Morbid Thoughts

Posted in Latest Developments on November 11, 2011

By Zac Hill

What up party people.

Err, hi. I'm Zac (here are @my Twitter and my email address if the urge to holler striketh). I'm guest-spotting for Tom this week on Latest Developments. Still getting used to this "match the appropriate tone of our public-facing outreach content" thing. Might need to readjust. Let me try that again.



Well hello there.

Today I want to talk about the development of the morbid mechanic in Innistrad, given that poor ol' morbid isn't (yet) scheduled for a theme week. I suppose dying and death would make for a rather (ahem) morbid string of articles, so I get why it's being left in the dust. But the story of how morbid came to be reveals a lot about how we craft Limited environments here in Ramp;D. In fact, it says a lot about how we communicate "feel" via game play, too—which is tricky, since "feel," um, feels different for everybody.

    Look Out! It's Death!

Let's rewind a little bit to early Innistrad design. We knew we had a horror set on our hands, and we knew we wanted to pack it full of resonant tropes that viscerally conveyed the look and feel of the world. And what is horror about, fundamentally? Mark Rosewater and other people have talked a lot about this, but I'll reiterate. It's about surprise—elements of randomness and uncertainty that reinforce the fact that we humans aren't really in control of our own lives. It's about emotion—the spaces where the intellect breaks down, where our greatest asset crumbles and we are forced to rely upon our instincts to survive. Most importantly, though, it's about death. The problem of physicality. The fleeting unreality of our consciousness and mind. The notion that we're something more than the bones and sinews that comprise us—if we are at all.

Reaper from the Abyss | Art by Matt Stewart

Think about it. Zombies, skeletons, vampires, ghosts—they're all manifestations of some kind of unlife. Body without a spirit. The tropes of horror—ghouls, monsters, murderers, or the pathologies that spawn them. Something less than human, a shade of it without a fuller form. Even werewolves, which aren't undead: you may not lose your life, but you somehow lose yourself.

Plus, after all—the wooden stakes, the silver bullets, the garlic or the holy symbol—they're all so hard to kill.

Any way you spin it, any horror world has got to fundamentally be about death. We knew we had to hit this trope over and over again. One way of doing this was for the set to have a graveyard theme, and another was to bring back a mechanic (flashback) that made players care about the contents of their graveyard. But all this has to do with what's dead already. None of it asks: why should I care about what dies?

It turns out that a great way to make players care about creatures dying is to make the game care about creatures dying. At first, this was represented through the "carnage" mechanic: "Whenever a creature dies, do [X]." We found, however, that this involved a whole lot of counting and marginalized, rather than exaggerated, the impact of a single creature's demise (since, after all, you were trying to make it happen over and over again). Instead, design realized that the mechanic ought to be binary—either something died this turn, or it didn't.

Thus, a mechanic called "deathwatch" was born.

    Killing Your Darlings (Or Their Darlings)

So deathwatch was put into the set. And it became morbid, which you can see inside Innistrad booster packs. We came up with a mechanic and then printed it. Seems straightforward enough. Cool story bro. Etc.

Well, it's not quite that simple.

Eventually, deathwatch got handed to Development.

Woodland Sleuth | Art by Tomasz Jedruszek

A lot of people think that Development's job is to take a design file, cost the cards such that they're balanced, kill everything that's unbelievably broken, and then hand the set off. That's sort of like saying the President's job is to deliver the State of the Union address. It's definitely a part of our job, it's very high visibility, and if we screw it up you can bet everybody's going to know about it. But it's hardly the whole picture.

The most important thing we do in Development, hands down, is ensuring that games are fun—that the game-play experience itself corresponds to the design vision, the set's theme, and all the other big-picture elements that make Magic awesome. It's one thing to have an idea. It's another thing entirely to pull that idea off.

What we found in early development was that deathwatch made creatures dying matter less, not more, in practice. Worse, it detracted from the overall Magic experience, reduced the level of interaction in an average game, and contributed unhealthily to the inherent advantage of playing first.

Why's that?

If there's anything I've learned from my background as a policy analyst and (now) my several years as a game designer, it's the following golden rule: people respond to incentives.

The most common way for a creature to die in an average game of Magic is for it to die in combat. When all of these cards possessed all of these upsides whenever creatures blocked and traded in combat, people just stopped blocking. This was awful. Games turned into noninteractive races, and getting in the first meaningful attack proved to be an often-insurmountable advantage. It makes sense; if you don't block, you know what's going to happen. You'll take some damage, but you can mount a comeback. If you do block, though, not only might you be walking right into your opponent's combat trick, you're "turning on" all of these effects that otherwise would remain dormant. It was a no-win situation.

One of my least favorite things in any game is a phenomenon I call "invisible text." It's very important to me that cards and mechanics actually do what they say they do.

Consider the following card: "Whenever CARDNAME is the target of an opponent's spell or ability, put four 5/5 Dragon tokens onto the battlefield, draw four cards, and take an additional turn after this one." Man! Sounds exciting! I love Dragons, drawing all my cool spells, and having a whole new turn to use them! How sweet is that?

Unfortunately, barring some crazy Deflection tricks or some weird splicing of the Spellskite ability, the awesome effect that card promises is basically never going to happen, and you're going to remain disappointed. Your opponent is just going to work around having to target that creature, and you just used a billion lines of text to (in essence) write "hexproof" on the card. I feel like these kinds of cards are lies. I hate them.

Caravan Vigil | Art by Drew Baker

Deathwatch, in this implementation, was essentially a lie. All of these cool cards made all of these cool promises, but unless you had a removal spell that was cheap enough to also allow you to cast your deathwatch spell, nothing ever actually died. Instead, you sat with your cards in your hand wishing they could do all the awesome things they told you they could do.

    Enter the Dragon

Deathwatch obviously had problems. That said, we definitely believed in what the mechanic could do in theory. All we needed to figure out was a way to execute it.

Fortunately, we had Erik Lauer.

Erik was the Lead Developer of Innistrad and is responsible for a lot of the success Magic has had over the last several years. If you enjoy Innistrad Limited, it's very likely that Erik is a huge part of the reason why. In addition to being one of the greatest Magic deck designers of all time, Erik has an uncanny sensibility for what makes a card cool and a game fun, and is also one of the smartest people I have the privilege of knowing. More importantly, he's probably the only human-computer-beagle-dragon in existence. But that's a whole 'nother story.


Brimstone Volley | Art by Eytan Zana

What Erik realized was that for deathwatch to work, it would have to fit into a color combination that could best take advantage of the mechanic's strengths.

In its previous incarnation, deathwatch was represented roughly equally across all colors. This meant that the "never block" phenomenon was present in an uncomfortably high volume of games. But what if you took it out (in high volumes) across most colors? No longer could players assume that their opponents always cared about creatures dying, since many archetypes didn't even play any deathwatch cards at all. In addition to improving the game-play experience overall, this also served to make deathwatch actually happen exponentially more often, since people weren't playing around it all the time. Sounds like a workable solution. And it was. But in what colors should the mechanic reside in the first place?

One of the exercises Development likes to undergo, especially in large sets, is to map out a set's ten two-color pairs and come up with meaningful Limited archetypes for each of those pairs. The goal isn't to ensure that each is represented equally, but we do want each color combination to have something meaningful to "do" in a booster draft. The file came out of Design with very clear visions for all of the allied colors, but the enemy colors had not been fleshed out as fully. This made sense—the allied colors had the "tribes," which Design had worked hard to make feel right for the format—but it was still a problem that needed to be resolved.

The enemy-colored flashback cards helped enable a couple of our decks—white-red aggro, red-blue flashback—and cards like Village Cannibals and Boneyard Wurm helped solidify white-black tokens and the green-blue "graveyard matters" theme. Black-green, however, was proving more difficult to piece together.

What Erik realized was that black-green was naturally an excellent fit for deathwatch. Black was probably the best color at getting creatures into the graveyard, either through sacrifice effects or via creature kill. Meanwhile, green had the most natural difficulty doing this, so it made sense to put some of the coolest deathwatch rewards on green cards, as well as spreading those cards out at lower rarities to make them come up in Limited more often. Don't get me wrong—we made cool deathwatch cards when the opportunity arose, like Brimstone Volley and Reaper from the Abyss, for reasons other than Limited archetype balance. But we wanted most of the cards to point in that direction.

This turned out to play pretty well. We wrapped up the set, Creative decided that "morbid" was a better name than the campy-sixties-crime-fighting-duo-sounding "deathwatch," and a mechanic was born!

    And Now Back to Our Regularly Scheduled Programming

That's all for me this week. Tune in to next week's Latest Developments for more Tom LaPille and less Chattering Squirrel (that's kind of how I view myself—I've always wanted to appear in the art for Might of Oaks with like a massive acorn-hamburger-type-situation and a precious bushy tail... plus I have the cheekiest cheeks).

Until next time! (?)

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