#865: Strixhaven with Taylor Ingvarsson
I sit down with Art Director Taylor Ingvarsson to talk about the art design of Strixhaven.
Posted in Making Magic on September 6, 2021
Last week, I talked about how Innistrad: Midnight Hunt mechanically captured the feel of the Werewolves. Today, I'm going to talk about all the other mechanical aspects of the set and introduce you to both the Vision Design and Set Design teams. Plus, before this column is over, I have a cool new preview card to show you, something for the Zombie fans out there.
To introduce design teams, I have the team lead do the introductions. First up, Ethan Fleischer is going to introduce the Innistrad: Midnight Hunt Vision Design team.
Next up, Ian Duke introduces his Set Design team.
While Werewolves are the focus of this set, it's still Innistrad, which means there are four other major creature types to care about.
One of the challenges of designing Zombies on Innistrad is our desire to capture the pop culture feel of Zombies. In movies and on television, Zombies aren't particularly scary in the singular. They're not that fast, they're not that smart. If you're prepared for them and you know how to kill them, it's not that difficult to deal with a single zombie. What makes Zombies scary is that there's never just one. There's always a horde of Zombies that follow the first one you encounter, and there are only so many you can fight before they overwhelm you. We've always tried to capture that feel in Innistrad sets, that it's the horde that's going to kill you.
During Innistrad: Crimson Vow vision design, we decided to explore what other resources might be available to capture this feeling. We looked at Zombie creature tokens, always 2/2 black Zombies, and asked if there was another way to use them. Some of my favorite Zombie cards from original Innistrad allowed you to acquire a large amount of Zombie creature tokens to overrun the opponent, but it wasn't the kind of thing we could do easily at low rarities. Was there a way to create a Zombie horde at common and uncommon? That was the task we set out to solve.
We started by asking if we could just do more Zombie creature token creation at low rarities. What if there were spells that created a Zombie as an add-on to the spell—it was a creature that came with a Zombie creature token or an instant or sorcery that made one in addition to its effect. The problem was that we'd locked in Zombies as being 2/2 creature tokens (and that started long before original Innistrad), and it was too big of an effect to add on without significantly raising the mana cost of the spells. That's when we came up with a novel idea. What if we gave the Zombie tokens a downside to make them weaker to allow us to include them on spells?
The biggest problem tokens create is that they gum up the board and keep the opponent's creatures from attacking. Okay, we'll add "can't block." We tried that, and it was still too good. We then asked ourselves what kind of play pattern we wanted. We liked the idea of slowly building up your Zombie army and winning the game by attacking with a horde. That was exactly the flavor we wanted to capture. That led us to the drawback "when it attacks, sacrifice it at the end of combat." The idea was that each Zombie token basically had one attack. You wanted to save it until it was the right time to use it. Playtesting showed us that sometimes it was in a horde but that at other times it was finding an opportunity when you can get through. This way, your opponent had to treat the Zombie creature tokens as a potential threat.
During development, they ended up keywording that ability as decayed. Now I realize that drawback mechanics aren't historically popular, so it's easy to say, why should I be excited for creature tokens that are way worse than normal? Because it allows us to give them to you at a much cheaper cost and it creates a new play pattern that's very interesting. Much of the team was skeptical at first, but as we played them, everyone fell in love with them because they're flavorful and impactful in a way that's not always obvious at first blush. They ended up being so popular in R&D, in fact, that the Innistrad: Midnight Hunt Set Design team decided to move forward with the mechanic. (Set Design teams can use future mechanics as needed because the future design team has more time to find a replacement.) Every Zombie creature token in the set has decayed. I know this mechanic is probably going to create some skepticism at first glance, but I promise you, it plays well.
Before I move on, my preview card today is a card that uses decayed. Click below to see Tainted Adversary.
Two weeks ago, I showed you the design handoff document from original Innistrad, and in the article, I noted that I felt Spirits deserved more of a mechanical identity than they received. Innistrad: Midnight Hunt does not suffer from that problem. In fact, we gave them a whole new mechanic. Let me explain how it happened.
While trying to figure out how best to make use of transforming double-faced cards (TDFCs), we explored other facets of how we could use them to represent transformation. Part of this exploration was to look at each of the five main creature types and figure out what kind of transformation made the best flavor sense. For Spirits, the thing that stood out was that they didn't start out as Spirits. At one point, they were alive, but when they died, they became Spirits. That's a cool transformation. The earliest version of this involved creatures with a death trigger that put them back on the battlefield transformed. It turned out that having a creature die into another creature was strong, so we ended up making cards that looked very weak. That's when we thought about the aftermath mechanic from Amonkhet block, where you played the card as one spell from your hand but as a different spell from your graveyard. What if we combined aftermath with flashback to make cards that could be cast as one creature from your hand and a different creature, always a Spirit, from your graveyard.
This led us to create a mechanic, what we called disturb, that allowed you to cast the card from the graveyard and have it enter the battlefield transformed. As this was the Spirit mechanic that was trying to capture the transformation I talked about above, the front side is always a living creature, usually a Human, and the backside is always a Spirit. This way, you get the flavor of things dying and then returning as Spirits. The flavor was great, and it allowed us to use TDFCs in a new way. I do want to mention two other things. One, not every Spirit in the set has disturb, but the majority do. Two, the Vision Design team created a different mechanic for the Spirits, but when Innistrad: Midnight Hunt took the decayed Zombie creature tokens from Innistrad: Crimson Vow, they traded them the Spirit mechanic (as each made more mechanical sense in the other set). I'll talk about that Spirit mechanic when I do my Innistrad: Crimson Vow preview articles.
As is most often the case, things aren't going so well for the Humans of Innistrad. Oddly, being surrounded by monsters isn't the safest thing. Some of the Humans have turned to witchcraft to protect themselves from the monsters (in particular, the Werewolves in the story), and we wanted to find a mechanic to capture the flavor of witchcraft. To do their witchcraft, the Humans have banded together at an event called the Harvesttide.
Since original Innistrad, the Humans' two biggest strengths have been their willingness to work together and their adaptability. We were hoping the witchcraft mechanic could play both these up. The first version we tried was a kicker-like mechanic where you could tap three creatures to enhance the spell. Tapping creatures ended up being too much of a cost, so we tried to approach the problem from a different vantage point. What if the spell just required three creatures, sort of a creature version of metalcraft from Scars of Mirrodin (which was a threshold mechanic that required three artifacts). That ended up being a little too easy. What if you had to have three creatures but they had to have something in common?
Sharing the same creature type? It was already the Human mechanic, so that wasn't really asking for enough.
Sharing the same mana value? It seemed like an odd thing to care about and wasn't particularly flavorful.
Sharing the same power? This one was a little more interesting but was too easily solved with 1/1 creature tokens.
That's when the design team decided to flip the requirement. What if instead of sharing the same power, you had to have three creatures each with a different power? This was a task that was a little more complicated, so it couldn't be done too easily but was doable enough that it could be accomplished. The ability ended up being called coven. It mostly went on creatures but was also able to go on other card types. (Non-creature spells get a little more of a boost, as the creature gives you one of the three creatures you need.)
Innistrad: Crimson Vow is to Vampires what Innistrad: Midnight Hunt is to Werewolves, so of all the tribes in the set, Vampires was the one we were least worried about. The next set was going to have lots of goodies for the Vampire fans. Innistrad: Midnight Hunt was still going to have Vampires as a viable Draft archetype/Constructed deck theme, so we wanted to make sure they had a mechanical identity; it just didn't need to be a named mechanic. What we ended up with was a theme. Many of the Vampires have triggers that care about if your opponent has lost life during your turn. This could come from damaging them with creatures or spells, something black and red can do. It also plays nicely with Vampires from other sets.
Innistrad was the first set to have multiple Devils in it. Innistrad: Midnight Hunt has two Devil cards and one card that creates Devil tokens (and yes, they're 1/1s that deal 1 damage to any target when they die).
Part of returning to a world for the third time is that there are some expectations to meet, and the design teams worked hard to fit in as much as they could. Here are some returning things in Innistrad: Midnight Hunt.
Flashback first premiered in Odyssey but was a big part of the success of original Innistrad. While our second return to the plane didn't include them, we decided our third visit should. (And yes, this is why they weren't in Strixhaven.) There are a whole bunch of new flashback cards.
Innistrad introduced Curses, Auras that enchanted players and gave them negative abilities. Innistrad: Midnight Hunt has four new ones.
Transforming double-faced cards are a staple of Innistrad sets (well, other than Avacyn Restored), so obviously Innistrad: Midnight Hunt has a bunch. In fact, two cards in every Innistrad: Midnight Hunt booster should be TDFCs. And yes, most of them have daybound/nightbound or disturb, but there are a number of other cards that transform in different ways.
What would a gothic horror plane be without a lot of references to the graveyard? It's been a staple of previous visits to Innistrad, and this time is no exception. In addition to flashback and disturb (two mechanics that work in the graveyard), there are a lot of other individual cards that reference it in various ways.
Investigate (and Clues) was a popular mechanic from Shadows over Innistrad, so we've included five new ones.
The Number Thirteen
Thirteen is a superstitiously unlucky number, so Innistrad sets like to make use of the number in rules text. Three different cards reference the number thirteen.
And that is everything non-Werewolf-related mechanic in Innistrad: Midnight Hunt. As always, I'm eager to hear your feedback on today's column or the set in general. You can email me or contact me through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and TikTok).
Join me next week for card-by-card design stories from Innistrad: Midnight Hunt.
Until then, may you find the element of Innistrad that you most enjoy.
I sit down with Art Director Taylor Ingvarsson to talk about the art design of Strixhaven.
In this podcast, I continue talking about the history of the Equipment subtype and share some card-by-card design stories.