Welcome to the first week of Murders at Karlov Manor previews. There are many mysteries afoot, some of which I'll tackle today. Why did we decide to do a mystery-themed set? How exactly was Murders at Karlov Manor designed? Who were the culprits that designed it? What mechanics did they use to commit such a crime? I'll investigate today and next week and provide some answers. I might even uncover some preview cards along the way.
Accessories to Murders
Before I can get to the why and how of the crime, let's start with the who. Many people worked to design Murders at Karlov Manor. Let's meet them. As always, I'm having the lead of the sets do the introductions. For Murders at Karlov Manor, Mark Gottlieb was the co-lead for both vision design (with me) and set design (with Andrew Brown), so I'm having him introduce everyone.
Note: The bios talk a bit about the larger puzzle embedded in Murders at Karlov Manor and even have a bonus puzzle for you to solve, so if you don't normally read the bios, you might want to check these ones out.
A Mystery Is Revealed
Let's begin with the first mystery, the theme of mystery itself. How did we end up with it? Well, the story goes all the way back to 1997. Michael Ryan and I felt that Magic should have an ongoing story, so we pitched what is now known as the Weatherlight Saga. As part of that pitch, we laid out plans for a three-year arc that would take place across three different blocks, each on its own plane. While the Weatherlight Saga happened, it deviated a bit from the three-year story we first pitched. Most of the first year remained, as did parts of the second year (although it was pushed back to year three). It's the second-year part that's relevant.
The first year was set on Rath and the second year on Mercadia (again, the second year was pushed back a year so that we could go into the past and tell the Urza's Saga portion of the story). Volrath had snuck aboard the Weatherlight and killed Starke while in Mercadia. Michael and I had the cool idea of turning Starke's murder into a murder mystery. The idea was to have Starke killed in the beginning of the story and the mystery of his murderer woven throughout the set.
We had this elaborate plan where the murder occurred in a castle and different pieces of art would help you figure out the layout of the castle, which would be key to solving the murder. The murderer of our story was Tahngarth, but not the actual Tahngarth, as he had been replaced by Volrath.
A little behind-the-scenes trivia: We made Volrath a shapeshifter to set up the murder mystery. The Weatherlight Saga changed much along the way, including Michael and I being far less involved in it, so the idea of the murder mystery set never happened, but it was always an idea near and dear to my heart.
Flash forward many years to the original Innistrad release. It had been a big success, and it made me realize the power of top-down design based on fictional genres. I ended up making a list of genres that blend well with fantasy. Fairy tales were at the top, which would lead to Throne of Eldraine, but murder mystery was also on my list. It had a lot of juicy tropes that would make good cards, and I still loved the idea of a Magic set with a puzzle built into it. (Next week, I will talk more about the puzzles that are embedded in Murders at Karlov Manor.)
From time to time, we do something we call arc planning. Now, it's a weekly meeting, but it wasn't always. In the past, we'd have an offsite for a few days to line up the next few years' worth of sets. I wrote a two-part article called "The Bolas Arc" (Part 1 and Part 2) a few years ago that gives a little peak into the process. (The article specifically talks about the sets from the Bolas Arc storyline.)
At these meetings, we often throw out set ideas that we have. Some stick, and some don't. Usually, if you have one you like, you keep bringing it up, trying to find the place where it'll make sense in the larger structure. A top-down murder mystery plane was an idea that had been tossed out a few times. I'm not quite sure why "Polo," the code name for Murders at Karlov Manor, became the home for it, but I, with the help of a few others, got everyone on board, and it was added to the schedule.
Note, I said murder mystery plane. The initial idea was for it was to be a brand-new plane optimized to play into all the tropes the genre wanted us to hit. Usually, when we did a top-down plane, we created something brand new so we could adapt it however we needed to optimize the set. But then we made Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty. That set started as a top-down Japanese pop culture-inspired set. Instead of making a new plane, we repurposed a plane we already had that seemed like a good fit. This would eventually lead us to change The Lost Caverns of Ixalan from a new underground plane to Ixalan.
In the middle of vision design, the Worldbuilding and Vision Design teams both realized that the plane we were building felt a lot like Ravnica. The trope space demanded a city complete with efficient law enforcement (New Capenna was a bit light on the latter), and we didn't feel a need to reinvent the wheel. If the plane felt like Ravnica, why not make it Ravnica? There was discussion about some players being upset that we returned to Ravnica and didn't have guild-themed play, but Ravnica Remastered was coming out a month before it, so we felt that would give access to players who wanted it.
The Plot Thickens
With that out of the way, our story goes back to the start of exploratory design when we were figuring out what a murder mystery set would need mechanically. Obviously, we would have a lot of flavorful top-down card designs hitting all the fun mystery tropes. But what should our mechanics accomplish such that the gameplay feels like it belongs in a murder mystery? I'm going to talk about two of them today and the rest next week.
First up, Magic already did a mystery set. It wasn't exactly a murder mystery, and it didn't play into the tropes quite as strongly as we wanted to with this set, but it forced us to ask ourselves the question of how to make mechanics that feel like a mystery. That set was Shadows over Innistrad. We were revisiting Innistrad for the first time, and we decided to shift the horror from gothic horror to cosmic horror. A big part of cosmic horror is an element of mystery, so we had Jace show up on Innistrad, put on a trench coat, and solve a mystery.
The main mechanic we came up with to capture the sense of investigating a mystery was the investigate mechanic, which created Clue tokens that allow you to pay mana to draw a card. This was the first time we played around with a noncreature token that was made in volume. Eldritch Moon, the next set, didn't use investigate because the story shifted away from the mystery part and more into horror. Players really liked investigate and let us know they wanted to see it again. We would bring it back on our next return to Innistrad, Innistrad: Midnight Hunt.
All of this is to say, when we asked ourselves what mechanics make sense in a murder mystery set, the very first thing we thought of was investigate. We put it in and never looked back. As a keyword action (i.e., a verb; something that happens), there's a lot of flexibility in how we can use it. In fact, all three of today's preview cards make use of it in different ways. So, before we continue on, I thought I would show them off.
First up is Homicide Investigator. If you were a citizen of Ravnica, this isn't someone you'd want to meet. When she shows up, someone's dead. Hopefully, not you.
Second is Sharp-Eyed Rookie. Sharp-Eyed Rookie is another Detective intent on solving murders.
The third and final preview is called No Witnesses.
Anyway, the story of investigate is short and simple. It was an obvious inclusion. We included it. The next mechanic went through a bit more on its journey into the set.
Hidden in the Shadows
On the very first day of exploratory design, we did our usual exercise of compiling a list of everything a murder mystery set should have. One thing we wrote was "hidden information." The whole point of a murder mystery is that someone must solve it. If we were going to capture a sense of mystery in gameplay, there needed to be something that players didn't know that they had to figure out.
So, we thought through every past gameplay element where there was an aspect of hidden information. An important component we realized was that the opponent(s) understood there was something they didn't know. Mechanics that lived in the hand, for instance, didn't quite meet this requirement because players (almost) always have cards in their hand, so it doesn't have the "there's a mystery for me to solve" quality we wanted. We wanted you to play a card that made the opponent(s) aware that there was something they had to figure out.
We explored a lot of different mechanical veins and ended up on face-down cards. A face-down card does a great job of saying, "I know something you don't know, and the thing you don't know might cause you problems." We looked at both face-down permanents and face-down cards that lived in exile, usually spells that you would eventually cast. In the end, we gravitated to the thing that we looked at first, morph.
The morph mechanic was created by the rules team. They were figuring out how to make the Limited Edition (Alpha) cards
We brought it back for Khans of Tarkir. It was clear to us at the time that three mana for a 2/2 was a little on the weak side. Creatures have been improved over the years, and morph hadn't kept up. We tried a few variants, such as borph (i.e., "bear morph" where it was a 2/2 for two), smorph (a 2/2 for four that came with a +1/+1 counter), and auramorph (morph where the back was an Aura rather than a creature and turning it face up allowed you to put it on a creature) but none were used.
Because we knew that we could fall back to morph, we decided it made sense to experiment some more. The first version of our new morph variant (which we called cloak but went to print as disguise—the word "cloak" is used in the set for a manifest-like variant) was a 3/2 for three. An important part of morph is that face-down morph cards trade with one another, so giving it a power of 3 but leaving the toughness at 2 helped retain that quality.
But a 3/2 is a little too efficient at dealing damage and ended up trading well with creatures, so it usually died before being turned face up. A lot of the fun of a morph mechanic is the ability to turn it into something. Also, because we wanted to play into the mystery aspect, we wanted the opponent(s) to have the chance to see if they correctly identified what it was. We realized we needed to try something else.
So, we asked ourselves, how do we make the creature slightly better but in a way that increases its chance of survival such that it gets to turn face up? We still wanted it to trade in combat with other face-down creatures, so we didn't want to mess with the toughness of the creature. This led us to look at mechanics that helped protect it. Eventually, we settled on ward. It made the face-down creature harder to kill with spells and increased its survival but didn't mess with the interaction we wanted in combat. We ended up starting with ward 2, as it seemed aesthetic with it being a 2/2 (which also meant it would be easier to remember). Ward 2 played well and stayed until print.
During set design, the team would add a manifest variant (turn a card face down and you may pay its mana cost to turn it face up if it's a creature). This would allow you to take cards without the mechanic and turn them face down. What we called cloak was changed to disguise, and the manifest variant keyword action became cloak.
The Mystery Deepens
That's all the time I have for today. Next week, I'll continue telling the story of the set's design and talk about the other mechanics and themes in the set. As always, I'm eager for your feedback. You can email me or contact me through any of my social media accounts (X [formerly Twitter], Tumblr, Instagram, and TikTok) to share any feedback about today's column or any aspect of Murders at Karlov Manor.
Join me next week for part two.
Until then, may you solve all the mysteries that come your way.