Dancing in the Dark Ascension, Part 2

Posted in Making Magic on January 16, 2012

By Mark Rosewater

Working in R&D since '95, Mark became Magic head designer in '03. His hobbies: spending time with family, writing about Magic in all mediums, and creating short bios.

Welcome to week two of Dark Ascension previews. Last week, I introduced my design team and talked about what exactly a small second set has to do in its design to follow up the large first set of a block. I then talked a bit about what we were doing with the many mechanical themes from Innistrad. Today, I am going to focus a little more on what new things were added to Dark Ascension and explain how I figured out what the set was about. Interestingly, I believe I got it a bit wrong the first time out. For those of you who are trying to avoid seeing spoilers, note that not only am I showing off a new preview card today, but I will also be showing quite a few cards previously spoiled in other places. I suggest coming back after the prerelease to read today's column if you want to avoid spoilers.

    In Trouble

Let's recap where we were in the design (now with actual cards—what a difference a week makes when it is the first week of previews).

Dark Ascension was continuing what Innistrad had started. That meant:

More werewolves.

(This card, by the way, was the Librarian card I talked about in Part 1.)

More vampires.

More zombies.

More ghosts (aka Spirits).

More double-faced cards.

Right: Receive this exclusive promo version at Prereleases next weekend! (While supplies last)

More double-faced cards that aren't all creatures turning into creatures.

More flashback.

More flashback with off-color activation (now going the other way around the color wheel).

More flashback but now doing new things it hadn't done before.

More morbid.

More curses.

More top-down designs.

In other words, a lot of "more." That's what a second set does. It follows what the first expansion set up, but that's not the only role of a small second set. I always like to think of the three sets in a block like three acts in a story. (For those who are unaware of story structure, all stories are told in three acts. Three-act structure—it's like the color pie but for stories.)

One of my first writing teachers explained three-act structure like this:

Act One—Get your protagonist up a tree.
Act Two—Throw rocks at him.
Act Three—Get him down.

I consider the story of Innistrad to be about the humans. In the first act, we come to find that things aren't going so well for them. They had a guardian angel named Avacyn who was keeping all the monsters at bay, but one day she just up and disappeared. When that happened, all her magic that had been fueling the humans' weapons slowly started to dissipate. The monsters quickly figured this out, and as Innistrad started we saw the monsters encroaching on the humans.

Dark Ascension is the second act. It's time to start throwing rocks at the humans. Things go from bad to worse. Seeing that as the core of the second act, I told my team that that's what the set was going to be about—watching the humans go from bad to worse.

Ravenous Demon and Archdemon of Greed | Art by Igor Kieryluk

To do this we did a whole bunch of things. We started by shifting where the humans sat in the color pie. In Innistrad, the humans are mostly in white, secondarily in green, and thirdly in blue. The reason they were primarily in white is because Innistrad set up white as the one last bastion of good. As evil radiates, white is the final hold-out. To try and show that the Humans are the key element of this, we made them the dominant creature type in white.

As things started going bad, we wanted to do two things to the Humans to demonstrate. First, we lowered the number of Humans in white. We took up their slack with Spirits, hinting at what happened to many of them. The second thing we did was to increase the number of Humans in the other colors. The flavor we were shooting for is that as things got really bad, Humans stopped banding together. Many of them made choices to try and save themselves, but in the end submitted to the very evil they were trying to escape.

Next, we tried to make some high-profile cards to demonstrate that the monsters were winning. One thing we did was to show humans turning into monsters. It's hard to see yet, since all the cards aren't public, but almost all of the double-faced cards that are Human on one side are monsters on the other side.

We tried to find as many ways as possible to show on individual cards that the humans were losing the fight. One of my favorite involves Mikaeus, the leader of the humans. In Dark Ascension, we brought him back, but only to stand as a representative of what's happening to the humans. If you want to see Mikaeus you'll need to read today's feature from Jenna Helland!

The human plight is also represented by a common cost found in the set: "Sacrifice a Human." Innistrad had Village Cannibals, a card that encouraged you to put Humans in your deck for a very different reason than most of the other "Human matters" cards. Dark Ascension took this mechanic and turned up the dial.

The development team then took the dial and turned it even more, making Human sacrifice a key tool of the monsters. The "death to Humans" theme doesn't stop there, though, as we searched for places to show that the humans aren't faring well.

Even with all this human oppression, we knew we needed some mechanical means to represent the Humans' desperation. In fact, the mechanic we came up with was called "desperation" in design. When all of you get your hands on it though, you will know it as fateful hour.

This mechanic came about because of two different forces. First was the desire to capture the desperation of the humans. Things are going from bad to horrible and we really wanted to show that the humans had their backs to the wall. I often talk about top-down design of cards, but fateful hour is a good example of top down design of mechanics.

I really liked the flavor that the Humans can be pushed, but at some point, when there is nowhere else to run, the Humans stand up to their oppressors. Humans are dangerous because, to quote the movie Starman, "[Humans] are at your very best when things are worst."

Thraben Doomsayer | Art by John Stanko

The second force came several years back, when I argued to get rid of mana burn. While I appreciated the flavor it brought to the game, it was a rule that added complexity without enough payoff. Removing it allowed us some new design space—the biggest of which is the ability to have life work as a threshold. When you can lose life whenever you wanted (with mana burn) having your life total at a certain amount was trivial. Take away your ability to easily manipulate your life total and having it at a certain level becomes much more interesting. The only problem I had was I didn't know where best to use this new design space.

I don't remember how desperation first got suggested, but I do remember how the whole team latched on to it. Having abilities that ramped up only when you were near death had exactly the feel we needed. The best part, though, was that it played well. It allowed players to use life as a resource in a brand new way.

So the humans were in peril. We found many ways to play up this theme. Only one problem—I had forgotten something pretty important. Luckily, Dark Ascension had a development team run by Tom LaPille. And Tom caught my mistake.

    Monster Mash

So how exactly does someone go from a random Ramp;D member to leading a design or development team? The answer, usually, is slowly. First, you participate in ways external to the design and development teams. Perhaps you build decks for the Future Future League, take rare polls, or playtest. Eventually, you get included on a team. If successful, you start getting added to many more teams. At some point you become what we call a "strong second," where you shadow the leader, helping out however you can. After a few strong second slots, you are given a chance to lead a set of your very own.

Zombie Apocalypse | Art by Peter Mohrbacher

Tom had gone through this whole long chain and Dark Ascension was his first chance to be a development lead on an expert expansion. I was the design lead for Dark Ascension. Besides being the Head Designer, I also have the most experience leading design teams, so everyone felt it best if Tom's first development lead followed one of my designs.

Tom, as lead developer, followed what the design team was up to. As he did, he started to believe that we were drifting a little from what our focus should be. It's a little intimidating to go up to someone leading his fifteenth design lead on your first development lead and tell him you think he's doing it wrong. But to Tom's credit, he did.

Tom asked to meet with me. We talked about what was the focus of the set and I explained to him the plight of the humans. I told him how the humans were our protagonists and this was the second act, where we were seeing them at their lowest point on the brink of extinction. Tom took a breath and said, "What about the monsters?"

Tom said he was worried we were focusing on what was weak about the set instead of what was strong. "Rattle (Dark Ascension's codename) isn't about humans running in fear; it's about monsters kicking ass." He and I had a great discussion and, in the end, I agreed with him. I needed to add more focus on the monsters.

I spent a few days thinking about what we needed to do and realized the first step was to find a keyword mechanic we could use to play up the monsters. They were getting more vicious and scarier. I needed a creature keyword that stressed this. The solution came from a place I never suspected it: my wife, Lora.

For those unfamiliar with my courtship of my wife (you can read about our wedding here and here), we met at Wizards. Because she worked at the company, she learned how to play Magic, and very early in our relationship we used to regularly play Magic with special beginner-friendly decks I had built for us. Lora hasn't played Magic in many years, but having once played she understands the basics.

The reason I bring this all up is that often when I need to work something through I'll talk with her. The fact that she doesn't know any of the details allows her to ask very basic but key questions that I need to answer. Here's the conversation (with some poetic license) that led to the creation of Dark Ascension's monster mechanic:

Me: Okay, here's the problem. We need a monster mechanic.
Lora: What does that mean?
Me: The monsters are getting more and more threatening. I need a mechanic that makes them seem extra scary.
Lora: Were they scary in the first set?
Me: Yes.
Lora: How were they scary in the first set?
Me: I built in a lot of suspense. The monsters tended to hint of worse things coming. I touched upon a lot of monster tropes.
Lora: Are there any monster tropes you didn't hit upon?
Me: There was one. Often in a monster movie, the main character apparently kills the monster. Everyone is led to believe the monster is dead, so the audience lets down its guard, and then bam!—the monster comes back from the dead scarier than ever.
Lora: Why not make a mechanic that does that?
Me: I want to, but I'm not quite sure how.
Lora: Well, is there a mechanic you've done before that captures that flavor?
Me: Yes, we did a mechanic in Shadowmoor called persist. When the creature dies, it comes back one more time.
Lora: Could you use that?
Me: No. The mechanic uses -1/-1 counters and this block uses +1/+1 counters.
Lora: So?
Me: We don't mix counters. If the last set uses +1/+1 counters then this set has to as well.
(I kiss Lora)
Me: You're awesome! Thank you!

The key to good design is to use whatever resources you have available. If an old mechanic accomplishes your goal then you have to be willing to use it. My problem had been that I had thought of persist and dismissed it because I knew it wouldn't work. What I had skipped right over was the idea that I could adapt persist.

The swap for +1/+1 counters was perfect for a couple of reasons. One, it was exactly what I was looking for. It was the kind of mechanic that made the monsters scary. How do we capture the hopelessness of the humans? By showing monsters that can resist death itself. Two, the +1/+1 counters also meant the creature would have a different dynamic from persist. Players knew it took two shots to kill a creature with persist, but as the first attempt weakened it, there was no doubt that you should kill it when you could. Undying (called tenacious in design) makes killing them the first time much scarier, as they then grow stronger.

Today's preview card is a creature with undying. In fact, it's what you might even call an undying lord. Without further ado, let me introduce you to Flayer of the Hatebound.

Feel free to kill my creature. For your troubles, it'll get a +1/+1 counter and deal 5 damage to a creature or player of my choice.

After we finished tweaking undying (it's a tricky mechanic to balance—something I'm sure Zac will talk about one of these weeks), we started figuring out other ways we could play up the monsters. We talked about how the monster types functioned and figured out ways to amp up what they did as well as find some new areas to push them into.

Vampires started sacrificing humans, Zombies got more tools to bring Zombies back from the grave, and Werewolves gained a greater differential between their Human and Werewolf sides. For Spirits, we decided that we needed to finish the job started in Innistrad and give them more of a mechanical identity. What we settled on was something that felt white-blue but also hit what we felt was a ghost trope: messing with Humans. You'll notice that the Spirits in this set interact a lot more with other creatures, tapping them, locking them down, stealing them. The poltergeists have started getting restless and are more interactive in their aggressiveness.

Flayer of the Hatebound | Art by Jana Schirmer amp; Johannes Voss

We also chose to play up the tribalness of the monsters. Being one of the four monster types was going to become more of a positive. In contrast, Humans were also going to matter in Dark Ascension, but more because others are abusing them. You're going to want to draft Humans, but often just to feed them to your monsters.

Finally, we combed all the monster tropes that Innistrad hadn't hit and tried to make sure we hit as many as we could. You'll see, as the set releases, that the flavor of the monsters growing in power and becoming more deadly is generously spread throughout Dark Ascension.

    Be Scared of the Dark Ascension

That's all the time I have for today. I hope you enjoyed the peek into how Dark Ascension design came to be, bumps and all. As always, I'm curious for any feedback you might have, be it in this column's thread, on Twitter, on Tumblr, on Google+, or in my email.

Join me next week for some fun card-by-card stories as I talk about how certain cards came to be.

Until then, may you learn to listen to everyone because you never know where the next great truth will come from.

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