Every Two Sides Has a Story

Posted in Making Magic on August 29, 2011

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.

Since everything I'm about to talk about rests on you understanding a key element of Innistrad (and yes, I'm talking about "Mechanic X"), I suggest you start by clicking here.

Double-Faced Card Rules

This is what is known as a double-faced card. (The reason it's not called a "double-sided card," which is what we called it in design, is that every card has two sides. The unique thing about these cards is that they have two faces.) We first announced the double-faced cards at the Innistrad PAX party last Saturday night. Today's Card of the Day is a double-faced card. The two features also talk about double-faced cards along with other mechanics of Innistrad. In case you missed all that, I wanted to start by showing you what players are talking about by sharing with you my preview card for today's column. So, Design broke a big taboo: using the back of the card. How'd that happen? And why? All that and more will be answered in today's column.

Art by Michael C. Hayes

    Grave Matters

Normally, in the first column I introduce the design team for the set, but today's story is a lengthy one so I'm going to push off the introductions to next week. Here's the short version for today:

I'll start our story at the very beginning (a nun once told me that was the best place to start) in a little set called Odyssey. For those unfamiliar with the Odyssey block (it was ten years ago), it was a block themed around the graveyard. It introduced the threshold and flashback mechanics, the latter of which you'll be getting to know better in Innistrad if you weren't already familiar with it (but that's next week's story).

Mechanically, Odyssey was all about the graveyard. The story was about the fight between a mean squid and a lonely merfolk, and somehow pit fighting was involved. You see, back in the day, Ramp;D would create a set and then the Creative Team would skin it with whatever story they were telling. Quite often the two didn't have much to do with one another. (Another classic mismatch was the time the Creative Team told the story of Urza, one of the best artificers of all time, during a block that Ramp;D had given an enchantment theme.)

During Odyssey, Brady Dommermuth, now creative director and overseer of the Creative Team, was not yet involved with the creative side of Magic. Brady had started as an editor and at the time, I believe he was doing a lot of the technical writing for the game. Anyway, Brady and I would often lament about the complete disconnect between the mechanics and the creative. "A graveyard set," Brady would argue, "That would be the perfect time to do something like a gothic horror set, something that wants to focus on the graveyard."

Brady and I talked quite a bit about the idea of a classic horror setting. Remember that at the time not only was Brady not the creative director, I was not yet the head designer. (I was the lead designer of Odyssey for those who might not have memorized Wikipedia's Magic set page.) Flash forward a few years to when I first became head designer and I was charged with putting together a five-year plan.

Five years wasn't enough, so I made a six-year plan. And how did horror world fall into the six-year plan? It didn't. Although I pitched the idea, there wasn't a lot of support for it at the time, so it kept getting pushed back. I knew I wanted to do it, and Brady and I talked regularly about the block. We both knew it was simply a matter of time. And then something happened that had nothing to do with Magic—the horror genre kind of got popular again. Trends go through phases, and it was time for horror to rise back up the pop culture crest. That little boost was all we needed.

    Oh the Horror Genre, the Horror

At the very first meeting, I made one thing crystal clear to my design team. The number-one role of this set's design was capturing the feel of the horror genre. Not just any part of the horror genre, but the gothic end of the spectrum, the part that had the greatest overlap with fantasy. I told my team, "Think more 1950s Universal horror movies and less Saw." The very first meeting, I had my team write everything that the horror genre meant to them up on the board.

Art by Nils Hamm

Looking at this list, a few things became obvious. Number one, if you're going to do horror, it's all about the monsters. The first three things we wrote down were vampires, werewolves, and zombies (what I referred to as the Halloween Big Three—bearing in mind that Frankenstein's monster is a zombie). All three of these monsters were known to often travel in groups, be they clans, packs, or, um, I like the term plague. This meant that the set wanted to have a tribal component.

Note that I never pushed anything onto Innistrad. The components of the set were completely derived from what the horror genre needed. We knew that players were going to want to build monster decks, so we added a tribal component. We also knew that the set wanted lots of one-of horror tropes so we made sure to keep the tribal elements from getting too big. This wasn't Lorwyn, where you had to play a tribe in Limited. Innistrad allows you to play tribally but seldom forces you to do so.

We fleshed the set out to fill it with all the horror goodies we wanted (more on this next week), but the thing I was most after was what I call the emotional core of the set. What does horror mean? What is the essence of it that we had to capture? This is when my writer side kicked in. As a writer I was well versed in how each genre exists to serve a purpose. The popular genres are popular because they meet some basic human need of storytelling.

So what is the horror genre all about? It's a cautionary tale about morality. It teaches about good and evil by showing what happens when people give in to their darker sides. As a simple example, ever notice how the one survivor in a horror film is the good one? All the other people in the story have some flaw of their character that usually is the very thing that gets them killed.

An offshoot of this is one of the staples of horror: the idea that monsters not only prey on humanity, but ultimately come from it. Let's take a look at the three core monsters from above. Where do vampires come from? They are humans bitten by other vampires. How about werewolves? They are humans bitten by other werewolves? Zombies? Yep, humans bitten by other zombies. (Okay, anything dying in a zombie-filled world tends to become a zombie as well.) Humans are a fundamental part of horror, because we serve as both the victims and the source of the monsters. This is one of the key reasons humans became a central part of the set. (Again, more on this next week.)

As we examined all of these elements of horror, we stumbled upon a key part that became the emotional core. Horror is about transformation, watching the innocent get turned into the corrupted. Once we hit upon transformation, I knew we had found the thing we needed to build the set around. All we had to worry about now was how to do it.

    Bad Moon Rising

The game wanted some mechanic that created a dual state in some of the cards. If only the horror genre had such a thing. Oh wait, it does. When do vampires hunt? At night because sunlight kills them. When do werewolves roam the moors? At night because during the day they're human. When do zombies search for brains? Okay, they'll do it anytime, but I like to believe night time is more their thing. Yes, horror has used day/night for great effect. Clearly, we had to capture our version of day/night.

Art by Ryan Yee

I set my team on tackling the issue of day/night and they came back with a large number of ideas. Playtesting weeded down the ideas to two. The first was literally having a mechanic that marked when it was day and when it was night. Numerous teams had tried to tackle day/night in the past and they had never found an adequate solution. (Day/night was tried before during Champions of Kamigawa design. You can read about it here.) The biggest problem with it was that any system that was complex enough to track it got super wordy, and thus very complicated.

My big breakthrough was the idea of creating a double-sided day/night card that other cards merely had to get it into play. Most of the text (and I found that having a card unto itself allowed for more graphical solutions that didn't involve words) was on the day/night card. Experimentation led us to the trigger to advance the sun/moon: casting spells. See, another issue we were facing was that we wanted day/night to be something that players had some ability to interact with. The game play was much more fun if the players could change their play to affect what was going on. (This will come up again when we get to the werewolf transformation mechanic later—I really wanted to talk about it today, but it just didn't fit, so I will get to it in the upcoming weeks.)

While all this was going on, the team was also working on another transformation mechanic: double-faced cards. Where did this idea come from? Well, Ramp;D currently has not one trading card game but two. The other is called Duel Masters and is currently made only for the Japanese market (where it's been a giant hit for years). Duel Masters has a slightly younger market and lives in a world with many trading card games (the trading card game genre is very vibrant in Japan, with many, many TCGs). This makes the Duel Masters team much more willing to push boundaries. My joke is that Duel Masters is a silver-bordered game.

Anyway, Duel Masters made double-faced cards a year or so back. They looked very cool and were quite popular. Tom LaPille had seen them recently, so when I asked how we could make the transformation theme work, Tom suggested we explore double-faced cards. Double-faced cards had plenty of splash going for them, but they had one giant hurdle: the lack of a Magic back. In order to make them we were going to have to solve a number of issues.

    Back and Forth

As we played around with our two different systems, one thing became increasingly clear. The transformation theme worked awesomely with the horror genre. For example, I knew going in to the design that we were probably going to do werewolves. Not only are they are iconic horror staples, but they are a very resonant creature that Magic has barely touched. In over twelve thousand cards, there have been three werewolves! (Odyssey, to be fair, did have a lycanthrope theme that wove through some of the threshold creatures.) Having a transformation mechanic allowed us to do werewolves the way they wanted to be done with two states, human and werewolf. (The human state is listed as Human Werewolf, but I'll get to why that is so later in the column.)

We also found that the having two states allowed us to do many horror tropes. For instance, today's preview card was simply called Dr. Jekyll amp; Mr. Hyde in design. As you get a chance to see the double-faced cards you'll get to see how we were able to use them to hit popular horror tropes.

Playtesting showed that we were on to something, but the execution was still causing all kinds of problems. The day/night card had two issues. One, because it changed with each spell cast, there were opportunities to miss moving the counter on it—what we in Ramp;D call a "memory issue." (The day/night card had a track of three spaces on each side, so the counter moved along the track with each spell turning over at the appropriate place.) Also, the card that cared about the day/night card often got removed, leaving a tracking device that didn't matter but that you had to care about because it could matter later.

Double-faced cards had a different problem. Once they were on the battlefield, they worked great. Their issue was how they would work in the library or in the hand. Our solution seemed like a simple one. We would create two cards. The first card was a one-sided sorcery card (a normal card with the Magic back) that went in your deck. It essentially made a very elaborate token—the double-faced card. We could use the art from the first side of the double-faced card as the art for the sorcery and write the rules to say that you couldn't play the "token" without the sorcery (and vice versa). It would require rewriting the token rules, but every believed it could be easily done.

The other issue with double-faced cards was a rules one. The day/night card has some wonkiness, to it but nothing about them broken any fundamental rules of the game. Not so with double-faced cards. The rules manager, who was, at the time, still Mark Gottlieb, argued that we should turn them into flip cards (last seen in Champions of Kamigawa block).

Those worked, he said. He would have to change the rule about flip cards being able to flip back, but that was a doable task. The problem was twofold. First, the flip cards proved to not be as popular as we hoped. The biggest strike against them was that they were so busy that it was hard to get the essential dual qualities of the card. The double-faced cards solved this problem by having two distinctively different states. When human, the card is clearly human. When a werewolf, the card is clearly a werewolf. Double-faced cards also didn't have issues like how to tell what form the card is in when it's tapped.

The second issue was text length. Flip cards had minimal space for text and our werewolf mechanic proved to be a bit texty, meaning that we couldn't fit the werewolves as we envisioned them on a flip card. Once again, the double-faced story is a lengthy one, so I don't have space today to explain how we came up with the werewolf mechanic, but I promise to explain in the upcoming weeks how it came about.

When the dust settled, it became clear to me that double-faced cards played better than the day/night cards, so I made the call that we would be going forward with double-faced cards. Little did I know the troubles that lay ahead.

    Double-Face the Music

The double-faced mechanic had two big barriers in its way:

  1. Figure out how to have it play in zones that really needed a Magic back.
  2. Get the rules to work out for it

The rest of my column today is about solving problem #1. Problem #2 got solved and it was a lot of work, but that article is probably best written by someone like Matt Tabak (the current Rules Manager) who did all that work.

I felt like I had solved problem #1 in a way that would clearly work in a game of Magic. The problem ended up being not a problem of game play, but one of logistics. You see, one of the things you learn designing Magic is that there are many elements to getting the game made. When you mess with one or more of the fundamental elements of the game, things that you never normally worry about start to become worrisome.

Creepy Doll | Art by Matt Stewart

Case in point: My simple little plan to have two cards for each double-sided card (the sorcery that got it out and the double-sided card itself) proved to be undoable. Okay, that's a little unfair. At best, we could spend a lot of money to have about a 90% success rate. (To stress the point, that means that in roughly one out of ten packs you would get a sorcery that summoned a double-faced card but not the double-faced card it summoned, or vice versa.) That simply wasn't acceptable to us, so we had to look for an alternative.

The solution was twofold, with each answer provided by a different person. The first fix was initially proposed by Mike Turian, a Pro Tour Hall of Famer and former Magic Ramp;D developer (he now works in Organized Play helping organize and create sanctioned play environments), who suggested the bold move of just letting players play with the double-faced cards in their decks. Research had shown that 90% of the players already play in card sleeves for Constructed play. Getting all the players who wanted to play with double-faced cards to play with opaque sleeves didn't seem that hard to do, Mike argued.

Mike's evidence was pretty compelling, but we still had to have an option for those players who didn't have or didn't want to play in opaque sleeves. Also, that 90% number was for constructed. A big part of Magic play is still Limited. This meant we needed an answer to what players would do if they didn't have opaque sleeves.

This second solution was presented by Aaron Forsythe. Rather than have a unique card for each double-faced card, what if there was a way to have one universal card that could be used to cast any of the double-faced cards? I liked the utility of only having one card, but I didn't like the game play of allowing a player flexibility of what card to get. I then brought up the card Letter Bomb from Unhinged. That card also had an identity problem, which we solved by having its owner sign it. This led us to the idea of a checklist that would allow a player to essentially do what we wanted to do in the first place, but in a way we could print.

The checklist, by the way, comes in roughly three out of every four Innistrad booster packs. It always replaces the basic land. Because this makes the Innistrad basic land harder to get, we dropped down from four images to three images for each of the basic land. The reason the checklist card is in place of the land instead of the rules card is that the rules card is printed on a different card stock with slightly different ink, making it unusable for a card that wanted a Magic back that was indistinguishable from other Magic backs. We also considered swapping it out for a common but decided that players would be happier having a land replaced than a common—plus, we were already using a common slot for the double-faced card (more on this in a bit).

The way the checklist card works is that it is used for every zone except for in play. When the card is in your hand, in the library, in the graveyard or face down in the exile zone, it is replaced by the checklist card. (Check all the rules on the Double-Faced Card Rules Page to see exactly how all this works.) The checklist card always has to be marked to make it clear what double-faced card it is standing in for.

    Double-Face Off

I had anticipated some backlash as radical ideas tend to meet strong resistance (and rightfully so, I should say—Design needs to have others double check what it's doing). But through the entire rest of design, no one flinched. A big reason for this, remember, was that at this point the plan was to have the sorcery that got the double-faced card onto the battlefield. This version avoided a lot of the awkwardness of having double-faced cards in your library and hand so a bunch of the issues that would come up weren't relevant yet.

There did come a moment when numerous Ramp;D members came together and questioned the existence of double-faced cards, but interestingly it didn't happen until the set got to development. Normally, I tell the story of how I had to fight for some element of my design despite many members of Ramp;D wanting to remove it. For Innistrad though, I wasn't the guy that had to fight for it—Erik Lauer, Innsitrad's lead developer, was.

Art by David Palumbo

I'm not sure why the resistance took so long to gel (it happened a little after the switch to the current system), but it did and it happened smack in the middle of development. Now that you know what Mechanic X is you can see why I stuck it in my goals for next year's State of Design column. Design is messing with something pretty fundamental. The critics of double-faced cards felt that the mechanic was breaking a rule that shouldn't be broken. It created all sorts of logistical headaches not just for game play but for the entire Organized Play system. (By the way, we never at any point took this lightly.) Also, there were many who didn't like the aesthetics of a card face being on the back of a Magic card.

During all this, I was consulted a lot by Erik, who was doing his due diligence in double-checking the idea. Once again, let me stress that it is imperative that development always double-checks the ideas of design. What we were asking for would definitely put stress on the system. Something this bold needs to be examined carefully.

I held firm in my faith in double-faced cards. As I often say, "Don't go outside the box if inside the box will work"—but I felt this was a case where inside the box couldn't effectively do what these cards needed to do. The emotional core of the design was the concept of transformation, and nothing we came up with did as an effective a job of communicating that—mechanically, aesthetically, emotionally—as the double-faced cards. The set isn't out yet, and we just announced the existence of double-faced cards, so it's too early to know how they are going to be received, but having held one in my hand, I'm pretty confident that we made the right call.

I'm very curious, by the way, to hear what all you think of double-faced cards. Please use my email, Twitter (@maro254), other social media, and this column's discussion thread to give me your opinions on them. Also, while I love hearing first impressions, I also want to hear what you think once you've had a chance to look at them in person and play with them.

There was a lot of debate about the double-faced cards, but in the end, the design vision made it to print. Be aware that every booster will have one double-faced card in it. In order to print them, we had to make a sheet just for double-faced cards, which allows us to include them once per booster. The double-faced card takes the slot of a common (the key reason the checklist took the place of a land over a common), even though there are double-faced cards of every rarity.

The rarity of the double-faced cards comes from how often they appear in booster packs. While they have their own sheet, we managed to come very close to having each rarity hit at about the same percentages as a normal card of that rarity. So yes, that means if you get a rare or mythic rare double-faced card, you will still get your normal rare or mythic rare. The double-faced cards do come in premium, and both sides of a premium double-faced card are "foil." (The ultimate dream booster, by the way, will include a premium mythic rare double-faced card, a premium mythic rare, and a non-premium mythic rare.)

    Hungry Like the Werewolf

I hope today's column shows the huge number of issues that had to be addressed to make the double-faced cards. Here's one last issue we had to deal with before I call it wraps for today. Take a look at this werewolf:

Double-Faced Card Rules

Look at the type line on each side. You'll notice the human side is a Human Werewolf and the werewolf side is a Werewolf. Every werewolf does this (although some will have extra subtypes on one of the sides). Let me quickly explain why we chose to make a Werewolf creature type and why it appears on both sides.

Art by Mark Evans

In the last few years, Ramp;D has leaned heavily on something we call resonance. The idea is that the game is more fun if there are a decent number of cards that do what players expect, because it piggybacks on previous knowledge. Part of creating resonance is making use of words. As a writer, I've learned that words shape behavior, and it's important that the game uses the resource of words.

Previous werewolves have been creature type Human Wolf, following in the pattern of creatures like the loxodon and the leonin, humanoid creatures with a strong animal component. I argued that werewolves were more like minotaurs and centaurs, in that their names are familiar enough words to break this convention, even though they are clearly part of an animal that we support in creature types.

Innistrad also wanted to reference werewolves and it felt bad to have to refer to them as wolves. For example, our template in rules text for monster is "Vampire, Werewolf, and Zombie." This was a hotly contested issue that created much debate, but after hours of discussion, we chose to use Werewolf.

Art by Mark Evans

During these discussions another issue came up, this one more mechanical in nature. Because double-faced cards are always in their front-face form in any zone other than play, it was impossible to make cards that referenced their back faces in any other zone. To fix this problem, we made werewolves have the Werewolf subtype in all forms. For a while, to try to please everyone, the werewolf side was Wolf Werewolf (to contrast with Human Werewolf). Enough people chimed in that this sounded awkward that we removed the Wolf from the werewolf side. We did make a conscious effort, though, to have Werewolf-affecting cards also affect Wolves. As you will see in an upcoming week, this would prove important.

    Double-Face the Nation

Whew! I had a lot to say and I didn't have space for it all, so some of the aspects of designing double-faced cards (especially what I call the "werewolf mechanic") will have to wait for future columns. The double-faced cards, though, are just the tip of the iceberg of what Innistrad has to offer. (I don't want to imply with this metaphor that Innistrad will be seen later as the cause of an international and historic tragedy.)

Join me next week, when I show off a card that will answer one of my teasers from last week and explain how exactly we made the set match its horror theme.

Until then, may you know the joy of breaking a taboo.

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