A History of Undeath

Posted in Latest Developments on October 21, 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.

The undead have been around for a long time, and will likely be around for a long time to come.

I mean, in Magic.

I swear that's what I meant. See, look:


From the beginning, Magic has been a broad-appeal fantasy property. Undead of various sorts are part of that creative space, so Richard Garfield rightly chose to include them in his very first set.


This was also the beginning of a design and development question that reared its ugly head during our work on Innistrad. Zombies and vampires are very high-profile and popular categories of undead creatures. Each of them comes with different "rules," a few of which are constant from property to property but many of which are not. Vampires drink blood to survive and have to stay out of the sunlight, but what happens when the sun actually hits them? Does it burn their skin to a crisp, causing immense pain, or does it just make them sparkle? Does a stake through the heart kill a vampire, or merely immobilize it? Zombies have similar questions that must be answered, revolving mainly about how they are created, how fast they move, and how many of them arrive at once.

While the Magic Creative team must answer these questions each time we have vampires and zombies in a world, Design and Development must answer a different question: how do we represent vampire and zombie flavor with mechanics? A quick trip through Magic's history shows that we have not been anywhere near consistent with the answer to that question.

Magic's first Vampire has a very sensible ability. When it kills something, it gets stronger, presumably by consuming the dead thing's blood. Occasionally this results in "Vampire" growing after a tasty snack of a presumably-bloodless Clockwork Steed, but most of the time this feels fine. Unfortunately, it also doesn't play very well. How often will your opponent allow a creature to get into combat with a Sengir Vampire if it's obvious the Vampire will win? Are you supposed to play Giant Growths to win fights with Serra Angels and Air Elementals? If Sengir Vampire didn't have the history it does, I'm not sure how fondly we would think of it today.


Hrm. I'm sure there's a good explanation for this somewhere, but I sure don't have it. Moving on...


Aha, here's another reasonable implementation of vampire flavor. This one is hungry, you see, and must eat every turn. That makes sense.


This one is also hungry every turn, but it slakes its thirst by taking a bite out of you. It is also randomly blue. That made sense in context in Ravnica, but looking back, it seems a bit out of place.


The first time we did a lot of Vampires in one place was Zendikar block. There, the mechanical angle we chose was to represent how happy vampires are when there's a lot of blood flowing around. The "opponent at 10 or less life" clause is visible on several Vampires throughout the block.


This fellow, originally from Rise of the Eldrazi, likes eating things just as much as Ravenous Vampire and Sengir Vampire. It seems to be worse at keeping them down, though, as the boost it gets from them doesn't last very long.


We also now have a vanilla Vampire, which is something that we somehow didn't have until Magic 2011. As you can see, our Vampires have worked very differently over time.

The Zombies are even less consistent.


Note that both this and Scathe Zombies are vanillas, and are some of the earliest zombies. Apparently, Magic's earliest designers and developers saw Zombies as something of a workhorse tribe. Happily, there are more flavorful examples to be found.


Mirage's Gravebane Zombie makes an honest attempt to deliver on the zombie flavor of never actually dying. It comes back even when its controller doesn't want it to!


This one walks through the swamps. This makes sense, because they live in a bog. I guess. Sometimes it is best not to think too much about these things.


And then there's this fellow, who according to the flavor text might actually work more like a Vampire.


Occasionally, we find ways to use keyword mechanics to represent undead flavor. Unearth works particularly well for this, as it has a nice "actually I don't stay dead" feel.


Also thanks to Shards of Alara's introduction of the demiplane of Grixis, we get a rarely seen blue zombie. While unearth is a good match for "zombie," the rest of the card looks a little jarring to me when viewed through that lens. Tapping and untapping stuff isn't normal zombie behavior, but tap abilities play so well with unearth that I'm not surprised we made this.

As you can see, both Vampires and Zombies have a colorful history of doing various things in Magic, some of which are driven strongly by flavor and some of which are not. Even when the cards' abilities are flavor driven, however, we often go with different parts of the flavor of the thing on a card-by-card basis. Why would we be this inconsistent?

There are a few answers. One is that we have to make a lot of Magic cards. If we limited ourselves to one mechanical expression of vampirism, we would run out of cards very fast. The Vampire and Zombie mythologies are deep and rich, so there are lots of different bits of lore that can inspire many more different lines of text. Eventually, we will want to have access to them all.

Skaab Goliath | Art by Volkan Baga

Another answer is that there are a ton of different things that Vampires and Zombies have done in lore, and faithfully representing all of them at once on the same card would be impossible. Warp World is about the longest text box we like to make these days due to font size issues, so we just can't fit growing from killing a creature in combat, hurting you a little every turn, turning into a bat, sparkling in the sunlight, and mild mind control on a single card. Luckily, we get to make more than one!

A third answer is that we need Vampires and Zombies to fill different roles in each set. While we want to be true to the flavor of each category, we also want our sets to be complete experiences. It is perfectly reasonable for us to choose one particular angle of each to represent in a given set if that is what the set needs for game play.

Lord of Lineage | Art by Jason Chan

Now that we've gotten here, let's take a look at Innistrad. Horror stories have famous types of creatures, so we knew that we wanted some number of cards that made creature types matter. Structurally, we chose to give each allied color pair a creature type. Zombies and Vampires both wanted to be black, but one of them had to be blue and one of them had to be red. We went with blue Zombies and red Vampires, but Pyre Zombie and Moroii both show that we have gone the other direction before and could have done so here. To solve the problem, we thought about what made the most sense for gothic horror.

Stories like Mary Shelley's Frankenstein have fed a rich tradition of stories about ambitious men and women trying to harness the darker powers of the universe for their own ends, and being punished for it. While characters like Dr. Jekyll and The Incredible Hulk express the personal end of this trope, the mad scientist whose creation goes wrong is also important. The majority of the latter type of story in gothic horror is quietly based on zombies, and those were the zombies that we chose to put in blue. You've probably heard this story already, though, as this happened in design. While cards like Ghoulraiser and Army of the Damned express the "hordes of slow-moving zombies" trope, cards like Skaab Ruinator and Makeshift Mauler represent the other kind of Zombie.

Army of the Damned
Skaab Ruinator

The Vampires were a little more challenging to do. In Design, we identified how each of the tribes would play in Limited: Humans would be fast, small, and work together; Werewolves would be midrange in order to give them time to transform; Zombies would be slow but eventually unstoppable; and Spirits would be evasive. That left Vampires without a mechanical theme. However, thematically speaking, red vampires are a natural place to put the lack-of-control-due-to-blood-lust trope. That suggested that we wanted the Vampires to be a fast and aggressive tribe built around individually strong creatures, and that is the vision that the Design team handed off to Development.

I've spoken in previous columns about how this is just about the opposite of how red and black naturally play. Happily, lead developer Erik Lauer came up with yet another way to express Vampires getting stronger from feeding: a callback to the "Slith mechanic" from Mirrodin. That encourages you to attack with your Vampires, and gives the deck a feel that is both aggressive and different from the Humans, as each individual Vampire is a significant threat.

Stromkirk Noble
Falkenrath Marauders

While I'm sure that one day someone will look back at Innistrad's Vampires and Zombies and remark about how they don't fit in with any number of Magic's previous attempts at those creatures, I think that's all part of the fun from a greater perspective. There are lots of Vampires and Zombies out there, so if you have a specific hole in your Vampire or Zombie deck, there's probably a card you can find to fill it. The next time we use Vampires or Zombies in large numbers, I'm sure the set will have different needs, and we'll keep adding to the horrific tapestry of undead creatures that we have built so far. It may look strange, but I wouldn't have it any other way.

Last Week's Poll

What would you first-pick out of the cube pack from the article?
Recurring Nightmare 196 21.7%
Necropotence 172 19.1%
Tarmogoyf 110 12.2%
Geist of Saint Traft 109 12.1%
Chrome Mox 89 9.9%
Eldrazi Monument 45 5.0%
Hero of Oxid Ridge 42 4.7%
Venser, Shaper Savant 34 3.8%
Pristine Angel 31 3.4%
Counterspell 30 3.3%
Badlands 18 2.0%
Slagstorm 9 1.0%
Woolly Thoctar 7 0.8%
Phantom Centaur 6 0.7%
Whipcorder 4 0.4%
Total 902 100.0%

By the way, after some reported technical problems on some browsers, we're pretty sure that we've gotten our polls to work correctly now. In celebration, here is a bonus poll!

Latest Latest Developments Articles


June 9, 2017

Changes by, Sam Stoddard

Hello and welcome to another edition of Latest Developments! Today I'm going to talk about several kinds of changes within R&D and how we deal with those. Card Changes From the day ...

Learn More

Latest Developments

June 2, 2017

Things I've Learned by, Sam Stoddard

Hello, and welcome to another edition of Latest Developments! This week is the five-year anniversary of me joining Wizards of the Coast as a contractor on the development team. My officia...

Learn More



Latest Developments Archive

Consult the archives for more articles!

See All