GTM #217 - Shards of Destiny Designer Diary
by Justin Gary

As a designer, you know your new game is on the right track when you and your buddies just can’t stop playing it. You’ve hit that sweet spot when the game always ends with someone saying, “Just one more game!” Shards of Infinity is one of those games.

I’ve published more than 20 games over the last dozen years and am best known for designing the Ascension: Deckbuilding Game. As a professional Magic: the Gathering® player and U.S. National Champion, I realized that compressing the deckbuilding experience into a single boxed game playable in under an hour was sure to be popular.

Ascension was the first deckbuilding game to use a frequently changing row of cards to select from during play. This mechanic dramatically increased the strategic variance in gameplay and forced players to evaluate cards on the fly, based on the set of available options. That approach has now been used in countless games, and Ascension has released more than a dozen expansions.

Shards of Infinity builds on this legacy with an advanced player in mind. I partnered with co-lead designer Gary Arant to apply what we’d learned over the last eight years. Shards of Infinity involves two-to-four players. Each player starts with a basic deck of cards and acquires new cards from a six-card center row. The cards are divided into four factions to drive synergy and provide structure.

Shards of Infinity has no monsters to fight; your job is to kill the other players, and the last one standing wins. The game takes place in a new futuristic fantasy world, and including direct player attacks makes the game more interactive and cutthroat.

Mastery Mechanic

The experience of improving your deck is a fundamental feature of deckbuilding games, which increases game-playing fun. Traditionally, this is done by acquiring new cards or getting rid of old cards, but I decided to take those approaches a step further with the newly designed Mastery mechanic. This feature allows you to improve the cards in your deck directly by reaching their mastery threshold. Each player has a personal Mastery rating from 0 to 30. You can increase your mastery rating once per turn, using resources (gems). The higher your Mastery, the more powerful your cards get.

Here is one example.


Some turns you have a spare gem, so increasing mastery is an easy choice. Mastery serves as a “buffer” to ensure you always have something to do on your turn—even if your center row of cards isn’t appealing or affordable. Eventually, one of your starting cards becomes powerful enough to help you win the game.

One of the principles of great design is elegance, which I define as doing as much as possible with as little as possible. Most deckbuilding games (including Ascension) have several stacks of “always available” cards to serve as a buffer for times when the center row doesn’t have anything you want to acquire, which is a natural drawback of a random row. I’ve always found extra piles of cards to be clunky. The Mastery mechanic allows Shards of Infinity to dispense with external piles. One center deck, each player’s personal decks, and Hero cards are all you need to play.

Mastery is more than just a buffer for bad center rows, however. Mastery creates interesting decisions on almost every turn as you choose between taking a more powerful card or investing in Mastery to increase your overall power. Mastery serves as a virtual “second victory condition” due to the power of the Infinity Shard. Even if you are losing the damage race (by using power cards to reduce the health of other players), the game can end instantly in your favor if you reach 30 Mastery and draw the Infinity Shard.

Finally, the Mastery mechanic allows for better game pacing. Most deckbuilding games suffer from the challenge that a single lucky acquisition of a powerful card can quickly unbalance the game in one player’s favor. Very powerful, high-cost cards are exciting and create aspirational goals for players, but they also can ruin games when acquired early. The Mastery mechanic enabled creation of incredibly powerful cards that are exciting to acquire and play, but the necessary high Mastery thresholds ensure that they won’t come into play until later in the game and that they require continuous investment, rather than just “one lucky turn.”

Mercenaries Function

The best games all involve players facing interesting choices. An agonizing choice upon which the fate of the game hangs—combined with just enough uncertainty to keep all players on the tips of their toes until the last card is played—enhances players’ experiences. Mercenaries are custom-tailored to create those choices.


Mercenaries function similarly to regular cards that can be added to your deck for future use. Mercenaries also give you the option to Fast Play them immediately and then they go to the bottom or the center deck—NOT your personal deck. Each fast play sacrifices future power for present benefit.

This tradeoff plays into the natural advantages of a deckbuilding game, creating interesting choices. In early turns, it usually is correct to acquire Mercenaries rather than to Fast Play them. As the game progresses, however—or in critical situations—a well-timed Mercenary flip can be exactly what you need to turn a losing game into a last-minute victory. Mercenary cards allow you to gain an edge without clogging up your deck, and also provide a great option to deny your opponents from acquiring a card.

Mercenaries help to ensure that the center row of cards keeps changing. Because you cycle through your deck so many times in a deckbuilding game, you only benefit when you acquire cards that improve your average deck quality. Sometimes buying a decent card is worse than doing nothing, but games are no fun when the best play is consistently no play at all!

Other Features

Mastery and Mercenaries aren’t all that is worth noting, however! We created a beautiful new world with gorgeous illustrations, engaging characters, and a lively backstory. Make sure to check shardsofinfinity.com for design insights, story blurbs, and inside information! There are countless other mechanics to explore. Priced at just $19.99, Shards of Infinity is one of the least expensive deckbuilding games available. If you like this type of game, I’m confident it will have you and your gaming group saying, “Just one more game!”

Justin Gary started his career in gaming at the age of 17 when he won the Magic: the Gathering US National Championships. He went on to play Magic professionally for several years, winning a Grand Prix, Pro Tour, and World Team Championship along the way.  He has been designing games for over a decade, with games including the World of Warcraft Miniatures Game, Ascension Deckbuilding Game, and SolForge digital card game.