Some Limited formats’ best decks are very blunt, a random collection of strong cards. On the other hand, some require synergistic finesse to put together top tier affairs. Innistrad, somewhat unusually, permits both. Some of the cards in the set work well in a brute-force, overwhelm strategy. And some cards shine in a tightly woven, interlocking masterpiece. And a lot of cards do both, playing very different roles depending on what else you’ve picked up. Frankly I think it’s a great environment. I’ve played it a lot.
This article is the culmination of those matches. An overview of every uncommon in the set, how it commonly functions and how to best utilize them. I chose uncommons because they are the hardest workers in Limited. They have power and complexity far above commons, but you still see them often enough that you can actually adjust for them. You learn a format by playing with its commons, but you master a format by embracing the uncommons.
Comments: We’ll start with one of the more overrated uncommon in the set. Cloistered Youth can be a part of some excellent openings, but on its own it rarely carries significant impact. The unflipped side has tribal merit; the flipped side has stat merit, but none the twain shall meet. The question for this card is how it pushes your agenda forward. If you’re playing against a control deck, they likely have plenty of removal or walls set up, and if you’re playing against aggro, the life loss effect is highly relevant. It doesn’t require anything around it, which is nice, but at the same it’s rarely ideal. You shouldn’t cut it but don’t expect miracles.
Best use: The best situation is when you care about both ends. A fast white deck with a Human subtheme is ideal, so cards like Champion of the Parish, Silver-Inlaid Dagger, or Demonmail Hauberk are the wraparound. You may take it early to signal to other players what you’re drafting, but otherwise it has little value as an early pick.
Comments: An obviously fantastic card, perfectly aligning tribal themes, mana curve, and desirable ETB. You take it highly and use it as a reason to play white.
Since Fiend Hunter is a creature with a powerful but unreliable ability (they can kill your Hunter) it plays best as removing blockers, allowing your team to continue attacking. This plays well with white is trying to do but it also means it’s not a great defensive card. Of course you play it everywhere, but you simply cannot count on it to keep you alive for a length of time. In other words, a hand with Fiend Hunters but no win conditions may be weaker than it seems.
Best use: You can set up combos with Blasphemous Act or Altar’s Reap, but these are unreliable and/or transparent. The best time to play Fiend Hunter is when your opponent has tapped out to play a big blocker. Your two/three/four drops get to crash in. The best part of this scenario is the tempo: they can kill your Fiend Hunter and get a guy, or simply play another guy, but either way you’re ahead. If you can play Fiend Hunter and a two-drop in one turn, I like your chances very much.
Comments: The decks that win in Innistrad seem to be “layered” in that they can play one game and switch to another. This plays into the dual nature of a lot of the cards in the set, since cards that can play multiple roles can be quite valuable. The other option is decks that are blisteringly fast. All the synergy for the first group can be steamrolled by decks from the second, which is why a lot of players swear by em.
Gallows Warden has an ability but make no mistake: if you want it, it’s because of its stats. A 3/3 flier is surprisingly soft in this environment as I learned when I (mistakenly) took these highly the first few times I drafted. It’s certainly not bad but as I said, Innistrad is not a format where “a bunch of good cards that don’t go anywhere” win tournaments. You want speed or synergy, and Gallows Warden provides neither.
The issue here is that it either dies to every removal spell or it’s simply smaller than cheaper creatures, i.e. werewolves. You still probably play it but those decks thrive with a lower mana curve. White decks should not be particularly enthusiastic about the late game.
Best use: Gallows Warden excels as a Plan B. If your deck’s particularly low curve can’t quite finish things off, Gallows Warden exists as a final method to do those 3-6 points. This comes up most often in the mirror.
Comments: It’s not that it’s impossible to get this card to do something, because it’s not. Virtue is clearly meant for budget Constructed decks, but it has game in Limited. The real issue is the decks that like this generally like all the equip/pump effects, of which this format has an abundance. Is there ever a reasonable quantity of token makers that you want this over the more reliable Demonmail? Especially when Demonmail is such a great way of creating those tokens in the first place?
The good news is you get these late. Last pick late. The bad news is, there’s a reason. You can pick it up and keep it in the back of your mind, but the odds of it coming together are exceedingly small. In another format this may be a sleeper power card, but at least for triple Innistrad, it’s a very uphill battle.
Best use: Back from the Brink! So sick. Otherwise U/W Stitcher’s Apprentice + Doomed Traveler/ Mausoleum Guard. G/W mill Spider Spawning? Moan of the Unhallowed barely needs the help but sure, why not. Cellar Door, except how many non-creatures does that deck want to run? If your deck has traction with Intangible Virtue, you should know it.
Comments: While a very strong card it’s not quite top tier. A 2/2 for four is just a tad weak for the best white decks, although you hardly ever cut it. There are two main ways to play the Guard.
The first is the most common for me: just gum up the ground and make my opponent unhappy it’s there. This just makes it the white Striped Bears, but that’s not a bad thing. Red decks in particular hate this guy because it trades so well with so many things.
The second way is with tricks. The sacrifice effects, Prey Upon, etc. The problem with this plan is that Thraben Sentry fills basically the same role but better. But if you’re not sure you’re dedicated to that deck and just want an efficient dude, Mausoleum Guard is an easy pick.
Best use: As I said you’ll hardly ever cut it but even if you do Guard makes a great sideboard card. Usually base-red but sometimes base-black; some deck with weaker guys and more pinpoint removal. But if you have a deck that likes to sacrifice for value, she’s fine there too.
Midnight Haunting is a great card marred only by its unreliability. Of course it always puts two 1/1 fliers into play, but whether those fliers matter is up in the air. Unlike Mausoleum Guard, which you usuallyplay, you will always maindeck the Haunting. The times you get to knock out two Interlopers are lovely but just as often you’ll use it to fog your opponent in a race, start dealing two a turn in the air, and (sometimes) trade one token for a card, with a little left over for yourself. The only real strike to Haunting is that it costs the same as Rebuke, which means your opponent may (correctly) read you for something that affects their attack step.
The question isn’t whether Haunting is good but where you take it in a pick order. For example in a blank deck, do we like Haunting or Chapel Geist more? With no other assistance Geist is probably a bit better, but it’s a lot easier for Haunting to be stronger than Geist. Haunting loves all equipment, loves Travel Preparations, loves playing with your werewolves and screwing up theirs. All in all, between playing triple roles with aggro, control, or combo, Haunting can be pretty spectacular.
Best use: With four Hauntings I’d start looking at Intangible Virtue but let’s be serious here. Haunting fits wonderfully in r/w decks with werewolves, allowing you to flip them while still developing your board. This deck also plays well with Rally the Peasants although as I explain below, I think that card is quite overrated. Like lots of other white cards, Midnight Haunting is also great with sacrifice decks and equipment decks.
Comments: Unfortunately white tranquilities always seem to play in sets with either no good enchantments or good white pacifisms. This is the definition of a narrow sideboard card.
Best use: Curse.dec, usually Curse of the Bloody Tome. This makes the lifegain aspect superfluous, but we knew it was a throwaway ability already. Once in a great while it’ll play against a Burning Vengeance deal but the fact is Spiritual Exorcisms are easier to get and the better card anyway. If you drafted this it’s because there was nothing else to take. Nine times out of ten it will never get near your 40.
Comments: I want to like this card, but I wanted to like Coffin Purge too, and that never went anywhere in limited.
A big strike is that so many cards exile the graveyard as a cost, e.g. Stitched Drake, Harvest Pyre. You can exile their Think Twice and Alchemy, but you’ll always be down a card, kind of defeating the whole point.
Proactively this card can only benefit you with one other card: Burning Vengeance. Burning Vengeance decks are rarely white, but that’s not to say they don’t have Shimmering Grottos. If you manage to pick up three Vengeances, maybe two in a pinch, I’d look to this card. It doesn’t come up often.
Best use: As a foil to Unburial Rites. Even here you have a weak, narrow card that you need to draw at the right time to be effective. Rites are just slow enough to permit you this chance, but it’s still not a great plan. This is another narrow sideboard card unlikely to see the light of day.
Comments: In some formats this card would be utterly sick, but Innistrad is not it. As I explained with Intangible Virtue, there are so many good, permanent pump effects that narrow and/or transient pumps are unnecessary. You can afford to be choosy.
Rally is in the right colors of course; R/W has both first strikers and weaker creatures that appreciate the little extra push. People dream about this winning games, and it happens often enough to keep getting taken, but the truth is there are better ways to accomplish that goal. Play an equipment that doesn’t require an army before it becomes effective.
Best use: Midnight Hauntings, Village Ironsmiths, Voiceless Spirits, Doomed Travelers, Kruin Outlaws. Some of those cards go earlier than others but with enough of them an Army of Allah effect is worthwhile. I’d still rather have Daggers and Pitchforks and Cleavers more often than not.
Comments: Probably the best uncommon of the set, Slayer has card advantage, tempo, and board presence in spades. Better than most rares, any deck that starts with Slayer is starting off well.
Slayer is powerful enough that you can warp your deck a little for it. Splashing is one way, but so is prioritizing U/W for Silent Departure, or B/W for Unburial Rites. It’s not necessary to make the card fantastic, but why not maximize your good fortune?
Best use: Unlike Fiend Hunter, Slayer is effective offensively and defensively. That being said, it’s a brutal four drop in the standard white deck, allowing your army to crash through their defensive Armored Skaab or Villagers of Estwald. Flametongue Kavu was in a very “bounce your stuff” set but at the end of the day it was a premiere card simply because it was so brutally efficient.
Commons: “Rider? I don’t even know her!”
Intimidate has been a surprisingly welcome ability in Innistrad (see also Gatstaf Shepherd). You can presume the Rider is a 2/2 unblockable and that will be true more often than not.
A 2/2 unblockable is a good card but it is not the end of the story. Of course like all base white decks, the curve is paramount. Rider fits well, but there needs to be aggression around it too. This means a couple things. The first is that it’s not a real finisher in a control deck. And the second is that it requires a lot of plains to maximize.
The double white is where most people get screwed up. That this card is powerful is undisputed, but whether it can be reliably cast is another matter altogether. If it’s a regular four drop, you may as well start looking at the incredibly weak Abbey Griffin. But as a reliable two drop, you’ve got a foundation for a strong white build. Luckily seeing it late is a good sign you can make that deck happen.
Best use: Early drop plus something to clear the way. A strong sideboard card against those aggressive white decks is One-Eyed Scarecrow, which of course does a great job against Spectral Rider too. The primary response is removal/equipment, which is standard. The secondary response is the underrated Spare from Evil, a Falter facsimile that often lets those white decks get through for the final points. I always want a Spare from Evil with Spectral Rider, just in case my opponents have been artifact-creature heavy.
Comments: Unlike white, blue is much more multidimensional when it comes to deck construction. As such, this card varies quite a bit on the power level.
The stats themselves are fine but mana curve is still a factor. Deranged Assistant helps but with flashback, mana is at a premium. Having to choose between casting this guy or flashbacking Silent Departure can be annoying.
The fact this guy is a reasonable creature is of course important for some of blue’s stitched themes, but here again mana is a concern. It’s great if you have a focused mill deck that can reliably get creatures in the yard. Unfortunately sometimes you just need combat to happen and cast your Makeshift Maulers later. When that occurs, it’s your cheaper creatures that fuel the engine, not the late game power fliers.
Best use: The ability doesn’t need to matter but its stats sure do. Battleground Geist doesn’t really fit into a zombie archetype, hence you’d want it in a blue tempo/flier deck. U/W is ideal here, but it also finishes well in U/G (Orchard Spirit). The more focused on a theme your deck is, the less likely the Geist actually supports it.
Comments: An odd card that doesn’t quite do anything perfectly, but all in all fits its roles well. There are two zones where it works best.
In the early game you can set yourself up to power out Stitched Drakes and Makeshift Maulers. The first pitch of a creature leads to the first Skaab, and then when the Brute is inevitably blocked or killed, the second Skaab is waiting to come down too. The times where the Brute gets through once or twice is pretty great too. We are talking 5 power haste on turn four (in blue!). This is probably its best use but it also works defensively. A 5-power creature blocks anything effectively.
The other window is the traditional mill one. Get rid of a glut of lands or Frightful Delusions or whatever in the late game. This is far less appealing because blue is a mana-hungry color in this format, but it’s a perfectly valid option. If you’re digging for something special, or even if you’re just at parity, a looter will push you far ahead. That is the greatest appeal of the card: it plays well in synergistic decks but it has plenty of game for “normal” decks too.
Its drawbacks are it dies to everything and I mean absolutely everything. Midnight Haunting, Geistflame, Curse of Death’s Hold, etc. Unless your opponent has serious missteps it’s not going to win the game on its own, meaning it’s an enabler rather than a win condition. A good enabler to be sure, but blue drafting is about the balance between picking up good stuff and the means of using it. If your deck is missing a foundation, Civilized Scholar probably won’t fix it.
Best use: Pitching Think Twices and Geistflames are great, making it an ideal card in a Burning Vengeance deck. The turbo Stitched deck likewise loves it. Runechanter’s Pike and Sharpened Pitchfork also equip well.
Comments: An interesting card that usually doesn’t quite do enough to justify its inclusion. With a couple exceptions it’s rarely a card you’re actively looking for; anytime Curiosity is good, other cards are usually better. We’ll get to the exceptions in a bit.
A strike against Curiosity is that it’s an aura, Magic’s most ephemeral card type. Hitting once, usually not a problem, but that just makes it cycle. The advantage comes when you hit more than once, but that of course is offset when you get 2:1, or it’s just dead in your hand.
The other big problem with Curiosity is that other cards just do it better. If you said not exactly better, you have a keen sense for specifics. But I mean if you have unblockable creatures, equipment is generally just as if not more effective. That sounds strange but don’t forget equipment is often good for getting a creature through, not just rewarding you for achieving it naturally. Four-power creatures can tread where one-power creatures cannot.
As I said there are a couple exceptions. The big one, which I’ll get into more shortly, is Invisible Stalker. This bastard brilliantly wears Curiosity because the card advantage is guaranteed, and it helps you draw to your other Stalker enablers. The other exception is just curve considerations. A mana hungry deck would appreciate the 1cc aura, even if the effect is less reliable or even less desirable than a more expensive card. More often than not for this situation I’d rather play Spectral Flight, but again Curiosity is a decent alternative.
Best use: Definitely if your opponent has a lot of cats, otherwise Invisible Stalker. Barring that nonsense, Curiosity does make a fine sideboard card. Bring it in if your opponent really can’t kill a flier. Putting a Curiosity on a Lantern Spirit can be enough to turn the tide, especially if you use the rest of the turn to play another card.
Comments: Good players can have very heated discussions about the role of permission in Limited decks.
My take is that Dissipate is a good card, but it’s rarely amazing. This is partially stylistic, as I like my draft decks to be proactive. It’s also the nature of Innistrad Limited, which really allows you to glut out at the three slot.
When you discuss reactive cards the real question has to be what’s in your opponent’s deck. The higher your opponent’s mana curve, the better Dissipate or Lost in the Mist become. Your opponents are less likely to have a board presence, hence giving you the time to skip playing cards, allowing you to keep counter mana open. Naturally their higher-mana cards tend to be stronger, which gives you another reason to want to counter them.
But this is the fundamental problem with permission in this format: the best decks are very fast, and the best players see it coming a mile away. Having a card that’s only good against weak players or weak decks is like finding a $5 bill in Uncle Scrooge’s money bin: It’s nice to have but you shouldn’t really need it. A lot of players like Dissipate because it’s the “ultimate answer,” but I’d rather work on constructing the “ultimate threat.”
Best use: The question is simply where it fits in your deck and where it works against your opponent. If your deck has triple Murder of Crows and you just need to stay alive until five mana, Dissipate looks pretty good. Likewise if your opponent has triple Murder of Crows and you need an effective way to stop one, Dissipate looks pretty good. If you take it you’ll probably play it, but it only rarely enhances your own deck’s synergy.
Comments: One of blue’s power uncommons. A subtle effect that in this format plays quite well.
The main effect, a four mana Time Ebb, simply works in this environment. With mana curve at such a premium, a lot of decks can have two- and three-drops in play, making the Grasp effective at pushing through your damage with no card disadvantage. Oftentimes you come out on top on mana when you pop a bigger creature or something equipped or a werewolf that your opponent traded their turn to flip.
The flashback is expensive, but it certainly happens. Since Grasp can help you achieve a late game, the card is a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. What’s interesting here is that if you’re at eight mana, it’s rare that one side has a particularly overwhelming advantage. In other words, if you’ve got that much mana in play, the game has developed such that your opponent isn’t already dead and they haven’t already killed you. Grasp of Phantoms can break parity since the second cast is usually pure card advantage, which traditionally is what you’re looking for in a parity situation. There are no downsides here; you draft it and play it every time.
Best use: Grasp is always fine, but whether it’s excellent depends on your opponent. The more equips or expensive guys, the better it becomes. It’s probably ideal in U/G and U/W, which can have an early presence and need just a little help breaking through.
He’s such a dick!
Comments: When I first saw this guy on the spoiler I thought he was a pure skill tester. A 1/1 unblockable is so irrelevant you don’t care if you can target it, you can just ignore it. But as always, context is everything.
How good would this guy be in M12, with bloodthirst the mechanic du jour? U/R and U/G would snap it up. Well Innistrad likes it even more.
The main deal is that Innistrad simply contains a lot of cards, an above-average number I’m sure, that interact very favorably with Stalker. Highlights are Butcher’s Cleaver, Curiosity, Demonmail Hauberk, Silver-Inlaid Dagger. Just a little behind are Bonds of Faith, Spectral Flight, Sharpened Pitchfork, Travel Preparations, and Furor of the Bitten.
Cleaver, and to a lesser extent Curiosity, will utterly take over a game. In either event you have an essential two-card combo that most Limited decks can never beat. Yes of course they can draw their maindeck Naturalize or Rolling Temblor or Tribute to Hunger and maybe they can escape. But they better do it fast because a few hits will make the game completely out of reach.
All the cards involved are cheap and mostly involve a minor investment. Stalker + Flight is a perfectly legit turn two, turn three play that only seriously above-average opposing draws can deal with. But you’re still playing too, with all your Grasps and Departures buying you the time to keep slapping them with Stalker. And if things go really south, you have a 3/3 flier ready to defend until the board stabilizes. It’s a situation that is beatable, but I’d be betting on the Stalker player here. Despite any kind of draft or playskill disparity, Stalker + X can outright win. It wouldn’t be true in every format, but for Innistrad it is. The kicker is that besides the fact there are so many cards that go well, except for Bonds and Cleaver, they usually go pretty late. Take a Stalker early and the ammunition will come.
How high do I take Invisible Stalker? Well it’s getting higher and higher these days. I’d probably take Murder of Crows over it pack 1 pick 1 but I could be wrong. Murder is completely bonkers and doesn’t need help to get there. The combo cards are weaker without Stalker, which is a detriment to Stalker. But the power to completely derail the interactivity of the game is an awesome capability. Invisible Stalker is dumb.
Best use: One Stalker is good but doesn’t require overly warping your deck. The second means you’re playing a Stalker deck, which is just bounce and card draw and pump. You are on a different wavelength then, which is a good thing. Most of the helpers come late, so don’t bend over backwards to get them. If you want a Flail or Spectral Flight or often Curiosity, you’ll pick it up.
Comments: Big yawns. This guy is exactly what you think, an underpowered body that’s slightly more difficult to kill. The spirit creature type can offer a mild bonus, but because he doesn’t go into most archetypes, he falls under the category of “filler.”
His best use is probably U/W, but I’d still put him below Chapel Geist, Voiceless Spirit (“if you want me to draft you just say so!”) and, depending, Stitched Drake. While Lantern Spirit lets you do some tricks, it’s far more likely his one toughness will hurt more than any kind of self-bounce effect will help. I would actually like him decently as a white card, but for blue, having things to do with excess mana has never been a problem.
Best use: The deck that most want him, U/W fliers or U/B aggro, have an issue with an overabundance of one toughness creatures. Its best use is simply to fall into a curve when the rest of deck didn’t come together as well as you’d like. If you happen to be mono-blue, which does happen once in a great while, it gets much better.
Comments: Memory’s Journey finds the perfect interaction between narrow sideboard cards and cycle-finishers. Unfortunately that doesn’t mean it’s a good card, because it’s not. It does have some niche application though.
The first “normal” ability is targeting their graveyard, ideally as a response to, Unburial Rites. It does, kind of, counter Armored Skaab or Forbidden Alchemy. They’re left with the creature or the card they drew, but you have the flashback effect too. Unfortunately this kind of interaction really doesn’t do anything in the real world. Having a narrow answer requires a lot of things to go right, and it’s unlikely their deck is so one dimensional they will care much anyway.
The other ability is aiming at yourself. The kiddie version is that if they kill your Olivia Voldaren or whatever, you can slip it back to draw it again. Most players reading this website are better than that, but you can see what Wizards was imagining when they printed the card. The effect is popular, not good.
What is legitimate is having a deck that empties their library very fast, with Alchemies, Mulch, etc. At that stage you can use Journey to pick your draw steps. If you have Runic Repetition, you can do it ad nauseam. Killing them or staying alive while you set this up is one issue, but infinite recursion is powerful.
The other legitimate use for this card is an anti-mill deck card. This is fine enough although it may only give you an extra draw step if the mill deck is really humming. Since the standard play against those decks is to side up to 47 cards, this may as well be one of them. But yes, narrow.
Best use: Unburial Rites again. Considering U/G is relatively rare as an archetype the odds of you maximizing this are
exceedingly small. The occasional sideboard or occasional player in a specific archetype is the best you’ll do.
Comments: Another one of the strongest uncommon in the set, Murder of Crows isn’t fancy, just brutally efficient. A 4/4 flier for five is significantly higher than the standard, and the ability is likewise excellent. Murder can, and often does, completely take a game over by itself. It’s the best card in your deck that helps you find #2 and #3.
Best use: The only real issue with Murder is the loot ability, which requires you to carefully know your deck’s mana needs. If you have Cackling Counterpart in your deck, are you trying to loot away lands or loot to 7 mana? It’s a minor point perhaps, but Murder gets targeting with Bonds of Faith and Claustrophobia a bunch, making the ability persist even when the body is gone.
The first is, of course, the quality of flashback cards. Getting back Purify the Grave or Memory’s Journey, or even Think Twice, is hardly ever worth the mana. On the flip side are cards like Cackling Counterpart and Devil’s Play. You love to have them back except the third casting never happens. The game is already over.
Luckily the best cards are in-color: Silent Departure and Dream Twist. Silent Departure is the most common, and the mana plays very well too. The third and fourth casting of Departure is when your opponent starts rolling their eyes and flipping tables and telling the guy next to him “C’mon! This guy here! C’mon!” That’s good! For similar responses, try the third and fourth Grasp of Phantoms, Sever the Bloodline. Less dramatic but still good are Geistflame and Desperate Ravings. And Dream Twist is simply more mill. You or them, any deck that wants Dream Twist really wants Dream Twist, hence more being better. Derp derp, Flashback + Repetition.
The problem with Repetition isn’t imagination but execution. The card was made to evoke dreams of overwhelming card advantage. The reality is that most flashback cards in this format assist you in winning the game rather than doing it by their lonesome. And of those, the best are obvious and quickly picked up. Which means finding the sweet spot between flashback, Repetition, and actual ways to win can be tricky. It also means that Repetition is only as good as your best flashback spell, plus three mana. It still comes up; you really would play three Silent Departures or two Departure plus Repetition. But the reality is while the card is unique, the effect is intrinsically replaceable. Take it if it fits but it should (rightfully) go late.
Best use: Definitely the mill deck, start by milling yourself and end by going after them. The obvious R/U Burning Vengeance/Ravings/etc. deck likewise appreciates this card. It’s another card which again lets you take the game to a different, non-interactive level, which again is very powerful. But until your graveyard comes together, it’s the deadest card in your deck. Construct appropriately.
Comments: No card has vacillated more in my pick order than Goliath. At first I thought it was one of the silly-good cards blue had, then I thought he was almost unplayable. As my understanding of the format has evolved I’ve placed it squarely in the “average” camp.
To be sure, when Goliath is good it’s really good. It’s always bigger than everything else and unless the board state is really off, gets to attack with presence and impunity. It’s not quite Shivan Dragon but it’s hard to block and the combat hurts.
However, Goliath has two big issues. The first is that cost. Six mana is a lot. Two dead creatures is a lot. By the time you get to six mana, ideally you do have those dead creatures, but it’s no guarantee. And if your finisher is already expensive, the last thing you want is extra hurdles.
Which leads to the second problem: sometimes Goliath doesn’t do a whole lot. This can happen in one of two ways: either the body is irrelevant, or the opponent removes it. Regarding the first, yes Goliath is the largest ground-pounder on the board, but some decks have fliers and some decks vomit so much speed into play that one creature on turn 6 doesn’t do the job.
Which leads into the second problem, which is that Goliath is vulnerable to a host of spells. Bonds of Faith, Claustrophobia, Silent Departure, Grasp of Phantoms(!), Nightbird’s Clutches, Slayer, etc. There’s a bunch and if you’re spending all this time setting him up, your opponent just has more time to find an answer. Admittedly these effects are relevant against all the Skaabs, but most don’t require the exile/mana investment of this one.
All this means that while Goliath has power, it’s not incredibly reliable. I personally hate unreliable cards in limited but Goliath’s potential almost gets him there. I usually start him, but I’ve kept him on the bench a few times too. It’s a role player, which means pick him up, but not too highly.
Best use: Goliath is best in one of two ways: Plan B or sideboarding. Like Gallows Warden or Bump in the Night, Goliath can be effective as a finisher if the initial rush doesn’t quite get there. It’s just a little too slow and vulnerable to exist as a primary win condition.
The other way is as a fantastic sideboard card. Red and Green and Black kind of hate this guy, and those decks can be slow, removal-heavy deals, which Goliath foils perfectly. He’s the ultimate trump to their ground forces and if they’re killing your stuff anyway, there’s no problem in feeding him. For that reason alone I’m always happy to have one available somewhere.
Comments: A good card, Ghoul falls just a touch short of being great. The issue isn’t stats, which are perfectly fine. It’s simply an issue of being a soft fit for most decks
Black is a tough color in Innistrad because it’s not quite sure if it’s control or aggro (usually white’s problem). Black has these early beaters and removal, but the removal isn’t completely reliable, and then it has this card advantage engine, but the rewards aren’t completely there. It’s a very divided color.
The zombie recur subtheme, with Ghoulraiser and Ghoulcaller’s Chant, is a strong plan. But their strength lies not just in creating card advantage but creating an overwhelming board presence. This is basic tempo theory: playing more cards than your opponent is how you get ahead. The great play with the Ghoul cards is getting a pair of zombies into play in one turn. Abattoir Ghoul’s cost makes that hard to do.
All this is not to say the card isn’t welcome and useful, just that its strengths come from its own merits. If you need a four drop it’s fine. If you need some defensive power it’s fine. He equips well. And so on. This puts his best synergy in decks that don’t really care about synergy. B/R is a great fit for him, those decks are often a collection of motley dudes and removal. He’s ok but not great in B/U mill, and somewhat outclassed in B/G. B/W likes him to set up a first strike wall, but that combination can be overwhelmed with four drops. He’s good, not great.
Best use: B/R decks can appreciate him as a good four drop that has some inherent power. It plays well with Geistflame too. It’s never the all-star player but it has a foundational role as defense or aggression while the better parts of your deck get developed.
Comments: Do you have Curse of Death’s Hold? If you do Witch is pretty good. If you don’t, the Witch goes from fine to near-unplayable.
For the curse-finding ability, there simply are not enough quality curses to yet justify her. Bitterheart’s stock might go up when more sets are released, but we’re not there yet. The best curses besides Death’s Hold are Bloody Tome and the red ones, depending on the situation. But the red ones are more aggressive-oriented, making a five drop, 1-power creature counterproductive. Bloody Tome is legit enough, if you’re making the U/B mill (Mill is usually U/R but Drownyards allows for U/B too). This is a niche application but it exists.
Otherwise you’re left in a bad spot. On its own it can trade with some dumb green creature, only spending four more mana for one point of toughness over Typhoid Rats. But if that’s what needed for the situation, so be it.
Comments: Diregraf Ghoul tops my list for most underrated uncommon in the set. He’s a fantastic card that I crave for every black deck I draft. He’s not a dumb card like Slayer or Noble, just a strong fit for what black is doing in this set.
First off, the ability to play an early spell to offset their Mayor or Reckless Waif makes cheaper cards inherently more valuable. The related ability to more easily play two spells in one turn is similarly useful.
But the Ghoul is an actual beater, regularly doing serious damage against some opponents if played early. It’s also eminently recurrable, and unlike Abattoir, can actually be cast the same turn it’s returned. Black’s removal suite in this set is limited, but if you use the best stuff to clear off big creatures and allow your 2/2s and theirs to trade, you’ve got an effective presence. In short, Diregraf Ghoul works well from a defensive, aggressive, and card advantage standpoint. Subtly, it’s often one of the most powerful cards in those decks.
Best use: Unlike Abattoir, Diregraf plays best in focused decks, although I would never cut it. The ideal use is probably the build-your-own Moan of the Unhallowed effect; maximizing the turns you put two creatures into play at once.
Comments: The Disciple is an ok sideboard card and ok in morbid decks, but rarely extraordinary as either. It does a few things decently but for the effect you want, there are other cards that do a better job.
It’s a bit soft as a maindeck card, simply because it’s so small for the cost. It is ok as a sideboard against opponents’ Claustrophobia or Bonds of Faith cards, although often you prefer Altar’s Reap. What other things can Disciple do?
B/W humans likes him for the effect, but that deck in particular can have issues with undersized creatures. He plays well with Traitorous Blood of course. The Cultist is the preferred sacrifice outlet, but the Disciple comes later and is a little easier on the mana. And any morbid effect, e.g. Banshee, likes him fine, although it is telling the Disciple is often the first one sacrificed. Basically Disciple is what you play when your first choice cards are unavailable.
Best use: It does play extremely well in any deck that uses Village Cannibals, which again is often B/W. While one would think he could be a race-breaker, or a card that undoes their removal, there are a lot of incidental cards that mitigate it. Geistflame and the like can kill Disciple without your opponent missing a beat. Except for the anti-enchantment effect, Disciple is best used proactively for your build.
One of the bombier uncommons, Noble has two strong abilities: reverse a losing situation or turn an incremental advantage into unstoppable force.
Noble is another card that changes the “wavelength” or “cadence” of a game. It flattens the value of all your creatures because you don’t care what dies. That allows you much more control over combat, either attacking with abandon or blocking for value. Everything else being equal, Noble should put the opponent seriously behind.
The only “trick” with Noble is that it’s slightly overcosted for its body, making it less than ideal on turn 4. In fact the best use is casting it before attacking with your zombie army, creating a situation where you don’t care if your creatures are blocked or not (i.e. you win). Although a 2/2 flier for four is still reasonable, Noble plays best as a late game card.
If you don’t use it as a pseudo-overrun, the other primary use is to give your control deck’s removal extra value. Turn 5 Noble + Dead Weight is a great, great play.
Noble requires an answer from your opponent because given enough time it will take over the game. However there are a variety of answers. Killing it at instant speed can ruin a planned attack, although in practice this doesn’t come up too often. And no I don’t know why it triggers on itself dying when none of the other creatures do.
The best way to answer it, aside from just killing it quickly, is simply having bigger creatures. While putting the ability on a 2/2 flier is amazing, the ability gets much more manageable if the body is irrelevant. That means largerer creatures, scarecrows, or anything else when you can invalidate the stats. Noble is great when you’re winning, but what isn’t? Where Noble is most frustrating is in a close game of trading back and forth. Create a board state where that doesn’t happen and Noble is less abusive (and vice versa).
Best use: Blasphemous Act. Past that, Noble welcomes a good curve so you can get value out of trading your two and three drops. As long as you don’t depend on Noble to survive, the card will do great, great things. Very strong card.
Comments: Above I said a key pillar of black’s strategy is playing multiple zombies in one turn. Moan cuts out the middleman and just pops 4 power of creatures into play on turn four. And for some reason it does it again later.
Moan is one of those cards that didn’t look as strong as it is when the spoiler came out, but has since turned out to be one of black’s best uncommons. The card is eminently flexible, fitting card advantage alongside defensive or aggressive strategies. It’s surprisingly effective against G/W decks, widely considered the strongest archetype in the format. And it also makes a bunch of power to keep up the pressure, if you’re into that sort of thing. Every black deck wants this. Follow up with Noble for more fun.
I would take this after the first Banshee but before the second. It clearly plays very well with morbid, and if the deck needed it, may put it above cards like Victim of Night. Your needs can adjust the order somewhat, but it’s always a great pickup.
Best use: The only question is if you’re going to play it aggressively or defensively. If you run it defensively, you trade early damage and then start winning with card advantage. If you play aggressively you just use it as Biggs and Wedge and keep up the heat. In other words, the best way to play it as emphasis for whatever your plan is. I’m partial to Forbidden Alchemy type decks that get to seven mana, but that’s me.
Comments: We thought it was good, and it is good, but it’s not quite as easy to trigger as we hoped. Stuff dies but did it die on your turn and did you also draw this and do you also have five mana? Sometimes yes, sometimes no.
But the Banshee is still absurdly powerful. The ability may or may not trigger but those stats means Banshee should matter anyway. A 4/4 for 5 is very welcome in black, which is often overrun with low-toughness creatures. Banshee would be playable, although not exciting, as a vanilla. The ability pushes it into “excellent” territory.
Which all leads to how this card plays. Since a lot of things have to go right to maximize value, sometimes the play really is hardcasting it at five. A lot of people won’t do this, and it’s a mistake. Unlike Scrivener or Wood Elves, this is a creature first and a spell second.
If one is inclined to reliably trigger the trigger, you want combat first and Demonmail Hauberk second. Cards like Disciple or Cultist work fine, but six mana is a lot more than five. Sometimes an opposing creature absolutely needs to die, but sometimes having a 4/4 in play turns sooner is good enough to win.
Best use: Since combat is the most common way to trigger it, you want ground creatures that can actually get in fights. That’s the B/R team; Crossway Vampires and Walking Dead for days. G/B can be overcome with high-end creatures, and green’s stuff can be a bit larger than combat anyway. You’ll never cut this card of course but if you do manage to pick one up early, evasive creatures are slightly less valuable.
Comments: Why isn’t this a vampire bat? It should be a vampire bat.
Screechers McBadlyTyped is a strong, flexible card that goes well everywhere. You would play a 2/2 flyer for three every time in this format. The useful transform ability is gravy.
There’s not a whole lot to say here. The flier is the common mode because it’s default. A 5/5 is probably better but not so much better that it’s worth using up your turn for. What changes the math is the werewolf issue. If your opponent is wolf-crazy, you almost never want to transform. If you have your own however, you’re setting yourself up for a great turn. As such this is another solid card in B/R decks.
The most dangerous color to transform the bat against is of course blue, with its Departures and Grasps and Losts in the Mists. On the other hand, it’s a nice turn if you read them for permission. White has a similar issue, in that you can spend your mana to get a beater just to see it Rebuked or Smited. There’s no real trick here, just align your mana needs with your opponent’s mana capabilities.
The final point is perhaps well known to Magic Online players but it bears repeating here: the transform happens immediately once the trigger resolves and the mana is spent. That means if you have a Pyre for two, cast it before they spend their four mana, cause once they have the option to transform it you’ve lost your window. But you probably knew that.
Best use: Screeching Bat doesn’t really synergize with anything, it’s just a strong card. You don’t care about Rakish Heir or Bloodline Keeper when you already have a 5/5 in play. More often than not you’ll keep your 2/2 but if you have nothing better to do, or a bunch of werewolves ready to turn, it’s a nice place to sink mana.
Comments: While Tribute is a powerful card, its strength is directly proportionate to the rest of your deck. I’ll explain.
First, if Tribute is your only removal spell, your deck sucks. Lifegain is whatever but the problem is Tribute will never kill what you want. But when you Dead Weight and Victim of Night the chaff, the Tribute finisher is a sick one, likely netting you good mana and life on the deal.
But there’s a catch! If your deck’s removal consists of the Bonds of Faith/Claustrophobia-type cards, Tribute again gets worse. Not unplayable, but if you haven’t drawn your Tribute yet, saving those auras until afterwards is probably better.
I take Tribute earlier than most because I like its ability to unconditionally kill anything, as long as that thing is the only thing. It can be a blowout, and it’s one of the few reasonable answers to Invisible Stalker. Further, multiple Tributes get a lot better; playing two in a single turn is often epic. For its potential alone I like it, although I concede a lot of players think it’s too unreliable to waste a high pick on it. But it’s not like black is drowning in removal here.
Best use: I would always start it, but it can be sided out against token-crazy decks. Tribute plays nicely with Silent Departure and is vicious against expensive or aura-based decks, i.e. bad ones. But even against normal decks, the instant lifegain can be a decider. The only question is whether you’re going to throw it at the first target or look to trade up later. Both options are reasonable depending on the circumstances.
Comments: Like a lot of other cards in this set, Rites can be a regular good card, or the highlight of an archetype.
As a regular card in B/W Unburial Rites is pretty strong. The creatures from those colors can be a little small, but any silliness like Banshee, Slayer, Geistcatcher’s Rig makes the card very impressive. Even if you’re aiming lower with Chapel Geist or Abattoir Ghoul, a card that lets you put your two best creatures back into play can have a lot of impact.
On the build-around side, Rites is an all-star in U/x mill yourself archetype. Unburial Rites is the reward for jumping through all those hoops; the actual creature doesn’t really matter. If the deck is built right the creature’s color doesn’t really matter.
The issues with this card are minimal but worth discussing. As I indicated above, B/W doesn’t have the best targets in the world to take advantage of Rites. Getting something into the graveyard isn’t that hard, it’s just if you care about getting it back. This is why one of the sides is commonly splashed, e.g. in U/W or (sometimes) G/W.
The other issue is that it’s relatively dead until the late game. Sure you can get back your Interloper that died to a Geistflame, but that’s hardly daunting. In a normal setting, there have to be a number of turns gone by to get mana equality or mana advantage back. That’s not a big deal but it does somewhat affect deckbuilding. And it means there are diminishing returns: the first Rites is good, the second one is ok, but after that you’re asking for trouble.
Best use: With the above concerns in mind, a dedicated Unburial Rites deck can be very powerful because it cuts through those issues. Your mana can be tricky, but being able to aggressively utilize Rites really maximizes it. As a bonus, the Stitched stuff plays well in this strategy and they’re great targets for Rites too. Yet again you have a card that allows you to play a completely different game than your opponent, if the deck comes together.
Comments: Like poor Tantalus, what you see is more impressive than what you actually get. It’s rare for these guys to be truly satisfying, although sometimes you’re content at the end.
Like so, so many other cards Cannibals can play as a general good card, or a pillar of a strategy. In this case, while neither mode is game-ending, Cannibals are rarely utter blanks.
On the random good card side, there are enough humans lying around in all the colors they’ll probably trigger if you want them to. The problem is having a human you want dead. Avacyn Priest is easy enough, but after that removal is so tight generally that you only want to play it on the best stuff, even if your removal adds a Battlegrowth kicker. Like the very similar Rakish Heir, you can easily pump it once or twice, but the cost is often more than the return.
On the archetype side, Cannibals is Unruly Mob’s much stronger cousin. Anytime Mob would be good, Cannibals would be better. Somewhat like Mob, Cannibals play well in multiples, but unlike Mob, if you don’t draw your sacrifice engine, at least the Cannibals aren’t looking bare-boned. If you can reliably get them up to 4/4 or 5/5 you can legitimately feel satisfied. Any smaller and you’ll be left wanting more.
Best use: For their cost, Cannibals have a decent potential to get out of control. However things have to align just so, which means you can easily bench these guys until you know the matchup favors bringing them on. But building somewhat around them does have benefits, including fitting very comfortably into B/W sacrifice-type decks. Unless the deck really comes together, they play best as receiving incremental bonuses for doing what you may want to do anyway.
And that’s it for Part 1! Tune in tomorrow for the analysis of the rest of the uncommons in Innistrad.