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By: Cheater Hater, Vincent Borchardt
Jun 15 2016 12:00pm
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Welcome back to the Modern Flashback Series! I'm worried this week (and the next couple) are going to be overshadowed by the release of Eternal Masters, but I'm still here, covering them all. Let's dive in!
Shadowmoor is a very interesting set, in many aspects. First of all, since Wizards wanted another summer set in an off-year for the core set (and didn't want another Coldsnap), Shadowmoor starts its own mini-block (though it's technically still part of Lorwyn). While this added to the variety of the block (and was the prototype for the current two-block paradigm), it meant there would be another large set in Standard. While is isn't a problem by itself (there are three large sets in Standard right now), it combined with many other factors (Coldsnap was still in Standard, Time Spiral had the Timeshifted sheet, Tenth Edition was larger than the average core set) to create the largest Standard environment ever. Theme-wise, Shadowmoor was still in the same world as Lorwyn, but everything was changed and became noticeably darker: creature types shifted colors, +1/+1 counters became -1/-1 counters, and even tapping was reversed.
Other than the thematic similarities to Lorwyn, all of the mechanics were thrown out and replaced. Instead of a tribal theme, Shadowmoor block took the hybrid mana that was introduced in Ravnica block and ran with it. On one hand this is weird, as hybrid inherently implies a gold theme, and not only had Ravnica rotated just six months earlier, Shards of Alara would debut in six months with a clearly gold theme. However, Wizards positioned this to be much different than either block with true gold cards, as we'll see in the mechanics section. The problem is that it looked like a gold set on the outside, and both Ravnica and Alara were doing much bigger things (Ravnica with guilds after a longer hiatus, Alara with shards and the bigger picture changes with set design) and Shadowmoor block got overshadowed (though the bungled transition to MTGO V3 certainly didn't help). Now to the mechanics!
Wanderbrine Rootcutters Wilt-Leaf Cavaliers Flame Javelin
Hybrid Mana:
Wizards originally revealed Shadowmoor by posting a booster of cards with only names and mana costs, and it showed that around half the cards in each booster would have hybrid mana in their mana costs, as well as that Shadowmoor would only have allied-color hybrid mana. While 50% of cards is a lot, and hybrid generally implies flexibility, Wizards was determined to make colors matter by using lots of hybrid mana symbols—two and three mana symbols on a card were common, and even more were used at higher rarities. As a consequence, instead of having people play three or more colors, the more-common outcome was actually mono-colored decks. While a lot of that comes from the color-matters stuff (which I'll get to in a bit), some of it comes from math. If we ignore colorless cards and assume a perfect 50/50 split of mono-colored and hybrid cards, that means each color has 10% of the cards and each allied color pair has 10% of the cards. As such, if we take red, for example, it can choose from all the red cards, all the BR hybrid cards, and all the RG hybrid cards. That means its card pool is 30% of the total card pool, compared to the 20% a normal non-gold set (say, Tenth Edition) would have. This higher quality leads to better mono-colored decks (or mono-colored with a small splash), and mono-colored decks are more consistent in a vacuum due to their better mana.
Along with the normal hybrid mana, Shadowmoor introduced colorless hybrid mana (or “two-brid mana”), one of the neatest mechanics for a Melvin like me. While Wizards was very conservative with this implementation (only printing an uncommon cycle all with the same cost, along with Reaper King), the cards are all generally very powerful, both in their color and as colorless cards.
Runes of the Deus Ballynock Cohort Drowner Initiate
While at the top level Shadowmoor is clearly a hybrid set, just under the surface is a very strong color-matters theme. On one hand you have hybrid cards like the Duo, Demigod aura, and allied Scarecrow cycles giving you bonuses for each color individually, but even stronger bonuses when they stack. On the other, the Cohort, Initiate, and Mentor cycles only require a single color to be at maximum strength. When you consider that all of the duo-color cards are castable by a mono-color deck, the lean towards a mono-color deck becomes obvious (even before you consider the massive power of something like a Howl of the Night Pack or Jaws of Stone).
Safehold Sentry Pili-Pala Leech Bonder
The Untap Symbol:
With Shadowmoor being an inverse of Lorwyn, even something as fundamental as tapping was reversed. However, the untap symbol (also known as “Q:” in R&D jargon) was perhaps a step too far as it meant tapped creatures couldn't be ignored as much as usual (adding to board complexity). There's also the fact that Q: abilities couldn't be used if the creature was summoning sick—this makes sense if you compare it to T: abilities, but is another level of complexity the set did not need. As for the mechanic itself, it mostly stays in white and blue, the colors of Vigilance and untapping respectively (only Merrow Grimeblotter and a couple artifacts stretch it in Shadowmoor), so that makes sense. Q also means cards that grant tap abilities like Power of Fire become much more powerful, as not only do they allow multiple activations of each side of the tap/untap chain, they also let fragile creatures with untap abilities tap without entering combat.
Barrenton Medic Juvenile Gloomwidow Blowfly Infestation
-1/-1 Counters/Wither:
While it looks like the -1/-1 counter theme of Shadowmoor was made to contrast the +1/+1 counter theme of Lorwyn, the reverse is more likely to be true: Shadowmoor had interesting mechanics with -1/-1 counters since it was dark, and +1/+1 counters were retro-fitted into Morningtide (notably Reinforce and the counter lords) to make the contrast explicit. As anyone who's played with Infect in Scars of Mirrodin block knows, Wither is a very powerful effect even without the virtual Double-Strike against players.
Burn Trail Barkshell Blessing Memory Sluice
At first glance you might think Conspire was just another random spell mechanic thrown in since everything else (-1/-1 counters, Q:, Persist) goes on permanents. However, it also ties in well to the set with both a color-matters component and tapping creatures so they can untap. However, the result is kinda boring (just copying a spell) and it feels too well-engineered into the perfect spot. It plays well, but there's a reason it doesn't come back in Eventide.
Gravelgill Axeshark Scuzzback Marauders Kitchen Finks
Persist is the clearly the most powerful mechanic in Shadowmoor, but in its draft format there's relatively few ways to abuse it, unlike in Constructed. It's also hurt by -1/-1 counters being one of the main forms of removal, but it's still good, mostly since the Persist cards were generally pushed.
As I mentioned above, there are ten decks focused on by the set: the five allied-color pairs and five mono-color decks. There are certainly other decks that can exist, including both raw card-quality decks and the odd synergy-based deck (notably a GB -1/-1 counters deck with all the -1/-1 counters matter cards), The problem is that with all the double-and triple color cards, your mana is not going to be good, and a lot of the power of cards like (Boggart Ram Gang) is playing them on curve. As such, I'll start with the colors, take a brief stop for the colorless cards, cover the allied color pairs along with their decks, and then head back to the mono-color decks.
Kithkin Rabble Armored Ascension Prison Term Niveous Wisps
Commons Uncommons
White is shockingly weak in this set, especially in the color-matters themes. Both Apothecary Initiate and (Respondent Mentor) only give you life gain (though (Respondent Mentor) would be fine as a Q enabler if it wasn't a 5-mana 2/2), and Kithkin Rabble is weaker than the other count creatures (though still fine). Instead, you're focused on Armored Ascension, along with the indirect benefit of getting Prison Term and Spectral Procession. Other than the color-matters weaknesses, white just has a lot of dead cards—cards like Mine Excavation are situational at best, and lifegain wastes a lot of space. One bright spot is Niveous Wisps, which is very versatile: stopping an attack, making a creature unable to block, or even letting you safely activate a Q ability in a pinch (and that doesn't even consider the implications of color-changing), all while being a one-mana cantrip.
Drowner Initiate Deepchannel Mentor Briarberry Cohort Biting Tether
Commons Uncommons
While white's Initiate was just a Ivory Cup on a body, Drowner Initiate creates its own mill archetype (especially since it triggers on both players, and your opponent is likely to have random blue creatures). The color-matters situation is mostly the opposite of white: while Flow of Ideas is a little clunky, both Faerie Swarm and Deepchannel Mentor are great. Instead, blue's main problem is that the commons aren't spectacular—sure, there aren't any Goldenglow Moths, but outside of the Drowner Initiate archetype, the best common is something like Briarberry Cohort or Ghastly Discovery. The uncommons are stronger, but even though Leech Bonder and Biting Tether are great cards, they're both single-blue, and thus they're likely to be splashed by the mono-color decks (especially Biting Tether). I'm worried the mono-colored deck is the only path for blue.
Corrupt Sickle Ripper Faerie Macabre Incremental Blight
Commons Uncommons
Surprisingly for black, the color-matters stuff isn't the strength of the color. Sure, Corrupt is as good as always, and Corrosive Mentor is fine, but both Smolder Initiate and Ashenmoor Cohort are inefficient, and Crowd of Cinders is hurt by Fear under-performing in the format (both with all the random hybrid creatures, as well as the presence of Scarecrows). Instead, it's the multitude of solid, generic commons that help black: Sickle Ripper is a very good two-drop, Faerie Macabre is a black Wind Drake even before you consider its implications against Persist, Disturbing Plot is a good two-for-one, and Gloomlance is simply removal with a decent upside. Of course, while those are solid, the real pulls are at uncommon, where Blowfly Infestation is worth building a deck around (note it counts your creatures with -1/-1 counters, giving you extra value from Persist) and Incremental Blight is a better Cone of Flame.
Mudbrawler Cohort Intimidator Initiate Burn Trail Power of Fire
Commons Uncommons
The defining deck of Shadowmoor is mono-red, as it's probably the strongest deck if you can get it. Even looking just at the mono-color cards, you can see all the pieces start to fall into place. On one hand it is very fast, with Mudbrawler Cohort and Pyre Charger leading off a lot of aggressive creatures (supplemented by Crimson Wisps, the rare red one-mana cantrip that also has a meaningful effect). Next, there are a lot of ways to break through a stall, with both Intimidator Initiate and Ember Gale providing a Falter effect, and Bloodmark Mentor just making combat good for you at a very efficient rate. Finally, there is a lot of burn as always, but here it's very high-quality: Puncture Bolt helps you win combat, Burn Trail is either a two-for-one or six to the face, and Jaws of Stone is just a more-efficient Rolling Thunder. That doesn't even count some of the high-quality slower cards like Power of Fire.
Devoted Druid Howl of the Night Pack Tower Above Flourishing Defenses
Commons Uncommons
As always, green is mostly competing with efficient creatures, but its color-matters stuff is all fine (even Nurturer Initiate). However, what makes green different is that it has two great ramp spells: Farhaven Elf fixes as well as ramps, while Devoted Druid gives you a shot of two mana on one turn while still remaining a mana elf (even before you consider Giant Growth effects). However, the main strength of the color comes in the uncommons, just like the other colors. I mentioned the color-matters stuff is fine, but both Drove of Elves and Howl of the Night Pack go beyond fine, especially once you consider putting them together. Tower Above is a great combat trick, as even though you have to dodge instant-speed removal, this is basically removal by itself (though it can't hit tapped creatures, unlike Provoke). Finally, while Flourishing Defenses looks expensive, again it triggers on both players' creatures (imagine using that with a Devoted Druid, or others in that semi-cycle).
Watchwing Scarecrow Scuttlemutt Tatterkite Sapseep Forest
Commons Uncommons
Adding to the feasibility of mono-color in Shadowmoor, there are a surprising number of colorless cards. The main feature at common is a cycle of Scarecrows aligned to the allied color pairs, and while all of them are worth it if you have reliably have both colors, both Watchwing Scarecrow and Wingrattle Scarecrow are efficient enough to play if you just have one (especially if it's blue, as Wind Drake and Azure Drake are both great creatures). Other than that, we have the standard fixing and generic artifact creatures, but Pili-Pala and Scuttlemutt both deserve a call-out: the former is the Q combo card (as it essentially reads “1: Reuse Power of Fire or Presence of Gond”), while the latter is just very powerful (fixing, ramping, and manipulating color-matters stuff).
Moving up to uncommon, the artifacts have a lot of generically-powerful cards, including Gnarled Effigy (removal for all the small creatures while turning off Persist and manipulating combat), Lockjaw Snapper (the closest thing you have to Proliferate, and obviously great for the -1/-1 counters deck), Tatterkite (immune to much of the removal in the set and blocks Wither creatures indefinitely, all while being a 2/1 flier for 3), and Wicker Warcrawler (a strong creature that also works well with -1/-1 counter synergies). There are also the cycle of lands with basic land types, and while the effects are minor, if you'd ever activate them (so not Madblind Mountain), the cost is very low, as there aren't any ETB tapped duals competing for those slots.
Silkbind Faerie Aethertow Steel of the Godhead Mistmeadow Witch
(Hybrid) Commons Uncommons
While white and blue individually didn't have that many standout commons, a lot of that is made up by Silkbind Faerie, which is both a Griffin Sentinel and a tapper. There's also a surprising amount of removal, with both Curse of Chains and Aethertow being very good. Steel of the Godhead is the first of the “Demigod” auras, and lets you win any race even if you put it on a lowly Somnomancer. Moving to uncommon, Plumeveil and Glamer Spinners are both cards you need to watch out for (along with Aethertow), while Mistmeadow Witch just ends the game if unanswered like most repeatable blink effects do (and unlike Eldrazi Displacer, this can blink itself, making that all the more difficult). As for the color pair itself, the strengths in the hybrid cards more than make up each colors individual deficiencies, leading to a normal UW deck with a lot of evasion and efficient small creatures.
Memory Sluice Gravelgill Axeshark Wasp Lancer Inkfathom Witch
(Hybrid) Commons Uncommons
Wait—what is the theme of the UB commons? If you ignore Memory Sluice (which goes in the Drowner Initiate deck, but not much else), there isn't much I want to play. Sure, a Gravelgill Duo or Gravelgill Axeshark is fine, and Fate Transfer is very interesting (even if most of the interesting interactions don't occur in Limited), but nothing is exciting. However, there are more exciting cards at uncommon, even if the most powerful cards are just two cheap evasive creatures (Wasp Lancer and Inkfathom Infiltrator) and a Recoil variant (River's Grasp). Inkfathom Witch is a card with a surprising amount of play to it: there's the obvious play of pumping your evasive creatures, but note that it'll kill any creature with a -1/-1 counter on it—and it works on any player's unblocked creatures, not just your own. This leads to the color pair supposedly have a lot of grindy card advantage, but it feels like you'll have to go to higher rarities to fully fulfill that.
Emberstrike Duo Kulrath Knight Grief Tyrant Scar
(Hybrid) Commons Uncommons
As expected, BR wants to go very aggressive, and cards like Sootstoke Kindler, Emberstrike Duo, and Fists of the Demigod help further that plan. The one surprise comes at uncommon with Kulrath Knight: the 3/3 flier for 5 is above-rate for black or red and Wither is a nice bonus, but the counter-Pacifism effect is very powerful, even if you aren't building around it. The one surprise is the lack of removal: Murderous Redcap and Grief Tyrant are both good effects at uncommon, but at common you only get single -1/-1 counters with Cultbrand Cinder and Scar—both good cards, but with black's relative lack of medium removal (the Nameless Inversion space) I expected something a little bigger. Overall the color pair is good—obviously it's being carried a bit by red, but black has decent aggressive cards to pair with it.
Morselhoarder Scuzzback Marauders Runes of the Deus Boggart Ram-Gang
(Hybrid) Commons Uncommons
The theme of the RG commons is very clear: big creatures. Loamdragger Giant, Morselhoarder, Scuzzback Marauders, even Runes of the Deus is expensive. Of them, Scuzzback Marauders is obviously the most powerful, but don't underestimate the power of a virtual 4-mana 6/4. However, that theme is almost completely abandoned at uncommon with the biggest creature being Boggart Ram-Gang. Instead, the gold cards are much more aggressive, highlighted by Tattermunge Maniac, the card that was supposed to be insane power creep for Constructed, even if you'd rarely play it in Limited. The nice thing about these big creatures is that they pair well with green's ramp spells, and the aggressive creatures pair well with red. The problem is that those are two opposite plans, meaning the color pair itself is a little disjointed.
Safehold Elite Medicine Runner Kitchen Finks Shield of the Oversoul
(Hybrid) Commons Uncommons
The GW cards are characterized by being very efficient, notably with Safehold Elite and Wilt-Leaf Cavaliers. There's also a minor counter-removal theme (represented at common with Medicine Runner), which goes well with powerful Persist cards like Kitchen Finks. However, one of the most-powerful GW commons is Shield of the Oversoul, which gives permanent Indestructible at common in addition to evasion. Otherwise, the color combination is what you would expect: efficient creatures, along with little removal.
Now that we've covered all the colors, let's look at the mono-colored decks.
As I mentioned, the payoffs for mono-white aren't that good, but you still have Armored Ascension, Silkbind Faerie, and a decent amount of removal.
Mono-blue feels like it needs to be the Drowner Initiate/Memory Sluice mill deck to succeed, but unlike many mill decks, this feels like it has all the pieces to succeed, including removal like Curse of Chains, stalling tools like Aethertow, and good blockers like Oona's Gatewarden and Gravelgill Axeshark.
Black appears to be the deck that wants to slowly drain you out (think the deck where Smolder Initiate is good), but I don't know if that's good enough, and the card quality doesn't appear to be there otherwise.
Now that we have the hybrid cards, we can see how cards like Tattermunge Duo, Sootstoke Kindler, and Giantbaiting push the mono-red deck into absurdity. Of course, everyone else probably knows that (except in the Flashback queues, where you have people just wanting to draft for cheap and maybe pull a Prismatic Omen or Fulminator Mage), so it'll be hard to get the best version.
Mono-green is weird, since there isn't really a theme other than “make big creatures” and “hope you get a Howl of the Night Pack and ramp into it”. Green is probably the color that benefits from splashes the most, so pick up every Farhaven Elf you see and position yourself to pick easy to cast bombs.
And there is Shadowmoor! This article went longer than I thought, but I guess it's a large set—the next large set will be smaller at least, though I'll need more sections for gold cards again. Anyway, next time we'll move to the enemy pairs with Eventide.

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