color for each clan other than the central color. The order for the Nephilim (four-color combinations) are listed below.

Nephilim Colors Missing Color
Yore-Tiller Green
Glint-Eye White
Dune-Brood Blue
Ink-Treader Black
Witch-Maw Red

Wording Tips

The Golden Rule

Always check existing Magic cards to find correct wording. Get good at using Scryfall's rules text search function to find the snippet that you think you need, to see if it's been printed before. For example, typing o:"becomes snow" gives you every instance of a card saying the phrase "becomes snow" in its rules text. There's only two, but the fact that there is precedent means that you can safely use the wording for your own effect.

It isn't enough to see that cards have the wording you want, though - you should check the rules text in context, to be certain that it's using it the way you want.

Triggered Abilities vs. Replacement Effects

A triggered ability begins with the word "when", "whenever", or "at". It indicates that the ability happens after the trigger condition (e.g. Thornbow Archer has to be declared as an attacker order for its ability to trigger).

A replacement effect begins with the word "if", and uses the word "instead". It indicates that the effect that would have occurred does not occur, and the replacement effect occurs instead.

Triggered abilities beginning with "whenever" indicate that the ability might trigger multiple times from that object. Triggered abilities beginning with "when" indicate that the ability is expected to only trigger once (such as an enter-the-battlefield effect).

More obscure replacement effects include regeneration and "This creature enters the battlefield with..." effects such as Apex Hawks or Iona, Shield of Emeria.

Activated Abilities and Costs

An activated ability can be identified by a colon separating the cost and effect.

Akroan Jailer's activated ability has a cost made up of two parts. The first requires mana - - and the second requires the creature to tap - . These parts to the cost are separated by a comma.

Costs can theoretically be made up of anything, including discarding cards, paying life, or revealing a card from your hand. There are some very strange costs including "Draw a card" on Psychic Vortex or "Add to your mana pool" on Braid of Fire, but you should try to keep your costs as things that require expending resources. Everything else should be part of the effect.

Permanents, Spells, and Cards

A card references a creature when it wants to affect one currently on the battlefield.

A card references a creature spell when it wants to affect one on the stack.

A card references a creature card when it wants to affect one in a graveyard, in exile, in a hand, or in a library.

This rule is true of all card types.

Damage Sources

Damage always requires a source and a recipient. The source is generally the card dealing the damage, though not in every case.

CORRECT: Flame Slash deals 4 damage to target creature..

INCORRECT: Target creature takes 4 damage.

INCORRECT: Deal 4 damage to target creature.

If the effect involves the controller being dealt damage, consider using "Pay N life" instead, such as on Mana Confluence.

On the majority of black cards, players "lose life" instead, such as on Acolyte of Xathrid. This does not count as damage or combat damage for the purposes of prevention such as Awe Strike.

More Wording

The /r/custommagic wiki has plenty more tips on how to word things. Also, see the table with shortcuts for MSE. The CARDNAME and LEGENDNAME shortcuts are invaluable for keeping your card name consistent through the text. Failing that, never forget the golden rule!

Name Shortcut Result
Name of card ~ CARDNAME
Short name of card @ LEGENDNAME
Bullet point ::
Em Dash --

Gold vs. Hybrid

When designing multicolor cards, be sure that you are using gold and hybrid correctly with regards to the color pie.

Gold cards require two or more colors to cast, whilst hybrid cards can use either of two colors to cast. Compare Drakewing Krasis, a gold card, with Slippery Bogle, a hybrid card.

In design terms, this distinction has a number of ramifications. Most importantly, a hybrid card should only have abilities that its component colors could get alone. For instance, both blue and green can have a creature with hexproof, so Slippery Bogle can be cast using only blue mana or only green mana. By contrast, Drakewing Krasis has flying (an ability unavailable to green) and trample (an ability unavailable to blue), but because the card requires both colors of mana it can have both abilities.

In addition, note that hybrid cards are generally easier to cast, so should be costed with that in mind.

Community Hubs

These are the biggest sites for custom card creation communities.

Any one of these places would be happy to critique your cards, advise on wording, or chat about the color pie, so come and get involved! There are also a huge number of already completed sets that you can play with! You can find lists of those here (MSE forum) and here (MTGSalvation).

Other great community projects include:

  • MTG.Design: A web-based Magic card creator. Much better than Cardsmith, which is to say not garbage..
  • Planesculptors: A set database and web drafter. Absolutely essential for finished sets.
  • Multiverse: A database for your sets. Useful if outdated.
  • Remaking Magic: A custom MTG design podcast. Now non-functional, but worth listening back.
  • RoboRosewater: Cards generated by neural network. Puts us all to shame.

New World Order Red-Flags

When designing commons for a set, there is a strict limit on what is considered accpetable complexity. This was outlined in Mark Rosewater's article "New World Order", and Reuben Covington did a stellar primer on how to design for NWO here.

The list below, pulled from Reuben's primer, indicates every indicator that a card is red-flagged (not typical at common). The two rules of thumb to remember are that 1) Less than 20% of your commons overall should be red-flagged, and 2) Any red-flagged cards you keep in your set must make an important contribution to the set's theme or limited environment. Each red flag has a linked example of how not to do it - for more information, check out the primer.