A Fond Memory of Madness

Posted in Latest Developments on April 1, 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.

Most of the predesign for Shadows over Innistrad was focused on milling your opponent with the idea that it was driving them crazy, but another major thing arose from that planning, and it stuck through early design—madness. Admittedly, it was mostly for the name, but the mechanic also had a lot of fun things going for it. Most notably, it allowed for a lot of fun and powerful interactions that we knew we could pull off in both Standard and Limited, because we had done it before.

For development, the first thing we thought about when we heard "madness" was the most prominent madness deck—Green-Blue Madness. Dave Humpherys might be somewhat familiar with it, but we also thought about how it played out in the Blue-Black Psychatog deck. Those two decks showed some of the versatility of madness for working in different shells, but also demonstrated that we could make top-tier Constructed cards with the mechanic, if we were willing to put the right amount of support into the format.

While development was skeptical for a long time that madness was safe, we also knew that there were a lot of upsides—which often means that it is worth putting in the time to find out how to balance it for today's Standard, with the different kinds of enablers and cards we print now. In today's article, I'm going to talk a bit about what we did to make madness work in both Limited and Constructed, as well as touch on a bit of a...well, touchy subject.

Madness in Shadows Limited

Getting madness to work in Limited isn't quite as easy as you might think. The problem is that madness very much an A-plus-B mechanic, and getting that right balance in your deck, let alone in the set, is not easy. What we found when working on the set was that having too many repeatable effects at common was making it too easy, and made it too much about whether you killed the enabler or not. We ended up leaving Stern Constable in because it wasn't in one of the main madness colors.

Instead, what we focused on for Limited was making the package much more about one-time effects that provided some two-for-one potential. Tormenting Voice to put out Twins of Maurer Estate for the madness cost, for example, isn't back-breaking, but it's a fun and strong combo.

At uncommon, we let ourselves have more reusable effects that allowed you to fill a deck if you had enough of them. But, instead of having them every time you draft, you only get them some of the time. Think about how in original Innistrad you could get a self-mill deck to work a lot of the time, but it wouldn't always work. We also allowed the much more swingy combos to happen, because we assume they just won't happen in every game. You might play Heir of Falkenrath into a turn-three Incorrigible Youths for a superpowered start, but that won't happen every draft. Similarly, some of the more powerful two- or three-for-ones with madness like Gisa's Bidding are limited to uncommon, so your opponent just never attacks into three open mana and a madness outlet. It's important to let these kinds of interactions happen now and then, but not so frequently that they become frustrating.

When it comes to Standard, we looked back at what we did originally in Odyssey block, as well as the little bit that showed up in Time Spiral, for inspiration. While there was something there, we wanted to change the colors a bit, to give it some new identity. Madness in Odyssey had two basic decks—Green-Blue Madness, which was an aggro-control deck, and Blue-Black Psychatog, which was a control deck. In a similar way, we wanted to have multiple madness decks, but we wanted them to play a little more differently.

Madness in Shadows Standard—Aggressive

Madness made the most sense for us to center on one of the tribes. Much how like in original Innistrad the Vampires had the mechanical identity of Sliths (they got +1/+1 counters when they dealt combat damage to a player), here we wanted them to be basically the "madness" tribe. With Grixis being the madness colors, it gave us a few options for different decks to push in Standard. We didn't have a ton of Vampires in Standard to play with, but we had enough cards we could rotate out for the black-red aggressive decks that it felt like a good way to push. Plus, it's always good to take a deck that can be very boring in most Standard formats and give it a mechanical identity that makes it feel new.

You might even recognize many of the cards in the Vampire Madness deck as being very similar to the ones in the Green-Blue Madness deck. While we don't have the disruption of Circular Logic, we instead have removal such as Fiery Temper. No Wild Mongrel replacement, but between Ravenous Bloodseeker and Heir of Falkenrath, we do have some replacements for them on curve. It's hard to say which is stronger between the Youths and Arrogant Wurm, but I can tell you which I'd rather draw on turn three on the play against a slower deck—and it isn't the one from ten years ago.

While aggressive madness decks have some disadvantages when compared to the more straightforward and less combo-y aggressive decks, I think they are (generally) more fun and will resonate with lots of players. They also tend to have much more powerful draws, even if they are more easily disrupted. The aggressive decks use madness in the way that is all about cheating mana, not about big card-advantage gains.

Madness in Shadows Standard—Control

Control decks have a few more options when it comes to how they want to deploy madness, though it will also likely be a much lighter touch than the Vampire deck. Obviously, Jace, Vryn's Prodigy takes the place of Psychatog from the old Psychatog builds, and you have options like Call the Bloodline to take the spot of Zombie Infestation if you plan on going really deep on a black deck. Or you can just rely on something like Chandra, Flamecaller, Geralf's Masterpiece, or Tormenting Voice if you want to go blue-red. During development, we frequently played Blue-Red Madness decks with Thing in the Ice as an eventual win condition. The idea was not to do what the Vampire deck does (cheat on mana), but instead to use madness along with looting effects to get card advantage in a way that was a bit more plentiful than a lot of regular card draw. Tormenting Voice may not seem like much, but if you can cast it on turn three with a Thing in the Ice on the battlefield and then madness out a Fiery Temper to kill a creature, you are threatening some serious damage very early in the game.

There are also slower blue-black decks that would get out a Call the Bloodline and slowly build an advantage, discarding Broken Concentration or Nagging Thoughts when the time was right to get either a chump blocker or an attacker to slowly ping the opponent down. Once the late game hit, one or two copies of From Under the Floorboards could be cast at the end of the turn to provide enough of an army to actually finish the opponent off. This deck doesn't have a lot of explosive draws, but it does do the grindy-control matchup about as well as any other deck in the format, and allows for maximum use of counterspells since so much of the deck can be played at instant speed with madness.

The Elephant in the Room

So, Jace, Vryn's Prodigy...yeah. I'm going to be real honest with you. Jace was very strong before Shadows, and with the addition of madness, his utility goes up. Now, without fetch lands, flipping him takes longer and is less reliable, so it's hard to tell if he will be stronger or weaker, but I expect him to be a big factor in Shadows-era Standard. I don't think he will overpower the format, and he might even see play in a lot fewer decks in the format since it's pretty hard to splash just him without the fetch land/battle land mana base, but I don't expect to see him falling out of favor any time soon.

When I was working on Magic Origins, I was also on the Shadows over Innistrad design team—so I knew that the sets would overlap. That being said, I didn't know for sure that this version of Jace would end up in the final set—mechanics frequently change in development. I knew I wanted a few cards that could provide some support for Innistrad block, like Nantuko Husk for Zombies, Gather the Pack for delirium and general graveyard shenanigans, and Kytheon, Hero of Akros for Human tribal. I was thinking much more about Jace in a vacuum when making him, but I was aware that he would be good if madness were a thing. Overall, I am glad that there are a few powerful discard outlets in sets other than Shadows over Innistrad, but I would be happier if Jace were a little less powerful. It gave us more confidence that we could make a powerful madness deck work without being a block monster, but it also limited some of the power we could put on the blue madness cards. Luckily, with cards like Dead Weight in the format, I think there will be enough ways for all kinds of decks to deal with Jace, and the format won't be all about him. While it might be flavorful because he is the face of the set, I am happier if he is mostly in the decks that want to cast him, and not just sitting around as the best thing you can cast in Standard.

That's it for this week. Next week, I'll be back with everyone's favorite, the M-Files: Shadows over Innistrad edition.

Until next time,

Sam (@samstod)

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