Odds & Ends: Shadows over Innistrad, Part 2

Posted in Making Magic on April 18, 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.

Last week, I began another mailbag column answering many of the questions all of you have about the newest set. I had more questions than could fit in a single column, so I decided to make this a two-parter. If you want to learn more about how I gathered questions or why I might not answer yours, check out part one. Now, on with the questions:

The only problem double-faced cards have when it comes to design is that there's a lot of pressure on them to each individually be a home run (aka a big success). In general, they're not hard to design. They require two states, but a lot of Magic cards do that. In fact, there are numerous cards that would be double-faced cards if the logistics of doing them were less problematic. (For example, the monstrous mechanic in Theros would have made an excellent place to do cool double-faced cards.)

The difficulty of making double-faced cards is less in the individual card design and more in navigating all the things that doing them requires. They need special printing sheets, which changes rarity and set numbers. They need checklist cards and additional art. There are issues in how they get displayed and rules dealing with organized play. Double-faced cards are complicated—but not because coming up with what they do is difficult.

Double-faced cards were the most popular (and by a wide margin) "mechanic" in the original Innistrad block. So much so, in fact, that the one thing we knew when we returned was that we were going to have to have double-faced cards.

Madness is what we call an A/B mechanic, in that it requires both cards that care about something (A) and cards that are that thing (B). Madness, for instance, requires cards that discard cards. The madness cards are the A, and the cards that use discard are the B. The trick with making it work, especially for Limited, is ensuring you have the as-fan correct. As-fan is an R&D term, short for "as-fanned," that talks about how often a particular subset of cards show up. We associate a number with as-fan, which talks about how often that subset shows up in a random booster. For instance, as as-fan of two would mean that on average a booster would have two cards of that subset. The A and B levels have to be set correctly so you have enough of each. The ratio of A to B varies greatly depending on what the mechanic is. A big part of getting Limited to work is getting the as-fan and ratio correct.

Magic has many masters, and Anguished Unmaking was an example of those masters clashing. Each set has promo cards. We want the promo cards to be cards players are excited about, as it helps encourage attendance at events. Whenever we're about to send promos out to stores, we first tell everyone about the card online, because we want the announcement to be front and center where everyone can see it at once, with a nice clean image of the card. If we just sent it out, we wouldn't control where it showed up or who would see it. We also can't oversee how the card is shown off. We're not eager for a card's premiere to be a poor digital photo taken with a camera.

Anguished Unmaking is a promo card, so the timing of when we showed it off was tied to the shipping schedule. So why did we make it a promo? Because it's a powerful, flavorful card that we felt was going to see Constructed play and would make a good promo. Promos are hard enough to choose without even more constraints being put on them.

The story team is talking about some solutions to this problem, but it's not something easily solved.

There are a bunch of problems:

  1. It wouldn't feel like Innistrad

Red Vampires, blue Zombies, red Werewolves—these are things that players associate with Innistrad. Changing them would create a big disconnect between expectation and delivery.

  1. It wouldn't play nicely with original Innistrad

One of the things we do on a revisit is let people dig out old decks they have and add new material to them. By shifting colors, we make it harder to do this. Shadowmoor tried exactly this trick of shifting colors after a tribal set had established them, and the result was bad—one of the biggest mistakes of the block.

  1. It has a lot of flavor fails

Innistrad worked hard to put creatures in the color you expect and then find a flavorful second choice. I'm not sure most have a flavorful third choice (although some do), and even then, having them all line up to properly cover the five enemy color combinations is highly unlikely.

So no, we never considered it.

In original Innistrad, I wanted an artifact tribe, so the plan was to make Scarecrow tribal a thing. It turned out to be too much, so we mostly took it out. Probably if I were to do another tribe in Shadows over Innistrad, I would do Horror tribal.

I believe the opposite is more likely to be true. Gameplay shines best when there is a deep connection between the gameplay and the emotional response you're trying to evoke in your players. Having a strong flavor aspect actually makes that goal easier, not more difficult. That said, there are things to watch out for. You have to be careful not to add too much rules text that reads cute but doesn't actually add to the gameplay. A little of that is okay, but too much becomes a complexity issue.

Barring a weird anomaly (which does happen when you print cards), each booster pack should have at least one double-faced card, which will be a common or uncommon. Then about an eighth of the packs will have a second double-faced card, which will be a rare or mythic rare. The ratios of common to uncommon and rare to mythic rare match normal rarity ratios.

@1EpicPug: Why go with delirium over threshold as a mechanic?

Threshold doesn't care about what cards are in your graveyard, only how many, so it encourages you to sacrifice a lot of permanents and discard a lot of cards. Delirium, in contrast, cares about what card types are in the graveyard, so once one creature dies, for example, you're no longer focused on making your creatures die. This leads to better gameplay and makes for more interesting deck-construction choices. It also allowed development to have an easier time balancing delirium.

Jace is the protagonist, so we knew he needed a planeswalker card. Sorin plays a key role in this part of the story, so we wanted him to have a planeswalker card. Nahiri also plays an important role, so we wanted her to have a planeswalker card. The problem was, we were a bit unbalanced color-wise with white getting representation on two planeswalkers and green having representation on none. The creative team had a cool idea for a Werewolf planeswalker, which solved the color-balance issue, so we decided that one of the reasons for having defaults is to occasionally not follow them.

I am undefeated when facing Triskaidekaphobia. Okay, in all fairness, I never faced Triskaidekaphobia. It was created in design, but I never happened to open it or play against it in playtesting.

No. In fact, it was original Innistrad that made me realize that tribal needed to go. As it was a tribal set, I made liberal use of the tribal card type. What I found, though, was that it never really came up. Things that tend to affect creatures don't often make sense with other card types. In the end, I removed tribal because it was adding extra words for very little impact on gameplay. Once we realized this was true even for a set with tribal themes, R&D decided to just pull the tribal card type from the game. (Note that it's still supported, we just don't make new cards with it.)

We don't, not exactly. We make sure that every color has some representation, but it's not done so they all have the same number. For example, all the Werewolves are double-faced cards, so we tend to give red and green a few more double-faced cards to let them have enough Werewolves.

As a general rule, we limit ourselves to no more than one alternative win condition per set (Odyssey block had a cycle running through it, so we do break this rule on occasion, but infrequently). Triskaidekaphobia was designed first (remember the investigate mechanic in the set didn't get put in until development), and we really liked it, so why was there no Clue-related alternate win condition? Because we were tickled pink by Triskaidekaphobia.

Here are my takeaways from Shadows over Innistrad:

  1. Understand what was beloved about the plane in the first place and then recapture that

We spent a lot of time trying to understand what exactly made original Innistrad such a hit, and then we worked hard to make sure Shadows over Innistrad struck the same notes. As I talked about in my preview article, part of that was making the set more like Innistrad than Avacyn Restored.

  1. Find a new twist that fits the ethos of the world

We didn't just go back to Innistrad to go back to Innistrad. We had a cool story that we wanted to tell that could only work on Innistrad. It had a narrative twist and mood that was complementary to the original block without being a direct copy.

Yes. Early on, we decided that the best way to show the Angels going insane was to color-shift them, and flavor-wise red was the ideal choice. Once we had a bunch of big red fliers, it quickly became clear that there just wasn't going to be room for Dragons.

@ABirdNerd: Is Tibalt still around or is he chillin' somewhere else?

I don't believe he's around. I haven't seen him mentioned in any of the stories for the block I've read. He is a Planeswalker, so odds are he's off traveling the Multiverse.

There's less top-down trope design because, yes, we used a lot of them when making the original Innistrad. I do think, though, that we tapped into a different kind of horror story and took advantage of some new tropes that the shift allowed.

Yep. Noncreature tokens are a tool in our toolbox we plan to use when appropriate. Don't expect to see them as often as creature tokens, but they're definitely deciduous and something you'll see from time to time.

No, there's just an ebb and flow to every aspect of a set, with legendary creatures being one of them. We went a little heavier than normal last year in Khans of Tarkir block, so we're just letting the pendulum swing back a bit.

No, actually the opposite. Having more things to start design with is actually a boon for design. As I like to say, restrictions breed creativity—and Shadows over Innistrad had a lot of fun constraints to work with.

I think development would be reluctant to bring Tarmogoyf back to any Standard environment, but one synergistic with how the card works, meaning it would be even stronger than normal, is not something development would ever sign up for.

As Magic evolves, its worlds are becoming a more and more iconic part of it, so I believe we will visit the popular worlds many times. I'm curious to hear which worlds you want to revisit and which ones you want to revisit again.

There are easy and difficult parts about each. New cards require the leap from a blank page to an idea. Reinventions have more hoops to jump through but come with the initial idea preloaded. I actually enjoy when sets have some of each.

How soon one can return to a world is a complex question that we've spent a lot of time discussing. With Mirrodin, we took our time to make sure that we weren't coming back too soon (the only previous world we'd returned to was Dominaria, and we'd come back so many different times). With Ravnica, we pushed the envelope a little more. Zendikar and Innistrad were meant to push things a little again to see how players would react. Innistrad ended up being even quicker because we moved from the old-school three-set-block model to the current two-set-block model.

Part of the reason for pushing things up is to try and get a sense of how fast we're able to return. Note that it's not our intent to always come back as fast as we can, but we want to understand what the parameters are. So far, the response to Innistrad seems to indicate that we didn't come back too soon.

We talked about it. A legendary Spider does thematically make sense in Innistrad, but unfortunately we weren't able to make room for it.

I have some bad news for you. When last we saw Griselbrand in Avacyn Restored, he had a major battle with Liliana, as he was one of the four Demons that created the pact that gave her eternal youth. That battle didn't go well for him, and he was the second Demon to fall to Liliana in her quest to free herself from the pact.

The R&D term "Bear" as a nickname for a green 2/2 creature goes back to Grizzly Bears in original Limited Edition (Alpha). We've since pushed in many other creative directions for green 2/2 creatures and even expanded how big Bears are in Magic.

Interestingly, when we first designed the set, we were focused on the theme of madness, not mystery, but as the story team started finalizing the story and brand started to work on the marketing, we realized the set needed a mystery component. That's when we started making the investigate mechanic (note that the design version is not the one that ended up being printed—you can go back and read my preview article for more on this).

Over and Out

And with two full columns' worth of answers, it's time to bring this Odds & Ends to a close. I hope I answered a lot of the questions you all had about Shadows over Innistrad. As always, I would love to hear your feedback either through an email or through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, and Instagram).

Join me next week when I talk about how and why we push into unexplored territory when creating a new world.

Until then, may your questions have answers.


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