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Im a big fan of the Magic the Gathering trading card game.

And with all these new cards coming in, I was wondering how the cards were balanced, and manacost calculated.

Im thinking there must be a list of abilities, with matching mana modifiers, and some formula in which to calculate them. I hardly feel that they just guess or take it on the feels when coming up with the cards cost and ability limitations.

But is such a formula public ? I have been looking around but with not much luck.

The reason im asking is that I would like to know the correct mana cost, if I were to make some custom cards myself.

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1  
This Latest Developments column touches on some of the reasons it's not as simple as a formula; if you want to learn more than is in the answers here you might want to poke around in the archives there, since it's straight from the actual developers. For example, approaching it from the other side, how do you make a two-cost planeswalker? –  Jefromi Mar 7 '13 at 2:03
    
Such a good question. –  wesdfgfgd Mar 8 '13 at 15:21
    
I would also suggest listening to MaRo's Drive to work podcast because he has touched on how he designed certain sets like Innistrad, Ravnica, and Tempest –  WPickett Mar 13 '13 at 15:53

6 Answers 6

up vote 6 down vote accepted

I hardly feel that they just guess or take it on the feels when coming up with the cards cost and ability limitations.

Actually, they kinda do.

Mana cost depends on several factors:

  • How common the card's ability is in the color. Flight for example, is generally least expensive in Blue, White is slightly more expensive, and red/black slightly more, and green even more and quite rare.
  • The rarity of the card. What makes Mythic Rare cards better isn't just how uncommon the abilities are, but how undercosted the abilities are. See Huntmaster of the Fell and Geist of Saint Traft. An uncommon flyer might be slightly undercosted compared to a common flyer.
  • The current metagame. Back in the day, Counterspell was a mere two blue mana. Lightning Bolt did 3 damage for 1 red mana. Control decks ran rampant, creatures like Hill Giant were expensive for what you got. Over time, Wizards wanted the Combat Phase to matter more often, so hard counters began to get more expensive, and creature costing got cheaper.
  • The set balance. If Wizards want to deemphasize removal in limited in a set, they might make it more expensive.

and most of all

  • Playtesting. Wizards does a lot of playtesting to determine which costs are appropriate in the environment.

I don't think there's any way to come up with a strict formula and the parameters change over time. Used to be you could only get a 2/2 vanilla creature with a converted mana cost of 2 in green. (Hello Grizzly Bears) Then white got a Glory Seeker. Recently Black has joined the club with Walking Corpse and Gutter Skulk. Not counting Scarwood Goblins, Red and Blue still require drawbacks to get 2/2 for CMC 2.

So yeah they do just cost what "feels right" then adjust after playtesting. Sometimes they get it wrong, in my opinion, compare Snapcaster Mage with Archaeomancer — absurd extra value at half the cost, even at rare. How Merfolk of the Depths ended up with a CMC of 6 for 4/2 Flash is equally baffling. Twice as big as a Shambleshark at four times the price??

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Yep, all about playtesting. It may be worth noting that Wizards designs cards years in advance so they have ample time to test their balance. –  David Z Mar 8 '13 at 0:09

I concur that there is, indeed cannot be, a hard-and-fast formula for translating a new card to a mana cost.

Bear in mind that different blocks have different power levels. A card that may have been severely overpowered in one environment is average in a different one. A card that may have been costed 1R in last year's block may become 2R in development this time around.

Consider that Magic is an endless game of power creep and power rebalancing. Generally speaking cards have gotten better at similar mana costs over time, and may well continue to do so, because consumers don't like to feel ripped off by this year's cards compared to last year's cards (hello, Homelands). I'm not sure we'll ever reach the stage where every card is costed "perfectly", because Wizards will always try to sneak undercosted cards in, to make players feel happy about their card evaluation abilities. See also the crop of overcosted cards that make an appearance in every set, for similar but opposite reasons.

Having said that, there are some pretty good rules for costing that you can start to assimilate through experience. White will always get a creature costing W that, by hook or by crook, can attack for 2 on the second turn. Green will always get a 5/5 for 4G or thereabouts. A red burn spell that deals 3 to a creature or player will tend to weigh in at 1R, unless Wizards are pushing Lightning Bolt this year. A black terror variant, likewise, will usually cost 1B. Once you get to about 8 mana you can just go crazy, it doesn't really matter any more.

I'd advise just playing a lot and getting a feel. And then playtesting with your new cards and seeing if they feel busted in the new environment you've created. As long as they're not too absurdly off the ordinary curve, it will depend a lot on what other cards and strategies are available in the environment they find themselves in.

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+1 for "once you get to 8 mana it doesn't matter any more." In my experience competitive players barely ever pay 8 mana for a spell unless most of their deck is designed to get them there. –  Gordon Gustafson Mar 13 '13 at 14:05

There does seem to be a pattern to how they balance the cards and their costs("A 1/1 creature should cost 1 or 2, and abilities such as first strike or haste might add 1 to that cost" as a baseline and then scaled up for more powerful cards), and most players have a pretty good eye for whether something is good for its cost or not. But I'm not so certain there is an exact formula per se.

I don't know how they do it at Wizards, but recently the Onyx Path Publishing people shared a piece of insight on the subject: When asked directly about it, the developers of Vampire: the Requiem stated that they didn't follow a formula for inter-balancing of individual powers[1], but that they looked at the things they wanted to do with the abilities, and then decided on what a player would be ready to do in order to use that ability.

Honestly, I think gefühl and lots and lots of playtesting and rebalancing is your best option.

1 = http://forums.white-wolf.com/default.aspx?g=posts&m=1581039#post1581039

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Having read the other answers, they seem to hit most of the right topics.

  1. You start with a basic formula to get a good idea of what it should cost, perhaps using previous sets examples. (Not as easy if its your first set, mind you...) This is the cost recommended by design.
  2. You tweak the card on an individual basis to emphasize or deemphasize particular mechanics and combos. This is usually called 'devign' - it's a stage between design and development. Development may send something back to design, or they may make minor changes in devign.
  3. You play the set over and over and over again to make the set balanced. This is development.

And in summary that's a great start. But there's something that's very important: Wizard's intentionally makes bad cards. Or do they...

Consider Lightning Bolt. It's a killer spell. 3 damage, instant speed, 1 mana. Awesome. Then consider Volcanic Hammer. Same 3 damage, but sorcery speed and 2 mana. Umm, what happened here? What a bad card. Well, it WOULD be a bad card if that set had Bolt in it, but it didn't. Chances are they had something like Bolt in there, but it was too powerful. Maybe they tried Shock and found that it was still too powerful. So they made it 3 damage again but tacked another mana on it. But then maybe they found it STILL too powerful, so they made it sorcery speed. In 2002, Hammer was seeing tournament play. How could a bad card like that be tournament playable? Because it was balanced, and still a good card. It just wasn't as good as Bolt, so people considered it bad. If they made a card called Super Lightning Bolt, which did 4 damage for 1 at instant speed, everyone would start burning their bolts in a huge fire to make room in the collections for this new one. And then when regular lightning bolt is in a new set, they'll whine about how bad it is compared to super lightning bolt.

But then there are other cards that are just... well... bad. Dragon's Claw is a great example of this. It's really not a good card. You spend two mana and maybe gain four life over the course of the game. Well, those two mana could have gone to a Headlong Rush that obliterates your opponent's board state. But dragon's claw is a catchy card that new players like. If it cost 1 and you got to draw a card, it might see play. (This was why things like the spellbombs saw some play in Scars - they replace themselves, which is honestly one of the biggest costs to things like dragon's claw.)

So as you go making your cards, don't think that each card needs to be great. You're always going to have a top 10%, a middle 60%, and a bottom 30% no matter how good you make your cards. So make sure you design them with that in mind from the beginning.

I would start reading the Making Magic column. Mark Rosewater spends a lot of time helping other people get better at what he does for a living. Once you've gone through a lot of that, he answers questions on his tumbler and he occasionally entertains questions from aspiring game developers. (Note that he cannot review unsolicited material so your questions need to stay high level.) Every article of Making Magic I've read has helped me as a developer.

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Alot of great insights here! I would like to add:

You tend to get more for your mana if the card is multicolor, in exchange for it being harder to cast. For example, Woolly Thoctar is a 5/4 at only 3 mana! A turn 3 5/4 is huge, but at RGW, you either have to be super lucky at having the perfect lands in hand or at the first 2 draws, &/or you are (in draft) spending your first 2 turns playing a boarder post then CiPT tri-lands (while your opponent is playing creatures & swinging). Kingpin's Pet is 1WB Flying 2/2 with a solid ability, while in the same block there is a 3/2 flyer at 3W (Assault Griffin), missing a 2nd ability while missing the 2nd color requirement.

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Heavy color commitment also tends to allow higher power at lower cost, such as Leatherback Baloth or Blue Sun's Zenith –  Brian S Nov 19 '13 at 17:16

Additionally, the more colorless in the casting cost you have, the weaker the spell will be, since it is easier to cast: In the Return to Ravenca Block, right now we have: 4 colorless = 2/2 flyer (Millennial Gargoyle) that anyone can cast. 3W = 3/2 flyer (Assault Griffin) that anyone who splashes white can cast. 1WW = 2/2 flyer (Sunspire Griffin) that requires more land dedication in plains.

BTW, you can still make the "bottom 30%" of your cards good, though perhaps only situationally (eg draft, or casual multiplayer).

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