Finding Delirium

Posted in Latest Developments on March 25, 2016

By Sam Stoddard

Sam Stoddard came to Wizards of the Coast as an intern in May 2012. He is currently a game designer working on final design and development for Magic: The Gathering.

When working on Shadows over Innistrad design, we were searching for the right graveyard mechanic. The challenge, however, was finding one that felt different from the original Innistrad, while at the same time allowing for great cards that people could easily understand.

In the early stages, the design team focused on opponent-milling to "drive your opponent insane," but it was very difficult to get to work. First off, it meant that we really couldn't have cards that you could cast or give you a benefit out of your graveyard. Or Gravedigger cards. Or use the graveyard as a resource of any kind. Because all of these mechanics meant that you wouldn't want to mill your opponent.

We also tried some threshold-based mechanics that counted cards in your opponent's graveyard, but that just led to people getting paralyzed at five or so cards in the graveyard, because casting spells could easily put them over the edge. There were some flavorful things there, but they weren't fun. Mostly, though, they weren't Innistrad. I think it may be fine to have a set in the future where milling your opponent and doing something with those cards is a thing, but I don't think it meets the expectations for Innistrad.

I mentioned threshold before, and I want to talk a bit about it, since it is commonly perceived as a bad mechanic. That's not exactly true—threshold had a lot of problems within Odyssey block. Seven cards in your graveyard is a lot, depending on the format. It is a huge portion of your Limited deck, but pretty easy to get in Constructed—you just fill your deck with cantrips and mill cards. The bonus for turning it on was often very large (think Dirty Wererat, Werebear, or Krosan Beast) and kind of mindless. Getting seven cards in your graveyard through normal play is sometimes hard, but easy if you're playing a lot of enablers. Also, pairing it with flashback meant that it was very easy to accidentally turn it off. All of these meant that we didn't like what threshold did in Odyssey, but it didn't mean that mechanics like it couldn't work.

When looking at ways to interact with the graveyard, threshold mechanics kept coming up. The one thing we particularly wanted to change was the idea that seven cards in your graveyard was the right number. At this point, we had just finished Magic Origins, and thought that something like spell mastery got a lot of things right—where certain colors could be better at it, but you didn't have to warp your deck to get it to work. We tried some variants—like creature mastery, green mastery, and the like—but found that they all had the issue where your deck was super focused on doing your one thing, and not on just being a regular Magic deck.

When someone (I can't for the life of me remember who at this point) suggested a Tarmogoyf-like mechanic, it was kind of an "aha" moment. It was complicated, but the great thing about it was that it let decks get it naturally and also incentivized playing different kinds of cards. Not necessarily just cards that self-mill (though that's an option), but also enchantments that sacrifice, artifact creatures, or the like. We were worried at first that four types was too many, but we knew that three wouldn't be enough—which could've put us in a spot where we had no real workable knobs. Luckily, once we made the kind of support cards the set needed, such as the enchantments that sacrifice for effects, we found that it was difficult but not impossible.

What made delirium stick in my mind, though, was the drafting and deck-building options that it added. While you almost always take an instant removal spell over a sorcery of similar strength, with delirium you would frequently take the sorcery if you already had enough instants. This kind of deck-building twist goes a long way toward allowing for this version of Innistrad to still have the graveyard feel of the original Innistrad, but with a fun new twist.

Delirium in Limited

Getting delirium to work in Limited involved spacing out the kinds of cards we made in the set and allowing for a wider range of effects than we usually do on a wider variety of permanents. Seals, as an example, are historically cards that you can sacrifice for an effect; they sit on the battlefield until you're ready to use them. While we don't like them when they have no activation cost (because there is no "shields down" moment), we also tend not to make them even with activation costs.

Shadows over Innistrad was the perfect set to use some of these designs. Fork in the Road is a sort of nonsensical design in most sets, but works great here, where the land you put in your graveyard has a lot of value. The cost of sacrificing a permanent for Angelic Purge may seem high, but the ability to get rid of a land or Equipment to get closer to delirium can be a huge upside in some decks. While Warped Landscape is weaker than Evolving Wilds, we found that the set was more fun when it was a little harder to get delirium. All of these small design choices in cards, and our ability to balance them in ways that made them stronger or weaker in certain situations, lead to what I believe is a very fun and robust Limited environment with some very interesting choices in Draft.

We tried to manage the rewards you get from delirium to generally be smaller than the ones threshold got you in Odyssey. Partly this is because getting seven cards is a lot different (and more reliable) than getting four card types. We wanted rewards that would give your deck some additional strength when you actually hit delirium, but not so much that if you play a cheap delirium creature or two and then your Pieces of the Puzzle randomly hits an artifact creature and a land, the game hasn't been decided. You get rewarded, but at a level that is still interactive.

When looking at one of the problems of Odyssey where you could easily flashback a card, lose threshold, and then lose some creatures, we tried to limit the number of cards that left your graveyard without trading one for one. Certainly there are creatures you can exile to make Spirits—we expect creatures to be the most common card type in your graveyard anyway. We also decided not to make any cards that gained toughness from delirium. The reason behind this was twofold: the first was that it meant that you couldn't accidentally kill your creature, but it also helped to justify the large number of double-faced cards in the set. "Threshold, get a power and toughness bonus and a keyword" is very close to "trigger, flip me, and on my backside I am larger and have a keyword." By leaving stat bonuses off of the DFCs in Shadows over Innistrad, we (hopefully) went a long way toward ensuring that the delirium cards don't just feel like failed DFCs and instead feel like their own thing.

Delirium in Constructed

For Constructed, delirium offered some amazing opportunities. In development, we frequently worry about block monsters when a theme in a set requires too much support from that set alone in order to work. One of the best parts about delirium was that it was easy to find cards in all of our sets in Standard that would fit into delirium decks. Hangarback Walker, for instance, is a strong artifact creature that will naturally die and add two card types to your graveyard. Evolving Wilds may not be nearly as strong as the departing fetch lands, but it lets decks that really want to play two colors and get a land in their graveyard have an easy inclusion with some downsides. Oath of Nissa is nice in that, being a legendary enchantment, your second copy not only keeps you even on card advantage, but also adds an enchantment to your graveyard.

Besides just relying on people to naturally vary the types of spells they are casting to hit delirium, we also printed a lot of cards in Shadows that both benefit from delirium and help you get to it. Mindwrack Demon is the most basic version with self-mill and then a punishment if you don't hit the number, but a card like Traverse the Ulvenwald is less obvious. While it gets much stronger with the delirium bonus, what is sneakier is that it is really designed to add to your delirium more frequently than to get the bonus. While this may not be a great design for Limited, these kinds of cards are perfect for Constructed. It lets your deck have an ability to "turn on" without being forced to play a ton of weird cards that don't function like normal cards simply to turn your strategy on. If delirium was a small strategy like Sphinx's Tutelage in Origins Standard, that would be fine—but as a mainstay of the format, the hope was that by making a lot of cards like this, there would be a wide variety of different delirium decks that have different rewards and different ways of getting delirium.

Speaking of graveyard-related stuff, I've seen a lot of people complain that there aren't any great answers for Rally the Ancestors in Battle for Zendikar block—and that's true. Rally was a deck that was stronger than we were expecting for a number of reasons, but part of it was that we didn't have the usual spread of hate cards for the deck in the environment because Shadows was going to be the next set. We knew from...well, from the last time we went to Innistrad that when we went back it would be a graveyard block. Part of getting sets to work when they come out is making sure the environment isn't too hostile toward them. If there was a lot of strong graveyard hate in Battle for Zendikar block, we would need to power creep the graveyard stuff in Shadows to really make the Standard environment feel like Innistrad. That would then cause a ton of problems later when we try to get the fall large set to shake up Standard.

That's it for this week. Join me next week when I talk about a returning mechanic in Shadows—madness—and what went into developing it for the set.

Until next time,

Sam (@samstod)

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