When The Story Isn’t (Emra)Cool

Chris Lansdell may be a brewer, but there are a few things about this Shadows over Innistrad lore that trouble him! Whether it’s the new Standard structure, the thin plot threads, or the merging of too many Magic worlds, Chris has a little something to say about it!

SCG Regionals August 6!

This week, we are departing from the norm somewhat. Although I am primarily a judge and a player, I do enjoy following the lore and the stories behind the sets and blocks of the game. I’ve stayed interested throughout the peaks of the Weatherlight Saga and the really low lows of…most other stories. Battle for Zendikar started a turnaround of that trend, I thought, and with Shadows over Innistrad providing a cliffhanger with clues and hints, I had high hopes for what the culmination of the story arc in Eldritch Moon.

Wizards of the Coast dropped the “bombshell” on us last Monday that the Big Bad on Innistrad, the cause of all the madness, the instrument of Nahiri’s revenge on Sorin…is Emrakul.


This is a titanic letdown for me on multiple fronts. I have seen chatter all over social media expressing opinions on this biggest of reveals, and it’s been divided relatively evenly with a slight skew to agreeing with me. I will gladly admit that that skew could be due to some level of echo chamber (not the card), but I digress.

I resisted getting into that conversation because I have so much to say on the topic that I didn’t want to risk getting it muddled by emotion. I’ll also admit here that a lot of the problems I have are due to personal taste and a potentially unjustified sense of being misled, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t some validity to them. Let’s break this spaghetti monster down.

The Awesome Story of Standard

That’s a weird header, but it’s a weird situation. Bear in mind though that “weird” isn’t synonymous with “bad.” Right now our Standard metagame is in a spot where many of the best decks are based on planeswalkers and Eldrazi of some flavor. You can choose to say that it’s obvious because the settings for the blocks in Standard right now favor those two camps, but it could also be an intentional move by Wizards to make sure that the flagship format plays out in the same way as the storyline they are promoting. We are literally watching planeswalkers who formed the Oath of the Gatewatch facing off against decks containing those they swore to stop. How cool is that?

One would expect that the addition of a new block with Shadows over Innistrad would move us in another direction, if only slightly based on the proportion of new to old cards in the pool. Indeed we have seen that, with the Humans decks starting to show some high levels of power.

I was greatly looking forward to seeing if the Standard metagame adapted to tell the story of what was happening on Innistrad and moved away from the SuperFriends vs. Aliens story we’ve had for the past year or so. Alas, it’s looking like I won’t get to find out.

Sure, we know (or will know) what was causing that madness and making everything all weird and contorted, but it turns out it’s just a continuation of the previous block’s story. If we’re getting another batch of powerful Eldrazi and, presumably, the planeswalkers who fight them, will the story behind the games even change?

This might not be a big deal to many of you. For someone who enjoys multiple aspects of this game, like I do, it has been great seeing players essentially enacting the kayfabe battle with their decks. There’s a delicious irony in watching people who say they don’t care about flavor casting an Anguished Unmaking on Archangel Avacyn, or casting Chandra, Flamecaller thanks to their Oath of Nissa. It’s not that we won’t get to see this still, but more that the story won’t move on like I had hoped.

So when you said two sets…

Remember all the furor around the change to Standard? How the new “paradigm” was going to be two-set blocks which would allow Creative to explore more locales per year, while also letting us go to planes that perhaps could not fit in all the material required for a three-set block? And yes, it also avoided the classic three-set block problem of having one of the two small sets be…well, garbage. It all sounded grand and it was one of the most positively-received announcements about this game that I can remember.

And now here we are with the end of the second two-set story arc upon us…and it looks to be an extension of the first two-set story arc. Huh? While I remember and enjoyed the multi-block stories of the Weatherlight Saga, it is exactly the opposite of what we were told to expect. When Emrakul was not involved in the Battle for Zendikar story, we all knew she would show up eventually. One of the biggest reasons I didn’t expect to see her in the very next block was that Creative has shown a tendency to spread these things out in recent years. Why go to all the trouble of setting up the different structure if you are going to ignore it and just run the story on through multiple blocks?

I almost feel deprived of another cool Big Bad. Yes, Emrakul is a solid choice for antangonist, but she’s not particularly interesting. Even here, being used as the henchbeast of the real antagonist (Nahiri), there’s no questions around motivation or anything. Emrakul exists to consume. There is no reasoning like there is with Galactus, to use an example of another being with similar motivations from another universe. It also lessens the surprise factor of bringing back Emrakul, having just left an Eldrazi storyline three short months ago.

The decision to keep the Eldrazi theme going has gameplay ramifications, too: more giant monsters, more on-cast triggers, more reasons to play lands that produce colorless mana (even though there will be no colorless costs in this set, Eldrazi play well together). The power of cards like Reality Smasher and Thought-Knot Seer is already making other midrange options less relevant, and adding more top end to the ramp decks is a terrifying thought.

Hitting us over the head with it…

Wizards hires people that they call “experience designers” who do things like the escape room Avacyn reveal at Grand Prix events in Detroit, Bologna and Melbourne. They are also responsible for things like Prerelease and Game Day gimmicks, most of which are beloved by the less Spike-oriented players. I don’t know if the Creative team engages the help of these designers when doing things like the Clue interactions in Shadows over Innistrad, but I really hope someone looked at all of the hints in the set and said “Hey, isn’t this a little off?”

Once the clues started to be revealed, people all had their own pet conclusions as to what was causing the madness on Innistrad. Many, many players thought it was Emrakul. Marit Lage, Liliana, Nicol Bolas and the Phyrexians were also blamed at some point. Every one of these camps had discovered evidence to back up their favorite theory, but none more than the Emrakul camp. Like most of the theories, those favoring the Titan of Corruption went to great lengths to find hints that fit their theory, stretches or no. The sheer number they found made many people join the camp, but several others thought it was just too obvious.

Suspense storytelling 101 says that it should never be the obvious answer. I understand that, with a game like Magic, we’re not dealing with people reading a novel. Most of the people playing either ignore the story or only follow it through the cards, so the people leaving the hints have to be a little blunter than a Dan Brown can afford to be. With that said, they probably didn’t need to beat us with a cudgel that had studs inlaid in it that left on imprint of the words “IT’S EMRAKUL” on our foreheads.

There are even some inconsistencies with the accepted canon around Emrakul. Her corruption affects only living things, but not only were the walls and scenery warped and corrupted, the Vampires were too. Although she is known to cause fear and despair, madness has not been in her repertoire. The tenatacle growths seen on cards like Magnifying Glass and Incorrigible Youths are the biggest pointer to Emrakul, but even they could be explained away by Nicol Bolas or Tezzeret doing etherium experiments, a new Phyrexian compleation technique, even a resurrected and sparked Momir Vig doing some grafting. Point being, they had options.

The real kicker for me is that, a couple of days before the big reveal, stores started to receive a shipping confirmation of marketing materials. This is a normal happening, but this time the confirmation revealed a key plot point in black and white:

This to me just screamed red herring. Surely in the environment of all the recent high-profile leaks, Wizards would not let something this obvious happen? Surely it must be a trick? Well, no, it appears they did just let their shipping labels show what the big secret was, mere days before the debut of the set on a video production into which they had clearly put a lot of time. I am not normally one to poke fun at things that Wizards does, but this was not good. At all.

The Positives

As disappointing as I find this reveal to be, I do see some hope here. The first of those hopes is what this could mean for the story. If the Eldrazi are the new all-encompassing baddies that we haven’t had since Invasion, maybe we can use them to tie up all of our lose story ends?

How will the Gods on Theros react to all their followers being devoured? What about that eagerly-anticipated war between Phyrexia and the Eldrazi? Having Emrakul and her brood just flitting from plane to plane, clearing out old enemies as she is weakened bit by bit until the Gatewatch can finally…what?

That’s the key to making this story work. The Gatewatch is the Justice League, essentially, and they have to be central from now on in order to make that work. If they formed to defeat the Eldrazi, and they already sent two of them packing (do not for a second think they are dead), then Emrakul has to survive a while.

Part of me wonders if they might be working towards another Multiverse reboot with the Gatewatch convincing Sorin, Ugin and possibly even Nahiri to join in and just reset all life on all planes, just to try to eliminate the Eldrazi menace. Think Scarlet Witch’s “No more mutants” on a more drastic and complete scale. The set where this happens would be an epic battle between planeswalkers, with the likes of Ob Nixilis trying to stop the good guys and perhaps Sarkhan also unsure he wants a new universe after just getting his Dragons back.

Of course, the flavor on Emrakul is a complete home run, as we have come to expect on this plane. The argument could be made that Emrakul’s presence does different things when influenced by Innistrad’s moon and mana. We know Nahiri lured her with the cryptoliths focusing mana, but what if there is more to it? What if Emrakul was going to Innistrad all along, or was being guided by someone else? The power and toughness and the casting cost are of course thirteen, fitting in exactly the way she should.

Although we can complain about the misleading way the blocks were advertised, I am interested to see where this all goes. Longer stories draw people in more and allow for more development of characters, including their flaws and personalities. As a writer, I can tell you that characters, even ones you created, sometimes develop in ways you didn’t expect the more you write about them. We simply don’t know what else is going on yet with this plane or the presence of the biggest of bads, so I will begrudgingly wait and see.

Potential Uses

Emrakul, the Promised End itself is sweet. I’m not sure when Emrakul gained a mind control ability, but I will overlook that simply because I want to cast her early and often. The first place I thought of was taking the current G/R Ramp strategies and playing black instead, giving us some options with delirium and also letting us play the reanimator route if we wanted to. Black gives us the ability to play better defense than red in the mid-game while also giving us hand disruption, madness outlets, and my pet combo of Call the Bloodlines and From Under the Floorboards. No, I won’t stop trying to make that a thing. If we can stretch the mana at all, we might add some red for Dragonlord Kolaghan, making an Ever After basically lethal.

Of course, the most flavorful use of Emrakul would be in a deck based around Nahiri, the Harbinger. Using her ultimate to fetch out Emrakul and attack should win you the game based on the flavor alone, but attacking for thirteen and putting Emrakul back in your hand (where she is much easier to cast than her Modern counterpart) should do it on the reality front too. Nahiri also builds up the card types in your graveyard while you are filtering through cards, which is a nice bonus. I can see adding black (which looks a lot like the black cards in the G/B version) or blue to this shell to great effect.

I also don’t think it’s out of the question to play Emrakul in a predominantly colorless deck at the top end. Such a deck could ramp with Hedron Crawler, Seer’s Lantern, and Hedron Archive. Any of those that get sacrificed or destroyed will still make Emrakul easier to cast. We have Warping Wail to protect Emrakul, and since she cannot be targeted by instants, that is especially relevant. Mage-Ring Network is still legal, as are Thought-Knot Seer and Reality Smasher. Definitely worth exploring. The color we add will likely be white; Eldrazi Displacer, Stasis Snare, Declaration in Stone, and Secure the Wastes are too good.

Comments from Last Week

We’re going to try something new this week and address some of last week’scomments in the next article. I want you folks to know that I am reading what you say and paying attention, and also we can get some fun ideas from there. There were a couple of comments I want to talk about this week. First, Andy Blair wants me to play Blue’s Clues at FNM. Don’t worry, I will. I played the Molten Frog deck this week, but we had a low turnout (summer, exams and such), so the testing wasn’t great.

Anthony Tovar goes the flattery route, accurately describing me as a nut. Anyone who has seen me on a dance floor can attest to this. He also mentions a Clue deck that wins with Ghirapur Aether Grid.

I have heard people talking about this, but it has never really interested me enough to try it. I am more looking for ways to sacrifice Clues than keep them around, but I know plenty of people would be interested in your list.

Well folks, that’s it from me. As always, thanks for stopping by the LAB, where Lansdell’s Always Brewing, and until next time…

Brew On!

SCG Regionals August 6!