Dark Shadows, Part 2
Last week, I started telling card-by-card design stories about cards from Shadows over Innistrad. I didn't finish, so that means more stories today. Let's get started.
Enemy Color Dual Land Cycle
This cycle has raised a lot of eyebrows. What is it doing here? It doesn't seem like a tight fit for Innistrad, and the names are pretty generic. Well, that last part should hopefully be a big clue. We wanted to get some simple, easy-to-get dual lands into Standard, not for top-end tournament play but just to make sure that more casual players have the tools to run multicolor decks. The companion ally color cycle was in Oath of the Gatewatch. They have simple names because these cards are also going to play a role in the new intro products that will be coming out later this year. (I'm going to have an article out next month walking you all through what the new intro products are going to be. I haven't forgotten that I promised to explain to you all what was replacing core sets.)
The Gitrog Monster
Twice a year, we invite a group of artists to camp out for close to a month to begin putting together the look and feel of a new world. As part of this exercise, the artists make a lot of pictures. A lot of pictures. Many end up on the cutting-room floor, but a good chunk of them end up as a part of the world guide that shows off the world to all the artists who are going to illustrate cards set there.
The Shadows over Innistrad concept push resulted in many awesome ideas, including a picture very similar to what appears on this card. Most likely, the artist who drew this frog monstrosity didn't know what exactly it was other than that it looked cool. The story team also liked it, so they made a story for it and then informed us that it was going to be one of the legendary creatures (the first legendary Frog—discounting Mistform Ultimus, of course), meaning we had to make a card for it.
The Gitrog Monster went through many incarnations. All of them had a similar feel in that there was both a downside and an upside to keeping the Gitrog around. The final version blended the two together so that the upside helped you deal with the downside. I'm very happy with where this card ended up, as it's a lot of fun to play.
This design came about because I was given the following instruction: "Some of the Angels have started going crazy. Design us a red Angel." Normally Angels are white and they're protective. I liked the idea of a red Angel being a bit more reckless and potentially harmful. What if we made a big Angel with a low cost, but she came with a significant downside?
The key was not only to come up with a downside but to find something that worked in red. Okay, I thought, let's try to go to the opposite of an Angel. White Angels protect you, which meant red Angels would put you into danger. What was a red way to make things more dangerous? I flashed back to my very first design team—Tempest—and thought of this card:
Furnace of Rath was a global enchantment that doubled all damage. This made it a double-edged (pun always intended) sword, as the enchantment could be used against you as much as aid you. What if Goldnight Castigator created a Furnace of Rath effect but just for your opponent? The original version doubled all damage to you and your creatures, but playtesting found the second part a little too brutal, so it got changed to just double damage to Goldnight Castigator. This, by the way, allowed us to push the card's toughness up to 9, which seems good until you realize that 5 damage will destroy it.
The end result is a pretty odd Angel, which was exactly the point.
One of the things that's important when doing a design is making sure that different colors can take advantage of different aspects of the design. The set has a lot of discard to help enable both madness and delirium. What if one of the colors could interact with that discard in a different way? Blue, black, and red all had madness, so we looked to one of the other colors: white or green.
White can get back artifacts, enchantments, and small creatures from the graveyard. Green could get back anything. Could we use any of this to our advantage? Playtesting showed how often lands got discarded because once you reach a certain threshold of lands, the others have less value. Was there a way to take advantage of lands being discarded? Yes, if you could get them back.
That way, you could discard the same land many times for multiple discard effects. Madness lets you get multiple uses out of a single discarded card. Regrowing land could allow you to abuse discard effects by always discarding the same card. The big question was what color should regrow lands, and how many different ways could we let the color do it? We chose green, as it was one of the two colors not in madness that had land regrowing in its color pie.
The set does land regrowing in a number of ways, usually as a one-shot effect. Groundskeeper allows you to do it repeatedly, making it the kind of card you can build a deck around.
Jace, Unraveler of Secrets
Jace appeared in the Battle for Zendikar story but didn't end up getting a planeswalker card in the block. The main reason for that was that we knew he was the main character in Shadows over Innistrad and we were saving a planeswalker card slot for him there. The key this time for Jace is that he is more investigator than anything else. Could we choose effects that played up that flavor?
We decided to do two things. First, we made him defensive. Jace plans and plots as he tries to figure out what is going on. Second, where we could, we added some investigative flavor, especially with scry, his one positive loyalty ability. For his ultimate, we found a way to let Jace play up his defensive nature by countering a lot of spells.
With the removal of the core sets, Magic has fewer ways to reprint cards. As such, we're always on the lookout for cards that we can bring back that make sense in the set. Macabre Waltz is a perfect example of a good fit for a reprint. Shadows over Innistrad has a strong graveyard theme along with a lot of milling. Getting back two creatures from the graveyard is useful, but what puts this card over the top is the fact that after you do so you discard a card. Two of the set's mechanics—madness and delirium—both play nicely with discard, so what was originally a drawback for the card in this set is often an upside.
Another cool part of this card is the illustration. The original card from Dissension showed two bloody figures waltzing. This card shows Liliana waltzing with a zombie in a pose similar to that of the original card.
You can't have a mystery without a magnifying glass. I believe this was a top-down design that happened later in the process. Remember that early on we were more focused on the theme of madness, and only as the story came together did we start adding in the sense of solving a mystery. Part of adding a sense of mystery meant taking some tropes from the genre and putting them on cards. This seemed like an obvious choice and was then connected to investigate, our one mechanic flavored to the mystery theme.
This is a good example of a nice delirium design. It starts as a two-drop 2/2. It's useful in the early game. Then later, as it starts losing its usefulness, you have the ability to upgrade it with flying, making it once again a useful card. I've had numerous duels where my gameplay priority is getting my fourth card type into the graveyard to reach delirium and get my Moorland Drifter to fly.
One of the things that often happens in design is that you find some aspect that's normally a downside to be an upside in the set you're working on. This allows you to make cards that play in an interesting space. For example, Murderer's Axe is something that could go in a normal set but is much more compelling in a set like Shadows over Innistrad, because the discard outlet can be very powerful. I've found myself including it in Limited games not because I need the Equipment, but because I need the ability to discard cards.
Neglected Heirloom / Ashmouth Blade
This double-faced card is a holdover from the period of time we were trying to make "transformation matters" a stronger theme. To up the as-fan, we had two double-faced cards per booster, and then in blue and green (and artifacts) we had a bunch of cards that triggered when cards transformed. The idea was to get people to play decks full of double-faced cards. We felt the theme could stand on its own in green-blue, or the green cards could be paired with the Werewolves in red and green. As Werewolves transform back and forth, you needed fewer cards that cared about the transformation to make it work.
When we decided to cut "transformation matters" as a major subtheme, we cut most of the cards, but this one in particular had played really well, so we decided to keep it in.
This quirky little card was in the set from early in the design process (made by, I believe, the set's lead designer, Mark Gottlieb). The card managed to take a number of things we were doing—self-mill, discard as a cost, sacrificing enchantments to help delirium—and put them all on one card. The idea was that you could kill anything but it came at the cost of a lot of little things. Gottlieb and I both really liked the card. Many others did not. Multiple times during design and development, other people tried to take it out, but the little card prevailed.
The reason I'm so happy it made it is twofold. One, it's a clever design, and I like clever designs. Two, Magic has a large design pool, but it's finite. Whenever possible, I like to do cards that could only exist in the set for which they're made. Sinister Concoction makes sense, but only because of numerous factors unique to this set. We would most likely never make that card somewhere else, so it's one of the reasons Mark and I fought hard to make sure it got done here.
Skin Invasion / Skin Shedder
One of our goals with bringing back double-faced cards was trying to find some different ways to use them. In original Innistrad, for instance, with the exception of Garruk, they were all creatures on both sides. Dark Ascension then played around with having more card types, sometimes having different ones appear on the back side.
This card started with the idea of having an Aura that turned into a creature when the creature it was attached to died. When we only let you put it on your own creature, most often it just ended up making the creature unblockable because usually taking the damage was better than transforming the card. So we changed it so you could put it on any creature—yours or your opponent's. The new problem was it now acted like a Pacifism on your opponent's creatures; the player just wouldn't attack with that creature to avoid it getting killed. The solution was to force the enchanted creature to attack. That way it gave you the opportunity to interact with it and try to kill it, giving yourself an Insect Horror of your own when the enchanted creature died.
Once we had the design we liked, the big question was where to put it. Red seemed like the obvious choice, as "must attack" is primary in red, but red had all its double-faced slots allocated to Werewolves. Eventually, we decided the card was cool enough that we'd just have one less Werewolf in red.
In a vacuum, this card seems a bit odd. White normally has tappers, but this one requires discarding a card, which feels like a pretty big cost. It turns out that in this environment, the ability to get cards into your graveyard is important enough that this card actually gets used. We originally played around with self-milling as a cost, but soon realized that self-milling isn't something white is supposed to have.
Topplegeist, Manic Scribe, Tooth Collector, Gibbering Fiend, and Obsessive Skinner
This cycle started as a top-down design. We were playing around with the concept of madness, and I liked the idea that as people went crazy, they started becoming obsessive about little things, doing them over and over. In early playtesting, all five had "Obsessive" in their name. The design was very straightforward. Each had an enters-the-battlefield effect that did something, and then if it had delirium, it would start doing that effect every turn. The effects changed a bit as the file went through development, but the cycle with its basic structure stayed the same throughout.
I've talked about many returning aspects of the design—double-faced cards, monster tribes, graveyard interactions. What I've thus far failed to talk about was another popular return—the number thirteen. It all started as an in-joke in Innistrad design. Jenna Helland had turned in a card that dealt 10 damage, and I changed it to 13 because I said it felt more appropriate for the horror genre (thirteen being an unlucky number). That got a big laugh, so we started changing numbers to thirteen. Tragic Slip, for example, went from -1/-1 to destroying a creature with morbid. We then changed it to granting -13/-13 instead.
When we came back to Innistrad, we knew we wanted to revisit the thirteen theme. The big question was, could we find any new ways to use it? As I'm talking about a card named "Triskaidekaphobia"—the fear of the number thirteen—obviously we did. This is an interesting alt-win card (or alt-lose, technically) with a sweet thirteen theme.
The Vessel Cycle
One of the important things to do in any set design is figure out what the set needs that is unique to that set. Yes, every set needs counterspells and direct damage, but what does your set need that most sets don't need? With Shadows over Innistrad, we had a number of mechanics that required support, but by far the neediest was delirium. Getting four different card types in your graveyard involved two main things:
First, you had to have at least four different card types in your deck. Second, you had to have a way to get them to your graveyard. The Vessel cycle was created to help with both problems. In Limited, odds are you aren't opening a planeswalker, so that means there are six card types to work with: artifacts, creatures, enchantments, lands, instants, and sorceries. Your deck is almost always, by necessity in Limited, going to have creatures and lands. That means we had to make sure players had access to artifacts, enchantments, instants, and sorceries.
Enchantments, though, had a special problem. Instants and sorceries are easy to get into your graveyard. All you have to do is cast them. Artifacts are fairly easy (and more on that in a moment), as some sacrifice themselves and others are creatures that can die. Enchantments are a bit harder. Auras work okay, as their vulnerability (they go to the graveyard when the creature they enchant dies) is actually a positive when it comes to delirium. We found, though, that Auras alone weren't getting the job done.
The question then came up, how else can we get enchantments into decks and into graveyards? One of the answers is what R&D calls seals—that is, enchantments that let you pay mana and sacrifice them to generate a spell effect. In general, we've been kind of cool on seals, as spells play better when unknown in the hand, rather than in full view. In general, hidden information creates less board complexity and allows for more compelling game moments. Walking into an on-board trick can be frustrating.
Seals were the perfect answer in this set, though, so we decided to make a cycle of them. They serve as a nice tool to help enable delirium in a way that doesn't feel forced.
Westvale Abbey / Ormendahl, Profane Prince
Double-faced creatures? Been there. Double-faced artifacts? Yep. Double-faced enchantments? Uh-huh. We've even done double-faced planeswalkers. The only double-faced permanent we hadn't done was land, so the Shadows over Innistrad design team decided to see what we could do in that space.
The idea we ended up with was a church that gathered followers who were up to no good. You see, the Clerics were cultists, and their master goal was the summoning of a Demon. This allowed us to make a land that could produce creatures, which you would later sacrifice to let you transform it into the legendary Demon you just summoned. We put most of the creature keywords available to black on it to make it extra scary (although oddly didn't use menace).
This little Witch does a lot of good work for a card that seems to be pretty forgettable. Who cares about a vanilla 3/1 artifact creature? The answer is delirium decks care. Artifacts, it turns out, are a little harder to get into the graveyard than you might think. Many of them sit on the table, only going to the graveyard if they're destroyed. But a 3/1 creature is going to eventually make its way to the graveyard. In fact, the Wicker Witch can get quite interesting, because sometimes you have three card types in the graveyard and your opponent knows the Wicker Witch dying will turn on delirium. Then it becomes an unblockable 3/1. Also, at times the fact that Wicker Witch is both an artifact and a creature can help speed delirium along even more.
Hiding in the Shadows
I hope you enjoyed my stories from this week and last. As always, I am interested in any feedback on my card-by-card articles or on the set itself. You can email me or contact me through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, and Instagram).
Join me next week, when I answer all (well, many) of your questions about Shadows over Innistrad.
"Drive to Work #318—Early Days"
This podcast is about stories from when I was just a Magic player, before I came to work at Wizards of the Coast.
"Drive to Work #319—Early Tournaments"
This is a continuation of my stories about my early days, focused on a few high-profile tournaments I played in before becoming a Wizards employee.
- Episode 319 Early Tournaments (18.1 MB)
- Episode 318 Early Days (14.0 MB)
- Episode 317 Lessons Learned: Theros (15.5 MB)
- Episode 316 Design Space (19.5 MB)
- Episode 315 Collaboration (22.3 MB)