Innistrad is the world of Magic dominated by werewolves, vampires, aberrations, horrors, and monstrosities. It contains Obsessive Skinners and Macabre Waltzes. It is overrun with everything that you don’t want to be near. Fittingly, it is one of the most popular fictional locales in the Magic universe. After last winter’s return to Zendikar, a fan-favorite blast from the past, Magic design has ramped us into an even more popular world with the release of Shadows Over Innistrad. We’ve traded the Lovecraftian horrors of the Eldrazi for old-fashioned Hollywood Gothic. Those are different flavors by anyone’s estimation, but a question lingers: how do those experiences match up?
In the few weeks since release, I have had the opportunity to play a healthy amount of all aspects of Shadows Over Innistrad. From the Limited formats of Draft and Sealed to Constructed play in Standard, I have witnessed the impact of these cards in every variation that they can appear. If those words don’t mean much to you, don’t worry; I’ve played with the cards in a lot of ways while winning and losing in lots of interesting ways, and I feel like I have a strong handle on when I was and was not having fun with it.
By virtue of what it is, any event where you open packs of Magic and play with them right then and there is going to be swingy. Some people open great stuff. Some people open terrible stuff. Everyone goes into it knowing this, and with the devil of variance that exists in any given card game, there’s a certain realization that things aren’t always going to go your way. However, my experience in the Draft and Sealed formats in Shadows has left me wanting in some ways.
Shadows Over Innistrad’s world is based on competing factions. The vampires, werewolves, zombies, spirits, and humans of the world are all trying to survive in a literal nightmare ecology, and they excel the best when they are able to gather together and feed off of each other’s synergies. For example, vampires have a strong presence with card discard and the Madness mechanic that allows you to use cards more efficiently if you discard them. Spirits gain life, create new spirits, or disappear in and out of existence. Humans boost each other up by giving each other better weapons, abilities like First Strike, and taking better advantage of Equipment (it’s their appropriately-sized hands).
These group synergies mean that when you build a deck in a Limited format, you really need cards that feed off of one another. If you want to play with vampires, you need some vampire buddies. While there are obviously redundancies to this and exceptions to the general rule, I don’t think it is arguable that this set is slightly different from the past year or so of Magic. Since last winter, powerful cards could make powerful decks. In Shadows, a powerful deck is generally put together out of cards that have designed synergy. In Battle for Zendikar, a player had two general strategies of Allies and Eldrazi that were highly synergistic, but beyond those two groups there was a lot of (necessary) variable room in case you couldn’t get those cards. In Shadows, playing the game optimally is figuring out which of your group synergies is the most powerful and building toward that. While it is certainly a triumph of Magic design and development, in my experience it is a more alienating format than the past several.
Magic always hinges on knowledge (of the massive card pool; of the game rules; of what your opponent has in their hand/board/deck). Shadows Over Innistrad leans into that heavily, requiring a player to memorize deck synergies that their opponent might have in order to play at their best. Instead of looking out for powerful cards like Reality Smasher, a player is looking out for a Heir of Falkenrath and a Fiery Temper. It’s not a different game, but it is a different quality of game, and I don’t know how easily someone walking in off the street from years off at the game would find this set compared to Khans of Tarkir or Battle for Zendikar.
From the perspective of building decks with cards from Shadows, this set has some of the most fun casual and competitive cards in a long time. Earlier this year everyone was very excited about Reality Smasher and Thought-Knot Seer, two really exciting, efficient, competitive cards. But as a player who doesn’t really play a lot of competitive, serious Constructed Magic, this set has lots of cards that I want to build around. Brain In A Jar has already gotten lots of people building around it, and Cryptolith Rite made a Pro Tour appearance in an incredibly competitive deck. I’d be lying if cards like Ever After didn’t get me super excited as well—the ability to bring creatures back to life over and other again is something that’s always exciting, and doing it in the form of a fairy tale is even better.
From a storytelling perspective, we are still waiting on the biggest turn (which will probably appear with Eldritch Moon). As of this writing, we’ve seen recent-focus Jace Beleren running around Innistrad solving mysteries and getting into misunderstandings with Liliana Vess, the necromancer planeswalker living on and ruling part of Innistrad. Alongside that is a brutal revenge plot between Nahiri, a stone-shaping planeswalker, and her vampire mentor Sorin Markov. While you can read all of the official story vignettes here, I would suggest skipping right to the fun sibling rivalry between the necromancers Gisa and Geralf.
From top to bottom, Shadows Over Innistrad makes for an engaging addition to the Magic universe. While I can say that I haven’t had as good of a time in the Limited formats as I have over the past few sets, the additions to Constructed formats and the clever storytelling are keeping me engaged and excited for Eldritch Moon right around the corner.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com. His latest game, Epanalepsis, was released on May 21. It’s available on Steam.