Dancing in the Dark Ascension, Part 1

Posted in Feature on January 9, 2012

By Mark Rosewater

Working in R&D since '95, Mark became Magic head designer in '03. His hobbies: spending time with family, writing about Magic in all mediums, and creating short bios.

Welcome to the first Dark Ascension Preview Week. It's time to start giving you some sneak peeks of the follow-up to Innistrad, as things get worse for the humans when the monsters step it up. I'm going to introduce you to the Dark Ascension design team, talk about what it takes to design a winter expansion in general and Dark Ascension in particular, and then show off a pretty cool preview card—a double-faced card, one side of which is neither a creature nor a planeswalker. If that sounds like fun, sit back, because it's time to talk Dark Ascension.

The Dark Avengers

As is tradition, let me start off today by introducing you to my design team:

Mark Rosewater, Jenna Helland, Graeme Hopkins, Zac Hill, and Matt Tabak.

Mark Rosewater (lead)Dark Ascension is my fifteenth lead design. (During my interview at the Innistrad PAX party I claimed Innistrad was my thirteenth lead design— turns out that while that sounded cool and thematic, it was factually inaccurate; something I realized the day after I taped it.) Of those previous fourteen sets, it turns out that none of them was a winter expansion. Only four of them were even small, black-bordered expansions, and all of them came out in the spring or summer. So, even though I hold the record for the most design leads, Dark Ascension turned out to be something I'd never done before. One of the reasons I love my job is that even sixteen years in I still get to do new things, so I was up for the challenge. But to do this correctly, I needed a good design team.

Jenna Helland – Jenna was on the Innistrad design team. I asked for her to be on the team because I felt it was important for a design as top down as Innistrad to have a creative team member. Jenna surprised me by turning into quite the designer, creating all sorts of flavorful cards. (Into the Maw of Hell will always be the one where I first realized Jenna had some design skillz— yes, worthy of the "z.") When it came time to put together the Dark Ascension design team, I asked if I could use her again and was luckily told I could. Jenna proved to be just as helpful for Dark Ascension as she was on Innistrad.

The thing I love about Jenna's design is that she approaches the cards very holistically. Every part of her cards are all working toward the single goal of conveying its flavor. She holds nothing back and that's very impressive for someone who hasn't done a lot of design work. It usually takes designers a long time to have the kind of commitment that comes to her naturally. I can't say much about "Friends" (the fall set of 2013) just yet, but I'll give you one clue—I managed to get Jenna on the team. To me, that's an omen of great things to come.

Graeme Hopkins – Innistrad and Dark Ascension had an overlap of three designers, with Graeme being the third. I like to say that Graeme is proof of how powerful The Great Designer Search is. Graeme didn't win. He didn't even come in second. He didn't get an internship. He's never been in R&D. Yet despite all that, Graeme is one of my design secret weapons. You see, I have a little rule when I put together any design team. I have a short list of designers who I call "heavy hitters." These are the designers who I know can deliver. The heavy hitters not only produce a lot of cards, but their cards are also good. If a design team has two heavy hitters, I know it will be able to deliver. Most of my heavy hitters are full-time designers. Those who aren't usually work in R&D. Graeme is neither of those, but any chance I have to put him on a design team I will, as he is definitely a heavy hitter.

Graeme was amazing on Innistrad, so I was excited to get him for Dark Ascension. The thing I love about Graeme's designs is that he makes cards no one else will. He doesn't make the obvious cards, he makes the unobvious, yet still awesome cards. He makes the cards that make me say to myself, "Why didn't I think of that?" Dark Ascension was no different.

Zac Hill – I always like to have a core developer on my design teams. There is a lot that happens after design hands off a file to development, and I like having someone on the team who's looking downriver to make sure design is solving problems development would have to deal with if we didn't. Having Zac on your design team gives you everything you'd want for the core development slot but more. You see, here's the thing: Zac can actually design cards. This isn't to say that all the developers can't design cards, because they can, but developers tend to have a different mindset to how they create cards. Developmental designs are good and they lead to a lot of popular Magic cards, but they feel a little different. Zac has the ability to design cards like a designer as well as a developer.

The thing I enjoy about Zac's designs is that he is very good about understanding who the card is designed for. I talk a lot about the importance of focusing the design on its target player. Too often, cards are not optimized for the player who would most want to play them. Zac has a great insight into understanding who wants each card and designing it to maximize why that player would want it. It's an important design skill and one he used to great effect in Dark Ascension.

Matt Tabak – I often joke about how the rules manager is the arch-nemesis of the head designer. The rules manager's job is to keep the status quo while mine is to shake it up. From this, people always assume the rules manager would make for a poor designer. It turns out the opposite is true. Having the ability to dig down deep into what makes the rules—and thus the cards—tick turns out to be a great skill for a designer. Mark Gottlieb had already proven this, but Matt has shown that Gottlieb wasn't a fluke.

The thing I love about Matt's designs are that he has a vantage point few designers have. He really gets how the cards are going to work and he spends a great amount of time solving problems that normally we wouldn't deal with until months down the line. The great thing about this is that it allows us to get a big jump on where the set is going so we can make changes that often wouldn't even come up until development. Matt also has shown that he has a great sense of the nuance of design. He has had a hand in the design of the last few holiday cards (the brilliant "tap, untap, tap" activation of Snow Mercy was his creation) and so I was excited to finally get him onto a design team. He did not disappoint.

So I put together a kickass team. As the lead designer, my job was to make sure I led them in the right direction—that's the key to leading any design team, really. The trick to Dark Ascension was figuring out just what that direction was.

Part Deux

While Dark Ascension was my first winter set, it wasn't my first follow-up small expansion. That honor went to Eventide, the small set that followed up the large set Shadowmoor—which, of course, came out in the spring rather than the fall. The trick to doing a follow-up set is that you have to strike a balance between continuing everything players liked about the previous large set while still carving out an identity for the small set.

The third set usually has some twist or turn to it; something always happens in the third act. The second act, though, is about continuing down the path set up by the first act. Let's take Innistrad as an example, as that is the set I was dealing with. I've explained that, as far as I'm concerned, the protagonists of the environmental story (as opposed to the plot-based character-driven story that a novel would have) are the humans. We've come to this world to find the humans in trouble.

Art by David Rapoza

Once upon a time, things weren't so bleak. They had a great protector who held all the evil at bay (the angel Avacyn if you haven't been paying attention), but she disappeared and her magic—that which fueled all the humans' weapons—has been slowly dissipating. Metaphorically, they are in a dark room surrounded by scary things and the torch that has been keeping the scary things back is slowly going out. Innistrad was the introduction of the humans and all the monsters that are coming at them from every direction. Remember that the monsters aren't working together—they just represent various threats that are all circling our heroes.

If you study story, you will find that the second act is all about watching things get worse for the protagonist(s). Whatever the problem is that first popped up at the end of the first act just keeps getting more complicated. Solutions slowly get stripped away as more and more attempts to solve the problem fail. This was where I started. I knew things were going to get worse for the humans. If Innistrad was things looking bad, Dark Ascension was things looking much, much worse.

Evolving the Equation

Meanwhile, there was a whole different axis that my team and I had to worry about. Another role of the second set is to mechanically evolve from the first set. Not only does the story evolve, but so do the underlying mechanics. For Innistrad block, here's what we had to deal with:

Double-Faced Cards (DFC) – Let's start with the showiest mechanic of Innistrad. Due to the third-act twist, double-faced cards didn't work in the third set (Avacyn Restored), meaning that Dark Ascension was going to be the one set to evolve DFCs. Luckily, that wasn't going to be a problem. During Innistrad design, we came up with a number of different ways to use the DFCs and made the decision to hold off on some of the ideas until Dark Ascension.

The line I ended up drawing was limiting the DFCs in Innistrad to having creatures on both sides (with the one obvious exception of Garruk). While doing top-down design, we came up with some cool cards that involved card types other than creatures and planeswalkers... one of which is today's preview card. I don't want to give away all the twists but I hope this card shows you that expanding the mechanical limitations allows us to create some flavorful DFCs that go into some different directions.

Before I talk about the card's design, let me show it to you first.Meet Soul Seizer.

This card's design was clearly top down. We were trying to come up with ghost tropes and an obvious one was possession. We talked about a creature that could sacrifice to gain control of anything it damaged, but once we remembered we had DFC technology, we realized there was a better way.

The earliest version of this card required the creature to get into combat with the creature it took control of as we were trying to match the flavor as close as possible. What we found, though, was that the opponent just didn't block with anything you wanted to steal. Also, because it flew for flavor reasons, it was much harder to get things to block it. Defensively, it kept the opponent from attacking, which never leads to a good game state.

Soul Seizer and Ghastly Haunting | Art by Lucas Graciano

One of my biggest complaints about Innistrad 's design was that I felt we had really nailed four of the five main tribes but we hadn't managed to make ghosts as flavorful as the other four tribes. There was a conscious effort in Dark Ascension to give the ghosts a little more mechanical flavor and Soul Seizer was part of the objective.

Tribal (Humans, Spirits, Vampires, Werewolves, and Zombies) – Speaking of tribal, the strong monster (and human) tribal in Innistrad was another theme that Dark Ascension needed to pick up on. My goal for each of the five tribes was two-fold. First, I wanted to add more cool individual cards that played into what the tribes did in Innistrad. Mostly this was to help push these decks in Constructed and allow them to continue in Limited. Second, I wanted to introduce some element that shook things up a little and gave each tribe something new to play with. As I explained above, my goal for spirits in particular was to give them more definition as a tribe.

Flashback – Continuing flashback meant a few things. First, the Innistrad design team came up with more effects than we were able to fit into Innistrad, and Dark Ascension allowed us a chance to make these cards. Second, we were able to do a second off-color flashback cycle, this time going in the opposite direction on the color wheel. Third, we came up with a cool rare cycle with a twist that would allow flashback to do something it's never done before.

The "Werewolf" mechanic – I talked during the Innistrad preview weeks that although this mechanic isn't keyworded, it's my favorite in the block. The monsters are getting more powerful, so obviously the werewolves have to be there. The big change with this mechanic is that we played around with the change being even swingier. As the monsters grow in power, we made the werewolves even better, but to make things interesting we didn't power up the human side as much. The poster child for this was a card we called The Librarian in design. By day, she's a frail little old lady, but by night, she turns into something you're going to be afraid of. The idea behind this was that we wanted to ramp up the anxiety in the game and a great way to do this was to make the werewolves even scarier.

Morbid – Another problem with the winter set is that you want to evolve the mechanics from the first set but you also want to leave space for cool new things. In order to do this, you end up finding that not every mechanic has space to evolve. Morbid is back but it isn't turning over any new leaves.

Monster Mash

So we knew what the story was up to. We knew the mechanics we wanted to evolve. It was time to start putting everything together. Also, it was time to figure out what new things Dark Ascension was going add. To do this, I needed to provide the vision that was going to guide my team through the design. Little did I realize that my first guess at it was going to be wrong.

Art by Svetlin Velinov

Join me next week when I talk about what I thought the set was about and the realization of what it actually was. We also have a bunch of new things to show off as well as another fun preview card. See you next week.

Until then, may you never find yourself on the wrong end of a dying torch.


As a bonus to today's column I thought I'd share a video of me from Worlds that's been making the rounds. It was created by Nate Holt (the guy on camera) and Shawn Kornhauser (the guy behind the camera).

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