Sympathy for the Devils

Posted in Savor The Flavor on February 15, 2012

Things are not going well for our heroes, the humans of Innistrad, because—I mean, it's the second set of the block. Things never seem to be going well for the heroes around this time of year.

Bar the Door | Art by Ryan Pancoast

But it's going to be all right this time, right?

Why do you say that?

Doug, we all know the next set is called Avacyn Restored.

Hush, you. You'll make me drop my monocle! This column moves at the speed of the story, and right now it's Dark Ascension time. Today we are going to talk about scary monsters. Specifically, today's topic is one of the most notoriously evil creatures of the plane of Innistrad, a race of malevolent beings that crawled out of the sulfur-choked basement of the world.


No, in fact, not demons! You've fallen prey to my tricky ambiguous descriptors!

Haha, just kidding. We know it's devils—we figured it out from the article title. win again, hypothetical-reader-voice.

So, yes! Devils!

    The Nature and Role of Devils

Riot Devils | Art by Svetlin Velinov

Devils are infernal perpetrators of malicious mischief. They stand about three or four feet tall, have a face full of needlelike teeth, and often have ruddy or deep red skin. They usually have one or two back-sweeping horns and most of them have long, whiplike tails, but their morphology can vary from individual to individual. They are agile and can be passable fighters, but they do their best destructive work by sabotaging things of value and by inciting violence in others.

Concept art by Richard Whitters

Devils often work in the employ of demons, stirring up chaos and woe. Devils aren't very dependable minions when it comes to servant tasks—they don't do well retrieving fragile objects or remembering to guard choke points. But devils are experts when it comes to generating and fueling bitter emotions. Demons are most interested in ways to demonstrate and expand their own power, seeking to tempt mortals to give up what's most precious to them. Devils, on the other hand, just want to repeatedly check who's at the top of the Things Are Going Okay in My Life Leaderboard and go wreck some self-respect. That works out well for their demon masters, because once a poor human's will has been broken and livelihood destroyed by devils, that human is much more desperate and apt to agree to a demonic deal with shudderingly harsh terms.

    Devilish Humor

A devil's laugh is a brain-needle forged from pure spite. You might laugh when someone trips and falls—whatever. It's okay. It's kind of a human reflex. But a devil's sense of humor isn't satisfied until someone trips, falls, breaks an ankle, loses the ability to work, loses the farm, dies penniless, and dooms his or her starving heirs. Hilarious.

Heckling Fiends | Art by Clint Cearley

Devils don't have that little boundary of decorum that divides the harmless, schadenfreude-induced chuckle into your hand from the full-blown sadistic cackle at the dispensation of harm. The farther a prank goes, the more wrong it gets, and the more pain it causes, the harder a devil laughs. They will insult the memory of your dear, departed aunt—while waving at you with her own severed hands—just to bray at the look of anguish on your face. They have an uncanny knack for sniffing out exactly what you care for most just so they can break that thing and watch you cry. They can't be reasoned with; they are not creatures of reason. They can't be bargained with; they want nothing but your admission of defeat.

Charmbreaker Devils | Art by Dan Scott

They can, however, be killed. As the time of Dark Ascension sweeps across Innistrad, devils swarm out of the crevices of the plane, their shrill laughter heard in every village and along every route through the wilds. Priests and cathars have taken to killing them on sight whenever possible, even given their diminished holy powers, knowing that devils only herald ruin.

    Devils' Creative Role and Practical Purpose

Although the Devil creature type has been in Magic for a while, the modern visual design of these sadistic little buggers originated relatively recently, with Matt Cavotta's art of Squealing Devil from the Dissension set. Squealing Devil was just a one-off devil in the Ravnica block, but Matt captured its nasty grin and exaggerated malice so well that we've used it as our starting place for the Devil type ever since. Shards of Alara's Scourge Devil and its team of skeletal Grixis-hounds takes its inspiration from that visual design. Art director Jeremy Jarvis, concept illustrator Richard Whitters, and our team of Innistrad concept artists eventually went a different way in defining the look of Innistrad devils, but that Squealing Devil still served as the launching-off point.

Squealing Devil | Art by Matt Cavotta

Concept art by Steven Belledin

When we were deciding what races would populate the world of Innistrad, the question of Goblins arose. Goblins are a mainstay of the game, and we constantly reinterpret them in every setting where they appear, but we decided the Goblin type should take a rest for this Gothic horror setting. We still had the issue of needing to supply an answer for what small red creatures could be, though. Although we knew there would be some red-aligned Humans, a few red Wolves and Werewolves, some red Vampires, and a few one-off beasties in red, we knew from experience that we would still need more answers for red creatures. A full block of cards has a lot of creatures in it, and while it's easy enough for the creative team to say, "There are no goblins on this plane," it's quite another for us to stamp our feet and assert, "There shall be no small, red, humanoid-sized creatures on this plane." Mechanically, there are going to be small red creatures in the set, no matter what the world is. And the creative team has to be prepared to instruct artists how to draw them, whatever we decide they are in flavor terms.

Hellrider | Art by Svetlin Velinov

We also came at it from another direction. What would be a type that could set this world apart from other planes? What would be a good monster race that would strike fear and anguish in the hearts of this world's humans? What creatures had the right kind of feel, to make them feel at home among other classic tropes of Gothic horror stories?

Forge Devil | Art by Austin Hsu

So Devils came on board, both to fill the Goblin-sized hole in Innistrad's "creature grid" and to supply some nice, cackling, demon-assisting, human-tormenting horror flavor. It's very common for creative's decisions to work like this: the practical needs of making the card sets and our creative wants for expressing the feel of a setting, coming together in one harmonious solution.

...Pretty cool.

Is that you again, hypothetical-reader-voice?

Yeah. Not a bad article. A little Innistrad flavor, a little behind-the-scenes grungy stuff about how you guys make the game, some cool art—not bad.

Anything for you, anthropomorphized-mental-construct-of-my-reader-base.

So, are you just going to end it there?

I was thinking of it, yes. You wanted something else?

How about some early Avacyn Restored hints?

Why, I never! The monocle, it pops from my eye! Thou uncouth moppets!

Whatever. Maybe just give some evidence that you think about and listen to us.

Oh, you mean it's time for the...

    Letter of the Week

To cap us off today, Vince has a great question about planeswalkers and scrappin'.

Dear Doug Beyer,

First of all, let me just say that I thoroughly enjoy the little nuances of flavor every week that makes this game much more meaningful. On to my question, regarding your article "Creature Combat."

Let's say I'm in combat with a black-aligned fellow planeswalker and it's the early skirmishes of an epic battle. Black planeswalker opponent has a skeleton minion lurching about mindlessly at his side and then decides to will said skeleton into attacking me. Since I'm a powerful magic-wielding planeswalker, and I see a measly 1-power 1-toughness skeleton coming in for cheapshot, I have a multitude of options to deal with that weenie, right?

But what's stopping me from just giving it a good old fashioned haymaker punch to the face... erhm... skull? After all, I decided to let my minions stand by and watch while I show them how it's done. I figured, in this sense, planeswalkers should have some way to deal damage themselves if they decide to let the attack through. And all players should have at least a 1-powered hit to represent the physical actions a planeswalker could do to attacking creatures, like a punch, a shield bash, or even an acidic spit in the eye! Hell, I'd love to get a kick in before getting pounded for 6 by a Skaab Goliath just for the heck of it. What do you think?


Gravecrawler | Art by Steven Belledin

Did any of you guys play Magic Battlegrounds for Xbox? It definitely comes to mind for this question—in that game, two planeswalkers face off, summoning creatures and hurling spells at each other as you might expect. But you also had the option of having your planeswalker character just walk up to that attacking Suntail Hawk or whatever and whack it with your staff. Kasploink—dead birdie (unless it was Giant Growthed—ow). In most cases, your own creatures would tangle with theirs and take most of the brunt, but if your opponent's got through and you were busy gathering mana or casting a spell, you might mistime your opportunity for whackage and take the combat damage on your face. But at least you had the option—as you say, Vince—to get in a little spite-damage yourself.

In flavor and story situations, this kind of thing probably happens much more than it does in the card game. Garruk's greataxe and claw gauntlet aren't just there for decoration, after all. Neither is his, like, forehead, probably. Nrrngg—k'bash! In most contexts, though, we like to play up that it's a game that's fundamentally about magic. The game is already set up for you to use your spells and creatures as your weaponry. But even outside the card game, we want to keep planeswalkers using their magical arsenal. Jace and Chandra could meet and just start wrestling each other—or even physically elbowing each other's creatures in the nose—but it wouldn't take too much of that before it would stop feeling like a Magic story.

Fuel for the Fire Part 2 | Art by Andrew Robinson

That said, although we like all planeswalkers to fight primarily with their spellcraft, there's probably a "continuum of physicality" for different planeswalker characters that determines how much physical punchin' they might get into. We conceived of Gideon Jura, for example, as a planeswalker of battle and physical bravery—a man who gets himself into the mix much more than most planeswalkers. Happily, this is represented in his card mechanic—he literally gets up and takes part in the combat phase (doing much more than 1 nominal point at a time, too, as many tournament players can attest).

Vince, you should try this: Play with a house rule that lets players ping one attacking creature for one manaless point of damage per combat—sort of a free untapped Desert. That would kind of replicate the scenario you're describing—forcing that skeleton to regenerate, at least, or getting in a spite-kick on that Skaab Goliath! That rule might play havoc with weenie strategies, but it could be fun to go forehead-to-forehead with a pesky Suntail Hawk once in a while.

See you next week, when we throw around matters of life and death.

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