The Colors of your Nightmares

Posted in Latest Developments on September 23, 2011

By Tom LaPille

Tom LaPille makes things. Some of the things he makes are card sets, like Dark Ascension and Born of the Gods. Sometimes he makes stories, too. Sometimes he makes unexpected things, like 16th-century Japanese clothing. He's probably making something right now.

I often joke that the job of Magic design is to choose the ways in which a Magic set will be different from every other Magic set, and development's job is to make it the same as every other Magic set in every other way. While this is a bit dramatic, it has some truth to it. When you come to a new Magic set, there are a certain number of things you expect. You expect good art. You expect cool Constructed cards. You expect the games to play out in ways that are at least a little similar to the rest of the games of Magic you have played. If we don't match those expectations, the set will feel jarring.

One of those things that we want to be true about every Magic set is that the set is fun to play in Limited. Not just once, either—over and over again. Our most invested players draft each Magic set many, many times, and Magic Online makes it even easier for players to get their draft count for a format into high double digits. How do we know that? The developers were all once people who did that. We wouldn't want ourselves to run out of things to find, and we don't want the people who draft a ton now to run out either.

One of the ways we ensure that drafting stays fresh is to include lots of different strategies that can be drafted. One natural way that we do this is to make each color pair play differently.

There are ten possible pairs of two Magic colors. Ten is a large number of different strategies, so we've found that trying to make each color pair distinctive is more than enough to make sufficient variety. While in practice we don't usually make all ten work, the attempt usually gets us to around eight or nine functional decks, which is plenty.

Design is sometimes too occupied with larger thematic issues to worry about this sort of thing. However, Innistrad was a nice change of pace for development, as the design team did half of this job for us. Each of Innistrad's five main tribes—Humans, Spirits, Zombies, Vampires, and Werewolves—lives mostly in one pair of allied colors. I was on the design team, and we spent lots of time thinking about how each tribe's creatures were supposed to work. We didn't want drafting Innistrad to be too linear, though, so rather than use lots of explicit tribe lords like Imperious Perfect, Silvergill Douser, and Thundercloud Shaman to get our point across, we just made the cards of each tribe work together in more subtle ways. What does that look like? I'm glad you asked.

The Spirits in Innistrad are mostly white and blue. It shouldn't surprise you to learn that many of them fly, and Limited decks full of white and blue flyers are a common Limited trope. We didn't want every tribe to be radically different from something you knew, so we didn't change this color pair up much.

Chapel Geist
Moon Heron

The Zombies were a bigger challenge. Thematically speaking, zombies are split between two kinds: the kind that come in enormous packs, walk slowly, and overwhelm you about an hour and a half into the movie, and the kind that are huge, creepy, and constructed willfully by a mad scientist out of dead flesh. We wanted to represent both, yet have them work together. For the former, we made cards like Unbreathing Horde and Ghoulraiser that give a sense of the inevitability of the zombie attack.

Unbreathing Horde

For the latter, we made cards like Skaab Ruinator and Stitched Drake that require bodies to be created.

Skaab Ruinator
Stitched Drake

Both sets of cards like having more cards in your graveyard, though, so we made cards like Armored Skaab and Dream Twist that help you do that.

Armored Skaab
Dream Twist

The Innistrad Zombie deck is more of a graveyard deck than a tribal Zombie deck, so you should prepare to value these self-milling cards highly.

The Vampires were the most challenging of the creature types in Innistrad. Historically, black-red in Limited feels like a control deck, and involves killing everything the opponent plays with removal spells. The design file had a lot of flavorful Vampires that worked best in very aggressive decks, though, so we tried to make the black-red deck aggressive instead. If you end up playing with Vampires this weekend, you'll see a lot of creatures like Vampire Interloper and Bloodcrazed Neonate.

Vampire Interloper
Bloodcrazed Neonate

These cards can be devastating, but they require you to draft an aggressive enough deck that you can follow them up with more pressure and removal. Otherwise, you may find yourself out of gas.

I spoke last week about how the Werewolves pushed us to make Innistrad a bit slower than normal. However, while a game being slow means that taking a turn off to transform some Werewolves doesn't hurt as much as it might otherwise, you can still do better by finding ways to use that mana anyway without casting spells. The simplest way is to use instants on your opponent's turn, so your red-green decks will value those a little higher than you're used to. However, we also included creatures with activated abilities that can help you use that mana for something if you don't have an instant at any given time.

Kessig Wolf
Darkthicket Wolf

These cards may not be Werewolves themselves, but the real Werewolves are still quite happy to have them around.

In the movies and stories that Innistrad draws from, humans usually come in enormous, angry mobs. We followed that by making the green-white pair, in which Humans are centered, into an aggressive swarm strategy. This was pretty standard stuff for Magic, though, so I don't have much to say about the strange things we had to do to make that work—design pretty much nailed this.

Selfless Cathar
Midnight Haunting

However, that's only half the color combinations. Design didn't give us much to work with on the enemy color pairs other than the cards themselves, so Erik's idea was that we would play a few times, watch what emergent strategies appeared in each combination, and augment those strategies with whatever it took to make them work.

White-black was the easiest combination to find. There were already plenty of cards that made Zombie tokens, like Moan of the Unhallowed, as well as some white cards that made tokens. Dave Humpherys's early Innistrad Limited decks usually combined white and black token producers to grind people out. We enjoyed those decks, and we also liked the White-Black Token archetype that Luis Scott-Vargas played to the finals of Pro Tour Kyoto in Constructed, so we were comfortable making more cards to support it. We changed the white token makers into creatures like Doomed Traveler and Mausoleum Guard, and also made Intangible Virtue to give the deck a build-around uncommon.

Intangible Virtue
Doomed Traveler

Blue and red are both traditionally spell-based colors, so trying to make this color combination into a flashback strategy seemed natural. Cards like Desperate Ravings and Think Twice ensure a constant flow of more cards. Graveyard enablers like Forbidden Alchemy, Dream Twist, and Armored Skaab dump even more cards straight into your graveyard. The development team created Burning Vengeance and Runic Repetition to top everything off. If you're a fan of weird sideways draft strategies, I'd recommend you take a look and blue-red.

Desperate Ravings
Forbidden Alchemy

One of our challenges in development was making morbid cards matter in Limited. Once we all learned that morbid existed, we were a little more skittish about getting into combat situations. No one was happy with this turn of events, as we wanted morbid cards to actually get to use their abilities. Green was where most of the morbid creatures lived, black had ways to both kill enemy creatures and sacrifice its own, and green-black needed a theme. Everything clicked into place from there.

If you end up in black-green, the most important cards to get this strategy working smoothly are the ones that make creatures die for only one mana. Prey Upon and Dead Weight are obviously excellent, but are also premium removal spells. However, you're likely to be able to get Disciple of Griselbrand much later, and that card works just as well for morbid purposes.

Prey Upon
Disciple of Griselbrand

I had lots of fun casting Festerhide Boar right after Dead Weighting my opponents' creatures, and I suggest you try to do the same thing if you find yourself in black and green this weekend.

This was our most challenging combination, with nothing springing naturally from the card set to help us. In the end, we settled on combining white's cheap creatures with red's removal to get the most aggressive strategy of all ten color pairs. The key card for this pairing is Rally the Peasants, which also happens to be my favorite Limited card in set.

Rally the Peasants

If you're in white, and you see this going around late, you may consider moving into red. Red-white is not an obvious color combination to draft, so not many players do it naturally. This card is powerful enough that it's worth it.

Let's end on an easy note. The design team handed off a large number of cards that count graveyards, like Boneyard Wurm and Splinterfright.

Boneyard Wurm

These combine well with all the graveyard enablers I have been repeatedly talking about, like Dream Twist, Armored Skaab, and Forbidden Alchemy. That gave us another slightly weird deck that likes to mill itself, but this one finishes things off with big green creatures instead of spells.


Innistrad was originally conceived as a top-down horror set, but there's much more than that going on underneath the surface. There are competitive decks to draft and play in every color pair, many of which ask you to do things that you may not have done in Limited before. This weekend is the Innistrad Prerelease, so your competition will start that process of discovery tomorrow. Will you be there with them?

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