What Worked and What Didn’t Work in Shadows over Innistrad

As I mentioned last week, Eldritch Moon is poised to really shake up the draft format. I haven’t quite seen enough commons and uncommons yet to be sure of that, but I’m hopeful. Werewolves transforming for expensive mana costs, reminiscent of monstrous from Theros, is just one additional clue that we’re headed for a radically different world. And those mechanics I discussed last week sure do some weirdly awesome stuff. Before that change though, I’d like to take one last look back at SOI and talk about what worked and what didn’t.

Successes

Shadows over Innistrad felt like it was Innistrad. You had Humans, Zombies, Werewolves, Geists, and Vampires, and they all played into their original themes, but also weren’t exact replicas of our first visit to the plane. In fact, I think that if you look at the world that was put onto cardboard for this revisit to Innistrad, I’d mark the set as a slam-dunk. There were sweet new creepy cards like Triskaidekaphobia and new horror tropes woven into cards like Twins of Maurer Estate, not to mention the clever use of the number 13 itself throughout the set.

As for the gameplay, Shadows over Innistrad also got a lot of things right mechanically. Investigate exceeded all of my expectations. Being able to use a spell early and get a card back later, or pay some extra right away as a sort of kicker made for an extremely flexible mechanic that added a lot of fluidity to the games. But then this set took investigate that extra step and made it meaningful in a lot of ways tied to different cards, and those cards mattered in Limited. Sometimes a player wouldn’t crack a Clue when it looked clearly right to do so. This would be a tell that Confront the Unknown was lurking in that player’s hand. Or a Tamiyo’s Journal would be churning along some card advantage but then would really get going alongside a Graf Mole, which would gain 9 life at 0 mana when you Demonic Tutored. Yes! That investigate is gone next set might be the worst thing about uncovering Emrakul.

Delirium was the second mechanic I thought played well, where at first I was skeptical. My original concern was that delirium would cause too much number tracking. I feared I’d have to ask my opponent what types were in their graveyard every single turn of the game, but that fear never manifested. Also, I can only recall one game where I lost because the state of delirium wasn’t what I thought it was, and that tells me it wasn’t so hard to keep track. The fact that it is a returning mechanic in Eldritch Moon signals to me that WotC feels the same. I believe part of the reason for this is that there weren’t many ways to mess with delirium. Cards like Cremate would have added some texture and complexity to the format so that you could do weird things like turn off delirium with a delirium card on the stack. But I figure this gotcha moment wouldn’t have been too exciting past the first or second time and would have been an extremely annoying hurdle for newer players, so I’m glad that wasn’t a component of the set.

Madness was great as well, though it was great before, so as a mechanic there’s not as much to say here. What I do think was done especially well was the amount of discard outlets available. They weren’t super plentiful, but you could get them if you looked in the right places. Insolent Neonate ended up being an all-star and was not a card I was super excited about running on day 1 of the format. Macabre Waltz ended up being fantastic and Twins of Maurer Estate as a stapled play allowed you to stabilize with your newly bought card advantage. Some of the nuances of how to best combine these types of effects were my favorite moments of exploration in this set. It was a real question mark whether Sanitarium Skeleton would be good enough in the format, and that made the first time I combined it with Call the Bloodline all that much sweeter.

Failures

Sealed.

SOI Sealed was bad. GW was everywhere. Rares abounded.

How could a format that integrated sweet new mechanics in new and interesting ways be so much worse as a Sealed format? Quite simply, synergy was too all or nothing. While drafting you were able to carefully select cards that could push toward a common goal, but that just isn’t an option in Sealed. You simply played with what you got. This meant the most objectively powerful strategies would be overly represented, which was why big creatures and pump spells dominated the format. If you played blue, you were almost emphatically wrong to do so unless you had the 1% pool with a bunch of on-color blue rares and uncommons that let you build more of a Draft deck in Sealed.

Speaking of rares, they dictated way too many games because the removal in the set was actually pretty mediocre. If you weren’t able to open up an Angelic Purge or 2, then you would often have no ways of dealing with the abundance of bombs in the Sealed format. This wasn’t as much of an issue in draft because there were fewer rares to beat and synergy decks could actually keep up by overpowering a bomb rare. Though that isn’t to say a turn-3 Bygone Bishop was particularly beatable in Draft. And I’ve seen enough games decided by a turn-2 Duskwatch Recruiter that I’m convinced it should have been rare. I really wish powerfully pushed cards in Limited weren’t so cheap. Sorin is totally busted in Limited but he’s a mythic and doesn’t always show up on time due to his hefty mana cost. By that time, he sometimes isn’t enough and I like that tension.

Besides the rares dominating Sealed games, the repetitive nature of playing creatures and pump spells quickly diminished Sealed’s appeal and also carried over to Draft quite a bit. WG, RW, RG, and often RB were just about playing guys and tempo’ing the opponent. They relied on the top 15 cards of the deck to supply the necessary tool to win, and the games were just one player steamrolling the other. As great as all the mechanics are that I discussed earlier, the creatures and pump spells are simply too good. Werewolves also pushed this trend, and games being decided by someone missing their 3rd land drop and facing down a flipped Hinterland Logger just isn’t very interesting to me. That card is especially egregious because its payoff in the late game, when werewolves tend to flip, is just a bit more damage and trading up, so why bother making it in the first place? I guess you have to have a griefer card every once in a while—that card was clearly not designed for me. On top of this, there were other super swingy cards like Neglected Heirloom, which completely dominated any game it flipped in, and this lead to games simply being about whether or not a player got there on their synergies with no meaningful ways to interact on the opposing side.

My Favorite Archetype

There were a bunch of decks I did enjoy drafting, and my two favorites were also the ones I wrote about as articles, UR and UG. Of those, the UR deck went way out of its way to try and create a comprehensive deck while UG was either a normal midrange deck or one that could go a bit deeper on Clues. I really liked the aspect of throwing conventional knowledge out the window and diving deep on UR spells, and for me that will be the deck I’ll remember most looking back on this format. It really felt more like drafting Cube than a single set and that is a pretty awesome feeling. It was nice reminiscing about both the Spider Spawning and Burning Vengeance archetypes in original Innistrad, and I’m glad they kept that sense of exploration on this rehashing of Innistrad.

Overall Grade: 6.5/10

There were a lot of great things about this set and it was well done given its goals, and I just want some things fixed in hindsight to make the set even better. I still had a lot of fun with it, but am excited about the shakeup Eldritch Moon will hopefully provide. As a reference point, I would rate BFZ 5.5/10 and OGW 8/10, and I think EMN might also improve this draft format. I think SOI was a slightly above-average expansion that sets a reasonable bar for WotC R&D to try to clear with each set.

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