April, Come She Will
Soon Standard will be shaken up again as our focus moves to the affairs on Innistrad. And apparently it was not Emperor Palpatine bringing madness to the people of Innistrad, but it was indeed the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Regardless, we have just had a first taste of the set during the prerelease and it seems like a ton of fun.
A World Gone MadShadows over Innistrad takes us back to the wildly popular plane of Innistrad, where something (or someone, it is hard to tell with Eldrazi titans) is messing with everyone's minds. Meanwhile, our friend Jace is rummaging around for clues as to what is causing all this (which he will undoubtedly uncover in the next set). Leaving the captivating storyline aside for now, Innistrad was a great set for Battle Box, so my hopes are high for Shadows. To mix things up a little, I will do a brief set analysis, followed by what I think are the top 20 cards for our favorite Magic format. Just as a reminder, what we are looking for in great Battle Box cards are cards that are versatile, are good both early and late in the game, lead to interesting decisions and allow for meaningful interaction with your opponent. We are also trying to avoid cards that are needlessly overpowered. With that out of the way, let's look at the set's new mechanics first.
Madness is a great flavor match for what is going on in the set, and it is a fun mechanic to play with. However, Madness does have a few issues in the Battle Box format. Madness needs many discard effects to be useful, and in an average Battle Box, the number of discard effects will not be naturally high. Now, there is joy in achieving something unlikely, so I don't think the Battle Box needs constructed levels of discard enablers for Madness to be fun. Depending on how much you want to play with the mechanic, I could see adding 10-15 discard cards and a handful of Madness cards to your Battle Box. You can include cards that use discard as a cost, even if the card cares about which card you are discarding (such as with Spellbound Dragon for example) because a madness card is considered discarded even if you cast it. If you plan to include discard outlets in your Box, I would also try to include other cards that benefit from things going to the graveyard, such as cards with Delve, Unearth, Flashback or the new Delirium. To help you along, here's a list of some modern-bordered discard enablers that are reasonably playable in a vacuum:
Abomination of Gudul
Avatar of Discord
Blast of Genius
Call the Bloodline
Heir of Falkenrath
Murder of Crows
Pale Rider of Trostad
Wolf of Devil's Breach
Or, if your Battle Box is a bit more high powered (like the Commander Box, for example), you could consider using the following discard enablers:
Grimoire of the Dead
Jace, Vryn's Prodigy
Jaya Ballard, Task Mage
Olivia, Mobilized for War
I think skulk has the makings of an evergreen mechanic. It is flavorful, allows for meaningful interaction and creativity, and doesn't seem overpowered or irrelevant. I think it is a great Battle Box fit, because it doesn't need specific synergies to work and actually thrives on an environment with many different power/toughness levels. I expect to see more of this mechanic in years to come.
Investigate is a difficult mechanic to judge. Like Scry, it is basically a mechanic that helps card flow and smooths out the later turns of the game. Unlike Scry, there are a number of effects in the set that care about investigating or sacrificing clues. I think Investigate as a bonus on otherwise useful cards is fine for the Battle Box, but the cards that rely on synergy (like Erdwal Illuminator) will probably not be at their best in the Battle Box. That said, there are quite a few cards that have an internal synergy (like Ulvenwald Mysteries and Tireless Tracker). I think these will be fine in Battle Box, although you should always be wary of including effects that allow you to draw cards multiple times.
Another mechanic that thrives on getting things into your graveyard, delirium is a mechanic that has most value later in the game. The important question for the Battle Box format is whether delirium is actually achievable. Of all the common card types (Creature, Artifact, Enchantment, Instant, Sorcery, Planeswalker and Land), the last two will rarely if ever go to the graveyard in the Battle Box format. This means there are five card types left, four of which should end up in the graveyard within an acceptable timeframe to enable delirium. I think creatures, instants and sorceries will usually end up in the graveyard without too much extra effort, but artifacts and enchantments may be a bit more difficult. The artifact and enchantment removal is usually on the light side, so you are counting on auras that go to the graveyard when the creature they are attached to dies, or artifact creatures. In Shadows over Innistrad design, Wizards of the Coast has included many clever ways around this problem with cards like Explosive Apparatus, Dead Weight and Vessel of Nascency. There is no reason not to include cards like this in your Battle Box, but it might require some rebuilding on your part. I think the Seal cycle is another good option to try for this purpose. I think delirium will certainly not always come up, but it doesn't seem impossible to achieve either; I think the most important question is actually if it can be reached on time to have any relevance to the game. To be honest, I am not sure, and testing will have to prove this one way or the other. That said, I am hopeful and I do think the mechanic leads to interesting game play, so I'm eager to try it out.
Transforming and Werewolves
The most obvious returning mechanic from the original Innistrad set is the double-faced cards. Shadows over Innistrad adds some very flavorful and creative touches to what's possible with transforming cards, resulting in some of the coolest card designs I've ever seen. Transforming generally also works without specific synergies, which means it is a great fit for the Battle Box format. The only small downside they have is that you need to save some extra space in your Box if you want to avoid unsleeving and resleeving cards every time they transform. But I think we can all agree that that is a small price to pay to play with cards that are so much fun. That said, I think the werewolves are a different story. The "werewolf mechanic", where all your werewolves transform when no player casts a spell during a turn and transform back when two spells are played during a turn, fits badly with the Battle Box format. Because every card drawn from the deck is live (i.e. not a land), with the exception of the very first few turns, players will almost always be able to play a spell. And while you could decide not to play a spell during your own turn, it is unlikely this is worth it unless you have multiple Werewolves (which you will almost never have in Battle Box). Worse, the high density of cheap playable cards makes it likely your opponent can just cast two cheaper spells during the following turn to negate all your efforts. If you are set on including werewolves in your Battle Box, be sure to only include those with maximum upside when you manage to flip them.
The Top 20So now we get to the exciting part. Which cards should you definitely consider putting into your Battle Box? Again, I'm not saying these are the best or even the coolest cards in Shadows over Innistrad. All I'm saying is that these cards will deliver good interaction, tension and versatility. As is customary with these Top X lists, I'd like to start with an honorable mention. Shadows over Innistrad finally introduces simple enemy colored taplands to the game. Although there is not a lot to say about these cards, their introduction allows for more variety in Battle Box design, and I expect these lands to appear in many, many Battle Boxes in the future.
20. Abberant Researcher
Delver of Secrets is back to have another go at becoming the Fly. The Researcher has OK but not great stats when cast, and if you manage to flip him on a subsequent turn (a 20-25% chance each turn in an average Battle Box) you have a threat that is a fast clock but can still be dealt with reasonably well. This creates some nice tension within very reasonable boundaries.
19. Hanweir Militia Captain
Getting four creatures on the Battlefield is very achievable in Battle Box, although they will also have to survive a full turn until your next upkeep. In return you will get a 4/4 that will start spitting out 1/1 cleric tokens the turn it transforms. For an otherwise average 2-drop this is a fine and enticing upside.
17. Anguished Unmaking
Vindicate with some downside. Not being able to hit lands is great for the Battle Box format, and losing 3 life seems like a reasonable price to pay. A solid and versatile removal spell that will fit into many Boxes.
16. Inexorable Blob
The strength of this card is largely dependent on whether or not delirium can be achieved. If you manage that, the flow of Oozes will be difficult to deal with. If not, a 3/3 vanilla for 3 mana seems fair enough, and hardly a dead draw.
15. Heir of Falkenrath
A madness outlet as well as a possible aggro card. Getting a 3/2 flyer for 2 mana and a card is efficient if not exactly cheap. I think this will create nice tension, especially when drawn early. A 2/1 for 2 is not exactly great, but even if you are not planning on transforming the heir, being able to threaten blocking other flyers will still have some value.
14. Ulvenwald Mysteries
Although it doesn't have an immediate impact on the board, the two effects add up to a lot of value if you manage to keep the Mysteries around for multiple turns. It does allow its controller to draw multiple cards, but I think the clues are just cumbersome enough that this will not be an issue. Obviously, this card becomes much better with other ways to get clues, but in Battle Box that will be a rare occurence.
This card should be higher on this list, but weirdly there was no other position it would go. Having both lost and won a game to my own Triskaidekaphobia during my prerelease, I can say without doubt that the card is epic. It works great as a concept, and it doesn't disappoint in practice. When you have this card in hand, you start planning five turns ahead how you are going to get your opponent to 13 life. And when this is played against you, you break into cold sweat as you go over all the options you have to avoid losing to this thing. 5/5 for style, and I will gladly accept that this is mostly a dead draw in the later stages of the game to enable the epic stories that this card generates.
12. Ever After
A double Rise from the Grave that can only get creatures from your own graveyard for just one additional black mana. It will not always be useful, as you may not have more than one creature in your graveyard, but because the card says "up to", the worst that can happen is having to pay 1-2 more mana than the effect is worth. The number of good graveyard recursion spells is a bit low, so having another one is very welcome.
11. Avacynian Missionaries
A 3/3 for four mana is certainly below average, so the Missionaries need to be flipped to be worth it. Most Boxes have quite a few pieces of equipment and not very much artifact removal, so I expect the missionaries to be flipped in a significant number of games. Getting an equipped 4/4 that exiles a creature when it flips in return is certainly worthwile.
10. Kindly Stranger
I think this is comparable to the previous card. It is cheaper to cast, and delirium might just be a bit easier to achieve than equipping a creature. On the other hand, flipping this will require an extra mana investment. They do a similar thing when flipped, and I would let the rest of my Battle Box decide whether I want the Stranger, the Missionaries or both.
9. Flameblade Angel
I have seen this get a lukewarm reception when it was spoiled. Six mana is indeed a hefty investment for a 4/4 flyer, but I think people underestimate its effect. Any creature you block (whether it kills your blocker or not) will net its controller -1 life. Any creature that manages to connect will net its controller -1 life. These add up reasonably quickly, and I think this will be a nightmare in balanced Limited games (the kind of games Battle Box is all about). Prepare to make a lot of difficult decisions if you don't have removal to deal with this.
8. Skin Invasion
Cheap and only mildly irritating when cast, this even resembles a skin rash in gameplay. However, when the creature it is on inevitably dies, it leaves you with a 3/4 creature for your 1 mana investment. It is a bad draw later in the game, but it's great when you draw it early enough.
This is at best a mediocre card without delirium, but absolutely excellent with it. Like I said before, I'm not sure delirium will be achieved quickly enough for cards like this to shine, but its upside is big enough to earn a spot in the top 10.
6. Thing in the Ice
In an average Battle Box, casting 4 instants or sorceries will take between 10 and 20 turns. I don't expect this to happen too often. That said, the dream of flipping this is quite enticing, even if it only comes up very rarely. And a 0/4 for 2 mana is not amazing, but certainly not useless either. Plus I think there's a good chance your opponent will be scared into using a removal spell on this. Add to this the obvious cool factor and I predict this will become a Thing.
4. Altered Ego
Clone variant #381. Clones in general are fun in the Battle Box because they inherently adopt the power level of the rest of the Box (unless your Box contains only very cheap creatures). Having one that scales up as the game goes long is an interesting effect. Now, it does have some power level concerns, so I would probably recommend this for multiplayer Boxes or Boxes with a higher overall power level like the Commander Box.
3. Dance with Devils
I like both this and Devils' Playground, but the fact that this is cheaper and instant speed just gave this the edge. Now, four mana for two tokens is not cheap, but getting two Goblin Arsonists for your trouble is interesting. And because it is instant speed, there is a lot of surprise blocking value to be had here.
I love this card. It is an overpriced but useful removal card when you draw it, but after it lands in your graveyard (either by casting it or by discarding it) you can use it to copy any one instant or sorcery you cast. This makes it very versatile, and a fine draw at any point in the game.
1. Wolf of Devil's Breach
This card does so much! A 5/5 for five mana is a fine creature, but if you get to attack with it, it can really shine. By discarding a card (which can of course be a madness card) you can deal an amount of damage to an opponent's creature or planeswalker if necessary. And because it is an attack trigger and the Wolf doesn't have haste, the effect is interactive enough to make the power level acceptable. All in all, a fun card.
And so we get to the end of the list. I think Shadows over Innistrad is an excellent set, with many intricate synergies and cool card designs. I will be updating my Battle Boxes in a future article, but for now I urge you to go out there and get a clue.