Shadows Over Innistrad: Prerelease First Impressions

Most fans of Magic: The Gathering have fond memories of the Innistrad block.

Set on a plane inspired by classic gothic horror, the original set of cards featured exciting tribal support for vampires, zombies, a new werewolf creature type and the humans trying to survive the dark world. It gave us some extremely powerful cards, like the Modern staples Snapcaster Mage, Lilliana of the Veil and Huntmaster of the Fells, as well as interesting mechanics like the double-faced “transformation” cards that made werewolf creatures possible.

The variation, synergy and power of the cards made the set incredibly fun to play in Constructed and Limited formats, and is recognized as one of the best sets to play in draft.

Returning to the plane with Shadows Over Innistrad brings everything players loved about the first journey foray into the dark realm, and more. The mechanics have a real storytelling element to them. The returning Madness mechanic, first introduced in the Odyssey block, takes advantage of discarding cards from your hand and a new mechanic, called Delirium, gives cards a bonus if you have four or more card types in your graveyard. These two together, along with the classic transformation cards, really ties the story of the set together with its gameplay. If you’re focusing on these graveyard mechanics, you slowly watch as your library disappears, your time slowly runs out and the descent into madness that most of Innistrad is feeling becomes all too real.

The new Investigate mechanic, which puts a “Clue” artifact token onto the field, which can then be sacrificed for a cost to draw a card, gives players the feel of unraveling the horrific mysteries of the plane along with Jace Beleren in the Magic storyline, as well as providing a neat form of card advantage.

The prerelease on the weekend of April 2 was one of the best Limited experiences I’ve had. I played against three other decks that afternoon and each one featured a different archetype and playstyle and none of them felt overly strong or weak. I managed to scrape out a 2-1 win ratio, but each match came down to the last few life points of the third game.

My pool had a surprisingly strong set of removal in black and red, with some support for a Madness/Delirium vampire theme. A strong pull of Olivia, Mobilized for War solidified the archetype. One of my favorite moments of the tournament was playing a Flameblade Angel off and using Olivia’s ability to give it haste, swinging at my opponent with a 6/6 flier for the win.

In this set, removal is definitely key, especially in Limited. Creatures that start small have the chance to get bigger as the game goes on, particularly werewolves and other flip cards, or those with Delirium abilities. Dealing with these creatures quickly becomes a priority. A lowly 2/1 can quickly become a 4/2 with trample after just a few turns. Madness makes it especially easy to have board-clearing, value-filled, blowout turns. Nothing feels quite as good as discarding a Fiery Temper to a Call the Bloodline, making a 1/1 vampire with lifelink and burning out an opponent’s for a measly four mana, and maybe even not all at once.

Also, tribal themes get a lot of support. If you manage to pull a solid amount of creatures of the same type and one of the many “lords” for the humans, werewolves, vampires, zombies or spirit creature tribes, it could lead to a strong and fun deck to play.

In my short time with the set, there are definitely some cards I can recommend trying out in Limited formats. I’ll restrict this to commons and uncommons, since most rares will only show up, well, rarely. These are cards that I’ve either played with or against, and I think they deserve mentioning. Others may have other feelings on what the best cards are, but these are ones that I think influenced my games the most.

Ember-eye Wolf: I pulled a full playset of these bad boys in my six-pack pool and let me tell you, they do work. A 1/2 with haste may seem a bit on the undesirable side, but the ability to give it +2/+0 for one red and one uncolored mana is not to be sneezed at. There were games where this went on to swing for upwards of seven damage a turn if unanswered and makes opponents have to think very carefully about how they block. This becomes even more relevant if you can give it some kind of evasion, like the new Skulk mechanic granted by the Skeleton Key equipment. This makes it unblockable by anything with a higher power than it, and at a base of 1, that’s most creatures. Get behind enemy lines, then burn it down. Speaking of Skulk…

Skeleton Key: Now, I know in Limited equipments are rarely a high priority, especially those that don’t give a big stat boost, but hear me out. Skeleton Key not only gives Skulk, which as stated with Ember-eye Wolf, can be an interesting way to get in some sneaky damage, especially late-game, but it gives you the ability to draw and discard a card if the equipped creature deals combat damage to an opponent. In a deck that relies on Delirium and Madness effects, this can quickly turn into a way to discard at no cost and fill up your graveyard, as well as cycle out dead cards in hand.

Call the Bloodline: A two-drop enchantment that lets you pay one mana, discard a card and put a 1/1 lifelink vampire token on the field is pretty good in my book. You can only activate this ability once per turn, but that means you can also do it on your OPPONENT’S turn. Flash in a surprise blocker or set up another attacker on their End Step, this card often let me stabilize my board and get that sweet Madness and Delirium engine running. If you can get a few cards that synergize with vampires, like Stromkirk Mentor or Indulgent Aristocrat, you can make a pretty solid board in just a few turns, while hopefully getting a few cheap Madness spells in at instant speed.

Tooth Collector: I couldn’t help cackling a little each time I played this card. Besides feeding the childhood fear of dentists, the 3/2 for three is a decent body in black, but it comes with the additional ability of giving an opponent’s creature -1/-1 until the end of turn. This is an excellent way to clear out small, annoying creatures or force them to think twice about blocking with one of their larger ones. He only gets better as the game goes on, because once Delirium gets online, he does this every turn. Say ahh…

Bound by Moonsilver: As I’ve said, I played B/R vampires on Saturday, so why am I mentioning Bound by Moonsilver, a white enchantment? Because it caused me to lose two games, that’s why. This card is really, really good in Limited. It stops your best creature cold and gives your opponent the ability to sacrifice a permanent to change its target if a new threat appears. I got this slapped on my Goldnight Castigator (I’m not a huge fan, by the way) and watched as my opponent swung for 18 damage the next turn while my angel was in the stocks. If you’re in white, take it.

Intrepid Provisioner: If you’ve pulled any number of humans, and there are quite a few in this set especially in green, then this is a great card. This turns your little 1/1 or 1/2 dude into something dangerous to block, and sticks around as a decent body all on its own. With even one more human, this things goes from a reasonably costed 3/3 trampler to a real leader on the field. Just as a side note, all werewolves start out as humans… just saying.

So, that’s my little more than two-cents about Shadows Over Innistrad so far. This set is excellent for Limited play and I can see quite a few cards making an impact on other formats as well. The set officially releases on April 9, so make sure to preorder your cards soon.

You can delve into this plane gone mad at Friendly Fire Games at Friday Night Magic, with drafts every week at 7:30 p.m., or the new Two-Headed Giant Sealed Leagues, starting Saturdays at 2:00 p.m.

Nicholas Shigo has been playing Magic for about ten years. That does not mean he’s been playing it well. He’s also an avid Dungeons and Dragons player and Dungeon Master.
He can be reached at nicholas.shigo@gmail.com or on Twitter @NicholasShigo.