Friday afternoon saw me invited to Melbourne’s Shadows over Innistrad pre-prerelease, courtesy of the excellent people at Double Jump Communications and Wizards of the Coast. Shadows is the newest expansion set for Magic the Gathering, set on the gothic, Victorian world of Innistrad. While thematic music, lighting and apparently infinite free beer and pizza whet our appetites for some serious card playing, it was the excitement and promise that always surrounds a new set that really set the mood.
Considered by many people to be the “best set of all time”, in addition to the “greatest draft set of all time”, 2011’s Innistrad is the darling of the Wizards of the Coast designers, and set the high-water mark for modern collectable card game design. It was famous for deceptively deep drafting, complex synergies (including supporting actual combo decks – in draft), and an unusually high proportion of playable-quality cards. Can Shadows possibly live up to this absurdly high bar?
Probably not. Freaking Innistrad, man.
But the new expansion is sure giving it the old college try.
Being a pre-prerelease, the focus was on Limited Magic play, and the effect of the set on Constructed play wasn’t given too much thought. That said, we explored all the most common Limited formats – Sealed, Draft and Two-Headed Giant Sealed. While even a very late night of intensive play couldn’t hope to reveal all secrets, I will say the following:
Double-faced transform (‘flip’) cards are back, baby
And they are awesome. The original Innistrad had a cycle of these two-sided cards that transform back and forth between two “Jekyll and Hyde” sides when certain conditions are met. This time around they have more fully explored the design space created by these cards.
Firstly, they have included at least one flip card in every single pack (replacing a common) – and if you are lucky enough to open a rare or mythic double sided card, you will get two double-sided cards, meaning there are lot of flip cards in circulation. In addition, the support cards are good and exist at lower rarities as well, so they are consistently available to drafters.
Many of the flip cards are pushed for constructed play – but of those that aren’t are virtually all are ‘playable’ in draft – cards you would not be embarrassed to put in your deck, especially if they push an existing theme.
Werewolves are a cycle of returning flip cards that turn back and forth depending on how many spells were cast in a given turn, and whose flip side is generally more powerful than their front. With so many playable wolves you get massive incentives to set up ‘flip turns’ by sequencing your spells and to try and manipulate the flip on your opponent’s wolves.
This certainly happened in original Innistrad, but in Shadows it’s a major strategy that requires careful planning and thinking several turns ahead. For example, you may play equipment or cards with costly activated abilities in your deck just to give you an excuse to take a turn off casting spells to flip your wolves without wasting all your mana. Wizards have done us the service of ensuring that these options exist and are not embarrassing to play.
Finally, they have really pulled out all stops to explore just what can be done with this mechanic, with cards flipping into totally different card types or on crazy conditions, often with lashings of flavour so thick you can smell it. And…these cards are good in Limited.
New mechanics, new challenges
Many people wondered whether the new ‘Delirium’ mechanic, where you need to have four different card types in your graveyard, would have sufficient support to be effective. Turns out, you don’t need the payoff cards to be super-powerful if it’s not too hard to get the condition met, and this means delirium is a frequent theme in a draft, as well being more fun, and less a binary ‘I pulled it off and now my deck does something’ experience. They achieved this by creating unusual cards you don’t mind playing to get your Delirium to work. Put it this way: every time someone resolved a Mind-Wreck Demon against me all night, it didn’t hurt them.
This mechanic of ‘discard for value’ was last featured heavily in Odyssey block in 2002, where it was a powerhouse in Standard and Extended formats. Now as then, without the density of enabling cards you can achieve in a constructed deck, madness isn’t overpowering in Limited, but it is certainly viable and interesting. Every time you pitch an Incorrigable Youths to a Lightening Axe on turn 4, you feel like an extreme boss.
Madness in particular is great at creating that ‘I did something unfair/clever’ feeling without either resorting to printing bad synergy cards (ala M14) or creating overpowered bombs that ruin the format (Looking at you, Khans Block).
Planeswalkers are more busted than usual. While you never wanted an opponent to cast a Kiora or Narset in recent sets, cards like Sorin, Grim Nemesis, Arlinn Kord and Nahiri, the Harbinger are on another level. These cards are essentially “I win” buttons from any reasonable board state, but unlike previous planeswalkers they can also catch you up from way behind: It is often worth playing weak / shallow colours to get access to a multicolour ‘walker you have opened.
My pick for most underrated common is Shamble Back. It can function as a pseudo Sarcomancy for an aggressive deck, but it also is a one-mana sideboard value card to turn off an opposing player’s Delirium, stop some of the recursive game-ending bombs like Relentless Dead or Geralf’s Masterpiece, or prevent one of many powerful reanimation/recursion effects from threatening you with a massive problem late game.
All in all, this return to the haunted world of Innistrad is an extremely promising one, and I think it will be a popular and well received set. I hope you found this first look helpful, and please post your experiences from the pre-release in the comments section!
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