Odds & Ends: Shadows over Innistrad, Part 1

Posted in Making Magic on April 11, 2016

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.

It's time for another "Odds & Ends" column, where I answer questions from all of you about Shadows over Innistrad. Here's the tweet I posted on my Twitter account (@maro254):

As always, I try to answer as many questions as I can, but there are a few reasons why I might not be able to get to 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 properly answer them.
  • Some topics I'm not allowed to answer for all sorts of reasons, including spoilers for future sets.

To answer as many questions as possible, I'm making this column a two-parter.

That said, let's get to the questions:

One of the challenges of making a Magic set is there are so many different formats for which we must make cards. Different players want different things, so we work hard to make sure that every set has something to offer most players. The three formats we spend the most time focusing on are Sealed, Booster Draft, and Standard. We focus on Sealed because that's the format of the Prerelease and we want to make sure the set creates a good first impression. We focus on Booster Draft as that's the most-played Limited format and is the way a lot of people play (especially on Magic Online). We focus on Standard as that's the most popular Constructed format.

We're aware of other formats and definitely think about them on a card-by-card basis as we design and develop the sets. For instance, when designing legendary cards, we often will think about their impact on Commander. (I should note, though, that there are other fans of legendary creatures who don't play Commander, so not every legendary creature is optimized for that format.) We do try to ensure that each set has cards that will have a chance of seeing play in older formats. The larger (and older) the card pool, the harder that task is.

What we don't do, however, is playtest formats outside of the three I named above. We have a limited number of playtesters and a limited amount of time, so we have to focus our energies. Older formats have a banned list (and a restricted list for Vintage), which we can use as a tool to adjust those formats if something gets broken. So how much thought was given to Eternal formats when designing Shadows over Innistrad? A little, but not a lot.

There are definitely monsters we played around with that never made it to print. I believe Innistrad, Dark Ascension, and Shadows over Innistrad all made an attempt at doing a Creature from the Black Lagoon–inspired card in their design, for example. There are two problems that get in the way, though: one is mechanical and the other creative.

Mechanically, both Innistrad blocks are tribal in nature, meaning we're trying to help you build decks around Humans and Spirits and Vampires and Werewolves and Zombies. In order to accomplish this, we have to have a certain volume of creatures of the chosen creature types. That tends to crowd out space for a lot of other kinds of monsters. Yes, there's room for a few, and I think we made some fun non-tribal monsters, but space is limited.

The other issue is that the creative team worked very hard to make a cohesive world, and that can get harder if there are too many one-of monsters thrown into it. It's very easy to make a Creature from the Black Lagoon card, but that doesn't address the larger question of whether that type of creature makes sense in the world that's been built.

Awesome punning opportunity aside, we made the choice to limit lycanthropy on Innistrad to just Werewolves. The set was all about capturing Gothic horror tropes, and that source material is mainly about werewolves. Many years ago, we decided on Dominaria, where Odyssey block took place, that we would explore more types of lycanthropy (it was one of the flavors we applied to the threshold mechanic), and that is why you see a lot more different werecreatures in that block.

Odyssey block was my first foray into using the graveyard as a design resource (Weatherlight was the first set to hit the theme strongly, but I wasn't on that design team). As anyone who has heard me talk about Odyssey design knows, I feel I made a lot of mistakes but learned a lot as a designer. Some of that was getting a better sense of how best to use the graveyard.

I'm a big fan of the graveyard (my first set, Tempest, introduced the Kindle mechanic), and it's been a theme I've hit numerous times (for instance, there are competitive dredge decks made completely out of cards I designed). I feel I've gotten a better handle on it with each execution, so yes, I do believe Odyssey has helped us get better with graveyard design. But so too have many other things, like the Golgari guild on Ravnica, the Grixis shard on Alara, and original Innistrad and such.

Odyssey, in particular, was valuable because that set also made use of madness and a graveyard mechanic (threshold instead of delirium), so there were many times we wound up looking back at how Odyssey handled certain issues to help figure out what Shadows over Innistrad should do.

No, interestingly we kind of backed into our similarity to Odyssey. Yes, they're both graveyard sets, but we approached them from very different places. I think the thing that got us the closest to being like Odyssey was that we were trying hard to differentiate ourselves from original Innistrad, which back in the day worked hard to differentiate itself from Odyssey, so the obvious space to go was the space that Innistrad specifically shied away from to keep from feeling too much like Odyssey.

And now we get to the number-one most common question I received. We originally had a legendary Werewolf in the set, but it ended up fighting for the same space that Arlinn Kord wanted, and we really needed Arlinn Kord for planeswalker color balance (more on this in a later question), so the legendary Werewolf unfortunately had to be removed from the set.

A lot of people are interested in how we make evergreen keywords. The answer is that we don't tend to make them outright (we actually tried this for a while with little success), we let them happen naturally. Prowess, as an example, was made because it was a great fit for the Jeskai clan. As we played with it, we started to realize how much design space it had and how well it played. We needed another keyword for blue that was combat-relevant, so it ended up being the perfect fit. Prowess wasn't made to be evergreen, it happened over time.

This is our current philosophy. Just make cool mechanics. Time has shown us that the cream will metaphorically rise to the top. Is skulk destined to be evergreen? Only time will tell. Does it show some potential? Sure. Does it fill in a gap we have? Yes, but none of that will matter if it doesn't end up with the many qualities we look for in an evergreen mechanic (lots of design space, easy to play, flavorful, fits well with other evergreen keywords, etc.).

Absolutely. If there was infinite space and no complexity issues, I would have loved to reuse flashback, morbid, and undying. I wish there had been more space for Curses and Skaabs and a variety of fun things we did in original Innistrad. The issue with a return is that you have to make a balance between using enough to feel like you've returned but not so much that the whole block just feels like a carbon copy. I'm very proud of original Innistrad. I consider it my finest design to date (well, that you all have seen). So yes, there's all sorts of things we did the first time around that I'd love to revisit.

One of the things we were very conscious of was that players were going to take the two blocks and combine them. That meant when we designed each of the tribes, we were very conscious of what they already had, especially from a Constructed standpoint. We were less interested in giving you a second way to do something you could already do and more in giving you a few new tools to let you push your deck in a new direction.

This philosophy ties very closely to what I was just talking about in the last question. It's great to revisit things and revel in the past, but if your game spends too much time looking backward and not enough looking forward, you get caught in a rut. What makes Magic a great game is not that it keeps repeating itself but rather that it keeps exploring new mechanical spaces. So when we return to a world, I am always trying to figure out how we can capture the essence and still push things in new directions. I love that Shadows over Innistrad returns to Gothic horror but explores new aspects (the mystery and intrigue) that weren't the focus of the first visit.

The same is true for the cards. I like that the Werewolf deck with Shadows over Innistrad is not just an exact repeat of what it looked like last time. Yes, there are similarities. Werewolves are Werewolves (with all the double-faced glory that entails), but now there are some new toys to make your decks do things they couldn't before.

We talked about it. The reason we decided against it is that we only get access to double-faced cards on rare occasions. Every reprint we do just means the game of Magic has one less double-faced card. It's one less cool design we get to do. I do believe there will come a time when double-faced cards reach a saturation point where this isn't true, but I don't believe we've gotten there yet.

I designed this card, so I can tell you exactly what I was thinking. We wanted mad red Angels, so I started thinking about what that meant. My goal wasn't to make an Angel we could make in white and just make it red. I wanted an Angel that made sense as a red Angel. The angle that intrigued me most was the idea that these creatures, in their madness, started to hurt the very things they were made to protect. How could I do that mechanically?

I latched onto the idea of doing it as a drawback. What if I give you a cheap, powerful creature, but having it in play is going to cause problems? I looked at a lot of red global enchantments, ones that affected everyone, and I landed upon one I made during the very first set I designed, Tempest.

The card was called Furnace of Rath, and it doubled all damage to creatures and players. I wanted this to be a drawback, so I had to give the bonus only to your opponents. This also allowed me make the creature extra tough because in reality you could halve it as damage is doubled.

So what was my intent? To create a mad Angel, and I'm very happy with how it turned out.

@SpikeAllosaur: In what ways will SOI mirror or differ itself from the original block?

The thing that sets Shadows over Innistrad apart from original Innistrad is that while they are both telling horror stories, they are telling very different types of story. Shadows over Innistrad is a mystery where the audience isn't quite sure what's going on. The horror is more implied than in your face.

The original Innistrad, in contrast, was a more traditional horror film with the victims struggling to survive the onslaught of monsters. It was more fast-paced and the horrors were in plain sight. Innistrad was "That monster's going to kill me, I'd better run," while Shadows over Innistrad is "I feel like something is going to kill me, but I have no idea what or where or how. I'd better stay put."

In the eight years since he was introduced, Jace has been the protagonist of two stories: Return to Ravnica and Shadows over Innistrad. He appeared in original Zendikar block and Battle for Zendikar, but had a smaller role in both of those stories. The only other place where there was even a story he was involved in was Magic Origins. And that's it. That's every role Jace has played in a story.

Where Jace has been more ever-present has been in the cards. He has been in every core set since planeswalkers have been introduced, and he has more planeswalker cards than any other Planeswalker. In addition, some of those have been very powerful and thus have had a big impact on gameplay.

For those wondering, in the next block, Jace is not the protagonist.

@Nice_FoilHat: When you made the madness keyword, was threshold part of the discussion?

In a way. We knew we wanted to have a mechanic that cared about the state of your graveyard as a way to reflect that you were going mad. The idea was that this mechanic would lure you into putting cards into your graveyard, putting you closer to the risk of decking yourself (aka going completely mad). Early in design, we experimented with the idea that this mechanic would actually be threshold. Playtesting showed that threshold wasn't the right answer, so we explored other similar mechanics—which led us to delirium.

One of the reasons we liked madness in the set, besides the obvious flavor home run, was that it was a mechanic that encouraged you discarding cards—which synergistically helped you reach delirium. The trick was finding the right sweet spot of enablers, for both discard and other ways to get cards into your graveyard.

Why did we have two returns in a row? Let's look at the basic math. We currently aim to have about 50% of our blocks be to planes we haven't visited before (within the confines of a block) and 50% be ones we have visited before. Statistically, this means 50% of the time we will alternate between a new world and a visit, 25% of the time we'll have two new worlds in a row, and 25% of the time we'll have two revisits in a row.

Let's take a look at the last ten block interactions and see what happened:

  • Time Spiral to Lorwyn/Shadowmoor—Revisit to New
  • Lorwyn/Shadowmoor to Shards of Alara—New to New
  • Shards of Alara to Zendikar—New to New
  • Zendikar to Scars of Mirrodin—New to Revisit
  • Scars of Mirrodin to Innistrad—Revisit to New
  • Innistrad to Return to Ravnica—New to Revisit
  • Return to Ravnica to Theros—Revisit to New
  • Theros to Khans of Tarkir—New to New
  • Khans of Tarkir to Battle for Zendikar—New to Revisit
  • Battle for Zendikar to Shadows over Innistrad—Revisit to Revisit

As you can see, 60% were either New to Revisit or Revisit to New, 30% were New to New, and 10% were Revisit to Revisit.

On average, New to New has been a touch high and Revisit to Revisit has been a bit low. In other words, this was bound to happen, and the fact that it took this long is actually the bigger surprise, statistically speaking.

Who said the Vampires aren't going crazy? For instance, one of the set's mechanics, madness, which represents the insanity of the plane, is located in black and red—the two Vampire colors. Not only is it located in black and red, it is also associated heavily with Vampires. In fact, the Vampire archetype in Draft makes heavy use of the madness mechanic. So fear not, the Angels aren't alone in their madness. The Vampires have joined them (okay, as well as most of Innistrad).

We like to preview a lot of the set, but we choose to not preview everything because we enjoy leaving a few surprises for when the whole set finally gets revealed. One of the important things in previewing is to not preview too much at once, to let players focus on the things you do preview.

The End (for Now) of Odds & Ends

That's all the time I have for today. Mailbags are important to me because I like to know what you all are interested in learning about. I'm also interested in what you think of my answers to your questions. Did you like today's column? Is there any way to make it better? Or perhaps things you like that I shouldn't change? Let me know. You can email me or talk to me through any of my social media (Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, and Instagram).

Join me next week as I answer more of your questions in part two.

Until then, may you have fun with Shadows over Innistrad and generate even more questions about the set.


"Drive to Work #320—Advertising"

In this podcast, I take a look back at the many different advertisements Magic has done over the years.

"Drive to Work #321—Top 10 Sets I've Designed"

This is the first in a new series of Top 10 lists. I start by choosing my top ten favorites of sets for which I've lead the design.

Latest Making Magic Articles

MAKING MAGIC

November 30, 2020

Odds & Ends: Commander Legends by, Mark Rosewater

For each set, I like to do a mailbag column where I try to answer your most pressing questions about it. Here's the tweet I posted for Commander Legends: It's time for me to write a mai...

Learn More

MAKING MAGIC

November 23, 2020

How Trivial – Legendary Creatures by, Mark Rosewater

It's time for another trivia column. Inspired by Commander Legends, I've decided to focus this one on legendary creatures. Want to see how many of the 30 questions you can answer correctl...

Learn More

Articles

Articles

Making Magic Archive

Consult the archives for more articles!

See All