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Color Wheels and Creativity





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Color Wheels and Creativity

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One of Richard Garfield’s greatest innovations in the realm of strategy card games is the concept of the color wheel. This is present in Magic: The Gathering, his most famous creation, and practically all of the games he has designed since then. The color wheel set a great standard for card games and is still one of the greatest design patterns. In this post, I will discuss how that pattern is used in Zems.

What Is It?

For those who are not too familiar with Richard Garfield’s games, I will provide a brief description of the color wheel here. Basically, each card has a color, and only decks that use certain colors can use certain cards. For example, a deck that uses the colors red and green – meaning decks that get only red and green resources – can only use red and green cards. The cost of all cards matches their color, so a red card will cost red resources, a green card will cost green resources, and so on.

Why The Color Wheel?

Mark Rosewater, the current head designer of Magic: The Gathering, explains this best in his Making Magic column article The Value of Pie. He provides three major reasons, which I will summarize in bullet form below.

  • It creates restrictions, which are good in a strategy game that is intended to mentally challenge and stimulate players. Without the color pie restriction, almost every fast and slow deck would look the same due to running the most efficient cards, which decreases variety in the long run.
  • It defines flavor, which is a fancy way of saying color X gets these cool effects and color Y gets these different effects. This creates various “personalities” that can be combined together when players try to build decks using multiple colors.
  • It creates game balance. If every color has various strengths, then each color also has weaknesses. This allows players to create a plan of attack when they discover what colors their opponent is playing.

Mark Rosewater also mentions a fourth point – it creates personalities – but I’ve combined it with the second point because personality and flavor tend to mesh together.

Hearthstone Has No Color Wheel!

No, it does not. Hearthstone also appeals to a more casual crowd, meaning it doesn’t want players grinding for cards in various different classes and instead offers a large set of “neutral” cards that can be used by any class. One of the advantages of the color wheel is that it promotes variety, and while Hearthstone certainly has a lot of unique decks, many of the decks tend to run the same neutral cards due to power level (Chillwind Yeti, Harvest Golem, Tinkmaster Overspark, the list could go on).

The result is generally less synergistic or combo decks and more decks that are comprised of individually strong cards – “good stuff” style decks. Over time, this can lead to burnout because players begin to get tired of playing with and against the same cards. I’m not trying to knock Hearthstone here, as I enjoy it personally, but it does get repetitive over time. We want to avoid creating that feeling in Zems as much as possible.

The Six Colors of Zems

In designing the color wheel of Zems, I took colorblindness as a major concern. I want to avoid causing problems or having to change colors for those who may have issues distinguishing certain colors, so we use very dominant colors. Before I go on to describe the six colors, I want to mention that we have no plans to support decks that utilize all six colors at once. Due to the design of Zems, a six color deck wouldn’t suffer from bad consistency since cards are not drawn from the top of the deck but instead fetched out of the deck, and we don’t want everyone moving towards “rainbow” strategies. This is a design lesson we’ve learned from Elements, one of the oldest flash-based online CCGs. At this time of writing, Zems will only support two color decks, but this is subject to change in the future.

Below, I present the six colors and their various personalities:

  • White. This color is all about combat and individually strong. White has the most combat modifiers of all the colors and also is the only color with creatures that can attack diagonally on the board. Players who like playing individually powerful creatures with a keen eye for positioning are most likely to enjoy playing this color.
  • Green. This color is all about the community. Green creatures are individually weak and generally cost-ineffective. However, many of them grant each other bonuses for being adjacent to each other on the board, making them very efficient as a group. Players who like swarming the board quickly are likely to enjoy playing green.
  • Yellow. This color is about transformation. Many yellow creatures can evolve into stronger versions of themselves. Yellow is also the only color that has access to healing abilities and spells that can bounce other cards on the field to its owner’s hand. Players who like tempo strategies and effectively managing or disrupting player turns are likely to enjoy this color.
  • Blue. This color is about manipulation. Blue has some of the weakest individual creatures but some of the strongest spells. However, blue is the only color that can steal abilities from enemy creatures and copy effects. Players who like the thrill of stealing options from their opponents are most likely to enjoy playing blue.
  • Black. This is the color of death. Black has the most graveyard interaction, although we don’t emphasize the graveyard too heavily since it is much more convoluted to represent in real life than in a digital card game. Black wants things to die, including its own creatures, as it gets benefits from death in general. Players who like reaping rewards for mass destruction are likely to find this color very interesting.
  • Red. This is the color of burn and fusion. Red is very centered around dealing damage, whether it is to enemy creatures, heroes, or shrines. Red can also fuse creatures – it is the only color that can play creatures “onto” other allied creatures to combine their stats. Players who like damage-based strategies or combos will find Red to be a very versatile color that suits both tastes.

Designing With Color Mixing In Mind

We believe designing with the idea that players will want to mix colors is important. This means, for example, that when we design green cards we don’t design them to only give bonuses to other green cards – at least not generally (there are some exceptions). We want players to come up with creative ways to combine colors and utilize lots of strategies, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Over time, we will have to lower or increase the power levels of various cards to ensure there aren’t any “broken” combos, but this is easily accomplished as an online card game exists solely in digital form.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this design article on the color wheel and how we use it in Zems. Follow us on Facebook for the latest news on the game’s development!


  • user

    AUTHOR badivan1

    Posted on 7:42 PM April 15, 2014.

    That’s a step in the right direction. I stopped playing Elements a while ago, but I’ve always thought the design of each element was more a bunch of individually designed cards rather than a flavorful whole entity. Maybe you have read how Magic is trying to emphasize themes and flavors in their new sets more and more.

    • user

      AUTHOR Zemsai

      Posted on 2:54 PM April 17, 2014.

      Mark Rosewater’s ‘Making Magic’ column is something I read every week. The design of Magic is one of the most refined setups to ever exist for any CCG, and I generally try to learn as much as I can from Wizards. They’ve learned a lot of things the hard way, and I don’t want to repeat any of their mistakes.

      I think the hardest aspect is designing sets for draft while also having an impact on constructed. It sounds easy in theory, but making the set fun and interesting for draft while also making it a decent addition to constructed formats without including a few ‘super strong’ cards solely for non-limited formats is a tough balancing act. It is something that will take some time for us to do, but one of the benefits of being digital is that if you make a mistake, you can fix it later on.

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