Innistrad Design Handoff Document

Posted in Making Magic on August 23, 2021

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.

Editor's note: This article is best viewed on a desktop or laptop computer.

From time to time, I like to show you the vision design handoff documents that I create when I finish working on a set. These documents are designed to walk the Set Design team through the vision of the set as well as introduce the various mechanics and themes the Vision Design team created.

Here are the documents I've published so far:

As we're about to return to Innistrad for two sets (Innistrad: Midnight Hunt and Innistrad: Crimson Vow), I thought it would be fun to go back to the very beginning and show you all the design handoff document I created for original Innistrad.

As with my Future Sight article, there are a few caveats I have to offer before we begin:

  1. How these documents are put together has changed a bunch over time, so this one is a little different from the vision design ones I've posted. (For example, no sample cards.) I believe this document was handed over in the fall of 2009.
  2. This was back when R&D had the design/development model, so I'd spent more time on the set than I do on vision design (closer to a year in contrast to the four months I get now), which means the set was much further along.
  3. Everything on the left side is the actual document as it was turned in. Everything on the right consists of my notes, which explain things to help you get some larger context.

"Shake" Design Document

 

 

The "Shake" design team set out with one simple goal: we wanted to take the genre of horror and bring it to Magic. The team didn't need to invent much, as most of the elements already existed in the game. Our goal was to take these elements, with a few new ones, and combine them to create a rich top-down world that embodied fantasy horror. The team I put together included myself, Richard Garfield, Jenna Helland, Graeme Hopkins, and Tom Lapille.

After much discussion, we've decided that we need to embrace four elements to bring the set to life: a tribal "monster" component, a graveyard component, a "death matters" component, and a transformation component. These four components will be the backbone of the design.

TRIBAL "MONSTERS"

 

 

When we began talking about what players would expect to see in a horror set, the first answer was monsters. While we discussed many different monsters, the four that seemed to win at the end of the day were vampires, werewolves, zombies, and ghosts (aka spirits). This discussion also brought out the importance of humans in horror stories. The monsters had to be threatening someone. In addition, the heroes are traditional humans that stand up to the monsters. The set needed some slayers and monster hunters.

With the five tribes in mind, we set out to carve space for them all. Here's where we ended up: (Note that I am listing the creature types in what I believe is their order of importance in the big picture of the design, both toward feel and for selling the set.)

 

Werewolves

Werewolves are green and red. They are all double-sided cards with a smaller Human side and a large Werewolf side. All double-sided red and green cards are Werewolves. All Werewolves have the same two triggers, one Human to Werewolf and one Werewolf to Human.

The Human-to-Werewolf trigger is an at-the-beginning-of-the-end-step trigger that happens if no spell was played by any player that turn. The trigger needs to be crafted such that players can't sneak out spells after "not having played spells for the turn." We might consider having the trigger be at the beginning of the next turn.

The Werewolf-to-Human trigger is an at-the-beginning-of-the-end-step trigger that happens if two or more spells were played by any combination of players that turn. The two triggers were selected to allow both players to have influence over whether the creatures transform. The triggers were made vague to convey a sense of passing time. Playtesting has shown that players seem to fill in the "the moon comes out" feel that the mechanic does not specify.

A subtle, but I believe very important, part of the design is the addition of the Werewolf creature type. (Two of the three Werewolves in existence were printed as Lycanthrope and one as Minion Wolf. All three are now Human Wolf with one being Human Wolf Minion.) I listed the Werewolves first in importance because, of all the monsters we are doing, Werewolves have never been done effectively in Magic and will be, in my opinion, the greatest "new" thing in the set. Also, I believe the double-sided cards are going be the key selling point, and every Werewolf has one.

If we are going to sell Werewolves as being a big feature, I want to make sure we're making use of the word, as words are a very potent part of conveying a feature of the set. There are a few old cards to change, all of which have Werewolf in their name and two of which aren't even what they have written on their card.

The Werewolf deck has a lot of suspense built into it because there is an unknown when the army of Humans will turn into the much scarier army of Werewolves. Because the Werewolf deck involves not playing spells (either to turn them or keep them from turning back), we wanted to make sure that red and green had some extra things to do with the mana.

Humans

Humans are centered in white but appear in all five colors, secondarily in green. If there is a conflict in the story, it is of the humans against the monsters. Note that the monsters aren't working together, so it's not a war like Scars of Mirrodin block but rather a hostile environment where the humans are fighting for their lives from all sides.

The defining quality of humans is that they work well together. This is displayed by having a lot of individual Human cards that either help your whole team or Humans in particular. Another quality that defines humans is that they are better at using weapons than the monsters. Rather than improving cards that are equipped (something we've done a few times in recent years), we have made a few Equipment cards that are better suited for Humans.

Another theme woven through Humans appears only in white. To get a sense of the humans against the monsters, white has numerous cards that affect nonwhite cards or are specifically designed to deal with a certain type of monster.

Humans are second on this list because although Humans have been rampant in Magic for its entire history, we've never made a Human-specific tribal card until "Shake." This "Humans matter" theme will also matter quite a bit later in the block, as the number of Humans should go up significantly in "Roll."

Zombies

Zombies are in black and blue. The black Zombies are dead raised through necromancy or dark magic. They are the type of thing you'd see in Dawn of the Dead or any zombie apocalypse setting. The blue Zombies are flesh golems made by wizards using dead body parts (think Frankenstein).

The black Zombies make use of cards that either get back Zombie cards from the graveyard (always randomly to lessen the predictability) or create tokens to build a slow-growing army of undead. The Zombie deck wants to feel like zombies in that it is slow and plodding, winning by slowly overrunning the opponent with Zombies.

The blue Zombies all require at least one dead body (exiling creature cards from graveyards). We allowed the blue Zombies to exile from any graveyard because it played better and the flavor seemed to be "any dead body will work."

While Zombies are nothing new to Magic even as a tribe, "Shake" sets out to have a Zombie deck that recreates how zombies are portrayed in classic horror stories. The overall feel of the deck is what we feel is new.

Vampires

Vampires are black and red. Pulling them into red makes the Vampires want to be more impulsive, so we opted to make the Vampire tribe aggro in nature. The other monsters seemed to go for the throat less often, so the Vampire deck filled this void. This feel was created by having Vampires with attack triggers and stats that made them aggressive.

The new thing about the Vampires is their move into red. Because of this, we put the best Vampire enabler in red uncommon to create a new black-red Vampire deck.

Ghosts (Spirits)

Ghosts exist in all colors but show up in the greatest volume in white and blue. Ghosts are the most defensive of the five tribes. They also have the most flying. Ghosts tend to win by tying up the ground and plinking the opponent with fliers.

GRAVEYARD

After tribal, the next place the horror archetype took us was the graveyard. The graveyard has a long history with horror and felt like an interesting aspect of the game to interact with. Knowing this, I told my team that I wanted to find a graveyard mechanic. We tried various graveyard mechanics (including delve from Future Sight) and ended up deciding to put flashback in the set.

Bill has set a dictum that each block returns an old mechanic, so we are always on the lookout for things to return. Flashback has always scored well in surveys, and it ended up being a perfect fit.

Flashback exists in all five colors. Because flashback token makers play well with Zombies, black (instead of green) got most of the flashback token-making spells.

The other big theme of the graveyard was random regrowing effects. Often when cards were getting cards back from the graveyard, we made the effect random to cut down on repetition of play.

There are some other themes that play into the graveyard. Blue has a subtheme of milling, allowing it to get cards from a player's library into his or her graveyard. Often in this set, this results in self-milling. Green has a subtheme that cares about creature cards in the graveyard. Its effects and permanents get stronger as you get more creature cards in your graveyard. Red has a subtheme of spending cards in the graveyard as a resource. The theme was kept small as the team wanted to keep the cards from completely emptying the graveyards. Black has a subtheme of getting cards back from the graveyard, usually to hand or play.

"DEATH MATTERS"

Another discovery of exploring the graveyard is the importance of death in horror. We wanted things dying to matter, so we chose to use our second mechanic to care about death. The ability word, named deathwatch, cares about whether something has died.

Deathwatch comes in two versions. The first version consists of spells (including creatures) that are better when cast if something has already died that turn. The second version consists of permanents with activations that could only be used if something has died. Too many of the first version warped the environment, making players afraid to block, so we cut down on those types of deathwatch card, and lessened their as-fan, moving some up to higher rarities.

We tried to give a different flavor to each of the colors that use it:

  • White: This color does not have any deathwatch to help set up the humans versus monsters feel.
  • Blue: This color has deathwatch spells that cannot be played unless something has died.
  • Black: This color has permanents with deathwatch that have an "enters the battlefield" effect if something has died.
  • Red: This color has instants and sorceries with deathwatch that get stronger in effect if something has died.
  • Green: This color has creatures with deathwatch that come into play with extra +1/+1 counters if something has died.

All four colors that get deathwatch also have permanents with deathwatch activations.

In addition to deathwatch, there are also permanents with "carnage" (effects that trigger off creatures dying, not an ability or keyword). Like deathwatch, "carnage" is restricted to nonwhite cards.

TRANSFORMATION

Another key part of horror we felt was transformation. Horror was full of seemingly innocent things transforming into horrific things. To capture this element of horror, we created double-sided cards. They were based on a successful series of cards designed for Duel Masters.

The double-sided cards are cards with two sides that each represent a creature ("Rattle" is going to play around with double-sided cards that are things other than creatures—note that "Shake" does have a double-sided planeswalker at mythic, currently a Werewolf.) Both sides have a mana cost, so either can be cast. The casted side is then put into play.

All the double-sided cards in "Shake" have an A side (most often the smaller side) that can transform into the B side. Some, including all the Werewolves, can transform back into the A side. Note that other than Werewolves, no common cards transform from B side to A side. The word "transform" is a keyword action that means to turn the card over to the other side.

While we didn't have a mana cost on the B side for a long time, we chose to add it for two major reasons. First, without it, the cards are mechanically almost identical to Kamigawa's flip cards (although with more text than would fit on them—also, we believe strongly that they have a very different feel about them, which does a much better job of capturing the duality). Second, not having a mana cost on the B side forces us to define the color of the card in the text of every card.

Our current suggestion for how double-sided cards should be used is as such: Players may play directly with them if they are playing with opaque sleeves. If they do not want to play with opaque sleeves, we are providing a checklist card that serves as a replacement for the double-sided card while it is in any zone other than on the battlefield.

It is my belief that the double-sided cards are the key selling point of the set. The design team spent a great amount of time trying to make all the transformations as resonant as possible. Whenever we did a trope that had a recognizable name, I used the name (such as Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde) not because they will be that exact name, but because I wanted everyone to know the intended trope.

MISCELLANEOUS

The set has a few other features that didn't fall into any of the above categories:

  • Curses – These are enchant-player enchantments that all do bad things to the enchanted. Curses exist in every color but white and are highest in number in black and blue.
  • Devils – The goblins have been replaced in red by Devils. Other than a joke reference on Pitchfork (which Brady says will have to go away), the Devil creature type is not tribal in any way. The Devils have a mischievous, destructive quality and are only in red mostly on smaller goblin-sized creatures.

SECONDARY THEMES

To help build some depth for Limited play and round out the set, each color had a secondary theme.

White: Fighting Monsters – White's subtheme is all about white fighting against everyone else. Some of this shows up in several spells and effects that target nonwhite things. White also has cards specifically designed to deal with each of the different monster tribes' tactics.

Blue: Milling – Blue's milling is, in this set, mostly used to mill oneself to take advantage of the things that care about cards in graveyards (including, among other things, flashback and blue Zombies).

Black: Graveyard Recursion – Black is the best color at getting back its resources from the graveyard (green is the second best). This combines well with the "death matters" theme.

Red: Graveyard as a Resource – Red has some spells that exile cards in the graveyard to use. This also combines well with "death matters."

Green: Creature Cards in Graveyard – Green has numerous cards that are strengthened based on how many creature cards are in your graveyard. This allows green to grow stronger over time and helps with the "death matters" theme.

TWO-COLOR COMBINATIONS

Here's why players would play each of the ten color-pair combinations in Limited:

White-blue: Defensive Spirit deck
Blue-black: Slow, plodding Zombie deck
Black-red: Aggro Vampire deck
Red-green: Mid-range Werewolf deck
Green-white: Quick-building Human deck
White-black: Humans combined with monsters that like to eat them
Blue-red: Mill + Graveyard as Resource
Black-green: Graveyard recursion
Red-white: Other aggro option
Green-blue: Mill + Caring about graveyards

I am very happy with all the work of my team and feel we have made a set with more top-down resonance than any other large expert expansion.


I hope you enjoyed looking back at original Innistrad. I'd love to hear your feedback on any of the things I talked about today. You can email me or contact me through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and TikTok).

Join me later in the week next week as Innistrad: Midnight Hunt previews begin, and we can see the latest take on Magic's gothic horror world.

Until then, may you find joy in looking back at your own past.

 
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