My kneejerk reaction when the spoilers for Innistrad started coming out was that it looked like shit. The horror theme reminded me of VH1’s Remember the ’90s shows, except with zombie movies instead of MC Hammer. The set had no coherent mechanical theme. It was going to use a pinch of graveyard-based mechanics, but not so much that people felt they had to do anything so extreme as to put cards in their graveyards. It seemed that it was trying to please everyone, but mostly the sort of people who read those mashups of classic literature with zombies.
Like all kneejerk reactions, it was silly, and I’m glad I didn’t write anything publicly about it.1 I still think the theme is a bit silly,2 but I’ve done a bunch of Limited events (and have very little of strategic value to say), and I immediately wanted to do nothing but sit down and play more. While it’s true that I’m easily addicted to anything, this was due to Innistrad being an exceptionally well-designed set when it came to Limited. The best explanation I can come up with is that Rosewater and the design team3 designed the set during the day, left the design file laying around somewhere insecure, and the developers4 came in and changed the set into one that “broke all tha rules” when it came to design.
To avoid turning off newer or subpar players, Limited formats are made to be at least somewhat recognizable. You open a pack, you see the removal spell or the flyer or the bomb, and you take it and smile, knowing that regardless of the more difficult picks around third through seventh, you’ve made the right decision to start off.
Innistrad is not like this.
To win against anyone competent in an Innistrad draft, you need to have drafted the set several times before. In a traditional draft environment (core set, for example) you take the best card from the first few packs and hope that there are one or two colors that you’ll definitely be playing. Innistrad is not about colors; it is about archetypes,6 and if you’re not instantly familiar with what cards fit in what archetypes (especially which rares lead to which archetypes), and the signals that a certain one is open, you’re going to draft a middling pile of cards that will be run over by the graveyard deck spitting out Constructed-costed creatures starting on turn three. If you think you’ve gotten the hang of this archetype thing, and you draft a bunch of cards that have the word “graveyard” on them, you’ll be steamrolled by the Humans deck that plays 1-drops of all things. Try to draft the deck again, knowing what cards are good this time? Sucks for you—the guy next to you was drafting a graveyard-based deck7 around an uncommon at which you’ve never even given a second glance, you were passed trash, and he went undefeated.
That Black removal spell that seemed to be among the set’s few auto-first-picks? It’s pretty good at best.
While it’s still early in the format, I’ve never seen so many experienced players disagree so vehemently. Not about whether cards are good or great, or whether a card is a mid-pack steal or unplayable, but players disagree whether 5- or 6-mana rares are first-picks or complete trash that’ll get you killed by turn five if you even attempt to run them. There’s even a fairly well-respected player advocating first-picking a 0/1 over the big Red Fireball.8
These things aren’t what make the set difficult; they’re what make the set inaccessible. The difference is that, once a reasonable player bombs out of a few drafts, he’ll overcome the inaccessibility and start to see what’s going on in the games and what picks are leading to those outcomes. A set that is merely inaccessible would have a barrier to entry similar to Innistrad, but work fairly intuitively once that’s been figured out. Innistrad, even once that hurdle is overcome, is still difficult. Say you know that a certain rare is first-pick quality because it fits in a specific bizarre combo/control archetype, but you also have a key uncommon for a more straightforwardly aggressive deck. Even after fifty drafts, this will be difficult: Can either archetype expect to wheel anything of importance out of the pack? Will the person to the left be tempted to draft something that steps on the toes of your deck? Did someone write a detailed how-to on one of these decks that’s shifted the drafting metagame to make it more difficult to find the key cards? You have one minute to answer any number of these questions and choose between them. Or you can pick that Black removal spell.
This is the difficulty that is inherent in a set in which card evaluations are less important than archetype evaluations.
I hope that at this point you’re either agreeing that Innistrad is a tough format to solve or at least acknowledging that I think it is. Here’s why that makes the set great: When I finish a draft, I’m immediately thinking about the next one. Win or lose, I’m lost in the possibilities of decks I haven’t tried yet and potentially underdrafted commons I can exploit, and I’m wondering how I could try out that weird pile of unbeatable crap I lost to in the second round. I’m not thinking about how such-and-such rare is absurd,9 but rather what would have happened if I had tried to make a deck around that weird rare enchantment I grabbed twelfth-pick.
Magic, to me, is a game that’s fun because I can think about it in a productive way when I’m not playing.10 Innistrad Limited is a format that rewards and encourages players to think about it more than any I’ve encountered, and that’s what makes it such well-designed fun.
Here are the two methods of world-building summarized: Traditional Magic decides what each color will do in the world and then finds the individual flavor to fit it. Innistrad took a bunch of already-invented things and decided where they fit in the color pie. It reminds me of fan-made sets themed around Dragonball characters . . . or whatever.
This isn’t something unique to Magic, though. In the wake of postmodern artworks that made it not just okay but practically required to borrow from other forms of art that had been seen as “lowbrow” instead of just referencing Shakespeare over and over, we’re bombarded with media that requires us to appreciate some older, more sincere forms of art in order to understand the new work.
This footnote, shockingly, is relevant to the main essay: All of the rules about Magic design that have been violated are only rules because Rosewater said they were. Maybe the rest of the team thought they were never rules in the first place and rolled their eyes whenever Rosewater mentioned it. No one else writes about design from any authority, so we have no idea.
As an example, say you make one of the all-time greatest second sets in Magic history. The cards are flavorful, the mechanics are unique and fun, and there’s something for every player type to latch onto. You go to the prerelease to see how people react. Surprise! It plays horribly with the previous set, and no one has fun playing your cards because of how they interact with the previous ones. The format wasn’t designed well. This can happen with Constructed, too, leading to formats that are monstrosities that didn’t have enough thought put into them, so no one wants to play them—like the current Extended.
Designers design cards. Developers use those cards to design formats.
Since then, I’ve calmed down and realized that they’re not trying to design a format where anyone can win a match. They’re trying to design a format where, true to their marketing from over a decade ago, every game is different.
One thing should be kept in mind from that banning announcement, though: Bannings are not balancing decisions. They are decisions about the design of a format.
Bomb rares make a Limited format more accessible. If that new player thinks M12 seems cool, shows up to his first prerelease, and opens a huge Dragon, he’ll probably win some games because of that Dragon alone, and that makes the game seem less intimidating to him. The prevalence of format-breaking rares in core-set Limited seems to be a well-designed piece of the set—at least from a player acquisition and retention point of view. New players might keep playing because the draft wasn’t as frustrating as they expected, and no experienced player with a brain is going to quit after he loses a core set draft (he’ll just blame the format instead of himself, use a lot of expletives, and wait for the next Limited format to roll around).