Innistrad From the Top

Posted in Feature on December 26, 2011

By Jenna Helland

Jenna Helland is a designer and writer for the Magic creative team. She's a member of the story team, a creative liaison with design teams, and the author of the Theros novella, Godsend.

We use the last two weeks of each year here at to rerun our favorite articles from the year while our writers and staff take a break for the holidays.

Jenna Helland was heavily involved in crafting both the design and the creative expression of Innistrad—a set where the two were intertwined to an impressive degree. That gives her a unique perspective on what makes the set tick, from mechanics to names to art. In this article, Jenna uses the art description for one of the most breathtaking pieces of Magic art ever as a framing device to talk about both sides of Innistrad's genesis, and how they met in the middle.

Daily MTG will be back with all-new articles on Monday, January 2, and Dark Ascension previews begin on January 9. See you then!

Kelly Digges

It's an early morning in October. I'm staring at this line of text:

At the beginning of your upkeep, put X 2/2 black Zombie creature tokens onto the battlefield, where X is half the number of Zombies you control, rounded down.

As the lead concepter of Innistrad, it's my job to take those words and turn them into an art description—an art description that will represent the mechanic, resonate with players, and illustrate the world of Innistrad.

By this point, I've been thinking about Innistrad for a year: as a member of the design team, which created the set's mechanical identity; the creative team, which did the worldbuilding and story design; and now as the concepter, who would help bring this amazing new plane to life.

Ghoulcaller's Chant | Art by Randy Gallegos

How do you take text about upkeep and X tokens and give it visual identity? I know what a zombie looks like in this world. I know how it's supposed to play in a deck. But what did it take to get here, poised on the cusp of a zombie attack in a dark world of monsters and an absent angel?

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark

When Innistrad design began, I'd been working at Wizards for almost three years, mainly focusing on world building, creative text, and story. This was my first time on a design team, and it would be for a top-down set, which meant that the creative team would be very involved from the beginning of the process.

Bump in the Night | Art by Kev Walker

My background is in writing, which is primarily a solitary activity. For me, writing a first draft is a lot like throwing a bucket of mud at a wall. Initially, I don't care about pretty phrases or even complete sentences. It's all about fashioning the skeleton of the beast, while the guts, blood, and skin come in due time. In the early stages, it's incredibly messy. But the mess is a breeding ground of ideas, a potent and essential part of creativity.

Group design proved to be the same thing. Like a carefully crafted novel, the finished card set has a neat structure, polished and refined. But the design meetings were like a first draft, like that bucket of mud at the wall. I was nervous about sharing my card ideas at first, but Mark Rosewater encouraged the team to muck around with crazy ideas with little restriction, at least in the early stages.

And there was some crazy stuff. It became a joke that every time Richard Garfield beat me in playtesting, it was with some fungus monster. Those fungus monsters didn't find a permanent place in the horror setting, but their fleeting existence informed other design decisions and so played a role in the shape of the final set.

On the first day of design, we wrote a list of tropes on the board, which I kept in my files. That initial meeting yielded seventy-five items. And all but a handful made it onto cards in one form or another. Mummies didn't pass the gothic cut, gremlins became devils, and mad scientists transformed into alchemists, but most of the ideas carried through to the final set.

Village Cannibals | Art by Bud Cook

The last line of my notes from that first day: "Create a sense of dread." In my mind, that was our marching order. That would be the goal for mechanics, for story, and for concepting the art. How do we achieve that can't-look-away, shivers-up-the-spine feeling that is so essential to the horror genre?

Grave Encounters

If I'm going to watch a horror film, it will be sci-fi horror rather than a slasher film. Aliens is one of my all-time favorites. Although I saw it many times, I could hardly stand the tension without covering my eyes. I remember having nightmares about an alien popping out of a microwave—probably a mental mish-mash between that and the oddly terrifying Gremlins I'd seen as a child.

I've always wondered how the advent of television and film affects people's dreams. They provide fully formed images of things we've never experienced. Would my brain conjure up a monster in a microwave if I'd never seen those movies? I doubt it. Are there others who have nightmares about Aliens? Probably. It's an issue that informs resonance. The horror genre is a visual medium with a stable of shared images and stories that have become relatable across generations.

I sat down with our list of seventy-five tropes and imagined them as story elements: a long dark hallway, the thud that jars you from a deep sleep, bloodstained rags, the creepy doctor with a rose in his lapel. The final count was over a hundred, and it included things like Bloodbath, Murder of Crows, Bump in the Night, Cannibalistic Villagers, Zombie Butcher, The Mutilator, Murderous Runaway, Ghostly Possession, Slaughter Gator, and Open the Hellmouth.

At this point, none of these cards existed except as hypothetical titles. But they would take shape soon enough, many of them designed by our team during meetings. Although some of these names were changed, the cards they inspired all became part of the final set.

Burning Vengeance | Art by Raymond Swanland

When world-building writing began, we knew our Zombies would be in blue and black, our Werewolves in red and green, our Vampires in black and red. As always, Humans would be in every color, but as the mechanics took shape, Humans began to occupy a particular place in Innistrad. In general, we are careful to balance Humans with a variety of other races. While there tend to be more Humans in white, white is not the "Human color," nor is it the color of good. We don't focus on the conflict between black and white or good and evil, because each color is meant to have complexity and a spectrum of morality within it. White-aligned villains? Ambitious-but-basically-decent black-aligned heroes? Yep, no problem.

But the horror genre practically begged for a conflict between the besieged humans and the dark forces of the world. Human tribal made sense from a story perspective. I was tasked with writing about the humans and their main province, Gavony. I knew that there was going to be a church that offered real power and protection. It would be the bulwark that kept the humans from being entirely devoured by monsters. I wanted the theology of that church to be devoid of real-world imagery. I wanted something appropriate to the nature of Innistrad.

That got me thinking about death. It was hard to stay peacefully buried in Innistrad. Ghoulcallers want your corpse to animate it. Alchemists want to slice you up for spare parts. Werewolves want to tear you limb from limb. The worst taboo is having your body desecrated. Give me a peaceful, sleep-like death. That would be a comfort after a life of fear and watching your loved ones be murdered one by one: the Blessed Sleep, which cannot be achieved by cremation (because as Innistrad's inhabitants know, cremated folks come back as angry ghosts).

As I built Gavony, it became populated with characters in my mind. The insane twins, Gisa and Geralf, are among my favorites. Each embodied the characteristics of the black-aligned and blue-aligned zombie tribes, respectively. Gisa is a ghoulcaller and Geralf is an alchemist, and their sibling rivalry has led them to the desolate moors. They engage in necro-warfare, playing twisted war games with hordes of zombies with no ambition but to prove themselves the better twin.

Fright Night

When it came time to concept the set, I wanted to take a storytelling approach to the art descriptions. For some cards, this was straightforward. For example, I was given the mechanics for a top-down pitchfork. Rather than show the pitchfork by itself, I put it in the hands of a farmer's daughter defending herself against an unseen foe. For other cards, such as Make a Wish, it was more challenging to find a story moment to represent the mechanic.

Sharpened Pitchfork | Art by Winona Nelson

I remember a scene in Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels where one guy is beating another. The victim is halfway inside a car, with the aggressor slamming the door repeatedly against his head. It's a cringe-worthy scene that is made all the better because you don't actually see the victim. No blood or gore, just the face of the aggressor and the jagged motion of the door.

Drama comes from context as much from witnessing the conflict itself. It's a common narrative trick in horror: the building tension and the knowledge that something dreadful is on the loose. But what? And where? By using contextual moments, I hoped to evoke that sense of dread. Resonance can be achieved if we can relate to the context—of fear, of longing, of grief—even if the specific moment is beyond our personal experience.

Let's take a common white creature: Selfless Cathar. When it came to me, it was in this form:

Sacrifice [CARDNAME]: Creatures you control get +1/+1 until end of turn.

Looking at that, a concepter knows a few things to be true. With some exceptions, 1/1 white non-fliers are creature types such as Human, Spirit, Kithkin, Kor, Cat, Fox, and Hound. For Innistrad, Kor and Kithkin were out. I already had several spots for white Spirits, and the sacrifice ability felt Human to me.

Once that was decided, a world of possibilities opened. This could be a villager battling werewolves in Kessig, a cleric in a besieged stronghold in Stensia, or an itinerant monk wandering the docks of Nephalia. Looking at the mechanic, I imagined a young cathar who was willing to give his life to protect his people. His faith would give strength and courage to those fighting with him. (It could have been a female cathar. The gender was left up to the artist.)

Because Magic is a game about magical battles, the most likely place to depict him is on the battlefield itself slaying monsters even as he draws his last breath. And that would have been a fine choice.

Selfless Cathar | Art by Slawomir Maniak

But because of the nature of Innistrad, I wanted him to have a moment of quiet reflection just before a battle. He's ready for a fight, his sword slung across his back, and he's wearing his spiked leather gauntlets. He also knows he's going to die, and you see the moment that he makes peace with that, accepts his fate, and praises Avacyn all the same. Artist Slawomir Maniak did an amazing job with the piece. The cathar's face is tinged with resolution, but not a trace of fear.

Another example is Victim of Night, a black instant that came to me as this:

Destroy target non-Vampire, non-Werewolf, non-Zombie creature.

Looking at that text, I imagined a monster slayer who has waged war against vampires, werewolves, and ghouls. Here's a man who has saved countless others with his willingness to put himself in harm's way for the good of his people. He lived a hero's life and deserved a hero's death. But we are witness to his death alone on his knees in a dank alley. It's an ignoble end to a man who deserved much better—a fate that all too often befalls the people of Innistrad.

Victim of Night | Art by Winona Nelson

Fifty-Two Weeks Later

Back to that morning the next October. This mechanic is tapping its foot, waiting for its visual identity:

At the beginning of your upkeep, put X 2/2 black Zombie creature tokens onto the battlefield, where X is half the number of Zombies you control, rounded down.

After a year of design and creative work, I know what zombies are meant to be in this world: relentless armies of undead. I know the history, the theology, and the dire situation of the humans. Avacyn has vanished, the darkness is closing in, and humanity is losing ground. I close my eyes and imagine the undead shambling closer to one of the few havens where humans are supposed to feel safe.

I begin to write: "Show a stained-glass window depicting a white-haired angel. . ."

Endless Ranks of the Dead | Art by Ryan Yee

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