Well, now that the Shadows over Innistrad block of Magic: The Gathering is over with and Eldritch Moon—the second and last set—has been out for a few weeks, I suppose it’s a decent time to discuss my thoughts about the block. Before I can do that, though, I suppose it would be wise to talk about Magic in general, since it’s definitely not a game that everyone plays or is familiar with. I will discuss the latest couple of sets in this ongoing game, but before I can tell you that story, I have to tell you this story….
For anyone not in the know, Magic: The Gathering is a collectible card game (think Pokemon cards but for an older audience), wherein you buy various assortments of cards in random packs or individually online or secondhand and use these cards to build your own deck to play with. You can also get pre-built base decks, which are usually assorted with a specific color or faction in the game. The game is divided up into blocks, which each consist of a self-contained story and theme and are generally based around a particular world (or “plane”), and sets, which are subdivisions of blocks and are essentially parts or stages of the block. Most blocks contain 3 sets, though one of them had 4 and the newest ones have switched to 2. Planes often have a certain theme to them; in the past, there have been ones based around such things as Japanese mythology, gothic horror, old-time fairytales, and an enormous city with conflicting guilds.
There are 5 different colors of mana, each associated with particular types of spells (for instance, things that prevent damage tend to be white, things that damage players directly tend to be red, and large creatures tend to be green), and you need a certain about of mana to cast these spells, which is usually obtained by activating, or “tapping”, land cards that you’ve played. Each player has 20 life, at least in the normal style of play, and anyone whose life count reaches 0 loses the game. (There are other ways of winning the game besides reducing everyone else to 0 life, but that’s the simplest and most common.) There are various types of spells; creatures, for instance, stay in play and can be used to attack other players (usually), instant and sorcery spells grant a one-time effect and then go to the discard pile, and enchantments grant a permanent effect either globally or for a particular thing that they’re enchanting. Some cards can also have certain keywords for an extra layer of functionality; for instance, there is one keyword that causes a creature to gain you life whenever it deals damage, one that prevents the thing it’s on from being targeted by your opponents’ spells, and one that lets you look at a certain number of cards from the top of your deck and move some of them to the bottom if you wish. There are also keywords that are specific to certain sets and blocks, such as one that lets you make a single-target spell hit everything by paying extra mana and one that causes something to happen whenever a land that you control enters play.
I have somewhat mixed feelings about the game overall. It’s decently fun, I suppose, and some of the story and flavor is pretty neat, but the story can also get really freaking depressing and outright disturbing at times (we’re talking A Song of Ice and Fire-tier dark here, at least from what I’ve heard of the series). And even if you don’t follow the story (which is fair; there’s no reason you need to just to play the game), it’s one of those games where there are far too many ways to make your opponents absolutely miserable; as a corollary, it’s also one of those games where the amount of fun you’ll have depends greatly on the people you’re playing with. And since everyone makes their own decks, it also depends greatly on what kinds of decks you’re up against. (Tip: In a game with 3 or more players, if there is anyone playing a control deck or the “Manabarbs” enchantment, gang up on that person first.) On the other hand, the customizable nature of the game and the sheer number of available cards means that just about everyone will be able to find things they like and put together a deck or two for their play style. On the other other hand, most people would probably gravitate toward the cooler and more powerful cards if given a choice, and a lot of those tend to be quite expensive to buy individually (naturally, they also tend to be rare, so one could not easily find them in random packs). For instance, there’s a pretty neat card called Sword of Fire and Ice that I’d like to use. How much does it cost? Well, depending on where you get it and at the time of this writing, roughly 43 dollars. Yeah, no. And that’s not even considered all that bad compared to some high-tier cards…or quite a few infamously imbalanced ones from the oldest sets, some of which get up to the thousands. It’s not as bad when it’s a card that I could easily do without, one of those “this would be pretty cool, but it’s not super important for any decks I have planned” cards, but then you get some that would be really useful in a lot of things. The most infamous of those is Doubling Season; I’d use that card in all sorts of decks if I could, but how can I when I’d have to drop 37 bucks on one every time I needed it? I mean, I’m probably stupid for spending as much money as I do on this kind of nerd hobby, but I’m not quite that stupid. (There is the option of using proxies, which would only cost about 9 cents per card, maybe less depending on where you print them, but my playgroup doesn’t seem to be too willing to let me use those.)
On the other other hand, there are also plenty of cards that are pretty decent and much cheaper. Druids’ Repository, for instance, is also quite useful, and it’s only 24 cents. And let me just say—and I’m speaking from first-hand experience here—that even if they might not be as flashy, a hand-picked assortment of 200 15-cent cards for $30.00 will serve you much better than two $15.00 cards for the same price would. On the other other other hand (apparently, we’re borrowing Lakshmi Tatma‘s limbs to count on)…it’s possible to go a bit too far that way as well; you can buy large assortments of random cards on places like eBay, but in my experience, they tend to be mostly junk. I guess it’s okay if everyone is building their decks out of the same junk, but personally, I’d rather at least be able to get more of a plan together.
There’s also the issue of that story and flavor that I mentioned earlier. Now, generally, when a person talks about something being a work of the devil designed to corrupt innocent minds or something to that effect, my mental response is usually something like “Pffffftt…yeah, right, whatever you say. Hey, did you know they’ve now discovered that the world is round?”. In this case, however, I must admit that the puritanical types might actually have something of a point. No, I obviously don’t think Magic was inspired by Satan or anything like that, but it’s not exactly innocent either; simply put, the game might say it’s for ages 13 and up, but I don’t think it’s quite appropriate for 13-year-olds. It’s not because it encourages antisocial acts or anything, or even because it’s too complex for young people (a few rare edge cases of mechanic interaction might cause a bit of confusion, but a quick Google search ought to elucidate those reasonably well); it’s the imagery that’s the problem. I’ll be the first to admit that Magic: The Gathering does have some very nice artwork overall, and there are at least a few cards that I’d consider getting just for the artwork even if they weren’t that efficient in-game (providing they weren’t too expensive) because they’re just so gosh-darned pretty. But then you also get plenty of cards that are genuinely creepy and unsettling (yes, I can think of a few in particular; no, I’m not going to link them here). Some people might have a problem with the demon-related cards, but honestly, the cards that depict demons generally aren’t even that bad. So I suppose you just have to find the right cards, some reasonably innocent dryads, fairies, centaurs, or what have you.
tl;dr: Magic: The Gathering is a decent enough game, provided you have the right group of friends to play it with. But I wouldn’t give it to your 13-year-old if I were you, unless you’re prepared to go through the cards with him or her and filter out certain ones.
Now, that brings me to Shadows over Innistrad and Eldritch Moon…
In Shadows over Innistrad, the first set of the block, we return to the plane of Innistrad, where mysterious mutations are afflicting people and creatures there. It turns out to be the work of Emrakul, an Eldrazi (basically, think H.P. Lovecraft-style monstrous otherworldly abominations) lured to the plane by a former friend of Sorin, a vampire from the plane, as revenge for leaving her own plane to be ravaged by the Eldrazi centuries ago. We don’t find that out until the second set, Eldritch Moon, though it’s pretty obvious to anyone who has been following the recent story, since the previous block also had a lot of Eldrazi involved and it was specifically brought to attention that one was missing (and the one who is most known for causing mutations of that nature). The main characters prevail, sort of, though there’s an odd plot twist at the end that might leave a lot of people wondering. The block introduces some new mechanics: investigate, which gives you an artifact that you can pay some mana and sacrifice to draw a card and only shows up in the first set; delirium, which allows cards that have it to grant an additional or more powerful effect if your discard pile contains four or more card types (there being seven card types in total, or eight in rare cases); skulk, which prevents a creature from being blocked by anything with higher power than itself; escalate, which allows you to choose multiple modes of modal spells by paying extra mana and only shows up in the second set; emerge, which allows you to cast certain creature spells cheaper by sacrificing an existing creature (also exclusive to the second set); and meld, which allows you to combine certain pairs of cards into one more powerful one should you have both of them out (ditto). There is also madness, a returning mechanic that allows you to cast cards as you discard them.
So, what do I think of this block? Eeehh…I’m not a fan, honestly. The main issue is definitely the story/setting/flavor; Innistrad was already a fairly dark, gruesome setting (it’s the “gothic horror” plane I mentioned in the second paragraph), and adding eldritch abominations to the mix just makes it that much worse. Granted, it’s still probably not as bad as the Scars of Mirrodin block from late 2010/early 2011 (though that level of dystopia is hard to top), but it’s a shoo-in for second place in most nightmarish block. Remember what I said about the game not really being appropriate for young people? Well, the Shadows over Innistrad block definitely isn’t, unless it’s a kid who has already seen enough fictional horror to be desensitized. I mean, some of the artwork for the corrupted creatures and stuff gives me the creeps, and I’m old enough to do basically anything lawful except run for president. (Okay, so I’m also rather sensitive to that kind of thing, but still…) Now, how about the mechanics? I mean, even Scars of Mirrodin had some pretty decent gameplay mechanics to play around with. Well, as far as that goes for Shadows and Moon…swing and a miss, I’m afraid. I’d imagine they’re fine within the set, but generally, the kinds of game mechanics I like tend to be ones that are open-ended enough to work well in a lot of different settings and with a lot of different cards. While meld was an interesting idea and escalate is one that I’m frankly surprised took this long to show up (at least as a keyword), the mechanics in Innistrad Part 2 generally aren’t things that seem particularly useful outside of the block, and they certainly don’t add anything to most of my existing decks. It really does not help that, with the exception of investigate (which, might I remind you, was only in one of the two sets), they only really care about the cards that they’re actually on; they can’t directly affect anything else. Big hairy deal.
It should, therefore, come as no surprise that the Shadows over Innistrad block is unquestionably one of my less-liked blocks in the game. I don’t know if it’s my outright least favorite, but it has to be close. I didn’t hate the story, setting, and flavor as much as Scars of Mirrodin’s, but Scars of Mirrodin at least had some interesting mechanics to play around with outside of the setting; Shadows over Innistrad didn’t even have that going for it. On a side note, what is with return blocks and turning the plane into a complete dunghole? Wizards of the Coast has done a total of four blocks (at least among the modern sets) that returned to a plane previously visited, and only one of them—Return to Ravnica—didn’t have all of the smelliest, grossest poop hit the biggest, fastest fan on that return trip. If it’s true that about every other set from here on out will be a returning one, I’m not looking forward to seeing what other planes they decide to ruin. (I really liked Ravnica in particular, so if they decide at some point to do “Ravnica 3: Now With 250% More Dark and Edgy”, it would be an understatement to say I’d be ticked off about it.) I’ve gotten a few particular cards from the Shadows over Innistrad block that I quite liked (Second Harvest was a particularly nice one), but…I think I’ll leave most of the rest of it to play in the septic tank. With any hope, I’ll like the next block much better.