Shadows Over Innistrad Set Review Header

Set releases march ever on, and as an adult play­ing a col­lectible card game it can be dif­fi­cult to keep pace. As you may have noticed, there has been a bit of a gap in our set reviews and pre­views for Magic the Gathering; this is mostly down to a busy sched­ule on on my part result­ing in a lack of hands-on time with the set. I will instead be doing an in-depth sun­set review of Oath of the Gatewatch, as well as high­light­ing why the set ended up break­ing Modern so severely. So keep your eyes peeled for that. Today, we’re here to talk about Shadows Over Innistrad, and thank­fully I have a lot bet­ter things to say about this set than the last one.

Shadows Over Innistrad Limited

I haven’t had time to do a pre­view of this set, so if you need a refresher on the mechan­ics of Shadows Over Innistrad then you can read the offi­cial arti­cle on the Wizards of the Coast MTG web­site that explains the set’s new and return­ing mechan­ics.

I was able to pick over some of my friend’s Shadows Over Innistrad pre-release decks and I had some play­time with the cards them­selves. I can safely say the set feels really good to play in Limited. The themes and mechan­ics all gel per­fectly with the lore and fla­vor which is not only good for the story, but makes choos­ing cards feel more intu­itive and reward­ing. For exam­ple you look at a card like “Mad Prophet” and instantly know it’s going to be an all-star in your Madness deck.

Speaking of which, I love the dis­card mat­ters theme for Madness and Delirium. Madness espe­cially is very easy to get your head around. It gets you look­ing straight away for cards that let you dis­card, and is a great way for newer or less expe­ri­enced play­ers to wrap their head around syn­ergy. It also allows you to turn spells or crea­tures into instant speed tricks, reward­ing more skilled play­ers.

Delirium also makes dis­card­ing cards desir­able, and may lead to some inter­est­ing choices when it comes to deck-building to make sure you can hit all four of those card types. Players may value oth­er­wise lack­lus­ter equip­ment or enchant­ments over other filler cards sim­ply to keep them as dis­card tar­gets to fuel Delirium. In order for Delirium cards to be good, you need to have a real­is­tic chance of acti­vat­ing it.

There are twelve Werewolves and nine Wolves in Shadows over Innistrad; all of them Red or Green and all the twelve Werewolves trans­form. Werewolves are where the aggro is, but this time they’re not as bru­tal when they flip. You don’t sud­denly go from a cheap 11 to a 45 when no one casts any spells. If you’re build­ing the Red/Green aggro deck, chances are you’re already into the Wolf theme and chances are you’re going to want to take most of them you see. There aren’t a mas­sive amount of cards that care about the wolf/werewolf sub-type, but there’s enough to make a Wolf deck worth look­ing at. Commons like “Howlpack Wolf” work well in mul­ti­ples or with other wolves/werewolves, but the downside/upside isn’t that extreme.

Whereas Werewolves are linked with Transformation, Vampire decks in Shadows over Innistrad are linked with Madness. There are eigh­teen dif­fer­ent Vampire cards in the set, all of them Red or Black. But only four of which are rare, so you will be see­ing them quite often. Five of these Vampires are straight Madness cards, and many oth­ers are Madness enablers like “Ravenous Bloodseeker,” a draft high pick if you are look­ing to dis­card speci­fic cards.

The Clue based decks are less obvi­ous to build. The inves­ti­gate mechanic, which gen­er­ates clue tokens, is on Blue, White, and Green cards. So many decks are going to take advan­tage of this mechanic. It’s quite a unique addi­tion to game play on the sur­face, but even inci­den­tal clues mean play­ers will be see­ing more of their decks. They’ll also be fil­ter­ing more of their decks with the dis­card effects needed to acti­vate Delirium and Madness. Players with a lot of clue tokens will always have some­thing to do with unused mana, eking out that lit­tle extra bit of effi­ciency by draw­ing cards.

All of this means games will prob­a­bly be going long in this Limited envi­ron­ment, bar­ring some­one cre­at­ing an unfore­seen bro­ken aggro deck, which in my expe­ri­ence makes a bet­ter range of strate­gies more viable. From what I’ve seen, Shadows Over Innistrad is going to be a very fun, fla­vor­ful, and var­ied Limited envi­ron­ment.

Impact on Standard

What will be the shape of Shadows Over Innistrad Standard play be? Both Battle for Zendikar and Oath of the Gatewatch failed to shift exist­ing arche­types from Khans of Tarkir, but two thirds of that block is now rotat­ing out along with the back­bone of most decks played in Standard — espe­cially their 34 colour mana bases. Its plain to see from even just the spoil­ers that Shadows Over Innistrad has a higher power level than the pre­vi­ous block, with other less assum­ing cards offer­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties for highly syn­er­gis­tic decks. This means Shadows Over Innistrad will cer­tainly have a huge impact on Standard.

As we scram­ble to find new arche­types post-rotation, the ques­tion on everyone’s mind is: what are the best cards in Shadows Over Innistrad for Constructed? Well, my fel­low con­trib­u­tor Pory did a great roundup of what cards are going to be pow­er­ful in the com­ing stan­dard for­mat. All of the cards men­tioned in his stand-alone spot­light are going to see play in my opin­ion, which really cuts out a lot of the work for me here. So I would sug­gest read­ing it as I will not be going over the obvi­ous Standard pow­er­houses men­tioned there. Whilst I agree with all of the cards high­lighted by Pory in his overview of the com­ing set,  I do think a few cards were over­looked.

My big pick for Shadows Over Innistrad is actu­ally “Relentless Dead,” a card I think many are unduly over­look­ing. Its a 22 for two mana with upside — a thing rare in Black. It has it’s own Recursion engine and it can eas­ily recur your other zom­bies, but the real power of Relentless Dead is that it can block. When like cards can be end­lessly recurred it usu­ally comes into the bat­tle­field tapped, or can’t block all together. When Relentless Dead dies, for total of 3 Black Mana, you can put it straight back onto the bat­tle­field come your next main phase. So fea­si­bly it can attack, trade, and be back to block again on your oppo­nents turn. Relentless Dead really earns its name in that it is… relent­less. I really do expect this to take over some games in the fash­ion that “Pack Rat” did once it became clear how busted that card was. Zombie Tribal here we come.

Bygone Bishop” may not look like much, but he’s the key­stone of a pos­si­ble White Weenie Standard shell, a deck that I can see work­ing well with cards like “Always Watching.” Clues are going to be a thing in Standard, mark my words, and hav­ing such a repeat­able way to pro­duce them in an arche­type that his­tor­i­cally runs purely cheap crea­tures is pow­er­ful. It’s also worth not­ing he trig­gers off him­self and hav­ing mul­ti­ples of this in play is going to get hilar­i­ous. Once you’ve dumped your hand, clues also give you some­thing to do with your mana, the card draw gets you more dudes and so on. Watch out for the Bishop as he’s no joke.

Deathcap Cultivator” is also a card I pre­dict will see exten­sive Standard play. There are pre­cious few cheap mana accel­er­ants in the com­ing Standard envi­ron­ment, so the Cultivator is going to be the go to mana-dork for this Standard sea­son. His abil­ity to pro­duce two colours of mana is nice, and the Deathtouch makes him more rel­e­vant than other mana crea­tures we’ve seen later in the game. Whilst I do feel uncom­fort­able that Wizards is essen­tially mak­ing “Llanowar Elves” rare from now on (some­times it’s nice to not have decks purely be rares/mythics, espe­cially since all decent removal is now rare) I can see why this type of card is going to be the norm from now on. He’s not per­fect, but in the meta-game you’re going to want him.

Shadows Over Innistrad in Eternal Formats

The recent ban­nings and unban­nings in Modern have left the for­mat in a state of flux. At the time of this writ­ing peo­ple are unsure what the top-tier of Modern decks will look like. This makes things even more uncer­tain and excit­ing for Shadows Over Innistrad, as pow­er­ful cards in the set have a chance to break out in — or at least be tested in — Eternal for­mats.

But let’s put Modern on hold for a sec­ond, because peo­ple are freak­ing out over the card “Thing in the Ice” pos­si­bly break­ing all the way into Legacy. Pory put this card as his num­ber one pick for stan­dard, and whilst I do think it has appli­ca­tion there, its impact will be most felt in for­mats like Modern and Legacy where it can be more eas­ily abused.

There’s a lot of buzz around “Archangel Avacyn,” a card we already know will wreck face in Standard, pos­si­bly also mak­ing it into Modern, but I think that buzz will be short-lived. I see her more as a side­board card, or for nar­row appli­ca­tions in a few speci­fic lists. I don’t think she’s going to become a sta­ple by any means due to com­pe­ti­tion from cards that fill sim­i­lar roles at sim­i­lar mana costs.

The Gitrog Monster, art by Jason Kang
The Gitrog Monster, art by Jason Kang

A card peo­ple seem down on, but I think will make at least some head­way into Modern, is “Anguished Unmaking.” I get it, it’s not Vindicate. Nothing will ever be Vindicate again because Vindicate was bonkers busted bro­ken. Not hit­ting land makes it less pow­er­ful, but in Modern peo­ple are going to play a ‘fixed’ Vindicate. Losing three life isn’t going to be an issue in most games, as you’d gladly pay that and more to dis­rupt what your oppo­nent is doing. The life-loss is there just to make cast­ing this mul­ti­ple times a game more dif­fi­cult. Anguished Unmaking also Exiles, giv­ing it one edge that Vindicate doesn’t have. Wizards won’t always give you want you want, but you just might find they’ve given you what you need with this card.

Once again its time to talk about Relentless Dead. I really can’t get over how pushed this card is, and a card that part­ners well with it “Prized Amalgam.” These two cards are going to give Graveyard decks a boost, and might even make that sought after Zombie Tribal an real thing. Its upside is the same as I described in Standard; it just has access to a more syn­er­gis­tic card pool in Modern, and for that rea­son I think the card is going to see a decent amount of play.

As for Commander, the card I want to try the most is old froggy him­self, “The Gitrog Monster.” Deathtouch on a 66 is weird, but the fog hor­ror has a lot of fun syn­ergy in the for­mat and the poten­tial for a lot of land-based shenani­gans — most obvi­ously with “Titania, Protector of Argoth.” Any Commander that says “you may play an addi­tional land on each of your turns” is at least worth a look just based on that, but this many effects on a sin­gle card just begs to be played with in Commander. Fun and pow­er­ful, but not unfair.

How much value is in Shadows Over Innistrad?

The first ele­phant in the room is the notice­able lack of major reprints in this set. Original Innistrad is a ludi­crously high dol­lar set to get hold of sealed pro­duct for because it’s chock full of cards that see play in all sorts of for­mats. In fact, there only two cards from Innistrad return­ing in Shadows Over Innistrad: “Dead Weight” and “Unruly Mob” — two com­mons.

The sec­ond thing to note is this time around there are no Zendikar Expeditions style ultra-premium card inser­tions. Some had spec­u­lated that cards from the orig­i­nal Innistrad could be re-printed in this way, but this is obvi­ously not the case now. Quite hon­estly, I see this as a good thing as it shows Wizards has more faith in the stand-alone sell­ing power of Shadows Over Innistrad with­out dan­gling the car­rot of ultra rare cards that might only appear once every two or three boxes. I still main­tain the Expeditions were used as a crutch to sell an under-powered and dis­ap­point­ing set and Wizards of the Coast’s not con­tin­u­ing the prac­tice seems to sup­port this the­sis.

Anguished Unmaking, art by Wesley Burt
Anguished Unmaking, art by Wesley Burt

So the lack of reprints and lack of pre­mium mini-set on paper makes Shadows Over Innistrad look like it might be short on value, but in my opin­ion the oppo­site is the case. The buzz around some cards for Eternal play cou­pled with an over­all high power-level makes it likely that Shadows Over Innistrad will have a good range of $10+ cards that will appre­ci­ate in value as the set gets more scarce. There is no sub­sti­tute for good old fash­ioned playable cards, and the poten­tial for Modern and even Legacy break­out cards is there in spades. The true value of a set comes from the accu­mu­la­tion of its ordi­nary rares, and Shadows Over Innistrad isn’t sport­ing the same level glut of dud rares the Battle For Zendikar block did.

As I stated in my sec­tion about Modern, recent ban­nings make it dif­fi­cult to asses what will and won’t see play — and there­fore gain in value — but on bal­ance I think Shadows Over Innistrad will be end up being a high-value set over­all.

Conclusions and Recommendations

One thing I do want to men­tion is how stun­ning and unique the art is in this set. I sin­gled out some cards in the pre­vi­ous block for being ugly or just oddly for­mat­ted, but in Shadows Over Innistrad I keep see­ing strik­ingly good pieces of art. The set has a much more cohe­sive direc­tion than Battle for Zendikar‘s con­fused and incon­sis­tent level of qual­ity did. From mur­der­ous twins, to crawl­ing lanterns, to just plain great pic­tures I get a real sense of the twisted Gothic hor­ror world of Innistrad (although the one thing I do miss is the incred­i­bly strik­ing and dis­turbing orig­i­nal art for Macabre Waltz)

Apart from lack­ing reprints, Shadows Over Innistrad feels almost like an apol­ogy for the pre­vi­ous block. It’s just con­jec­ture, but I sus­pect Wizards of the Coast R&D may have real­ized they were devel­op­ing a bit of a lemon last set. I know these cards are designed way in advance, but as a counter-punch to a lack-luster revival set I think Shadows Over Innistrad is a solid — if slightly safe — in its mechan­i­cal approach.

We’ve seen effects like Skulk before, but this set key­words it. And it fits very much within the bounds of obvi­ous pseudo-evasion mechan­ics like Menace. Delirium func­tions much like Threshold in that it checks how many of some­thing you have in your grave­yard. Again a safe mechanic but an ele­gant one.

I’m not using “safe” as a crit­i­cism here, it’s bet­ter than Wizards con­tin­u­ing to pull ran­dom mechan­ics out of the air that peo­ple will never use or remem­ber like Tribute, or ones that basi­cally don’t do any­thing in prac­tice like Devoid. This is much tighter game design on the part of Wizards, and it’s wrapped up in an intrigu­ing world that Magic the Gathering fans already know and love.

When Shadows Over Innistrad was announced, I crit­i­cized Wizards of the Coast for seem­ingly run­ning out of ideas by fol­low­ing one revival set up with another. I still stand by that crit­i­cism, but Shadows Over Innistrad is the kind of revival set we should be see­ing. The Battle for Zednikar block knocked my con­fi­dence that Wizards knew what they were doing with the Magic the Gathering brand, or that they knew what made their iconic sets spe­cial.

The best endorse­ment of Shadows Over Innistrad I can give is this: It really feels like Innistrad. SweeneyTrading Card GamesTraditional GamesMagic The Gathering,set review,Shadows Over InnistradSet releases march ever on, and as an adult play­ing a col­lectible card game it can be dif­fi­cult to keep pace. As you may have noticed, there has been a bit of a gap in our set reviews and pre­views for Magic the Gathering; this is mostly down to a busy…
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John Sweeney
John Sweeney is a ter­ri­bly British man with a back­ground in engi­neer­ing. He writes long-form edi­to­rial con­tent with analy­sis of gam­ing, games media and inter­net cul­ture. He also does the occa­sional video game ret­ro­spec­tive with a weekly column about Magic the Gathering thrown in for good mea­sure. He also does most of our inter­views for some rea­son, we have no idea why. A staunch sup­porter of free speech and con­sumer rights; skep­ti­cal of agenda dri­ven media and sus­pi­cious of unac­cou­table author­ity but always hope­ful for change.