Custom Magic Past and Present

Questions by Janahwhamme, featuring Timespiraled

Timespiraled is one of our old-hats, a person who’s been involved with custom Magic: the Gathering for a long time. He’s well known for his set Seasons of War, which pushed the idea of Commander Limited before Commander Legends came out, and is now one of the sets in the custom format MSEM2. He’s also known on the Magic Set Editor Discord server for running a lot of community events, such as the Card Coliseum and MSE Survivor, and has an upcoming project called Skirmish, a “rotating 1v1 competitive Commander cube” community format set to debut in June.

We sat down with Timespiraled in an undisclosed location in Quebec to talk to him about some of the history of custom Magic, and how he remembers it.

I first started playing Magic: the Gathering in middle school during the release of Time Spiral, though I doubt that comes as a surprise to anyone. I was living in Switzerland at the time and some friends of mine in high school were playing during recess and lunch and I remember picking up some early theme decks (UR Reality Fracture, W Hope’s Crusaders, and UR Izzet Gizmometry from Guildpact were some of my original pickups.) I knew the game existed and had a card or two that some kids at camp had given me (Fledgling Osprey is the only one I can remember owning pre-actually playing seriously.) From there, I remember picking up theme decks and bulk cards over the years until I moved back to Canada in 10th Grade. There were no game stores near my house so I took a hiatus starting with Alara and got back into it seriously sometime around Scars of Mirrodin during college and from there I never left.

Even back in middle school I was really enamored with the different ways you could play. We weren’t jamming anything more than kitchen table/precon stuff, but I had found a format that let you play Magic as if it were a TTRPG, complete with classes and abilities. I was a big D&D 3.5 player so that combination really caught my eye. I was always coming up with adventure ideas and imaginary games as a kid, and that eventually led to making my own hobby video games when I got into RPG Maker. Around the same time I found the old MSE Forums and lurked around for some time, but that was all I needed to get into custom Magic. I started with some really simple stuff and it took hundreds of launched and aborted projects before I finally started finding my groove as a designer.

Ultimately, I’ve always created “content” for any form of media I’ve liked, so making custom Magic ended up being a no brainer.

Forum-era custom Magic was such a different world. Things didn’t move as quickly as they used to and the thread-centric nature of forums meant everyone got their own little stage to promote and produce their ideas. Checking back, this would have been around 10 years ago, right at the start of college for me. I remember threads being very project-oriented and I was a lot less interested in one-offs or prototyping than I am today. I’ll admit that at that age I always felt that I had to knock out something big to be noticed, but I guess that’s still sort of the case here.

I really liked everyone putting out set hubs to link all their works together; they were fun to go back and check out.

Interestingly enough, I find that Discord has made it a lot more personal than it was before. I only used the forums for Magic design, but the custom Magic servers (primarily MSE for me) have always felt like more of a hangout spot. I’d easily call a large number of users there my friends. With channels to chat about irl stuff and hobbies, it’s much more of a hang out spot than the forums used to be for me.

I think a major change to how the communities are is the existence of custom Magic formats. The forum-era was very different in that regard and I found most people designed sets just for the joy of it without thinking about being part of a greater whole. With formats and Discord came a greater focus on producing arted cards as well. I remember most of my early projects never really bothering to think about the art and the flexibility of what you could make was a lot different. 

Design-wise, I think we’re a lot stronger as a whole than we were a decade ago. Experience plus resources plus time just makes for a good trio; people have access to feedback faster than ever before. I went from producing no completed sets for a few years to knocking out five full sets and six remaster sets for MSEM in seven years, not including custom cubes, gimmick sets like Battlebots and Deep Blue, and other projects.

We’re still hanging on to Wizard releases, seeing what new tech or concepts get added to our collective databases though, and that’s a part I love.

Quite a few, yeah; Cajun, Herzi, Krow, CanterburyEgg, and Windy were some names from the MSE Forum days I remember well. They probably come to mind best since we all ended up as part of MSEM in some form or other. I remember them all being pretty prolific set designers, so I’m sure I would have stopped by their hubs and projects from time to time, but I really got to know them more once we ended up working together.

A few users like grishnax are still around but aren’t as project-focused as before; it’s nice to still be able to catch up and hang out around the discord even if they aren’t working on a particular project (and if they are that’s my bad!)

Some names like Inanimate, Guitarweeps, Daij_Djan, Korakhos, ZephyrPhantom, Neottolemo, thehuw, Jeske, fluffydeathbringer, and Jacqui were pretty well known but they haven’t been particularly active in a good while to my knowledge. (Please correct me if I’m wrong or if I’ve misremembered someone getting a name change!)

There was a designer named jrzman who I had the pleasure to meet in person at a Grand Prix once. Jrzman worked like clockwork, releasing sets at the same pace as Wizards but eventually went on indefinite hiatus; many of their sets were directly influenced by canon, so they had a very “parallel reality” vibe to them.

Ultimately, there’s been a pretty big “rotation” you could say of designers in the custom community, which makes sense; I know I took a short hiatus a few years ago when it felt tough to commit so much time to custom Magic. As I get older, finding the right work/life/Magic balance hasn’t always been easy. I certainly can’t be as active in Discord as I was seven years ago during the tail end of university; work just demands more time from me and I’m sure that’s the case for a lot of people.

My early projects were pretty much either snorefests or disasters. I was always chasing new ideas and concepts and couldn’t ever settle on just one. Designing without purpose, just making stuff to make stuff, etc. Back then, everything felt like a checklist. I had concepts of worlds or sets, but they never had clear and defined mechanical kits and I had a tendency to be very-Time Spiral block-brained; weird and wacky were fun to design back then, but looking back it’s pretty obvious they were just weird for weirdness sake. I was still doing this until Worlds Away, honestly. (Only one of these saw constructed inclusion and play, thankfully.)

The projects I had the most fun working on were my own take on making a MTG x RPG crossover. It didn’t go anywhere, but it certainly reminds me today how much I love oddball Magic formats.

I’d say my transition to working on custom cubes was the first big break for me, and after the terrible Homebrew Cube (which had a horribly balanced power curve) I switched to making custom powered/vintage cubes and Vault Cube ended up being my first win; lots of fun designs, a functioning limited environment, and a love of riffing off canon cards.

From there, Vault Cube had a few iterations before I found my next big break; the old MSEM format. Created by Windy to house the forums sets in a playable environment, it was the perfect project. In fact just a few weeks after I discovered the format I ended up traveling all the way to China for my last field experience to graduate as a teacher. Unfortunately I would not be able to play while in China but I was able to host a tournament for the format. During that time we discovered that the format had quite a few issues and after a few nerfs and changes the Council that was managing the format at the time made the decision to switch over to the second version of the format, MSEM2 at the time, and invited me to be a part of that change.

Ultimately my time running the league while in China meant that I picked up the role of Tournament Organizer for MSEM2 and gave me a reason to start designing sets. I don't believe that you absolutely need to design for a custom format to make a successful Magic set but personally I found that having a goal, having a clear defined format for which to design for is what ultimately allowed me to produce so many sets in such a short time compared to the amount of projects I was completing before.

Still, success doesn't come without practice. My first sets for MSEM were definitely far from perfect. In fact Imperial Legacies and Path of Shadows are both currently being reworked. I was still very much stuck on riffing back then and Path of Shadows is particularly rife with “we have this card at home” type designs. 

Can you name all of the inspirations?

Starting with the third set, Tales of Old Jidai, I really felt that I had found my groove by focusing on making sets that had their own gimmick. TOJ was all about small set collect-a-thon gameplay, inspired by Coldsnap and Conspiracy. From there, Worlds Away focused on designing a set with a land sheet to support Wanderlust (controlling four lands with different names) and finally Seasons of War focused on providing a commander draft format. Funnily enough, Seasons of War predates all my other sets but IMP, taking over 5 years to complete.  

Forum-years, not really? I guess being more open to designing without art would be cool, but I’ve been so spoiled by pretty custom Magic art that I’d find it very hard to go back, especially now that I run events both online and in-person.

I do miss the excitement and novelty from the early discord years; MSE Discord + MSEM launching was one of the highlights of my 20s and it’s been a constant companion for the last seven. It’s hard to recapture that spark, though I’ll be trying very soon. Ultimately, I think a lot of what I loved about those early years is tied to me being in college/university and having time to not only be super active online but also play a ton of Magic in clubspaces and at the gaming store where I worked. Now that I’m a teacher (more on that later), it’s definitely got a different vibe. 

Keep at it, have a purpose, and find your fun. I make the things I do today because I have a ton of fun making them and I’ve stopped being so desperate to chase that deadline. I got lucky to be in on the ground floor of MSEM, so I know it might feel a bit different for others joining in now, but as long as you’re having a good time making what you make, you’re in the right direction. Having a purpose doesn’t need to be format-related; even just playing with a local friend group or showcasing a set as a work of art is more than enough. 

Be willing to do research; immerse yourself in content that fits. Whenever I start a set, I watch hours of drafts and gameplay, read through sets (even printing out pdfs of them to use as reference material), etc. SWR might have begun before Commander Legends was announced, but I learned a lot from playing that set and analyzing its play patterns and unique characteristics to the point that I feel I have a very solid understanding of commander limited sets (one of the reasons I’ve now made that my focus).

I am an elementary school teacher and I can definitely say that there’s a lot of cross-influencing. I run gaming clubs and talk about games and game design with students on a regular basis. I promote creativity in all subjects and discussions over strict instruction. Inversely, my role as an educator definitely has helped me cement my role as an organizer here in the Custom Magic community. I’ve come to love running events of all kinds, from competitive custom format tournaments to design challenges to the point that I could be happy doing this for another decade, if not more.

Hobby-wise, when it’s not Magic, I’m working on a million other projects; rpg maker games, TTRPGs, board game ideas, you name it. I haven’t really changed in the last decade and a half but I’ve certainly found a niche in trying lots of things. My board game shelves are full to bursting and I’m running non-Magic events on the servers as often as I can, usually one-shot or short TTRPGs.

Skirmish was originally going to be a rotating constructed 1v1 commander format when I first conceived of the project and launched it last year. That one fell through, but I always wanted to build a format that had an easier barrier to entry and a guaranteed way for designers to get cards into the format without needing to design full sets (and with some level of overhead.) 

Switching Skirmish to a 1v1 limited commander cube format and downsizing the project was the right idea in the end. We’re still planning on running multiple weekly events and rewarding those events with a dual track reward system; rewards for participation lead to adding new cards to the format while competitive success leads to digital rewards (champion promos are a returning and beloved custom format classic, but we have plans for additional rewards.)

We’ll be starting Skirmish off as a 450-card cube plus Legendary Roster. Our goal with the Skirmish Core launch cube is to provide the backbone for all future Skirmish seasons, where I’ll be handing off the cube to other designers. These Project Leads will build a team and design new cards for the cube, using new and past content to reshape the cube for every season, keeping it fresh and allowing the cube’s themes to change over time.

We’ve just launched the Skirmish Discord Server and we’ll be having a week- long design blitz to knock out the Skirmish Core launch product in time for a summer 2024 launch. If you want to be a part of the magic and get in on the ground floor, we’ll be happy to have you. I’m excited to finally combine my love of cube with my love of commander limited and share it with all of you.

You can find the Skirmish Discord Server here: