Good evening, my readers of the night! We draw near to the spookiest night of the year, and so naturally I found myself pondering the most eerie and haunted periods in Magic history for this week’s article.
The myth and imagery of horror have been a huge part of Magic since its earliest days. The game was barely a year old when The Dark was released as one of its original expansion sets. The brainchild of Magic art director Jesper Myrfors, The Dark showed off his love for the macabre as well as a more cynical, medieval take on fantasy tropes like the holy knight or forest hermit. Even the goblins were freaky!
Myrfors’ distinctly European-flavored dark fantasy got WotC into hot water when the use of pentagrams and christian symbols attracted bad press from the Satanic Panic crowd. Combined with the success of Antiquities in the same year, WotC decided to commit to setting their fantasy within a proprietary heroic fantasy world, and horror elements were thereafter limited to black’s long-running association with the undead.
But by 2011, enough water had passed under the cultural bridge for Wizards to give a strongly horror-themed set another crack.
Horror With Universal Appeal
To avoid any chance at further bad press, the horror sensibilities of Innistrad were drawn from the stable of classic Universal movie monsters and Romantic literature — vampires, werewolves, frankenstein creations and invisible men — with a strong infusion of the then-current zombie tropes which had overrun popular culture. This was horror storytelling at its most ghoulishly delightful, and immediately imbued Innistrad cards with a sense of identity and flavor which kept its currency even outside of Magic’s core audience.
This sense of identity is one of the vital tools for attracting new players to Magic, and Innistrad offered it in spades. The idea of playing a “vampire deck” is fundamentally cool to a lot of people, even if they don’t know how Magic works, and the oodles of excellent gothic art festooning this set helped to sell that concept. It’s not surprising that Wizards cut out the middleman with their upcoming “return to Innistrad” — dual sets with “Vampires” and “Werewolves” in the title remind us that beloved horror tropes can move product on their strength alone. Little wonder, then, that Innistrad went on to be one of Magic’s most popular sets to date! But there were many other strengths to admire once you delved a little deeper…
With such a broad and storied genre to capture in card form, I’m sure the hardest part of designing Innistrad was having to choose which horror tropes DIDN’T make the cut! Rather than the top-down approach apparent in later “genre fiction” sets like Theros or Eldraine, it seems like R&D trusted the aesthetics to carry the burden of representing these classic monsters in an authentic way. The actual card designs are subtle, “normal” Magic fare.
Every great Halloween trope got its spot in Innistrad, from doppelgangers to The Exorcist to nightmare scenarios like being buried alive. Magic’s color pie again proved the key to uniting these ideas in a coherent way, with the different monsters and myths divided up along color allegiance and then gaining their identifying mechanics in line with the traditional portfolios of those colors.
The red-black vampires were the lofty and ruthless aristocrats of Dracula and The Vampyre. The red-green werewolves threatened the commonfolk of Innistrad from within, entering the battlefield as nondescript workers, soldiers and hunters. There were also blue-white spirits, blue-black zombies (and the flesh-stitchers creating them), and the god-fearing humans themselves, largely in green-white. These tribes provided a strong baseline for the set, against which more individual ideas like Tree of Redemption or Evil Twin could stand out.
THE DRAFT WHICH CANNOT DIE
All of this led to one of the most celebrated Draft sets in Magic history, consistently being named a favorite by Limited specialists and getting several popular reruns on Magic Online over the years. This famously deep and engaging format is a big part of why Innistrad as a whole is remembered so fondly by fans and designers. But what exactly makes it so good?
One huge victory was how it used the creature tribes mentioned above. In the past, sets like Onslaught and Lorwyn had been completely defined by their tribal themes, which saturated almost every card in a given pack. Given its already strong set identity, Innistrad went lighter with tribal mechanics, including just a handful of powerful lords and other support for the main creature types.
Apart from those key cards, the remaining vampires, werewolves and zombies tended to be powerful creatures in their own right — fine to play with or without specific tribal support. And so, rather than defining the available archetypes such that you were always drafting a particular tribe, tribal synergies became simply another axis of card evaluation that added nuance to drafting and deck construction. Wizards has even reused this “soft tribal” dynamic across the last year of Standard sets; if you enjoyed the non-humans vs. knights tension in Throne of Eldraine carrying through to Ikoria, or the new party mechanic in Zendikar Rising, you have Innistrad to thank for it.
Another current trend in draft formats which Innistrad pioneered is the full embrace of popular mechanics such as cycling, kicker and flashback. These modal mechanics in particular tend to improve the quality of play by giving players more options in using their cards, and it’s now taken for granted that one will show up in almost every set. But it was the success and popularity of flashback in Innistrad –– reintroduced as the perfect flexible mechanic to help convey graveyard-centric horror themes — which seems to have firmed the importance of such additions in WotC’s mind.
REMEMBER, CHANGE IS GOOD
Flashback was not the only slam-dunk choice to unite the different horror flavors of Innistrad under common mechanics. Double-faced cards have become such a useful tool in WotC’s design arsenal that it’s easy to overlook what a risk they were in 2011. The logistical considerations alone made the idea a hard sell — the idea of needing checklist cards went against a lot of internal beliefs about how Magic should work.
But with the rest of the set design relatively conservative, R&D had a perfect opportunity to establish a novel and complex mechanic like transform, and horror’s underlying identity as metaphor for the scary parts of human nature gave them a wealth of different flavor concepts to play with. Despite the uniqueness and complexity of the DFC mechanic, associating it with werewolves and other shapeshifting monsters helped to immediately cement its function in the minds of players everywhere — a textbook win for design.
One other key point of difference between Innistrad and the highly-acclaimed draft sets of the last three years has been the role of removal. Recent draft environments have popularized the idea of powerful unconditional removal at common across several colors, and players have praised this decision for reducing the odds of losing to rare bombs. But Innistrad is a set famous for its relatively weak removal options, mostly featuring people’s best creatures staring each other down across the battlefield. This, in turn, allowed for more of a focus on powerful threats like Olivia Voldaren or Spider Spawning. It’s not clear exactly what it takes to balance a set with such sparse removal options, but I would be interested to see the current design team revisit this kind of set in the near future as a fun change-of-pace.
HOME OF MAGIC’S CLASSIC MONSTERS
The other half of Innistrad’s great legacy comes from the new Constructed staples it contributed, many of which remain central to eternal formats a decade on.
Of course, its influence was first felt in Standard. Cards like Olivia Voldaren and Mayor of Avabruck helped to define new archetypes, particularly once Dark Ascension came out and reinforced these archetypes a few months later. But what’s most striking to look back on today is how significantly the set influenced the nascent Modern format (as well as Legacy). Along with a few cards from Zendikar and Return to Ravnica blocks, Innistrad and Dark Ascension provided many of the foundational cards that made Modern a fan-favorite that would attract more players to non-rotating formats.
Liliana of the Veil remains the cleanest and best-balanced Planeswalker ever designed for tournament play. Her three abilities offer a full range of potential game impact, with the floor at “one-for-one answer” and the ceiling at “continuous advantage engine leading to an outright victory condition.” Her disruptive abilities are powerful while leaving room for counterplay, and her low loyalty and tendency to create top deck wars leave a fair window to deal with her.
Snapcaster Mage began as a clever extension of the set’s flashback mechanics, but history has shown it to be one of the most perfect expressions of control strategies ever in Magic. Its signature trigger combines raw card advantage with the flexibility a reactive deck needs to assemble a solution for any given game, while the modest “free” body offers either a chump blocker or a basic clock as the situation demands. The ability of Snapcaster to single-handedly amplify the available lines of a deck led directly to the success of Jeskai, and the understated beauty of winning with “Bolt, Snap, Bolt” once made Modern the preferred format for many control mages.
Delver of Secrets is the only reason that Snapcaster cannot claim the title of “most iconic blue creature,” and the fact that both hail from the same set is slightly surreal given the scope of cards available in Modern or Legacy. Delver gave Magic’s all-time strongest color the option of playing the game’s strongest one-mana threat, and the deck-building and sequencing hoops it asks players to jump through remain challenging and fun to this day. While Delver has been much more impactful in Legacy, it was still an important card in the development of Modern and has seen fringe play across its history.
Past In Flames helped to revitalize many combo decks across eternal formats, particularly Modern Storm. There’s not much to say about a card so specific and infamous, but I will tip my cap to R&D for ensuring this powerful enabler also pushed its users into situations where they could be disrupted with common graveyard hate.
Geist of Saint Traft is, in Constructed terms, mostly a vanilla beatstick. But as a record-sized vanilla beatstick that’s (mostly) hexproof, the Geist was soon recognized as a threat barely slower than Delver, but twice as damaging and much harder to answer. Dividing the power between the Geist and its token was an unbelievably clever R&D flourish; a 6/6 flying creature for three is far too powerful on the battlefield, let alone one with hexproof. But by leaving hexproof on the 2/2 Geist and having it spot you the 4/4 on attack, the card reached a middle ground where spot removal could buy time against it (by killing the angel) but not actually answer it. This made Geist perfect for control players who prioritize inevitability in their threats and who had the tools to clear away dangerous ground blockers.
SPOOKY MAGIC IS BEST MAGIC
These cards and other slightly less iconic options ensured Innistrad provided the backbone of Modern for many years. It seems uncontroversial to say that they were one of the biggest forces in shaping the style of Magic gameplay which players came to see as synonymous with the format. All of them promote a choice between playing for card advantage vs. immediate tempo, providing efficient-but-answerable threats and nuanced interactions which fostered creative deck-building and made players feel accomplished for mastering them.
Innistrad was printed in the middle of a historic spike in Magic’s power level, which helped cement its best cards as staples of Modern and Legacy. Those positions remained unchallenged until the advent of a new Standard set power spike in War of the Spark — one which has given us a huge wave of new, undeniably mighty Constructed staples. That’s almost a full decade of gameplay shaped in large part by Innistrad staples — plenty of players have never even known a Magic where Delver and Snapcaster were not a foundational force!
For players who have immersed themselves in these Innistrad-centric strategies and formats for so long, it’s easy to see why this set holds a special significance in Magic’s long history. It established a successful, popular paradigm for how the game should feel to play, and even if its direct influence on Constructed is slowly waning, the shadow of Innistrad will loom over the Magic community for many Halloweens to come.
Tom’s fate was sealed in 7th grade when his friend lent him a pile of commons to play Magic. He quickly picked up Boros and Orzhov decks in Ravnica block and has remained a staunch white magician ever since. A fan of all Constructed formats, he enjoys studying the history of the tournament meta. He specializes in midrange decks, especially Death & Taxes and Martyr Proc. One day, he swears he will win an MCQ with Evershrike. Ask him how at @AWanderingBard, or watch him stream Magic at twitch.tv/TheWanderingBard.