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(Not Your Typical) Innistrad Review


My kneejerk reaction when the spoilers for Innistrad started coming out was that it looked like shit. The horror theme reminded me of VH1’s Remember the ’90s shows, except with zombie movies instead of MC Hammer. The set had no coherent mechanical theme. It was going to use a pinch of graveyard-based mechanics, but not so much that people felt they had to do anything so extreme as to put cards in their graveyards. It seemed that it was trying to please everyone, but mostly the sort of people who read those mashups of classic literature with zombies.

Like all kneejerk reactions, it was silly, and I’m glad I didn’t write anything publicly about it.1 I still think the theme is a bit silly,2 but I’ve done a bunch of Limited events (and have very little of strategic value to say), and I immediately wanted to do nothing but sit down and play more. While it’s true that I’m easily addicted to anything, this was due to Innistrad being an exceptionally well-designed set when it came to Limited. The best explanation I can come up with is that Rosewater and the design team3 designed the set during the day, left the design file laying around somewhere insecure, and the developers4 came in and changed the set into one that “broke all tha rules” when it came to design.

Sets aren’t supposed to be inaccessible and difficult.5 Innistrad is both, and that’s why it’s so much fun.

To avoid turning off newer or subpar players, Limited formats are made to be at least somewhat recognizable. You open a pack, you see the removal spell or the flyer or the bomb, and you take it and smile, knowing that regardless of the more difficult picks around third through seventh, you’ve made the right decision to start off.

Innistrad is not like this.

To win against anyone competent in an Innistrad draft, you need to have drafted the set several times before. In a traditional draft environment (core set, for example) you take the best card from the first few packs and hope that there are one or two colors that you’ll definitely be playing. Innistrad is not about colors; it is about archetypes,6 and if you’re not instantly familiar with what cards fit in what archetypes (especially which rares lead to which archetypes), and the signals that a certain one is open, you’re going to draft a middling pile of cards that will be run over by the graveyard deck spitting out Constructed-costed creatures starting on turn three. If you think you’ve gotten the hang of this archetype thing, and you draft a bunch of cards that have the word “graveyard” on them, you’ll be steamrolled by the Humans deck that plays 1-drops of all things. Try to draft the deck again, knowing what cards are good this time? Sucks for you—the guy next to you was drafting a graveyard-based deck7 around an uncommon at which you’ve never even given a second glance, you were passed trash, and he went undefeated.

That Black removal spell that seemed to be among the set’s few auto-first-picks? It’s pretty good at best.

While it’s still early in the format, I’ve never seen so many experienced players disagree so vehemently. Not about whether cards are good or great, or whether a card is a mid-pack steal or unplayable, but players disagree whether 5- or 6-mana rares are first-picks or complete trash that’ll get you killed by turn five if you even attempt to run them. There’s even a fairly well-respected player advocating first-picking a 0/1 over the big Red Fireball.8

These things aren’t what make the set difficult; they’re what make the set inaccessible. The difference is that, once a reasonable player bombs out of a few drafts, he’ll overcome the inaccessibility and start to see what’s going on in the games and what picks are leading to those outcomes. A set that is merely inaccessible would have a barrier to entry similar to Innistrad, but work fairly intuitively once that’s been figured out. Innistrad, even once that hurdle is overcome, is still difficult. Say you know that a certain rare is first-pick quality because it fits in a specific bizarre combo/control archetype, but you also have a key uncommon for a more straightforwardly aggressive deck. Even after fifty drafts, this will be difficult: Can either archetype expect to wheel anything of importance out of the pack? Will the person to the left be tempted to draft something that steps on the toes of your deck? Did someone write a detailed how-to on one of these decks that’s shifted the drafting metagame to make it more difficult to find the key cards? You have one minute to answer any number of these questions and choose between them. Or you can pick that Black removal spell.

This is the difficulty that is inherent in a set in which card evaluations are less important than archetype evaluations.

I hope that at this point you’re either agreeing that Innistrad is a tough format to solve or at least acknowledging that I think it is. Here’s why that makes the set great: When I finish a draft, I’m immediately thinking about the next one. Win or lose, I’m lost in the possibilities of decks I haven’t tried yet and potentially underdrafted commons I can exploit, and I’m wondering how I could try out that weird pile of unbeatable crap I lost to in the second round. I’m not thinking about how such-and-such rare is absurd,9 but rather what would have happened if I had tried to make a deck around that weird rare enchantment I grabbed twelfth-pick.

Magic, to me, is a game that’s fun because I can think about it in a productive way when I’m not playing.10 Innistrad Limited is a format that rewards and encourages players to think about it more than any I’ve encountered, and that’s what makes it such well-designed fun.

1. Because of this, as a “set review,” this piece is woefully out of date; set reviews almost always come out before anyone has played with the set at all (and that includes the author). Those sorts of reviews don’t attempt to do much else than say whether a card is good or bad; sometimes “good” means playable, sometimes it means soon-to-be-valuable, and sometimes it means well-designed. Reviewing a large set in such a manner is like analyzing an incoming nuclear bomb: Sure, you might end up proven correct about the exact tonnage of the device, but no one’s going to care. They're a bit busy having their intestines Pollocked around the countryside. An actual review should move beyond the “What does it do?” and toward a discussion of what impact it will have. Innistrad might not burn our shadows into the ground, but it’ll have a pretty big impact on Magic nonetheless.

2. About the flavor of the set: It’s not a “horror set.” Horror is intentionally scary. Innistrad is not intended to actually scare people—at least not in an, “Oh no, a monster!” way. (“You have a 5/6 flyer already?” just doesn’t have the visceral thrill to it that makes a moviegoer involuntarily throw popcorn at the ceiling.) Innistrad is a set about horror for the same reason that when you chat about horror movies with your friends, you are not creating a conversation that falls within the horror genre. Innistrad is a set about horror, as defined by other areas of our culture outside the game. I’m interested to see if, because of Innistrad’s inevitable financial success, the flavor formula of “copy other people’s flavor and make it into Magic cards” will be used for future blocks, rather than the more common world-building structure of inventing something almost entirely from scratch. Sure, Kamigawa block was Japan-inspired, but it had a bunch of weirdo nightmarish-looking stuff that wasn’t in any of the Japanese tropes I’ve heard about.

Here are the two methods of world-building summarized: Traditional Magic decides what each color will do in the world and then finds the individual flavor to fit it. Innistrad took a bunch of already-invented things and decided where they fit in the color pie. It reminds me of fan-made sets themed around Dragonball characters . . . or whatever.

This isn’t something unique to Magic, though. In the wake of postmodern artworks that made it not just okay but practically required to borrow from other forms of art that had been seen as “lowbrow” instead of just referencing Shakespeare over and over, we’re bombarded with media that requires us to appreciate some older, more sincere forms of art in order to understand the new work.

3. I still don’t know who the most important non-Rosewater designers are. I assume that they make some cool things and have intriguingly unique ideas about design, but our Magic design philosophy is so Rosewater-centric that no one knows anything that they didn’t in some way gather from Rosewater himself. This is way different than when there is, for example, a Fela Kuti–type character who singlehandedly invented, developed, and popularized a genre of music, and then a bunch of people followed him up with pale imitations or made their own genres that showed influence. At least in those cases, we had critics who wrote about the person and other cultural things happening around the same time to give some comparisons to. In Magic design, Rosewater is such an omnipresent figure in design, design criticism, design theory, and so on, that literally no conversations about it can happen that don’t involve people either flat-out rejecting him or attempting in some way to live up to his ideals. And the ones who publicly reject him make bad sets and don’t get hired by R&D. I meant to talk about this in an intriguingly titled review of M12, but I apparently forgot that I ever wanted to discuss it.

This footnote, shockingly, is relevant to the main essay: All of the rules about Magic design that have been violated are only rules because Rosewater said they were. Maybe the rest of the team thought they were never rules in the first place and rolled their eyes whenever Rosewater mentioned it. No one else writes about design from any authority, so we have no idea.

4. Here’s an interesting case of how nomenclature can affect how we view people’s roles in the process. Design makes the cards, and development changes them to make the set playable, right? Sure, we’ve moved past thinking about development as a bunch of numbers guys who just change mana costs and power/toughness (as Zac Hill talked about in his feature article), but who are the real designers of the set? More importantly, who’s designing the experience that I enjoy so much when I draft Innistrad? The designers make a ton of cards and ship them off, and then the developers are the ones who work with that raw material and use it to craft the experience. Magic design theory, over the years, has shifted from thinking about the card to the set to the block. Now it’s time that we think about format design. What use is a “good set” if the format it’s played in (be that Constructed or Limited) is terrible?

As an example, say you make one of the all-time greatest second sets in Magic history. The cards are flavorful, the mechanics are unique and fun, and there’s something for every player type to latch onto. You go to the prerelease to see how people react. Surprise! It plays horribly with the previous set, and no one has fun playing your cards because of how they interact with the previous ones. The format wasn’t designed well. This can happen with Constructed, too, leading to formats that are monstrosities that didn’t have enough thought put into them, so no one wants to play them—like the current Extended.

Designers design cards. Developers use those cards to design formats.

5. What really scared me, and got me to thinking apocalyptic thoughts about Magic heading down a more accessible road at the cost of what I enjoyed, were the latest changes to Modern’s Banned List—more specifically, Gavin Verhey’s analysis of the changes. Before I read his piece, the bannings just looked overbearing and odd. His explanation was (in part) that the format was getting rid of cards that made every game play out the same—cards that made the better player win every time, either by either fixing draws with Blue sorceries or by putting whatever creature its caster wanted onto the battlefield. (Verhey wasn’t ranting about how the decisions were going to kill Magic by turning it into checkers, obviously; he was explaining WotC’s decisions and trying to step into their shoes.) It made so much sense: Wizards wanted the game to be easy, so they banned anything that reduces variance . . . oh my God, oh my God!

Since then, I’ve calmed down and realized that they’re not trying to design a format where anyone can win a match. They’re trying to design a format where, true to their marketing from over a decade ago, every game is different.

One thing should be kept in mind from that banning announcement, though: Bannings are not balancing decisions. They are decisions about the design of a format.

6. Players, even extremely good ones, will disagree about to what extent this is true. Conley Woods, who drafts Constructed decks regardless of format, wrote a soon-to-be-seminal article explaining the archetypes he’d seen so far in Innistrad draft, and he doesn’t even mention the possibility of “just drafting cards in two colors.” The famously synergy-phobic Brad Nelson, on the other hand, suggests an aggressive G/W strategy featuring the marvelous combo of lands and 2-drops. Even at the highest levels of play, styles affect what we do to an extremely large degree. As my style leans more in the Woods direction, it’s entirely possible I’m overemphasizing the importance of decks that seem like fun to me.

7. I can’t find a way to write about Innistrad’s inclusion of self-milling, and how Wizards used this mechanic as an example of one that newer players hated and shouldn’t ever be featured prominently, without it seeming all smarmy and disdainful of both these players and Wizards as a whole. I’d like to personally thank whichever brave people fought for its inclusion in the set, and I mean that completely genuinely. It’s a triumph of good design over conventional wisdom (even if the conventional wisdom was entirely from the same people responsible for the set). For one smug moment, though, allow me to think about what would have happened if self-milling cards at common had gone before The Great Designer Search 2 judges.

8. He is wrong.

9. Obviously, there are a few, but I haven’t encountered any that were so fundamentally upsetting to the power structure of the set that I felt they made the set less fun. This anecdotal experience is backed up by a memory of the day of the prerelease—how on Twitter the snippets of insight weren’t, “opened Blah Blah and went undefeated easily,” or “Had no chance against Blorp Bloo.” It was, “Faced opponent with every mythic imaginable and won anyway.” I don’t think this is an accident, or a product of small sample sizes; it’s inherent to the synergistic and buildable nature of Innistrad Limited.

Bomb rares make a Limited format more accessible. If that new player thinks M12 seems cool, shows up to his first prerelease, and opens a huge Dragon, he’ll probably win some games because of that Dragon alone, and that makes the game seem less intimidating to him. The prevalence of format-breaking rares in core-set Limited seems to be a well-designed piece of the set—at least from a player acquisition and retention point of view. New players might keep playing because the draft wasn’t as frustrating as they expected, and no experienced player with a brain is going to quit after he loses a core set draft (he’ll just blame the format instead of himself, use a lot of expletives, and wait for the next Limited format to roll around).

10. For a while, I played a lot of Starcraft II . . . up to the point at which I was competent but not good enough to win or be successful in tournaments. I stopped because it didn’t have this crucial aspect: I won games not by planning out strategies beforehand, but by meticulously improving my in-game mechanics. The only way to do that is to play a lot of games, do the same things over and over, and make little to no strategic changes. That realization killed my desire to improve further.

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