From time to time, I like to show you the vision design handoff documents that I create when I finish working on a set. These documents are designed to walk the Set Design team through the vision of the set as well as introduce the various mechanics and themes the Vision Design team created.

Here are the documents I've published so far:

As we're about to return to Innistrad for two sets (Innistrad: Midnight Hunt and Innistrad: Crimson Vow), I thought it would be fun to go back to the very beginning and show you all the design handoff document I created for original Innistrad.

As with my Future Sight article, there are a few caveats I have to offer before we begin:

  1. How these documents are put together has changed a bunch over time, so this one is a little different from the vision design ones I've posted. (For example, no sample cards.) I believe this document was handed over in the fall of 2009.
  2. This was back when R&D had the design/development model, so I'd spent more time on the set than I do on vision design (closer to a year in contrast to the four months I get now), which means the set was much further along.
  3. Regular text shown below is the actual document as it was turned in. Everything in the boxes consists of my notes, which explain things to help you get some larger context.

"Shake" Design Document

The "Shake" design team set out with one simple goal: we wanted to take the genre of horror and bring it to Magic. The team didn't need to invent much, as most of the elements already existed in the game. Our goal was to take these elements, with a few new ones, and combine them to create a rich top-down world that embodied fantasy horror. The team I put together included myself, Richard Garfield, Jenna Helland, Graeme Hopkins, and Tom Lapille.

Innistrad block used the codenames "Shake," "Rattle," and "Roll."

By now, most of you recognize Richard as the creator of Magic. Jenna Helland worked on the Creative team for fifteen years overseeing various stories and worldbuilding. This was the first set where she served as the creative lead. Graeme Hopkins came in third in the first Great Designer Search and works as a programmer on the Magic the Gathering: Arena team. Tom LaPille spent many years working on the R&D development team (doing a combination of what set design and play design do now).

After much discussion, we've decided that we need to embrace four elements to bring the set to life: a tribal "monster" component, a graveyard component, a "death matters" component, and a transformation component. These four components will be the backbone of the design.

One of the things I like to do in my documents is break up the design into various grok-able bite sizes. This just makes it easier for everyone to digest and remember.


When we began talking about what players would expect to see in a horror set, the first answer was monsters. While we discussed many different monsters, the four that seemed to win at the end of the day were vampires, werewolves, zombies, and ghosts (aka spirits). This discussion also brought out the importance of humans in horror stories. The monsters had to be threatening someone. In addition, the heroes are traditional humans that stand up to the monsters. The set needed some slayers and monster hunters.

One of the cute ways we used to describe what monsters we chose was that we "picked the breakfast cereal monsters." We felt that common sugar-rich cereals, some dating back as early 1971, did a good job of depicting the low-hanging fruit of popular monsters in the public consciousness. Obviously, we had to save mummies for an Egyptian-themed set we'd do someday (however, they were basically zombies).

With the five tribes in mind, we set out to carve space for them all. Here's where we ended up: (Note that I am listing the creature types in what I believe is their order of importance in the big picture of the design, both toward feel and for selling the set.)

It's key when making a handoff document to make sure the design team you're handing off to has some sense of your priorities. Things will always change, so you want to make sure they understand what's most important. The ordering of the creature types had a lot to do with what was unique to this set, the more novel things that would set this expansion apart from other expansions.


Werewolves are green and red. They are all double-sided cards with a smaller Human side and a large Werewolf side. All double-sided red and green cards are Werewolves. All Werewolves have the same two triggers, one Human to Werewolf and one Werewolf to Human.

The crux of this stayed as it was turned over, but a few things changed. First, as I'd hinted at here, the trigger did end up moving to the beginning of the next turn so that there weren't shenanigans where you could respond to the trigger by casting spells.

The Human-to-Werewolf trigger is an at-the-beginning-of-the-end-step trigger that happens if no spell was played by any player that turn. The trigger needs to be crafted such that players can't sneak out spells after "not having played spells for the turn." We might consider having the trigger be at the beginning of the next turn.

The Werewolf-to-Human trigger is an at-the-beginning-of-the-end-step trigger that happens if two or more spells were played by any combination of players that turn. The two triggers were selected to allow both players to have influence over whether the creatures transform. The triggers were made vague to convey a sense of passing time. Playtesting has shown that players seem to fill in the "the moon comes out" feel that the mechanic does not specify.

Second—and this is the biggest change—the Werewolf-to-Human trigger now only cares about whether one player plays two spells, whereas the version here only cared if any combination of players cast two spells, which created weird play incentives and wasn't as fun.

Third, we would later add the sun and moon symbols, which helped visually communicate night and day.

A subtle, but I believe very important, part of the design is the addition of the Werewolf creature type. (Two of the three Werewolves in existence were printed as Lycanthrope and one as Minion Wolf. All three are now Human Wolf with one being Human Wolf Minion.) I listed the Werewolves first in importance because, of all the monsters we are doing, Werewolves have never been done effectively in Magic and will be, in my opinion, the greatest "new" thing in the set. Also, I believe the double-sided cards are going be the key selling point, and every Werewolf has one.

Making Werewolf a creature type was actually a pretty big fight in R&D. One camp, led by me, wanted to introduce Werewolf. The other camp, led by Brady Dommermuth (the creative director at the time), wanted the cards to be Human Wolf. Brady's choice better adapted to how the system worked at the time and connected naturally to the Wolf cards, but I successfully convinced enough people that Werewolf was a weighty enough word to be worth introducing into the game. It did require us making all the Werewolf tribal cards care about "Werewolves and Wolves."

If we are going to sell Werewolves as being a big feature, I want to make sure we're making use of the word, as words are a very potent part of conveying a feature of the set. There are a few old cards to change, all of which have Werewolf in their name and two of which aren't even what they have written on their card.

The Werewolf deck has a lot of suspense built into it because there is an unknown when the army of Humans will turn into the much scarier army of Werewolves. Because the Werewolf deck involves not playing spells (either to turn them or keep them from turning back), we wanted to make sure that red and green had some extra things to do with the mana.

I should also mention that there was a little pushback to doing Werewolves in red, but I felt it was important to have each supported creature type be in two colors (that's something that continues to this day), and red made the most sense after black. (All the monsters felt at home in black.) The allied color combinations came out of where we ended up with Vampires, Werewolves, and Zombies.


Humans are centered in white but appear in all five colors, secondarily in green. If there is a conflict in the story, it is of the humans against the monsters. Note that the monsters aren't working together, so it's not a war like Scars of Mirrodin block but rather a hostile environment where the humans are fighting for their lives from all sides.

The defining quality of humans is that they work well together. This is displayed by having a lot of individual Human cards that either help your whole team or Humans in particular. Another quality that defines humans is that they are better at using weapons than the monsters. Rather than improving cards that are equipped (something we've done a few times in recent years), we have made a few Equipment cards that are better suited for Humans.

Another theme woven through Humans appears only in white. To get a sense of the humans against the monsters, white has numerous cards that affect nonwhite cards or are specifically designed to deal with a certain type of monster.

Humans are second on this list because although Humans have been rampant in Magic for its entire history, we've never made a Human-specific tribal card until "Shake." This "Humans matter" theme will also matter quite a bit later in the block, as the number of Humans should go up significantly in "Roll."

Most of our mechanical take on Humans made it to print. The "non-white" stuff turned either to "non-Human" or listed out "Vampire, Werewolf, or Zombie."

Here's the quick story behind this being the first set that tribally cared about Humans. When the race/class model was first proposed, one of the things the majority of R&D asked for when it was signed off on was that we commit to not making any Human tribal cards. When I was building this set, the five tribes became a big part of the design, and I knew it would be helpful if we could make Human tribal cards, so I went to Vice President of R&D Bill Rose.

I said to him, "Remember when we decided to do race/class and we promised to never make Human tribal cards?"

Bill said, "Yeah."

"Well, I finally have a set that really wants Human tribal cards. How much of a problem is it if I make some?"

Bill replied, "You and I are the only ones left in R&D from when we made that decision. I don't care. If you want to make them, make them."

So, I did.


Zombies are in black and blue. The black Zombies are dead raised through necromancy or dark magic. They are the type of thing you'd see in Dawn of the Dead or any zombie apocalypse setting. The blue Zombies are flesh golems made by wizards using dead body parts (think Frankenstein).

The black Zombies make use of cards that either get back Zombie cards from the graveyard (always randomly to lessen the predictability) or create tokens to build a slow-growing army of undead. The Zombie deck wants to feel like zombies in that it is slow and plodding, winning by slowly overrunning the opponent with Zombies.

The blue Zombies all require at least one dead body (exiling creature cards from graveyards). We allowed the blue Zombies to exile from any graveyard because it played better and the flavor seemed to be "any dead body will work."

Most of this made it to print, but there were two changes. One, while the "returning cards randomly from the graveyard" theme stayed in the set, it got cut back and put mostly in green. I think there's only one printed black Zombie that does it.

Two, we changed the cards that required exiling creature cards to only use your own graveyard. It ended up creating weird incentives that didn't lead to fun gameplay. I was very proud of how we took a thing Magic had done many times and gave it a play pattern we'd never done before.

While Zombies are nothing new to Magic even as a tribe, "Shake" sets out to have a Zombie deck that recreates how zombies are portrayed in classic horror stories. The overall feel of the deck is what we feel is new.


Vampires are black and red. Pulling them into red makes the Vampires want to be more impulsive, so we opted to make the Vampire tribe aggro in nature. The other monsters seemed to go for the throat less often, so the Vampire deck filled this void. This feel was created by having Vampires with attack triggers and stats that made them aggressive.

The funny thing about Vampires is that most everything I wrote here stayed true, but it was a lot of work for Erik Lauer and his development team to make happen. Because black and red have the best creature kill spells, they tend to lean more toward control than aggro in Limited formats. Erik added the "combat damage adding +1/+1 counters" theme to the red Vampires and did a lot of tweaking of spells and stats to make Vampires the aggro tribe.

The new thing about the Vampires is their move into red. Because of this, we put the best Vampire enabler in red uncommon to create a new black-red Vampire deck.

Ghosts (Spirits)

Ghosts exist in all colors but show up in the greatest volume in white and blue. Ghosts are the most defensive of the five tribes. They also have the most flying. Ghosts tend to win by tying up the ground and plinking the opponent with fliers.

Looking back, if I dropped the ball anywhere in the set it was with Spirits. While every other tribe had a strong mechanical connection, Spirits ended up being mostly "things white and blue normally do." It's not that they didn't make sense with Spirits, but I wish I'd had a more cohesive plan. I'm happy that Spirits in the upcoming Innistrad sets have a better sense of mechanical identity.


After tribal, the next place the horror archetype took us was the graveyard. The graveyard has a long history with horror and felt like an interesting aspect of the game to interact with. Knowing this, I told my team that I wanted to find a graveyard mechanic. We tried various graveyard mechanics (including delve from Future Sight) and ended up deciding to put flashback in the set.

Bill has set a dictum that each block returns an old mechanic, so we are always on the lookout for things to return. Flashback has always scored well in surveys, and it ended up being a perfect fit.

Flashback exists in all five colors. Because flashback token makers play well with Zombies, black (instead of green) got most of the flashback token-making spells.

The other big theme of the graveyard was random regrowing effects. Often when cards were getting cards back from the graveyard, we made the effect random to cut down on repetition of play.

There are some other themes that play into the graveyard. Blue has a subtheme of milling, allowing it to get cards from a player's library into his or her graveyard. Often in this set, this results in self-milling. Green has a subtheme that cares about creature cards in the graveyard. Its effects and permanents get stronger as you get more creature cards in your graveyard. Red has a subtheme of spending cards in the graveyard as a resource. The theme was kept small as the team wanted to keep the cards from completely emptying the graveyards. Black has a subtheme of getting cards back from the graveyard, usually to hand or play.

Most of this is true. Erik did add off-color flashback costs in development. As I said above, the randomly-regrowing-cards-from-the-graveyard theme did stick but got lessened, only ending up on five cards (one black, one red, and three green). "Graveyard as resource" mostly moved out of red and became more of a Zombie-themed thing in blue and black. The "getting back cards out of your graveyard" theme ended up being black and green.


Another discovery of exploring the graveyard is the importance of death in horror. We wanted things dying to matter, so we chose to use our second mechanic to care about death. The ability word, named deathwatch, cares about whether something has died.

Deathwatch comes in two versions. The first version consists of spells (including creatures) that are better when cast if something has already died that turn. The second version consists of permanents with activations that could only be used if something has died. Too many of the first version warped the environment, making players afraid to block, so we cut down on those types of deathwatch card, and lessened their as-fan, moving some up to higher rarities.

Deathwatch obviously became morbid. Development ended up doing very little of the second and more of the first.

We tried to give a different flavor to each of the colors that use it:

  • White: This color does not have any deathwatch to help set up the humans versus monsters feel.
  • Blue: This color has deathwatch spells that cannot be played unless something has died.
  • Black: This color has permanents with deathwatch that have an "enters the battlefield" effect if something has died.
  • Red: This color has instants and sorceries with deathwatch that get stronger in effect if something has died.
  • Green: This color has creatures with deathwatch that come into play with extra +1/+1 counters if something has died.

Morbid ended up mainly in black and green with a single red card and wasn't divided in effect by color as we'd specified here.

All four colors that get deathwatch also have permanents with deathwatch activations.

In addition to deathwatch, there are also permanents with "carnage" (effects that trigger off creatures dying, not an ability or keyword). Like deathwatch, "carnage" is restricted to nonwhite cards.

The set did have a bunch of death triggers, and they showed up in all the colors, including white.


Another key part of horror we felt was transformation. Horror was full of seemingly innocent things transforming into horrific things. To capture this element of horror, we created double-sided cards. They were based on a successful series of cards designed for Duel Masters.

The term later got changed to double-faced cards because even normal Magic cards have two sides.

The double-sided cards are cards with two sides that each represent a creature ("Rattle" is going to play around with double-sided cards that are things other than creatures—note that "Shake" does have a double-sided planeswalker at mythic, currently a Werewolf.) Both sides have a mana cost, so either can be cast. The casted side is then put into play.

All the double-sided cards in "Shake" have an A side (most often the smaller side) that can transform into the B side. Some, including all the Werewolves, can transform back into the A side. Note that other than Werewolves, no common cards transform from B side to A side. The word "transform" is a keyword action that means to turn the card over to the other side.

Yes, we had intended for Innistrad to be the premier of a Werewolf planeswalker, but the slot ended up going to Garruk to show him being cursed by the Chain Veil.

One of the interesting things about going back and reading old documents is that you get reminded of things you forgot. I did not remember that when we'd handed off the set, we had our double-faced cards function not just as transforming double-faced cards (TDFCs) but also modal double-faced cards (MDFCs). More on this below.

While we didn't have a mana cost on the B side for a long time, we chose to add it for two major reasons. First, without it, the cards are mechanically almost identical to Kamigawa's flip cards (although with more text than would fit on them—also, we believe strongly that they have a very different feel about them, which does a much better job of capturing the duality). Second, not having a mana cost on the B side forces us to define the color of the card in the text of every card.

Our current suggestion for how double-sided cards should be used is as such: Players may play directly with them if they are playing with opaque sleeves. If they do not want to play with opaque sleeves, we are providing a checklist card that serves as a replacement for the double-sided card while it is in any zone other than on the battlefield.

For a good chunk of design, the DFCs were just TDFCs, but we turned them into a combined version of TDFCs and MDFCs to make them feel newer and solve the color definition problem.

Now that I'm digging into the recesses of my memory, I believe we did this shortly before the handoff and it got changed back shortly after they went into development. I think the thought was that the cards were complex enough as is, so they felt very different from the Kamigawa block flip cards, and we came up with the color indicator to solve the "what color is the back" issue. This was the point where I shelved the MDFCs, promising one day I'd find a home for them.

It is my belief that the double-sided cards are the key selling point of the set. The design team spent a great amount of time trying to make all the transformations as resonant as possible. Whenever we did a trope that had a recognizable name, I used the name (such as Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde) not because they will be that exact name, but because I wanted everyone to know the intended trope.

Earlier in design, the plan had been for players to have a one-faced card in your deck that specifically fetched the double-faced card and put it onto the battlefield. When the printers couldn't promise matching up the two cards in packs, we moved to the version we have now.

Of everything in this handoff, the TDFCs were by far the most contentious part of the design. There was a segment of R&D that firmly believed they shouldn't be in the product. Luckily, Aaron Forsythe, my boss, understood their value to the product and backed me in keeping them in the set. For those who don't know the history, the TDFCs did go on to be a very popular part of the set.


The set has a few other features that didn't fall into any of the above categories:

  • Curses – These are enchant-player enchantments that all do bad things to the enchanted. Curses exist in every color but white and are highest in number in black and blue.

Erik didn't quite understand that it was important to me that every color but white got a curse, so he didn't replace the green curse when he cut it in development. This is a good example of where things get missed if you don't emphatically state them. For example, I merely stated here that we had done it but not that we did it with a particular goal in mind.

  • Devils – The goblins have been replaced in red by Devils. Other than a joke reference on Pitchfork (which Brady says will have to go away), the Devil creature type is not tribal in any way. The Devils have a mischievous, destructive quality and are only in red mostly on smaller goblin-sized creatures.

The Devils did stay but ended up only being on three cards. I have no memory of what the joke reference on Pitchfork was.


To help build some depth for Limited play and round out the set, each color had a secondary theme.

White: Fighting Monsters – White's subtheme is all about white fighting against everyone else. Some of this shows up in several spells and effects that target nonwhite things. White also has cards specifically designed to deal with each of the different monster tribes' tactics.

The general essence of this stayed but changed from non-white to non-Human or spelling out monster tribes.

Blue: Milling – Blue's milling is, in this set, mostly used to mill oneself to take advantage of the things that care about cards in graveyards (including, among other things, flashback and blue Zombies).

This theme stayed. I think Erik upped the amount of milling.

Black: Graveyard Recursion – Black is the best color at getting back its resources from the graveyard (green is the second best). This combines well with the "death matters" theme.

This theme got lessened a little but stayed.

Red: Graveyard as a Resource – Red has some spells that exile cards in the graveyard to use. This also combines well with "death matters."

This theme mostly moved to blue and black Zombie cards with just one red card that did this.

Green: Creature Cards in Graveyard – Green has numerous cards that are strengthened based on how many creature cards are in your graveyard. This allows green to grow stronger over time and helps with the "death matters" theme.

This theme stayed.


Here's why players would play each of the ten color-pair combinations in Limited:

White-blue: Defensive Spirit deck
Blue-black: Slow, plodding Zombie deck
Black-red: Aggro Vampire deck
Red-green: Mid-range Werewolf deck
Green-white: Quick-building Human deck
White-black: Humans combined with monsters that like to eat them
Blue-red: Mill + Graveyard as Resource
Black-green: Graveyard recursion
Red-white: Other aggro option
Green-blue: Mill + Caring about graveyards

The allied tribal archetypes basically stayed with some tweaking, while the enemy archetypes mostly changed. Erik and his team spent a lot of work on making cool and evocative enemy color archetypes.

I am very happy with all the work of my team and feel we have made a set with more top-down resonance than any other large expert expansion.

Of all the sets I've ever designed, Innistrad is in contention for my best ever, so it was fun looking back at this document and remembering what exactly we handed off. It definitely had a huge impact on how we did top-down sets following it. I should stress that another reason fewer things changed than often happens in vision design handoff documents is because Innistrad design lasted a year in contrast to the four months we get for vision design. A big thanks to my design team, Erik and his development team, and all the other people at Wizards who gave this set their all to make what has become a truly memorable Magic set.

I hope you enjoyed looking back at original Innistrad. I'd love to hear your feedback on any of the things I talked about today. You can email me or contact me through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and TikTok).

Join me later in the week next week as Innistrad: Midnight Hunt previews begin, and we can see the latest take on Magic's gothic horror world.

Until then, may you find joy in looking back at your own past.