Connect with the Nerdlab Community:
Join the Nerdlab Discord
Episode 40 on Keywords in Strategy Card Games
Join the Nerdlab Community
Nerdlab Website
Nerdlab Facebook Page
Nerdlab on Twitter
Nerdlab on Instagram

Hello fellow adventurers and welcome to the Nerdlab – Where we transform our gaming passion into incredible game designs and learn how to nerd like a boss. 
My name is Marvin and I am an ambitious game designer on my quest to develop a co-operative fantasy card game.
For this podcast, my vision is to take you with me on this exciting journey. Together we will explore the secrets of different game mechanics and reach the next level as a game designer.

In today’s episode, I’d like to take up a topic I already published a podcast episode about not too long ago. The basic topic is about keywords in strategy card games. In episode 40 I talked in detail about why I think keywords are very important for the basic structure of a card game. So far in most strategy card games, the keywords are printed as text on the cards directly. But in the new Magic Set: Ikoria, Lair of Behemoth, a new concept has been introduced. Keywords in the form of counters, which can be placed on cards during the game. 

I know, both keywords and counters are basically nothing new or highly innovative. This has been around in card and board games for a long time, but the combination creates an interesting new design space. That’s why I wanted to take a closer look at why the Magic Designers have introduced this new concept and wanted to see whether it makes sense to use it in my own designs in the future as well.

Let me first recap, what keywords in card games actually are: 

A keyword is a word or set of words that acts as a substitute for rules text that explains what the card does. They are typically bolded words that have a special meaning in the context of the game. 

One of the most prominent examples is the keyword “Flying” from Magic the Gathering. Printed on the card is only the word “Flying”, typically very prominent positioned so everyone can see it immediately. But what flying actually means from a rules perspective is: “This creature can’t be blocked except by creatures with flying and/or reach”. But on almost all cards that entire sentence is simple replaced with the keyword “flying”. The goal is that players remember the rules text and associate it with the keyword.

Benefits of Keywords in Strategy Card Games (TCGs, CCGs, LCGs) :

  • They take up less space
  • They make cards look simpler
  •  Keywords increase elegance
  • They Make Learning new cards easier
  • Make it easier to see that cards act in the same way
  • They are easier to be referenced
  • They create a shared vocabulary for players

When to use Keywords in Strategy Card Games (TCGs, CCGs, LCGs):

  • If you have recurring effects
  • If you want to add Flavor
  • To highlight certain archetypes
  • To reference cards

Benefits of Keyword Counters in Magic (Ikoria)

  • More Staying power for spells
  • Giving players more choices on cards (Keyword a or b)
  • Easy way to combine permanent and temporary effects on a single card
  • More meaning for cards that care about keywords (Mentors that bring their own counters) –> Enablers and Benefits in one single card.
  • Increased number of possible combinations (Giving player the freedom to combine keywords and creatures in a way they prefer)
  • Using counters as markers in order to highlight whether a creature has used a certain ability. (Such as persist or monstrous)
  • Balancing tool – Keyword counters as small incremental effects to boost cards (e.g. leaving a trample counter behind)