Dark Shadows, Part 2

Posted in Making Magic on January 30, 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.

Last week, I began telling card-by-card stories of Dark Ascension. Whenever I'm the design lead, I tend to have more stories, so I couldn't fit everything in last week (nor this week, as you'll see). Today is part two of my stories. If you haven't read part one, you might want to give it a peek, although unlike most multi-part columns this one stands alone better than most.

Before I continue where I left off, I need to talk about two cards I didn't talk about last week that I've received a lot of email on:

The big question about this card seems to be: Why is this a mythic rare? A good question, as this card very easily could have been a rare. So, here's what happened. The card that filled this slot for most of design and development was a weirder giant effect involving life gain (I'm not telling you what it is because although it got rejected, I think we might be able to salvage part of it). Playtesting showed the card might be problematic and at the last minute it was decided to swap it out for a different card.

What this meant was two things:

  1. The card had to match the preexisting name and art. This forced us to consider cards that had something to do with life gain.
  2. The card had to be something development had total confidence in printing, meaning it had to be on the lower side of power. The reason we shoot low in this situation is if we miss the card will still be safe enough to print. Ramp;D has been burned multiple times making a last minute switch that ended up with a broken card in the environment (Skullclamp and Umezawa's Jitte being two famous examples).

I'll be the first to admit that this card doesn't quite have the sexiness of most mythic rares. It can produce a very large effect (for example, late game, this card could easily gain a player 40 or 50 life), so it does have some "potential for awesomeness" (Ramp;D's loose guideline for mythic rare). With more time and less restrictions, this card would most likely have ended up at rare.

This is the other card everyone is talking about. So why didn't I talk about this card's design last week? Because neither I nor my design team had anything to do with it. We didn't design it.

Grafdigger's Cage is what I call a developer's specialty card. It's designed to specifically plug holes that development is concerned about. Why does it affect the library as well as the graveyard? Probably because there's a card (or cards) that development is worried about. Not my area, but I'm willing to guess Birthing Pod has something to do with it. Birthing Pod and the undying mechanic are quite a potent combo.

The bigger question I can answer: Why make a card that hoses the very thing the set is pushing? The answer is that we've tried in the past not having answers to threats in the set and it has burned us on several occasions. (You sense a "once burnt, twice shy" theme?) Putting the answers in the same set is a good safety valve to make sure we didn't miss something. If Thing X gets out of control, answer to Thing X is right there to keep it in check.

So why Grafdigger's Cage? Because development felt strongly that the environment needed access to it. Not to stop interesting graveyard decks but to be an answer to them if they get out of control. Zac talked about this in much greater detail on Friday.

Now that I have those two cards out of the way, let's continue on.

The one question I keep getting on this card is: Why isn't it legendary? The answer happens to be in a column I wrote last May ("The Issue Is Legen- Wait For It—Dary"—yes, by the way, that column was full of quotes by Barney from How I Met Your Mother because he was played by Neil Patrick Harris, who goes by NPH, just like the three-letter card code of New Phyrexia, the set that had just come out... stuff like that entertains me).

At the time, many players were asking why I was making an issue out of something that wasn't an issue. I got numerous "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" letters. This card, though, does a good job of showing the problem. When deciding whether or not this card should be legendary, we had the following issue:

  1. If we made it non-legendary, we would upset a lot of Commander players (and Vorthoses who just love the flavor of legendary creatures) because we wouldn't be giving the Werewolf creature type its own general.
  2. If we made it legendary, we upset the players who could care less about Commander or flavor and just want to be able to put four copies of this awesome Werewolf in their Werewolf decks.

You see, having legendary be nothing but a drawback if you don't care about the flavor means that some of our players want it and some of our players don't. That means sometimes we have to go one way and sometimes we have to go the other. For Huntmaster, we chose not to make it legendary. What I want to fix about the legendary supertype is that I don't want it to be a negative to some subset of our audience, forcing us to not use it at times when others so desperately want us to use it.

Be aware that there were some other reasons that nudged us that direction. The biggest reason being the weirdness of double-faced cards, especially ones that changed back and forth. They cause weird interaction with the legendary supertype. For example, if you play a Huntmaster of the Fells and then transform it, you are now allowed to play a second Huntmaster of the Fells and have both in play because the legendary supertype only looks for a matching name.

Trivia question: Was this cycle designed in Dark Ascension design or Dark Ascension development?

When you think you know, reveal the answer.

The answer to the question is, "Neither." I do so love tricky trivia questions. Okay, who did design this cycle? The answer is the Avacyn Restored design team. So Avacyn Restored has flashback? No. Well, it did at one time, when this cycle was designed. You see, one of the things we decided about Rise of the Eldrazi (based a good deal on the feedback from all of you) was that it wasn't connected enough mechanically with the rest of the block. (Really, we should have had Allies fighting the Eldrazi.)

So when we started designing Avacyn Restored (then called "Roll"), one of our design goals was finding a way to take elements of the design of the previous two sets in the block and fitting them in. One idea of how to do this was having flashback stretch through the entire block. With that in mind, the design team came up with this cycle as a way to do something new with flashback in the set.

Then we decided that flashback wasn't the best way to meet our goal because flashback wasn't as flavorfully entrenched as other mechanical elements. If we were going to carry elements across, we decided, they needed to be the more flavorful parts. Also, we chose to not make the graveyard a focus (you'll see why soon) so we didn't like having a mechanic that still made you track the graveyard.

What this meant, though, is that we had a cool cycle and no need for it. Well, it turns out that one of the members of the Avacyn Restored design team was DarkAscension's lead designer (me), so I did what a design lead would does when a cool cycle gets tossed into the Æther—yell "Dibs!"

The Dark Ascension development team fiddled with the effects but the basic idea of "do it once, flash it back to do twice the amount" made it all the way to print.

During my article on Innistrad's design I talked about one of the things I had the team do in design meetings was take flavorful names (provided by team member Jenna Helland) and top-down design to them. This, for example, is how we got what I consider one of the best designs in InnistradEvil Twin. Jar of Eyeballs was one of these in-meeting, top-down-design cards.

This was the card I previewed on my various social media outlets (Twitter, Tumblr, and Google+) and I got a very interesting reaction. Players tended to love the flavor of the card or felt like it was a warmed over version of Shrine of Piercing Vision (by the way—Jar of Eyeballs doesn't sacrifice itself to use). I joked in my "Tales from the Pit" comic that the card was a Melvin/Vorthos test. (Go read this article if you have no idea who Melvin or Vorthos are.)

I absolutely love cards like Jar of Eyeballs and my email showed me there are many who share my love. If you don't see the joy of getting two eyeball counters, then this card just isn't for you. If, on the other hand, you're first response is "What about a Cyclops? Or Spiders? Or One-Eyed Scarecrow?" then this card is for you. Enjoy.

This was the card I talked about being called Librarian in design. The idea behind it was that the card is this little old lady as a Human but became very dangerous when it transformed into a Werewolf. This was the card that got us down the path of making the Werewolves have a little more spread between their Human and Werewolf sides. I liked stretching it because a big part of the Werewolves for me in the design was how they created suspense and dread. I loved how the Werewolves scared you not because of what they were but what they could become. That, to me, felt like the essence of the horror genre. I so much prefer talking about horror in print because every time I'm interviewed about it, it always sounds like I'm talking about a completely different topic—one not appropriate for a family-friendly column like this.

In the past, I've mentioned several times my favorite book is one called A Whack on the Side of the Head by Roger von Oech. It's a book about creative thinking that I feel applies to just about everyone. If you've never read it, I heartily encourage you to do so. One of the ideas von Oech talks about is Stepping Stones. Often by going somewhere different, even if that difference seems crazy on the surface, you manage to get somewhere you'd never have gone normally.

Lost in the Woods is an example of a card that I'd never have made in a million years. (I should note it was a group effort by a roomful of designers and not solely designed by me.) Nothing about it follows any sense of traditional card design. But as a completed card, it has a charm all its own. That's why I find top-down design fascinating. I've spent sixteen years fine-tuning my design sensibilities but part of that is that my instincts tend to always go in the same directions.

Top-down design makes us prioritize something other than our normal instincts and it allows us to create things that have a different sensibility. That said, I know this card won't be for everyone, but I believe the players who do like it will have a stronger emotional response to it than for the average card because the card was created to evoke something. And that is an important lesson.

One of the problems of capturing design in a column like this is that I tend to tell the stories that are on the splashier end of the spectrum. People in general respond well to what I'll call inspirational design. That is, they like hearing stories where I have a problem and then I get some cool insight that helps me solve the problem. In cliché form, this is the lit light bulb popping above my head.

In reality, though, there are many other design skills just as important as coming up with the fresh new thing. One of them is what I call adaptive design. Adaptive design is all about taking some element of the set you're working on and finding other ways to tweak it. A very common example of this will be a set mechanic. We usually want the mechanic to show up on twenty or more cards in the block, so we have to work our way through all the options in the available colors.

Markov Blademaster is a perfect example of adaptive design. The Innistrad development team wanted to give the Vampires a mechanic that tied them together (the design team gave the Vampires a mechanical flavor but we didn't link them together with a mechanic). The mechanic they chose is what we call the slith mechanic in Ramp;D (named after a series of cards in Mirrodin that all got a +1/+1 counter after damaging an opponent; originally, though, based on a card called Whirling Dervish from Legends).

For Dark Ascension, we knew we needed to make some more Vampires with the slith mechanic, but the obvious choices had already been used in Innistrad. The trick was finding some new but simple ways to do that. The reason I really like Markov Blademaster is because we found a solution that was both elegant and sexy. That's not easy to do. Adaptive design might not be as compelling as other types of design, but when you're in the thick of doing it, designs like this feel just as exciting as the thunderbolt innovative discoveries.

The interesting tidbit about this card was that we made it very early in Dark Ascension design. So early, in fact, that Mikaeus hadn't yet been finalized in Innistrad. Yes, we knew the religious leader of the humans was going to be there, but we didn't know what he was going to do yet. The reason the design was important is we loved the idea that one of the ways to show hopelessness for the humans is to watch their leader get turned into a monster.

Then once we knew what Mikaeus was going to do in Innistrad, we designed his Zombie version to be a dark reflection. I particularly like the boosting of Humans versus the boosting of non-Humans and the way that each uses +1/+1 counters but in very opposite ways. I also love the job creative did with the contrasting pieces of art.

The design for this card was very straightforward. I wanted to make a Werewolf that punished the opponent for transforming it back. I tried a lot of subtler solutions but ended up with one of the more blunt designs I tried. Sometimes blunt gets the job done.

The big question I've been getting about this card is: Why have dragons in Innistrad block? We left out Goblins and Elves, that don't have a natural fit in horror, so why not leave out Dragons? Note that this is more of a creative question than a design one (creature type is the biggest area where creative and mechanics overlap) but as I've had so many people asking, I thought I'd give my two cents.

Players like Dragons. Really like Dragons. No, really, really like Dragons. They are by far the most popular creature type we do. It's the reason, for example, we made the first From the Vault box set with a dragon theme. As such, there is more pressure on us to make Dragons than any other creature type. After talking it over, creative felt as if Dragons could have a small role as, while they are not core to horror, their essence doesn't contradict the key ethos of the genre. As such, they decided to only do a few (one in each set so far) but try extra hard to do them a little differently than we normally do them.

I like how they came out, but I understand those of you who rather they weren't in the block. Just remember that having a game that occasionally caters to fan service means creating a few cards you like that maybe we weren't supposed to do.

Are you and your friend arguing about whether Predator Ooze has anything to do with the Blob? Are you on the Blob side? If so, please print out the following:

Hello friend of a very discriminating reader,

So you know how you and your friend have been arguing about whether or not The Blob was the inspiration for Predator Ooze? I'm sure you explained that Innistrad block is based off of the 1950s Universal Studios horror films and that The Blob was part of the science fiction/horror genre mash-up that happened the following decade. You also probably explained that New Phyrexia was more the place where Magic did science-fiction-style horror. All that is well and good but you forgot one thing:

That I, Mark Rosewater, Head Designer of Magic and lead designer of both Innistrad and Dark Ascension love Oozes. Would I miss a chance to cross horror with one of my favorite creature types of all time? Uh, no.

So is Predator Ooze inspired by The Blob? Absolutely. 100%. The design name was even The Blob.

This means that whatever wager you were foolish enough to make must now be forfeit to the person showing you this letter. In the future, follow this maxim: Never doubt Rosewater's love of Oozes. Or Zombies. Or poison.


Mark Rosewater

I hope you can put that letter to good use.

    Card Copy

That's all the time we got for today. If you're good at alphabetization, you'll realize that part 3 is coming next week. I'll continue to journey to the file until I get to one of my favorite cards in the set (and one with a cool design/development story): Zombie Apocalypse.

Join me next week for part 3.

Until then, may you stop and smell the Oozes.

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