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By: Cheater Hater, Vincent Borchardt
Oct 26 2016 11:00am
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Welcome back to the Modern Flashback Series! Not much new to cover other than Commander 2016 spoilers—I wonder how much MTGO development time was burned making Partner work? On to Innistrad!
 
Innistrad is a contender for the best Magic set of all time, which is a good result for something that was supposed to kill Magic. Granted, the logistical problems that plague double-faced cards in paper (the requirement of checklist cards and/or opaque sleeves to play them, along with the new signaling issues during draft that eventually would have to be removed from pro play entirely) aren’t an issue on MTGO, so instead we can focus on the many positives of the set: a resonant top-down horror theme; tribal aspects that are relevant without being overwhelming (unlike Onslaught and Lorwyn); a graveyard theme that brought back one of the most popular mechanics ever; a great draft format with focused archetypes, some of which weren’t discovered until late in the format (all without being too complex or weird like Rise of the Eldrazi); and a lottery ticket in Liliana of the Veil. Of course, I can’t just tell you about the highlights of this format, I have to show you, and that starts with the mechanics.
 
Mechanics:
 
Double-Faced Cards/the Werewolf Mechanic:
As I mentioned above, most of the logistical issues of double-faced cards are irrelevant online, and you can mostly treat them as cards that change over time. However, the main use of double-faced cards in the set is to represent Werewolves by loosely tying a day/night cycle to the number of spells cast in a turn. Transforming Werewolves will generally happen in one of three cases. First, a player can intentionally skip a turn to transform all the Werewolves (or relatedly, spend a card to play/cast Moonmist), and while this can be useful if you have an instant-speed way to spend the mana, it can easily be countered, especially in the early game when your opponent has more cards in hand. Second, the natural end-state of a board is for Werewolves to transform as one (or both) players run out of spells in hand in the late game, and this upgrades the early Werewolves to be competitive with more-expensive creatures. However, the final case is probably the worst (and maybe the worse part of triple-Innistrad limited): one player (usually the one without Werewolves) can miss an early spell on the curve, instantly falling behind due to aggressively-statted Werewolves like Villagers of Estwald and Tormented Pariah.
 
Tribal:
Each of the allied color pairs is aligned with a tribe: WU is Spirits, UB is Zombies, BR is Vampires, RG is Werewolves/Wolves, and GW is Humans. However, the tribes themselves aren’t that important yet, only benefiting from minor benefits on a couple cards, like a Battleground Geist, Ghoulraiser, or Avacynian Priest. Instead, each tribe has a mechanical identity, which I’ll get into in the archetype section.
 
Morbid:
The introduction of “dies” into the official Magic vocabulary in Magic 2012 allows this mechanic to key off something dying, and despite being simple, the mechanic has a surprising amount of play to it. When your opponent is playing green and/or black, when they’re aggressively trading, or even making bad attacks, they may be just trying to get a creature to die (yours or theirs, and yes, tokens count) so they can cast a big Festerhide Boar or trigger a Morkrut Banshee. The most important Morbid card to talk about is Brimstone Volley, which not only is the only Morbid card not in black or green, it is also the only instant-speed Morbid card in Innistrad, meaning you can chump-block to trigger it.
 
Flashback:
Flashback makes its return for the first time since Time Spiral block, and it’s surprisingly simple: the only “twists” are Runic Repetition and a couple of cycles with off-color Flashback (allied-color pairs at common, enemy-color pairs at uncommon). Instead, the main difference is how Flashback is costed. The last time we saw Flashback as a major component (all the way back in Odyssey block), there were three major categories of Flashback spells: spells with minor effects that are cheap on both ends (Chatter of the Squirrel, Flaring Pain), staple effects that are expensive on the front-end and even more-so on the back-end (Elephant Ambush, Morbid Hunger), and spells that were significantly cheaper on the back-end, encouraging you to discard or self-mill them (Roar of the Wurm, Deep Analysis). While the minor spells still exist in Innistrad (Think Twice, Purify the Grave), the major spells are much cheaper than their Odyssey equivalents, especially on the front-end (compare Silent Departure to Dematerialize, for example), and the “cheaper on the back-end” cards are non-existent. Part of this goes back to New World Order discouraging “two-for-ones” at common, which Flashback inherently is—the only commons that can net two cards are two card draw spells (allowed, like Divination), a double-ping on Geistflame (most X/1’s aren’t full cards, but tokens), and Ancient Grudge (conditional in a non-artifact set, and likely stretched to fill out the cycle).
 
There are a couple of other minor mechanics too—Fight made its first appearance here, and Curses exist as an Enchantment type mostly so cards like Bitterheart Witch can make reference to them—not even Curse of Thirst in the next set should make you focus on building around them. Next, as Innistrad is highly synergy-focused, I’ll be going through the archetypes, which roughly go by color pair, but there’s much more to them than that:
 
Limited Archetypes:
 
White/Blue: Spirits/Fliers
As you might expect, most spirits can fly, so this fits nicely into the traditional UW Fliers mold. However, the fliers seem relatively resilient, from the simple 2/3 Chapel Geist, to the combat-winning Voiceless Spirit, to the mostly-unkillable Lantern Spirit. There are some fliers that aren’t Spirits as well—you probably have enough creatures for a Stitched Drake or two, Murder of Crows is still a bomb, and Invisible Stalker will be as infuriating as always (as Equipment wants to go in an evasive deck anyway). There are ways to take care of the ground as well, whether it’s weakening them with the efficient Sensory Deprivation, tapping them with the extremely tempo-oriented Feeling of Dread, or just sticking a Fortress Crab in front of them.
 
Blue/Black: Zombies/Self-Mill Value
The two different colors of Zombies approach the concept in different ways. The black Zombies are mostly what you would expect, though this is the set that started the focus on many Zombies entering the battlefield tapped (trying to move away from the “fast Zombie” stereotype). The blue Zombies are different, being focused on self-mill, then exiling creatures from your graveyard (like Frankenstein’s monster). All of those creatures are much better than what blue would normally get, but while any deck can play a Stitched Drake or Makeshift Mauler without much trouble, you need dedicated self-mill for Skaab Goliath (and making Ghoulraiser great). The self-mill is good though—Armored Skaab is a reasonable creature, Deranged Assistant is a good mana creature, Forbidden Alchemy is a good Impulse effect, and Dream Twist/Curse of the Bloody Tome is good for all-in versions.
 
Black/Red: Vampires/Aggro
Another monster tribe pushed into a second color, the Vampires are contrasted with the Zombies by being fast and encouraging attacking with lots of Haste and the “Slith” ability. However, something seems off here. There’s nothing tying the Vampires together, and if you assume you’re going to get blocked once in a while the creature’s aren’t that good—I remember that Bloodcrazed Neonate was supposed to be one of the best common two-drops ever, but instead it’s nearly unplayable. There isn’t much in terms of individual card strength either—sure, a Screeching Bat or Crossway Vampire is fine, and having lots of removal is good, but this is a synergy-based format.
 
Red/Green: Werewolves/Midrange
Werewolves are the main tribe here, but since there are only 24 double-faced cards per draft (and about half of those are Werewolves), a couple of Wolves at common fill in the gaps (though they can’t join in the tribal aspects yet). Since you don’t get the benefit of DFC’s online (in paper you can just take all the Werewolves, or see that an opponent is and avoid them), the key to making a good Werewolf deck is to allow your Werewolves to transform without wasting your mana. A Flash creature like Ambush Viper helps, as does holding up a Spidery Grasp or using an activated ability on one of your Wolves (all three have them, which isn’t a coincidence). Otherwise, just play good creatures and your Werewolves will transform naturally.
 
Green/White: Humans/Aggro
The title says this is a Human tribal deck, but that’s slightly misleading: most of the good Human tribal cards are actually anti-non-Humans (Bonds of Faith, Avacynian Priest), while the actual pro-Humans cards are fine, but not worth building around (Elder Cathar, Hamlet Captain). Instead, this is a “Travel Preparations is stupid-good” aggro deck. Sure, Humans don’t mind the pump, but those fliers we talked about back in the Spirits section will appreciate it more, as well as the Spirit tokens you get from some Humans dying. Heck, just imagine end of turn 3 Midnight Haunting, turn 4 double Travel Preparations, and it’s not like that’s unlikely. Even in a synergy-based format, having the synergy of “common+evasive creatures” can work just fine.
 
White/Black: Human Sacrifice/Grindy Value
The WB Human sacrifice deck won’t really hit its stride until Dark Ascension joins the format (mostly since Disciple of Griselbrand is your only sacrifice outlet), but the payoffs of Unruly Mob, Thraben Sentry, Village Cannibals, and Falkenrath Noble still work okay if you’re just trading creatures off, especially if you’re trading off creatures like Doomed Traveler, Typhoid Rats, and Bitterheart Witch. I’m worried the archetype’s a bit too reliant on uncommons at this point in the block, but it certainly can come together.
 
Blue/Red: Flashback/Burning Vengeance
Speaking of reliant on uncommons, here’s one specifically built around an uncommon build-around enchantment. Don’t get me wrong, you can still generate a lot of value just by milling Flashback spells and getting a lot of two-for-ones, but Burning Vengeance is necessary to both take control of a game and eventually close it out (though a Stitched Drake or two along with some creatures like a Deranged Assistant or Selhoff Occultist can certainly help). This archetype is pretty binary—if you take a Burning Vengeance early you can try for it (and hope to open another one, as that’s when the deck becomes absurd), otherwise I’d stay away.
 
Black/Green: Morbid Value
There are a lot of surprisingly-efficient cards in the set if you can reliably trigger Morbid, from the keyword “Big” Festerhide Boar, to the stabilizing Hollowhenge Scavenger, to the removal spell Morkrut Banshee. Otherwise, there isn’t much to say—honestly, Morbid is probably better than average in the Flashback environment, where the average player probably isn’t playing around your Morbid triggers.
 
Red/White: Swarm Aggro
I’ll be honest, this is the least-developed archetype of the ten color pairs by far. There are certainly token producers and pump effects, but there isn’t much good at common here. A lot of that is because red isn’t great outside of the Flashback deck and Brimstone Volley. This is mostly here as a warning to stay away unless that’s clearly what’s open and you get multiple Rally the Peasants and Midnight Hauntings.
 
Green/Blue: Self-Mill Combo
This archetype is very interesting, as it actually changed over the course of the format. This has always been a “self-mill creatures” deck, but despite some early hype (Boneyard Wurm was supposed to be the next Tarmogoyf!), the deck wasn’t anything special. However, then someone (this article by Luis Scott-Vargas is one of the earliest examples I could find, but I remember Brian-David Marshall talking about it early in the format as well) realized that if you combined Spider Spawning (a fine card for the deck, especially if you could splash black) with a couple of worthless cards (Memory's Journey and Runic Repetition) you could keep making Spiders forever once you completely milled your deck. This deck is one of the Johnny-est combos ever for limited, and everyone wants to play it now—but there lies the problem. This deck was great because Spider Spawning was an average card that was taken in the middle of the pack and the recursion cards (along with other important support like Gnaw to the Bone) always tabled, letting you pick other cards (the self-mill all the blue decks want, along with bombs and removal). Now that everyone wants to play the deck, Spider Spawning is first picked by everyone and the support doesn’t table. That means the deck is still possible, but has all the inherent problems of a deck that requires three separate uncommons to work.
 
Other Important Cards:
There is a surprising amount of good removal in this format, even in colors like white (three removal spells and a tapper at common, two Nekrataals at uncommon), green (the debut of Prey Upon along with Ambush Viper), blue (both Claustrophobia and Sensory Deprivation are high-quality), and even colorless (Blazing Torch is now common with relevant tribal synergies, and Geistcatcher's Rig seems pushed for an artifact). Speaking of Equipment, there’s a minor “tools” theme to the Equipment here, and it’s tied to Humans slightly (which are in all colors, not just GW). Silver-Inlaid Dagger is just your generic Trusty Machete variant they put in three blocks in a row for some reason, but Butcher's Cleaver is the real problem: a strictly-weaker Loxodon Warhammer is still good, especially since someone thought Invisible Stalker was a good idea. Another theme is that there are a lot of great Morbid enablers not in GB: Skirsdag Cultist is a great pinger (especially with cards like Pitchburn Devils and Rage Thrower in the set), while Stitcher's Apprentice has the mode “1U, T: Enable Morbid” in addition to upgrading your 1/1’s and getting value off your opponent’s removal.
 
One more set, one more article, and now it’s time for the disappointing follow-up! I have some stuff to say about Dark Ascension, but that will have to wait until next time.
 
Vincent

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