Rating Shadows over Innistrad mechanics
Having played with that set for quite a bit now, I have formed my opinions on its mechanics. Note that for the purpose of this entry, I use “mechanic” to mean a rather broad spectrum of gameplay elements, which may or may not be “mechanics” in the sense of a strict definition of that term.
I’ve tried to encompass everything that shows up on more than two cards (and a few things found only on two cards which stood out to me) that isn’t a fixture in Magic yet – so no talking about menace, hexproof, planeswalkers or +1/+1 counters (two of which I deeply hate – guess which?) I will give two grades to each concept: The first for the role that mechanic plays in limited with this set only; and a second for its overall value to Magic as a whole, which will be strongly influenced by how well it is suited for Next Level Cubes (which are the pinnacle of Magic gameplay, after all!)
My rating scale here goes from A to F, with the following meanings:
A: Excellent design with no major inherent issues (cycling)
B: Good design with no major inherent issues (menace)
C: Either good design with some issues, or reasonable but not too interesting design without major issues (landfall, or reach)
D: Either good or reasonable design badly executed, or flawed design with appealing executions as a saving grace (converge, or bestow)
E: Bad design, this mechanical concept shouldn’t exist at all (clash)
F: Terrible design whose existence makes the game noticeably worse (hexproof)
By order of felt importance (in limited) to the set:
Transform – (A)/F; (A)/F
The flagship mechanic of Innistrad-based sets, and immensely popular for flavor reasons. But does it play well? You’ll note I gave transform two grades in each category – the first one is for computer-based play (like with Magic Online), the second one for physical card play. I shouldn’t even need to explain the latter: drafts requiring pre-sleeved cards, players using checklist cards on camera in high-level coverage… Double-faced cards just do not work in real life games, and while that gimmick obviously pays off with regards to marketing, it is just not worth the loss of integrity with regards to gameplay.
This disadvantage, however, completely disappears once you move over to virtual cards being handled by a computer! Being an adaption of a real, physical card game is the only thing which stops Magic from using “cards” with any number of faces (while still retaining their “back”). If that constraint were lifted, additional card faces would be an excellent fundamental tool for any virtual card game. Why you would want to play a virtual card game which does not reprocude the feel of a real card game in the first place is a different question, though… Magic is still about playing with physical cards, or at least simulating that experience for me, so the latter grade applies.
Note, though, that I rate only the basic concept of transform here. Transforming werewolves specifically has its own paragraph below.
Investigate – (B)/D; D
The grade in brackets has the same explanation as that for transform – clues are rather fiddly in physical play, and having non-creature tokens abound ups the complexity of gameplay a little too much for my taste. It’s not that investigate didn’t work, but it is just not superior to other cardflow mechanics (cycling, cantrips, scry) by so much that this extra complexity is justified.
That is even true if a computer handles the physical logistics for you, thus no different grades in the latter category. However, if restricted to Shadows over Innistrad limited, clues admittedly play well. They do not compete with other card flow mechanics; they sepcifically synergize with certain cards, and they do not create unwanted interactions with other mechanical themes (namely, artifacts-matter cards, but there are a few more hidden ones, like card draw triggers, for example). Thus, they are a fine fit for one set/block, but I wouldn’t expect or want to see them return. They are not bad, but Magic can do better.
Madness – D; E
Yup, madness is inherently flawed. While due to several rules cleanups no longer quite as complicated as it once were, it is still about turning a disadvantage into an advantage if you get specific two-card combos, making gameplay especially swingy. Madness is one of the main reasons I do not enjoy Shadows over Innistrad limited too much, and that is already taking into account that this environment has been very carefully developed to mitigate its swingyness somehow. When it combines with cards from outside that environment, things go completely awry.
For those very reasons, madness had been deemed very unlikely to ever return by Mark Rosewater himself just a few weeks ago (obviously he knew it would return, but had to pretend he didn’t). Shadows over Innistrad was just the perfect fit for it flavorwise – and just as double-faced cards do, madness proves that flavor does trump gameplay if this drives sales better.
Delirium – D; E
So, this is supposed to be a kind of “fixed” threshold. Well, I see the issues with threshold, but I hold that those are solvable by careful development (basically, the most important thing is to make the gradient between threshold and no threshold not too steep).
Delirium, on the other hand, looked from the very beginning like it would play badly to me, and it actually plays even a bit worse. It adds so much complexity to drafting and deckbuilding, and even more to actual gameplay! It is much easier to keep track of the number of cards in each graveyard, and also a lot more predictable – if an opponent can cast spells or discard cards, you can usually guess quite well if they can get to threshold, but with delirium you often just do not have a way to even make an educated guess. I am certainly not a fan of dumbing down gameplay, but I found myself way too often dealing with delirium in an “oh, look what just happened”-fashion even on my own cards. This is another reason I do not enjoy this limited format much.
The worst thing, however, is how hard and unreliable delirium is actually to achieve (which was explicitly a design goal, by the way). I’ve seen players mill more than half of their deck into their graveyard without getting there (in a completely reasonable build, for what it’s worth); then, in the next game, play Fork in the Road and block with a Wicker Witch and get it on turn three.
I haven’t yet experience with delirium in physical play, but it is entirely possible that I would even push its grade down to an F there. I remember Tarnogoyf to be annoying enough… I wish they had just brought threshold back instead.
Skulk – B; B
Finally, a good design! It is obviously not something most people think about when Shadows over Innistrad mechanics come up, but that might actually be a good thing – well playing mechanics tend to be rather unobtrusive than spectacular. I have found skulk mattering quite a lot, though, and it is also something the colors Blue and Black really need (a simple shared creature keyword).
Two or no spells – E; E
This is the werewolf transform trigger mechanic, which I am addressing separately from transform in general. Now, admittedly, these triggers often create interesting gameplay decisions. But this is just what keeps this mechanic from getting a straight F! Werewolves are incredibly punishing towards both mana screw and mana flood, and extra punishment for those two greatest scourges of Magic is definitely not what this game needs, so here we have yet another major reason I dislike Shadows over Innsitrad limited.
Milling – C; C
This mechanic has two rather different applications: Milling yourself, or milling your opponent (even though some cards can do both). Now, milling your opponent is a straight F in my book – it is an alternate win condition that is very hard to interact with. Milling yourself, however, which is what I am rating here, has really interesting applications by using your graveyard as a resource, although this can and definitely has be overdone (dredge probably being the worst example…) What it comes down to is that this mechanic has a few issues, but I’m really happy about some existing designs.
Discard as cost – D; C
This is the flipside of madness, because (some of) those cards actually play better without the obvious, major benefit with which madness provides them. Interesting effects with discard as a real cost play well, and minor synergies with threshold, delve, spell mastery, scavenge, unearth, flashback etc… still make them interesting for deckbuilders.
Clues-/ Investigate-matter cards – D; E
WotC taking a new mechanic to the next level in the very first set they use it is probably a consequence of switching to a two-sets-per block model. Such cards are obviously highly parasitic, which should explain the latter grade. I also do not like their effect on drafting and deckbuilding too much, though – it is one (good) thing if you should always be on the lookout for synergies, but another (bad) thing if you have to fully commit to an archetype to get a competitive deck. The classic uncommon buildaround enchantments tend to make both drafting and gameplay worse. People like them because they make drafting decisions easier, and because they sometimes lead to broken decks, but they add extra variance to both drafting and gameplay, and they are usually very hard to interact with (which again means worse gamplay).
Buildaround enchantments are the final major reason I dislike Shadows over Innistrad limited, and some of those fall into this category. Making investigating explicitly matter has led to several problematic designs, so my first grade is correspondingly low.
Instery-/ Noncreature-matters – C; C
This is a theme that includes prowess. One thing I do not like about it (and also not about prowess) is how it somehow randomly mixes up “noncreature spell” and “instant or sorcery spell”, which is especially pronounced in Shadows over Innistrad. I really prefer the cleaner version only caring about insteries, but I had to grudglingly accept prowess as a contributor to insteries-matter-themes in my Next Level Cubes. Still, this is what makes the difference between a B and a C for this mechanical theme in my book.
Human tribal – C; D
Tribal as a mechanical concept is a B in general, but its execution differs from creature type to creature type, and from environment to environment. In Shadows over Innistrad, the various tribal themes tend to be a little too subdued, and the specific effects a bit too all over the place. Humans are among those who work a little better, though. On the other hand, human tribal is a pain in open environments, since humans exist plentifully in all five colors, and a great many older cards have this creature type without showing it on the typeline.
Wolf / Werewolf tribal – D; E
I am already not impressed by this tribal synergy in Shadows over Innistrad. Outside of that environment, there is just too little further support, and also you are effectively forced to use “two or no spells” cards, which is bad, as are double-faced cards in general.
Vampire tribal – D; C
Vampire tribal in Shadows over Innistrad doesn’t reach critical mass without tapping into other problematic themes. However, some of the designs help out the already existing vampire tribal cards nicely.
Zombie tribal – D; D
Zombies might be the least noticable tribal synergy in the set. Also, putting most of those effects into Blue makes them less useful for wider environments. This may change if blue zombie tribal reaches critical mass some day, but we’re still far from that point.
Spirit tribal – C; C
Like Human tribal, spirit tribal seems to affect play a bit more often than the other kinds in Shadows over Innistrad, and it is useful in wider environments to give that tribe an additional synergy component beyond soulshift and spiritcraft (with the latter effectively requiring you to use arcane spells, which just isn’t something you want).
“Creature flashback” – C; D
By this I mean creatures with abilities that include exiling them from your graveyard as a cost. In most cases, they produce one or more tokens. This plays reasonably well, but in the context of the entirety of Magic design, I prefer similar, straighter mechanics like flashback, scavenge or unearth, because cards in graveyards having abilities already add considerable complexity to gameplay.
Second color costs – D; E
These are two cycles of one-colored cards which provide additional value via abilities with mana costs in a different color, with the allied-color cycle featuring tribal creatures, and the enemy-color cycle noncreature buildaround spells. In Shadows over Innistrad, they stand in for the lately ubiquitous two-color uncommon cycle. With such designs, I feel it is important that their usefulness with access to only mana of their color compared to having access to both colors is balanced out well over the color combinations, and that they also fulfill roughly similar functions in deckbuilding. This is in my opinion not the case here – the cards range from good maindeck candidates to mostly unplayable withouth their second color, and from mostly just providing solid creatures to requiring/enabling highly synergetic decks.
Tying into very specific synergies also makes this kind of design practically unusable outside of the environment they were created for, thus the E grade here.
Equipment matters – D; C
This is another synergy which just doesn’t seem to really kick in in Shadows over Innistrad limited, but whose designs help that theme in a greater context.
Vessels – D; C
I am always more strict with designs which are part of a cycle, but do not work well in that capacity. Power level differences between those enchantments are just way too high. Cannibalizing the cycle for different environments should have merit, though.
White sacrifice – D; D
I give this its own grades because it is quite unusual for White to sacrifice things as a cost, and while the synergies in Shadows over Innistrad are obvious, it still doesn’t really fit into the color. I like Angelic Purge as an exception, but making this a recognizable theme was overdoing it in my opinion. Also, the cards feel like they are just good by themselves and not like a theme you want to build around – they tie into many different synergies, but nothing stands out.
Creature recursion – C; D
These are creatures returning from the graveyard. Sanitarium Skeleton is the most ubiquitous of those, but the ones where you have to discard to bring them back play even more synergetic in this set.
I am wary of recurring creatures, though, and you do not always want to up the count of exiling effects as much as Shadows over Innistrad does. Unkillable creatures should be a big exception in my opinion, not a fledged-out theme.
Lands to graveyard – D; E
This is a minor theme in Green caring about lands going to your graveyard, putting them there in unusual ways, or having them in your graveyard to get them out again. I don’t like it. It is one more unusual thing to keep track of during gameplay, and another rather random synergy producing swingy effects. For example, while Stoic Builder is a fine design, Groundskeeper will oscillate between useless and gamewinning in the same deck from match to match.
Bite – B; A
This is how I like to call “one-sided fight”, after its most basic (green) version so far, Rabid Bite. It is something Green desperately needed for years.
Devils – B; B
Tokens with activated abilities are admittedly a bit fiddly – for that reason, it took me quite a while to take to eldrazi scion tokens. However, these devil cards are just really cool and play very well. I hope there will be more of them in Eldritch Moon – at least one more design seems really obvious.
Showlands – E; D
This is the rare cycle of dual lands. They play almost no role whatsoever in limited at rare, and they are just bad lands outside of that environment, with no chance to enter the battlefield untapped when it matters most (when you finally topdeck your sorely needed land). They do help aggressive two-color decks to start their curve with a one-drop, which is something few other dual lands do, but that is not enough.
So, that’s it! Those grades are rather low overall, which shows that I am not especially pleased with this set. I like its flavor, and I was impressed by the way it has been promoted, but its gameplay has been disappointing to me.