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Designer Fun – Innistrad Set Review (Black and Red)

Today I have some more comments on various Black and Red cards in Innistrad. It’s a set I like very much overall, and has proven to be a lot of fun in sealed and draft.

[draft]Abattoir Ghoul
Tribute to Hunger[/draft] Abattoir Ghoul & Tribute to Hunger
(& [card]Consuming Vapors[/card] VS [card]Vendetta[/card])

I like Black’s lifegain in return for killing creatures. Obviously this started with [card]Drain Life[/card], both in fantasy trope concept and on the actual card. I’m a little extra interested in the way a card like [card]Tribute to Hunger[/card] feels like “you killed a guy, and as a reward, here’s some life” where [card]Drain Life[/card] or [card]Consume Spirit[/card] makes me feel like I am draining the life out of them, and if they happen to die of that, well that’s okay too. Another nice thing about [card]Abattoir Ghoul[/card] is that you feel you’re getting somewhere when the opponent chump blocks it. Does it seem weird that [card]Engulfing Slagwurm[/card] has very similar text? Gaining life when things die is something Green and Black share mechanically, though the flavor is theoretically different. Green love recycling, and the circle of life, where black revels in the death of anything, especially stuff it killed.

[draft]Army of the Damned[/draft] Army of the Damned

26 power for 8 mana? If you design strictly by the numbers you will never arrive at this card. You would end up with [card]Conqueror’s Pledge[/card] – getting 6 for 5 or 12 for 11, which seems totally fair, right? Mark told us (in his column or somewhere like that) that this was designed as 20 zombies. I’m pretty sure design throws some crazy highballs at development in order to get the maximum result out of the final card sometimes.

[draft]Curse of death’s hold[/draft] Curse of Death’s Hold

Curses are an example of a concept that doesn’t really have a specific mechanical device, but that holds together on a consistent and flavorful combination of ordinary parts. Design made them more “real” by calling them out. This is very similar to Zendikar’s Quests. They can easily exist as individual cards, but by calling out their similarities with names and a subtype, you can make them seem like more than the sum of their parts. Curses are taken a step further by making use of that subtype with a couple of cards that interact with it, such as we see in [card]Bitterheart Witch[/card] and [card]Witchbane Orb[/card].

[draft]Endless ranks of the dead[/draft] Endless Ranks of the Dead

This card gives you more and more and more zombies, but only if you already have some. Compare it to this: “At the beginning of your upkeep, put a rank counter on ~, then put a zombie onto the battlefield for each rank counter on ~.”

This has two key features that make it a less interesting card: First, it self-solves. You don’t need to find zombies to make it work which means you actually have less fun deckbuilding with it. Second, it doesn’t stop and restart in natural game play. This second feature of Endless Ranks give it much more interesting game play. If the zombies all die on combat or are wrathed away the card turns off. There may be many games where the card does exciting things, then does nothing for a while, only to become a central focus again later. This is what, I believe, makes this such a cool card. The awesome art helps too.

[draft]Liliana of the veil[/draft] Liliana of the Veil

First let’s take the abilities individually…

Her +1 is very close to her previous +1, but can be built-around a lot more, especially with the other cards in the set. It works well for Liliana’s flavor and on overall interest and usefulness. This ability is going to define how she feels in play almost every game and is surprisingly game-warping despite having no effect on the battlefield.

Her -2 is very black, and also very useful (and protects her). Planeswalkers killing creatures is dangerous, because attacking them with creatures is the main way you get rid of them. Giving the opponent a choice of what to sacrifice makes the ability both more interactive and a little less able to totally protect her.

Her ultimate reads as exciting, it presents an interesting decision for both players, and is much more interactive than almost every other ultimate we’ve seen so far, though probably only during resolution.

Now taken together…

Making the opponent discard and then sacrifice work together well, as both limit resources. You take away what they have and their ability to replace what they had. What I really like, and what I feel shows the “pro” level of design here, is that her -2 and ultimate have synergy, despite doing similar things. In many amateur designs, one ability will be “destroy a creature” and the ultimate will be “destroy 5 creatures” – but if you’ve already destroyed a creature, destroying many of them is less cool, and less likely to be as useful. This Liliana’s ultimate, however, includes all possible permanents, so that it’s additive with the creature sacrifice ability. They are tied a little closer thematically in that they both let the opponent choose what they lose.

[draft]Night terrors[/draft] Night Terrors

In a very graveyard-active set, you have to skip out on discard, or at least recognize that discard is not going to be good. Putting in a common discard spell can create situations where players feel bad, as they end up enabling their opponent’s cards that require graveyard resources or have flashback. Exiling a card from hand is a great alternative that serves the same general function while delivering synergy with the rest of the set. Compare this to [card]Perish the Thought[/card] from Rise. In that case, you don’t want players to be too sad that they discarded their only huge fatty, so you shuffle it back in. It’s effectively discarded, but the set’s emotional goals are still met.

[draft]Morkrut banshee
Reaper from the abyss[/draft] Morkrut Banshee & Reaper from the Abyss

Players will expect Black to use Morbid this way, and these two read very sexy. Note how the Reaper follows the general tribal rules Demons seem to play by: sparing other Demons from their wrath. In further keeping with Demonic downside themes, this is not a may ability so that you may be forced to kill off your own creatures when your opponent has none left. Not that you care much, as you are smashing them with a 6/6.

[draft]Sever the bloodline[/draft] Sever the Bloodline

Similar to [card]Night Terrors[/card], except this is the more powerful answer to graveyard-active creatures. Note that this card’s existence doesn’t generally permit widespread use of exile on Black removal spells. I mean, that’s okay to do, but unless your set really needs it, you should stick to [card]Doom Blade[/card] and normal destroy wordings.

[draft]Typhoid rats[/draft] Typhoid Rats

I swear, just the other day I was talking about how you should always check if your ability of the day can work on a C 1/1. Well deathtouch is finally getting it’s turn. Move over [card]Toxic Iguanar[/card]!

[draft]Geistflame
Ashmouth hound[/draft] Geistflame (& Ashmouth Hound)

Something you can do this in design, but is more often done in development, is to balance your Red burn for limited play by tuning the amount of damage on the common burn spells to the common creature toughness break points. Innistrad has 19 common creatures with 1 toughness, which is a lot!

Wait…
What?
… It’s not?

Zendikar has 18, and Scars of Mirrodin has 23? Oh… M12? 22? Surely Rise of the- 20?!
Um…

Well look, I wanted to make a point about toughness breakpoints and removal spells. I guess [card]Geistflame[/card] would be great in any set – I guess I never realized before how often I was killing a 1-toughness creatures with a [card]Shock[/card] or [card]Lightning Bolt[/card].

[draft]Balefire dragon[/draft] Balefire Dragon

Another Dragon that will simply never see constructed play. I really would like to see Magic’s #1 most awesome creature type have a constructed-worthy creature again one day… This design is fine and all – it has an exciting effect that makes it the king of any game it’s played in.

[draft]Blasphemous act[/draft] Blasphemous Act

I am a big fan of [card]Chain Reaction[/card], and this is like it’s evil twin. It’s very interesting that the more you need to cast this, the easier it is to do so.

[draft]Burning vengeance[/draft] Burning Vengeance (& NPH’s [card]Rage Extractor[/card] & Onslaught’s [card]Lightning Rift[/card], etc)

Why has it been so successful for Magic to make a Red card that outputs damage when you use the set’s new mechanic? Players naturally want to use the set’s new mechanic, right? They want an excuse to put a bunch of those cards into their decks, and cards like Burning Vengeance tell them to do exactly that.

Too bad transform got left out…

Nighttime is the Right Time
2B
Enchantment
Whenever a creature you control transforms, target opponent loses 1 life and you gain 1 life.

[draft]Harvest pyre[/draft] Harvest Pyre

A fine design, but is the name an inside joke? Pyre was the GDS name for Delve, right? Basically this card uses Delve without saying so directly. Having a lot of Delve cards in Innistrad would be bad, because there would be unpleasant tension between Delve and Flashback (and the Blue Zombies). It’s okay to make one card like [card]Harvest Pyre[/card], because Red doesn’t use the graveyard as much as Blue or Black does, and a single card won’t cause too much trouble where a dozen would be upsetting.

[draft]Skirsdag cultist
Disciple of griselbrand[/draft] Skirsdag Cultist & Disciple of Griselbrand

Morbid needs enablers. If your mechanic looks for something, be sure there are ways to get it. Ideally a couple of different ways. [card]Brindle Boar[/card] might have been pretty interesting in Green in this set, for example.

[draft]Into the maw of hell[/draft] Into the Maw of Hell

My favorite name in the set. I love saying it. I also love the use of “13” in a horror themed set. There are a lot of little ways you can tie your whole set together other than with mechanics. It’s worth spending a little time to think about what you can do in this department.

[draft]Rakish heir[/draft] Rakish Heir

I like that this card grants an ability to his tribe without ever being redundant. (It bothers me when a lord or lord-like creature grants first-strike to a tribe that already includes a lot of first strikers.)

There are a bunch of double faced cards, but I already wrote an article about that mechanic. The upshot is that they are cool, especially the trigger conditions on werewolves. Counting spells for Storm is a bit of a pain, but it’s easy to know if 0 were cast or if one player cast 2. It’s also strikingly interactive and brings a surprising amount of strategy to the game. I really love it.

I should finish up the design review next week. See you then!

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