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I. Introduction and Overview
Welcome loyal reader to my Innistrad Set Review!
This article is dense and action packed. I will begin by recapping my New Phyrexia Set Review, and evaluating my predictions there. I will then talk about what entered Vintage with M12, and with the metagame changes this summer. Then I will share my thoughts on Innistrad, beginning with an essay on Innistrad, followed by a comprehensive analysis of which cards are Unplayable, Remotely Playable, Possibly Playable, and Definitely Playable. Finally, I will unveil the list of cards you will want to pick up from Innistrad, and the updated Vintage Checklist. Whew, that’s a lot to get to, so let’s get started!
II. Investigating Innistrad
Originality is overrated. Just about everything that is possible in Magic was sowed in the seeds of Alpha, planted nearly two decades ago by Richard Garfield and his crew. How ironically appropriate that Richard Garfield should return, once more, to the design team of the game he created for its most recent expansion.
The Return to Mirrodin was not what we expected. Mirrodin originally was a bombastic, operatic block with an array of innovative mechanics (affinity, indestructible) and broken spells (Chrome Mox, Chalice of the Void, Thirst for Knowledge, Trinisphere, Crucible of Worlds, among many others). The Vintage format gained a plethora of weapons that continue to shape the format to this day in perceptible and imperceptible ways.
Although the Return to Mirrodin brought many new cards, what emerged from New Mirrodin were really two very different kinds of cards: huge monsters and madcap magical tricks. The initial impact of Mirrodin may appear to be very much like least exciting half of original Mirrodin: Mishra’s Workshop-fueled monsters like Steel Hellkite, Precursor Golem, and Wurmcoil Engine. Yet, what we left Mirrodin with looks very different: Mental Misstep proliferating for tempo plays, Surgical Extraction and Dismember as surprise sideboard cards, Gitaxian Probe providing valuable information for free, Leonin Relic-Warder jumping out of Aether Vials, the unheralded Slash Panther tearing into Jaces, Phyrexian Metamorph and Phyrexian Revoker giving Workshop decks more utility, and the most outrageous finisher ever, Blightsteel Colossus.
In comparison to these zany tactics, Innistrad offers a return to brass tacks. Innistrad is a recentering for Magic away from free spells, eccentric tactics and tricks, and towards simplified effects and normal spells. While this may strike some as boring, it actually comes as a relief. A sense of regularity has been restored.
While Vintage may be Magic’s oldest format, it is not immune to the winds of change. In a span of 12 months, Vintage has been bookended by two major unrestrictions, and buffeted by unrelenting introduction of new printings at a pace never before seen – from Scars of Mirrodin, Mirrodin Besieged, New Phyrexia, to Commander and M12. In between these printings has been the unrestriction of Gush, Frantic Search, and most recently Fact or Fiction. The format is running on a track that is not merely wet, but greased. Players accustomed to a deliberate pace of play and deck development may have difficulty getting their bearings, or find themselves lost without a compass.
One consequence of this inexorable and uncompromising march of new cards into the format is that potentially pivotal cards may become overlooked. It appears that Flusterstorm’s full potential took longer than expected to bear fruit, but what about cards like Leonin Relic-Warder? Has it realized its full potential, or is it just beginning to scratch the surface? What about cards that came out strong, but disappeared, like Mox Opal, Ratchet Bomb, or Steel Hellkite? What about sleepers like Leonin Arbiter, Grand Abolisher, or even Vedalken Certarch? What about solid tactics like Buried Ruin or Contagion Clasp? Or potential engine cards like Frantic Search or Riddlesmith? At what point do these cards deserve another look? More importantly, when do they get another look? Will they be lost perpetually in the metaphorical shuffle, or will they be brought into the realm of playability by their application with new printings, or to address metagame concerns?
The only scar left by the Scars block may be on the invisible subconscious of the Magic player, left with an array of dizzying tactics and no time to try them all out. In that context, we can thank the designers of Innistrad for returning Magic to brass tacks, and a return to “normalcy.” It is a set with solid tools, important plays, and a simplified design. There may be fewer overall playables in this block for Vintage, but those have the potential to be vital building blocks, not fringe answers, wild tactics, or broken finishers.
You may find these observations strange in a set that broke rules and created new ones with checklists and flip cards. These cards are merely a footnote for the Vintage player, whose implications lie beyond card play or deck design. These cards raise questions about the logistics of Magic player behavior, proxies, and card identity, but do not bear on the evolution of the format directly. As a set, and presumably, a block, the importance of Innistrad may be found in its spells, not its keywords, mechanics, or rules changes. And, for this, we may find some measure of respite. We can appreciate the design teams in R&D for their efforts to push the boundaries of Magic design in the last two years, but we can also thank them for guiding us back to calm waters.
While the flashback mechanic offers some of the most tantalizing possibilities to the Vintage designer, and may ultimately prove to be Innistrad’s most enduring legacy, both the greater portion of the set’s playables and the set as a whole read like a return to M10. Snapcaster Mage is the figurehead of Innistrad, but only because of its presence there. It is an ill-fitting symbolic representative to a set that otherwise serves a normalizing function.
More than anything else, Innistrad represents a realignment of the Magic card pool. It is not a shift in terms of efficiency or power levels. Rather, it is a realignment in terms of colors and abilities. Innistrad is a larger Planar Chaos, a reconfiguration of spells and creatures across the color pie, with modestly tweaked casting costs and effects. Old favorites have been printed in new colors (such as Null Rod, Coffin Purge, Krosan Reclamation, Faceless Butcher). Old enchantments have become artifacts (Spectral Cloak, All Hallow’s Eve, etc), as well as more recent ones (Leyline of Sanctity). And old artifacts/creatures have become enchantments (Millstone, Null Rod, Meddling Mage). A perusal of this set should stir memories, perhaps dim or even subconscious, but the perceptive mind will see in Innistrad much that is already found in Magic as a whole.
This is not a criticism. As I said, originality is overrated. The building blocks of Magic are simply designed cards creatively and synergistically utilized as tactical and strategic support options. The emergent properties of Magic are not to be found within individual cards, but from the interactions of cards within decks and across tables. Nevermore, Witchbane Orb, and Stony Silence will each see play in Eternal formats precisely because they offer important effects in elegant simplicity. This is true even of the marquee card in this set: Snapcaster Mage, which, as one of the more complex cards in the set, is nonetheless an elegant tactic that can be simply administered.
Innistrad may not offer as much for Vintage play as Scars of Mirrodin, but what it does offer is broader possibilities. This is the upside of simplicity. Simplicity does not always mean simple. The more basic the building block, the more applications it may have. Bricks will never go out of fashion. Innistrad offers them in spades.
III. New Phyrexia Recap
New Phyrexia has already had a significant influence on the Vintage metagame for a set of its size. Three cards in particular stand out as having a major influence, and will receive stars signifying them as commonly played cards in the Complete Vintage Checklist (updated in Part V of this article).
In my New Phyrexia set review, here is what I said about the set for Vintage:
These are cards I’m confident will see play in Vintage:
4 Gitaxian Probe
4 Phyrexian Metamorph
4 Surgical Extraction
1-3 Praetor’s Grasp
4 Mental Misstep (although, I’m not a fan)
And here are cards that I think are playable, and could very well see play at some point:
1-3 Beast Within
3-4 Birthing Pod
1-4 Tezzeret’s Gambit
4 Chancellor of the Tangle
I’d suggest you pick up these cards for your collection.
Once again, my predictions were extremely accurate.
Gitaxian Probe has appeared in 18 different top 8 decklists in 15 different Vintage Top 8s. It is officially a Vintage playable.
Phyrexian Metamorph has appeared in 112 top 8 decklists in over 60 different Vintage Top 8s. It is officially a Vintage staple.
Surgical Extraction has appeared in 11 top 8 decklists in 8 different Vintage Top 8s. It is officially a Vintage playable.
Praetor’s Grasp has appeared as a singleton in 10 top 8 decklists in 9 different Vintage Top 8s, including Rich Shay’s Vintage Championship Top 8 list. It is officially a Vintage playable.
Mental Misstep has appeared in 98 different top 8 decklists in over 45 different Vintage tournaments. It is officially a Vintage staple.
In addition, I identified 6 other cards that I thought could see Vintage play under the right circumstances.
Beast Within has appeared in 11 different Top 8 decklists in 7 different Vintage Top 8s. It is officially a Vintage playable. Beast Within is particularly useful in Oath decks.
Dismember has appeared in 81 different top 8 decklists in over 40 different tournaments, including the Vintage Championship. It has either become, or is well on its way to becoming, a Vintage staple. Given the range of decklists in which it has appeared, I believe it has earned that status and it will maintain in the foreseeable future.
Neither Birthing Pod, Tezzeret’s Gambit, Chancellor of the Tangle, nor Whipflare have, as of yet, appeared in any Vintage Top 8s.
The cards I predicted would be played, have been. Two of the six cards I suspected could see play, but did not guarantee as much, have seen play. The most played card has been Phyrexian Metamorph, followed by Mental Misstep, and then followed by Dismember.
In my New Phyrexia set review, I offered some color commentary on the potential influence of this set on Vintage:
[T]here is a layer of play that New Phyrexia brings to Vintage – a dimension it either adds to it or greatly expands: and that is the surprise of being Probed, Extracted, or Grasped at just the right moment, or having your creature Dismembered. Free or nearly free spells are difficult to anticipate, let alone plan for. They strike without warning, and they will change, in subtle ways, the way that Vintage is played.
To that list I should have added Mental Misstep, as that is exactly how it has affected the format. Mental Misstep has become a de facto tempo play in the Blue versus Blue matchups, a play made in the hopes of slowing the opponent down, trading one-for-one with Brainstorm, Ponder, Preordain, or, better yet, Spell Pierce, Thoughtseize, and, in the best case scenario, Ancestral Recall or Fastbond.
Its presence has changed, in subtle ways, the way that Vintage is played. It punishes variance: a land light or land heavy draw that needs smoothed out with Preordain can be devastatingly struck with a well-timed Mental Misstep. At the same time, fighting Mental Misstep occurs on a similar level. Knowledge that an opponent uses Mental Misstep can be used against them to induce them to play it against the wrong card, fearing they may not see another target in a relevant timeframe. It changes the evaluation of the power level of cards like Duress, Spell Pierce, and Red Elemental Blast. It also allows the opponent to deduct that there may be other relevant counterspells like Mana Drain or Spell Pierce that might otherwise occupy the spot held by Misstep.
While New Phyrexia offered surprises for the Vintage metagame, perhaps none was greater than Slash Panther. Slash Panther has appeared in 25 different Top 8 decklists, making it the fourth most played card from the set, but not quite a format staple.
I must admit that I overlooked this card, as it was not even mentioned in my set review. Why? I’m pretty sure that the reason I did not mention this card is because I did not see the ‘haste’ rules text. Having overlooked that, I dismissed this card as an inferior Juggernaut. With the haste clause, this card is a superior Juggernaut.
Last year, I designed an Aggro MUD deck intent on maximizing synergies with Lodestone Golem. The basic shell for that deck became the shell for the new Slash Panther deck once Slash Panther was uncovered. As part of our So Many Insane Plays Podcast #4 (Cat Stax Fever), I suggested this list:
Aggro Mud, by Stephen Menendian
4 Slash Panther
4 Lodestone Golem
4 Phyrexian Revoker
3 Phyrexian Metamorph
4 Sphere of Resistance
4 Thorn of Amethyst
4 Tangle Wire
4 Chalice of the Void
2 Null Rod
Mana Sources (26)
1 Black Lotus
1 Mox Emerald
1 Mox Jet
1 Mox Pearl
1 Mox Ruby
1 Mox Sapphire
1 Mana Crypt
1 Sol Ring
1 Mana Vault
1 Tolarian Academy
4 Mishra’s Workshop
4 Ancient Tomb
3 City of Traitors
1 Strip Mine
Two cards were tweaked, and this list, piloted by Ryan Glackin, made Top 8 at the Vintage Championship. I didn’t discover Slash Panther – in fact I missed it! But I did create what I felt is the best Slash Panther list, and one that has become a model for others.
What not only I missed – but everyone else missed – is just how relevant that ‘haste’ clause was. For it not only made Slash Panther a great anti-Jace tool, but it actually speeds up the game tremendously. Having haste means, despite having only 4 power, being able to win a turn earlier than Juggernaut in many games. This is especially true when you draw multiple Panthers or a Panther and a Phyrexian Metamorph.
A turn one Panther, followed by turn two Metamorph means 12 damage can be dealt by turn two! And a lethal blow inflicted on turn three. This is much faster than a pair of Juggernauts could deal damage, and it gives the ability to Workshop decks to close the game out extremely fast once they have begun disrupting the opponent with Spheres, Chalice, and/or Null Rod.
I also overlooked Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite, which has appeared as a useful Dredge mirror match sideboard threat.
IV. Innistrad Reviewed
Innistrad features 264 cards, 240 of which are new and unique printings. Innistrad is a big set, and although there are already 11,751 unique cards in the Vintage card pool prior to Innistrad’s release, Innistrad will compose almost exactly 2% of the Vintage card pool (2.0015%, to be exact), which is far from trivial given the fact that there have been 18 years of printings to precede it.
In my Mirrodin Besieged set review I attempted to do something I had never attempted before: review every card in the set. As I explained there:
In the past, I have selected for review only those cards that I perceived to be either clearly Vintage playable, borderline Vintage playable, or were otherwise mentioned or discussed by others in the Vintage context. In this article, I review every single card in the set. I do so for a number of reasons.
First of all, while my previous approach has proven successful, there have been a few times where I have overlooked, underestimated or failed to mention cards that later became Vintage staples or otherwise saw Vintage play. The two critical examples of this in the last five years are Empty the Warrens and Jace, the Mind Sculptor. I dismissed the former, and did not mention the latter. By reviewing every single card, I will avoid such omissions, even if my conclusions turn out to be wrong. Second, by forcing myself to analyze every card for Vintage playability, I will reduce the chance that I inadvertently dismiss a card based on existing standards of playability.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, by reviewing every single card, I am compelled to explicitly confront and describe the boundaries of Vintage playability, to explore the range and mixture of functions that matter in Vintage, and to more directly compare new cards with pre-existing cards in terms of utility and efficiency. This process of trying to draw a line between playability and unplayability and of more explicitly identifying functions that matter in this format, and trying to measure them, is valuable in itself for a number of other reasons, the least of which will be to help you better understand the limits of Vintage playability, and to see what kinds of differences actually make a difference.
For New Phyrexia, I abandoned that approach, simply because reviewing every card proved cumbersome and unnecessary. However, I ended up overlooking one of the most important cards in the set (Slash Panther). That was precisely why I ended up reviewing every card for Mirrodin Besieged. Consequently, for Innistrad, I will review every card in the set, but I will not provide a complete analysis of every card as I did with Mirrodin Besieged. That was, while an interesting and worthwhile experiment, not the best of use of your time or mine.
To facilitate a review of every card, I have divided the new printings into four categories:
2) Remotely Playable
3) Possibly Playable
4) Definitely Playable.
The cards in the first category will receive only the most cursory treatment, and likely no more than a sentence or a few words. The cards in the other categories will be treated in the usual manner. That way I will be forced to evaluate every card, and give reasons for why the card is unplayable. Don’t worry; this won’t take long.
For each of the unplayables, I will list the card on the left, and then briefly – not even necessarily in a complete sentence — explain why the card is unplayable. In most cases, I will refer to unplayed or unplayable cards that are superior to or comparable to the card in question. In either case, the card in question is unplayable. In some cases, the card in question is an improved variant of an unplayed or unplayable card such that I don’t consider it to be playable either (see: Feeling of Dread). Let’s begin:
Abbey Griffin – Almost strictly inferior to Diving Griffin, and clearly worse than Tempest Drake, Thunder Spirit, Apex Hawks, Cloudchaser Eagle, and many more underpowered White flying creatures.
Angel of Flight Alabaster – A Reya Dawnbringer effect for Spirits, but putting the recurred card in hand, instead of on the battlefield. Inferior to Baneslayer Angel for beatdown purposes, and Karmic Guide for combo/recursion.
Avacynian Priest – Comparable to Benalish Trapper and Blinding Mage; probably worse than Gideon’s Lawkeeper or Whipcorder.
Bonds of Faith – A cleverer Cagemail; much weaker than Runed Halo or any removal spell like Swords to Plowshares.
Champion of the Parish – If played on turn one this could eventually be bigger than Savannah Lions or Isamaru, neither of which see play in Vintage; a much worse mid or late game topdeck.
Chapel Geist – Doesn’t impact the board state at all and is weaker than Flickerwisp or Aven Mindcensor.
Cloistered Youth // Unholy Fiend, Elite Inquisitor – Weaker than Accorder Paladin. Two mana creatures without disruptive or other special abilities aren’t playable in Vintage unless they get to 5 power quickly and reliably (e.g. Tarmogoyf, Kiln Fiend, Quirion Dryad).
Dearly Departed – The only 6 cc non-artifact spells that see play in Vintage and aren’t cheated into play are Yawgmoth’s Bargain and Mind’s Desire, which often end the game immediately. This is not worth cheating into play, as the only value to this card is to dump it into the graveyard to boost your Meddling Mages, Dark Confidants, etc. Those decks typically don’t run Bazaar of Baghdad, and are more concerned with impacting the board with their abilities than by getting +1/+1.
Divine Reckoning – Wrath of God effects are not playable in Vintage unless they cost 2 mana or less (Balance, Pyroclasm, etc).
Doomed Traveler, Eldar Cathar, Mausoleum Guard – Creatures in Vintage don’t die very often; they are most often bounced or exiled. Myr Sire or Arcbound Ravager would be better for Vintage because of cards like Kuldotha Forgemaster, but still not worthwhile.
Feeling of Dread – Strictly superior to Lead Astray, and probably better than Blinding Beam or Repel the Darkness, but that effect has very little value in Vintage, and is worse than just removing a creature with Swords to Plowshares, or a bunch with Balance. I’d rather have Choking Tethers or Cryptic Command.
Geist Honored Monk – A reprint of Battle Squadron in white, with vigilance instead of flying, and a necessary comes into play boost. Inferior to Scion of the Wild and Baneslayer Angel.
Ghostly Possession – A strictly superior, but only very marginally better, Sandskin; still useless.
Intangible Virtue – Crusade effects don’t see play in Vintage.
Midnight Haunting – Inferior to Raise the Alarm.
Mikaeus, the Lunarch – A unique and versatile card that is not efficient enough to see Vintage play, and lacks Vintage specific abilities or characteristics, such as interacting on the stack, generating card advantage, or preventing your opponent from doing anything.
Moment of Heroism – Comparable to the mighty Mighty Leap, which is useless.
Paraselene – Better than Tranquility; comparable to Tempest of Light, and worse than Serenity and Patrician’s Scorn, which actually see play in Vintage.
Rally the Peasants – Overcosted Reckless Charge.
Selfless Cathar – Worse than Savannah Lions.
Silverchase Fox – There is a reason I really like Leonin Relic-Warder, as it is very efficient, whereas this is just worse than Warder and even something like Ronom Unicorn.
Slayer of the Wicked – Isn’t that the guy from Lost? This CIP effect is worthless in Vintage. For the same mana, you can get a flyer with Assault Griffin, which isn’t playable either.
Spare From Evil – Comparable to Akroma’s Blessing, but there isn’t much ground combat in Vintage.
Spectral Rider – Order of Leitbur hasn’t seen play in Vintage in well over a decade, and nearly two, and it’s better than this.
Thraben Sentry // Thraben Militia – Even if this flipped immediately, it would only be a 5/4 creature for 4 mana. Comparable to Calciderm, and still worse than Baneslayer.
Unruly Mob – “Creature you control…” – enough said.
Urgent Exorcism – Disenchant is much better. This kills Kataki, War’s Wage, Bloodghast, Elvish Spirit Guide, and Simian Spirit Guide. Disenchant destroys Lodestone Golem, Slash Panther, Karn, Silver Golem, and Null Rod, among many others.
Village Bell-Ringer – Roar of the Kha and To Arms on legs. None of those cards are remotely Vintage playable.
Voiceless Spirit – Might be better than Thunder Spirit.
Armored Skaab – Dampen Thought on a 1/4 body for 3 mana, this is much worse than Hedron Crab.
Back from the Brink – Like Mimic Vat, but less conditional, and way overcosted for Vintage.
Battleground Geist – Air Servant is better at this casting cost just in terms of power, while Meloku the Clouded Mirror is ten times better in terms of playability.
Cackling Counterpart – This would be playable if it could copy creatures any player controls. Phyrexian Metamorph is better, and much easier to cast.
Civilized Scholar // Homicidal Brute – A three mana 5/1 creature would be comparable to potentially playable, especially since it’s blue (see Phyrexian Negator), except that you have to discard a creature, the rarest card type in Vintage.
Claustrophobia – A better Paralyzing Grasp, Frozen Solid, Glimmerdust Nap, Thirst, etc.
Curse of the Bloody Tome – Millstone in enchantment form.
Deranged Assistant – A blue Millikin.
Dream Twist – Would you ever play this over Brain Freeze?
Fortress Crab – Comparable to Wall of Reverence, which says all you need to know.
Frightful Delusion – A Dismal Failure Force Spike, but only one less mana? I’d rather play Force Spike.
Grasp of Phantoms – Repel with flashback. Submerge exists, and rarely sees Vintage play.
Hysterical Blindness – Comparable to Turn the Tide.
Invisible Stalker – A better Escape Artist.
Lantern Spirit – Better than Coastal Drake.
Lost in the Mist – No Cryptic Command.
Ludevic’s Test Subject // Ludevic’s Abomination – This is a blank Blue card in Vintage.
Makeshift Mauler – Comparable to Argent Sphinx, but worse.
Mindshrieker – The answer to Cloudpost decks. Just kidding. But this is a really efficient printing for this effect – you get a Planeswalker’s Favor effect and you can manipulate the top of libraries at the same time. Might combo with Draco or Emrakul, the Aeons Torn. I don’t think its Vintage playable, but credit is due for this innovative card.
Moon Heron – Snapping Drake was so good they decided to reprint it with another name so you could play 8 copies in your deck.
Murder of Crows – Comparable to Serra Sphinx; worse than Morphling.
Rooftop Storm – Until now, I didn’t know that Lord of Tresserhorn is a Zombie. This would only be playable if you could play this to cheat a giant monster into play. Unfortunately, there are no other Zombies with power greater than 7, and 6-7 mana is the price you pay to win the game in Vintage.
Runic Repetition – The worst Wish ever printed. Cunning Wish or Burning Wish is much better.
Sensory Deprivation – A worse Greel’s Caress.
Silent Departure – Unsummon with Flashback. That doesn’t make Unsummon Vintage playable.
Skaab Goliath – There are no 6 mana creatures playable in Vintage that aren’t artifacts or cheated into play. This isn’t big enough to be an Oath target, isn’t an artifact, and does nothing special.
Skaab Ruinator – How would you get three creatures into your graveyard unless you were playing Dredge? And if you did, why would you care about a generic creature? This fails the “I care” test.
Spectral Flight – Comparable to Griffin Guide in power and Vintage playability.
Stitcher’s Apprentice – I’d rather have Aquamoeba.
Sturmgeist – Comparable to Aeon Chronicler. Ophidian and Scroll Thief are still better. The problem is that this guy is strategic, when you need tactics.
Undead Alchemist – Worse than Argent Sphinx since it can’t do combat damage to a player.
Abattoir Ghoul – Nirkana Cutthroat is better value.
Army of the Damned – There are no 8 mana spells that see play in Vintage that you actually cast. If you have Dream Halls in play you could cheat this onto the stack, but if have Dream Halls in play you could just win by cheating Conflux onto the stack instead.
Bitterheart Witch – Five mana for a 1/2 that is strictly worse than Academy Rector. For five mana you can play Ad Nauseam and just win.
Bloodgift Demon – It’s an expensive Dark Confidant or Phyrexian Arena.
Bloodline Keeper // Lord of Lineage – Worse than Mirri the Cursed. This would never transform in Vintage, so a 3/3 flyer for 4 mana is not playable.
Brain Weevil – Worse than Hypnotic Specter in every way, other than the card name.
Bump in the Night – A bad Lightning Bolt.
Corpse Lunge – Comparable to Fling.
Curse of Death’s Hold – An enchantment version of Ascendant Evincar.
Curse of Oblivion – Worse than Faerie Macabre or Relic of Progenitus.
Dead Weight – Strictly superior to Weakness and Enfeeblement.
Disciple of Griselbrand – Diamond Valley on legs. Could be good in Cephalid Breakfast Combo decks, and might be Legacy playable.
Endless Ranks of the Dead – This does nothing if you have just 1 Zombie in play.
Falkenrath Noble – Jagwasp Swarm.
Ghoulcaller’s Chant – This is the upgrade to Raise Dead that everybody has been seeking!
Gruesome Deformity – Fear.
Manor Skeleton – Drudge Skeletons with haste.
Maw of the Mire – A terrible Sinkhole.
Moan of the Unhallowed – They reprinted Grizzly Fate in black, although it is slightly cheaper now.
Morkrut Banshee – Comparable to Sengir Vampire.
Night Terrors – This can’t be better than Thoughtseize or Duress, and this is triple the mana, and is still much worse than even Unmask or Cabal Therapy.
Reaper from the Abyss – This is no Yawgmoth’s Bargain.
Sever the Bloodline – Better than Eradicate; comparable to Ashes to Ashes?
Skeletal Grimace – Serpent Skin in Black.
Skirsdag High Priest – Creatures don’t often die in Vintage, and this is too slow to be playable.
Stromkirk Patrol – An overcosted Slith Firewalker or Whirling Dervish for Black.
Tribute to Hunger – Worse than Diabolic Edict.
Typhoid Rats – A superior Toxic Iguanar.
Unburial Rites – Breath of Life in Black with flashback.
Vampire Interloper – Aesthir Glider at 2 mana.
Walking Corpse – Grizzly Bears for Black. Way to shift that color pie!
Ashmouth Hound – Worse than Grizzly Bears.
Balefire Dragon – Worse than Bogardan Hellkite.
Blasphemous Act – The most ridiculously overcosted Wrath of God ever printed?
Bloodcrazed Neonate – Slith Firewalker.
Brimstone Volley – Worse than Lightning Bolt
Burning Vengeance – This should have been a Leyline-type card that could come into play for free.
Crossway Vampire – Goblin Shortcutter.
Curse of Stalked Prey – Blood Lust type usefulness.
Curse of the Nightly Haunt – That’s a curse?
Curse of the Pierced Heart – Any burn spell would be comparable and more utilitarian.
Desperate Ravings – Control of the Court and Goblin Lore dig twice as deep without having to be flashbacked.
Devil’s Play – Reminds you of Fireball, but with flashback and without the ability to hit multiple targets in one turn.
Falkenrath Marauders – This can win the game by turn….8, if you play it on turn 5. Yeah, I’d rather have Kiln Fiend too. For the same casting cost Covetous Dragon seems better, and Slash Panther is much better.
Furor of the Bitten – Only costs 1/4 the amount of Uncontrollable Anger, which is a remarkable reduction in casting cost, and yet it’s still not Vintage playable.
Hanweir Watchkeep // Bane of Hanweir, Instigator Gang // Wildblood Pack, Kruin Outlaw // Terror of Kruin Pass, Reckless Waif // Merciless Predator, Tormented Pariah // Rampaging Werewolf, Village Ironsmith // Ironfang – These cards are worse than Grey Ogre in Vintage since its unlikely that they would ever transform, or if they did, would quickly revert back to original form. More spells are played per turn in Vintage than any other format, and Vintage features fewer turns per game (around 4.5) than probably any other format as a consequence. That is not a criticism of Vintage, but rather the realization that Vintage compresses the same amount of action (if not more) as other formats into fewer turns.
Harvest Pyre – This may be Legacy playable, but probably not. Worse than Lightning Bolt or Fire // Ice in Vintage because it can’t hit Jace or kill multiple Confidants at once.
Heretic’s Punishment – Eight mana is far too pricey for recurring Erratic Explosion effects.
Infernal Plunge – Culling the Weak sees no Vintage play, and it’s much better.
Into the Maw of Hell – When would you ever spend 6 mana to destroy a land or do 13 damage to a creature in Vintage?
Night Revelers – Worse than Fire Elemental, this card is garbage.
Nightbird’s Clutches – Glarewielder’s evoke ability has been grafted onto its own card, and given flashback.
Pitchburn Devils – I’m pretty sure this is worse than Mudbutton Torchrunner, let alone Arc-Slogger.
Rage Thrower – Worse than Hissing Iguanar. Doubling the casting cost of an existing similar creature that was never played does not make it better.
Rakish Heir – Better than Grey Ogre, but worse than any Slith.
Riot Devils – Superior to Grey Ogre.
Rolling Temblor – Worse than Pyroclasm and Firespout.
Scourge of Geier Reach – 5cc red creatures don’t see play in Vintage, and if they did, they would be Covetous Dragon, and certainly not this.
Skirsdag Cultist – Worse than Grim Lavamancer.
Stromkirk Noble – An amazing one-drop (T2: 2/2, T3: 3/3, T4: 4/4, etc.) it’s still too slow to be Vintage playable.
Traitorous Blood – A close reprint of Mark of Mutiny, but with double Red in the casting cost is worse.
Vampiric Fury – Less playable than Path of Anger’s Flame. Yeah, we just went there.
Ambush Viper – Comparable to Argothian Pixies in terms of overall power. Viper is better against Jace decks and worse against Workshops.
Avacyn’s Pilgrim – Strictly inferior to Noble Hierarch
Bramblecrush – Creeping Mold can now hit Planeswealkers. That’s nice.
Caravan Vigil – I like the design. Cheaper than Wanderer’s Twig, half a Sylvan Ranger, but half the price as well, with a potential added bonus. Evolution Charm is probably better for the versatility.
Creeping Renaissance – Similar Patriarch’s Bidding for card types rather than creature types, but Bidding puts the creatures directly into play. Worse than Second Sunrise, which never really had its moment in the sun. I think this is too expensive to make a truly broken mana engine with ritual effects or artifact accelerants.
Darkthicket Wolf – The Rootwalla ability, but worse than Basking Rootwalla.
Daybreak Ranger // Nightfall Predator, Grizzled Outcasts // Krallenhorde Wantons, Mayor of Avabruck // Howlpack Alpha, Ulvenwald Mystics // Ulvenwald Primordials, Villagers of Estwald // Howlpack of Estwald – These are just generic creatures unless you can flip them, and even if you can they are mediocre. The problem with flipping is that it is very rare that a turn passes where a player is unable to play a spell. And even if this can flip, it is unlikely that it will stay flipped for more than a single turn. See Hanweir Watchkeep above.
Elder of Laurels – A Grey Ogre with a quasi-Strength in Numbers ability.
Essence of the Wild – Comparable to Silvos, Rogue Elemental in power. Probably one of the best Craw Wurm/Force of Nature spells ever printed, which isn’t saying much.
Festerhide Boar – An improved reprint of Wild Elephant and Argothian Swine, and still unplayable.
Full Moon’s Rise – Quasi-Bad Moon with a sacrifice to regenerate ability for a narrow tribe. They may as well have printed a card that says “pay 1G: do nothing.”
Garruk Relentless // Garruk, the Veil-Cursed – Each of the Planeswalkers that see play in Vintage generate card advantage by drawing cards, looking through cards or tutoring. This card does feature a tutor ability, but only if it’s transformed. Unfortunately, even in the unlikely event that this card can be transformed by pinging, for example, a Dark Confidant or Lotus Cobra, you’ll also need a creature in play to make use of his search ability.
Gnaw to the Bone – Comparable to or better than Luminescent Rain.
Gutter Grime – Goofy big green enchantment that requires creatures to die for it to have a meaningful effect.
Hollowhenge Scavenger – At least Silverglade Elemental is card neutral.
Kessig Cagebreakers – Hero of Bladehold in Green.
Kindercatch – Essence of the Wild, but worse.
Lumberknot – I can’t believe how much worse this card is than Algae Gharial.
Make a Wish – Cheaper than Restock, and more narrow (only rebuying random sorceries).
Moldgraf Monstrosity – There are no seven casting cost spells that aren’t cheated into play that are Vintage playable, and this will be no exception.
Moonmist – Finally, a way to transform creatures. This is still bad in Vintage because it requires you to play sub-par cards.
Orchard Spirit – A Pegasus Charger without flying and without first strike.
Parallel Lives – Doubling Season-like.
Prey Upon – Similar to Arena, and simply worse than Beast Within.
Ranger’s Guile – Comparable to Primal Bellow and Gaea’s Might in power.
Somberwald Spider – Inferior to Giant Spider in Vintage.
Spider Spawning – What an absurdly overcosted spell. What is this, Fallen Empires?
Spidery Grasp – Green gets Inspirit, to which it fused Web.
Travel Preparations – An unvariable Thrive with flashback.
Tree of Redemption – A quasi-Mirror Universe, except with this creature instead of your opponent.
Woodland Sleuth – A bad Gravedigger variant.
Wreath of Geists – The Lhurgoyf characteristic is now an enchantment.
Evil Twin – One of 12 Clone effects in Vintage Magic, the only one seeing play in Vintage being Phyrexian Metamorph. Whether Phantasmal Image is Vintage playable is debatable, but thus far it has only appeared in one tiny tournament top 8.
Evil Twin is comparable to Clone and Sakashima the Impostor. Evil Twin is probably better than Clone because it can kill the copied creature, but probably weaker than Sakashima because it can’t be replayed nor can it be played for value without a creature already in play. That’s also why it’s weaker than Phyrexian Metamorph, which almost always has value since it can copy something on the battlefield.
Grimgrin, Corpse-Born – A 5/5 for 5 mana is not a good deal in Vintage, and no such creature (e.g. Baneslayer Angel) sees play in Vintage unless they serve other purposes (e.g. Gigapede or Earwig Squad). This creature won’t be an exception. It can’t even attack reliably, and is certainly no stronger than half of the roughly 100+ creatures that share similar stats.
Olivia Voldaren – This could be the best 4cc 3/3 flyer in Vintage. No such cards see play in Vintage.
Blazing Torch – A sub-par piece of equipment, this is worse than Mortarpod.
Butcher’s Cleaver – A Vintage functional reprint of Greatsword.
Cellar Door – The newest “The Hive” variant.
Cobbled Wings – A very slightly modified, and probably better version of Neurok Hoversail.
Creepy Doll – There are too many good creatures at this casting cost for this to see play (e.g. Precursor Golem, Karn, Silver Golem, etc).
Demonmail Hauberk – Similar to Barbed Battlegear, neither of these are playable.
Galvanic Juggernaut – Worse than Lodestone Golem, Juggernaut, Slash Panther, and many more.
Geistcatcher’s Rig – A weak 6 casting cost creature with a CIP ability that only affects creatures “with flying.” Wurmcoil Engine and Steel Hellkite are both superior in this slot for Workshop decks.
Ghoulcaller’s Bell – Of no strategic value in Vintage, and very limited tactical value. Not better than, say, Brain Freeze or even Vision Charm.
Graveyard Shovel – Worse than Relic of Progenitus.
Grimoire of the Dead – Incredibly slow All Hallow’s Eve, as an artifact.
Inquisitor’s Flail – Better than Fireshrieker, and probably worse than any Sword equipment that has ever seen play in Vintage.
Manor Gargoyle – I’d rather have Precursor Golem. Still, this guy isn’t terrible – he’s a 4/4 flyer for 5 mana. He would have been insane in 1994. He’s just not playable in modern Vintage.
Mask of Avacyn – Spectral Shield as equipment; worse than the Swords and even Bonesplitter.
One-Eyed Scarecrow – Inferior to Cathodian.
Traveler’s Amulet – An identical reprint of Wanderer’s Twig.
Trepanation Blade – What is the average boost the equipped creature would receive? 3-4 power? Perhaps more, perhaps less? This can’t be better than half a dozen other equipment: Umezawa’s Jitte, Sword of Fire and Ice, etc.
Clifftop Retreat, Hinterland Harbor, Isolated Chapel, Sulfur Falls, Woodland Cemetery – Worse than all original dual lands like Plateau, Tropical Island, Scrubland, Volcanic Island, and Bayou, and probably also worse than the shocklands from Ravnica block.
Kessig Wolf Run – Better than Skarrg, the Rage Pits.
Moorland Haunt – The newest Kjeldoran Outpost variant.
Nephalia Drownyard – An improved Duskmantle, House of Shadow.
Stensia Bloodhall – Better than Keldon Necropolis; worse than Barbarian Ring.
B. REMOTELY PLAYABLE
Cards that are remotely playable are cards that are just a grade above unplayable. They aren’t likely to see play in Vintage, either in the near term or the future. But they offer abilities or a combination of characteristics that are unique or without clear precedent in the card pool such that they cannot be automatically written off. None of these cards are likely to see play, but under the right circumstances and in the proper environment, they may find a home. These cards are generally superior to similar prior printings, or are very unique in their color or for their casting cost. Cards in this category are given more descriptive analysis than was offered for cards that were evaluated to be unplayable.
Fiend Hunter – A slightly modified reprint of Faceless Butcher in White. It’s only 3 mana, but it loses a point of power as well.
There are currently no examples of 1WW cards that see meaningful play in Vintage, and only a few white cards that cost 3 that see any play at all (Aven Mindcensor, etc). White is the least played color in Vintage because of years of weak printings, but a great White card will see play. Auriok Salvagers is a 4cc white creature that sees occasional play because it functions as a source or card advantage and a broken combo piece. Academy Rector used to see play for the same reason. Being white, and 3cc, doesn’t disqualify a card from seeing play, but it does cast serious doubts about not just whether such a card is playable in theory, but whether it will ever see play in practice.
Three mana for this effect is not an efficient use of resources, since Swords to Plowshares sets the bar much higher for spot removal. The reason to play this spell is because it disrupts the opponent while creating tempo by attacking. Just as Qasali Pridemage offers a beater and a Disenchant effect in the same card, this card offers an attacker and a Swords effect. The main problem is that his creature offers only 1 power, which is simply too weak to be a meaningful source of damage, and thereby generate tempo. The other problem is that Leonin Relic-Warder probably hits over half of the targets you would use Fiend Hunter for, but is more efficient and a larger body.
If this card were designed for Vintage, it could easily cost 1W without being problematic for the format. At 1WW, this card is simply too expensive to play, and not sufficiently better than other options. Still, others may disagree, and that’s why I wouldn’t shut the door entirely on this card.
Nevermore – There are only a few cards in the history of the game that prevent a player from playing named spells: Meddling Mage and Voidstone Gargoyle, and now to that list we add Nevermore.
Nevermore is a cleanly designed effect from which one might perceive the mind of Richard Garfield. It’s almost as if this card could have been printed in Alpha, had they thought of it. Without the warm body to support the effect, this card brings into the focus the true value of this effect, shorn of additional ornamentation. What is it worth to prevent a player from playing a particular spell?
Vintage is a format of strategic focus. That is, the decks in Vintage are unusually single-minded about their game plan. They employ very specific cards designed to accomplish strategic goals, and they pursue those goals relentlessly. That said, almost every deck in Vintage has more than one route to victory. In other words, this effect matters, but it is not going to singlehandedly win you games against most strategies. For example, you can name Tinker, but an opponent can still take infinite turns with Time Vault plus Voltaic Key or Tezzeret the Seeker. You can name Lodestone Golem, but they can still win with Slash Panther. Against Dredge decks you can name Dread Return, but they can still win with Zombie tokens generated by Bridge from Below.
In Vintage, there are two kinds of spells that matter relative to this effect: Restricted cards and unrestricted cards. Ironically, it is unrestricted cards where this card would have the greatest impact. That’s because it is with unrestricted cards where you will generate card advantage. With Nevermore in play, you can generate card advantage as your opponent draws multiple Gushes or Force of Wills, to take two possible examples, which they cannot play.
Even still, 3 mana is quite pricy for an effect that can be got for 2 mana with a warm body that will chew up another resource the opponent has: life points. Meddling Mage sees some play in Vintage, which proves that this effect is relevant. The cost, however, raises questions about whether it can be deployed quickly enough to matter.
There are cards like Silence or Orim’s Chant which actually prevent an opponent from playing any spell in the course of a turn. They don’t generate card advantage, but the tempo may be much more significant in a compressed game.
If this card were being played primarily to stop restricted spells, or with restricted spells largely in mind, one would have to wonder about whether this is even remotely efficient enough. Extract does a better job of stopping restricted spells (unless they have the card you have in mind in hand), for a third of the cost.
Even if we were to determine, in some abstract sense, that this card is efficient enough in principle to see play in Vintage – which it might well be – there is the practical question of where it would be played. I can’t think of a possible answer to that question, and that’s a good reason to suspect that it won’t see play in the near future. It does, however, seem tailor made for Enchantress decks in Legacy.
Mentor of the Meek – This is effectively a Primoridal Sage for half the mana. More accurately, this is Customs Depot in white grafted onto a 2/2 body for one additional mana. That doesn’t sound very exciting, but any card that has the words “draw a card” on it is worth a second look. The cards that have performed a similar effect have seen play in other formats (Wirewood Savage, Glimpse of Nature, etc). Mentor of the Meek is no Dark Confidant, but it can possibly generate meaningful card advantage, even in Vintage.
The main problem I have with this card is that it competes with so many other good 3cc creatures, like Cold-Eyed Selkie or Thada Adel that can generate card advantage or have a significant effect on the board. If this cost 2 mana, I think it could fall into the possibly playable category. But at three mana, this shouldn’t see any play. The second problem is the one mana payment when you play a creature. That prevents abuse with Kobolds, and the like, but it makes it a lot more expensive to abuse over time, and more than likely shuts off any combo abuse. The third problem is that it actually requires the other cards to enter the battlefield, and therefore won’t trigger if the creature is countered. All of these problems combined should prevent this card from ever seeing Vintage play.
Purify the Grave – Coffin Purge reprinted in White. Coffin Purge has seen a good deal of play in Vintage historically, primarily seeing play as a solution to Academy Rector. A Cabal Therapy could strip the Coffin Purge from hand, but it would not prevent it from being flashbacked to remove Rector in response to the trigger. In more recent times, Coffin Purge has been replaced by the litany of alternative anti-graveyard options: Relic of Progenitus, Extirpate, Faerie Macabre, Nihil Spellbomb, Surgical Extraction, Leyline of the Void, Bojuka Bog, etc.
This shouldn’t see play, but if it does, it’s because White doesn’t have access to Extirpate, etc. However, White has access to enough free or colorless graveyard hate (e.g. Surgical Extraction, Relic of Progenitus, etc.) that this card should never see play.
Delver of Secrets // Insectile Aberration – With some modest library manipulation, this is a 3/2 flyer for 1 mana. There aren’t many one mana creatures with three power in the format, and all are conditional in some way. This is probably the least conditional given the amount of library manipulation in the format. If you can play, for example, this and a Sensei’s Divining Top on turn one, you get a turn two 3/2 flyer. The library manipulation cost required to make this work is probably worthwhile, and not a terrible investment. This might even be better in Legacy. This even fills the one mana niche for creature spells.
The trigger is also such that you don’t have to reveal the card unless you want to, so you don’t have to risk revealing critical information, and you can use that information to decide, for example, whether you want to cast Vampiric Tutor, break a fetchland, or otherwise manipulate your library.
To my knowledge, there are basically only two 1cc blue spells that see play in Vintage: Cursecatcher and Sage of Epityr. I probably wouldn’t rank this better than Cursecatcher, but I might rank this better than Sage of Epityr. Sage of Epityr is usually played as a card to bounce with Ninja of Deep Hours, a role in which it is better than Delver of Secrets, but Delver of Secrets is probably a better overall one-drop.
This is good card in terms of the efficiency of power to mana cost. Its ability also provides relevant situational information. I just don’t know whether it will see play in Vintage because of the inherent lack of small creatures in the format.
Forbidden Alchemy – As an instant speed draw/search spell, I can’t imagine this being better than Impulse, which currently sees no play in Vintage. Impulse digs the same amount of cards, but for one less mana. The flashback ability does not overcome that deficit. For filtering, Strategic Planning is a closer comparison, but also one mana cheaper.
The breadth of the Vintage card pool provides many close comparisons. Impulse and Strategic Planning provide bearings for potential playability. Currently, neither spell sees play in Vintage, and both are arguably better on account of their efficiency. Granted, the combination of traits and abilities on Forbidden Alchemy is unique, and for that reason, I should not automatically dismiss it.
For example, does the flashback ability make it better in Dragon than, say, Read the Runes, or other forms of filtering? It’s doubtful, especially at 7 mana for the flashback bonus. Read the Runes can draw your entire deck with infinite mana without a Bazaar looping. Alchemy cannot.
Being an instant matters, but I think it’s also easy to overestimate. Merchant Scroll was once frequently criticized for forcing the pilot to “tap down” during their main phase. Yet, that was proved to be a largely irrelevant concern. Preordain sees no shortage of play. Forbidden Alchemy, I believe, will. I would be surprised, but pleasantly so, should it appear in more than a few Vintage Top 8s.
Mirror-Mad Phantasm – As a 5 mana 5 power flyer, this is a very efficient blue creature, in terms of the ratio of power to mana cost. You don’t get a one-to-one ratio power/mana cost blue flyers in Vintage without significant drawbacks (e.g. Serendib Djinn). That’s why Serendib Efreet used to be such a major player in Type 1 history. In addition, this card has a form of built in protection.
But what’s most intriguing about this card is the library manipulation possibilities it offers. The ability is bizarre and unique, and perhaps closest comparison is Tunnel Vision or Oath of Druids. Mirror-Mad Phantasm not only manipulates the library, it does so repeatedly, so long as you have mana available to activate the ability. In addition, it fills up the graveyard in the process.
So, for example, if you Oath this creature into play, you should have the mana available to activate Mirror-Mad Phantasm two or three times that turn, if not more. With each activation, you whittle your library into smaller and smaller parts, potentially setting up a broken Yawgmoth’s Will, Past in Flames, or one of those with Memory’s Journey. A couple activations with this could set up a gigantic graveyard with Deep Analysis, Accumulated Knowledges, or who knows what else?
I don’t see where this card would be played in Vintage, and therefore don’t expect this to see play. Who knows, though? The effect and cost is so unique that there is very little compare it to, and don’t want to foolishly rule out such an unusual card.
Altar’s Reap – A reprint of Skulltap, but at instant speed. Skulltap sees no Vintage play, but would it at instant speed? The critical question is whether it’s better than Night’s Whisper, a card that doesn’t even see much play at the moment. Night’s Whisper is a sorcery, so this at least has speed advantage over it. I don’t think it’s better than Night’s Whisper, but the instant speed effect means you can block a monster, and then draw two cards. This shouldn’t see any play, but it’s not strictly inferior to Night’s Whisper, and that is at least room for hope (potentially even with something like Academy Rector?).
Diregraf Ghoul – A 1 mana 2/2 with no drawback for Vintage play. This is might be the best 1cc 2/2 creature in the entire Vintage card pool, and may be the best 1cc black creature of all time (except for maybe Putrid Imp). It’s superior to Sarcomancy and Carnophage, cards that saw play in Vintage a decade ago in Suicide Black. The fact that Savannah Lions and Isamaru don’t see play in modern Vintage is the main reason to think that this won’t see play, but I wouldn’t completely rule it out. It also may have potential in Legacy.
Heartless Summoning – This is a 2 casting cost Planar Gate with a slight drawback. This card is no joke. Just think about what Goblin Warchief does for Goblins. And to think about how efficient this is, look at Legends (which, I admit, is not known for efficient spells) Planar Gate, or Blood Funnel, the closest analog.
What this offers is the tool to build a deck in which you accelerate otherwise overly expensive creatures in the 3-6 cc range into play. Cards like Mulldrifter don’t see play in Vintage because of their expensive. This card mitigates their expense, and makes them viable plays. For example, this a turn one play, which you can then use to accelerate into expensive utility creature like Mulldrifter, Flametongue Kavu, or Sower of Temptation into play. Alternatively, you could accelerate Trinket Mage, Auriok Salvagers combo, or others. You might even want to run Academy Rector. It would take me some time to canvass the range of possibilities, but there are many. I wouldn’t be shocked to see a deck like this attempted, although it would remain to be seen how strong it could be. This may also be Legacy playable.
Charmbreaker Devils – A 6 mana Kiln Fiend-like creature with random recursion built in. At six mana, this is too expensive to cast, but is a very remote consideration as an Oath target. The reason I like him as an Oath creature is because of the potential with recursion to go infinite with Time Walk, provided you can manipulate your graveyard at the pivotal moment. If you Oath this up, and put Time Walk in your graveyard, you can take infinite turns, provided you can do reduce your graveyard’s sorcery and instant contents to Time Walk. This wouldn’t be easy to achieve, but it’s not impossible. Very unlikely to see play, because as previously stated a 6 drop should usually just win you the game outright in Vintage.
Geistflame – A more versatile reprint of Engulfing Flames. There happen to be a critical mass of X/1 creatures in Vintage at the moment: Dark Confidant, Vendilion Clique, Lotus Cobra, and soon, Snapcaster Mage, among many others.
As a consequence, cards like Darkblast and Fire // Ice are seeing lots of play. This card is another consideration for those slots. Lava Dart once saw play in Vintage for its ability to take out Xantid Swarm and Goblin Welder, and Darkblast now sees play, but its reusability comes at the cost of a draw. This card can be more efficiently recurred than Firebolt, and is more versatile than Engulfing Flames. If this card had a flashback of 2 or even 3 mana, I would be more confident in its seeing play. But at 4 mana, it’s just a bit on the expensive side, especially when competing against cards like Darkblast or Fire // Ice. That said, it’s still a consideration, and I wouldn’t be shocked if it started seeing play in the Snapcaster environment.
Geist of Saint Traft – Three casting cost is usually the upper limit of playability for creatures in Vintage, although there are a very few exceptions (e.g. Sower of Temptation, Lodestone Golem). Other creatures in Vintage at the 3 casting cost slot are Aven Mindcensor, Cold-Eyed Selkie, Trinket Mage, Thada Adel, Acquisitor, Vendilion Clique, etc. Each of those cards generates card advantage or disrupts the opponent. Geist of Saint Traft does neither.
But what it does offer is 6 power worth of difficult to stop damage per turn. As a functional 6/2 creature for 3 mana, it is in the top tier for efficiency per mana cost, and that will often be a three turn clock in damage because of fetchlands, Thoughtseize, Mana Crypt, etc. There are 8 creatures in Magic that give you 6 power or more for 3 mana, including Ball Lightning and Groundbreaker, but they all have ridiculous drawbacks (see: Cosmic Larva), in addition to intensive color specific mana costs (see: Mijae Djinn). This card is at a playable mana cost for Fish-type decks, and has no insane drawback. In fact, it’s probably better than a straight 6/2 for most purposes.
First of all, it has Hexproof, which prevents it from being bounced by Jace or targeted by Lightning Bolt. Secondly, the damage it generates can be distributed, which means you can hit a Jace while attacking the player. Third, the 4 damage up top has evasion, so it can’t be easily stopped. This card is not just a Jace killer, but a fast threat. True, it can be blocked on the ground, and can’t trade with a Lodestone Golem. Those are major reasons why this card probably won’t see play, but it shouldn’t be automatically dismissed. It has nontrivial upsides, and is a large enough threat that it could see play in Vintage. In fact, it may be at its strongest in Vintage, a format where combat is far less frequent, and spot creature removal is rarest.
Gavony Township – A recurring Crusade effect, but from a land. This is a trump in the G/W/x Beats mirror. Unfortunately, that match is extremely uncommon and not likely worth a sideboard slot, especially when the mirror is likely to feature plenty of Wastelands.
C. POSSIBLY PLAYABLE
The difference between the cards I evaluate here and the cards and the cards I evaluate in the next section is that these are cards that are efficient or important enough to see play, but I have less confidence that they actually will.
Laboratory Maniac – There are 14 cards in the Vintage card pool that allow you to win the game through means other than those provided in Rule 104 of the Comprehensive Rules (decking, poison, 0 life). Understandably, each of these cards sets up onerous conditions for winning the game (see: Coalition Victory). This card is no exception. One must not only empty one’s library, one must attempt to draw a card with this card in play (two further conditions).
The amount of resources that must be dedicated towards accomplishing a win with this is far from trivial, and would look like this:
1) emptying one’s library
2) casting, resolving, and protecting this card
3) survive long enough to attempt to draw a card
That being said, it is doable. Of all of the cards that can win the game through 104.2b effects (i.e. the 14 I referenced), this is by far the most feasible for Vintage play.
The most intuitive way to empty one’s library is to Dredge. In that context, our reigning Vintage Championship Mark Hornung has somewhat enigmatically suggested this card as a potential sideboard option for Dredge. Although he may be a tempting Dredge finisher, I find him to be viable, but not necessarily attractive or superior to existing options. As a counter-strategy for hate, I see him as ineffectual. How is one to reliably dredge away one’s entire library with Leyline of the Void or Yixlid Jailer in play? Or how is one to reliably cast him without dredging? He may be akin to Flame-Kin Zealot as a Dread Return target, but that doesn’t make him a good sideboard option for answering hate.
I think the far more promising option is Doomsday. I have written extensively about Doomsday decks, from introductory articles to more advanced strategic articles. In 2004, just after the unrestriction of Doomsday in Vintage, I even piloted a powerful Doomsday deck one to a Top 4 finish at a Star City Games Power 9 tournament.
In 2004, the typical Doomsday stack looked like this:
1) Ancestral Recall
2) Black Lotus
3) Dark Ritual
4) Mind’s Desire
5) Beacon of Destruction
Once you resolved Doomsday, you piled the cards as illustrated. Then, you would draw Ancestral Recall, resolve it, and execute a Mind’s Desire for 4 storm – just enough to flip Beacon of Destruction 4 times (casting it in each case before the next Mind’s Desire storm trigger).
There were many other Doomsday piles, which I described here. Then, when Research // Development was printed – and worked under the pre-M10 rules update – you could win with a far more compact kill of just Desiring Research and Development into cards you removed with Doomsday, like Yawgmoth’s Will and Tendrils of Agony. There were even simpler options.
Doomsday has, most recently, seen play in Legacy Doomsday decks and Ad Nauseam Tendrils (ANT) sideboards using Shelldock Isle and Emrakul as an answer to things like Counterbalance. I believe Laboratory Maniac provides an excellent Doomsday kill in both Legacy, and perhaps an even better one, in Vintage. It is one additional card rather than multiple cards that serve no other purpose in the deck (Shelldock Isle and Emrakul, for example), so it is more efficient. Let me illustrate how with a few examples.
Example 1: Suppose you play turn one, Dark Ritual, Doomsday. You might create this pile:
1) Ancestral Recall
2) Black Lotus
3) Laboratory Maniac
5) Pact of Negation
Then, on turn two, you play Ancestral Recall, Black Lotus, Maniac, and then cast Gush to win the game.
There are many variants on this essential idea that can be tailored to specific game states. Depending on the mix of spells in your deck, there are many Doomsday variants that can win you the game with Laboratory Maniac in play. Gush is essentially a free draw spell, and should often be used in conjunction with Doomsday piles. Here is one such example with Gush in a Doomsday/Laboratory Maniac pile.
Example 2: If you already have Gush in hand, cast and resolve Doomsday, setting your pile in this order:
1) Pact of Negation/Force of Will
2) Ancestral Recall
3) Laboratory Maniac
4) Black Lotus
After resolving Doomsday you draw Pact of Negation, and then with Gush in hand cast it and draw into Ancestral and Maniac, cast Ancestral to draw Maniac, Lotus, and Brainstorm, play Maniac, and then cast Brainstorm to win the game.
Example 3: If you have Gush, but no more lands in hand:
2) Ancestral Recall
3) Laboratory Maniac
4) Black Lotus
5) Gitaxian Probe
There are innumerable variations that involve various degrees of protection, draw spells (Gush, Brainstorm, Probe, and Ancestral), and mana (Black Lotus, Lotus Petal, Mana Crypt, or even lands). You can even set up piles with Spell Pierce or Pact of Negation or Force of Will in them. The point is that Maniac provides an efficient, compact, Doomsday finisher, arguably the best ever. If that’s true, then this could see play, if players are bold and confident enough to try it.
While the work necessary to achieve the conditions by which this card may win the game are not simple, they are going to be worth it. Consider Key/Vault. The value of Key/Vault is that for 4 mana you generate infinite tempo and card advantage. Another way of looking at it is that winning the game generates infinite card advantage and tempo. This is a one card combo that simply requires proper structural support, just as Battle of Wits does. Winning the game is worth no small effort, and, in the case of Laboratory Maniac, it can be achieved using cards that are proven Vintage viable (like Doomsday), with support tactics like Gush, Black, Lotus, and Ancestral Recall, which are all Vintage staples.
Liliana of the Veil – This card probably replaces Diabolic Edict in Dark Times. Immediately, it will come into play and kill opposing Dark Confidants, Lotus Cobras, Snapcaster Mages, and in particular provides and excellent answer to Blightsteel Colossus. Then, it will force both players to discard a card, making it more difficult to stop the Vampire Hexmage/Dark Depths combo, and then repeat the process. Expect this to see marginal play, but play nonetheless.
Victim of Night – Comparable to Doom Blade, Smother, etc. We now have a critical mass of 2cc black removal spells: Doom Blade, Go for the Throat, Smother, Terror, and now this. At BB, this is probably not more playable than Dismember, Doom Blade, or Go for the Throat. However, the rules text is better than each of those cards. What makes this card less playable is the prohibitive BB casting cost. Decks with heavy Black would prefer this to Doom Blade or Go for the Throat, and that makes this at least a potentially playable Vintage card, especially in decks like Dark Times.
Past in Flames – The power level of this card is extremely high. The closest comparison to this card in Vintage is Yawgmoth’s Will. The key role of this card is to generate card advantage, much as Yawgmoth’s Will does.
Past in Flames is a card advantage engine, allowing you to replay all of the instants and sorceries in your graveyard, and allows you to do it again later, should you need to. As a card advantage engine, Past in Flames can generate substantial amounts of tempo, card advantage, mana advantage, and storm. In that respect, it has tremendous potential to be an engine like Ad Nauseam or Mind’s Desire.
The main question is: if this sees play, and it’s got tremendous potential, will it be more like Ad Nauseam (a borderline broken engine) or Mind’s Desire, a truly broken engine? I suspect this comparable in power level to Ad Nauseam. Ad Nauseam places severe restrictions on what can be accomplished because you can’t play it in a Force of Will deck. Past in Flames is fortunately limited by the fact that you can’t recur broken artifacts like Black Lotus. The natural inclination will be to see how fast and consistently a Vintage deck can be designed to play this as early as possible, and then combo out immediately thereafter.
Fast, linear combo decks are not generally good Vintage weapons because of the array of solutions available: Force of Will, Mindbreak Trap, Commandeer, Mental Misstep, and at the 1cc spot, Duress, Thoughtseize, Flusterstorm, Spell Piece, and the like. It’s basically impossible to try to win a tournament with a turn one or turn two Storm deck with minimal disruption in contemporary Vintage.
Let’s put it through the usual tests.
First of all, are there 4cc red spells that see play in Vintage? The answer is actually yes. Empty the Warrens sees a good deal of play, among others. It is a playable casting cost.
This card can generate tremendous card advantage, much like Ad Nauseam does. But unlike Ad Nauseam, it can do so over several turns. You can play this as an aggressive, unrestricted Yawgmoth’s Will, or a mid-game bomb that seals the game. Unlike Yawgmoth’s Will, however, the cards you draw and play in the turn you cast Past In Flames are not removed (unless flashbacked), which means that, unlike Yawgmoth’s Will, this card continues to do things that can carry over several turns. This makes it more versatile in some critical ways.
Ultimately, there is an excellent chance that Past in Flames will spawn some storm engine or quasi-storm decks. It remains to be seen whether they will be any good, or, if good, sustainable. This card has even more potential in Legacy, where it can be accelerated out very quickly, and will compete for slots like Ill-Gotten Gains.
D. DEFINITELY PLAYABLE
Stony Silence – A White Null Rod in enchantment form! Null Rod is one of the most important cards in Vintage for its ability to attack Vintage mana bases and deny Time Vault victories. For two mana, Null Rod can wipe out or turn off as much as 40% of a traditional Vintage control deck’s mana base. In doing so, it inhibits the strongest tactics in the game: Time Vault, Yawgmoth’s Will, and Tinker. With Null Rod in play, one can’t reuse Lotus with Yawg Will or draw into more Moxen to make more plays. Beats and Fish decks rely on Null Rod in order to survive long enough to win games. Now they have a superior alternative, as long as they are playing White.
Null Rod is so powerful that most Blue decks have devised simple solutions to it: cards like Nature’s Claim, Hurkyl’s Recall, or Ancient Grudge. This card can’t be removed with an Ancient Grudge or a Hurkyl’s Recall. Consequently, it is superior to Null Rod in any deck that can run White because there are currently fewer answers to it played in Vintage Blue decks at the moment. This will see Vintage play.
Memory’s Journey – This is yet another colorshifted very slightly modified reprint of Krosan Reclamation. Now a Blue spell, Krosan Reclamation as Memory’s Journey flashes back for the half the cost, and can shuffle up to three cards, not merely two, into target player’s library.
Krosan Reclamation is a standard and heavily played spell in Oath of Druids decks for its ability to recur just a few vital cards after Oathing. This card should directly replace Krosan Reclamation both because it is Blue, and because it is more versatile and efficient. Goodbye Krosan Rec; welcome Memory’s Journey.
Witchbane Orb – There are plenty of 4cc artifacts that see play in Vintage, as this is a reliable turn one or turn two play in Workshop decks with just a Workshop and a Mox.
Comparable to Ivory Mask and Leyline of Sanctity. Leyline of Sanctity has appeared in dozens of Top 8s since its printing. Its primary use is to prevent Oath of Druids from activating, but it also stops numerous other secondary cards like Tendrils of Agony, Cabal Therapy, Hurkyl’s Recall, etc.
Leyline’s primary usage, as I predicted, has been in Dredge and Workshop decks. Witchbane Orb is arguably better than Leyline for Workshop decks, and is definitely better than Eon Hub for stopping Oath. Witchbane Orb is likely to be a major sideboard tactic if Oath becomes a major player in the Vintage metagame again, since it is arguably the best anti Oath card in the Workshop arsenal. It is not partially “free” like the Leyline cycle, but is very easily and reliably castable, and this should, at some point, see Vintage play. It’s also useful for stopping opposing Hurkyl’s, much as Leyline is.
Snapcaster Mage – Recoup on legs, with Flash. The all-star, marquee card of the set. Snapcaster Mage (SCM) has excellent pedigree. SCM is the final Invitational submission of Tiago Chan, who won the Invitational I played in (although I beat him when we faced off).
Consider the other Invitational submissions: Meddling Mage, Rootwater Thief, Avalanche Riders, Sylvan Safekeeper, Shadowmage Infiltrator, Voidmage Prodigy, Solemn Simulacrum, Dark Confidant, Rakdos Augermage, and Ranger of Eos. Half of the Magic Invitation submissions have seen play in Vintage, and a third have seen serious amounts of play. Dark Confidant is not only a Vintage staple, it’s arguably the best creature in the format.
Is Snapcaster Mage another Dark Confidant? A format staple that sees play in a range of archetypes and is a major player? Or is it a Meddling Mage or Solemn Simulacrum? A niche card that sees play in a major archetype? Or is it a Sylvan Safekeeper, Voidmage Prodigy, or Rootwater Thief? A very marginal card that will rarely, but occasionally, see play?
There are a few criteria that we can use to evaluate the potential playability of SCM. First of all, consider the mana cost: 2. All of the playable Invitational creatures cost 2 mana or less, or can be played as if they were two mana, substituting Mishra’s Workshop for another land (e.g. Solemn Simulacrum). Shadowmage Infiltrator illustrates this principle. Note, however, that the 2cc spells are better than the 1cc spells. There is a reason for this: 1cc creatures with a unique upside ability or feature generally cannot have 2 power. Thus, to be a 2 power creature and playable in Vintage requires at least a mana cost of 2. Dark Confidant illustrates this principle.
Relatedly, the best Invitational creature has a mana cost that is splashable. Meddling Mage sees play, but it requires both Blue and White in the mana cost. Dark Confidant can be played in much wider range of decks since it has the most minimal color requirement possible for a 2 casting cost spell. SCM shares this feature. Not only is SCM at the best possible overall casting cost, at 2 mana, but it shares the best mana cost requirements, only one colored mana requirement. In this way, SCM is comparable to Dark Confidant.
However, there is another area in which SCM actually has a strict advantage over Dark Confidant: it is Blue. Blue is by far the most dominant color in Vintage, composing far more of the Restricted List than almost all of the other colors combined, and is featured in almost every deck in Vintage except for Workshop decks.
Out of the realm of Invitational cards, SCM also meets the basic thresholds for playability. A Blue, two mana creature, with two power is potentially playable in Vintage. Vendilion Clique is a 3 mana, 3 power creature that is playable, so certainly a 2 mana, 2 power blue creature is potentially playable – or at least not, as threshold matter, unplayable. Curiously, there are really no good examples of 1Ucc creatures in Vintage that see play. Narcomoeba stands out, and Erayo has seen play in the past.
By almost any available explicit measure, SCM meets the threshold criteria for playability: it’s Blue, it’s two mana or less (with only one Blue mana requirement), and it has 2 power. That doesn’t mean that the creature is playable; only that it’s not presumptively unplayable. To determine whether SCM is playable, we will have to inquire into the utility of its ability and examine other features.
There are two key features to this card that we need to evaluate in tandem: the first is the Recoup effect. The second is the Flash ability. Regrowth has long been a Vintage staple. This card is not Regrowth. It doesn’t cause a card to move as many zones as Regrowth does. And Flashback exiles the spell; Regrowth is a recursion engine where neither Recoup nor SCM are. It is a Recoup. Recoup was a key engine part during the Gifts Ungiven era. This Gifts pile was common:
Time Walk, Yawgmoth’s Will, Tinker, Recoup
If your opponent gave you Recoup and Time Walk, you could Time Walk, then Recoup Time Walk, then hopefully have the mana to Recoup Yawgmoth’s Will and win the game there. If they gave you Tinker and Time Walk, and you had 5 mana, you basically won the game by Tinkering up Darksteel Colossus and then casting Time Walk to trample over them.
Snapcaster Mage has the advantage over both Recoup and Regrowth of being a warm body. You get the flashback effect even if SCM is murdered. The ability to get a warm body and Recoup any spell in your graveyard is of tremendous utility. Let’s examine common applications in Vintage by looking at a sample game.
Mox, Land, Snapcaster Mage, flashback Thoughtseize.
Here, Snapcaster Mage has basically performed the service of Vendilion Clique, but better, since it’s a real Thoughtseize, not a pseudo one, for the same mana-cost. This is also a deadly sequence because you’ve just double-Duressed your opponent without having to draw two Duresses, and you have a creature on board to apply at least some pressure. Now your opponent has lost their two best cards in the space of two turns. You’ve maybe cleared out Force of Will and a broken card like Demonic Tutor or Tinker.
Here is another sample opener.
Mox, Land, Snacpaster Mage, flashback Preordain.
This will be another common application. Here, again, SCM has replaced itself, and has dug you deeper. Imagine the Preordain is Ponder or Brainstorm, and it becomes even stronger.
These are early game applications. Now consider truly broken applications.
Land, Ancestral Recall.
Mox, Land, Snapcaster Mage, flashback Ancestral Recall.
This is obviously going to be a huge play. Even if your opponent counters Ancestral, you draw out a counter, and get a warm body, and it is unlikely they will have been able to counter both Ancestrals.
Snapcaster, flashback Time Walk
These are the obvious sequences. But do they illustrate how SCM will play out, or are they outliers? Do they suggest a home for SCM? I don’t have definite answers, but I do think I can sketch out the key questions. In my view, the most important question is: which cards will SCM subtly affect the value of? SCM will change the value of certain cards. Which cards get better, and which cards get much better? Recoup and Regrowth are precious resources and tactics. You only have one. As an unrestricted creature, SCM can and should be played with abandon, and used aggressively. Consider this sequence:
Land, Imperial Seal/Vampiric Tutor for Ancestral Recall.
Land, Ancestral Recall.
Snapcaster Mage, flashback Ancestral Recall.
Snapcaster Mage #2, flashback Vampiric Tutor/Imperial Seal for, say, Tinker.
Win or Set up the win via Tinker.
At its best, SCM may be able to setup games like this. Even if your opponent is able to stop your win condition, you are still attacking for 4 damage a turn, and have other disruption and draw spells at your disposal. This sequence suggests that the value of cards like Mystical Tutor, Imperial Seal, and Vampiric Tutor may see a nice rise in value with Snapcaster Mage. Let me simplify the scenario, and illustrate another example.
Land, Vampiric Tutor.
Mox, Land, Snapcaster Mage, flashback Vampiric Tutor.
Land, Time Vault, Voltaic Key, activate, take infinite turns.
All you did was Tutor twice, but doing so allowed you to quickly assemble a critical combo. Boom, Boom, Bam, Win. Snapcaster Mage even provides the on-board win condition.
Given the multiplicity of functions performed by SCM, a tempo play, a source of card advantage, a disruptive tactic, or simply broken recursion, it remains to be seen which of these functions will prove most sustainable. Regrowth typically functions as a source of card advantage, when it is run, with a secondary recursion function to replay your countered haymakers. But at the cost of a card slot in any deck, SCM does not generate the kind of card advantage that a one card spell can, like just running a Fact or Fiction in that slot. Using SCM to replay a Thoughtseize or a Mana Drain is a disruptive tempo play, but that same mana could be spent on Jace.
The critical question for SCM mage is not whether it will see play, and not even where it will see play, but how? We know how it will be used tactically. We can canvass each of the possibilities by simply looking at the current Vintage card pool. By how, I mean what role will SCM serve, and how will that role position a SCM deck in the contemporary Vintage metagame? This is a question I cannot answer at this time, despite the testing I’ve put into the card. SCM seems to have strong synergy with both Gifts Ungiven and Fact or Fiction, in particular, but it can’t set up or accelerate those plays like, say, Merchant Scroll might. That leaves real questions marks around the potential uses of SCM mage, not whether it will see play.
Snapcaster Mage is guaranteed to do several things:
1) it will see plenty of play
2) It will be one of the best creatures in Vintage, and possibly the best Blue creature of all time.
I’m not sure if it will be as broken as Dark Confidant has proven itself to be, but it has that potential. The card will be format warping, in at least some measure, as all good cards warp the format. It will change the relative value of cards around it, and that leads to my final point of analysis.
The final aspect of Snapcaster Mage that I want to discuss is the fact that it has Flash and can be cast as an instant. Obviously, being playable at instant speed is a tremendous advantage because you can maximize your mana advantage by playing spells on your opponent’s end step, but there is another important aspect to flash on creatures. That, of course, is combating Jace, something that Vendilion Clique excels at. Not only does the flash make it possible to play him end of turn, and then untap and attack Jace, his other ability makes it unlikely that the opponent would even bounce him to your hand if he could. In a sense, SCM has hexproof from Jace on him. Given the centrality of Jace in the current metagame, this is a tremendously important point. SCM may signal a decline of Jace in Vintage. On the other hand, SCM makes your own Jaces stronger, since you can bounce SCM to recur critical spells.
Like Dark Confidant, SCM has potential to appear in a variety of shells: Aggro-Control, Control, Control-Combo, and even Combo decks. I predict that he will become a format staple, the likes of which we may not have seen since Worldwake. You’d best pick up a playset now.
I thank God that Wizards designed this card with the clause that the spell must be flashbacked for its mana cost, thus preventing a Gushbond deck using this card to replay Gushes. That clause should save this card from being restricted.
E. Your Innistrad Checklist
These are the cards that I’m confident will see play in Vintage, and make appearances in Vintage Top 8s over the next 3-6 months:
4 Snapcaster Mage
4 Stony Silence
4 Witchbane Orb
1 Memory’s Journey
And here are cards that I think are playable, and could very well see play at some point:
1-4 Laboratory Maniac
4 Past in Flames
2-3 Liliana of the Veil
2-3 Victim of the Night
I would encourage you to pick up the 8 cards I’ve identified for your collection.
There are a few other cards, like Delver of Secrets and Geistflame, that I could see being played, although they seem more remotely useable.