Magic: The Gathering Innistrad Impressions
The first set of the Magic: The Gathering Innistrad block has been around for a week now (just in time for Halloween!) and its gothic horror setting seems to be shaking up how Magic sets are designed. This is the first block that truly has a "top down" design meaning that the developers started with the flavor and world and designed the mechanics afterwards to fit those parameters. Historically magic has been created in the opposite direction, such as the Zendikar block starting with a "land is important" theme and then building a universe in which land would be important.
As far as flavor is concerned Innistrad quite simply knocks it out of the park. White was given less cards and left out of a number of cycles to create a claustrophobic feeling for humans that the evil of the other four colors are closing in on them. Werewolves were moved from black to red and green. These are actually more appropriate for them than black as in their wolf form wolves are not actually evil, they just do what comes naturally: hunt. This may have negative consequences but it stems from a lack of logic and impulse control, not a lack of morality. Blue are the mad scientists of Innistrad, a perfect fit. They and their stitched together
abominations, inspired by Frankenstein's monster, allow blue to have more powerful and aggressive creatures than it normally would, typically requiring creature cards to be exiled from graveyards. Blue zombies contrast with black zombies as the latter are rarely individually powerful but develop into slow but overwhelming hoardes of tokens and +1/+1 counters.
In addition to humans white is the color of helpful ghosts and spirits, such as protective ancestors. But humans are nothing to scoff at. Many of them are presented as slayers and hunters of the undead gaining protection from prominent creature types.
Innistrad marks the return of the Flashback mechanic. First appearing in the Odyssey block, flashback didn't actually make much sense there. Here it is clear why cards can be played from the graveyard as anything that dies in Innistrad tends not to stay that way for long. Like the flavor text on Back from the Brink says: "on Innistrad, death is only a career change." The Morbid keyword is also introduced, primarily in green, where there is an effect that happens if a creature died on a particular turn. On an unrelated note "is put into a graveyard from play" being changed to "dies" could not have come at a better time). The most adventurous mechanic for Innistrad is the "transform" mechanic that is primarily used to demonstrate humans turning into werewolves and back. Each werewolf card has two faces requireing players to either use sleeves or the checklist card available in Innistrad boosters. But transform is not just for werewolves. Check out the set's take on Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde:
While not a highly playable card (at least in constructed), it oozes flavor and the entire nature of the set.
I have three concerns about Innistrad in particular. The first is the return of a tribal theme. While tribes are certainly fun and definitely appeal to casual players it seems like they are done to death (pun intended). There may not be elves or goblins this time but there are plenty of lords and cards that specifically mention creature types that seem to push players towards making the kind of creature decks that have been done ad nauseum. The second concern is that the clunkiness of the werewolf mechanic might ruin werewolves in Magic forever. To my knowledge Magic has only created three werewolves before this set (as well as other lycanthropes,like werebear), so they are now strongly associated with the transform mechanic. While it is once again a flavor knockout the trouble of either taking them out of the sleeves or using the checklist provided in one in three booster packs makes them seem hardly worth the trouble. Additionally, no one werewolf seems to standout as an extremely playable card. Reckless Waif is probably the closest but the randomness of whether not you will have access to her better form (and the only reason to play the card) is another turnoff. There are probably much better aggro options, such as the more predictable humans. The third is that it once again enforces the seeming preeminence of black in every plane of the Magic multiverse. There was already a set specifically designed for black in the Torment expansion. Add to this that Phyrexians are black and it seems like the focus of every expansion thematically ends up coming back to black. It's easier to make black interesting, too. As white tends to be the heroes they're usually just us, humans or other relatively mundane things like Kithkin. But with black there is more design space to create horrifying abominations. In Innistrad it seems like the creatures of red, green, and blue have to go out of their way to justify not being in black.
Despite these criticisms Innistrad is a beautiful set that takes place in a fascinating world. Mechanically it proves that Magic is still willing to take risks and shake things up. Only time will tell if the gamble paid off but I'm definitely looking forward to playing this expansion.
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