Not gonna lie, I was pretty happy to land this particular writing assignment.
Having immersed myself in the lifestyle of a Limited player, I get asked on occasion what my favorite Draft format of all time is. While slots two through five may shift around, numero uno has been the same since it came out: Innistrad.
I still worship at the feet of and will buy pizza any time for Mark Rosewater (lead designer) and Erik Lauer (lead developer). The job these two did leading their talented teams was incredible, and stands as a testament to their skill as professional game makers. The crazy part about Innistrad is that everyone was happy. And in our game, that basically never happens.
For my part, I am on the far end of the competitive player spectrum, considering myself a nuts-and-bolts Spike. I was thrilled with the set. Constructed players loved it because it changed Standard at the time and brought a lot of sweet, powerful options to the table. But it wasn't just the tournament players who were happy; it extended all the way to the more casual crowd—yes, Vorthoses loved this set too.
The setting is Gothic horror. Think old-school horror movies, with all the scary monsters and creepy tropes you would expect to see there, but in Magic card form.
So everyone loved the set, but you know who loved the set most of all?
Drafters. Limited players. You and me.
And today we get to go through just a few of the reasons why this was the case. Join me on a slightly haunted and somewhat creepy walk down memory lane.
Out of all the great things about Innistrad Draft, a few things stood out to me the most.
The first thing that stands out I'm not going to talk about yet, because it's the single coolest thing ever in Limited, ever. (And by "ever ever," I mean at least since I started playing Limited around Shadowmoor.) But we'll get to that a little later. Oh, and I just remembered another crazy thing about Innistrad that is also the coolest thing ever.
That set was insane.
The biggest big-picture thing that comes to mind is how the overarching themes interacted and how you could draft virtually any kind of deck successfully.
There were tribes on Innistrad, and they tended to live in pairs of colors.
For example, you had Humans in green and white. Humans being their own tribe was a first, though Humans as a creature type had been present since the game's inception. Incidentally, it turns out good ol' people were quite strong.
Vampires were in both black and red. Though the archetype wasn't amazing in Draft, it was reasonable, and the flavor of the nasty Vampires really came through by adding red to the usual black.
Blue and black were actually Zombies, and I'll tell you, blue Zombies were pretty sweet. These weren't your run-of-the-mill 2/2 Zombies. These were the interacts-with-your-graveyard sort.
Red and green were Werewolves. And that brings us to our first mind-blowing thing about Innistrad, which was of course the double-faced cards! (A lot of people call these "flip cards," but that name was already taken by the mechanic from Kamigawa block.)
Double-faced cards are insane on so many levels. What a massive undertaking for R&D, and with it came a lot of risk. But they moved forward and came to a really good place in terms of gameplay and presentation.
While there were multiple cool implementations of double-faced cards, the one that really resonated with me was the Werewolves. You see, transforming a double-faced card to the other side was a way to represent profound change in the game—a transformation.
I mean, it was changing into an entirely different card!
Here's a simple example:
They go from lowly Human villagers (that still passed the Vanilla Test) to ferocious Werewolves ready to rumble.
How cool is that? They took this concept to other places, too, like a flappy bat that turns into a scary Vampire. There was even a planeswalker, Garruk Relentless, that turned into Garruk, the Veil-Cursed after an unfortunate encounter with a very unhappy Liliana.
You can see how exciting new gameplay was married with super-flavorful cards here.
Build Around This
Tribes and flavor are sweet, but the thing that really stood out to me from a Limited perspective were the build-around-me uncommons. There were two in particular.
First up is Burning Vengeance.
Innistrad hammered home the idea of the build-around-me uncommon for me. I had experienced them on different levels before, but this was a whole new thing. You see, one of the main mechanics for the set was flashback. Flashback was really cool here because it (once again) brought flavor together with gameplay. The flavor part came from the fact that we were now utilizing our graveyard. Innistrad being a horror-themed set, things were pretty likely to revolve around the graveyard a bit.
With Burning Vengeance, you wanted to pick up one to three of them and then a bunch of these types of cards:
These are but a sampling of the flashback cards in the set, but as you can see, you can start stacking some serious value once you get a Burning Vengeance down and commence flashing back spells.
I know it looks weird, but you'd even play this sometimes:
It does nothing to affect the board, but when it puts extra flashback cards in your own graveyard and has flashback itself, it can actually be worth it.
I played two copies of Burning Vengeance at GP Austin in my Sealed deck, and made Day Two of the tournament. That's how much confidence I had in the card.
The format was slow enough to let you set up, but not so slow that everything was skewed exclusively toward the slow decks. The one flashback card that rarely went with Burning Vengeance but instead commanded its own entire archetype was this one:
"Travel Preps" was a green-white beatdown deck that leveraged Travel Preparations to pile on a bunch of counters before your opponent could stabilize the board. And boy did that work. For a set that let you really explore a lot of avenues to victory, Travel Preps seemed to be the most direct one.
All right, I've saved the best for last. The absolute best and coolest deck you could draft in any Draft format ever is in Innistrad. It is spoken of in hushed tones among grizzled Limited players, and it's the deck you can never get on Magic Online when they do flashback Drafts of Innistrad because literally all eight players in the queue want to do the same thing.
And that thing is this:
Even looking at it now, it seems so...meh. Get a few Spiders, maybe get a few more later if the mana works out? Sure.
And that's what everyone thought when they first saw this card. As the format matured, though, a completely absurd combo emerged.
The Spider Spawning Deck
- 1 or 2 Spider Spawning
- 1 Runic Repetition
- 1 Memory's Journey
- 1 or 2 Gnaw to the Bone
- A lot of ways to mill your own deck
Here's how this plays out. Usually you end up in blue and green, splashing black. Or just all three colors. You need cards that mill your own library, like these:
These start dumping cards from your library into your graveyard. This serves two purposes.
First, it sets up your infinite combo (yep).
Second, it dumps random flashback spells in the graveyard to garner some value.
At some point, most (or even all—that can happen) of your library will be in your graveyard. You get to this point by milling yourself a bunch, blocking a bunch, and casting Gnaw to the Bone to gain yourself upward of 20 life.
This is where things get awesome.
You start by playing Spider Spawning. Since you have the majority of your library in your graveyard, you'll have a bunch of creatures in there and you'll get a bunch of 1/2 reach Spiders. (Super hint: those are very good in this format.)
Then you flashback Spider Spawning, netting even more tokens. You could get a ton of these tokens down off of just one Spider Spawning. If you had twelve of your, say, fifteen creatures in the yard, you were piling up a massive amount of Spiders.
You can use your Runic Repetition to get back your Spider Spawning from exile, to cast (and then flashback) all over again. As awesome as this is, sometimes your library gets a bit low and you may be worried about decking yourself.
And if you have to flashback your Memory's Journey? No problem, just use Runic Repetition to get that back instead! You can make a ton of tokens and also you can't deck yourself because you can just use Memory's Journey to restock your library with Runic Repetitions and Spider Spawnings. Heck, you can even get that Gnaw to the Bone back if you have to.
And with this loop, you can manage to not deck yourself while creating massing throngs of tiny Spiders that will win you the game with a massive attack at some point. It's so fun.
And people did this. I did this at my local card shop after doing it online a few times. At my local FNM, I had basically the rest of the card shop huddled around my match as I went off with my Spider Spawning deck. People just hadn't seen anything like that in Booster Draft before. They still talk about it at that shop sometimes.
And anyone who has ever played the format still talks about and remembers the Spider Spawning deck.
It's one of many great things about that format. My favorite format.