Sunday, October 9, 2011

Popping the Hood: White in Innistrad

Hey all, my name is Rowan, aka uber_pochacco on Twitter, aka unbrokencircle from way back when on the GDS2 wiki. During GDS2, I helped the contestants by spending a lot of time looking at old cards, both individually and on a set-by-set basis, in order to learn more about Magic design. That information was invaluable in creating sets of commons that looked like they could have come from an actual Magic set. But that sort of analysis is also useful in analyzing new sets and uncovering specific design decisions that were made which aren't always obvious at first glance. As Mark Rosewater said during the GDS2, one of the best ways to learn about Magic design philosophy is to look at current Magic sets. Today I'll be using this technique to look at how White in Innistrad compares to other sets and why.

Popping the Hood: A Primer
Anytime you are trying to glean information about current sets (whether it be ones you are creating or ones that WotC has just put out) by comparing them to older sets, it's important to keep in mind that Magic design philosophy is constantly changing. That means that the information that can be gleaned by older sets will always be limited by the amount that Magic design philosophy has changed since then. This is especially the case when it comes to designing entire sets, as the way that sets are designed as a whole has been one of the biggest areas of change. Always remember that the printing of a similar mechanic or card in the past does not necessarily indicate the design is a good idea. The GDS2 contestants found that out the hard way when, for example, flip cards were widely panned by the GDS2 judges. WotC is not always open about its failures, and it's important to keep in mind that even if Mark Rosewater said something was a good idea in an article 6 years ago, the benefits of hindsight might have shifted the tide of opinion since then. Additionally, there are plenty of things that aren't usually done, but can be done from time to time with sufficient justification.

For the purposes of my analyses in "Popping the Hood," I will be predominantly restricting my comparisons to M10-M12, Rise of the Eldrazi, and Zendikar. Because of artifacts and multicolor, it is very difficult to glean useful information from Shards of Alara and Scars of Mirrodin, and it became clear during GDS2 that Lorwyn/Shadowmoor block is considered outdated by many within R&D. Additionally, it's much easier to compare big sets to each other.

One more note: this method very much highlights the overlap between design and development. This is because the features of set design that are uncovered by looking at the set this way are sometimes instituted earlier on during design, while other times they are added later, during development. It's not a coincidence that, these days, design teams tend to include a developer, and development teams tend to include a designer, and there is more communication and cooperation throughout the process.

White in Innistrad
Every set brings with it new mechanics - this continual influx of innovation is part of what keeps Magic fresh and vibrant. But how does this newness filter out through the colors? If all of the innovation is concentrated in only 2-3 of the colors, then many players who don't enjoy playing those colors will feel left out. And because commons are at the heart of every Magic design, it's important that every color's set of commons is differentiated mechanically from every other's set of commons.

White in Innistrad is all about the Humans and their struggle against the monsters in their world. Mark Rosewater, in his article "C'mon Innistrad, Part 1," wrote:

Another thing we were trying to do in Innistrad was to create a stark contrast to the Scars of Mirrodin block. Scars was all about a conflict between two sides. For Innistrad we wanted a very different feel. The humans are the protagonists of Innistrad block. This block is their story. As we begin, we find the humans hunted on all sides. Unlike in Scars, the bad guys aren't working together. Each monster has its own agenda, part of which is wiping out the humans or turning them into monsters.

To get this feeling of isolation, we put the humans in white and then isolated white from the other four colors. To help hammer this home, we made a number of four-card cycles that specifically skip white. This helps create the feeling that the humans are all alone.

Another big move we made was, for the first time, to create Human tribal... We decided to give the Humans two major strengths. One, they worked well in number. This played into a strength white already had. Second, we liked the idea that tools were often the most deadly in the hands of a human. Monsters don't really need tools, but our poor victims and slayers definitely did, so we made a bunch of Equipment that is improved in the hands of a human.
We see this Humans vs. everyone else flavor are highlighted at common in the Human tribal, Bonds of Faith and Elder Cathar, and in the cards that work against non-Humans, Avacynian Priest and Spare from Evil. But there is actually another more subtle way that highlights the difference between white Humans and the other tribes - in Innistrad, white is the trickiest color. Whether it is intentional or not, this is a manifestation of the importance of divine protective magic to the survival of Innistrad's humans.

I first noticed this when I decided to memorize all the instant speed cards that were relevant for Limited before the prerelease. (I'm not usually so Spike-y, but I love this set and I want to draft a lot of it.) I was surprised at how many tricks white had, and I wanted to see whether this number of tricks was out of the ordinary. Let's take a look.

Comparing White's Common Instant Speed Effects across Sets

Zendikar (3)
Bold Defense
Narrow Escape
Shieldmate's Blessing

Rise of the Eldrazi (4-5)
Harmless Assault
Puncturing Light
Repel the Darkness
Demystify has a much narrower effect than the rest of these, because it only influences combat very occasionally.

Magic 2012 (3-5)
Angel's Mercy
Guardian's Pledge
Mighty Leap
Stave Off
Once again, Demystify has a much narrower effect, as does Angel's Mercy, which is rarely played except by new players.

Magic 2011 (3)
Inspired Charge
Mighty Leap
Safe Passage

So, the average is about 3-4 instant speed effects within these sets, especially if you use a more narrow definition.

Compare that to Innistrad's 8:
Feeling of Dread
Moment of Heroism
Smite the Monstrous
Spare from Evil
Urgent Exorcism
Village Bell-Ringer (flash)

Even if you exclude Urgent Exorcism (and Demystify from the other sets), white still receives 3-4 more instant speed effects than usual. That may not sound like a lot, but at common, even 2-3 cards can make a big difference.* For example, in Zendikar blue received the only two common trap cards, but that was blue's "hook" in Zendikar.

It's not just that white gets a lot of combat tricks — they are also particularly difficult to play around. This is because half of them cost two mana, while the other half cost three mana, so it is even more difficult to guess exactly what trick your opponent plays around. Furthermore, the tricks themselves pull you in opposite directions. For example, Village Bell-Ringer punishes you for swinging with multiple creatures, while Rebuke and Moment of Heroism punish you for only swinging with one creature at a time.


In the face of blue's big cheap build-your-zombies, black's zombie card advantage, red's aggressive vampires, and green's giant werewolves, the white humans have the advantage of surprise and trickiness. Those monsters may be bigger, faster, and stronger, but at least the humans have some tricks up their sleeve. While the equipment and the strength in numbers are important parts of the Human tribal identity in Innistrad, the trickiness of white in this set is one way that the Humans' flavorful identity comes through the white cards themselves.

More generally, I think top-down sets require designers to use every tool at their disposal, and I think in addition to asking questions like "What mechanics will best manifest the flavor of my set?", it's also useful to think about manipulating the subtle low-level aspects of the set in order to make the overarching flavor pop. Giving white more instants than usual is just one example of this.

But wait a second. If white is the trickiest color in Innistrad, what happened to blue, which is typically the color given that role? In my next post, I'll talk about how blue in Innistrad is different from business as usual.

On a side note, although the speed of the Innistrad Limited is not exactly clear yet, members of R&D have stated that it is on the slower side, so perhaps it is not a coincidence that the commons between Rise of the Eldrazi and Innistrad match up the best here.
  • Demystify and Urgent Exorcism
  • Harmless Assault and Spare from Evil
  • Puncturing Light and Smite the Monstrous
  • Repel the Darkness and Feeling of Dread
  • Smite and Rebuke
  • That leaves Moment of Heroism and Village Bell-Ringer left over.


  1. Absolutely fantastic. A brilliant concept for a column and in just the first article I've learned something new I'd never thought about before. Keep up the good work!

  2. Very nice indeed. I had noticed at the pre-release and the launch party that more people tended to go for white, since in sealed combat tricks and staying power through death effects are great, but I had not consciously realised they had put extra combat tricks there.

    Common white also happens to have another theme that is generally present in Innistrad white: perseverance.

    There are many effects that resemble the penumbra mechanic, liked doomed traveller. Elder cathar is one of the most prized commons in human decks, theban sentry and angry mob get pumped up by the death of other white commons...