Dark Shadows, Part 1

Posted in Making Magic on January 23, 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.

Now that we have the preview weeks out of the way, it's time to get to the card-by-card article. You see, there are stories about how the whole set comes together and there are stories about how individual cards or small subsets of cards come together. My card-by-card columns let me talk about the second type of stories. I always enjoy doing these columns, so let's waste no time and get to it.

There were numerous ways for us to show that the humans were in trouble. Here's how double-faced cards communicated this message. Of the available thirteen double-faced cards, nine of them have a human on the sunny side. Every single one shows a human turning into a monster. They could die and become a monster like the Loyal Cathar; they could willingly allow themselves to become a monster like Chosen of Markov; or they could simply be cursed, like all of the werewolves. No matter how, though, the message was clear: the humans are shrinking in number while the monsters are growing.

I know this is a very subtle thing, especially because many of the humans on double-faced cards in Innistrad transform into monsters, but I'm a big believer that a key element of getting something to "feel right" is to hit the same theme at every element of the design. The audience might not consciously notice all the choices made but the subconscious picks up that everything fits together.

One of the most interesting things about an article like this is I get to go back and look at how cards changed through design and development. This card either changed very little or changed a great deal, depending on how you look at it. Let's go back to see how the card got created and I will walk you through how it changed.

Werewolves are red and green. Blue is the enemy of red and green. Because of these two facts, I thought it was important to give blue a subtle but good weapon to use against the werewolves. My choice was a common blue instant spell that cost one to cast and one to flashback. I chose an instant so it allowed you to stop transformations on both your and you're opponent's turns. The original spell I put into the file was:

Jump Twice
Target creature gains flying until end of turn.
Flashback U

It turns out that this spell already existed. It's a card called Defy Gravity from Judgment. Fine, I changed the card to Defy Gravity. Note that we usually repeat the name in the file to help make others aware that it's a reprint. If we actually reprint it and we feel it being a reprint isn't a big selling point or that the flavor doesn't quite match the current set, we will change the name.

Then two things happened. First, the card changed from an instant to a sorcery. The reason was that our previous uses of flashback had taught us that the game is less fun when you are surprised by something that in theory you were supposed to be able to notice. Players aren't trained to watch the graveyard, so instant flashbacks always seem to come out of nowhere, often leading to ill will. Second, once the card changed from an instant to a sorcery, development decided it should do a slightly different effect so as not to be a strictly worse Defy Gravity. Flying was changed to unblockability partly because the effect was close and partly because there's no reason to want to grant unblockability at instant speed, making the previous change feel more natural.

When the dust settled, the only difference between the design version and the printed version is the change of flying to unblockability and the change from instant to sorcery. It's easy to see that as practically the card that was designed, but in other ways, it's completely different. Design and development isn't always about big changes. Often it's tiny incremental changes that make a huge difference.

Black Cat was one of the first cards ever designed for Innistrad. It was created top down from the concept of a black cat. The whole design team was a big fan. How then did it end up in Dark Ascension? It was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Let me explain. We were days away from assigning the final art wave for Innistrad (large sets usually have the art divided into two waves) and the creative team realized they hadn't found a place to put a skeleton. The team was trying hard to hit all the key horror tropes and it felt bad to them that there wasn't a skeleton. None of the cards in the file made sense as a skeleton, so the development team looked at the file to see what could be booted to replace with the skeleton.

This happened late in development, so most of the common cards were playing an important role, making them hard to pull out. Black Cat was beloved but nothing else was dependent on it so it ended up being the only option. The second I found out about its removal, I put it into the Dark Ascension file, where it stayed from there straight through print with nary a change.

For Innistrad, I drew a line that all double-faced cards (save the one exception—the mythic rare planeswalker, Garruk Relentless) were creatures that transformed into other creatures. For Dark Ascension, the restrictions were loosened. Now, double-faced cards were allowed to be any permanent type and could turn into any permanent type. One of the options that seemed very natural was an artifact that transformed into an artifact. The team designed a number of artifact-transforming-into-artifact cards but this was the one the team liked best.

Before Dark Ascension was known, a lot of players asked me if the "13 matters" theme was going to continue in the set. My answer was always, "But, of course." Why wouldn't we continue such an awesome theme?

One of Tom LaPille's pet peeves is what I'll call a "Being Mean to Creative" card. Crushing Vines is an example of this kind of card. A "Being Mean to Creative" card is one that makes perfect sense mechanically but makes no flavor sense whatsoever. For example, having a modal card that can destroy one of two things has a mechanical sensibility to it, especially since both types of destruction are in green's color pie. "Okay, I have a choice of which one of two things I, as a green mage, want to destroy."

But when you take a step back, exactly what type of spell can destroy either a flying creature or an artifact? Conceptually, they don't have anything in common. Now, the creative team always does its best at whatever we throw at it, but a card like this is never going to have a stellar card concept.

Tom believes strongly that we shouldn't make cards in this category. If a card doesn't have a clear concept creatively, he believes, then that is a sign we shouldn't make it. My counter is that although I agree we should not make too many, I believe that often this subset makes cards that play very well and can be appreciated on a level other than a creative one. Just as we occasionally make Vorthos happy at Melvin's expense, so too should we at times make Melvin happy at Vorthos's expense. Ideally, of course, we make cards that make them both happy.

I often talk in my column about the times where the plan comes together perfectly. Sometimes, though, the plan doesn't quite work out. In Innistrad, I wanted white to feel separated from the other colors, to capture the sense that good has been isolated and is slowly being worn down by evil. (Note that I don't believe white is always supposed to be "good," as I believe the colors transcend "good" and "evil" labels, but the "good" label worked so well for what we were trying to do with a horror-themed block.)

One of the ways to play up this isolation was the creation of numerous things that showed up in every color but white, sometimes in cycles and other times just in total volume of a mechanic. Curses were meant to be one of these things. In design, we created multiple curses for every color. We made a white curse and then removed it specifically because we didn't want curses in white. (Erik Lauer, Innistrad's lead developer later put it back into the set—not as a curse, but as Nevermore.)

Curse of Exhaustion was then put into white in Dark Ascension to show the shift in Innistrad, that even the purest part of the land was starting to get tainted. The problem is that I didn't do a good job explaining to Erik the importance of "curses are in every color but white." As such, he changed our green curse called Curse of Tastiness to red—now called Curse of Stalked Prey—to match it with the vampire slith mechanic (+1/+1 counters for damaging, AKA "feeding off of" the opponent). Not understanding the value of curses being in every other color, he didn't replace the green curse with another curse in green. (By the time the file got to development, only one green curse remained.)

The real lesson of this story is the importance of communicating your ideas in design. It's not enough to execute on them, you have to make sure everyone else involved in the process knows what you're doing. Creating Magic cards is a group effort and that means communicating what you are doing is essential to having what's in your head make it to print. You can't just have great ideas. You have to share them.

One of the rules about subtypes is that we can't use them solely for decoration. If we use them, at least one card has to care about the subtype mechanically. This is why, for example, traps had a subtype in Zendikar and quests did not. This card was tagged in design as the "curse matters" card. In the end, it was designed by someone on neither the Innistrad or Dark Ascension design teams: Ken Nagle. Ken loved the idea of a card that made you want to build a curse deck. I agreed and the card went in the file. The goal of this card's design, by the way, is that it makes you want to build a curse deck with as many different types of curses as possible.

During Innistrad preview weeks I talked about how I wanted tribal to be a component of the design without the overall design feeling like a tribal set. It had to matter for those who wanted it to matter but not to those who didn't want to be held hostage by it. Because of this, during Innistrad design, I was very careful about not making cards that pushed tribal too hard.

For Dark Ascension though, I liked the idea that one of the ways of showing monsters gaining power was to ratchet up slightly the importance of monster tribal. The way to do this, I felt, was to design an uncommon cycle of tribal monster helpers. The idea behind these cards is that if you chose them from your first pack you might be encouraged to draft a tribal deck. Each creature was meant to be a champion of its monster type and grant those creatures something that played into how they worked as a tribe.

When the cards got concepted, there was one small problem: Three of the four monsters made some sense as having a defined leader, but it just felt wrong for the werewolves. So three of the creatures were concepted as captains while the werewolf was concepted as an alpha wolf. I'm not sure how many people will realize that Immerwolf is part of the captain cycle, but then, that's why I get to write columns like this to help point out things that players might miss.

I talked during previews about how I wanted to give ghosts a little more of a mechanical identity. These cards show off the main piece of this by allowing ghosts to manipulate others by tapping them and using this manipulation to their tactical advantage.

One of my favorite things about designing the double-faced cards was having designers pitch concepts for ideas and then I go, "Sounds great. Now make the card." A sword with a demon's essence trapped inside, forever influencing its handler to kill sounded cool, but I'll admit there were many ways this card could have gone wrong.

Another interesting thing about this card is that we do something we seldom ever do in normal expert expansions—we made a card with an ability that only makes sense in a multiplayer game. Normally, we tend to make text meant for multiplayer mean something in a traditional two-player duel, but for once we decided to just do it the cool way and not worry about it.

So, one of the essay questions for The Great Designer Search 2 (the first part of entering) was this:

You are instructed to move an ability from one color to another. This ability must be something used in every set (i.e., discard, direct damage, card drawing, etc.). You may not choose an ability that has already been color shifted by Ramp;D. What ability do you shift and to what color do you shift it? Explain why you would make that shift.

The point of the question was to see if the designers could rethink established ideas as well as get a sense of how well they understood the color wheel. As an added bonus, I always knew there was a chance someone would suggest something we hadn't considered. That something was the idea of moving looting (drawing a card and discarding a card) from blue to red.

Let me start by saying that what excited us wasn't moving looting out of blue but adding it to red. The reason that it's so exciting design-wise is that common red has a dearth of spell effects. Having one more thing red common spells could do was very attractive. The flavor made sense to us (red has a "burn through things to get what it wants" flavor) so we decided to add looting to red.

We also spent some time coming up with the ways the two colors were going to use looting differently, but that happened after this card got sent to print, so we'll save that discussion for another day. I will hint that under our new paradigm for how red uses looting, this card would be printed slightly different from its current wording.

One of the questions I often get about token-making cards is why in this day of race-and-class creature subtypes do most of them make a token with a single subtype. The answer is threefold:

  • Tokens are already on the complicated side, in that the require players to remember something using an item that often doesn't have the information on it. (The big exception being token cards.) The less there is to remember, the better.
  • Adding more types increases the complexity of the card overall, beyond just the memory issue, and we are working hard to cut down complexity in places where it doesn't justify itself with enough game play advantage.
  • Having only one subtype on tokens makes it much easier to reconcept the card if it ever gets reprinted.

Because of these reasons, unless a block strongly needs race and class (as Lorwyn block did, since race and class both mattered strongly), we only use one creature subtype on our token-making cards. Human was the part that mattered in Innistrad block, so Gather the Townsfolk makes Human tokens.

The number one question I get about this card is: "Why couldn't it be a 13/13?" The answer is that we used the number 13 wherever it made sense but we didn't push it. This card was designed as a 10/10 and that felt right, so we kept it as is.

The other question I get about this card is: "Hey, I thought the plants beat the zombies?" My answer is, not in Innistrad!

I've said numerous times that I'm a big fan of zombies. Because of that, I packed Innistrad with as much zombie goodness as my team and I could create. It turns out, I packed Innistrad with a little too much zombie goodness and Gravecrawler got pushed back from Innistrad to Dark Ascension during development. Once I realized that Gravecrawler was pushed back, I decided that one of the subthemes we'd play up for zombies in Dark Ascension was the ability to get zombies out of the graveyard and back into play. The theme was there in Innistrad but it's notched up a bit in Dark Ascension.

Most cycles are five cards and most cycles all show up in the same set, but not always. Grim Backwoods and Vault of the Archangel are two cards of a ten-card cycle. You've seen five of them in Innistrad and obviously three of them are yet to come (cough, cough, Avacyn Restored).

Let's end part one on a very important story card. Do you know what the Helvault is? If you don't, check out the article where Doug explains it to you. If you care one iota about story or even just what Avacyn Restored is going to be about, I suggest you pay attention to the Helvault. The only hint I'll give you is that the design was top down from what the Helvault does. Trust me, this is going to be important.

    All In The Cards

And that is all the time we have for today. I hope you enjoyed my look through parts of Dark Ascension and join me next week when I continue this column, yet also stay on theme for a theme week. What? Check back next week.

Until then, may you have fun stories to share with your friends.

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