|Posted on June 6, 2012 at 10:50 AM|
In a far-off plane of the Multiverse called Solphos, magic works in strange ways. It follows arcane laws and rules that don't exist on any other plane, and it can combine and transform to produce mystically charged vapors and crystals. The mages of this plane are called chymia magna – great alchemists – and they live in advanced, futuristic cities called periochs. Under the shadowy guidance of the Philosopher's Cabal, they seek to understand everything that makes their universe tick.
The catch is, the people of Solphos are messing with forces they don't understand. Their ambitious experiments are causing damage to their world's fundamental stability, slicing through natural laws like a dissecting scalpel through flesh. Thanks to the iron fist of a ruthless Philosopher named Scepter, Solphos's dissenting voices are being exiled one by one to the radioactive wastes called the Dark Lands. And dark things are crawling out of the cracks that the chymia magna have opened in space-time. These phenomena have been kept under control thus far, but soon, a single inciting event will change the face of the plane forever...
After seven months of on-and-off work, one of my largest and dearest creative projects is done. It's a little offbeat, but then again, anything I work on usually is. Presenting Solphos:
Solphos: Trouble is Brewing is a 252-card fanmade set for Magic: the Gathering, the popular trading card game from Wizards of the Coast. (It's 247 if you don't count basic lands.) It's an experiment in game design – anyone can think up a card, but it's harder to make a card that's interesting and fun to play with. It's my own little contribution to a game that I love, like a fanfic that latches on to the franchise it was inspired by. And it's a tale about a world that weaves magic and science, about technology getting out of hand, and about the beginning of a revolution.
Here's the story of how my magnum opus came to be.
No, You're #$%&! Insane
The first and most obvious question: Why design a Magic set?
There are two kinds of games: games you play to pass the time, and games you make time for. The latter aren't just games – they're lifestyles. Games like poker, chess and StarCraft II have immense strategic depth, so you can keep coming back to one game and find new ways to win within it. You get to meet lots of friends, kindred spirits who share your love for competition. You get memories and exciting experiences that you treasure for life. What gamers like me play for isn't really the game itself, but the community that thrives around it. Games have power that way.
There are lots of things that are meaningful to me, but seeing a smile spreading on someone else's face is one of the biggest joys I can experience. I'm like a torch who lives to spread the flame of happiness to others, even if only for a moment. So the thought of creating a game – and all those friendships and memories that every good game entails – strikes a special chord with me. I want to share the joy that games, even silly ones printed on cardboard, have given me.
So I guess that's the reason I would make a Magic set, first and foremost. To bring joy.
Carving Chess Pieces
Trading card games are unique in that they're made up of lots of little pieces, none of which are exactly the same. What's more, all each piece has is a name, a cost, a type, and a short and snappy effect. This means that it's very easy to add your own personal touch to a game like Magic. Scores of people are already doing it on Wizards's official You Make the Card forum. My journey of card design as a hobby started here.
When I made my first post on YMtC, I had no big plans in mind. I was just this average Joe player who, like thousands of other average Joe players, had this idea for a card that would be totally awesome if it existed. My first few designs weren't anything special, just experiments that toyed with the idea of making my very own card from scratch. It didn't take too long for me to realize that making cards, like writing or drawing, was actually pretty fun.
I quickly became a regular poster on YMtC. Not respectable or well known, but I had my foot in there. I became known as the mild guy with strong opinions and a name containing a word censored in forum dialogue (it's 'chink'). I was nominated as Best Newcomer in a fun little forum contest called YMtC Champs, but that's about the highlight of my early YMtC history. Then something magical happened.
I got good.
You don't really notice when you improve in your craft. It just comes naturally to you, as you use your previous work as a stepping stone to higher exploits. But it came to me, and people noticed. My writing, they said, was actually pretty good. My cards were simple and easy to understand, but they had all kinds of nuances that made them interesting and functional. And when new blood flooded into the YMtC forums, they started to see me less as an equal and more as a master. Somewhere along the line, I had attained a thing called 'cred.'
So I thought: Alright, wise guy. People look up to you. Making an entire card set is cool, and you have the ability. You can do it.
And I did.
One Giant Hippy Circle
The thing about making games is that they're all about the experience they convey to their players. Games are expected to be fun. (Fun is a subjective thing, but that's a topic for another time.) The point is that games are expected to create a certain visceral reaction in their audience, one that's completely different from those created by other forms of entertainment. Game design is more about being a performer than a mathematician.
Now, I'm no mathematician, and I'm a second-rate performer at best. But if there's one member of my target audience I know well, it's myself. When I began work on Solphos, I had one thing in mind: what kind of set would I, as a player, love? What cards wouldn't I mind playing with?
Wizards of the Coast did a survey once, and they found that Magic players can be divided into basically three demographics: Timmy, who loves the experience, Johnny, who loves the self-expression, and Spike, who loves the competition. If you've been paying any attention to this blog, you'll know that am a Johnny-Spike to the core. I enjoy competing and eking out an advantage over my opponent. But I also like competing on quirky battlefields, ones where the rules of the game change and I'm fighting a different war every round. I like winning, my way.
One way this expresses itself is in the form of a 'combo.' In Magic: the Gathering, certain cards interact with each other in unexpected and crazy ways. One well-known combo is that between Devoted Druid and Quillspike:
Devoted Druid can put a -1/-1 counter on itself to add mana to your mana pool. It gives you resources at the cost of weakening itself. Meanwhile, Quillspike lets you pay mana and remove a -1/-1 counter from any of your creatures to make itself more threatening. Together, they create a Quillspike with infinite power and toughness – pretty menacing for your opponent, especially because it's an instant win if it deals damage to him! This combo isn't too backbreaking because it's checked by cards that destroy creatures and disrupt your hand, but it was the core of more than one tournament-winning deck back in the day. It's a combo that I consider fair, but powerful and very, very cool.
I like combos. They reward players for being clever and seeking out odd interactions between cards. In tournaments where most decks win either by rushing down or stonewalling, combo decks win by pulling off outrageously wacky plays. But while there have been Magic card sets that encourage both fast and slow strategies, none have really let combo decks shine. That's when I realized that Solphos had found a niche no other set had: a set where combos mattered.
How I made combos matter is kind of technical and would probably bore you, but rest assured that Solphos contains numerous crazy card interactions just waiting to be uncovered, as well as checks and balances that keep them under control. This makes for an interesting back-and-forth game where both parties are assembling their doomsday weapons while desperately sifting for answers to their opponent's at the same time! It's quite a change from traditional Magic, but the variety is what makes it fun.
Once I got the combo theme down, it wasn't difficult to link "searching for combo pieces" with "alchemical recipes." Not long after, I got the entire mythos and storyline of Solphos down, and an additional sciencey theme to pad out the set. You'll find cards with names like March of Progress, Aqua Vitae, Flowers of Antimony, and Blast Cauldron – evocative, playful, and hopefully a blast to play with as well.
When A Plan Comes Together
Designing a card set isn't easy, let alone a halfway decent one. From start to end, Solphos took me seven months to finish (occasionally at the expense of less interesting things like homework or sleep). Sometimes I would work at a breakneck pace, and sometimes I posted nothing for weeks. But the feedback that I got from YMtC was absolutely amazing.
People who weren't regulars on the forum would wander in just to say how much they loved this or that card, or generally just talk about how cool the set was. When I posted the final, full list of cards, people immediately clamored to draft Solphos and play with the cards that I had made. Forget the praise – I had done something that resonated with these people, from the bottoms of their hearts. It was everything that I loved about games – the community, the friendships, the wild excitement – all brought to life... except this time, I was its progenitor.
I have wanted to be a lot of things in life. I wanted to be a writer, then a concept artist, then a freelance artist. But I think I've realized that my calling lies somewhere else.
Happiness can be created. It can be woven, just like a beautiful tapestry, from the threads of our lives and memories. And I believe I've found the key to doing it.
Enjoy Solphos. I know I did.