What the heck is in their hand?

It’s a question I find myself asking each and every time a new set comes out. My opponent makes a bizarre attack, and I stare at the battlefield wishing I had a deeper knowledge of the newly-released combat tricks and removal spells. Until you know what cards are out there, and until you can call them to mind easily during a game, you’re going to feel at least a little bit lost playing Limited with a new set.

So today, I’ll go over the tricks of Shadows over Innistrad, and I’ll try to answer the question: What might your opponent have in his or her hand? Along the way, I’ll give my opinions about which combat tricks you should be excited to play with, and how best to use the tools the new set has to offer.

Before getting into individual cards, there are a few broad categories that you’ll want to be familiar with.

Abilities on the Battlefield

The cards from Shadows over Innistrad have more abilities than I’m used to from recent sets. Between creatures transforming, the presence or absence of delirium, and activated and triggered abilities, there’s a lot to keep track of on the battlefield. And as if that didn’t pose enough of a challenge, a lot of cards even have abilities from the graveyard!

While you’re learning Shadows over Innistrad Limited, just try to take things slow and not let impatience cause you to overlook an ability on the board. In particular, try to keep track of when Werewolves will be transforming back and forth, and make a habit of browsing through both graveyards every once in awhile.

Delirium

Some cards are fairly straightforward early in the game but can become very troublesome when delirium comes online. Keep track of both your opponent’s and your own progress toward delirium.

In particular, watch out for times when a single instant or a player discarding can enable delirium and change the texture of the battlefield at a moment’s notice.

Madness

Madness allows players to cast certain creatures, enchantments, and sorceries at instant speed if they have a way to discard a card. Note that blue, red, and black all have spells with madness, but the black and red vampires are the only creatures with madness.

Be warned! The presence of a discard outlet greatly multiplies the number of “flash” creatures that a player can have.

There are a handful of powerful sorceries that become truly terrifying when madness allows them to be played at instant speed. In particular, Murderous Compulsion is a common (sorcery-speed) removal spell that becomes much more powerful at instant speed. It can take out an attacking creature before it deals damage, and can be a way to trump most tricks a player might use to try and buff their creature.

With those broad categories as a background, let’s go over some individual cards that deserve special attention.

White

Strength of Arms

Strength of Arms is the cleanest, most efficient combat trick in Shadows over Innistrad. 1 mana for instant-speed +2/+2 is a bread-and-butter rate. If you’re playing a deck that wants combat tricks, this is one you’re happy with. When you can actually get a 1/1 token out of the deal, this card is stellar. Once you’re playing with at least 2 equipment, you should be reaching for as many copies of Strength of Arms as you can get your hands on. Just be careful to maintain a high creature count.

As an aside, your deck wants combat tricks when you’re aggressive, and need extra ways to continue attacking into opposing blockers. Combat tricks get worse in multiples because they can clog your hand, and because you want a high creature count in order to avoid the scenario of having pump spells in your hand with no creatures on the battlefield.

If your deck is on the defensive side, you might play 1 copy of a premium combat trick, but you really prefer your noncreature cards to be removal and spells that generate card advantage. If your deck is very aggressive, you might be happy to play up to 3 combat tricks, provided you have enough (about 15 or 16) creatures. In some formats, like the heroic-themed Theros block, you might build a deck with upwards of 5 combat tricks. But my first impression is that Shadows over Innistrad will not make for anything like that kind of Limited format.

Survive the Night

Survive the Night is a much different kind of combat trick. Since it costs 3 mana, it’s not quite as well suited for aggressive curve-outs as something like Strength of Arms. But this card is going to excel when both players have combat tricks. Making your creature indestructible ought to trump (or at least break even against) whatever trick your opponent has. Getting to investigate offers card advantage, and is why you’re happy to pay a little bit of extra mana.

I recommend a maximum of 1 copy of Survive the Night in your main deck. Look to this as a sideboard card for very combat-oriented matchups, and against opponents with expensive damage/destroy-based removal spells.

Tenacity

Tenacity plays a different role from both of the above combat tricks. At 4 mana for only +1/+1, it’s poor at making your creatures beat opposing creatures in combat. That said, giving your whole team lifelink is a powerful effect that can easily determine certain types of games.

Tenacity is a card for matchups where you’re racing and where you’re not trading off a lot. If either player has a dedicated control deck with a lot of removal, you won’t want it.

Humble the Brute

I’d categorize Humble the Brute as a removal spell, and not so much a combat trick. It’s important to be aware of the power-and-toughness-based removal spells in a format. Humble the Brute is the type of card that will punish a player for being reckless with their pump spells. It’s a perfect example of why you prefer to fight big combat steps when your mana is untapped and when your opponent’s mana is tapped.

Puncturing Light

What Humble the Brute cannot do, Puncturing Light can. And vice versa. The presence of a card like Puncturing Light can make for some interesting games of chicken. If I use my pump spell and you respond with Puncturing Light, it’s a blowout in your favor. But if you jump the gun on casting Puncturing Light and I pump my creature to 4 power in response, then the joke’s on you!

Silverstrike

Finally, Silverstrike will kill an attacker regardless of power or toughness. It’s yet another reason to be wary about attacking and pumping your creatures against open mana.

Blue

Just the Wind/Compelling Deterrence

I think that I’ve been spoiled by the fact that the Battle for Zendikar block had no cheap, instant-speed bounce spells. Shadows over Innistrad has two!

You’re going to see these cards a lot in this Limited format. They make tokens lose value, they make combat tricks risky, and they make Auras a downright bad idea.

One copy of one of these bounce spells will be a good addition to just about any deck. If you can actually take advantage of the madness of Just the Wind or the Zombie clause of Compelling Deterrence, then you’re probably happy to play as many as 3.

Jace’s Scrutiny

Spells that only reduce power are typically unexciting, and Jace’s Scrutiny doesn’t look like it’s exactly going to break that mold. Since it investigates, it can always be reasonable as a 23rd card. Additionally, it can be good out of the sideboard if you think you might be able to “counter” an opposing combat trick with it.

Essence Flux

Similarly, “blink” abilities sometimes don’t do a lot, but Essence Flux seems to be an excellent version of this effect. Since the best use of a card like this is to save a creature from a removal spell, a high mana cost is a dealbreaker. At 1 mana, however, it’s easy to keep Essence Flux protection up, and you won’t necessarily be telegraphing that you have a trick.

This looks like a great sideboard card against expensive removal, and a good main deck card if you have a healthy number of Spirits or enters-the-battlefield abilities.

Stormrider Spirit

If there’s one card you remember from this article, it should be Stormrider Spirit. 5 mana for a 3/3 flying, flash is a great rate, and makes for a card that will likely go in just about every blue deck. Since it’s a common, any time a blue mage passes the turn with 5 mana open, alarm bells should go off. Try your hardest not to attack weenie creatures into a Stormrider Spirit ambush.

If you decide that you’re not going to hold creatures back for fear of Stormrider Spirit, then one good technique is to cast your spells before combat. That way, if your opponent spends mana on a counterspell, then you’ll know the coast is clear.

Countermagic

You won’t have to play around permission spells any more than usual in Shadows over Innistrad Limited. I see a fairly typical “Cancel with small bonus” in Broken Concentration, but that’s an uncommon. Deny Existence looks mediocre, and Invasive Surgery is a narrow sideboard card. The only counterspell that’s excellent, and the only one that’s really a blowout if you play into it is Confirm Suspicions, which is a rare.

I’m going to err on the side of not main decking Deny Existence, but I’ll happily sideboard it in against an opponent with an expensive, rare creature.

Cards like Broken Concentration are typically good in a Sealed deck, and solid in Draft depending on the speed of the format. But sometimes passing with a permission spell is a losing proposition against Werewolves.

Confirm Suspicions looks pretty great, and is made better by the existence of Stormrider Spirit at the same mana cost. Sometimes, it can be hard to pass with 5 mana open without telegraphing a card like this, but in this format, your opponents won’t want to fall behind on the board by doing nothing on a turn that you can simply flash in a Stormrider Spirit.

Black

Grotesque Mutation

Combat tricks that only pump 1 point of toughness sometimes disappoint. If you attack into a larger creature and use your combat trick only to wind up trading, then you’ve gotten the worse end of the deal. But Grotesque Mutation offering a big lifelink creature means that it’s likely good enough anyway. It’s not even that bad to simply cast on an unblocked 2/2 for an additional big life swing!

I expect that I’ll play a copy of Grotesque Mutation in more than half (but not all) of my black decks. I predict that the community at large will rate the card even higher than I do, so don’t be surprised to have this cast against you very often.

That’s basically black’s only dedicated pump spell. Remember to keep madness and delirium on your radar, as black has a lot more tricks up its sleeve than meets the eye.

Merciless Resolve

Merciless Resolve is like Altar’s Reap except a little bit less situational, since you can simply cash in a land for 2 cards in the late game. That being said, 3 mana for 2 cards isn’t so exciting a rate that you want to work hard in order to get it.

Generally, I’d say this is a weak (but acceptable) filler. Sideboard it in for a slow matchup where your opponent has cards like Sleep Paralysis.

Throttle

You’ve seen Throttle before, and it was very solid in Khans of Tarkir. 5 mana is a lot, but removal is removal, and you should always be happy to play at least 2 copies.

Red

Rush of Adrenaline

Rush of Adrenaline has the same 1-toughness problem as Grotesque Mutation, but without the major life swing attached to it.

This card is pretty weak, and you should avoid it unless you have double-strike, a special reason to want trample, or are extremely, extremely aggressive.

Uncaged Fury

Speaking of double strike, Uncaged Fury is a way to unload a lot of damage, especially since red’s Vampires and Werewolves hit hard to begin with. 3 mana is a lot, so using this to kill blockers isn’t so great. But the ability to alpha strike and cast this on your unblocked creature probably makes it good enough. I recommend 1 copy in aggressive decks with big creatures.

Spiteful Motives

Because of Just the Wind and Compelling Deterrence, I said Auras should be avoided in Shadows over Innistrad. Well, Spiteful Motives is more of a combat trick than an Aura in the traditional sense. To be sure, there are plenty of ways that casting a 4-mana combat trick can go poorly, but Spiteful Motives is about as good as you’re going to get when it comes to 4-mana tricks. It’s going to make your creature win in combat against just about anything, and then it’ll leave behind a massive threat when it’s done. This is a completely reasonable card to main deck.

Dissension in the Ranks

This is one of the biggest “blowout cards” I’ve ever seen. If this card is on your radar, it should be pretty easy to play around. If it’s not, well, you’re going to have a tough time.

This is a card whose value will be high in the early days of the format, and at lower levels of competition. Once people become savvy, it’ll probably be too hard to make it work. If I cast this in game 1 against LSV, then I’m going to sideboard it out for the next 2 games (unless he reads this article—then I might have to adjust that strategy).

Only play 1 copy, and only in aggressive decks.

Dance with Devils

Dance with Devils looks very good to me, and red decks should play as many as they can get their hands on. It’s outrageous against opponents who are trying to attack you with 1-toughness ground creatures. If you see this card, look to sideboard out some of your 1-toughness creatures to reduce the amount of mischief the Devils can perform.

Remember, if the Devils double-block something, the attacking player can choose to assign all of the damage to one Devil and leave the other alive (you might want to do this, for example, if your attacking creature is a 4/4, or if you have an especially valuable 2/2 creature that’s not in combat).

Malevolent Whispers

All of the other cards I’ve featured have been instants, but Threaten effects are important to know about when planning out tight races. Malevolent Whispers is a good version of Threaten, and deserves a home in most aggressive red decks.

What makes this card truly scary is the madness cost. Casting Malevolent Whispers at instant-speed can be devastating since you can use an opposing creature to block, possibly earning a 2-for-1 in addition to completely ruining combat for your opponent. Battle for Zendikar’s Turn Against was 1 mana more expensive and more predictable in what it did. Since Malevolent Whispers will only be an instant a fraction of the time, it’s harder to see coming, and therefore more deadly.

This seems like one of the bigger payoffs for madness (at least among non-rares). It seems reasonable to go for a UR or BR madness theme if you get Malevolent Whispers early in a draft.

Green

Aim High

If 1 mana for +2/+2 is the bread-and-butter rate, then 2 mana for +2/+2 with a couple of small bonuses is just fine. This is another card that you’ll look to when your deck wants combat tricks.

The only thing I have to add is that combat tricks are much worse when used on defense than when used on offense because your opponent will generally have their mana untapped while attacking. If you put Aim High in your deck, it should still be with the goal of pushing through opposing blockers. Using it to ambush an attacker is exciting, and will sometimes work out, but the risk is also great. Do it when you have to, but it shouldn’t be your plan A.

Confront the Unknown

Confront the Unknown—or “Raging Clue”—is my favorite combat trick in Shadows over Innistrad. It’s not that I’m planning on building a lot of investigate theme decks (although getting +2/+2 off of this shouldn’t be too hard), but simply because the rate is so good. At 1 mana, you can use this to punch through a blocker and play an additional creature in the same turn, making it a great tempo play. As the game drags on, you’ll get to cash in your investigate for card advantage.

A cheap card that has the potential to give you tempo advantage and card advantage? What more could you want! Even if things are going horribly, you can cycle Confront the Unknown for 3 mana, meaning there’s a reasonably high floor for how bad it can be.

Confront the Unknown also gets better in multiples, so green decks should pick up as many as they can. It’s probably not great alongside other combat tricks, so the more Confront the Unknowns you get, the less you’ll want second-best combat tricks like Aim High.

Might Beyond Reason

Might Beyond Reason is likely a little bit worse than Spiteful Motives, but still a totally fine card to play. Since you won’t be excited to have multiples, there’s no reason to spend a high draft pick on it.

Pack Guardian

Pack Guardian is awesome and can easily be better than every common in the set. Instant-speed ways to progress your game plan are even at a premium in green, since you can pass the turn and transform your werewolves without wasting your mana.

If you suspect your opponent has Pack Guardian, there’s not a lot you can do aside from not attacking with your 2/2 ground creatures. I guess between Pack Guardian and Stormrider Spirit, you should get in the habit of leaving Grizzly Bears at home in the face of open mana.

Howlpack Resurgence

Last but not least, there’s Howlpack Resurgence, which is one of the big payoff cards for green Wolf/Werewolf decks. Just like Pack Guardian, it gives you extra control over transforming your Werewolves, and can unload a lot of extra damage in combat.

You want most of your creatures to be Wolves and Werewolves (say, 9 or 10) before you’re excited to play with Howlpack Resurgence. There’s certainly no shortage of great creatures that benefit from it, especially if you happen to be RG.

So now you know what the heck they have in their hand!

Well, maybe not quite, since there’s a lot of possibilities in this set. At least now you’ve seen what’s out there and can make informed decisions when you’re playing Limited in the early days of Shadows over Innistrad.