Shadows over Innistrad is almost upon us with prereleases happening next weekend and the set dropping April 8th. I’m looking forward to judging some probably massive prereleases. Folks, myself included, are really hyped for this set. From the card design to the art to just featuring some powerful constructed cards, all signs point to Shadows over Innistrad being one of, if not the, best set in recent memory.
In-addition to some fan favorite characters and tribal elements, one of Innistrad’s defining mechanics was double-faced cards. Rather than using the older flip card method, these cards transformed by physically flipping over to another printed side. Double-faced cards are returning with Shadows over Innistrad, and I got the chance to bounce some questions off R&D about bringing the mechanic back and about Shadows over Innistrad in general.
Answering on the behalf of Magic R&D are Dave Humpherys (Design Manager), Sam Stoddard (Senior Game Designer), and Ethan Fleischer (Game Designer). Dave was the Final Game Design and Development lead for Shadows over Innistrad, Sam was a part of the initial Concept and Game Design along with Final Game Design and Dev teams, and Ethan was part of the Final Game Design and Dev team.
Escapist: Double-faced cards were quite popular and eye-catching the first time around. How popular is it compared to other mechanics and themes like say multicolored or morph?
Ethan: Double-faced cards (DFCs) were well-received in general the first time around, but they were quite polarizing. While some players loved them, others hated them. Multicolored cards are one of the most popular mechanics we’ve ever done, easily exceeding DFCs. DFCs were rated around the same as the Morph mechanic; they are both mechanics that were popular, but not all-time greats.
Escapist: Were there any challenges or hurdles that needed tackling in order to bring double-faced cards back for Shadows over Innistrad?
Sam: When coming back to Innistrad, we knew we needed to have double-faced cards, as they were such a huge part of the first set’s identity. While there are a ton of logistical things that we needed to figure out internally (how many cards were in the set, how to organize the rarities, and how they would drop into packs), the main struggle was creating both a set and an environment that was friendly to the cards. While in the end we did change the rule on converted mana costs of the back sides being zero, it meant things like keeping [mtg_card=Ratchet Bomb]-like effects out of standard, and limiting how punishing the bounce spells in the format would be against DFCs. For limited, we wanted to construct an environment where the Werewolves would be fun, and not just punishing for people who missed land drops. That means a lot of cheap spells that give you clues so you don’t feel horrible about using them to control the werewolves, but you are still paying a real cost.
Escapist: What takeaways have emerged about designing double-faced cards since they first appeared? Aka the [mtg_card=Delver of Secrets] question.
Sam: I actually think [mtg_card=Delver of Secrets] is a great example of how double-faced cards succeeded in the first Innistrad. It was a bit stronger than we expected, but it did something that we wouldn’t normally do on a single-sided card – a permanent +2/+1 bonus with flying. When making DFCs this time, we looked hard for cards that we would at the least struggle making on a single face. That means a lot of getting uneven power and toughness bonuses, or changing very dramatically in abilities. While we want to make sure each DFC tells a story, we can always tell the vanilla +1/+1 story on a card by putting a counter on it. We don’t to do DFCs very frequently, so it was important to make the most out of their presence in the set.
Escapist: Will the distribution of double-faced cards be different than it was before?
Ethan: We decided that we wanted to have a few more DFCs per pack than in original Innistrad block to provide more spice and variety.
Escapist: Semi-related to the last question. In total, how many cards in the set are double faced?
Dave: There are more double faced cards in this set than in the original Innistrad set. The number of uncommon DFCs was increased to provide a wide array of cards with this range of complexity for our players and to provide extra variety for limited.
Escapist: It was recently announced that some rule changes for transforming and double-faced cards are happening. Can you explain these and why they were important to revise?
Dave: There were three significant changes. I’m summarizing, but you can find more info from our Shadows over Innistrad mechanics article by rules manager Matt Tabak.
I. The converted mana cost of the back face of a DFC is now based on the mana cost of the front face. We generally felt this would be a common expectation and we didn’t want unnecessary downside as a part of fulfilling the transformation. For example, we felt that if you invest in a card like Archangel Avacyn/Avacyn, the Purifier, transforming shouldn’t then make her weak to removal that uses converted mana cost, like [mtg_card=Abrupt Decay] or [mtg_card=Ratchet Bomb].
II. There’s now a rule that if you’re told to put a card that isn’t a DFC onto the battlefield transformed, it just stays where it is. This change was largely made so that we could keep cleaner templates on cards and avoid development issues with [mtg_card=Clone] variants and cards like [mtg_card=Loyal Cathar], where you could previously keep sacrificing the [mtg_card=Clone] variant and having it return over and over.
III. If a DFC has an activated or triggered ability that transforms it, that permanent transforms only if it hasn’t since the ability was put on the stack. This change again let us simplify some templating on cards. It helped us avoid some unintuitive game situations where a card might not end up with the face up you expect. It also allowed us explore cards that could reward the act of transforming where we could better control how often that might occur.
Escapist: Shadows over Innistrad introduces double-faced cards on some new card types, what was the reason and process for designing these?
Sam: Whenever we return to a plane and revisit a mechanic, we like to put a new spin on it. While we experimented with two DFCs in each pack, we found that was going a little overboard, and we pulled back to the number we are at now. Without just increasing in number, we needed something else new – which led us to making DFCs that were totally different than the ones you had seen in Innistrad, and showed off some of the design space that still exists in the mechanic. Startled Awake/Persistent Nightmare and Westvale Abbey/Ormendhal, Proface Prince all came out of that initial exploration in terms of what was possible using DFC technology.
Escapist: In addition to revisiting mechanics, Shadows over Innistrad also returns to many fan favorite characters. How do you balance lore and mechanics along with either reprinting or creating a new card?
Dave: There are very few high profile reprints of fan favorite characters in this set. In general, we are cautious about returning dominant cards to Standard again where they might make the format feel too similar. We are generally more excited and interested in trying new takes on characters that will inspire new decks and play patterns and further immerse our players with new slants on their favorite characters.
Escapist: Mechanics are somewhat different in that there’s an expectation we will return key mechanics and innovate on those in card designs. There’s certainly a balance here between being familiar and having it feel too much of the same. Shadows is a nice blend of the original Innistrad with a smattering of graveyard themes with some clear points of comparisons mechanically to Odyssey block.
Escapist: Innistrad block as a whole is much beloved. How did you decide which mechanics to bring back?
Ethan: Early in Shadow over Innistrad’s design, we listed all of the mechanics from the original Innistrad block on the whiteboard. We eliminated all of the mechanics from Avacyn Restored, as we wanted to match the dark mood and tone of Innistrad and Dark Ascension, not the hopeful sunlit setting of Avacyn Restored. We also eliminated a mechanic that was poorly-received (Fateful Hour). We knew we need to use DFCs again; they were the signature mechanic of Innistrad block. We knew we wanted to continue to use the monster tribal themes of zombies, vampires, spirits, and werewolves, as they were emblematic of the setting. We tested the other mechanics from Innistrad, but ultimately decided to focus our efforts elsewhere in an attempt to capture the mystery and madness that our new storyline required.
Escapist: While the last few sets were designed to bridge from the old to new Standard rotation, Shadows over Innistrad is our first set solidified in this new method. What effects did that have on the design process?
Sam: There wasn’t a lot that changed within Shadows over Innistrad, most of the changes were within the other sets around it. In the original plan, a full year of Battle for Zendikar would’ve been followed by Shadows, but with our change to the two-block model, we were suddenly also leaving in Dragons and Origins. That meant that we needed to have cards in both of those sets that would interact well with Shadows over Innistrad. Cards like [mtg_card=Gather the Pack] and [mtg_card=Risen Executioner] help Delirium and Zombies respectively.
Escapist: Innistrad was kind of this perfect storm of a much beloved limited environment, themes, and constructed power houses all wrapped in Gothic horror flavor. Was it daunting or intimidating to design living up to that?
Ethan: It was a bit intimidating, returning to what is generally acknowledged to be the best Magic set of all time, Innistrad. It helped that we had a great concept to make Shadows over Innistrad familiar, yet new: delving into the insanity of the cosmic horror genre. This twist on Innistrad’s gothic horror theme inspired us. Late in the set’s design, the vice-president of R&D challenged us to make this set play better, at least in the eyes of some players, as the original Innistrad. This was a tall order indeed, and there was a collective gulp of nervousness among the game designers. We took the challenge in the spirit it was intended, and created a set of surpassing depth and fun that can stand next to the best we’ve ever made.
Escapist: As mentioned, Innistrad is constantly praised as a top-tier limited set, despite a certain invisible knife wielding someone’s best efforts. Was there any extra emphasis or time taken to hone Shadows over Innistrad as a great limited set?
Dave: We absolutely put extra attention into making the limited play excellent again. We realized how special Innistrad limited was last time, so we made a number of small tweaks to improve limited that we might not otherwise make in a vacuum. We also devoted a greater percentage of our resources and energy into thinking about limited than we might have otherwise were it not for the expectations we knew we’d be compared to.
Shadows over Innistrad Preview Cards
Not only is [mtg_card=Mad Prophet] back, he’s sporting a new higher rarity. This is one of my favorite aspects of Magic, when cards can take on a new light just by changing the context around it. [mtg_card=Mad Prophet] was decent enough as a rummage card originally, maybe you got lucky and flipped a miracle on your opponent’s turn. This card really shifts in power level with Madness and Delirium in the set. Rummage becomes cast your Maddess card for cheap and draw a card, and it’s a targeted way to turn on Delirium. [mtg_card=Mad Prophet] will be a strong limited player.
While you’re probably never going to see [mtg_card=Mad Prophet] in constructed, Lambholt Pacifist is much closer to constructed playable while still being a solid limited card. When you’re not multicolored, [mtg_card=Watchwolf], being a two mana 3/3 usually means some kind of drawback. On the front side Lambholt Pacifist is essentially a 3/3 defender that, harkening back to the ferocious ability word from Khans of Tarkir, loses that ability with a big enough friend. Sadly [mtg_card=Anafenza, the Foremost] is rotating out.
It’s a little reminiscent of a card we had not too long ago, [mtg_card=Returned Phalanx]. Even if it can’t attack, a 3/3 holds down the early game quite well. However, Lambholt Pacifist can also flip into a beefy 4/4. Woe to any opponent that passes their Turn 2 across from this without making a play.