When Story Dictates Design (Shadows Over Zendikar)

Hold your breath. Make a wish. Count to three.

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tumblr_inline_o3oyizxtry1qhstyx_500Battle for Zendikar and Shadows Over Innistrad both have easy to digest stories: The Eldrazi are destroying Zendikar, something is making everything on Innistrad crazy. Two big objects are changing the plane (Eldrazi vs the Moon). Battle for Zendikar focuses on the things that are close to the Eldrazi while Shadows Over Innistrad focuses on the plane and its inhabitants. The design focus is then on the Eldrazi vs. the plane of Innistrad. Going big vs going wide.

Hey, let’s design everything around the Eldrazi (Going big).

Hey, let’s design everything around horror and madness is affecting the plane (Going wide).

Going big vs going wide leads us into two different directions of design. Neither of these ways of design are bad, they’re just opposite ways of thinking on how to approach the set.

By designing big I mean that most everything in the set has to support the one major concept for the set or it just won’t work, draft or constructed. The “Big” in this case is apt because it’s the large Eldrazi themselves that’s the major concept. It’s not just Ulamog because one card doesn’t make a set, though it can be marketed to display what the set is about.

The new keyword Devoid appears in Battle for Zendikar and it’s here where we get our “design big” moment from. Introduced in the correctly named Rise of the Eldrazi we learn that these beings are colorless, they don’t adhere to the color pie in a traditional sense. According to the mythos, they are so old they predate colored mana. Since we learned that a mostly colorless environment can be a disaster for constructed environments because an overwhelming number of good colorless cards can be shoved into any deck (See: Mirrodin), the set needed to make some of the Eldrazi colored. Well, colored in the area of the mana cost.

207By having some Eldrazi still need colored mana to cast but with the keyword Devoid means they’re “really colorless,” for gameplay you can still keep the needed balance of function vs. flavor. All the Eldrazi are “colorless”, which creates the great “Design Big” idea that the rest of the set needs to adhere to. Of course in the follow up Oath of the Gatewatch there are more “colored” and colorless Eldrazi. This time the colorless Eldrazi actually need colorless mana to cast them, where defining colorless mana with a new symbol was that set’s “Design Big” concept. It’s the natural evolution of the colorless Eldrazi design. The second set of a block should evolve and supplement the design philosophy of the first set to make the block feel cohesive both in draft and in ascetics.

The issue with the going big design are the parts that don’t really fit in with the main concept. Battle for Zendikar was marketed, and designed, as “us vs them” type of set, something we’ve seen before like Mirrodin Besieged and against the Eldrazi in Rise of the Eldrazi. The rest of the set trying to battle the Eldrazi was filled with non-cohesive keywords: Support, Devoid, Cohort, Converge, Awaken. All of these keywords feel like one or two set mechanics (something we’re going to see more with this shift away from three block sets) that were thrown in there because “why not?” Sure they feel like they can fit in this world and intermix with the sets before and after it, but they don’t seem like they play well together. Converge needs more land which is goof for landfall for the different colors needed to pull off and Awaken needs more land for its pseudo-kicker. Devoid awkwardly fits in with Converge only because you can still play Devoid cards in deck with Converge but flavorfully they don’t feel great together.  Ironic that a set that wants you to band together to defeat something doesn’t really work together smoothly.

Looking at Shadows Over Innistrad, the design and mechanics fits together more cohesively than Battle for Zendikar. This is the going wide design: many small concepts working together and nothing truly takes over. Vampires fit into Madness which fits into Delirium which fits into Zombies and Humans. The mechanics here make the world building natural as it fits together like an ecosystem; everything belongs and makes sense. You can see why a certain card fits in both with the world that’s been created and within the set itself for mechanical purposes. This going wide design looks like it’s chosen a majority of the time because it allows for better world building. Khans of Tarkir had 5 clans plus the keyword Morph, and Return to Ravnica block had the guild system of the ten colored pairs. Since we have been to both Zenidkar and Innistrad before, there’s a choice of how to proceed with the design, but it depends on the story and the experience that WotC wants.

With the new storytelling paradigm Wizards of the Coast is following, Design and Creative have to work together to not only tell the full story, but design around it as well. The world building was mostly like this for three set blocks: Set up a world/central conflict in the large set, build up the conflict in the middle smaller set then have your resolution to your story in the final set. With two set blocks, you don’t have the traditional three act story arc you did before. There are now cards designed that depict crucial moments in their respective stories, along with the classic world building and mechanic gameplay that’s been used in the past.

But here’s the funny thing: both original Zendikar and Innistrad followed along a different type of world building: Set up the world in the first set, introduce a conflict while opening up more of the world in the second, then have your massive twist of a third set with a large, self contained set to draft basically recreating the world you just spend two blocks building up. Zendikar and Innistrad sets are so beloved not because of their story, but of the world they created. With their sequels to their blocks, it couldn’t just be the same formula before, right?

Emrakul Scooby
He would’ve gotten away with it too…

Battle for Zendikar and Shadows over Innistrad have different styles of stories they want to tell so the card design between them are going to be different. Battle for Zendikar has the big battle that we get involved in. We, as player/planeswalkers, need to band together to defeat the Eldrazi. Shadows Over Innistrad has the mystery noir of “Let’s call Scooby and the gang and jump in the Mystery Machine to solve they Mystery of the Crazy Angels.” (Only to maybe find out it was Emrakul in a mask all along). Innistrad can still function as a plane that’s about survival, not just getting together with your friends and trying to defeat something.

It’s like this for Zendikar:

Versus this for Innistrad:

It’s a different design mentality that’s needed to help propel the story forward. There needed to be a change in how the story, and the design of the set itself, worked for these two sequel blocks.

From a story perspective it makes sense: you give your heroes a big baddie to fight and watch them square off. Stopping a world destroying threat is a good enough storyline especially for a medium like CCGs. But I don’t know if Battle for Zendikar actually felt like the plane of Zendikar design-wise. We see some of the mana being sucked out of the land and it sort of sets up the next set where there’s more of an emphasis on colorless, but this isn’t Zendikar’s story.

Battle for Zendikar doesn’t feel like the set Zendikar, and if it wasn’t for the landfall or full art basics, could this story have been told on another plane? Why was this a “Zendikar” story? For story purposes we could’ve easily had the Eldrazi land on another plane and the Planeswalkers create the Gatewatch in order to prevent them destroying more planes.

Shadows Over Innistrad, with its moon and Angel protectors, has to be told on Innistrad. The Angels created to protect the humans are now doing what every emerging conscious entity in fiction decides to do when it needs to protect humans: Kill it. (See: I, Robot, Age of Ultron). We can debate later the symbolism of the things we create want to destroy us later.

But how does this affect design?

Battle for Zendikar was all about the Eldrazi, colorless creatures doing weird things. This set is much more of a design succession of Rise of the Eldrazi than Zendikar or Worldwake. Gone are the aspects that made Zendikar unique: the “Adventure land” and trying to survive concept that we saw when we were first introduced to the plane. Adventuring, traps, quests were all given a backseat to the colorless Eldrazi Titans destroying everything. Sure, there was some landfall in limited amounts, and Allies were more focused, but even the standout tribe was relegated to a much more controlled gimmick and a “we have to” callback. (Obviously Development had a hand in this). There were vanilla or French Vanilla Allies that didn’t fit with the design philosophy of them be adventures and helping out the whole party.

With Shadows Over Innistrad, the classic tribes are back and for the most part, WotC expanded on which each tribe does. The lone exception was the Werewolf tribe but even then they have a few new tricks up their sleeves. All of them were designed with the same design philosophy but slightly tweaked based on how Innistrad was last time (less enters the battlefield tapped Zombies this time around, unless they came from the graveyard). There’s more history since the tribes have more than one block to mess around with (Allies and Eldrazi only have one other block to choose cards from), but they still feel like they’re part of that world. Almost any tribal creature in Shadows Over Innistrad could’ve been printed in Innistrad. I don’t feel that’s the same with the Allies (to be fair the Eldrazi did expand on new ways that I approve of for their creature type and design).

36The death aspect of Innistrad still stayed intact. There was still another Odyssey based graveyard mechanic (Delirium is a “fixed” Threshold instead of Innistrad’s Flashback use) and double faced cards with a twist on what could be transformed. We’re still exploring the plane of Innistrad, as evidence by the Clue tokens. The set wants us to play that part of detective and try and survive the night. That’s a huge departure from banding together to destroy a threat. The cards printed in the set show that off as well.

Landfall and Investigate both serve a purpose storywise and the flavor of the set. Both can be used as a mechanic for exploring a plane. With Landfall: The more lands you see, the more of the land you can use to your benefit. Investigate: Keep digging in your library to figure out what’s going/how to survive. Battle for Zendikar wouldn’t work with Clue tokens. When you’re trying to beat up a big baddie, there isn’t time to pay two to draw a card; you want immediate action and playing a land that can’t be countered is just that.

Let’s see what Landfall does in Battle for Zendikar:

  • Returns a Phoenix to the battlefield
  • Deals damage
  • Creates 3/1 trample haste, 5/5, 1/1 tokens
  • Gives a creature first strike
  • Returns a card from the graveyard
  • Pumps up a creature’s power/toughness
  • Taps/untaps a creature
  • Gives your creatures a power/toughness bonus
  • Gains you life
  • Drains an opponent’s life
  • Prevents blocking

Now, let’s see what’s attached to Investigate:

  • Investigate when you deal damage
  • Investigate when you cast a small creature
  • Investigate when it dies
  • Investigate as an added ability
  • Investigate when you exile creatures
  • Investigate when it enters the battlefield
  • Investigate when you Investigate
  • Investigate when you exile a creature in the graveyard
  • Landfall – Investigate
  • Investigate when you cast a non-permanent spell
  • Investigate when a non token creature dies

All of the Landfall abilities in Battle for Zendikar help out defeating the Eldrazi threat. Tapping down creatures, returning much needed help from the graveyard, giving you life, making tokens, all of that helps band together and helps defeats a threat. Most of those abilities have direct action to combat while others help out the attrition war. With Investigate, it’s just part of the machine to keep you digging through your deck to find an answer. Landfall is just “bam!” I need your help now! It fits within that world. Investigate gives you that noir feeling of the slow burn. You don’t get that on Zendikar.

So what were our expectations with these last two large sets? Players loved the land based premises and adventuring with Zendikar while the Eldrazi was a bonus. Players then loved the Gothic Horror of Innistrad. With Battle for Zendikar, we got large monsters destroying the land while the adventures played a back seat to the cosmic beings. Shadows Over Innistrad has returned to Gothic Horror with it being a twist of something sinister going on. One went big, while the other went wide. Stepping out to create new areas is fantastic, but at what cost of alienating the audience?

62How much of our like of these blocks are based on expectations of what we’ve experienced in the past?  Players were excited to return to Zendikar and pumped to hear of the Eldrazi entering the picture once again. Maybe people who took focused on wanting Zendikar to come back that the over saturation of Eldrazi was bad not only for the plane, but for the gameplay itself. Shadows Over Innistrad gave us more of the same, only with a slight tweak. Magic can’t repeat the same things over and over, everything has to be a twist on what it was before. Players complained that Planar Chaos, the colorshifted set, didn’t really do anything innovative since a majority of the cards were reprinted but in different colors.

It was more important that the design of Battle for Zendikar was based around the Eldrazi than the plane of Zendikar. Designing to get the feeling of something under invasion is different than one trying to survive what’s already there. Zendikar and Innistrad both had similar feelings of the world and the sets the first time around that seeing both of them together gives us a nice way to contrast the two different styles of design that lead to two completely different stories and ways to design around them. I’m not saying that either of these two blocks are bad in any way, because they aren’t.

While at the moment when don’t know Eldrich Moon has in store for us. Eldrich Moon might turn into a full horror story where we meet our big baddie and try to overthrow them. But seeing the way the first set in the block has set up, I have a feeling that we’re going to be doing more surviving than banding together to fight back. Less Avengers, more Se7en, with Angels.

And a possible Flying Spaghetti Monster.

2 thoughts on “When Story Dictates Design (Shadows Over Zendikar)”

  1. Basing the cohesiveness of a block solely on mechanics sounds unfair to me, especially in the context of the Battle for Zendikar block. While it was indeed apparent that the Eldrazi mechanics had very little synergy with the Zendikari mechanics (which could be reasoned as the main point of making players choose which side they’ll support), there were subtler bits of card design that showed that either side could be put together in a single workable deck:

    1. The change of Eldrazi Spawn into Eldrazi Scion was in support of the weenie strategy that was inherent in a lot of Zendikari cards.
    2. Rally changed how Allies worked by making them pass their bonuses even to non-Ally creatures, including Eldrazi (Of course, they would undo this synergy with Cohort in OGW, but still.)
    3. Awaken turned lands into colorless creatures which has a workable symbiosis with a lot of Eldrazi creatures and spells.
    4. Landfall didn’t just feed Converge and Awaken, but also the bigger Eldrazi since they have such exorbitant mana costs (which could of course be helped with more mana from lands).

    Don’t get me wrong – I like the world building and design in Shadows Over Innistrad a whole lot more – but I’m sure Wizards learned their lesson in keeping mechanics play well with each other regardless of faction (or else, it’s going to be Kamigawa all over again, where spiritcraft and soulshift had little to zero synergy with bushido and ninjutsu).

    Also, I think saying that this story could be told in practically any plane is an oversimplification. Most of the conflicts that Magic has told in years previous spoke of conflict between factions, i.e. inhabitants (or perhaps invaders) of a plane. The Zendikar story is a conflict between a threat and the inhabitants *including* the plane itself – something that is best communicated in a land-centric block like Zendikar/BFZ.

  2. I have to agree that BFZ and gatewatch didn’t feel as authentic as SOI did. I like EM and SOI more than the previous block. I’m pretty pumped about Kaladesh though. I think there’s a lot more playable and practical cards than the last few sets. But I’m a casual player so what do I know?

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