Pattern Recognition #210 - The Style of Innistrad
9 September 2021
9 September 2021
Hello everyone! This is Pattern Recognition, TappedOut.Net's longest running article series as written by myself, berryjon. I am something of an Old Fogey who has been around the block quite a few times where Magic is concerned, as as such, I use this series to talk about the various aspects of this game, be it deck design, card construction, mechanics chat, in-universe characters and history. Or whatever happens to cross my mind this week. Please, feel free to dissent in the comments below the article, add suggestions or just plain correct me! I am a Smart Ass, so I can take it.
Innistrad .... there's a lot of places I could start with when it comes to the building and design of this set, and a great many ways I can go about analyzing it. I also don't want to have to write or copy essays on the nature of the themes of the set, so the words I am going to use are going to have to be chosen with care.
So to start with, let's talk about the set before Innistrad, if only to help give some context for what it was and how it worked. Namely, New Urza-Frakking Phyrexia. Pardon me while I wash the taste of that horrid and vile set out of my mouth. And once that's done, I just want to put you in the frame of mind going into Innistrad.
For you see, we had just come out of a year's worth of sets where body-horror and mind-horror were king of flavor. The nightmare child of the Borg and the Zerg had come to play and to wreak merry havoc on the players. And Innistrad looked to keep the bleak-train rolling. After all, it was a set based on Gothic Horror, and we all know how those go, don't we?
After all, this is the genre that gave us Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. It gave us the The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. It gave us The Fall of the House of Usher and more besides. But Gothic Horror is not so easily defined, so in order to do so, I'm going to have to give some very abridged notes about the genre and its roots. Gothic refers to a branch of literature that has its roots in German and English literature, and indeed the name itself is a reference to the Goth people of modern Germany. Not the Visigoths, they're a different group entirely. While written foundationally in the 18th and 19th centuries, the setting for many of the early pieces of work in what would become this genre were set earlier, in the Middle Age.
Gothic Literature, much like its visual equivalent, Gothic Art, is designed around the juxtaposition of nature and civilization, a form of counter-push against the naturalist and romantic movements that saw the two aspects of the world in harmony if not outright cooperating. Gothic art - visual and written - saw these two forces as in an uneasy truce at best. Or outright hostile at worst.
The Gothic movement came out at a time where the Enlightenment was winding down, transitioning to the Industrial. The joys of discovery were tempered by the knowledge that there were still things and forces out there that man, in all his knowledge and growing power, could not comprehend. That there were places - bleak and foreboding - where man was not master.
Before, the Romantic movement saw such things as a means to... expand the human condition, where we would go and become more than what we were before. Gothic art said otherwise. It was a reminder that there was still darkness in the world, that there were monsters out there. And not all of them were of the natural world.
One of the most famous Gothic works, Frankenstien, is a tale of a man who stepped into the domain of his god, and created new life from the ashes of the old. This Adam, (and anyone who says otherwise hasn't read the damned book) was a creation that was both divine and the opposite at the same time. The name Adam was not chosen on a lark, but to directly compare Frankenstein to God. And he is punished for his hubris and his arrogance.
Dracula, probably the most analyzed work of the genre, has many things going for it, but the sheer otherness that a properly represented Dracula evokes cannot be denied or overstated. For what it's worth, when I was in university, one of my classmates in one of my Classical Literature courses wrote an essay that Dracula was a warning against pre-marital sex of all things, and made a pretty good job of justifying their position.
And from all this, Gothic literature and art was built around more emotional responses to its presentation than other works. Yes, previous, concurrent and later genres did involve deliberate emotional works as well, but what set the Gothic apart from these others, like Romanticism, later Realist Absurdity / Satire, or well, I could name pretty much every genre, was that Gothic work wanted to evoke Stress and Terror in the reader's emotional spectrum, rather than despair, anger or more harsh responses.
It is meant to stay with you, to be a subtle oppression on the heart and the soul, to be more than a one-and-done catharsis. Ancient Greece would disapprove.
But how does all this tie into Innistrad?
Well, first and foremost, is the art. The Innistrad block, with the exception of the Angels on high in the latter sets, was very much Gothic in style. It was dark without being black, bleak without being draining. How many of you are familiar with the art style of Chiaroscuro? Never heard of it? Well, ever watched the original CSI, where scenes would be really dark, with the lights shining around? That's sort of Chiaroscuro, which is the artistic juxtaposition of light and dark.
Angel of Flight Alabaster is a beautiful example of this, as is Cloistered Youth Flip and ... just look at the artwork! Just unfocus your eyes for a moment, and see the shades of bright and dark. And given that Magic is a game that uses art, and uses it well, I can't see this as being anything other than a deliberate choice. So, from the start, we're presented with a set whose art is deliberately evocative of the Gothic style. Of beautiful bleakness, of danger and resolve in the face of that danger.
What I'm saying that visually, Innistrad across all instances, already embraces the same visual designs that we associate with the Gothic, and thus, it already sets the stage for what we are to expect.
From there, the small amounts of flavor text help generate the right feelings as well. We are told and shown just how bad things are for the person on the ground, how at any moment, something, some horror could appear and that they, and everyone and everything they love will die. Sometimes they might even be that monster, in the case of some of the writings around the werewolves would imply.
It's very difficult to portray the same degree of literary eloquence that can be found in the best works of the genre on the small snippets of flavor text found on cards. Now, I'm all for flavor on cards, but even I have to admit that sometimes doing world building is less about some snippy quote and more about the card name and effect.
Sometimes, it's in the not knowing, the little gaps in our knowledge, that we find sublime terror. Huh, how relevant. I'd almost give myself a point for that if I was interested in such things. But I have other things to talk about!
What I want to summarize here is that from the start, Innistrad was an absolute monster of perfection when it came to presentation and flavor. There was no confusion about who was what, or what they were doing. Spirits were.... slightly Kamigawan in profile, but that was the worst of it. Vampires and Werewolves are already in the public consciousness of the majority of the players of the game, and so showing them in action was something that didn't need to be taught to people who looked at the cards. It was knowledge that most of them already had.
And of course, we move on to one of the more vital parts of the set and block. How did it play?
Now, truth be told, Innistrad was near the end of one of my breaks from the game. I didn't really get back in until Theros/Tarkir.
Yes, vacations are important, don't you know?
Regardless, so what I'm about to tell you is a lot of second-hand information. So if you have supporting or contradictory opinions or facts, the replies are at the bottom of the page!
So, from what I heard, Innistrad was a blast to play. Like, really good in Limited and Standard. And some cards even found their way into eternal formats like Snapcaster Mage. The various archetypes played well for and against each other, the mechanics were sound and amazing, from the return of Flashback to the implementation of transforming cards. Innistrad's mechanics were so good that while there were a few odd ducks, like Soulbond or Miracles (which became a very powerful deck until Sensei's Diving Top got banned), the core mechanics were good enough that they would come back in future sets. Fight even became Evergreen as the based creature removal.
This combination of recognizable and evocative flavor, along with good mechanics, and fun play across multiple formats (Hey New Phyrexia? You know what Fun is? NOT YOU) meant that Innistrad stayed in the minds of players for longer than other sets did. There was a ... resonance in the minds of the players. They could see cards like Invisible Stalker and they know it's The Invisible Man. We, the players, see these small and oblique or direct connections and we adored them because, for the first time in over a decade, we were finally back to a set where you could see real-world influences from mythology and history, but given a distinctly Magic twist and interpretation to them. Something we would see come back in Theros with the Greek world, Tarkir with the Mongols, skipped with Kaladesh which had nothing to do with India, and so on.
Innistrad proved to Wizards that there was a solid foundation for building sets around real-world things, and that in doing so, you could save time by just doing research rather than trying to come up with new and unique stories of their own. I mean, they still did. On occasion. Badly.
But there's nothing wrong with that! Grounding the fantastical in the real is a tried and true method of creating new things. Heck, the whole genre of Urban Fantasy does exactly that! Innistrad worked on so many levels, that it's no wonder that we're coming into the third outing this year. There's just so much in the way of culture, of myth and history to dig through. And because its such a wide-branching genre, Innistrad can pull in other types of story to help it along. The addition of Cosmic Horror with Shadows over Innistrad and Eldrich Moon is an extension of the notions of the Gothic, by moving the unknowable and hostile nature into the unknowable and hostile supernatural. And the indications of the rituals in Midnight Hunt? Well, what we would consider paganism is part of the Gothic movement, an attempt to placate those same unknowable forces of nature. It fits.
That's the genius of Innistrad. It just fits. Inside and outside. There was a hole in the game that this set filled, and in doing so, forever established its eternal presence alongside Ravnica and the home of the game, Dominaria. I'm glad to see this, and I look forward to the fourth visit to that plane.
A little disjointed, I know, but such is the nature of the beast sometimes. Join me next week when I take a look at how mana costs work in the game, and some of the underlying assumptions about them. There are some odd things in the game that people tend to ignore, and I hope to pull a couple of them to the surface.
Until then please consider donating to my Pattern Recognition Patreon. Yeah, I have a job, but more income is always better. I still have plans to do a audio Pattern Recognition at some point, or perhaps a Twitch stream. And you can bribe your way to the front of the line to have your questions, comments and observations answered!
One thing I'd like to mention about Innistrad-set artwork is that it has some of the highest concentration of first-person scenes in the game, pulling the player directly into the scene. See Hollowhenge Spirit, Village Cannibals, Screeching Skaab, Grotesque Mutation, Confirm Suspicions, and more. This, I think, makes the horror and the action of the set that much more personal and visceral.