#863: Shards of Alara with Devin Low
I sit down with former R&D member Devin Low to talk about the design of Shards of Alara.
Posted in Making Magic on September 2, 2021
Welcome to the first week of Innistrad: Midnight Hunt card previews. I'm going to start telling you the story of the set's design and show off a cool new preview card (it's a Werewolf!). You know, business as usual, except with more Werewolves. I guess business as usual in Innistrad.
Our story today starts all the way back in the summer of 1994. There was a new set coming out called Legends. That meant that I had to camp out in front of the game store for an hour before it opened because I'd learned that if you don't buy a Magic set the day it comes out, it becomes a lot harder to get your hands on it. I'd found a game store in Westwood, the city where UCLA is, that had ordered a lot of Legends, so that was where I went to buy mine. I ended up buying four booster boxes, three of which I opened that day and one which I put away in a closet. One of the cards I opened was this one:
I remember reading the name and getting excited. Ooh, what's a Lesser Werewolf? But then I read the rules text. Okay, if I have enough mana, I could use it to kill a blocker or an attacker while blocking. But why temporarily reduce its power? And what exactly in the design conveyed the idea of transformation? It just felt like a swing and a miss, which was disappointing because I really wanted Magic to have a cool Werewolf.
Let's go forward a little less than a year to early 1995. I was freelancing for Wizards writing various things for seven different parts of the company (which included both R&D and The Duelist) when I got an interesting email. Was I interested in starting an external playtest group? I would need to put together a play group of four to eight individuals to be sent playtesting material for upcoming sets. All we had to do was play with it, collect notes on our playtest, and send them back to R&D. I said yes, that was something I would like to do.
I got a bunch of my Magic friends from Los Angles together (it's where I was living at the time), and we made a playtest group. The first set we were sent to playtest was Homelands. The playtest cards were pieces of cardboard that had been printed out and cut into roughly the shape of a Magic card (although a little shorter and squatter). The first thing we did at our very first meeting was open up the box of playtest cards and look at them. One of the first cards I looked at was this card.
Then I read the card. Five mana for a 2/4 that permanently harmed creatures that blocked it. "Oh," I said, "it sucks." I looked through the rest of the set eager to find another Werewolf, but none were to be found. Magic was now zero for two with Werewolves.
Fast-forward to 2000. I was now working in R&D at Wizards and was on the design team for Judgment. It was the third set in the Odyssey block, and we were experimenting with different types of designs with one of the block's mechanics, threshold. One idea we were playing with was having a few threshold creatures that were double-edged swords when you reached threshold. Yes, they got better, but there was some danger built into the transformation. This resulted in the following card making it to print:
The card wasn't designed to be a top-down Werewolf. We'd used lycanthropy as a flavor for some of the threshold cards, so the Creative team felt this might be a good place to make a Werewolf. It was clearly a better card than the first two Werewolves (it at least incorporated transformation), but it still was far from a slam-dunk design.
Fast-forward to 2009. It's early in the design of original Innistrad. We'd decided that we wanted creatures that were monsters and that had to include Vampires, Zombies, and Werewolves (Spirits got added a little later). I was eager to figure out top-down designs for each of our monsters.
I started that meeting by pulling out copies of Lesser Werewolf, Greater Werewolf, and Treacherous Werewolf from my pocket. "These are the Werewolves of Magic. We can do better. In fact, I think the key to whether this set is going to be a success is if we can figure out how to execute well on Werewolf cards. Magic's done Vampires successfully. Magic's done Zombies successfully. But it hasn't succeeded with Werewolves yet. This is where we're going to focus our energies today."
I ended up making a bunch of rules that defined what a Werewolf had to do (two states, transformation, etc.—you can read more about it in my article from Werewolf Week). This would lead to Tom LaPille suggesting we make use of the double-sided card technology that Duel Masters (the Japanese TCG that Wizards makes) was using. We did, and you all have probably heard me tell that story twenty times.
Today's story goes down a different path. There were numerous ideas suggested, not just double-faced cards. One of the main mechanics in the set (and one on my preview card today) got its origin in something I pitched as a possible way to solve the Werewolf issue other than using double-faced cards.
I called my idea day/night. Here's how it worked. When you played a Werewolf, you went and fetched a card from outside the game (yes, while Dungeons & Dragons: Adventures in the Forgotten Realms finally did this with dungeons, we've been playing with this idea for a long time). It involved a double-sided card with one side representing day and the other side representing night. Each side had a track with three spots on it. You'd start on the first spot on the day side. Then, every time a player casted a spell, the track would advance. When they were on spots one, two, and three, it would be day, and when they were on spots four, five, and six, it would be night. The player would move from spot six to spot one, and the Werewolves would change their side based on whether it was day or night.
The mechanic played well, but it just wasn't as exciting as double-faced cards, so we ended up pulling it from the set. However, it was the inspiration for the "Werewolf mechanic" (the trigger that transformed Humans into Werewolves and Werewolves into Humans) we put in Innistrad and has appeared on all Werewolves since (with the sole exception of Eldritch Moon, which did them a little differently). I honestly didn't think we'd ever see the day/night mechanic again, but the past does have a way of turning up when you least expect it.
Fast-forward another bunch of years, this time to 2018. In 2017, R&D had started doing something called Hackathons where we took the week off from our normal responsibilities and used the time to brainstorm ideas for future products. Both Modern Horizons and Jumpstart were a byproduct of the first Hackathon. Seeing how successful the first Hackathon had been, I asked permission to do a Hackathon on future Magic mechanics. I ended up running the Hackathon, and I did so by breaking up the ideas into six different categories.
Team #1: Planeswalkers – This team explored doing some bottom-up planeswalker designs to find cool mechanical hooks that we could later find characters for.
Team #2: Story Beats – This team looked at upcoming story beats to figure out if we could use those as jumping-off points to inspire new designs.
Team #3: Reexamining Old Assumptions – This team went back and reexamined decisions Magic had made in its past to explore what might have happened if we had made a different decision. Might there be cool mechanics if we were willing to question old choices?
Team #4: Backlog Mechanics – This team looked at all the mechanics we'd tried but hadn't used to see if there were cool mechanics buried in the work of our past.
Team #5: Frames – This team explored the potential that came with our new willingness to be more aggressive with alternate frames. Were there mechanics that we couldn't have done before but now could using frame design as a resource.
Team #6: Outside Components – This team explored mechanics that required you having components beyond your deck of cards.
I found my five other team leaders and let them pick which team they wanted to run. I ended up leading Team #6 because it was the most "out of the box" team and no one else knew quite what to make of it. Within my team, I subdivided ideas into the different categories I was interested in exploring.
I don't want to get too deep into the subcategories, as some of them involve cool stuff coming down the road, but I will talk about one subsection, what I called "external cards." The idea of this section asks how we can use a card from the deck to bring another card to the game from outside the deck. Those cards didn't necessarily have to be traditional Magic cards but any component that could be printed on a card. Dungeons are a good example of a printed mechanic from this category.
To help get the team's creative juices flowing, I started by doing a talk where I ran through all the things that we'd tried in the past but hadn't done in this category. One of those things was the day/night mechanic from original Innistrad. When I talked about it, other team members were intrigued by it, so we decided to spend some time messing around with it to see what kind of designs we could make.
One of the big innovations was the idea that if you had this component, you could do more than just transforming double-faced cards. There could be plenty of one-sided cards that either turned on or off or changed their function depending on whether it was day or night. The more we played with it, the more we enjoyed it, so in the final presentation for the team (each team gave a presentation at a Tuesday Magic meeting about what they had discovered—they did a write-up as well), I pitched day/night as a possible future mechanic with potential.
Fast-forward a little over a year later, and I'm at the first meeting of vision design for Innistrad: Midnight Hunt. We're talking about things we could do for our third trip to Innistrad, and I say, "I have something—something that owes its very existence to the world of Innistrad." I pull out the decks for the mechanic we'd made during the Hackathon and play them with the team.
Ethan Fleischer, who was the lead vision designer of the set, said he liked the cards that cared about day/night and liked the basic structure but was skeptical of the flip condition. (While many things had changed, it still had a track that moved as spells were cast.) He suggested we try some other triggers and see how they played.
So, we did. We made a long list of different triggers we could care about and playtested various versions. One thing we tried involved using the same trigger the Werewolves already use. Not only would it be easier to remember, as the "Werewolf mechanic" is pretty integral to most Innistrad sets, but it would also allow all the old Werewolves (again, except the ones from Eldritch Moon) to play similarly to the ones in this set. Once we playtested it, it became instantly apparent that's what we should be using.
Once we had the day/night mechanic, which would be changed to daybound/nightbound, we started exploring what kinds of things it would let us do. There ended up being four major areas.
1. It could tie other transformations to the Werewolves.
While most of the daybound/nightbound cards would be Werewolves, it allowed us to take other cards that thematically connect and also have them link to the daybound/nightbound cycle. For example, for the first time, you'll see some other card types change at the same time as Werewolves transform.
2. We could make non-transforming cards care.
Daybound/nightbound creates a state that other cards can care about, even ones that don't transform. For example, we can make cards that get stronger based on whether it's day or night. In design, we tried both, but Set Design found that the flavor leaned on things being more powerful at night.
3. We can care about the transformation itself.
Another thing we found fun in playtesting was that we can create cards, and ultimately a deck archetype, that doesn't care about it being day or night specifically but triggers whenever it changes from one to another. While it's fun making a deck that works hard at constantly making it night (this is mostly how Werewolf decks play), it's also fun to create a deck that's trying to switch it as much as possible. This theme shows up in white, blue, and red.
4. Things can enter on the nightbound side.
Daybound/nightbound also has one other interesting quirk. The mechanic allows cards to sense which state it is in when they enter the battlefield and transform accordingly. That means, for example, if you're playing a Werewolf deck, and it's night, your Werewolves will enter on their Werewolf side. (I should point out that the old Werewolves that don't have daybound/nightbound won't do this, although they will still transform at the same time as the daybound/nightbound ones, so the cards will play together well.)
I do want to stress that just because daybound/nightbound exists, that doesn't mean that all the transforming double-faced cards (TDFCs) are connected to it. In fact, there's an entire other mechanic, which I'll get into next week, that we tied into TDFCs. Part of the fun of visiting Innistrad is exploring what we can do with TDFCs, and while the Werewolves are back in force, there are plenty of TDFCs doing other things.
Once we realized that daybound/nightbound was going to be a key component of the set, we decided it would be fun to lean into Werewolves as a theme. As I explained above, Vampires, Zombies, and Spirits get a lot more face time on other worlds, so Innistrad is the place where we can give Werewolves some extra love. One of the ways we did this, beyond just printing more Werewolves than any previous Innistrad set, was by allowing them to exist outside their normal home of red and green (those two colors are still their primary colors). We decided that we would give them a third color option and give the remaining two colors a cameo (i.e., one card that transformed into a Werewolf). It didn't take much talking to realize that the obvious third color for Werewolves to appear in was black, so you'll find three black Werewolves in the set. White and blue each got one card that is their color on the front but transforms into either a red or green Werewolf on the back.
It turns out one of the cards, the white one, is my preview card today. So, without further ado, I think it's time to meet Brutal Cathar.
You'll notice we split the difference on the back between what overlapped and what didn't in red and white. Both colors have first strike, but white normally has ward for mana while red has ward for life. This allowed it to have a red feel while still working with a white mana cost. While I'm not showing the blue Werewolf cameo today, I can say it transforms into a green Werewolf.
For those worried that we wouldn't give enough goodies to the other main creature types (Human, Spirit, Vampire, and Zombie), fear not. Humans and Spirits each have a new mechanic, Zombies get a new type of Zombie token, and Vampires have an unnamed mechanical theme (and remember, Vampires get their own focused set in Crimson Blood). I'll walk through all that next week.
That's all the time I have for today. As always, I'm interested in hearing your feedback on today's column, on the new daybound/nightbound mechanic, or on any facet of Innistrad: Midnight Hunt. You can email me or contact me through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and TikTok).
Join me next week when I talk about all the non-Werewolf stuff in Innistrad: Midnight Hunt.
Until then, may you enjoy howling at the moon.
I sit down with former R&D member Devin Low to talk about the design of Shards of Alara.
In this podcast, I start talking about the history of the Equipment subtype and share some card-by-card design stories.