A Long Time Ago
It's time to play Mark's favorite trivia game, where he asks a question about something you couldn't possibly know. Ready to play? Okay, who was the original lead designer of "Roll" (Avacyn Restored's codename)? The correct answer is—um, me. Yes, I was the original lead designer for "Roll." But what about Innistrad? Who was going to lead-design Innistrad? Also me. But how could I lead Innistrad and "Roll?" The answer is a pretty elegant one—in the beginning, "Roll" was Innistrad.
People often ask me about my five/six/seven-year plan—how firm are the blocks many years out? The answer is they're less carved in stone than written in crayon on a napkin. The multi-year plan is a rough idea of where we are going but it can change on the fly. (Although to be fair to the multi-year plan, we're getting better at planning ahead and sticking to our plan.)
One of the best examples of this was "Shake," "Rattle," and "Roll" (the codenames for Innistrad block). In the beginning, we were planning on doing something very different with the block. You see, we've spent many years coming up with three-set blocks. Lorwyn and Shadowmoor was us dipping our toe into the idea of making blocks of different sizes. The original idea for "Shake," "Rattle," and "Roll" was to use the block to do two different blocks. One would be a two-set block (one big and one small) and the other a one-set standalone block. "Shake" and "Rattle" was to be the former and "Roll" was to be the latter.
I can't talk too much about the original idea for "Shake" and "Rattle," as we didn't make the block we planned and I am always protective of ideas we haven't used yet. Meanwhile, for years, I'd been wanting to do a horror-based set. There was some skepticism in how many cards the set could support, so we compromised on it being a single large stand-alone set—one that would come out in April. As Horror World was my pet project, I was made the lead designer. The world for "Shake" and "Rattle" was the brainchild of Brian Tinsman, so he was made the lead designer of "Shake."
Then one day, Mark Globus (R&D's Magic Producer and former Great Designer Search finalist) pointed out that it was a little odd to have a horror set in the spring when Halloween, obviously the most horror-driven holiday, was in October. Mark asked, shouldn't the horror set come out near Halloween? It was an obvious question that no one had asked before.
Okay, it was decided, we'll swap the two. Make the horror set the two-set block and make the other set a one-set block. They asked me if I thought that Horror World would have enough material to cover an extra small set. I said yes, I'm pretty sure it did. So now I was leading the design for the fall set and Brian was in charge of the large spring set.
Brian's design concept fell by the wayside as different ideas were floated for "Roll." One big divergence had to do with "Roll" being a precursor to the next year's block, but I'll save that story for the preview weeks of Return to Ravnica. While this was all going on, the creative team came up with an interesting concept for Innistrad. Creative was trying to figure out what went wrong in the world. Clearly, the status quo had changed, and humans were starting to get picked off. That meant, though, that there had to be a world that predated it, where the humans weren't in such jeopardy. What was keeping the monsters at bay?
That's when they came up with the concept of Avacyn. The humans were protected by a series of angels led by one very powerful, extremely charismatic angel named Avacyn. (Somewhere along the way they figured out that she was created by Sorin as a means to keep the vampires from eating up their entire food supply.) Avacyn had disappeared and with her went all the power that fueled the magic that was keeping the humans safe.
Avacyn, Angel of Hope | Art by Jason Chan
All of this led to the obvious conclusion, which was that someone had to find Avacyn and get her back to Innistrad. Her return would be the focus of "Roll," as it would be a fundamental shift for the plane, which would justify a new large set complete with mostly new mechanics. The trick, though, was how to get her back. That's where our story begins today. The Avacyn Restored design team (Brian Tinsman, Mark Gottlieb, Ken Nagle, Bill Rose, and myself—with Dave Guskin eventually swapping in for Gottlieb) started design knowing that "Roll" was going to be the third act in a three-beat story about how the humans reclaimed Innistrad from the monsters.
We knew Avacyn had to somehow come back and her return had to define the set. Where she was and how exactly she was coming back wasn't 100% clear. The creative team liked the idea that she was locked away somewhere along with many of the demons she had imprisoned. This was what the design team had to work with.
Pandora's Not Just A Music App
Part of doing a design is understanding what it is you are trying to capture. We knew we were telling the third act of the story, but to do this we needed to understand what exactly our mechanics were representing. The creative team liked the idea of the angel Avacyn trapped away and that "Roll" was the releasing of the angel. The design team's take on it was summed up as Pandora's Box.
For those of you who might not know your Greek mythology, Pandora was the first woman on Earth. Zeus, the king of the gods, gave her a box (actually originally a jar but it's changed over time). He instructed her not to open it. Curiosity got the better of Pandora and she opened the box, thus unleashing evil onto the world. The only saving grace was the one item which remained in the box—hope. Zeus expected this would happen all along and had planned the whole thing. (Yeah, if you're not up on Greek mythology, Zeus is a bit of a jerk.)
Here's how our Pandora Box scenario went. The humans long ago got an item in their possession which they were told to never open. The item, it turns out, held all of the demons Avacyn had locked away all these years, along with herself. (The creative team had already worked out that the biggest demon, Griselbrand, tricked Avacyn into trapping herself in the prison.) Things are going horribly for the humans, who are on the brink of extinction, so with no other options left, they decide to open the box. This unleashes all the demons onto the world, but with one thing remaining to give them hope—Avacyn.
The Pandora's Box version of the story had us end up with a world overrun with demons, and it seemed like the story was going to be about angels vs. demons. Innistrad would trade one set of monsters for another. This is what led us down the path of the "forbidden" mechanic, because we wanted to represent the things released from Pandora's Box. It also was the thing that first led us to create soulbond, as we were looking for mechanics to represent each side. As you will see, design's first take wasn't exactly where things ended up.
A Little Bit of Soulbond
Often, when I talk about designs, I tend to focus on the successes. I usually don't shine the spotlight on the mechanics that don't work, most often because there's not much I want to say about them and because my optimism always leads me to believe I'll find a way to salvage them. Avacyn Restored's design, though, plays up some of the misses more than the average set. Why do I say this? Because soulbond started as a riff of a mechanic from New Phyrexia—one that got abandoned along the way.
Silverblade Paladin | Art by Jason Chan
The general sense of Mechanic X was that it helped two creatures work together in an interesting way. The version we tried was a big swing in that it was quite radical yet potentially very cool. It didn't work out, but as R&D had spent some time trying to solve the problem of Mechanic X we stumbled upon other ways to approach the problem. One such mechanic, called "bind," got Brian Tinsman's attention.
The idea of bind was that a creature with the mechanic would bind itself with another creature when it entered the battlefield, and then those two would remain linked as long as both remained in play. (For the record, having a mechanic called "bind" and using the term "bound" is very confusing when the final name is "soulbond.") Bind went through numerous changes, but that is a story worthy of an entire column. Today, though, is more about the meta/big picture design of Avacyn Restored.
Remember last week how I told you that development played with the forbidden mechanic and hated it. Well, they also played with the bind mechanic and loved it. Whatever we did, they said, keep that mechanic—it's fun and very developable.
As a quick aside, I don't talk about the idea of things being developable much, but it's a very important concept. It's all well and good for design to dream up crazy things. It's another for development to actually make something that can be printed. At times, design makes mechanics that development can see are going to be hard to make. Sometimes design will push development to try to solve the problem, but other times we recognize that design needs to explore other ways of doing what the problem mechanic does.
Be aware that I often talk about the different sections of R&D and how they interact. What I don't explain as often is how each group is chugging along doing its thing. We make sure to interact, but each group will often go off on its own to see where it can take an idea. The design team was very taken by the Pandora's Box idea. Having the conflict shift from humans and monsters to angels and demons seemed to open up interesting mechanical options.
It was at this point where we had one of our regular meetings between the design team and the creative team. We explained the path we're thinking of taking and they stopped us. There wasn't going to be a war between the angels and the demons. That's a fine story but that wasn't what they were looking for here. They wanted to get resolution to the story, not create a whole new conflict. Avacyn was locked away but her release was supposed to be the comeback for the humans.
Hearing this, I brought up an important facet of the design for Innistrad. To capture the essence of the horror genre, I knew I had to create a conflict between good and evil. Normally in Magic, we don't pigeonhole the colors with moral concepts. Yes, white is more moral than black, but white is not completely good and black is not completely evil. For Innistrad, though, I wanted to break that rule. I wanted Innistrad to have a pocket of good being overrun by evil and I decided to make that pocket white.
To do this, I made sure all of white was good and all of black was evil. Blue, green, and red leaned toward evil, but each was allowed to have a smattering of good. This dichotomy was played up mechanically in multiple ways. We had cycles that didn't go into white/Human (for example, the uncommon tribal lords in Dark Ascension had no Human captain and the Curses in the design of Innistrad were in every color but white—green fell out during development). We made cards that didn't affect Humans or didn't affect the monsters or only affected Humans or only affected monsters.
If the goal of Avacyn Restored was to flip the power structure on the plane, what if we flipped the mechanical structure itself? We would keep good in white and evil in black but swap everyone else. Now, blue, red, and green leaned toward good with only a smattering of evil. This would let us allow white to have some focus but also create a structure we could hang the design on. In addition, I really liked the aesthetics that the block ended as a mirror of how it started.
Good and Evil
To pull this off, we needed to answer two basic things: (1) how was the human side represented and (2) how was the monster side represented? We'll start with the humans. We knew the return of Avacyn would mean the return of all her angels. Angels do a good job of embodying good, so we liked that the set where the good guys win would also be seen as an Angel set.
Another important thing for the humans was that Avacyn's return would repower their magical weapons and inspire them to come back together. One of the strengths of the humans throughout the block was their willingness to work together. This theme of cooperation worked perfectly with soulbond, a mechanic we were looking to keep in the set.
It also led us down the path where we ended up with miracles. We wanted a feel that Avacyn's return has brought back optimism to the people and the miracle mechanic had the feel we wanted to capture. When things look their darkest, there is always hope in the next draw.
If the good guys were joining forces, it only made sense to have the bad guys go the opposite direction. As the good guys rally, the bad guys have to go on the run. No longer working together, the bad guys are now loners, each trying to find his or her own escape. We played around with granting monsters mechanical bonuses for being alone.
In addition, we were eager to bring back a mechanic from earlier in the block. At first we tried flashback, but it ended up putting too much focus on the graveyard, which felt weird with the vibe of Avacyn Restored. The graveyard tends to be associated with death, which was great when evil was winning but awkward when good tipped the scales. Undying ended up being the mechanic we chose to carry on and, as we had used it as a monster mechanic in Dark Ascension, we decided to keep it on the evil side.
When you want to create a contrast in design, it's very important to make use of opposites in your mechanics. Good and evil had already had an opposite with the cooperation/loner theme, but we felt we needed one more clear contrast. The theme we hit upon was that the good side was about life while the evil side was about death. Morbid and flashback and graveyard matters had already given the evil side a connection to death earlier in the block, so the path had been laid.
In the end, we decided to give the good guys enter-the-battlefield (ETB) effects and the bad guys death triggers. This was already being done with soulbond and undying, which were isolated to their respective sides. The life/death split made each side care about different things in play and helped give each side definition.
The Flicker Picker Upper
When the dust settled, design realized that the good side was a little shy mechanically. The reason for this was simple—in Avacyn Restored, the good side is bigger. Filling more space meant it needed more to do.
So, the good side liked enter-the-battlefield effects and had soulbond as its major weapon. As we were looking for a mechanic to fill the void, a little bell went off in my head. I call it my flicker alarm. You see, designers have pet mechanics and whenever they're trying to solve a problem, part of their brain always says, "How about Pet Mechanic A? Okay, how about Pet Mechanic B? Would Pet Mechanic C work?"
Many years ago, I solo designed a set called Urza's Destiny. In it, I made a vertical cycle of a new mechanic that I called "refresh." The refresh mechanic exiled a permanent and then returned it right back to play. This allowed you to refresh your cards and take advantage of things like ETB effects. In the end, only one card got printed, and with the name of Flicker. As that was the only card with the mechanic, it became the nickname for the effect.
My inner Johnny loves flicker because it allows so much fun interaction. It's like a combo in a box. As such, I try to fit in a flicker card here and there when I can. I'm also always on the lookout for a set that wants to do more flicker than normal. Avacyn Restored turned out to be that set.
Another quick aside: I often talk about the joy of getting to put pet mechanics into a set. Note that I only try to include them when they make sense. The worst thing a designer can do is force a mechanical element into a set that doesn't fit. I convinced the design team to include flicker in Avacyn Restored not because I wanted it but because it was such a perfect fit for the set.
The one tweak we made is that we chose to do what R&D refers to as "instant flicker" (which I admit isn't the greatest name as it isn't talking about the card type but the fact that the exiled card comes back right away instead of waiting until the end of the turn). Instant flickering made much better mechanical sense in Avacyn Restored, so that's how all the flickering cards work in the set.
My preview card today is a flickering card because when we had our preview meeting, everyone assumed I wanted to show off a cool flickering card. And they were right. So let me introduce you to
Nephalia Smuggler | Art by Matt Stewart
I don't want to spoil the fun, but this card has a lot of uses in Avacyn Restored Limited. See how many cool things you can do with it!
The Play's The Thing
I've spent a lot of today talking about the big picture of how the set came together. One of the things that's hard to explain is how wonderfully all the mechanics play together. I hope you get an opportunity to go to the Prerelease next week so you can get the first chance to see how all the moving pieces click together.
That's all I have for today. Join me next week for Part 3, as I share a whole bunch of design stories about the making of Avacyn Restored. I promise it involves hiking.
Until then, may good triumph over evil.