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MAGIC: THE GATHERING’s Latest Set Has Gone Insane (in a Good Way)

Sometimes losing your mind is fun.

Few Magic: The Gathering sets garner as much love from fans as Innistrad: hundreds of cards populating a distinct plane bursting with Gothic horror-inspired monsters, heroes, and curses. Magic‘s latest set then, Shadows Over Innistrad, had large chain mail boots to fill. Thankfully, the madness and monstrosities are back in a set that delivers on both gameplay and lore, even if both can get a little, well, maddening.

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The popularity of the Innistrad plane likely draws on the accessibility of its many pop-culture themes. Vampires, zombies, werewolves, angels, and demons all call Innistrad home, and their stories interweave like you think they would. Aristocratic vampires feed on rebellious humans. Werewolves transform suddenly and violently. Zombies, stitched together by mad men, shamble through dark streets and claw through locked doors. Whatever your monster of choice, Shadows provides you with cards that easily fit within your notions of horror.

But Shadows goes beyond the simple Monster Mash. The guardian angel of Innistrad, Avacyn (featured image above), has gone insane. Angels that once protected humanity have turned into fiery tormentors. The player is tasked with figuring out why madness grips Shadows as the characters of its lore attempt the same. This set’s cards ooze mystery (sometimes literally), and gameplay mechanics new and old enhance the effect.

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Last month, Magic publisher Wizards of the Coast introduced the world to Shadows with a number of carefully crafted puzzles that players could solve online or in physical escape rooms. The reward? New cards to pore over and lore to unravel. Investigation and puzzle solving is perhaps the main theme of Shadows, reflected in the cards by a new mechanic called “Investigate.” Cards that investigate produce a “clue” token that can be sacrificed to draw more cards. It helps ensure that players won’t stall out, and balances a set bereft of many card-drawing outlets and stuffed with discarding mechanics.

Purposely emptying your hand of cards may seem crazy to new players, but that madness is what Shadows capitalizes on. The “Madness” mechanic lets players use cards as they move between hand and discard pile, often at a lower cost. A new mechanic, “Delirium,” then takes advantage of a full discard pile — with four or more cards types discarded, new abilities unlock. Before my round of playtesting, I had heard that Delirium was hard to get working, but during my few games with Shadows, I found that Investigate, Madness, and Delirium balanced each other nicely. Not only did the mechanics make sense together, they enhanced the feeling the lore is going for.

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Returning from Innistrad are double-faced cards — cards with printings on both sides, which “transform” under certain conditions. The lore informs the cards that do get to flip. Humans will tear off into the night as werewolves and crazed scientists will mutate into horrific insects. Most notable are the now-insane Archangel Avacyn, once the protector of Innistrad‘s humans, and Arlinn Kord, the first werewolf planeswalker card (and a werewolf no less). Back when double-faced cards were introduced in Innistrad, players were skeptical, like it could be an awkward gimmick. The cards however, turned out to be a hit, and in Shadows, the two most expensive cards (based on player demand) are double-faced.

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Shadows isn’t perfect. The set went a little too crazy with horror-themed cards — some themes are underdeveloped. Picking up a few packs at your local card shop, you could easily run a sealed deck that relies on vampires, werewolves, or zombies alone. There is enough support in the 297-card set (the biggest since 2008) to make a mean vampire/madness/delirium or a zombie/delrium tribal deck. However, the humans, a heavy focus of Innistrad, have far less support. The viability of spirit cards too, is vanishing. And if you’re looking for answers as to what happened to Innistrad in the first place, the tangled lore isn’t exactly inviting.

Still, the lore is more than compelling enough to get you into Shadows. It’s a creature-heavy set with the curiosity of clues and excitement of transforming cards. Get into Shadows now, and then wait for the mystery of Avacyn’s madness to be revealed in the next set, Eldritch Moon, coming this summer.

Shadows Over Innistrad, available in booster packs,”Fat Packs,” and 5 ready-to-play “Intro Packs,” is at your local game store today. Buy a few packs and go crazy.

Kyle Hill is the science editor at Nerdist. His Narset EDH will stomp you. Follow on Twitter @Sci_Phile.

Images: 2016 Wizards of the Coast LLC; Silverstrike by Lius Lasahido; Olivia, Mobilized for War by Eric Deschamps; Descend upon the Sinful by Tyler Jacobson; Avacyn, the Purifier by James Ryman; Arlinn Kord by Winona Nelson

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