Don't Mind Me

Posted in Card Preview on March 14, 2016

By Mark Gottlieb

Greetings! I am genuinely thrilled to welcome you to Shadows over Innistrad previews. My name is Mark Gottlieb, and I was the lead designer of this set. It was a true delight and privilege to pick up the mantle of the original Innistrad set and carry it forward!

Like many of you, I believe that Innistrad is one of the best sets (and best settings) of all time, and I strove to honor its legacy. Having served on the development teams for both Innistrad and Dark Ascension, I have some roots here. The Shadows over Innistrad design team didn't want to make a carbon copy of the original Innistrad, nor did we want to stray too far away—it was our job to distill Innistrad down to the elements that made it fun and unique, and bring those elements back to life in a novel, memorable way. I think we succeeded, and I'm very proud of the set. Ultimately, of course, you will be the judge.

For a general overview of the design of the set, check out Mark Rosewater's article today. He was also on the design team, and he's written the first of a pair of articles covering our goals and vision. I don't want to tread the same ground, so I'm going to do a deeper dive into three specific preview cards, all with stories that I think you'll find...curious.

Temper, Temper

You'll have to forgive me if my memory is a little fuzzy. You see, my team and I did our work on Shadows over Innistrad over the entirety of the 2014 calendar year, starting in January and finishing up in December (at which time we handed the set off to Dave Humpherys and his development team; look for his article next week). Back then, R&D kept card files in a database that we called "Multiverse." It was notoriously glitchy, and we've since moved on to a much better database. At the time, though, we just had to bear with it. Sometimes we'd joke about the gremlins in the system after an individual card record would disappear, or would erroneously wind up with the text box of another card.

I first started fighting the gremlins, so to speak, with a card in the file we called "Temper of Fire." The design team decided early on to bring madness back as a returning mechanic. It's a thematic home run in a set in a set about insanity. Plus, we've learned enough about how to develop madness cards and the discard outlets that enable them that Dave and I were sure we could pull it off here. But Fiery Temper is just too aggressively costed to be a modern-day burn spell. So we created "Temper of Fire" as a more appropriate riff on it—for 3R, or a madness cost of 1R, it'd deal 3 damage to target creature or player. But the darn card just wouldn't stay in the file! I printed out a record of the entire set for a design meeting, and found that the Multiverse gremlins had changed it into a straight-up reprint of Fiery Temper. Weird.

I changed it back, but the next morning, Fiery Temper had reappeared in the card file. The same thing happened the following day. Now, I'm not the only one capable of changing the database. Anyone in R&D can do it, but they don't—file ownership is taken very seriously. You don't want to undermine someone else's authority, because when you become the lead of a project, you don't want anyone to undermine yours. But by now, this couldn't be an accident. I started to suspect someone was playing a prank. If so, they underestimated my stubbornness! For the next week, I changed the card file from Fiery Temper back to "Temper of Fire" every morning. Then I started doing it twice a day. Then once an hour. The really strange part is that I never saw who was changing the database the other way—at times, I was the only one logged into the system. One Sunday, I spent the entire day at my desk reverting the Multiverse record to "Temper of Fire" every five minutes, despite the fact that I had locked the file so that no one could make any changes to it except me. By 3:17 a.m., though, I had a breakthrough—maybe printing Fiery Temper was a good idea after all! The thought just came to me so naturally I don't know why I had been fighting it for so long. The lesson is that sometimes inspiration can come from a place that you can't necessarily explain, and that even a bad idea is, at the end of the day, an idea—and it might secretly be a good idea, so don't be afraid to try it out.

Click below to see the card in its final form.

Click to reveal

What's in a Name?

The next interesting story involves a card we called "Mark for Murder." This was a card I created myself, and was one of my favorites during the design process. It's a bizarre little card, in that its prominent feature is its gigantic activation cost. Conceptually, the card is a top-down cultists' ritual: to get the necromantic result, you need a book of spells, a drop of blood, an eye of newt, and so on. In this case, the card was a black enchantment with the text "B, Pay 1 life, Put the top card of your library into your graveyard, Discard a card, Sacrifice Mark for Murder: Destroy target creature."

This card wasn't just a gag for the sake of being a gag—it's a kill spell, which is always useful, and it enables both madness and graveyard strategies. In particular, it helps you achieve delirium. You'll get an enchantment into your graveyard for sure, plus two other cards. Still, this design was so cumbersome that it was met with constant skepticism and I had to continually defend it, using my pull as lead designer to keep it in the file.

When I first entered the card into Multiverse, I called it "Cultist Ritual." Short and to the point. During the next playtest, however, I saw that its name had been changed to "Mark for Murder." The card destroys a creature, so that meshed, but it wasn't exactly the concept I was going for. Plus it's unusual for the story team to take that kind of action so early—they don't typically spend the effort to work on card names until much later in the process, when we know which cards will actually see print. I made those points to James Wyatt, the creative lead for Shadows over Innistrad, but he insisted that not only did he not change Multiverse, the name of the playtest card I was holding was still "Cultist Ritual." It was a strange position to take, but we agreed to disagree.

Over the next few playtests, every time I saw a copy of this card, its name had changed again. Not too much, mind you. It would always be a riff on that first name change. Once, instead of "Mark for Murder," it was "Murder for Mark." Once it was shorter—"Murder Mark." Sometimes the change was really subtle: "Murder, Mark." I made sure to complain about this in every SOI design meeting, but to no avail. My team would take the contrarian position that the name of the card was "Cultist Ritual." Ha ha, guys. If that were true, then why am I sweating so much? But I put my foot down. I don't like to yell during team meetings, but I don't like being lied to either. And that's when the prankster got really clever.

The next time I had the card in a playtest, I saw that its name was "Cultist Ritual," but I heard that its name was "Murder, Mark, Murder, Mark, Murder, Mark." Over and over and over and over. But since no one but me had stuck their fingers in their ears and started to hum in an effort to drown out the incessant buzzing of the card name, I had to conclude that it was a targeted prank and no one else could hear it. It was probably done with Bluetooth or something.

Now, in case you're wondering, no, I didn't actually murder anyone. Funny. Funny thought. I'm just not that susceptible to suggestion! I know that night was a dream, because blood wouldn't have washed off so easily. But I did accept my team's suggestion for the new card name. In a creative endeavor, you can't get too attached to an original idea, because people will only see the card in its final version, and all that matters is that the end result is cool and makes sense, not whether it matches your first draft. Plus it's important to listen to your team. If all the voices are telling you one thing and you're the only one disagreeing, you're probably wrong and should do what the voices say.

Anyway, click below for the final version of "Mark for Murder." I'm just relieved that everyone can see its name now, not just me.

Click to reveal


My final story involves one of the premier cards in the set. This card's got it all:

  • It's a board sweeper.
  • The design reflects a crucial early story moment in the set, when Avacyn and her angels realize that the only way to eradicate evil is simply to eradicate everybody, and they start wiping out human villages.
  • It's actually better than a board sweeper, because it exiles all creatures rather than just destroying them.
  • It features delirium, one of the major set mechanics.
  • It's actually way better than a board sweeper, because after exiling all creatures it may leave you with a 4/4 flying Angel.

The crazy thing, though, is how it came to be in the file. This happened pretty late in the design process. You won't believe this, but I just found it written on the whiteboard in one of our meeting rooms! And no, I know what you're thinking—it wasn't written in blood on the walls, or invisible ink, nor was it part of some fever dream.

That's ridiculous.

While it's true I had been doing most of my design work in a fugue state while sitting in the lotus position in a pitch-black room (really a closet, but it's the best I could do), I know the difference between a trance and a hallucination. This was simply written on the board, and I saw it when I crawled out from under the conference table.

I thought about taking a picture of the card design with my phone, but I didn't need to—my eyes drank it down instantaneously. And none too soon, because I sensed the vibrations of footsteps through my inner-ear membranes and scrambled back under the table. The door to the conference room opened, and a body lurched inside, erased the board, and loped back out. It was a brilliant design. Perfect, even. Crystalline and jagged-cut. But it was a secret too?

That's when I knew Ken Nagle was working against me.

To be honest, I wasn't that surprised. When he says words, I hear the undertones. He was going to be the lead designer of Eldritch Moon, and he had been a member of the Shadows over Innistrad design team until I canceled the meetings because every time the team assembled, the air vibrated in such a noxious diagonal. Why didn't he want me to see the card? And why was it in his handwriting in the first place? Who went to the trouble to learn how to mimic Nagle's handwriting, and to what devious end? There were too many questions. I knew I didn't know the answers, but I also knew I couldn't stop screaming.

I opened my laptop and quickly entered the new card into Multiverse before the next brain drain occurred. I didn't normally have a problem with those, but they used to happen on a nice regular schedule; now that they were so erratic I started keeping a notebook of my thoughts just in case. In fact, I tried to read that notebook as reference for this article, but someone had replaced all of my codes with scribbles and gibberish—letters that didn't connect, and strange symbols that were no longer symmetrical. I don't know how they did that, because it was written in black ink, not blue ink. Nagle might know. Or the person who writes like him.

So the thing I didn't explain before is that Shadows over Innistrad had the code name "Tears," originally as part of the Blood/Sweat/Tears block, but ultimately part of the Tears/Fears block (after we moved to a two-set-per-block model). The three-letter set code in Multiverse was TEA. But after I added this new card to the TEA set, I found that it had already been added to the TRS set. A set that didn't exist. Or shouldn't exist. I did more digging. Perhaps this Multiverse file had the answers I needed. I found lots more cards. Cards with delirium. Cards with madness, and investigate, and skulk. Cards that transformed. Cards that were curved correctly for Limited. This was a whole set behind my set. A literal shadow set. (Note to self: Is that why they named it that? Must know. Project mind probe when Forsythe blinks.) This card set was a lot more coherent than my card set, if less cracklingly brilliant, less alive, less vivid. What was it doing here? Was this a power play? Had I been usurped? Was my team meeting without me even after I had disbanded them?

The answer came out of the blue. Literally. The wavelength whispered it to me. It was so obvious, really. My design team could read my thoughts during my fugue state. See, that's called teamwork. The takeaway here is that you can't overestimate the power of trust or clean communication, because when a bunch of creative people are all working toward the same goal, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts and communication can happen in all sorts of ways—even nonverbal, if you're paying attention, which you should be.

Click below for that last card, born of telepathy and mind sparks.

Click to reveal

Visiting Hours Are Over

I hope you enjoyed this little trip into my mind memories. They say every creative endeavor has a lasting influence on its artist, and I'd have to agree. Immersing myself into the madness of Innistrad for a year was...refreshing. My thoughts are more free than they've ever been, even if my body is confined to this tiny little room. But don't take my word for it. Delve into Shadows over Innistrad for yourself, and you'll see what I mean. Drink it deep. Let it seep in, and maybe I'll even see you in here someday soon. You'll like it here. It's fun. I know it's fun because all I do is laugh and laugh and laugh and laugh.

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