Developing Shadows over Innistrad

Posted in Feature on March 21, 2016

By Dave Humpherys

Dave Humpherys has been managing the development team for Magic R&D since 2010. He led development for the Avacyn Restored and Gatecrash sets. He was inducted into the Magic Pro Tour Hall of Fame in 2006.

I joined Magic R&D in May 2010. Innistrad was the first set for which I was on the final game design and development team from start to finish. I've been on many teams since then, and I've only skipped two block expansion teams in that span—those being Dragon's Maze and Battle for Zendikar. That, if I'm not mistaken, makes Shadows over Innistrad development team number thirteen for me.

Innistrad was and is a particularly beloved set. That made revisiting it a very daunting, but exciting prospect. I was glad to have personal experience in the creation of the original as I took on the challenges of Shadows. It was also fortuitous that my development team included Erik Lauer, who led Innistrad development, and who could share with me his insights into what made Limited and Constructed work so well last time.

The original Innistrad was in many ways a very straightforward and elegant set. It had morbid, flashback, tribal synergy, and double-faced cards as prominent mechanics. These are arguably rather low-complexity mechanics to understand compared with many of our other blocks. Yes, there were curses and other graveyard-matters cards, but a lot of the appeal of the set came from resonant designs and a good balance of directional and open-ended cards. As things came out of design, I believed we had the right tools to capture this functionality again with Shadows over Innistrad.

Returning Innistrad Mechanics

The double-faced cards that design handed off told beautiful stories. This was one of the areas in which development wouldn't need to improve much upon what Mark Gottlieb's design team passed along to us. We polished up some of these, strengthened the ones that were the most fun, and created some others less focused on stories that accomplished specific goals for us. Internally, there was some concern that we weren't doing enough new things within the double-faced card space, and instead were only giving you more of them per pack and more in total. As a result, R&D did spin up some new unusual variants like Startled Awake/Persistent Nightmare on individual card designs, but ultimately we didn't try to reinvent the wheel here. Sam Stoddard ran a mini-team early on to round out these designs. Initial reaction to the double-faced cards we've previewed to the world would suggest there's still plenty of appeal to be found here.

The Humans, Spirits, Zombies, Vampires, and Werewolves once again play a significant tribal role in Shadows. While you will fondly remember these tribes, it is worth noting this is just one aspect of the set, and while there are decks in both Limited and Constructed that will make good use of them, tribal is just one facet or one flavor of what is going on here. Last time we were on Innistrad, it was Dark Ascension that ultimately ratcheted up tribal a notch, in terms of both synergy and density of relevant cards, to a point where tribal could have its biggest impact.

Humans and Werewolves behave most similarly to their previous iterations. Equipment once again works well in the hands of Humans. This has been extended to Auras working well with Humans, too. You can also ignore trying to go big with these decorations and simply go wide again with overwhelming numbers of Humans and some key cards paying off this strategy, like Thalia's Lieutenant.

Card art
Thalia's Lieutenant | Art by Johannes Voss

Werewolves are still a terror when the night comes, mechanically following a turn passing without a spell being cast. We were extra cautious about avoiding Werewolves falling into a space were they punished an opponent unable to do anything on their own turn, since that is already disheartening, especially early in the game. Meanwhile, we made many tweaks to the file to make it more reasonable to pass through your own turn, without an opponent having a particularly beneficial card to cast during your end step to thwart that line of play.

Zombies moved away from exiling cards, at least in mass, from graveyards due to tensions with delirium. However, a creature card is generally the most reliable card type to get in your graveyard in Limited, so you will see some Zombies that can come back again and again from the graveyard to torment your opponents.

Spirits continue to be somewhat loosely defined. They are again the tribe of fliers. We've played up that they are elusive and surprising, to the extent you'll see ways to "blink" them out of harm's way and they are more likely to come out of nowhere with flash.

Vampires in Shadows have a lot of overlap with the madness mechanic. This shift leads to a much different focus than last time, although they are once again a very aggressive tribe. We also have a number of nods to the "add +1/+1 counters" mechanical space they previously occupied.

New-to-Innistrad Mechanics

I'd argue that one of the more important characteristics of being a set lead is being objective. It is crucial for the lead to evaluate many varied inputs on what is fun and what is not and then filter out any noise to find what is best for the game. Being the arbiter on the madness mechanic, and for that matter delirium, were tricky ones because they bore striking similarities to mechanics within sets I loved in Odyssey block.

My final couple years of competitive Magic were very integrally tied to mechanics from that block. In Worlds 2003, I finished fourth playing a Green-Blue Madness deck in the Top 8. In Worlds 2002, I also finished fourth playing a Blue-Black Psychatog deck and largely made the Top 8 by going undefeated on the final day of Swiss rounds with a Green-Blue Threshold deck, featuring Basking Rootwallas, in block Constructed. Aside from these not-so-humble brags, I note this to highlight my personal connection to this design space. It was territory I felt confident we could use to recreate the excitement that I so clearly remember from that time. And fortunately I could also rely on my peers and superiors to let me know if I was in a clear state of mind to be considering these mechanics.

Madness went through some variations in design, but for development, we were focused specifically on simply reintroducing it. The name alone was a home run for this setting, and we hoped we could make it work. One of our biggest challenges, as you might imagine, was a certain Jace, Vyrn's Prodigy.

By this time in testing we had a better understanding of just how strong Jace was, and that was before introducing mechanics that synergized well with him. From that vantage point, we tested with him thoroughly, but also worked to find other enablers that players could rely on.

We wanted enablers in other colors, with different resiliencies, that could foster different gameplay strategies. During this exploration, there was a lot of flux in the power level of certain cards. Relatively early on in development, for example, we decided that Fiery Temper was too strong in the context of everything else going on, and so it became a weaker card named Not Fiery Temper (using a lazy naming convention for cards I've changed that had already-commissioned art). Eventually, though, months later, after a number of other independent changes, we thought we might be happy with a world in which it existed. So back into the set I put Fiery Temper, where it survived plenty more scrutiny.

Delirium was a very exciting mechanic to design. In terms of characteristics I'm looking for in a new mechanic, I personally like to see ones that are directional and backward-compatible, and that play well as multiples. On the directional axis, delirium is fascinating. Many new mechanics tell you to do a search through all the artifacts, or all the instants/sorceries, or all the cards that target creatures, or all the cards with multiple colored mana symbols, or all the creatures with power 4 or greater, etc.

Card art
Soul Swallower | Art by Marco Nelor

Delirium sends you on a different quest. It actually tells you to strike a balance in your deck. It fundamentally challenges you to find your favorites of each type of card. Sign me up. In that way, what could be more backward-compatible? This mechanic asks almost nothing to work well with all the other cards in your collection. The more different card types we put the delirium mechanic on, the more could play well as multiples.

Delirium does send you on some other specific quest in terms of enablers, depending how urgently you want to turn it on, likely in the self-milling or self-discard space that aligns with madness as well. It also rewards you for finding cards that have multiple card types. I'm not ashamed to say I've cast Hangarback Walker for zero mana several times in a pinch during playtesting. Sometimes that's what the Mindwrack Demon demands. This mechanic also allowed us to show more examples of transformation in a more subtle fashion than on double-faced cards.

Investigate was the one space in the file that development felt needed an overhaul. There was a mechanic vaguely in this space before, but I won't elaborate on that for now. Shawn Main led a mini-team at my request to come up with a new mechanic. The following is a prioritized list of goals for the mechanic that I gave him and his team based on what I felt the set needed at the time:

  • Can go on instants and sorceries, and best if it can go on permanents as well
  • Provides decisions in the late game
  • Doesn't fight against delirium; it can feed into it but not too well, can be neutral to it
  • Variance reducing (or potentially neutral), not variance increasing
  • Has a strong element of mystery
  • Should not add much to on-board complexity/tracking
  • Most prevalent in blue, white, green but can ideally appear in all colors even at common
  • Increases card flow/filtering
  • Provides ways to spend mana late game
  • Splashy/novel

The investigate mechanic in the set, which creates a Clue token, was not actually his team's first choice among their suggestions, but my development team thought there was a lot of promise in creating this intermediary to a card draw. The Clue was something we could make relevant by referencing it on other cards in ways that would be less true of other possible mechanics. This implementation was a very simple means of accomplishing almost all of the goals above.

We started conservatively at three mana for the card draw but relatively quickly moved to only requiring two mana to sacrifice a Clue. It is worth noting that many but not all of the above goals could be solved by flashback, a mechanic that did a lot for Innistrad but that didn't feel correct here—with its exiling being at odds with delirium, and our desire to stay away from a space that would be too derivative of the original Innistrad. We found that investigate was a fun way of adding some consistency to an experience that needed a bit more.

Skulk is a relatively low-profile mechanic in the set. We were looking on new twists on evasion that might work more broadly and flavorfully. It helps creatures that might otherwise be obsolete on the battlefield as more powerful creatures show up. It is a mirror to creatures with Den Protector's evasion ability, and it has made an appearance on Silumgar Assassin. We'll be eager to see what you think of this keyword when it appears more frequently.

Sin Prodder

My preview card today is just a fun, cool card in its own right without any of the above mechanics. We certainly want there to be a lot of cards in each set for which this statement is true. Sin Prodder is a twist on something familiar that I believe Erik Lauer submitted to me early in development. It is a bit harder to recognize the point comparison because the mana cost and stats drifted away from its inspiration during the development. Here it is:

And the inspiration:

Thanks for reading,

Dave Humpherys

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