Optimum Jank – Early Shadows Over Innistrad Impressions
Hello Darkness, My Old Friend
The Shadows Over Innistrad Prerelease is behind us and we are just a few days away from the official release date of the new set. I hope you all had a chance to participate in a Prerelease event or two because Shadows Over Innistrad (SOI) is amazing. Perhaps my early impressions are overly favourable because I loathed Battle for Zendikar (BFZ) so much, but I feel my instincts for this set are on the mark: Shadows Over Innistrad is going to be tremendous fun.
One of the more fascinating aspects of this set are the sheer number of moving parts – from the mechanical elements of the game down to the story and presentation – working in unison in a truly meaningful way. If I may take a moment to contrast Shadows Over Innistrad with Battle for Zendikar, the story of BFZ was that of the Zendikari fighting alongside the unbelievably poorly named “Gatewatch” superteam of Planeswalkers to vanquish the terrorizing Eldrazi menace rampaging across Zendikar. While BFZ’s premise may have been presented as everyone working together to defeat a common foe, in reality, the entire block felt disjointed and divided into three separate entities each trying to do their own contradicting thing. The Eldrazi mechanics mostly worked parasitically meaning they didn’t really work well with anything else in the set… which is fine. The Eldrazi should feel different and alien. The Zendikari, however, were all over the place. Some were Allies which worked with everything… including the Eldrazi, which doesn’t make any sense at all. Others were… just there? They didn’t really do anything, nor were they Allies, so I guess they didn’t mind the Eldrazi being there? I have no idea. Maybe non-Ally Zendikari simply hate Zendikar. They weren’t overly synergistic with the Eldrazi either, so I’m not really sure why they were there in the first place. Finally, we had The Gatewatch, functioning in their own space to the side by their very nature of being Planeswalkers. For a story and set about teamwork and working together, nothing meshed well nor made any sense.
I’m speaking in broad, generalized terms, of course, but I’m sure you get the idea.
Shadows Over Innistrad is pretty much the exact opposite. There are both obvious and covert synergies between many of the cards and mechanics in a set with a mythology in place that brings rhyme and reason to the improbabilities of certain cards or tribes working together. The madness currently overwhelming the plane of Innistrad gives us a credible reason for why humans would be working side by side with vampires or werewolves or zombies. In fact, in a large majority of the art, the humans are scarier than the actual monsters! Have you seen the art for Rabid Bite?
That human is BITING A WEREWOLF. This is amazing.
As if that weren’t enough, SOI just feels more powerful and more exciting than anything found in BFZ. There were a number of times I would be looking through my sideboard during the Prerelease thinking to myself: “I should be running this card… and I should be running this card too.” The reason for that is a lot of the cards feel like they could be role players in multiple strategies.
Take Vessel of Ephemera, for instance. It can provide attackers, blockers or sacrificial fodder, it can fuel Delirium, it works with cards that care about Spirits, at worst it can be pitched for Madness costs… the list goes on. That’s just one common. Imagine an entire set that has that level of synergy. The major problem of SOI isn’t a lack of options, its problem is having too many!
Scared Walkers Going Crazy in a Caged Box
Since we’re on the subject of powerful cards, let’s talk about a few I was very impressed with because they turned out to be far more powerful than I had initially anticipated and a few that turned out to be a little less so.
I was lucky enough to pull these two cards in my first Prerelease pool and yes, I was able to live the dream once: I flashed in Avacyn at the end of my opponent’s turn to save one of my creatures. During my next main phase, I sacrificed five creatures, transforming Westvale Abbey into Ormendahl, Profane Prince which in turn transformed Archangel Avacyn into Avacyn, the Purifier. It was pretty glorious.
Archangel Avacyn is everything you would expect her to be. She’s a fantastic card when you’re ahead, when you’re at parity and when you’re behind. That being said, she’s not as clear cut a card to play as you would believe her to be. I played against another player with his own Avacyn and I felt there were times he would run her out too soon. She’s strong, but she isn’t unbeatable and well placed removal will send her to the yard. More often then not, I liked holding her back in my hand: If I was already ahead, I didn’t need to use her frivolously and get her killed. If I was behind, she was my insurance to get me back to parity. Knowing she was in my hand ready to fly in at instant speed certainly gave me confidence when making combat decisions. Archangel Avacyn strongly reminded me of the Queen piece in chess: A lot of power that is often best held back until it’s time to strike.
On the other hand, Westvale Abbey is an incredibly difficult card to use in Limited. Simply having it on the board – even if I wasn’t anywhere near activating it – definitely made my opponents play more aggressively and use their removal more liberally.
Activating Westvale Abbey in Sealed was very hard to do. I can see him being much more powerful in Draft or Constructed formats where you have more control over deck building and can take advantage of sacrificing creatures or building up your board with tokens. In Sealed, getting 5 creatures on the board isn’t easy. Using five mana just to get a 1/1 token was a tough pill to swallow. Sacrificing my board and hoping my opponent didn’t have a way to interact with Ormendahl was agonizing. I realized early on that transforming him against anyone running Blue was usually the wrong thing to do: Just the Wind was everywhere. Sending my entire board to the graveyard only to have Ormendahl return to my hand didn’t seem like the wisest of actions. If you could build a Draft or Constructed deck that could take advantage of powerful leave the battlefield effects when your creatures died or had a means of generating a large number of tokens you wouldn’t mind sacrificing, I could see how Westvale Abbey could be an absolutely crushing card. In my case, however, it was more often a land than it was a game-ender.
Where did this card come from? Who okayed this card? Because this card is insane.
Auras are usually frowned upon by the majority of Magic players because they often lead to potential 2-for-1s, i.e. enchanting your creature with an Aura followed by your opponent casting a removal spell targeting your enchanted creature. Your opponent only used one card (their removal spell) to get rid of two of yours (your creature and the aura). Gryff’s Boon completely disregards this weakness because it keeps coming back whenever you want it to. What makes it even more insane is that it doesn’t return to your hand like you would expect it to, it goes right onto the battlefield attached to whichever creature you’d like to turn into an immediate threat. Anything and everything in your deck has the potential to be stronger and fly. Short of exiling the enchantment, you’re never going to get rid of this thing. I had two players simply crush me with this card because I had very few ways to interact with it. Let me tell you, turning Inspiring Captains into 4/3 fliers can be backbreaking.
When this card was first spoiled, I though it was okay. I wasn’t certain how detrimental giving your opponent cards would be. My strategy, if it were to be played against me, was to either A) outrace my opponent with damage or B) get my hand size down using discard outlets if I needed to. Turns out, I was correct in my assumption that it wasn’t as good against aggro/Madness decks, but I was wrong about it being easy to get my hand-size down to a manageable number if I needed too. If your deck lacks methods to discard cards and you’re running a control deck, you’re essentially racing against inevitability. You’re being punished for doing what a control deck loves to do – draw cards. In retrospect, I feel I should have somehow sided into a more aggressive deck with a lower curve to beat this card; playing my control deck against it was an exercise in futility.
I still don’t think this card is amazing, but I’m definitely giving it a bit more credit then I initially gave it.
See Me Heal These Wounds
My first impressions of Shadows Over Innistrad have been overwhelmingly positive and I can’t wait until Friday when we’ll finally get a chance to draft it for the first time. I’m very excited to see if SOI Draft is as rich and nuanced as it appears to be from its Sealed environment. If you’re in the Montreal area, Three Kings Loot will be hosting SOI drafts all day on Friday starting at noon, followed by a 6:30 Sealed event. If you’re interested in playing with the new set all day, you should absolutely swing by and check it out. As always, if you liked this article or have any questions, feel free to leave a comment in the Comments section below!
JP Vazquez – Optimum Jank