Early Hits And Misses From Shadows Over Innistrad

Spoiler Season is now going strong, and Pro Tour Champion Ari Lax is ready to do what he does best: separate hype from reality. Which cards are actually going to see play and which are just Constructed traps?

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<p><i>Shadows over Innistrad </i>as revealed to date is good. Very good.</p>
<p>But it’s sneaky. It’s subtle. The cards aren’t like <i>Khans of Tarkir</i> or <i>Oath of the Gatewatch,</i> where it’s obvious that a 5/5 haste with upside for five or a 4/5 trample with <a href=Lightning Helix for four are going to define formats.

Shadows over Innistrad is the kind of set where you don’t expect anything. Then you play a game and lose to a card you had written off after trying it. You can use that card that way? Worlds of options open and close before your eyes. What else is in store just around the corner?


The first comparison I want to make with Declaration in Stone is Thought-Knot Seer. When people first saw Thought-Knot Seer, they compared it to Tidehollow Sculler and Mesmeric Fiend. In practice, Thought-Knot Seer has performed way better than either of those cards, as replacing their best card with a random card is significantly more punishing, even if they do kill your 4/4.

Giving your opponent a delayed card off Declaration in Stone via the Clue token is very similar. That card is only a fraction as good as the creature you replaced it with because you traded for one of their better cards to begin with.

It also costs your opponent mana to cash in the token, which is exploitable. If you just don’t give them time to spend two mana on their Clue, this is a straight-up Doom Blade.

The second comparison is Detention Sphere.

Standard got smaller with the half-year rotation, and I’ve played with Detention Sphere and Maelstrom Pulse in small formats. They get backbreaking really easily, once to the point where Michael Jacob had fewer than four copies of Wooly Thoctar in a base-Naya aggro deck because he wanted the lowest odds of getting two creatures Maelstrom Pulsed. Fewer cards mean less diverse threat bases, and so you are way more likely to be stuck in spots where Declaration in Stone is a potential blowout. Deathmist Raptor is the best example; it’s hard to imagine ever winning if they eat multiple Raptors with a single Declaration in Stone. That alone will change how people have to play games and build decks.

Worth noting: the opponent doesn’t get to investigate for tokens. Declaration in Stone can clear out Dragon Fodder or Hangarback Walker tokens without paying them off with cards.


Sadly, the character actually making said Declaration is not nearly as exciting a card. It’s disappointing that neither Nahiri, the Harbinger nor Nahiri, the Lithomancer is a flashy planeswalker when the character herself was so anticipated, but I guess the planeswalker power level has to be saved for Jace and Liliana as usual.

Nahiri, the Harbinger isn’t 100% out of the picture, but she just doesn’t do enough to power her way into the format on her own. The profitable situation is landing her as an Assassinate that sticks around, but unlike the previous Assassinate planeswalker, her staying presence doesn’t hold up to Gideon Jura. Rummaging every turn is not a significant advantage gained and her ultimate is not game-ending in Standard. In older formats, she does represent an Emrakul, the Aeons Torn attacking in two turns, but for a four-drop, that’s a lot of time to spend waiting after it resolves.

If Nahri, the Harbinger sees play, it is going to be because immediately killing a Stasis Snare to swing a game is a common line of play. Otherwise she is too low-impact.

Hit, Best Card So Far

Ignore the fact that this card just keeps having more upsides. Ignore cutesy sacrifice combos with Eldrazi Displacer. Let’s talk about play patterns with Archangel Avacyn as is.

You and your opponent develop the battlefield. They attack with mana to cast Archangel Avacyn open.

If you block, they flash in Archangel Avacyn and win all the fights. You lose.

If you take the damage and attack back, they flash in Archangel Avacyn on curve and eat an attacker. You lose.

If you skip the developing part, you can’t play a sweeper as they flash in Archangel Avacyn and counter it. You lose.

If you try to play the spot removal game, they can just sit with open mana up. If you fire an answer, they will counter it with Archangel Avacyn. If you don’t, you will slowly die to whatever threat they are protecting. You lose.

I’m pretty sure the only good answer to Archangel Avacyn is to outpower them at every other stage and hope Avacyn isn’t good enough to save them. Except Gideon, Ally of Zendikar is their threat one spot down the curve. Good luck with that.

This isn’t even discussing the fact that Avacyn is still just a Plumeveil in control. Or that it has a flip side that comes really close to killing in two attacks. Or, really, anything else. Archangel Avacyn is easily the most important Standard card in Shadows over Innistrad so far, and if it doesn’t stay that way, I’m excited to see what dethrones it.


This card does line up well against Archangel Avacyn. With delirium, it dodges the indestructible trigger and leaves a 4/4 flier to match their flash threat. The kicker is that exiling all creatures is great against Deathmist Raptor and Hangarback Walker too, which were two of the remaining cards that really scared traditional control decks. Six mana means you are capped at two or three copies in a deck, but this is a sweeper I’m excited to play in those slots.


I really like the idea of Eerie Interlude. The ability to select which creatures are exiled means that, unlike Ghostway, you can use this with token generators and not lose previously made tokens or respond to pre-combat removal and not get Fogged or Faltered while saving your creature. The problem is that Eerie Interlude is not mana-efficient, meaning you likely need multiple effects triggered off it to make the investment worth it.

If there is an efficient Archaeomancer-style card to loop with it, I’m all ears, but until then, this is basically asking, “Do you really need the third and fourth Reflector Mage triggers when you already have two on the battlefield?”


The rate on Pious Evangel is not great and the sacrifice effect costing mana and a tap pretty much seals the deal, but it says “Sacrifice another permanent.” Not creature, permanent. There have been enough Hatching Plans-style cards over the years to make that worth noting in case another comes along in the near future.


Dragonlord’s Prerogative is likely the go-to control card draw spell once Dig Through Time is gone, but this card still has some potential. Varying your card draw costs has value so that you don’t just flood out on six-drops, and you can still play this and leave up Silumgar’s Scorn after. It is only plus one card when cast, but Sift is significantly more powerful than Inspiration. This kind of card shows up as a one- or two-of and is surprisingly solid when it does, but is rapidly cut as the format shifts to punish five-mana sorceries.

Hit, but not a Grand Slam

I like Thing in the Ice a lot, but I think it’s a little overhyped for even my tastes now.

In Standard, you have to want the 0/4 to play the card, as it will take multiple turns to flip, but that’s not asking a lot. There is a history of similarly sized defenders with upside being sized for Constructed play, Wall of Omens being the big one. It is competing with Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy for curve space and generic Dragons for Silumgar’s Scorn for overall creature slots, which likely reduces the absolute number you will see, but Thing in the Ice is a fine early play with late payoff. Thing in the Ice is on a “utility control card” level, not “rare more expensive than Thought-Knot Seer” level.

Maybe the hype is more for Eternal formats, where you can easily flip Thing in the Ice in two turns? Looping Snapcaster Mage is pretty nice, but I’m not quite all-in on this card yet. In Legacy, two-drops have a lot of competition. This isn’t pressuring combo the same way Tarmogoyf is, especially when it clears your Delver of Secrets. There are cool Evacuation scenarios you can set up against Show and Tell or Elves, but it isn’t always the best threat around.

In Modern, it’s a bit more interesting. This card’s competition is mostly Young Pyromancer. Given four spells cast, odds are Young Pyromancer is going to break through anything this would bounce anyway, so that’s not a huge deal. What matters is the fourth toughness. Young Pyromancer is significantly better against removal like Terminate, as it leaves 1/1 bodies behind, but Thing in the Ice is much better against red removal.

The big thing is that it is still a decision, and again, Thing in the Ice is much less interesting against combo where you have to choose between investing mana into spells to attack with a 7/8 and leaving up countermagic. Having access to this giant breaker will drastically change some matchups for Delver-style decks in Modern, but it isn’t an auto-four-of inclusion.

Thing in the Ice has power, but don’t buy into all the hype.


Relentless Dead is the winner for “card most likely to be played in decks that don’t want it.” A 2/2 with menace just isn’t a flashy body. It’s undersized for aggro and too small to matter once it starts looping. It’s too small to really block well in control, and in midrange, again, the 2/2 body doesn’t have enough impact.

This card is going to be good in decks where just being a one-card engine is enough. Think of how the midgame with Rally the Ancestors plays out this year. Four-Color Rally does “a couple of things” that lead to scrying into or drawing “some more things” that chain into “more things” that eventually end with them ahead about a million cards and life.

Only this time, it isn’t a single Hail Mary card that adds most of that value; it’s slow tactical use of Relentless Dead. This turn it holds off a couple of small creatures. Next turn it gets in a free attack for two. The next, it turns your extra mana into cards via Nantuko Husk.

The play pattern of this card is perfectly Zombie. Don’t try to make it something it isn’t.


Never get tricked by a Lobotomy effect. Pick the Brain is a bad discard spell. Even when you have delirium, it is a bad Cranial Extraction, as the point of that effect is hitting the exact spell you can’t ever let them draw.


The cost of Mindwrack Demon is way too high for not a lot of reward. It does self-mitigate, but the randomness is very unattractive. A 4/5 trample has Siege Rhino stats, but without the three life drain in your favor, this isn’t remotely close. It isn’t even a Thunderbreak Regent. It’s just a four-mana four-power creature with a drawback.


Grim Tutor is to Diabolic Tutor as Anguished Unmaking is to Utter End. If it were just a three-mana Utter End, the card would be great, but three life is a lot. If any deck plays more than two copies of Anguished Unmaking, I will be genuinely surprised, as drawing the second one hurts a lot. The utility here is real and so is the cost.


Arrogant Wurm isn’t anything to write home about by modern standards, but haste is miles ahead of trample. Incorrigible Youths will be the core of a lot of quick losses in this Standard format.


This card is just fine. There will be decks where a straight-up burn spell that can go upstairs for three is good enough that I’ll find room for Fiery Temper, but early in the format, I expect a lot of people to play this when they should just play the more specific Fiery Impulse or Exquisite Firecraft.


The idea of having to throw cards away every turn to have a reasonable threat is not exciting. I’m much more excited to play Heir of Falkenrath and get my aggro payoff after enabling the first madness card. I’ll still play Ravenous Bloodseeker if I’m that into discarding cards, but it’s definitely a second-tier threat. Time has not been kind to Aquamoeba.

This is all just the first third of the set. There are three planeswalkers waiting to be revealed, according to Mark Rosewater, and this is also a set where everything down to the commons will matter. In a world of enablers and engines, even the smallest card could be a linchpin in a new strategy that takes over the format.

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