Madness Over Innistrad

How good is madness? Will it be a powerhouse in Standard as it was long ago? Or will it be a niche Limited player as it was in Time Spiral block? Let’s ask Pro Tour Champion Patrick Chapin! He’s here to sort out the madness that awaits us in Shadows over Innistrad!

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<p>There was once a time when most people would have named “madness” as among the least likely mechanics to return to Magic. “Madness is inherently broken as a mechanic,” they’d say, conflating how overpowered U/G was in <i>Odyssey</i> block with the mechanics themselves being inherently broken.</p>
<p>Years went by.</p>
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Eventually, we encounter Time Spiral block, which featured madness as one of its 54 named mechanics. Look, that set was awesome, but it had some design issues…

So Time Spiral blocks brings with it some new madness cards. And they were fine. And everything was okay! In fact, WotC was probably a little bit more conservative on this wave of madness cards than they needed to be. The last thing you want to do is reprint a mechanic everyone says is inherently broken, only to discover basically every card you made with the mechanic is broken, like Storm would have been…

So madness didn’t exactly warp the game. We survived. Now it’s a decade later (which is weird, now that I think about it). Madness is back, presumably because of Cthulhu Emrakul PretendItsNotEmrakul The Moon.

All we have to go on, so far, are the preview cards from the GP Eldrazi weekend. They only confirm madness in blue and red, but it seems like there’s a decent chance it’s in black, too. I would guess no white, and probably little if any green.

Of these, the easiest to evaluate is Fiery Temper, as we’ve had it twice before. Despite red being weak the first time and madness not really being a strategy the second time, Fiery Temper has always performed well. When it works, you are getting a cantrip Lightning Bolt (since you were discarding a card anyway…), and even when it fails, it’s still three damage for three mana and an instant.

Cantrip Lightning Bolt?

Yeah, cantrip, as in doesn’t cost you a card. See, madness cards can have a pretty wide range. Their value also fluctuates with the sort of enablers you have access to. How easily can you convert discarding a card in your hand into something valuable?

It’s one thing to discard a Fiery Temper on your opponent’s turn to a creature like Ravenous Bloodseeker to save mana, and another thing to get two extra damage in because of the pump. Ravenous Bloodseeker is the new Aquamoeba, and that’s all right!

What if you can discard the madness card to something that gives you an even better deal? I don’t know, maybe with something like this little guy here:

Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy was already absurd. It’s the best card surviving the rotation and about to get a massive boost because of madness and various graveyard interactions. It’s annoying how expensive Jaces are, but if you’re planning on playing serious tournament Magic over the next six months, I would strongly encourage trading for some. Besides, with the incoming ban(s) in Modern, he’s going to start increasing value there (to go along with his playability in Vintage and Legacy).

When you discard Fiery Temper to Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy, you are effectively drawing an extra card. Whatever you were going to be discarding was going to be gone, but with Fiery Temper, it’s like you cast the card (and at a discount).

When Madness was first unveiled, Wild Mongrel plus Arrogant Wurm was the dream opening that lead to a lot of snowballing victories. One of the most obvious and exciting red openings is now Ravenous Bloodseeker into Incorrigible Youths, which lets you hit for seven damage on turn 3!

Incorrigible Youths is an interesting card because a 4/3 haste is generally better than a 4/4 trampler but can be dealt with efficiently by a variety of cards like Fiery Impulse and Spatial Contortion. In some ways, Incorrigible Youths is even more all-in, being a part of some absolutely devastating starts but falling apart against a well-timed Radiant Flames.

While Fiery Temper and Incorrigible Youths are just reprints or remixes of classics, Just the Wind is a very different sort of madness card from what we’ve seen. Successful madness decks have often ended up built to abuse tempo, but they’ve never had access to a bounce spell with madness before. Just the Wind’s mana cost can’t actually get any cheaper than Unsummon would have been, but it’s a lot cheaper than Repulse, and when you discard it to Jace, you’re basically Repulsing the creature you target.

How good bounce will prove to be is going to hinge on the rest of Shadows over Innistrad, as there’s a pretty big range of possibilities; however, in general, when people go to the trouble of flipping cards, bounce gets better.

Just imagine, someone invests a little bit of time and effort into their Thingagoyf, and then in response to the fourth counter coming off, you bounce it back to their hand!

Okay, sure, everything’s good when it’s cheaper and a cantrip. What about when you combine Just the Wind with Ravenous Bloodseeker?

We’re still talking about a one-mana bounce spell that does two extra damage. Vapor Snag only did one!

Of course, these are just the scenarios where your madness cards are “working.” Some of the time, you’re stuck playing Just the Wind as an Unsummon at twice the price. Sometimes Incorrigible Youths costs a Dragonlord Ojutai amount of mana and dies to everything. Striking a balance between “capitalize on the success states” and “make do during the fail states” is an important part of the new madness puzzle.

Given that we’ve only got these three cards to go on, so far, let’s take a look at a possible U/R Madness deck for after the rotation:

My goodness, the mana is bad in this format! Talk about going from one extreme to the other. I sure hope Shadows over Innistrad features a cycle of allied-color lands or there’s a real shortage of ways to build allied-color decks. I mean, are we really supposed to consider manabases like this?

4 Smoldering Marsh

4 Cinder Barrens

1 Evolving Wilds

8 Mountain

8 Swamp

I sure hope not.

That said, I would be surprised if SoI didn’t feature a new cycle of dual lands. My dream?

Man, I cannot wait for the most fun lands in Magic to make a return, and it would make more sense for just five of them to come back at a time. Besides, with enemy creature-lands in print, it’s the perfect time for a strong set of allied tapped lands!

Even if we’ve got to wait six or even twelve more months for a return to scryland bliss, some things are worth the wait. Shadows over Innistrad doesn’t need a particularly strong allied-color land cycle to make a big difference. Hell, we’re talking about playing tapped lands with no ability and Evolving Wilds in a two-color deck. Times are tough, partner!

As for the list above, let’s start with the Lightning Berserkers. Don’t actually use them. I wanted something halfway believable to denote where we should actually just play whatever one-drop madness creature they print. It just seems like something WotC would do, and if they don’t, at least they will print some kind of Stromkirk Noble or Firedrinker Satyr. Who knows, maybe they make a 1/1 flier that loots every time it hits them? That would be so sick, by the way. Even if it couldn’t block non-fliers.

Man, you’d better hope you aren’t right about that one. That’s an oddly specific description.

Look, I don’t know jack. I’m just thinking about the sorts of things I would consider trying to make if I were in their shoes, based on the information we’ve got so far. Whatever the ability, 1/1 flying creatures for one play really well and make a lot of sense in a strategy along the lines of what these cards encourage.

Hell, the more likely design is just U for a 1/1 flying creature with a madness cost of zero. They’d love to call back to Basking Rootwalla, and conceptually, people would probably be irrationally attracted to it because of some similarities between madness and devotion. Besides, 1/1 fliers are just fun!

Delver of Secrets?!

They’ve already unveiled both homages to Delver of Secrets, and neither one fits here. In spirit, Thing in the Ice has some important common themes.

Flavorwise, Aberrant Researcher is just about the most obvious callback imaginable, although I kind of feel like it should have gained trample or something. I guess he’ll have to make do with that fourth point of toughness (since the last experiment was more of a +2/+1 sort).

Anyway, neither of these fit, and even if they reprinted actual Delver of Secrets, the card would be markedly worse without something like Ponder to help bring it together. Delver of Secrets is a fine Magic card, don’t get me wrong, but it is one of the more often overrated cards in Magic. It doesn’t belong in the same room as cards like Snapcaster Mage or Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy.

Zurgo’s not particularly amazing in here, either, so if we’ve got a second awesome one-drop to consider, he can definitely go down or go altogether. It’s not even clear how many one-drops we actually need, since we’ve got to play Wandering Fumarole (and maybe even Highland Lake?!). That said, discard outlets are sweet with legends (more to do with the extra copies), and I would love to dash Zurgo to bop someone for two and then discard it to Lightning Axe on their turn!

The importance of Lightning Axe is really going to depend on what-all gets printed in this set. With Siege Rhino and Tasigur, the Golden Fang rotating out, it’s not clear what the new gold standard in creatures to kill will be (besides Jace). If killing four- and five-toughness creatures for cheap is important, Lightning Axe is a great way to do so, particularly when there are good madness or graveyard cards.

If Reality Smasher proves to be the defining five-toughness creature, I’m not really sure what that says about Lightning Axe, but it is funny to think of using our opponent’s Reality Smasher as a madness enabler!

I’m guessing there will be a more efficient loot spell in this set, though hopefully not as efficient as Faithless Looting. Until then, we might as well try Tormenting Voice. It’s not the most mana-efficient spell in the world, but on turn 2, it’s effectively a Divination that lets you play your Fiery Temper or Just the Wind for “free” (assuming you count all three mana as the Divination). If there’s actually a playable one-drop madness creature, we’re kind of doing it (though now that I think about it more, I kind of hope there isn’t, as it might be nice to have the new puzzles a little less predictable, a little less well-defined).

With an extremely powerful set rotating out, along with Fate Reforged, we’re talking about a smaller, much less powerful format than we once had. Additionally, mana is going from ungodly easy to ungodly hard. This is going to force us to go back and reevaluate all of the old cards in this extremely different world we are moving toward.

Brutal Expulsion doesn’t just benefit from less competition. It might actually line up in some important ways. For instance, one of the most impressive cards to be previewed so far is this little number:

This, my friends, is a messed-up Magic card. It is also, however, vulnerable to burn spells that deal two damage and exile. Like Brutal Expulsion

While this really straightforward approach to U/R Madness might be the way to go, it’s also very possible that madness decks in the future look very different than any past builds. For instance, what if you were to combine it with a U/R Dragons strategy?

We’re a little short of discard outlets, but maybe there’s something here? It’d be nice to have a couple more reliable cheap enablers, but maybe we’re supposed to just suck it up and play more Lightning Axes. That said, maybe we are supposed to get frisky and rock this bad Dragon:

I’m guessing U/R doesn’t go this route, but maybe Mono-Red does. It is kind of interesting that discarding your hand can actually be upside in a madness deck, particularly if Avaricious Dragon is the top of your curve.

Oath of Jace is a fine card, but it’s kind of a lot of mana that turn, making it hard to pair with madness cards. That said, discarding Fiery Impulse and Just the Wind on turn 5 is a good time. It’s also interesting to consider the legend rule making it easier to get an enchantment into our graveyard if we end up playing some delirium cards.

In general, though, I like starting from a very tempo-oriented approach. Draconic Roar and Silumgar’s Scorn are more-mana efficient than most cards and can actually fit in very nicely with what Ravenous Bloodseeker and Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy are doing when coupled with Incorrigible Youths and Just the Wind. It’s a little awkward supporting Silumgar’s Scorn in a world with such bad mana, but it’s not necessarily off the table.

Just brainstorming about the format a little, I sketched out a first draft of Five-Color Blue Dragons, trying to get a better idea of what sort of manabases might be possible in this new, dystopian future of mana more modest than has been seen in some lifetimes.

There’s no question about it. It’s not good mana. Nope. However, it is pretty interesting to consider how easily one might be able to support Spatial Contortion in a mostly-mono-blue deck. One of the biggest challenges of moving to a world of extremely hard mana is figuring out how to get by on fewer colors. Fetching Battle lands made mana so easy, there was nearly no reason not to splash colors. The new world, however, is one in which every color should be carefully evaluated.

For instance, do we need Dragonlord Silumgar? What if we were just Four-Color Blue Dragons?

Obviously, this points to an extensive path for us to explore, and there are so many other oddball manabases possible: Allies, Green/x Ramp, Five-Color with Evolving Wilds and Warped Landscape, Colorless, and of course a whole host of other Eldrazi manabases. For instance…

Even Brain in a Jar is a build-around mana enabler that might be the key to actually casting spells reliably!

Until we know if there’s an allied-color land cycle in Shadows over Innistrad, we can’t know for sure just hard mana is going to be, but it’s going to be Hard with a capital H. Fetchlands (and tri-lands) leaving is a big, big deal.

Before rolling out, I’d like to leave you with a list I’ve compiled of key cards rotating out. It’s not necessarily exhaustive, so feel free to add to it, but I generally find it useful when there’s a rotation to look at the new format in a variety of ways, to start building the mental framework for thinking about it. One of the more important perspectives is bottom-up, looking to see what’s missing.

See you next week, when spoiler season kicks it up to thirteen…

Key Cards Rotating Out

Not to mention the fetchlands, tri-lands, and lifegain lands…

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