A Somewhat Existential Article On Innistrad Design
I had a super pretentious introduction written out and ready to go, but it didn't fit the piece at all. It was bordering on elitist with its fancy prose and pompous allegations. Alienating a portion of the audience in some way is usually a thing which I aim to do, something I actually set out to do. However, for this article, it directly defeated a large portion of the purpose, which is to unite all forms of Magic fans in the beauty of the common interest that binds us, Magic cards.
We, as a community, enjoy different things: casual, competitive, trade, Draft, Sealed, Constructed, flavor, and so on (as well as the countless sub-categories within the aforementioned tastes as well as the innumerable overlaps). The only all-inclusive middle of this vast and complex Venn diagram is the fact that all of our preferences all revolve around the cards themselves; they are the building blocks of it all.
And so I hope that, in this transitional period in the wake of Dark Ascension's release, you will take the time to truly enjoy the cards on a most basic level.
The [sad] truth is that competitive players are the vast, vast minority of Magic's clientele. That isn't to say that we are not important—in fact, quite the opposite—it is merely that the competitive scene must make acknowledgments of, and even sacrifices for, the rest of the community. What with it being such a minority, for the growth of the game (which is indirectly greatly beneficial for the competitive player), they must recognize how much more goes into designing cards than their tastes.
I'm sidetracking myself a bit. What I am getting at is that Magic design and development is freaking hard. So many small things that go completely unnoticed by thousands upon thousands of competitive players take Wizards a ton of highly skilled man-hours to get right, and those things are far more important than the average competitive player could grasp.
In short—and incompletely—flavor is vital to the game.
Not just the story line and overarching themes, but each individual card has to make sense. That is not easy to do. Especially when you take into account how a designer's worst enemy is complexity and that pesky fact that gameplay has to be accounted for as well.
Today, I want to talk about Innistrad. It may seem weird to talk about the last set instead of the one that just came out, but it isn't without reason. For starters, having had a while to play with the cards and examine them more closely, I feel my opinions can be more informed. Also, I would rather give you, the reader, some idea of things to look for and a general mindset to have while examining cards, then release you to have your own fun with Dark Ascension. I'd rather you form your own opinions on the new cards rather than jading your views one direction or the other.
Now, what prompted this article's printing (the general idea was largely fleshed out in my giant folder of notes) was some of the reactions I have been observing about the new set. Two opinions in particular that I have heard countless times since Dark Ascension dropped have me frustratingly applying the palm of my hand directly to the forehead: “This set is bad because the cards are weak” and “They focus too much on flavor.”
Frankly, these complaints are wholly self-centered and ignorant. So much for not alienating a portion of the audience.
The first complaint shows a lack of knowledge about the dangers of power creep. The ebb and flow of relative card strength is important to monitor extremely closely in order to keep Magic alive and thriving well into the future. If anything, the evidence of cards becoming weaker should be met with relief rather than hostile negativity, as we were swinging awfully close to the extreme of one direction.
The second complaint shows a misunderstanding about the audience for Magic. As stated, recognizing that flavor is the vehicle that carries Magic is crucial when judging new sets. It is what draws new players in initially, keeps newer players interested, and is the favorite aspect of the game for a surprisingly large percentage of Wizards costumers.
I looped right back on myself there. To be honest, a lot of that introduction was an excuse to rant about Magic design.
Innistrad is an interesting set to be sure. It introduces themes and mechanics that are far different from anything we've experienced in the game before. It is one of the best Limited environments in years, and the set's impact on Constructed (save maybe Snapcaster Mage) was incredibly healthy and interesting.
Overall, I think it is a beautifully designed set. I tip my hat to the Wizards of the Coast Research and Development team, like so:
However, it's not all good in the hood. Oh no. Oh, oh, oh-ee-oh-ee-oh. While I do want to highlight some particularly brilliant designs, I also feel the need to comment on some glaring flaws I have found. I hope my constructive criticism is entertaining, interesting, or amusing in some way. While I have the utmost respect for the people who make Magic, I do put them on blast a fair bit in this article. I don't feel I'm overly harsh or critical, but any form negativity is often perceived as mean-spirited or otherwise uncalled for (especially from me). Thus the disclaimer. Now the juicy stuff can start...
Let's start on a high note, shall we?
HIT: Ambush Viper
How perfect is Ambush Viper? Everything just comes together so beautifully on that card:
You're walking through a forest, the coast looks clear, and then, BAM! A snake comes out of nowhere and lunges at you, sinking its poisonous fangs into your flesh. You can crush the snake easily, sure, but its venom chokes you out on the spot, and you too drop to the forest floor, dead.
It's a snake (green), specifically a viper (deathtouch), that jumps out and strikes its prey (flash, “Ambush”). Deathtouch—flavorful deathtouch—works in green, while creatures that flash to ambush opposing attackers in combat has been part of green for quite a while. People usually associate flash with blue, but the blue flash guys rely on trickiness with unique effects and 'enters the battlefield' triggers. Creatures that are flashed in just to fight are patently green.
It is very difficult to make a card that is unique and flavorful, yet so simple. This is a clean design that is dripping with flavor and not only obeys the color wheel, but reinforces it in some key areas*. It's easy to understand and interacts in an easy way. No part of Ambush Viper was left out, feels out of place, or is superfluous. Even the art is perfect! I have nothing but the highest compliments for the chefs of Ambush Viper in every research, design, and development stage.
*In all of Magic, green is seemingly the most difficult to design. I may be completely off on this, and I ask you take this section with a grain of salt.
Besides land acceleration, there are few things that distinguish green from the other colors. It doesn't do that much that the other colors can't do, and because of that, it becomes harder to make a card feel solely green. Every color has combat tricks and big creatures; cheap aggressive guys are better suited for other colors such as red and white, and besides a feeling of “nature,” whatever that means, green doesn't have much going for it flavorfully over the other colors. Essentially what it boils down to is that green is just second best—or worse—at just about everything. That's hard to cure without killing the identities of the color or intruding a bit and stepping on the toes of the other colors.
I am happy to see more graveyard-based play, as the circle of life seems like good flavor fodder for green that has been largely unexplored with black having a virtual monopoly over the graveyard in the past. I think that green has felt dry and weak at points in Magic's past, but in the past couple of years, WotC has really stepped it up in terms of making green unique. I don't want to list all of the examples here, as some of these steps into new design space are only a card or two deep, but suffice to say that it has been extremely fun to observe. I hope they continue Two Explores ways to distinguish green more clearly.
MISS: Thraben Sentry
This one was first brought to my attention by professional TCG Designer and all-around nut-human Patrick Sullivan. Now, double-faced cards themselves get a small section towards the end of the article. However, once you accept that double-faced cards exist, most of them are quite well-designed. This one is not.
(Please note that I am aware the correct terms are “double-faced card” and “transform” but may use “flip card” and “flip” in the remainder of the article.)
Every flip card uses the flipping as an expression of a transformation. That's why they call it Transforming; a human TURNS INTO a werewolf when the conditions are right. There is a normal guy who is the victim to an experiment gone horribly wrong and TURNS INTO some sort of monster. A vampire consciously TRANSFORMS between bat-form to humanoid-form.
What about Thraben Sentry? Well, he's a guard, but then someone dies, and then the guards get angry.
Seriously? That's it? The other flip-cards are turning into monsters and changing the entire construct of their being through a curse or science run amok or whatever. This guy just got mad? That's the story you're going to go with?
Why this design miss is particularly damning is the fact that, by making an exception to the precedent you're setting—which is that flipping represents a transformation being undergone—you are undermining the entire rule which devalues all of the other designs' flavors. If a guard grabbing other guards to form a militia is the same process as an overprotected child becoming possessed with a horrible demon, then it makes that otherwise haunting image just a little less epic.
I understand that it's harder to come up with white flip cards than any of the other colors, but this just feels like they gave up. If I may contradict myself from earlier, I'd like to comment on a Dark Ascension card: Loyal Cathar. That guy is the homerun of the set for me. That is how it is done. Compare him to Thraben Sentry and try and tell me that the Innistrad attempt is as good as it could be.
HIT: Unruly Mob
Unruly Mob is what R+D was trying to do with Thraben Sentry but got blinded by their shiny new mechanic. The mob gets more and more upset, and it gathers more and more of a following, as their compatriots keep disappearing around them. The idea of an angry mob picking up their pitchforks and torches as well as growing in numbers and...disapproval...is an extremely complex concept to showcase in such a restricting medium such as a single Magic card. Especially when one of the most important rules of design is that simplicity is king.
Angry mobs are a staple of the genres in which Innistrad dabbles; horror tales of werewolves, vampires, zombies, monsters, and mutants. But, short of banding, it's hard to show a group of people growing and becoming more and more outraged, not over time, but rather over emotion-driving actions occurring (such as folk up and disappearing mysteriously or loved ones being mauled not-so-mysteriously). It's a simple enough card, but, much like Ambush Viper, it plays out in interesting ways while being extremely flavorful, yet easy to understand.
HIT: Cloistered Youth and Civilized Scholar
Both excellent portrayals of classic horror tropes. Everything about these designs is fantastic. One of my favorite things in all of Magic design is the fact that Civilized Scholar taps or untaps when he transforms. Sam Black was the first person to point out to me how awesome this was from a flavor perspective; when Dr. Jekyll turns into Mr. Hyde, he gets aggressive and worked up. When the conscience-free killer transforms back into the friendly, mild-mannered scientist, he is in a subdued and exhausted state.
The stats tell the tale as well; no attack on the affluent gentleman and a brutish strength with no regard for his own well-being for the evil alternate-persona.
Cloistered Youth probably should have been a Spirit in addition to either Devil or Demon on the backside. At the very least, Urgent Exorcism should also hit Horrors. It's just too perfect to pass up. This isn't a “how could a headless one wear a helm? Lololol” type of flavor miss; these cards were in the same set and are a reference to the same thing. A big oversight of a small change that could have been pretty cool.
MISS: Screeching Bat
While I do love this card from a gameplay perspective, and I completely understand and appreciate what they were going for, I don't know if they quite sold it. For starters, the fact that it is so aggressively costed for Limited to start, being a 2/2 flier for three with only a single-colored mana, means that you're not all that inclined to invest in the flip (I flip mine all the time, but I feel like I rarely see anyone else flip theirs). I think “just” a 5/5 isn't enough motivation. Losing flying and getting +3/+3 is often not worth four mana. The board gets clogged down enough that the evasion is more attractive anyway. Add in the fact that there are a million combat tricks and even two removal spells (Smite the Monstrous and Slayer of the Wicked) that can punish you for your investment, and it can be hard to justify sinking a turn's worth of mana into something that you've already taken the time to cast.
The tl;dr, if you'll excuse the internet slang, is that I feel the front is too strong and the back is too weak.
There are nine other [non-wombat] bats in Magic. Dementia Bat and Blind Hunter are the only other natural 2/2s, and they cost a lot more than our audible friend here. Kelinore Bat and Gloomhunter both set a precedent for 2/1 at 2B, and in a world with Geistflames, Tragic Slips, and pingy devils, that is a considerable stat difference.
As for the backside, I would prefer it to be a little better. Better in the sense of both stronger in gameplay and more flavorful. To me, a virtual-vanilla 5/5 doesn't evoke the senses that a Vampire should. I would prefer if it were a 4/4 with lifelink or maybe keep it a 5/5 and give it Sengir's ability (or both, as they do play well together...).
Also, the fact that the front side of this can be Victim of Night-ed / can't be Slayer of the Wicked-ed is just nonsense. She is a Vampire that is in bat form: it should be a Vampire Bat. A Human is also Werewolf while in people-form! I'm just asking for some consistency here.
Now, from a development side, I have three issues to take up for Innistrad. Some of these things may seem nitpicky, but I feel that this set is good enough to nitpick. Other sets have had major development flaws, like things being ban-ably overpowered, disproportionate power distribution, unfun and game-breaking mechanics, and so on. The so-called “problems” in Innistrad development pale in comparison to mistakes of the past, and I recognize that. That doesn't mean it couldn't have been better, right?
Let's get the first of two elephants out of the room, Invisible Stalker. This was, flat-out, a mistake. If I had to guess, I would say that R+D just let things get out of hand and went a little overboard with hexproof. I like the ability in theory; don't get me wrong. It certainly has its applications and is much more intuitive than shroud. However, it is something that you have to be very careful with. Not only does it actively discourage interactive gameplay, but it stacks very quickly and in a very frustrating way. Having one player feel like they didn't even have to try and the other player feeling completely and utterly helpless and hopeless is not the key to a successful gaming experience.
Not only is too much hexproof dangerous, but too undercosted hexproof is dangerous. Note that I said “undercosted” and not “powerful.” Geist of Saint Traft and Thrun, the Last Troll are both incredibly powerful cards, far more powerful than our stalking friend here, but I don't think many people would argue that they are in any way unreasonable.
Hexproof is a relatively new ability, and unblockable is a scarcely used ability (and rightfully so). Without much precedent, it became hard to properly cost a creature with both. Aven Fleetwing is the only real place for comparison, and it cost twice as much in a format with a fraction of the creature enhancements.
A lot of things could have been done to make him more reasonable, like costing 2U or even UU. Making it a rare would have been a bit awkward, as it doesn't exactly scream “rare!” to me, but it certainly would have made the Limited environment a lot healthier. In my opinion, the real issue here is the Human subtype. The extra bonus from Silver-Inlaid Dagger, the threat of the extra counter from Elder Cathar, the additional already auto-included combo with Bonds of Faith, and of course the two-card win with Butcher's Cleaver are just too much to overcome. I don't think any feathers would have been ruffled had he been a Mutant Rogue.
Once you're in a world where fewer cards that were already obviously making the cut happen to singlehandedly win you the game with an Invisible Stalker, you have to start reaching for cards like Curiosity and Spectral Flight that you'd rather not run but are trying to combo people out. Now it is a gimmicky, combo-esque deck that can be messed with a little more reasonably and actually can be raced. That is a territory I'm comfortable with, and Burning Vengeance's existence tells me that the fine folk at Wizards agree.
The second giant elephant in the room is double-face cards. I'm sure you all expect me to hate them (and I kind of do), but I understand their appeal, and doing stuff like this is creating and exploring new design space in a healthy way. They aren't making free spells, new card types, adding colors, or skewing the color pie. Once you put it in that perspective, double-face cards don't seem so bad, now do they? I like the things they did with transforming (besides Thraben Sentry) and look forward to the other unique ways to use double-face cards.
Quick lore question: who wins in a fight between Zombie King and Vampire Lord?
Answer: WEREWOLF QUEEN! IT'S ALWAYS WEREWOLF QUEEN!
When I first really took the time to reflect on Innistrad's design, two weeks or so after the release, I made a bunch of notes about potential double-face card design possibilities. Here they are, if you'd like to see them:
-Turn into aura, like a Licid, or maybe equipment. Actually turning into a curse would be awesome flavorwise...
-Make the back worse than the front so the opponent is actively trying to flip it. Or at least a werewolf Juzam Djinn type-deal so that you can be in situations where the roles are reversed on who is trying to keep it flipped and who's trying to flip it.
-Something that kills things if they flip, or maybe puts counters on things when they flip. Maybe a Break Open type effect? Probably all too narrow...could make an egg that practically insta-wins, Dark Depths style.
-Face-up morphs. Instant speed flips for a price. Makes for really interesting decisions and opens up a lot of design space (a cycle or two, or just a bunch). Could make pre-Flametongue Kavus like Shaper Parasite, or a known Blistering Firecat effect.
-Something to create a subgame, maybe auction style, where both sides have “discard a card, transform this” or sac a permanent or whatever, and both players can play the ability. One side is super awesome, and the other is either super lame or actively a detriment.
Just some stuff I thought about that I figured I would put in here. Really, I actually don't mind double-facers from a design/development standpoint all that much. And, to be honest, I think that where we are now with doublies is completely fine. However, I do have some issues about how we got here:
For starters, checklist cards are hideous and completely break the fourth wall in-game. That's not good. They also make the game look super unprofessional in coverage, like they're using proxies and playtest cards while playing for thousands of dollars with thousands of people watching. And everyone has to hold their breath and wait for a few seconds every couple of turns for someone to unsleeve, flip over, and resleeve their guy.
More importantly, the drafting rules were extremely poorly handled. When announced, the rules were essentially dexterity-based, saying to hide the cards if you wanted to and could, show if you wanted to. It said nothing about, say, showing the people to your right but not your left, or if you were disabled and couldn't move your hands fast enough to cover your cards. What if you had poor eyesight and someone across the table first picks a flip-card? What if you can't even tell if it is a flipper or not?
The fact that the rules were so ill-conceived and incomplete shows that they were not field-tested in a competitive or semi-competitive environment. The fact is, at the StarCityGames.com Open the week of release, the Draft Open judges literally did not know what they were supposed to do. That is not a good thing. And they were not the only ones at a loss. The rules should be clear and concise and not dexterity-based or discriminatory. Then there's the whole ordeal with the potential for abuse in looking around at a draft table to see other people's flippadelics. As if Nosey Goblin'ing wasn't hard enough to enforce...
At that first Draft Open, after discussing (read: arguing fervently) with the judges, they came to realize the only reasonable thing to do would be to allow a short review period where everyone gets to see all of the flippies opened. Then it was instated that a second or so pause between passing the pack and picking up the pack is when players may glance around the table for any flip-flip-flipadelphias.
They then did it like this at the GP, and it was fine. However, all of those rules should have been in place before the set came out, not made-up and improvised along the way. Also, and this is on Head Judge and TO of the GP, it should have been made more clear what the rules were regarding non-opaque sleeves. A store handed out promotional sleeves to all of the players at the tournament, and it turned out that they weren't fully opaque. Many game losses were handed out that I felt could have been avoided with a little more foresight.
My last issue with Innistrad may seem like a small one to you, but I actually find it somewhat egregious. My obligatory namedrop for this one is going to be our very own Brian Kibler, as we briefly discussed this along with a room full of professional game designers.
Stitcher's Apprentice being a common.
It's extremely complex and non-intuitive. Once you figure out what it ACTUALLY does, you realize it doesn't DO anything. It has a lot of cool and powerful, albeit niche, interactions. It bogs down game states and makes them confusing and hard to play in. All of these things point to uncommon. Not much more to say about that, I suppose.
And that will anticlimactically end this article. Hooray? A proper conclusion would be about how wonderful Innistrad is and how Dark Ascension is also super awesome. I would relate it back to what I said about appreciating good design and respecting flavor and wrap it up with a big “good job” and “keep up the great work” sentiment to the fine folks at Wizards of the Coast Research and Development team.
I will be doing some AJTV action with games from the Pro Tour last weekend, but I'll be out of town next week so it probably won't be until the week after. I've been streaming a bunch and plan on trying to stream a bit from Japan. I'm traveling with Ben Swartz; we are staying with Shuuhei Nakamura and hanging out with all of the other awesome Japanese guys, so I'll be trying to get them on stream if possible, but we may be too busy. However, there's a decent chance that Shuuhei will be staying at my house the week after Baltimore, in which case we will be streaming a lot together. I think that would be really fun.
Follow me on Twitter for all streaming and content updates, and hopefully I will see you soon. Thanks for reading!