#893: Shadowmoor with Devin Low
I sit down with Designer Devin Low to talk about the design of Shadowmoor.
Posted in Making Magic on December 13, 2021
Last week, I started answering your questions about Innistrad: Crimson Vow. You had so many that I'm answering more today.
While we wanted Innistrad: Midnight Hunt and Innistrad: Crimson Vow to feel connected, we still wanted them to feel like two distinct sets. The belief of the Innistrad: Crimson Vow Set Design team was that flashback would have made things play too similarly, so they chose not to use it again. Daybound/nightbound was allowed to come back because we needed continuity between the Werewolves so that they'd play well together in Standard. Disturb was also carried over, but the execution in Innistrad: Crimson Vow was different as it changed from creature // creature to creature // Aura.
During Innistrad: Midnight Hunt vision design, Innistrad: Crimson Vow wasn't yet a thing, so there wasn't any thought about it. Once Innistrad: Crimson Vow started vision design, there was continuous talk back and forth between the Innistrad: Midnight Hunt Set Design team and the Innistrad: Crimson Vow Vision Design team. Erik Lauer had run set design for the first few months of both sets, so he was aware of how they were alike and different. It was Erik that recognized that decayed would work with Innistrad: Midnight Hunt and that Innistrad: Crimson Vow could use the Aura version of disturb.
R&D works hard on all sets, not just ones that take place on the same plane to communicate what's going on between sets so all the leads can act accordingly. Part of designing Magic includes stepping back to look at the big picture.
The new system allows us the flexibility to stay on planes as long as we feel is appropriate. In 2022, for example, we have two sets back to back (Dominaria United and The Brothers' War) both set on Dominaria. I do think there will be other opportunities, but I want to stress that it's not something allocated on a regular schedule. It'll happen when it feels right for the set.
When naming a mechanic, there are two main goals. One, you want it to be descriptive of what the mechanic does so the name helps remind players of its functionality. Two, when possible, you want to use it as a way to reinforce the flavor of the plane. Cleave is a mechanic that allows you to cut rules text, so we were looking for a word that was a synonym of "cut." Innistrad is a gothic horror plane, so we were looking for something a little on the creepy side. Cleave was a word that meant "to cut" that had a bit of a "scary killer with an axe" vibe, so that's why it was chosen.
It's one of the more polarizing mechanics we've done, especially in recent time. Players have strong feelings about it, both positive and negative. As regular readers of mine know, one of my game-design truisms is "if everyone likes your game, but no one loves it, it will fail." (This is one of my twenty lessons from my GDC speech. Here's the video, and here are my columns on it.)
This lesson talks about how it's important to evoke strong responses even if some of those responses are negative. We'd rather make things some players absolutely adore even if others despise it, and I think cleave has fallen squarely in this camp. Would I prefer it if everyone adored it? Sure, that's nice when it can happen, but there are a lot of Magic players, and they all want different things from their game.
One of the challenges when making a Magic set is finding cards that give you the opportunity to show off story beats. We'll design for the most crucial ones, but there are always smaller beats that can't find a home on cards. Wrenn is part of the Innistrad: Crimson Vow story; we just didn't find a good spot to show it off. I would read the fiction if you want to get a fuller understanding of who did what during the story.
Various things we talked about and/or playtested: (N stands for a number to be figured out later)
I think we try to make sure every set has some lighthearted qualities. Innistrad sets can get a bit dark, so we often include things that make players chuckle when they see them.
Most of Limited play for a set comes in the three months after a set is released (basically until the next set comes out), but that doesn't mean it won't see play for many years to come. It's not at all uncommon for players to keep a favorite set aside so they can draft it years down the road. Also, flashback drafts have become a staple of digital play, so in that way, we can revisit sets long after their release. We think of it like you would think of the design for any game: we want it to be something players can play for the rest of time. So, no, the value of X really doesn't have a huge impact on how we design Limited for a set.
No. We knew that we wanted to do Blood as an artifact token out of the gate. In fact, we knew it was going to be an artifact token long before we knew exactly what its ability was going to be.
There were several reasons for this. One, we wanted Blood to have a function unto itself beyond just feeding it to Vampires, which a counter couldn't do.
Two, counters as a resource require a more extensive framework, and thus usually want to be a larger part of a set. We wanted Blood tokens to be mostly in the Vampire portion of Innistrad: Crimson Vow.
Three, that type of execution would probably require a new symbol, and that wasn't something we wanted for this set.
Actually, no. The original idea was that Thalia was going to be the one turned into a Vampire, but the more we played with the idea, the more we realized that the audience wasn't going to like it. It really undercut Thalia's larger character arc. Odric, in contrast, had lived more of his life, and it felt like it would be an interesting character turn rather than a contradiction to his previous character growth.
Mostly no. The only thing off limits would be something that just didn't feel at home in a gothic horror setting. I can't even think of something off the top of my head, but I'm pretty sure something exists. Vampires are quite suited for gothic horror, so most of the tropes work just fine.
I just think we saw a cool opportunity and ran with it. Bram Stoker's Dracula is in public domain, so we didn't have to deal with a license. More and more, we're embracing letting other properties intermingle with the Magic mechanics, so we're always on the lookout for things we can use to skin existing cards. The Godzilla promotion we had done with Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths had gone over well, so whenever we do a set these days, we ask ourselves if there's an existing property that would work well as a skin for some of the cards in the set. For Innistrad: Crimson Vow, Bram Stoker's Dracula seemed like a perfect fit, so we did it.
The only rule for Blood tokens is that they make sense as Blood tokens, so it's not restricted to Vampires. I could see us using them in other contexts.
One of the things we liked about the idea of a Vampire wedding on Innistrad is that the Vampires already have a regal quality about them. In original Innistrad, we wanted to separate the monsters from one another, so we liked the idea of Vampires being the aristocracy on the plane. They were the ones all dressed up in nice clothing, so getting from that aesthetic to a wedding was quite easy.
I think there was a Blood Elemental early in the file that was "Artifact Creature — Blood Elemental," but it wasn't exactly the most resonant card. I assume it got cut to make room for stuff that felt a little more on-plane. Perhaps one day on a plane a little less beholden to top-down tropes.
The cards aren't anti-synergistic, they just aren't designed to be a combo. I do think that comes down to the fact that the wedding isn't about the two wanting to be together. Olivia is manipulating Edgar in a play for power. If the couple in our wedding set were truly in love and the wedding was about them getting to be together forever, we would have designed a symbiotic relationship between the two cards. You'll note we did do that for the Bride's Gown and Groom's Finery, as those two items are symbolically connected in a traditional wedding.
Two main reasons. One, the set restricted its multicolor cards to two colors, as there isn't support to play three colors in Limited, so Edgar could only be two of the three colors he had on his first card. We chose white-black because Olivia was black-red and Odric was red-white, and we wanted a legendary Vampire for each two-color combination in Vampire colors.
Two, Edgar's first card is such a Commander staple that we didn't want to compete with it. If you like playing a red-white-black Edgar, that card already exists. Here's a different Edgar to build around.
Most likely yes, as Innistrad: Crimson Vow spent a little time deciding between Vampires and Zombies. Zombies have a little more pop-culture cache than Spirits. Maybe a Zombie funeral?
My guess is that there was a "Honeymoon" card at some point. I think the Honeymoon Hearse touched upon it enough that we ended up not feeling it needed an extra slot. As with any top-down set, there are always cool ideas that don't end up finding space but would have been cool if we could have had cards for them.
In original Innistrad design, we did have what I'll call the "crossing streams" discussion. Did we want creatures that were more than one type of monster? We ended up deciding no, because it was a top-down set and the trope space tended to keep monsters solely in one camp. There are other planes, though, where the monsters coexist, and those planes are less beholden to the monster trope space, so I do think it can happen, but I'm just skeptical it will happen in an Innistrad set.
Q: Why does only one of the four rare Human token makers in #MTGVOW create a 1/1 with training? Decayed was used a lot and quite powerfully in Innistrad: Midnight Hunt, but it feels like you pulled back on an exciting design space for the training keyword.
Decayed is a drawback while training is a positive ability. It's a lot easier to use drawbacks on tokens because it increases the flexibility of making them. In addition, we try to be careful with how often we do what R&D calls the "pennies on nickels" problem, where we make tokens that naturally add counters (usually +1/+1 counters) to themselves. We do it in small doses at high rarities, but we try to minimize how often.
It doesn't quite fit the template. A Curse is an "enchant player" enchantment that grants a negative ability to that player. Howling Moon has both a positive ability for you and a negative ability for your opponent. If the card only had the second ability and was put on your opponent, then it would have been a Curse.
One of the challenges of creating sets back to back with the same mechanic is making sure it isn't too good out of the gate, thus limiting play-design options when creating the cards in the second set. Werewolves, by the nature of the daybound/nightbound mechanic, all play in very similar mechanical space, and mostly in the same deck, so it was necessary to hold back some of the key components for the potential Standard version of the deck for the second set. In this case, I think Play Design realized while working on Innistrad: Crimson Vow that they had a little more room to push the Werewolves, having had a good sense of how they were working in Innistrad: Midnight Hunt.
I think it's more a part of an ongoing shift than a theme for just this set. At its core, good game design is about setting up restrictions for the player to figure out how to work around. We're not supposed to make it easy for the player to accomplish their goal of winning. We're supposed to make it a challenge. Having open-ended abilities that you can do whenever and however often you want seems preferable, but it leads to less compelling gameplay. The goal of a good game isn't whether you win or lose but making the act of playing challenging and fun. That means restrictions are an important tool.
That's all the time I have today. Again, thanks to everyone who sent in a question, and I apologize if I didn't get to yours. As always, I'm eager for feedback on either my answers or on the set itself. You can email me or contact me through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and TikTok) with feedback. If you enjoy asking me questions, remember that I answer questions on my blog (Blogatog) every day.
I will be on break for the next two weeks, but when I return in January, I'll be sharing some more R&D lingo.
Until then, may you have fun exploring Innistrad: Crimson Vow.
I sit down with Designer Devin Low to talk about the design of Shadowmoor.
I talk about the history of my set teasers and talk about how I make them.