Shadows over Innistrad Mailbag

Posted in Latest Developments on May 13, 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.

Another Friday, another Latest Developments—this time it's a mailbag column, where I'm going to go over your questions and answer them!

Currently—yes. This is something we are going to work on fixing over time. The thing is that we have given green some very strong contextual card draw (e.g., drawing cards equal to the number of creatures you control, or your creatures' highest power), which lets it cheat in mana compared to straight-up card draw. Jace, Vryn's Prodigy made us a bit gun-shy about straight-up blue card draw, and I think that led the total amount of blue card draw to be a little under what we would like for Standard. We have also given a lot of other colors very powerful card advantage, even if it doesn't exactly draw cards, at a better rate than we gave blue raw card draw.

Blue will eventually return to being the king of card draw in Standard. We just need time for new sets to come out.

Spirits. We didn't have a ton of great seeds for them (in hindsight, I wish I'd made Thunderclap Wyvern into a Spirit), and their playstyle is something that we have a hard time getting just right. We want a semi-aggressive, semi-disruptive deck full of flyers, but not Faeries. All in all, it's the one tribe in Shadows over Innistrad that doesn't have a Standard deck I would consider even casual competitive.

That being said, we have another set worth of cards in Eldritch Moon to help all of the tribes out.

Planeswalkers, by far. They are easier to interact with than most cards (since you can attack them), they have more knobs, and we need to make sure that all of our changes fit who the character is. While planeswalkers are rarely the last cards in a set to change, they make up a lot of changes in the last few weeks of development.

Blue has had some issues in the last year. It's still very competitive, even though it has been appearing more as a support color than a main one in Shadows over Innistrad Standard. Some of that is because Jace is very strong, so we didn't want to push other blue cards. And some is that with Read the Bones, Painful Truths, Duskwatch Recruiter, Goblin Dark-Dwellers, and Collected Company, we gave other colors some of the most powerful card-advantage tools in Standard. We are definitely working on ways to expand what blue does, and to make it more competitive as the main color in Standard decks.

No, we tried to keep the delta between how strong a delirium instant or sorcery was at least below rare. Basically, we didn't want the correct play with the card to usually be not to cast it, even when it would be good, because of how much larger the delirium bonus is.

More room tends to be good for sets for Limited. The extra four commons didn't really do much, but the extra 20 uncommons gave us a ton of room for build-arounds. We normally have a lot of build-around uncommons in a set, but here most of them are individually weaker. There are, however, more to get. We've been very happy with how those extra cards helped out Shadows Limited. I don't know that Shadows Limited is as good as original Innistrad—a lot of that will depend on how much longer people keep playing Shadows, and what their opinions are in a month or two—but at the very least, I can say that Shadows over Innistrad has earned its name.

We're not sure yet. We put it in Shadows with the intention of testing it out as an evergreen mechanic, but we found that there was less design space than we were hoping for. It was pitched as a way to make fair versions of cards like Invisible Stalker, which has mostly been true, but the mechanic is also very math-y. It is certainly not a slam dunk the way we immediately knew prowess was. We will continue to evaluate how people like skulk, and see whether it is something we should attempt to bring back later or we should try our hand at a different blue-black evergreen mechanic.

That was 100% design and development. There wasn't much prowess in Battle for Zendikar because it wasn't accepted as an evergreen mechanic until BFZ was pretty late in design, and development didn't add much of it to the block. We have some of it in Shadows, but less than was in Khans of Tarkir. That's because it is an evergreen mechanic now, not a block mechanic. You will likely see it in future sets at similar levels as seen in SOI.

We like to have some of it, but not a ton. Black and red's removal should have spaces to be "the best," but right now Declaration in Stone is the strongest removal in Standard. Some of that is because it exiles, some is thanks to how versatile it is. As a whole, we are happier when the white removal is a little weaker than it is currently. I'm glad that Declaration in Stone's drawback is a real drawback, but I'd be happier if there were more reasons to play black or red for one-for-one removal.

A little. We knew how good Jace and madness were—as you have seen in the Grixis madness decks in Standard—but I expected to see more black-red madness or similar decks at this point. Some of that is due to the mono-white decks being generally faster, and the madness decks don't get the same kind of value that the Collected Company decks are getting. We had a pretty good handle on how madness would play out, and while it is a bit below where I'd have expected, I'm still pretty happy with it.

Not a huge surprise. We knew that many of the investigate cards like Declaration and Thraben Inspector were very strong, but we also assumed there wouldn't be an investigate deck. We tried to put investigate into places where it would show up in Constructed decks as a type of card flow, similar to the way scry often does, and I think that worked out great.

Well, for one, we needed the lands in Shadows to be ally colors, not enemy, which would make printing enemy fast lands pretty difficult. We also generally try to find new land cycles if we can, rather than go straight for reprint land cycles. In the past four years, Magic 2013, Return to Ravnica, Magic 2015, Khans of Tarkir, Magic Origins, and Battle for Zendikar all had either reprint lands or completed land cycles. If we keep that pace up, we won't have any cycles to finish within a few years! At the same time, I really liked what the scry lands did to Standard. Not every new cycle we do will end up being something we're happy with (see the battle lands/fetch lands), but it's important to try and make the Standard mana bases feature new lands when we can.

The truth is, there are only so many good cycles of dual lands that can enter the battlefield untapped on turn one, and we'd rather try new ones before we go straight to reprints. Sometimes we want to use the reprint cycles for straightforward reasons (like seeding the fetch lands a year before BFZ), but we usually at least try something new first. The shadow lands went through a lot of iterations before we ended up with the current designs. And in the end, we were pretty happy with these designs. If they work out, and people still enjoy them in a year, we can look at having another cycle to complete in the future.

Delirium is in all five colors (though mostly in white, black, and green), as is investigate (though mostly in green, white, and blue). Bestow, scry, heroic, devotion, etc. We have done a lot of this recently—just not in the Khans and RTR blocks that were focused on factions.

We like to have the mechanics not be even in all colors, but that was also true of threshold, which only appeared on one blue card in Odyssey. I wouldn't expect a lot of mechanics that are even in colors, but many mechanics will be in all five.

We like to have certain targets for how many "bomb" rares we have in sets. We want enough that people have powerful cards they can spike in Draft or Sealed, but not so many that you take the rare first pick every time. We adjusted our numbers in Shadows a bit to account for the fact that you open up a rare double-faced card one out of every eight packs. We also generally had more room in the set to put in build-around uncommons.

We were very aware. The story team puts together a story guide, and a world guide, that everyone on the set's development teams gets a copy of. It's not super detailed—just the high-level stuff. Kind of like a storyboard of the major events. That doesn't mean nothing in those changed, but it gave us the context we needed to know for top-down designs, and to make sure we were hitting the important story notes in the set.

This is a question for A Voice for Vorthos—Doug Beyer's Tumblr! That was mostly something the creative team decided, so I don't have a ton of insight into it. They had rules they came up with, and generally it didn't matter for the development team, since it wasn't one of the major tribes. Near the end of the set, we added the "non-Horror" line on Thing in the Ice to keep them from bouncing each other if they were on your side, but otherwise we let creative decide which was which.

We mostly ignored Avacyn Restored. When working on BFZ, we definitely had real problems trying to incorporate both Zendikar and Rise of the Eldrazi, which led to the set being overstuffed. When we thought about returning to Innistrad, we thought more about the original two sets and not too much about the more peaceful world of Avacyn Restored. The story team came up with a way of rolling back things like the Cursemute, and design mostly focused on making sure we were making something that would follow the lead of ISD rather than AVR.

What we are trying to make in Standard is something new and different than anything you have ever seen before. We don't want to just remake an old Standard format. Luckily, we have other venues to reprint those cards, so you will end up seeing them in the future. Just probably not in Standard.

For many cards, we didn't reprint them because we didn't use the mechanics—which knocks out Spider Spawning and Snapcaster Mage. Obviously we couldn't use Griselbrand because he is dead. And we wanted a new version of Avacyn that showed off her change story-wise. We decided to not just repeat the mechanics of Innistrad, because even though they were good and popular, we wanted to make something new.

Reprints are hard, because we can't change the numbers. Some cards in the set started out as reprints that got new art, and we ended up changing them for various Limited reasons—curving, color balance, etc. Even in Constructed, we often find that a card would be better positioned with a small reduction in power, or by sitting at a different spot on the curve, which we can't control with reprints. I think Standard would've been more fun if Thoughtseize had taken 3 life—which wasn't really on the table without changing the card.

Ultimately, some of the cards that many people have said they really wanted reprinted were ones that would likely have made Standard less fun, or at the very least less balanced. Looking back at the past few years of Standard, there were a ton of cards we would've made slightly weaker or stronger today if we had known exactly how they would play out. We're just going to be wrong on a lot of cards.

We try to aim cards for a certain power-level band, and some go above and some below. Note that I say aim—we clearly make cards strong enough for Modern, but they are usually the cards that end up stronger than we expected. Snapcaster Mage, Liliana of the Veil, Huntmaster of the Fells, and Gavony Township are also all cards that were stronger than expected—even if we did expect them to be very strong. Collected Company has probably improved Modern, but is stronger than we'd want for Standard if we were to go back and reprint it in a new set.

The original version of Anguished Unmaking had you losing life equal to the converted mana cost of the nonland permanent you exiled. This was cute in that it was very painful to exile a front-side Avacyn, and much less so her transformed self. But obviously we ended up changing that rule anyway, so that story didn't work out so much. As we worked more with the card, we realized we liked it more for focusing on hitting larger things and moved to a fixed number so that people weren't being punished for targeting things like Gideon, Avacyn, or any of the Eldrazi titans.

That's it for this week. Next week, I'll be talking about Standard and doing a mid-season check-in on how we feel about the format, what we expected, and what surprised us.

Until next time,

Sam (@samstod)

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