Hooked on a Feeling

Posted in Latest Developments on January 20, 2012

By Zac Hill

Zac is a former game designer/developer for Wizards of the Coast and was the lead developer for Dragon's Maze. His articles have appeared in The Huffington Post, The Believer, and on StarCityGames.com. Currently he serves as the chief operating officer of The Future Project, a nonprofit education initiative, and holds a position as a research affiliate in the MIT Game Lab.

Ooh! A preview card!

I've never done one of these before. I feel all powerful. Should I hit you right out of the gates with the card image, bowling you over immediately with an onslaught of jaw-dropping awesomeness? Should I run the biggest slow-roll ever, flirting with detail after precious detail until the grandiose reveal at the very end? Should I embed a hidden link into the text somewhere, encouraging you to crawl through the entire thing and unearth each morsel bit by bit? The possibilities are endless!

Bwahahaha. Ahah. Aheh. Heh.


Today's preview card embodies exactly how, from the first design meeting until the last development playtest, we hoped Dark Ascension would feel. As such, I want to spend some time talking about what that feel was—what it meant to try and convey a feeling in a Magic set, how that feeling evolved, and how we went about executing it. This kind of feeling-centered approach was a radical departure from how we had approached design and development in the past, but the payoff (in my opinion) was definitely worth it.

The Monster Mash

Here's what we knew from Day One: In Dark Ascension, the monsters were winning.

Art by James Ryman

Innistrad introduced everyone to a world. We caught a glimpse of Innistrad's people. Of the cathars and priests in their townships and churches, holding at bay an unending onslaught of undead minions and unthinkable abominations by the force of their sheer collective willpower. We saw the fight they put up. But in Dark Ascension, something sinister was happening. Desperate tongues were lifting unmet prayers to silent ears. Protective wards in place for centuries were suddenly faltering—and the prowling hordes proved all too eager to take advantage. We knew from the beginning that humanity was desperate. The question was how to best convey that.

Swing, Batter Batter Batter

One of the challenges of weaving a narrative into a tradable card game is that you don't control the order in which that narrative unfolds. You don't know which cards people will be exposed to first, and you don't know if that exposure will come from cracking the opening pack of a Magic Online Booster Draft, from across the table during a late-night kitchen-table Commander marathon, or from a Tumblr feed scanned over morning coffee. Moreover, you have absolutely no idea how much real estate you have to convey your story. Fourteen cards pulled from a single booster pack? A box split between three friends? The entire sortable spoiler, crisply displayed on your hypothetical audience member's monitor courtesy of the good people at DailyMTG.com? It's imperative that your narrative be delivered to all these different groups, and it's imperative that narrative be compelling. What that means is you have to throw a lot of darts at the board and hope you hit a bull's-eye or three. You have to swing for the fences and hope you connect.

Fortunately, we've got a few tricks up our sleeve to help us out.

Large and Small

You might have seen this poor guy...

...or this unfortunate soul...

...lurking around the Product Page.

A great way to convey that the monsters are winning is to actually show the monsters winning. Horror is about transformation, and when you open one of these guys you're actually watching a member of the human race succumb. It's blunt, straightforward, and effective. The story tells itself. A super-creepy element of Gothic horror is that the conquered become the conquerors: the victims become assimilated into the very force they had previously been waging war against. As people, we're terrified of this idea—that our will can be co-opted entirely and our bodies can be made to serve another master. When we can weave this narrative into a single card, it's difficult to miss the idea that on Innistrad, the humans' backs are against the wall. You don't have to rely on your audience seeing forty-two different cards, or having some kind of overall impression of the set derived from hours upon hours of game play, or any of that. They see the card and they get it.

Soul Seizer and Ghastly Haunting | Art by Lucas Graciano

That said, there are limits to this method. There are only a set number of designs that can tell entire stories by themselves. Moreover, there are only so many cards for which you want to tell this story in the first place. You have to leave room for the survivors. You have to leave room for the monsters that prey upon them. And you have to leave room to show off the world inside which all this conflict happens.

That's why, in addition to single-card narratives, there's a lot more texture going on. You'll notice as more of the set gets revealed that, proportionally, Humans and the Angels that protect them occupy fewer card-slots than they do in Innistrad. Correspondingly, the monsters get to hog more of the spotlight. Cycles are left conspicuously incomplete. As the Werewolves, Spirits, Zombies, and Vampires thrive upon their tribal allegiances, Innistrad's Humans find themselves lacking comparable tools. Taken together, these tactics convey a certain feel that creeps in on you after you've played the set for awhile. Don't get me wrong—the Humans still have some weapons in reserve.

But you definitely get the idea that all isn't well without Papa Sorin around to take care of everything.

My Sacrifice

So, on the micro-level, you have cards that serve as sort of one-shot narratives in and of themselves, for which you only have to encounter once to understand basically what's going on. Meanwhile, on the macro-level, the overall "skeleton" of the set—its very architecture—is weighted toward showcasing monsters and their general badassery to the exclusion of those poor little human guys. But is there anything in between?

You might have seen this little doozy on the first day of Dark Ascension previews:

This card came from combining two cards:

"Return all Zombie creature cards from your graveyard to the battlefield tapped."


"Destroy all Humans."

Very early on in design, we became excited at the prospect of writing the line of text "Destroy all Humans" on a card. After all, it conveyed exactly what we were shooting for very directly and very unambiguously: humankind is collapsing. Eventually, we realized that it might be even cooler for a "Zombie Apocalypse" to be what triggers humanity's destruction, but the idea took hold on an even deeper level. Prior to Innistrad, we had never directly referenced Humans as a tribe, even though the Human subtype has been in place since Mirrodin. In Innistrad, Human tribal represented the power of the collective—the strength they pooled when banding together. What if we turned that on its head?

Zombie Apocalypse | Art by Peter Mohrbacher

In the storyline, Sorin returns to find humanity literally being hunted into extinction. As the prodigal grandson of the progenitor of the vampire race, this poses a problem for him: if humanity dies out, so do his kin. Sure, humans might feel like they're vital individuals with lives and families and dreams and futures, capable of producing cultural artifacts and meaning-intensive narratives and everything else. That's cute. But more importantly, they're a sustainable source of food. Pinker, squishier pigs in pens of reinforced stone.

This idea is terrifying on a visceral level. Here on Earth, the history of humanity is the history of our gradually asserted willpower over every other organism on the planet. Human primacy is our only universal value. We have driven countless species to extinction and have harnessed the power of an entire planet to the sole end of our continued propagation. We are the lords of all we know. On Innistrad, however, we are cattle, we are as wood or water or grain or brick or mortar. We are shells for dead life, carapaces of truer forms, husks with which to quench a vital thirst. We are to be shackled and conquered. Servants of some terrible, fickle master.

We are food. Meat. Logs to stoke a fire. Souls to ignite hungry, hungry magic.

How creepy is this guy?

He's one of us—or at least he was. Now, however, realizing the hopeless plight of his brethren, he's pledged his soul to demonkind and has turned against us to fuel the very rites that spell our doom.

He uses us against us.

During Dark Ascension development, we created a number of cards that attempted to convey humanity's rebellion against itself: Humans fleeing their plundered cities, betrayed by broken promises of protection. Sycophants casting themselves at the mercy of demon overlords, figuring the fight has already been lost. With the "Sacrifice a Human" mechanic—peppered lightly throughout the set—we've tried to capture the collapse of humanity's collective resolve.

Skirsdag Flayer | Art by Austin Hsu

So how do you make use of Skirsdag Flayer?

One of the things we try to do when developing Limited environments is to create "build-arounds" that provide players with tremendous rewards for pursuing certain strategies. This guy is intended to be one of those. Obviously, if you play your cards right—aheh, heh, ah—with the Cultist, you can kill your opponent's best creature every single turn. That's certainly not a weak ability. But how to best take advantage of it? Well, I'll leave most of the fun to you guys to discover. That said, a few cards in Innistrad certainly don't mind being sacrificed, and I would wager there are plenty of goodies of a similar ilk to find in Dark Ascension.

I guess we'll have to wait and see.

Oh, the Humanity!

As I mentioned, at the beginning of Dark Ascension design, we wanted to convey that the monsters were winning. We tried to accomplish that through narrative-intensive individual cards, the overall structure of the set, and numerous subthemes (such as the "Sacrifice a Human" mechanic) that viscerally created a feel of desperation, hopelessness, and inevitability with regard to the demise of humankind on the plane of Innistrad. The ultimate goal was to deliver an almost fractal Gothic-horror experience for set two of the Innistrad block—something that hit you right out of the gates with the very first pack, but also persisted as you delved further into the world, and eventually crept into every match you played.

As a member of both the design and development teams—well, I hope we hit our mark!

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