The Ixalan Bonus Set!
Welcome to the Ixalan Bonus Set, designed by James Mapes!
This is a game design experiment to explore a new form of draft content for Magic: The Gathering. It uses Magic concepts and variations on Ixalan lore to create additional "fanfiction" gameplay. Nothing involved in the Ixalan Bonus Set is commercial, and all materials are fair use / parody.
If you want to jump straight to the card gallery, click here!
The Ixalan Bonus Set is intended to be drafted as the third pack of an Ixalan draft. It is my attempt to complicate the drafting themes and gameplay of Ixalan while retaining its tribal fun. Hopefully, it can add a little more fun to Ixalan's straight-forward gameplay before Rivals of Ixalan comes out, as well as being a design exercise for me.
In addition, I am testing a different sort of small-format set. The Ixalan Bonus Set is only 64 cards, collated into 8 packs with varying rarity. Because it's drafted after two packs of Ixalan, its cards are able to divy up and complicate Ixalan's limited archetypes, rather than needing to create new archetypes and mechanics as a proper Wizards of the Coast set must. This Bonus format will become even more interesting for future sets, whereas this one will essentially be superseded by Rivals of Ixalan (the official follow-up to Ixalan).
The Ixalan Bonus Set was guided by a desire to explore the Magic: The Gathering Limited Format, and in particular the relationship between small sets and large sets. Magic's business model relies heavily on the excitement of a new set release to push sales, which means that all of their products need to be a certain size and depth. I do not have those same restrictions! My Bonus Set fits into draft in a unique way and is very small - only 64 cards. (For reference, Magic's small sets used to be 134 cards, but have been getting bigger lately - up to 196 for the upcoming Rivals of Ixalan.) Also, since I don't need to make my set front and center, I can put it in a unique position for draft: the last pack. This has a number of consequences through-out the set; here are some aspects of the design.
Doing a Bonus Set allows me to play within the mechanics Ixalan has already established while not feeling pressure to add additional mechanics. I think that it especially plays well with the design of Ixalan, which featured relatively strict archetypes next to only one or two overarching mechanics or themes.
In the Bonus Set, I focus most of my attention on elaborating the mechanic "Explore". Ixalan itself was an asymmetrical tribal set (where the tribes are strictly attached to specific colors), while the Explore mechanic existed across all tribes and colors. As a mechanic, Explore drew my attention because it simultaneously had a lot of design space left for the mechanic itself, but also because it let to so many other avenues to (errrrm) explore.
Here are the different areas that I play in with regards to Explore:
Revealing and Tucking:
I realized early on that such a small set couldn't strictly adhere to the tribes laid out in Ixalan - there just weren't enough cards to split everything apart into one of the tribes. Also, Ixalan itself was perhaps too tribal, and one sometimes felt like if you missed on your first choice, you were already too far behind for your second. Because of that, I grouped the tribes into defenders and conquerers - essentially, the inhabitants of the continent of Ixalan (Sun Empire and Merfolk) versus the invaders (Pirates and Vampires), then I gave each of them a mechanical theme.
The defenders want to utilize lands-in-hand and your library to power up their creatures and spells. I've noticed that Magic features a little bit of tension between playing your land versus keeping it in hand, and I wondered if I could put my finger on the scale. The defenders have access to spells and creatures that require you to reveal one or more lands from your hand to make them work. How does that change the way games play out?
In addition, the Sun Empire colors have a cycle of enchantments that - like explore - involve revealing the top card of your library. In this case, though, the type of the card revealed results in a small bonus for the turn - more mana, pseudo-vigilance, or a buff.
Finally, these colors feature a cycle of spells that can put things back into your library, second from the top (i.e. under the top card), sometimes for obvious, on-the-card bonuses. My hope is that these cards might also allow a player to game the system a turn or two out in terms of revealing/exploring cards.
But Do You Have a Flag?:
The Conquerers, on the other hand, are interested in playing and discarding lands, and utilize the closest thing to a new mechanic: Flag counters. These always go on lands, and represent the Pirates and Conquistadors claiming Ixalan territory. Generally, having flags on your lands amp up your spells and some of your abilities, as well as allow you to quote Eddie Izzard for value. In this format, my hope is that Flags can allow Pirates or Vampires to veer more into a controlling, turbo-boost-my-spells deck, rather than always needing to stay small and aggressive. In particular, many of the cards that place flags are defensive (including a cycle of creatures with good stats and Defender), so this is really about trying to complicate the archetypes. I hope, also, that there is both the possibility of only having a couple Flag enablers / pay-offs versus going deep.
Hilariously, I was leafing through a bulk rares bin at Guardian Games (whoop whoop) well after I had finished the first version of this set and found the card Trap Digger from the set Scourge, which is essentially the Flag mechanic contained on one card. Everything has already been done - I think my set has a good spin on it, though.
It's Not Landfall, that was Zendikar:
Putting a ton of Explore or Explore-esque mechanics into the set meant that we would be drawing more lands, so I included a couple cards that care about lands being played. In particular, I used a Green-Black and Green-Blue legendary creatures to push playing lands as much as possible. I didn't write out Landfall as a mechanic, though, staying true to the decision to just write it out in full (as on Tireless Tracker) in non-Zendikar sets. Landfall is too good a mechanic to leave by the wayside, though.
One thing I did not include is any cards that trigger purely off of the act of Exploring. I feel like that micro-mechanic was already explored in the Black-Green color pair of Ixalan, so it already exists in my set - and hopefully will be put to even cooler use.
One cycle of spells recreates the land-flip Explore rider, where you reveal the top card of your library and put it into your hand if it's a land. Because these spells are not attached to a creature, they don't have the other half of Explore (put a +1/+1 counter on the exploring creature if you reveal a non-land card, then you may put that card in the graveyard). First, this allowed me to do familiar spells with an additional, simple rider (a counter spell that maybe draws you a land). Second, one of the aspects of Explore I've enjoyed the most is the revealing part, and how that shares information with the table. Lastly, I wanted to disconnect these spells from whether or not you have creatures on the board, just for simplicity's sake. Also, my set doesn't make use of +1/+1 counters (because Magic has done that a lot lately, including in Ixalan itself), so I was much more interested in the presence of land versus not.
Another cycle of creatures Explores, but grants a bonus to the board if you hit a land (in addition to drawing the land). In this case, each creature creates a token from their tribe if you hit a land. You either get a bigger creature or an additional creature. Like the last cycle, this cycle might subtly encourage players to put more lands in their deck, for synergy - a concept that runs through the Bonus Set.
Lastly, I also decided to include Evolving Wilds. First, I was trying to complicate Ixalan, which means giving some last-minute abilities to splash (more on this in Play Design). Evolving Wilds, though, is also a balanced fetchland, and I thought that giving some avenues to shuffle might help players out. Does this create enough tension to get 2-color decks to play Evolving Wilds? Maybe!
Aside from Explore, a couple other things snuck in.
I stuck with Treasure, because it's so fun and a part of the world, and also plays well in a variety of decks. I also think it's fun that the best ramp color in Ixalan is blue, so I played that up a little bit. (But only a little bit.)
I have a soft spot in my heart for the Commander format, so I couldn't resist more Legendary creatures. I also made every rare a Legendary creature, but decided black-white Vamps had already gotten their goodness and replaced it with a novel version of Wrath of God (which the set needs for limited, in my humble opinion).
Because the Pirates are wily and irreverent, I wanted to give them a little fun, so I created a few spicy cards (as the pros say). Two cards care about rarity in a way that black border can't (one destroys "valuable" cards, while a counterspell can only target commons), but that's the fun of making your own set, right? My favorite card that I made for this set is a card that lets you use treasure to basically "buyback" spells. Be still my build-around heart! Despite these on-the-edge cards, though, I am definitely not aiming to make an Un-set. First, Unstable looks fantastic, and second, I am most interested in the design constraints of black-border (my little bits of fun notwithstanding).
Finally, because I am my own person, I was not bound by Hasbro's Family-Friendly policies, and was able to craft a card for Grog and put it into the Pirate set, where it firmly belongs. (It's okay to kill people and suck their blood as long as it's SOBER blood, gosh darnit!) Interestingly, I have no idea whether Grog is a terrible card or whether there's a deck that will abuse the hell out of it - but I aim to find out.
Interestingly, there was another mechanic in Ixalan that existed outside of tribes. Double-Faced Cards that transform into lands also spanned the colors, and in theory, a Bonus set could instead focus on this. I felt that there was not enough design space to merit further designs, and also my physical approach (old-style playtest stickers) would not generate any excitement about transform cards, since the cool printing is half the fun. Although I designed almost all of the Bonus Set before any Rivals of Ixalan spoilers were released, I did feel vindicated when I saw that Rivals continues along the same vein of having rare-only DFCs that transform into lands, and seems to continue the cycle of recreating previously-overpowered lands (like Tolarian Academy). All of this is to say - whoo! Explore! Decisions!
Play Design / Seeding the Packs:
Normally, designing a Magic set takes a huge amount of hours and professional experience for a large team of people. I don't have any of that, so I did it differently. First, I used the foundations of what were already there (Ixalan) as a starting point, which let my design-time be about elaboration rather than pure, hard creation. (This also helped a lot with balance, I think - I could use Ixalan as a set of Development guidelines.) Second, and more importantly, I did a very small set, which just means designing fewer cards, fewer combinations, and fewer interactions. Third, most importantly, I narrowed in on the exact format that I was designing for.
The cards in the Ixalan Bonus Set are made only to be drafted as the third pack of a 4-to-8-person Ixalan draft, and they probably won't make any sense or function outside of that. I didn't have to design for Sealed, Two-Headed Giant, or pack wars, or consider whether a certain card design or mechanic might break Modern, or whether I was making enough legendaries for Commander (spoiler though: I did). I especially didn't have to worry about that behemoth of Standard, which I'm sure occupies a ton of time and attention of the actual R&D Magic team.
That decision let me do some fun things!
Primarily, it means that the packs are essentially seeded: if you are doing an 8-person draft, then there will be exactly one of each of the eight rares in the pool, one to two of each uncommon, and two of each common. This lets me really push the synergies, because I know that most of the cards will make an appearance somewhere in the draft. (If you're only doing a four-person draft, it's true you'll miss out on a ton.) In this respect, I think my Bonus Set will have a vague cube-shaped feeling layered into the normal Limited experience.
This was really the guiding light of choosing to draft the bonus pack last, too. Because Ixalan is the way it is, I created the rares to jolt people out of where they found themselves at the end of Pack 2. In most drafts, I feel like Pack 3 is just about your first-pick and about filling out those last few playables - rarely do you (or should you) switch up the archetype you're in during the last pack. With the Bonus Set, though, I wanted to really encourage people to stretch in different ways based on the rares and uncommons they opened, and then give them enough commons to fill out their new shoes.
As part of this, I included a lot of fixing. First, this set is pitched towards more enfranchised players (who want to change things up a little), and I think they appreciate being able to splash when it's appropriate. Second, Ixalan was a fast format, so adding fixing and defensive stuff can help let midrange and especially control archetypes thrive again. (We saw this in Amonkhet into Hour of Devastation, too, where the re-emergence of ramp/control made Hour of Devastation into what many people felt was a better format.)
By way of an aside, the size of this set and its "advanced-level" pitch is also why there are no vanilla creatures or simple spells (i.e. disenchant). It felt unnecessary to go that deep, so I focused on developing interesting, thematic cards across the board. This is a good example of me choosing the best cake and getting to eat it a little - it's only because of the literal years of work that Wizards R&D does to create the sandbox that I get to play this way. (To put it another way, I am absolutely not critiquing anything about Wizard's actual process, or claiming that I've found a better way; I'm just playing differently.)
On a personal level, I also hate taking a sweet bomb out of the second pack, hoping to splash it, and then not getting any fixing in the last two packs. This time, my friends, you will get fixing in pack three. Drafting discipline is for the dogs (er, hounds).
As a game designer, I always want there to be a story and fun characters - that's part of the reason I love to play Magic so much, as opposed to Poker or some other boring numbers-based game. I definitely think I could've gone super basic, R&D test language and <CardName> filling in for actual card names, but I had fun stretching my creative muscles as well as my design ones. I had the goal of including flavor text on each card, and I think it makes the set more fun to play. The characters are all my own creations.
I thought about finding placeholder art, but it didn't feel like that would ever be a unified experience, and felt like it would take a hundred hours by itself. I am also a very bad artist, so doing it myself was out. My hope is that the names, mechanics, and flavor text flesh out the world enough.
I think that sums up a lot of my thought process! I hope you take the Unofficial Ixalan Bonus Set for a spin, and let me know what you think!
Print on full-page label paper. Cut and stick to old cards.
Collate 8 random packs with:
3 uncommons (discard remaining 8 cards)
(For bonus points, illustrate your own Jace lands with a Sharpie and use those as the "front" of the pack.)