#873: Portal Three Kingdoms with Henry Stern
I sit down with Designer Henry Stern to talk about the design of Portal Three Kingdoms.
Posted in Making Magic on October 4, 2021
Last week, I started answering your questions about Innistrad: Midnight Hunt. There were a lot, so I'm going to answer more today.
Obviously, we have a default template (which I showed off in this year's "Nuts & Bolts" column). There are also templates we use to capture color representation, usually with multicolor sets, as there is a lot of moving pieces when making a multicolor-themed set work, especially given the mana resources necessary to support it in various formats. We don't tend to template individual themes, though. The main reason being that those themes are usually mixed with other themes, and the combination of those themes determines so much about the structure of the set. Essentially, there's no way to template it. That said, that doesn't mean there aren't things you do when you have a graveyard theme (or any theme really) in your set.
The first thing you usually do is make sure you have a good grasp of the graveyard related aspects of the color pie. You'll find it's not evenly balanced between colors. For example, white, black, and green have significantly more graveyard interaction than blue and red. Once you understand what tools are available in each color, you can start to explore how you want to use them in this particular set.
This isn't templated because how you do that changes greatly based on what other themes you have in the set. The common place to start is to figure out where each of your themes leads naturally and see if there's inherent synergy. Sometimes there is, and the themes dictate where things fall. Most of the time, however, the themes lead to an off-balance color weight, which means you have to start pushing in places you might not in a different set that uses the same theme.
Another thing you have to examine is how you're using the graveyard. For example, there are two main ways to use it, what I call "graveyard as resource" and "graveyard as barometer." The former has cards that either work in the graveyard (such as flashback) or use it as a resource to fuel other cards (such as delve). The latter just looks at the graveyard to determine things (such as undergrowth).
While you can mix these a little, they create tension (do I want to use the card in my graveyard as a resource or keep it there so I can count it?), so usually you focus on one or the other. It is possible to sometimes split the themes if they focus on different cards. For example, Innistrad sets like to eat creatures out of the graveyard (usually as part of a Zombie theme), but flashback can co-exist with that theme because the mechanic only goes on instants and sorceries. Usually which one you choose is based a lot on what else is going on in the set.
Graveyard, like many themes, has some flexibility in how you can use it, so you want to figure out what aspects play into your other themes. It's this part of the process that allows you to "keep things fresh" because the other constraints of the set will make you value graveyard components differently than you would in another set. For instance, Innistrad sets have a top-down monster tribal component, so you get to think about how the graveyard elements could reinforce certain flavors. We will often literally think of classic things the monsters do in cinema and then try to recreate that thing on a card.
Another way to "keep things fresh" is to shift themes from the color that normally does it to a different color combination. For instance, black-green is often the default "cares about graveyard" color combination, but in a graveyard-themed set, we can sometimes let other color combinations shine.
All this means that it's not as prescriptive as you might think. There's no one "right way" to make a graveyard theme.
There's a lot going on in a Magic set, and it can get complicated tracking what does and doesn't get a showcase treatment. To help with this, we tend to pick defined subsets of cards to get each treatment, usually something we can explain in a single sentence. For example, the showcase equinox cards in Innistrad: Midnight Hunt were put onto the Werewolves (including Arlinn) and Warlocks, while the showcase eternal night cards went on the basic lands and legendary creatures that weren't Werewolves or Warlocks. Delver of Secrets is a popular card, one I agree is worthy of having a showcase treatment someday, but it just didn't hit either of the two subsets we were using on the showcase cards in this set.
That was an idea the Creative team had very early, I think even before vision design began. From the very beginning, when trying to figure out what the green-white Human archetype was going to do in the set, we knew that we had to capture the feel of witches and witchcraft. My best guess as to where it came from is that the Creative team was trying to explore elements of gothic horror that we hadn't tapped into yet.
It depends greatly on the well of material the top-down designs are pulling from. All sources are not created equal. In general, genre cluster tropes have the most depth, because they have the largest amount of source material. For example, if I sat down and made a list of every pop culture reference to gothic horror, I'd have a pretty long list. And that list keeps growing because gothic horror is popular as a source for new films, television shows, books, etc. So no, we haven't had a lot of problems with generating new top-down gothic horror cards.
Another trick we used with the two latest Innistrad sets was building them around an event (the Harvesttide Festival and a wedding, respectively), which allows us to tap into the trope space of those events as well.
Q: You consider Innistrad a great success and Ixalan to have some struggles; you've also said that tribal sets need a glue like the changeling mechanic. What makes Innistrad sets different? (Aside from four tribes versus five.)
Innistrad: Midnight Hunt has a tribal subtheme built into it, but it isn't as much a "tribal set" as Ixalan was. For example, while you can draft a tribal theme, it's much more opt-in than it is for a tribal set like Ixalan, Lorwyn, or Onslaught. One of the ways to tell how much of a tribal theme a set has is to look at the common cards. How many mechanically call out a specific creature type? The more that do, the more tribal themed the set is.
Q: Why wasn't Wrenn's number 13? They were introduced in Modern Horizons, a set set in the distant past (that's how we got Serra), so it kind of doesn't make sense that she only replaced one tree friend, and the flavor would have been great.
The vast majority of the first Modern Horizons, including Wrenn and Six, was set in the present. Serra is the exception and not the rule for that set. Another reason we went from Six to Seven is that we wanted to cleanly demonstrate the forward motion. Six to Thirteen wouldn't have illustrated any sense of pattern and most players wouldn't have gotten "Wrenn has moved onto a new tree" nearly as easily. We do appreciate finding homes for thirteens in Innistrad sets, but we only do so where it fits naturally.
The entire plot of Innistrad: Midnight Hunt is built around changes to Innistrad that were the direct result of Emrakul coming there. The events of Shadows over Innistrad and Eldritch Moon loom largely on what's happening right now on Innistrad, but Emrakul is still in the moon, so there can't be any Eldrazi creatures as they are extensions of her.
Also, we wanted to focus more on the gothic horror aspects of Innistrad than the cosmic horror aspects, so the story, and the resulting set, moved in that direction.
Let me talk about all the other mechanics from Innistrad sets:
Morbid – We like this mechanic, and it's a great fit for the world of Innistrad, so we did consider using it. The big strike against it was we used, or tweaked, every other main mechanic from original Innistrad (transform, flashback, monster tribal, curses, and the "Werewolf mechanic"), so we felt something had to not come back. I could easily see us using it on another return to Innistrad or just on another plane where it thematically and mechanically fits.
Undying – We also considered bringing this one back. It's flavorful and relatively popular. It's just a hard mechanic to balance, so we passed on it.
Fateful Hour – This was an unpopular mechanic, so we never seriously considered its return.
Miracle – The flavor is a mismatch, and the mechanic was polarizing when it first appeared in Avacyn Restored, so it was removed from the list of possible returns right away.
Soulbond – One of the things we do when we hold Prereleases is ask judges to forward all the questions they got about the set. Soulbond holds the record for the most questions ever generated by any one mechanic. Like miracle, the flavor is also not a great fit for the set.
Delirium – Two strikes against this mechanic. One, it requires a significant amount of structural support from the set to work; two, it has an insanity flavor that was made to match the impact of Emrakul on the denizens of Innistrad. We did talk about this a little, but it was clear that it didn't make sense to bring back.
Madness – Madness has all the issues of delirium with the added issue of play design concerns. We only talked about this in passing.
Skulk – This mechanic ended up being both narrower in design space than we expected and harder to use for players than we had anticipated. We talked about it possibly showing up unnamed on a card or two but decided against even that.
Meld – Meld was quite popular, so we did talk about using it again, but it really needs the right execution to shine and there were enough other things that felt like a better fit.
Emerge – This is a cool mechanic, but we didn't have anything flavorful that made sense with it in the set. I do think we'll use it again one day but in a set where it can shine and flavorfully capture something.
Escalate – I never understood why this was in an Innistrad set to begin with. It's functional (although tricky to design) and fun, so I can see it coming back one day, but not in an Innistrad set.
This means the ones we seriously considered were morbid and undying. We also did entertain meld for probably longer than we should have.
Q: Why the decision to include Vampires in Innistrad: Midnight Hunt rather than keep the two sets more strictly separate from one another (in other words: should we expect Werewolves in Innistrad: Crimson Vow)?
When we were designing Innistrad: Midnight Hunt, Innistrad: Crimson Vow wasn't yet a thing, so it was designed as our third trip to Innistrad and, as such, had all the elements one would expect, including all the relevant creature types. But it's a much more interesting question assuming we had planned them together at the time of Innistrad: Midnight Hunt's design (Innistrad: Crimson Vow was very much designed with Innistrad: Midnight Hunt in mind), because even then, I believe we would have designed them exactly as they ended up. Why? Because Innistrad as a world was constructed with all the creature types interwoven together. If we just chop out the Vampires, what goes on all the black and red cards? They can't just all become Werewolves and Zombies because that would unbalance Limited.
When you mechanically build a world, you're creating an ecosystem where different components live in harmony with one another. Removing one component impacts everything around it. When we return to a world, we can tweak it, but we can't fundamentally change its core structure (assuming the world isn't just used as a setting, such as with War of the Spark). Having the two sets play up different events, lean toward different themes, and use different mechanics can make them feel quite different without a need to rip out the inner workings of the world.
So yes, there will be plenty of Werewolves in Innistrad: Crimson Vow.
Q: Hello, Mark! The set has many, many different mechanics: flashback, investigate, transform, and the new ones, day/night, coven, decay, and disturb. Is such a high number of mechanics something we could expect going forward or an exception for the set?
It's on the high end. Part of what's going on is that we made the choice to name some things that didn't necessarily need to have names. For example, in design, neither decay nor disturb started with a keyword. Many sets have mechanics that are spelled out in rules text, but not named, and so those aren't often thought of as being "mechanics of the set" as much as the named ones are.
One of the things I like to say is "Magic is a hungry monster." We make a lot of cards, so there's a constant demand to make more. When the players request something, we hear you. We have lengthy lists of cards the players have requested. If enough people say they want something, it moves up the list. I can't promise we'll make it soon, but I have trouble believing there won't come a day when it fits the need of a card, and we say, "Let's finally make that thing the players have been bugging us about forever."
Disturb is the Spirit mechanic, so it only shows up on Spirits, which are the white-blue tribe in the set. There is one single black Spirit with disturb. I'm not sure why, but I assume they just had a fun concept for it, and it fit black well.
Here's my best guess. The Werewolves all tell a story (having two sides helps do that), so flavor text is important on them. I assume the normal template didn't allow room for the flavor text, so the decision was made to template slightly differently, but still functionally similar, to allow the flavor text. We do alter templates from time to time when accommodating other needs of the card.
R&D has really soured on -1/-1 counter sets. It creates gameplay incentives that we don't like and makes sets harder to balance. We're not against occasionally using them on cards, especially in supplemental sets, but I don't anticipate us using them as a set-wide thing for a premier set anytime soon.
Having done Magic design for as long as I have, I've noticed some patterns in what players, on average, overestimate and underestimate. One of the big things they underestimate is late-game utility effects like disturb. They look at the ability in a vacuum, as if it was a card they drew, and judge it through the lens of a normal card evaluation. A flying creature for that much? That's a horrible card. Except it isn't a card. It didn't take up space in their deck. They didn't have to draw it. It's something free they got when they played another card, and I think it's a hard thing to evaluate.
So, yes, I understand that costs like disturb and flashback look like they're too expensive in a vacuum, but I think that comes from players underestimating their true value. I promise you that Play Design has a lot of experience costing these types of effects because we do them all the time, and they will play much better than they look. Also, not every card is made for high-level tournament play. Many disturb cards are designed for Limited or casual Constructed where they're going to see a lot of use.
That's all the time I have today. As always, I'm eager to hear all your feedback on my answers, on the cards I talked about, or just on 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 a collection of all my articles and podcasts about the color pie.
Until then, I hope you're all enjoying playing Innistrad: Midnight Hunt.
I sit down with Designer Henry Stern to talk about the design of Portal Three Kingdoms.
This is another podcast in my Zombie series where I talk about the history of Zombie card design. It includes many card-by-card design stories of individual Zombie cards.