Honestly, they should have named this set, “Innistrad 2: Undead Boogaloo”. Like the original “homage to all things dark and creepy” set, Shadows over Innistrad is a homerun from every conceivable angle when it comes to flavor. But, mechanically, the set has a lot to live up to, since the original Innistrad gave us such classics as Liliana of the Veil, Snapcaster Mage, and Geist of Saint Traft.
My biggest take away from Shadows Over Innistrad right now is how symbiotic and synergistic the abilities seem to be. In original Innistrad, abilities like Flashback and Morbid didn’t require as much work to be good. With Innistrad, our evaluations of card quality right now may drastically change once Eldritch Moon is released and we have the chance to dive into the themes further. A greater pool of Madness cards and Madness enablers will raise all ships, so to speak. So, for now, Shadows Over innistrad feels very in medias res.
That aside, what are the best cards hiding in the Shadows of Innistrad? Let’s look at some of the most important cards in the set.
Archangel Avacyn/Avacyn, the Purifier: The flagship card of the set. Avacyn is good, so good in fact that she may warp the format at points making her practically unplayable. She’s great, but if your opponents come packing enough 5 toughness fliers and instant-speed removal, her greatness can be unmade.
Arlinn Kord/Arlinn, Embraced by the Moon: As a 100% certified Green Mage, I like Arlinn, but honestly, I’m not IN LOVE with her. Her abilities are great, but there isn’t a guarantee that you can use them consistently, or in the order you desire to maximize her playability. Like Gideon, she’s going to come down on turn 4 a bunch, make a token, and take a dirt nap.
Duskwatch Recruiter/Krallenhorde Howler: A very solid creature, one of the sleepers in the set. Both sides are relevant, and play well with each other. This is one of those cards that’s relevant at every stage of the game and will be a solid role player its entire time in Standard (not to mention the possibility it sees Modern play).
Always Watching: The bad news: this goes against the usual “Pump Enchantment + Tokens” theme. The good news: Archangel of Tithes doesn’t care. I could see this making its way into various aggro decks (Ally and Human builds especially), as the effect is powerful. Mono-white may end up being the defining aggro deck of the format, and if so, it will be partially in thanks to this card.
Declaration in Stone: The best card in the set, and the one that will warp the format the most. This card is Eternal level efficient in a format with significantly less power. The drawback is real (especially if you are playing the long game), but having a blanket answer to every creature in the format is undeniably awesome.
Eerie Interlude: For the next 18 months I will periodically return to Gatherer to search for cards with “enters the battlefield” in their text. This is one of those cards we will re-evalaute with every set while it is legal, hoping the pieces fall into place.
Nearheath Chaplain: It’s not Lingering Souls, but it is all we have. White may not get Madness, but this is a close approximation, making the graveyard relevant for a color that rarely gets that interaction.
Thraben Inspector: Elvish Visionary has seen play in almost every format and constantly finds its way into decks where it has no business being. This card, while not Elvish Visionary exactly, will be a solid contributor to decks looking to eke out the small advantages. I’m a fan.
Engulf the Shore: There will be a deck that packs all of the bounce in the format that you will lose to and you will hate it and want to go home and rethink your life and maybe you don’t need this as a hobby and you’re better off just playing video games anyway, but the next set is coming out soon and you want to see what’s in it and oh, look a new zombie, and you have always loved zombie decks so maybe you should just by a few packs and…
Asylum Visitor: The best “almost Dark Confidant but not quite because reprinting Dark Confidant would just make too much sense” they’ve printed since Dark Confidant. Aggressively costed (3 power on a two drop with no drawbacks isn’t something black gets often), and with a relevant ability and creature type.
Ever After: Awesome artwork aside, I spent the last month hoping and praying that Wizards would give us a 4 mana reanimation spell, even if it had to have Madness, to fill in the hole for the Emeria Shepherd deck I have been running. This isn’t it. It will, however, spawn a new type of reanimator deck. I am anxious to test this in Modern with any number of 2-creature instant-win combos. In Standard, while Dragnolord Atarka is awesome, I don’t know if we have a real “game ender” of a creature to reanimate. Yet.
Mindwrack Demon: I think this card is going to be bigger than the acclaim it is currently receiving. As a 4/5 it can block Goldnight Castigator, Olivia, and Drana and live to tell the tale (it also trades with Dragonlord Ojutai). It enables multiple decks (Delirium decks, Zombie decks, reanimator decks), and can beat down efficiently. The drawback is no joke, but it is one that you should be able to get around if you build your deck properly. The fact that it has trample means it can also get by those pesky spirit tokens the Innistrad blocks loves so much.
Pick the Brain: This is going to be one of the “backbone” sideboard cards for the entire time it’s legal. It’s a great way to fight any deck that isn’t dumping its hand by turn 3 (especially, cough, cough, the Eldrazi menace), and is serviceable even if you don’t have Delirium (even though the Delirium ability is the main draw).
Avacyn’s Judgment: One of the most high-variance cards in the set. Depending on the way the format shapes up, this could be one of the most powerful cards in the set, or unplayable trash. If the format takes a turn where lots of low-to-average toughness creatures are seeing play (or lots of tokens) this could be Bonfire of the Damned level swingy.
Goldnight Castigator: The drawback is real, and there will be games where this thing sits in your hand like a millstone, but a pseudo 4/5 flier with haste in red at four mana is nothing to sneeze at. I expect big things from this card. And brewers, find a way to pair this with Assault Formation.
Insolent Neonate: The set’s “Little Engine That Could”. With menace, he will get through for a couple points of damage, and his ability works well with madness, delirium, and as a way to trigger Liliana, Heretical Healer.
Cryptolith Rite: Turning every card in play into your own personal Birds of Paradise is a powerful ability. I can see this popping up in decks in Standard and Modern forever. This is one of those cards that will be brewed with until the sun goes nova.
Tireless Tracker: The mid-rangiest card in the set. Of course, I love it. Providing a steady stream of card advantage while giving an avenue to becoming a game winning threat by itself, all while tacked to a serviceable sized body. I don’t know if this will see the top tables, but it will always see play in my dreams. Also, I want to pair this with Alhammarret’s Archive to draw all the cards. ALL OF THEM.
Traverse the Ulvenwald: My favorite card in the set. This will see play in Standard and has a lot of potential to be a defining card in Modern. Delirium isn’t exactly easy to achieve, but you can build your deck in a way that this is almost always going to tutor for your threats in the mid-to-late game.
Ulvenwald Hydra: A solid roleplayer. With the amount of playable flying creatures in the set, Reach is going to be super relevant, and this will hold down the fort against practically everything (not named Ulamog) in the format. It’s not Prime Time, but it’s good enough to see play.
Anguished Unmaking: Much Flavor. Great removal. Modern playable. So Win.
The Gitrog Monster: I’m sure you’ve heard about the Modern implications already, so I won’t rehash them beyond saying, yes, I really want this deck to be good. In Standard, he’s an engine that gums up the ground. Again, outside of Ulamog, he’s going to outclass everything. Even World Breaker can’t tangle with the frog and live. There’s a place for THE monster in the format.
Nahiri, the Harbinger: This card has powerful abilities, but they’re a bit confusing. I do think her time in Standard will be memorable, but not until we get to see what the harbinger is Harbingering in Eldritch Moon.
Olivia, Mobilized for War: An extremely powerful card. If you untap with this, your odds of winning go up astronomically. I think she will shine, but her best decks won’t be tribal (sorry, vampire fans, go sparkle elsewhere).
Sigarda, Heron’s Grace: Why aren’t more people talking about this card? She’s fantastic. She blocks Mindwrack Demon, Thunderbreak Regent, and Archangel Avacyn for days, creates her own little army, and even protects the little guys from removal. This may be the biggest sleeper of the set.
Sorin, Grim Nemesis: I wasn’t all that excited about Sorin when he was first spoiled, but seeing him in play is impressive. This is the premier control finisher, able to provide card advantage, lifegain, and game winning threat… without even activating his ultimate ability. When you factor in the other cards in Shadows Over Innistrad, W/B is the starting point for control decks post-rotation. I think we’ll be happy to see Sorin rotate by the time he is finished with Standard.
Westvale Abbey/Ormendahl, Profane Prince: I was absolutely wrong about this card when it was first spoiled. This may be the most defining card of the set, and it will have major implications on the format for the next year. It’s easy to miss how hard this card is pushed at first glance. But, it isn’t Legendary, doesn’t enter tapped, doesn’t require colored mana to activate its abilities, and it creates a game ending token. If you are not prepared, you will lose to this card, and often, as it doesn’t take much for a stagnated board state to turn into a flying, hastey, indestructible, lifelinking demon.
Corrupted Grafstone: It’s been awhile since Standard had a mana rock. While Corruptd Grafstone has a few hoops to jump through for maximization, it will see a ton of play.
Overall, Shadows Over Innistrad feels a little top heavy, with the best cards being Mythic and Rare. I think the opportunities for brewing are immense with this set (and I didn’t even touch on some of my favorite brewing cards, like Fevered Visions and Rise from the Tides) and I think it will completely change the format once it is legal.
My Top Ten cards of Shadows over Innistrad:
If you like my suggestions, you can follow me on Twitter: @travishall456. I throw around random observations and deck ideas every day. You can also hear me on the Horde of Notions podcast on occassion, discussing deck ideas for FNM level events and the PTQ grinders.