#881: Strixhaven with Yoni Skolnik
I sit down with Designer Yoni Skolnik, and we talk about the design of Strixhaven: School of Mages.
Posted in Making Magic on November 1, 2021
Welcome to the first Innistrad: Crimson Vow preview week. Today, I begin telling the story of the set's design, introduce you to the Vision Design team, and show off a cool new preview card. That said, on with the story.
Most of the time, vision designs run one after another, so it's not uncommon for me to finish working on a Vision Design team at the end of one week and start my next Vision Design team at the beginning of the following week. Ethan Fleischer was the vision design lead for Innistrad: Midnight Hunt, so I was just on the design team as a contributor. I was leading the vision design of the next set, however, so as Ethan was preparing to hand off Innistrad: Midnight Hunt to the Set Design team, I was doing my prep work to start up my new Vision Design team. I'm excited for you all to get to play it—when it comes out next year. You see, the Vision Design team I worked on directly after Innistrad: Midnight Hunt was Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty.
How could that be? Well, originally, the plan for our third trip to Innistrad was just going to be one set. You can tell this from our codenames; Innistrad: Midnight Hunt is codenamed "Golf" and Neon Dynasty is codenamed "Hockey."
So, what happened? A few things. First, Dungeons & Dragons: Adventures in the Forgotten Realms kind of reshaped how we thought of that spot. It started as a creative theme we were going to apply to a core set, but as the design evolved, it started becoming closer to a normal premier set. It had new mechanics and a higher complexity level.
Meanwhile, we were working on the original Jumpstart, and it was proving to be a big innovation in how we could introduce new people to Magic. This is in addition to Magic: The Gathering Arena becoming more popular with a tutorial that was also proving successful with beginners.
Add to all that a discussion that started about whether we want to shift around the premier releases to allow the later ones to have more time in Standard, and an idea started bubbling up: what if instead of a core set in the summer, we used that slot for a fourth, more traditional premier set in the late fall? (Note, I'm using Northern Hemisphere seasons.)
As is normally the case when we're exploring a new idea, we walk through all the ramifications of what it would mean to execute the idea. "Hockey" (aka Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty) was in the middle of vision design. We could stop and push it back a few months (there was some wiggle room in our schedule—Vision Design teams sometimes start earlier than needed for various reasons). The new set wouldn't have time for exploratory design or exploratory worldbuilding, which meant a new plane was probably off the table, but it had enough time for vision design if we started right away.
Given all the constraints, a second expansion set on Innistrad made a lot of sense. It would make vision design and worldbuilding's jobs much easier, and we'd talked about wanting to get more second sets on the same plane. Innistrad is also one of our most popular planes, so we felt the audience would be excited for back-to-back sets.
Because the set had a few challenges, such as no exploratory design, I said it made the most sense for me to lead the Vision Design team. Here's the team I put together: (note that I've started having the team lead introduce the team; in this case, it's me.)
The first issue we had to tackle was how to differentiate the two Innistrad sets. While both would represent the totality of Innistrad, we wanted a focus for each to help both market the set and give them a unique identity with the players. I went back and looked at what we'd done with Innistrad: Midnight Hunt, and it was clear that its focus was Werewolves. We had more than ever before; we had them in new colors; the main mechanic, daybound/nightbound, was a tweak on the "Werewolf mechanic"; and the story had a werewolf focus.
This meant that we also wanted Innistrad: Crimson Vow to focus on one of the featured creature types of Innistrad. That left us Human, Spirit, Vampire, and Zombie. We quickly removed Human from consideration. Humans show up on almost every world, and it seemed like it wanted to be another monster.
Next, we cut Spirit from consideration. While ghosts fit the world well, we felt like they would be less exciting of a tribal focus than Vampires or Zombies. All we had to do was figure out which one.
The Vision Design team took one meeting and brainstormed every cool thing we could do with Vampires and then took the next meeting and brainstormed every cool thing we could do with Zombies. We got some cool stuff from both brainstorms. So much so, that I wasn't sure what the right path was. And then Doug spoke up. I'd told him to take the Vampire and Zombie questions to the Creative team to do parallel brainstorms. That team had a definitive preference. They came up with a cool idea centered around a Vampire wedding. With some creative license, here's my memory of how that meeting went.
Me: Wow, we really have a lot of cool ideas mechanically for both Vampires and Zombies. I'm really torn. Doug, what did your team come up with during your brainstorms?
Doug: Vampire wedding.
Me: So, we're doing Vampires.
Once we knew the set's focus was Vampires, we looked at our brainstorm and expanded upon it.
One of the most compelling ideas was interestingly based upon something that Magic had started doing during our last trip to Innistrad. We were trying to figure out a way to capture the flavor of investigation. Card draw represents the gaining of knowledge, so we liked tying investigation to card draw. The problem was we had to be careful with how easy we made it to draw cards. That's when we came up with the idea of using Clues. What if instead of getting a card, you got an artifact token that you could use, along with mana, to get a card. This allowed us to make a lot more investigate cards.
The offshoot of Clues was that it had R&D rethinking how to use noncreature artifact tokens. Prior to Shadows over Innistrad, we'd mostly used noncreature artifact tokens to copy other noncreature artifacts. Clue tokens demonstrated that there was a lot of potential in using noncreature artifact tokens like we use creature tokens. That is, making numerous tokens that all have the same basic functionality. In Ixalan, we made Treasure tokens, which got you mana. In Throne of Eldraine, we made Food tokens, which gained you life. These noncreature artifacts were very flavorful and allowed us to make resonant designs.
As part of our Vampire brainstorm, I asked what component we could make that would best capture the flavor of Vampires? The answer we got after some brainstorming was blood. How could we represent blood? We loved the idea that Vampires would want it. We talked about blood counters that went on Vampires, but that would cause issues with using +1/+1 counters. We thought about the player having blood counters, but it felt odd. In the end, the idea we liked best was having Blood tokens, making use of the technology we'd paved with Clue, Treasure, and Food tokens.
Blood tokens were the perfect choice because we were interested in them being a resource with a built-in use, something you could use to make your Vampires better. Feeding them Blood tokens was so obviously the right call that we really didn't spend any time exploring a different option. However, we spent a lot of time figuring out what exactly a Blood token was supposed to do. Clues had card drawing, Treasures had mana production, and Food had life gain, so we looked at other effects.
Here were our criteria:
It had to be generally useful – The reason Clue, Treasure, and Food tokens have succeeded is that they did something you generally want in most games of Magic. You didn't have to build around them; they would work in most decks.
It couldn't be too big of an effect – One of the lessons we'd learned with Clues is that it's hard to make players use Clues for other functions because card drawing is so valuable. One of the main goals of Blood tokens is to feed it to your Vampires, so it had to be an effect small enough that you were often willing to make that trade.
It had to not contradict feeling like Blood – This was the trickiest thing to accomplish, because unlike Treasure or Food, it's not quite as clear what the flavor of the benefit of Blood is. After much thought, we concluded that it was less important to "feel like Blood" and more important to "not feel like not Blood."
With these criteria in mind, we set out to find a function for Blood tokens. The first thing we explored was putting a +1/+1 counter on target creature. It seemed generally useful (most decks have creatures) and was flavorful (an infusion of Blood makes you stronger). There were several strikes against it, though:
The next thing we tried was scrying—scry 1, in particular. Blood has been associated with spells used to glimpse the future (aka blood omens), so there was some flavor there. The effect is generally useful, and unlike the +1/+1 counter it did help smooth gameplay.
The scry version also had a bunch of problems, though:
While we were playtesting scry, we tried surveil in its place for a while (which is just like scry, but the cards you don't put back on top go to the graveyard instead of to the bottom of the library). Innistrad: Crimson Vow, like all Innistrad sets, has some graveyard synergy, so we liked the idea that this mechanic could also help enable that. I bring this up because putting cards in the graveyard would influence the next thing we tried.
One of the common complaints R&D has about Clues is that it's a little more value than we ideally want in an artifact token. We've spent time talking about what we could have done in its place, and in those discussions, "looting" (drawing a card and then discarding a card) and "rummaging" (discarding a card and then drawing a card) always comes up. What if Blood tokens looted or rummaged? It would get us the graveyard interaction we liked with surveil while giving us draw smoothing that would help make all the elements of the set play better together.
We ended up trying rummaging over looting as our Blood mechanic as it made a smaller effect and felt a little wilder to capture the idea of blood magic. We chose to make it cost one mana to use, because we knew they would be compared to Clues and costing two mana just felt like a worse Clue. We playtested it and it played great. The only real strike about it was how connected it was to the flavor. It wasn't as much of a slam-dunk flavor connection as the +1/+1 counter, but because Blood was a bit nebulous, if we tap into the blood omen trope like we had with the scry version, it was flavorful enough. The most flavorfully important thing about Blood would be the top-down cards that made it and the Vampires using it to grow stronger.
Now that I've explained how we got Blood tokens, it's time to show off my preview card, which uses Blood tokens. Click below to meet Falkenrath Forebear.
There was one other thing we had to discuss with Vampires. In Innistrad: Midnight Hunt, one of the ways we focused on Werewolves was allowing them to appear in a third color (and splashed in a fourth and fifth). If Innistrad: Crimson Vow was going to have a Vampire focus, we felt that it too needed a third color.
The choice for this third color was obvious, as there was one color, outside of black and red, that had a bunch of Vampires—white. The tribal Vampire theme in Ixalan block had been white and black, meaning that there were a bunch of white Vampires, some of which had tribal mechanics. In addition, Edgar Markov, the main Vampire of Innistrad and the groom of the wedding of the set, had been printed in Commander (2017 Edition) as a white-black-red card. This would allow us to make a couple mono-white Vampires as well as several red-white and white-black legendary Vampires (as with Innistrad: Midnight Hunt, all multicolor cards are two-color cards).
In addition to tapping into a third color, we also made a long list of all the Vampire tropes we could think of. Thanks to the popularity of Vampires in mainstream culture, there was a substantial amount of Vampire tropes to work with. Many of those that hadn't been used before (and a few that have) got turned into individual top-down card designs. I'm excited for you all to see and play with them.
Let me end by stressing that, as with Innistrad: Midnight Hunt, Innistrad: Crimson Vow is an Innistrad set, with all the normal components one would find on a visit to our gothic horror plane but with a thematic focus on Vampires. The set will still have Werewolves and Zombies and Spirits and Humans, all of which I'll talk about next week.
That's all the time I have for today. As always, I'm eager to hear your thoughts on today's column, Blood tokens, Vampires, or Innistrad: Crimson Vow as a whole. You can email me or contact me through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and TikTok).
Join me next week for part two of the Innistrad: Crimson Vow design story.
Until then, may you get all the Blood you need.
I sit down with Designer Yoni Skolnik, and we talk about the design of Strixhaven: School of Mages.
I recently posted an update to my Mechanical Color Pie article. This is part one of a two-part series where I talk about the changes.