Unanswered Questions: Innistrad

Posted in Feature on October 10, 2011

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.

Today I'm trying out a new subcolumn. Usually with every set there are questions that come up. I try to answer as many as I can with my column, but some questions fall through the cracks or require additional comments as the questions are in response to my answer of a different question. Unanswered Questions is a catch-all feature where I answer the most asked but unanswered questions. Today's questions are obviously about the set that's just come out, Innistrad.

There have been a few blue Zombies in Magic's past. Why didn't you repeat any of them?

Let's walk through them and I'll explain why each one didn't make the cut.

Drowned (The Dark) – Of all the blue Zombies, this is the one I've been asked the most about. The card had several problems. 1) It's a Dawn of the Dead-style zombie, not a Frankenstein-style zombie, which means that flavorwise it's black and not blue. 2) It uses an off-color activation. True, it's in the other Zombie color, but in Innistrad the only use of off-color mana was on the flashback spells. Doing just one other one didn't feel right. 3) It's a pretty sucky card, and my goal was to make Zombies awesome, not sucky.


Reef Pirates (Homelands) – Reasons this didn't make the cut: 1) While I have nothing but respect for zombie pirates, they didn't fit the flavor of Innistrad. 2) The whole Dawn of the Dead rather than Frankenstein thing. 3) We tend to avoid making creatures nowadays that are ships. (Note that in Homelands this card wasn't a Zombie but a Ship.) 4) Blue Zombies in Innistrad like milling you, not your opponents.


Metathran Zombie (Invasion) – See, we did repeat Drowned once (with a new name). Yet another reason we don't need to repeat it again.

Metathran Zombie

Tattered Drake (Ravnica) – The biggest strike against this card was the off-color activation. Also, regeneration points toward Dawn of the Dead-style Zombies.

Tattered Drake

Fatestitcher (Shards of Alara) – The card has a keyword mechanic, unearth, that's not in the set.


Why did you choose flashback over unearth? It seems like unearth is even more horror themed.

There are two answers to this question:

Answer #1) Most of the other aspects of the set were eating up creature space. For example, tribal mechanics obviously revolve around creatures. If too many aspects of your set fight for the same space, you don't have the room you need for one part of your design and you struggle to fill up the other. To stop this from happening, it's important to spread your mechanics across various types of cards. Since the mechanics we already had were going to be creature focused, it felt like moving some of the graveyard mechanics to instants and sorceries was important. Also, flashback is much more flexible than unearth in how you can use it.

Answer #2) Later in the block, we... oh, I can't tell you about this yet. Never mind. Um, this is awkward. Don't worry, you'll see what I'm talking about later in the block.

Moan of the Unhallowed
Hellspark Elemental

Why wasn't haunt in Innistrad? It seems like a perfect fit for the horror flavor.

While I agree that haunt would be flavorful, it wasn't considered because I believe it to be a poor mechanic. Research showed that players back in Guildpact (where it was introduced) had a hard time understanding what it did. One of the qualities we look for in a mechanic is what we call mental stickiness. The best mechanics are easily understood, and players just remember what they do. Certain mechanics turn out to lack mental stickiness, meaning players just can't quite remember what the mechanic does. Haunt was one of those mechanics.

Blind Hunter

Why did you make so many "vanilla" Werewolves?

For starters, let me stress that no Werewolf is a vanilla creature, because every Werewolf has the Werewolf mechanic. Why did we choose to make most of the common Werewolves have no ability other than the Werewolf mechanic? The same reason we make all our commons simpler than the higher-rarity cards: to make gameplay easier. Players need to warm up to complexity so we purposefully keep the commons simpler to help games from getting too mind-melty in Limited play.

It's very easy, when you're reading a file, to just gloss over the text because you know it. Once you understand how Werewolves work, that text can be ignored. The Werewolf mechanic can't be so easily ignored when a Werewolf is on the battlefield. Even one "vanilla" Werewolf can have a giant impact on the game.

Why didn't you name the Werewolf mechanic?

The reason we decided against it was that the double-faced cards do use a new vocabulary word, transform. (This is what is technically known as a keyword action.) Having a keyword within a keyword causes a bunch of headaches, so we decided that since all the Werewolves work the same, it would be picked up easily enough. If we didn't have this issue, I'm pretty sure we would have keyworded (or more likely ability worded) it.

Did you ever consider making the plane of Innistrad into Ulgothra (the setting of the Homelands expansion)? The two seem somewhat similar.

We actually talked about whether Innistrad wanted to be Ulgrotha. The were several problems:

  1. It limited our freedom to define what was in the world. The whole point of the set was to do all the horror tropes. Using a defined world would cut some of them off.
  2. Last year we returned to Mirrodin. While we are willing to return to other previously visited planes, we didn't want to do it back to back.
  3. Homelands, unfortunately, has a bit of a stigma associated with it, and Return to Homelands doesn't really have the pop we wanted.

Why aren't Vampires and Werewolves as distinctly separated between their colors as Zombies and Spirits?

As I talked about above, black Zombies are more like Dawn of the Dead-style zombies, while blue Zombies are more like Frankenstein-style zombies. Blue ghosts are scary, mean ghosts while white ghosts are benign helpful spirits. Why weren't Vampires and Werewolves equally as divided creatively? The answer is that there is a creative difference, but one that is much subtler. Why? Because it was enough to serve the creative needs.

Armored Skaab

Blue and black Zombies were separated out of necessity. The reason black would have Zombies didn't make any sense for blue Zombies, and vice versa. Likewise, the design was trying hard to isolate white from the other four colors, so we wanted to make sure that none of the white creatures came across as evil monsters. That gave us a clean way to separate the white from the blue ghosts.

Falkenrath Noble
Rakish Heir

Vampires and Werewolves never had this problem. Vampires made sense in both black and red, as Werewolves did in red and green, so there was never any need to make sharper distinctions.

Where is _______________? (_______________ being some horror trope not in Innistrad)

There are four major reasons that a certain trope might not show up:

  1. It didn't fit the creative for the plane of Innistrad. I've already talked about things such as chainsaw and broomstick that didn't make the cut.
  2. Sometimes we tried to design to a trope and just never got a good design for it.
  3. Part of doing a top-down resonant set is trying to hit all the notes people expect. While I think Innistrad does a great job, there are more things we could do than there was space to do them.
  4. The block isn't over yet. Be patient.

Why do some Zombies enter the battlefield tapped and others don't?

A common design mistake is to make a message louder than it needs to be. We wanted Zombies to have the flavor of being slow. To accomplish that we used the "enters the battlefield tapped" on a few cards to get across the flavor. Using it on every Zombie card would make the Zombies wordier and lessen the variance in play. You have to be extra careful in design when you have every card of a subset do the same mechanical thing. We do it, but it is a path fraught with danger, so we have to be careful.

Why do some cards spell out "Vampire, Werewolf, and/or Zombie" while others say "non-Human"? Why not be consistent?

There are times in design where you want to be consistent and there are times you want a little more variety. Playtesting showed that Innistrad wanted a little more variety, so that's the path we chose.

Elite Inquisitor
Spare from Evil

Why isn't Ludevic's Test Subject creature type Egg?

Because Egg was discontinued as a supported creature type. I share your sadness.

Why did you put Naturalize in Innistrad when it was in Magic 2012?

Often when there isn't a good variant for a basic utility effect, we just use the original spell. Making a variant that doesn't fit the set only uses up one that would better be served elsewhere. Note that when I first put Naturalize in the set, it probably wasn't even decided yet whether it was going into Magic 2012.

Why are there more Curses in red than any other color? Also, why aren't there any Curses in white and green?

In design, we put Curses in every color but white. The reason we excluded white was that white was the "good" color in this set (and I should stress that normally we don't isolate "good" to white) and the Curses were all flavored as "evil." During development the curses got changed around and there ended up being more space for them in red, which is why it has the most. Curse of Stalked Prey used to be green and was called Curse of Tastiness. It was designed by Jenna Helland, a member of the Innistrad design team and the person that did all the card concepting (describing to the artist what the illustration is supposed to be of) for the set. You can read more about Jenna's work on Innistrad in her own words in today's feature article.

You've talked about getting multiple rares in a single Innistrad pack. How does that happen?

Before I explain what you can expect in a booster pack of Innistrad, let me stress that this is what you are most likely to get most of the time, but you are not guaranteed the following. (Now that our lawyers are happy, let's get down to business.)

Here's what you can (most often) expect to find in an Innistrad booster pack:

1 rare or mythic rare
1 double-faced card (which can be anything from a common to a mythic rare)
3 uncommons
9 commons
1 land or checklist card (the checklist cards appear in three out of four packs)
1 tip or token card (with an ad on the back)

If you get a non-double-faced premium card, it will appear in place of a common. Whenever this happens you can get at least two rare / mythic rares in the pack.

If you get a premium double-faced card, it will appear in place of the double-faced card.

This means the best-case scenario you can find in a single pack is a premium double-faced card, a premium mythic rare, and a nonpremium mythic rare. As an example, there does exist a pack with premium Garruk Relentless / Garruk, the Veil-Cursed, premium Liliana of the Veil, and nonpremium Liliana of the Veil in it.

Why is it okay for double-faced cards to flip into another color with abilities of that color? Or in other words, why is a 3/3 that causes you to lose 1 life a turn okay for white or a 5/1 creature okay for blue?

I've talked about the color pie many times in this column. I'm one of the biggest advocates for not bleeding recklessly. So why is okay in this case? The biggest danger in color bleeding is allowing colors to overcome their own weaknesses. Both cards talked about here allow the colors to get creatures they normally wouldn't, but neither does so in a way that removes the vulnerabilities of that color. Also, both examples here did the color changing in a very natural way that adds significant flavor. As these are both high-profile cards in the set, I felt the pros of color bleeding outweighed the cons and included them in the design.

Why are the double-faced cards only creatures turning into creatures?

The major reason is that the transformation theme of horror mostly applies to creatures. Usually when something changes it's from one living thing to another, often not-so-living, thing.

Also, the key to exploring any design space is to start with the most obvious, simplest version first. There are more double-faced cards coming in the block, and not all of them will be creatures transforming into creatures.

Why aren't the double-faced cards flip cards?

The dust has settled and I've gotten a lot of feedback about the double-faced cards. The vast majority of the players enjoy how they play. The big question I keep getting is whether we could have done the double-faced cards, as is, as flip cards. This would give us the game play we want without any of the external issues that double-faced cards create.

I already answered this question once, but it keeps getting asked, so I thought I'd try to give a little more complete answer. So, why not flip cards? Let me count the ways:

#1) Flip Cards Are Considered a Failure by R&D

From time to time I'll talk about things like Godbook studies or market research. What I'm talking about is that we always go back after a set is out and gauge the response of our player base. We want to know whether or not something is successful, because if it is we'll bring it back, and if it isn't we know we have to permanently shelve it or find a new way to do it that overcomes the problems of the previous attempt.

Flip cards fared very poorly in our market research. The player base didn't like them. (The reason? I'll get to my belief in a second.) Why would we repeat something that failed? Now, for the sake of argument let's assume double-faced cards fail (and, by the way, that is not what our current data is showing us). It was still better for us to try something new that we don't know the players' reactions to than to retry something that we already know was received poorly.

#2) The Aesthetics of the Flip Cards Are Horrible

Why do I believe the flip cards were received badly? I don't believe it's the mechanics, because we've done other "cards fundamentally change into another card" mechanics, and none of those did as badly as flip cards. What I believed did flip cards in is that they just look ugly.

Jushi Apprentice

I talk all the time about aesthetics in design. This issue is more one of visual aesthetics than gameplay aesthetics, but the issues are similar. There's just too much going on. As an example, let's compare a double-faced card with its flip card mock-up. As I will get to in a minute, there's all sorts of space issues, so I'm just going to use one of the common "vanilla" Werewolves, Tormented Pariah/Rampaging Werewolf.

Here's the card in its double-faced form:

Now, let's see it in flip card form:

In order to make it fit, a number of things have to be sacrificed. The art has to be cut down, removing the ability to create the story that the double-faced card tells. The cramped space doesn't allow the setting of the scene. All you have room for is the human and the werewolf he turns into. Gone is everything else that tells the story of the card and gives the scene some nuance. Second, to fit the text, the flavor text has to go. Finally, and this is the least important, Tormented Pariah has to lose Warrior from its creature type to make room for the power/toughness box.

Remember here that the issue isn't one of function, but of form. Not only does the flip card version have to lose a lot of important flavor, but it also has to cram everything in to fit which makes the card feel cramped.

#3) There Isn't the Necessary Space

My example was of a "vanilla" Werewolf. Most of the Werewolves aren't "vanilla" and have more text. Many of the other double-faced cards also have more text, and I'm not even getting to Garruk Relentless / Garruk, the Veil-Cursed. Another reason we didn't use flip cards is that we couldn't fit the text on the card.

Couldn't we just shrink it? In some cases maybe, but that only makes the card harder to read and look even more cramped. In other cases, as with Garruk, it just wouldn't fit at all.

I hope that does a little better job of explaining why flip cards weren't a viable option for double-faced cards.

Brought In For Questioning

That's all the time we have for today. I'm curious what you all thought of this new subcolumn. Is "Unanswered Questions" a feature you'd like to see with future sets? Whatever your thoughts, let me know in the thread, via email, on Twitter (@maro254), or in any of my other social media.

Join me next week for an undead reckoning.

Until then, may you find answers to your questions.

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