Odds & Ends – Innistrad: Crimson Vow, Part 1

Posted in Making Magic on December 6, 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.

With each expansion, I like to do a mailbag column or two as a chance to answer your questions about the set. Today and next week, I'll be answering many of your questions about Innistrad: Crimson Vow.

Here's the tweet I posted:

As always, I'll try to answer as many questions as I can, but here's why I might not answer your question:

  • I have an allotted word count, which means that there are only so many questions I can get to.
  • Someone else might have asked the same question. I will usually answer the first person who asks.
  • Some questions I either don't know the answer to or don't feel qualified enough in the area to answer properly.
  • Some topics I'm not allowed to answer for all sorts of reasons, including previews for future sets.

That said, let's get to the questions:

Q: Why wasn't there a new take on Thalia?

Thalia, Guardian of Thraben is a great example of one of the tensions in Magic design. The card originally appeared in Dark Ascension. That meant, prior to Innistrad: Crimson Vow, it was legal in Modern and all Eternal formats (the biggest three being Commander, Legacy, and Vintage), but it wasn't legal in Standard or Pioneer. The card is powerful and sees play in competitive formats.

Reprinting it meant that Standard and Pioneer players would gain access to it. That's a huge deal for them. In contrast, players playing Modern or Eternal Formats already have access to Thalia, Guardian of Thraben. A reprint takes away the opportunity to design a new card, so to them, they lost a chance for something new. In addition, the Vorthoses don't get to see a new take on a popular character.

The hard part is that we only get one slot, and either choice will make some players happy and other players sad. There's no choice available that makes everyone happy, so we have to make a decision on a card-by-card basis. The reason we chose to do the reprint was because there are a lot less options for a reprint from an Innistrad set that Standard and Pioneer players would be excited to see reprinted that we're willing to reprint.

In contrast, we have a ton of card opportunities with new designs to make the other side happy, so in this case, we opted with reprinting Thalia, Guardian of Thraben.

Q: Is there a future for Blood tokens?

I believe all of our artifact token resources (Clues, Treasure, Food, Blood, etc.) are essentially deciduous for two reasons. One, they're flavorful yet generic. Most planes have those components on them. Two, they tend to do simple game actions, so it's not hard to find ways to make them synergistic. Let's take Blood as an example.

Magic is a combat game with creatures at the center, meaning there are always going to be spells that have to deal with creatures. That's kind of the basic recipe for Blood showing up frequently. Rummaging (discarding and drawing) is an ability that is useful in all games and especially synergistic in sets with a graveyard theme, something we do a lot. Can I imagine another set that might be a little bloody with mechanical themes that work with rummaging? Absolutely. So yes, I see a future for Blood tokens.

Q: Why no common Vampire DFCs?

I don't think it was a conscious exclusion. The Set Design team designed several different transforming double-faced cards (TDFCs), most of which were top-down designs, and the ones that felt better to be commons mechanically became commons. I don't think they were worried particularly about the common TDFCs being Vampires because the as-fan for Vampires was high and there were cool Vampire TDFCs at higher rarities.

One of the things you want to be careful about when designing a set is not choosing the theme for every decision. You want to choose it enough that it has the impact you want so the theme comes through, but not so much that the set seems one-dimensional.

Q: How come there has never been a The Creature from the Black Lagoon-inspired Innistrad card? It's the only classic monster movie monster other than the mummy not to appear, and unlike mummies, it seems like it would fit the setting well.

Q: How come Merfolk haven't shown up in Innistrad, when they are a basis for a lot of seafaring horror literature?

The monster from The Creature from the Black Lagoon has been made into a top-down card in various Innistrad set designs, three that I can think of off the top of my head, including original Innistrad, and I think they were all creature type Merfolk. There are two answers to why it's never made it to print, one more general and one more specific.

The general answer is that Innistrad sets have a major tribal theme (Humans, Spirits, Vampires, Werewolves, and Zombies), which eats up a lot of creature space. There's some opportunity for unique one-offs, but there are a lot of different cards fighting for those slots.

The specific answer is that Innistrad has an underlying theme of "humans becoming monsters." All four major monsters were human before they transformed into a monster. Innistrad sets do have other monsters, but we tend to avoid making them humanoid. That's my best guess as to why The Creature from the Black Lagoon hasn't yet made it onto a card. I do think we'll be back on Innistrad, and the trope keeps coming up, so it wouldn't surprise me if one day it makes it to print.

Q: There was a lot more hate for Werewolves in Innistrad: Midnight Hunt than for Vampires in Innistrad: Crimson Vow. Vampires are also considered to be stronger now than Werewolves were. Where do you think the sweet spot is when it comes to the showcase theme of sets?

This is a little out of my area of expertise, so I went and talked to the Play Design team. The major reason this happened, from what I was told, was that daybound/nightbound was a bit harder to predict, so they built in more safety valves in case it became a problem. Years of balancing Magic sets has taught us the importance of having answers to the threats you least understand.

Vampires were playing in space that Play Design understood better, so they were less reliant on hate to address issues. What this all means is that the sweet spot has a lot to do with the potential for a theme to create problems. The higher variance of unpredictability, the more answers you want built in.

Q: Is there any reason for the lack of uncommon signpost legendaries in the set? Are they coming back? They are amazing for Brawl and low-powered Commander.

Q: There has been A LOT of similar designs for Limited play—ten color pairs, some more, some less viable, with gold rares and uncommons to point out the theme. It is becoming almost a template. Is there some variation planned?

There's a recurring theme here in this article. Magic players aren't a monolithic entity that all want the same thing. Some prioritize familiarity, while others prioritize innovation. How can we make both happy? Well, for starters, Magic sets do have a default template; that is, there's a way we build them if other forces don't require some kind of change.

To use my favorite house-building metaphor for Magic design, if you look at the first few months of building a house, most houses look similar. There's just a basic way you build the foundation for a house, and that's mostly how houses are built. Now, there comes a point where different kinds of houses start deviating, so the finished houses look very different. Magic sets work similarly. At their core, they're not that different, because Magic sets want to play like Magic sets. It's all the trappings on top of that structure that make them feel different.

Whether the uncommon two-color signpost cards are legendary creatures can vary. It depends on the needs of the individual set. We're trying to strike a balance between having enough legendary creatures to make players who want a lot happy while trying not to make too many that it diminishes legendary creatures feeling special.

As for the larger structure itself, that too can vary. The uncommon signposts aren't always traditional gold cards, but that is the default. We do want something, though, that helps communicate what various archetypes are doing and encourages drafters to seek out certain archetypes.

Here's the path we need to walk. Magic's core design allows way more flexibility than would feel right to the audience. For example, I could make an expansion that technically was just Magic cards, that is where each card was understandable as a card, but the overall experience felt nothing like a Magic game.

To follow my metaphor, one could build a house without all the traditional trappings of a house, which technically would be a house, but it might not feel like one. We need enough structure that it feels like Magic, but we want to make sure that each set has its own unique mechanical and creative identity, so it doesn't just feel like every other Magic set.

This means that there will be more sets with uncommon signpost legendary creatures and more sets where something different fills that role. We try hard to feel familiar and innovative at the same time as best we can, but sometimes, it will push more in one direction than the other.

Q: It seems allied colors are easier to draft than enemy colors in the set—was that the plan for #MTGVOW to become like Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths, with a subset of intentionally less supported archetypes and a subset of more supported ones? Like a quasi-guild set?

Speaking of defaults, here's how we structure Magic sets for Draft. We tend to have five primary strategies in five different color combinations. Two-color is usually the default, and most often those are ally or enemy. These primary strategies are loud in focus and almost always play into the main themes of the set. The primary themes tend to have the largest volume of cards and usually have some variance built in so that frequent drafters can try different flavors of the theme. These are the strategies drafted most.

We then have five secondary strategies. These are usually in a color combination that the primary strategies are not. They are most often two-color, but sometimes can be three-color. These themes are usually a little subtler and require a bit more experience to draft. Their overall volume tends to be lower than the primary strategies but usually have high synergy, meaning that as you learn to draft them better, they get stronger. The strategies do tie into the larger themes of the set but aren't as straightforward. These are the second-most drafted strategies.

Finally, we have several build-around cards at uncommon and higher. These are cards that give you a more novel Draft strategy if you take them early. These strategies are drafted the least but give advanced drafters new avenues to explore.

Innistrad: Crimson Vow's primary strategies are the five ally combinations, and each focuses on the flavor of the monsters/Humans associated with that color combination. The secondary strategies are the five enemy combinations. So yes, your observations are correct.

Q: Was the madness mechanic considered for a return to the block during development? As it has synergy with the Blood tokens.

Madness first appeared in the set Torment in the Odyssey block. The block had a discard theme, and madness allowed you to turn what was normally a negative into a positive. We then brought madness back in Shadows over Innistrad choosing to put it in black-red and make it a Vampire thing. If we brought madness back in an Innistrad set, it would have to be a Vampire thing, as that's what we established.

The problem is that both Innistrad: Midnight Hunt and Innistrad: Crimson Vow (and one would argue most of the previous Innistrad sets) only allocated one mechanic per creature type, so if Vampires got madness, that would be their mechanic. We really wanted to use Blood tokens, and we couldn't use both, so we opted for Blood tokens.

That said, we understood that players in larger formats would have access to the Vampires with madness in Shadows over Innistrad block, so there would be a place where players could build Vampire decks with both Blood tokens and madness.

Q: Was there a particular reason why so many mechanics were chosen for Innistrad: Crimson Vow instead of primarily focusing on Blood tokens?

As we'd done on previous Innistrad designs, we tend to give a mechanical definition to each of the five main creature types (Human, Spirit, Vampire, Werewolf, and Zombie). That mechanical definition isn't always a keyword, but in Innistrad: Crimson Vow's case it was. Blood was mostly restricted to Vampires (at least in who could use it), so it wasn't free to be used in larger volume.

Q: Why haven't we seen an Eldrazi? Even if it is in flavor text, art, or some sign of how Innistrad dealt with them after The Travails.

Q: Was there ever a consideration to make Ulvenwald Oddity a leftover Eldrazi since it seems to be a bit of a callback to Eldritch Moon both mechanically and flavor-wise?

Why no Eldrazi? There are two answers, one mechanical and one creative. Mechanically, we want to keep a set focused on the themes that the set is about.

Innistrad: Midnight Hunt and Innistrad: Crimson Vow each had three main goals. One, it was a return to the feel of original Innistrad, playing up the gothic horror and playing down the cosmic horror that we tapped into in Shadows over Innistrad block. Two, while each set had an overall Innistrad feel, we wanted to focus on a particular tribe (Werewolves for Innistrad: Midnight Hunt and Vampires for Innistrad: Crimson Vow). Three, each set was about an event (the Harvest Festival for Innistrad: Midnight Hunt and Olivia and Edgar's wedding for Innistrad: Crimson Vow). Having an Eldrazi on a card would pull focus in a way that we didn't want.

Creatively, there are only three Eldrazi (that we know of)—Emrakul, Ulamog, and Kozilek. The latter two are currently dead, and Emrakul is trapped in Innistrad's moon. Any Eldrazi card you saw in previous sets was tied to one of the three Eldrazi titans. They were literally pieces of them. Remember, the Eldrazi are alien creatures native to the Blind Eternities and don't exist in a way we can fathom. For Eldrazi to exist on a plane, the Eldrazi has to be free on that plane, and currently none of them are, so there can't be a single Eldrazi. Even one would imply Emrakul is free which, isn't a story point we wanted.

As I mentioned during my second Innistrad: Midnight Hunt mailbag column, a key part of the story was the day/night cycle being messed up by the moon, and that was a direct result of Emrakul's actions, so the story of Shadows over Innistrad block has a big impact on what's happening during Innistrad: Midnight Hunt and Innistrad: Crimson Vow even if the Eldrazi themselves are nowhere to be seen.

Q: There was a story about an attempt to print a chainsaw card that was destroyed, but why was it able to be printed this time?

In original Innistrad design, Richard Garfield made a card called Chainsaw. Richard is a great top-down designer and felt like the horror set needed a chainsaw. Realizing that the Creative team wouldn't let that name fly, I changed it to Bladespinner before the design handoff. I figured that sounded more like a Magic artifact. The card did end up getting made, but it got concepted as a device more time appropriate for Innistrad's setting. It was called Trepanation Blade.

A trepanation blade is a sword made up of smaller curved blades that carve up the creature as you stab it. I think the Creative team thought that was the closest analogy.

I'm not sure what's changed exactly. Magic's audience has gotten more casual over time, and I think we're a little more willing to push some creative boundaries, but I'll admit that I was quite surprised the first time I saw Spiked Ripsaw.

Q: This is the Vampire set, but we only have Human Vampires. We've seen two Dragon Vampires before. Why didn't we get more non-Human Vampires?

One of the things that's important when you build a plane, is to have a general ethos that captures the essence of the plane. As I talked about above, Innistrad's is "humans becoming monsters." One of the major themes of gothic horror is using the tropes of horror to make commentary about humanity.

Innistrad's world building absorbed that into the cosmology of the plane, so vampirism is only spread to Humans. Vampires, and thus vampirism, exist on other planes. Vampirism will fit the needs of the plane, so there will be other opportunities to see non-Humans become Vampires. It's just not going to be on Innistrad (barring some major shift to the plane).

Here Comes the Moon

That's all the time I have for today. Thanks to everyone who sent in questions. If you have any feedback on any of my answers or on Innistrad: Crimson Vow itself, you can email me or contact me through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and TikTok).

Join me next week as I answer more of your Innistrad: Crimson Vow questions.

Until then, may you keep being inquisitive.

 
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