Magic 2013 flavor text: Jace’s Phantasm

In the abstract memories of the Iquati, Jace found interesting ideas to improve upon.

Jace’s Phantasm is a callback to Narcomoeba, from Future Sight, so to explain my feelings here, I’m going to need to talk about that card for a while first. I liked the future-shifted cards for their glimpses of strange new worlds that Magic might someday visit, and Narcomoeba was the one that stood out the most for me.

What We Already Knew About the Iquati

In case you’ve forgotten Narcomoeba‘s flavor text:

It was created by the Iquati as a living memory—one that objects to being forgotten.

A month ago, if someone had picked a random Future Sight card and asked me to tell them its flavor text, Narcomoeba is the one I would have had the best shot at. It’s been dethroned now that I’ve seen a bunch of Akroma’s Memorials at the M13 prerelease, but that’s due to Akroma’s Memorial having short text with a strong pattern. Narcomoeba stuck in my mind just because the idea of a creature that’s also a memory felt evocative.

It’s also something that I’m pretty sure was just made up on the spot to fit the mechanics. The card was created bottom-up to fill a hole near the end of Future Sight development. Creative probably didn’t have any particular Memory World plans ready to go; they just came up with this text by thinking about what the weird mill trigger implies. Why does forgetting something from your repertoire of prepared spells result in some flying creature popping out? Because that creature is itself a memory, and forgetting it makes it all angry and active. It’s a fun interpretation.

There’s been a little more information about the Iquati between Narcomoeba and Jace’s Phantasm. The Aether Flues, in Planechase, revealed that the plane they live on is called Iquatana. It’s full of narcomoebae, things that look like deep-sea vents, and Polymorph effects. Doug Beyer gave some more background on the living memory concept:

“The narcomoebae were created as living recollections, as the genealogical memory stores of the Iquati were sundered in some unknown past event.”

So, not much new there aside from a pretty typical mysterious ancient catastrophe. But even so, these are people who have the ability to make memories real in the form of living illusory jellyfish! (None of which have the Jellyfish creature type, but let’s just ignore that for now.) That’s pretty cool. Raises a few questions: What are these memory creatures like? How do the Iquati access the information stored in them? What sort of things are they memories of? For a plane with so few mentions across cards, a sense of unanswered mystery is a good thing.

Back to Jace’s Phantasm

It’s still not answered, of course. If you were looking for more about the Iquati and their magic memories, Jace’s Phantasm adds basically nothing. Here’s the new information:

1) Jace visited the Iquati. 2) Jace was interested in their living memories. 3) Jace improved on them, making a 1/1 flier that cares about milling in a different way.

Common thread here: Jace. I’m not really a fan of most of the planeswalkers we see in flavor text; they tend to be bland people who will say anything as long as it’s associated with their section of the color pie. (Recent example: Garruk’s line on Bramblecrush.) Jace in particular bothers me, not because he’s less interesting than others, but because he became the face of the game despite still not having character traits beyond “confident blue planeswalker who uses the sort of magic found on blue cards.”

Because of all that, I’m not happy to see Jace taking center stage here. Not only is the narrative focus choosing him over the Iquati, the text is asserting that his living memory magic is better than theirs. Living memory magic is all the Iquati had to distinguish themselves! Why even reference them if all you wanted to do was talk about how Jace is actually the best living memory guy around?

We all know that Magic has been shifting to be more about the characters on the planeswalker cards. That’s been a good thing in a lot of ways, but it’s taken a serious toll on flavor text on a card-by-card level.

Rating for Jace’s Phantasm: 2 out of 5 stars, except the stars are replaced with planeswalker heads for no good reason.

Pedantry corner: “Abstract” is the wrong word to use to describe Iquati memories. The distinguishing thing about Iquati memories is that they’re not abstract. They’re living creatures that can fly around and attack you.

Dark Ascension Commons, Part 2 of 2

OK, you’ve read my review of the white, blue and black Dark Ascension commons. Now it’s time to go over the rest of them. As a reminder, we’re looking at the cards in terms of flavor text, and with an eye towards their effectiveness in Limited.

Red:

Erdwal Ripper
As mentioned before, you can run this with Artful Dodge, provided you think you’ll be able to support explaining how they’re not actually contradictory. As another option, within red vampire decks it fills a similar role to Bloodcrazed Neonate, which also treats vampires as savage. This fits with surprisingly few of the other Innistrad vampires, most of which are made for more of a controlling, top-of-society deck.

Faithless Looting
Very direct take on the card’s concept. With Avacyn’s disappearance becoming increasingly obvious and terrifying, this is a pretty believable reaction for people to have. We haven’t seen many examples of people reacting with anger before, aside from the sort of anger that drives them to join demon cults, which is harder to empathize with.

If a riot breaks out at your prerelease, this is the best flavor text in the set to shout out while you loot the place. I’m not saying you should riot and loot card stores, but I am saying that if you do, you should keep this card in mind.

Fires of Undeath
Strictly better palate card than Stromkirk Patrol. Both start from the premise of a powerful vampire who’s a picky eater, but “and she will burn you if you’re not worth eating” is a better way of making that threatening than “and also, there are other vampires who don’t have discerning palates.”

Fling
This is a card that a lot of people might evaluate the wrong way at first. It’s easy to focus on the best-case scenario, where the head in the art is going to hit some other monster that isn’t shown. But even when it comes together that way, it’s a stretch to call the head a weapon, and even more of a stretch to say the sword master isn’t mainly using his blade as a weapon. In practice, this card will often put you behind.

Forge Devil
Doesn’t fit into a devil deck as well as you might expect. Based on Pitchburn Devils and Riot Devils, I had expected the devils to be impulsive and short-sighted. Other Dark Ascension cards support this, so why are they performing infiltration? That makes it sound careful and subtle. It would be more in-character for them to just suddenly smash their way in and set fire to things. I know this sounds picky, since I’m literally complaining about just a single word in the text, but devils are a pretty new tribe, so establishing their identity is important. Riot Devils did a good job of this, with a separation between demons and devils that felt reasonable.

Anyway, although this will be disappointing if you try to force it in with your other devil cards, it does have significant upside against white, since most of the white cards depend on defending Thraben Cathedral.

Hinterland Hermit / Hinterland Scourge
I mentioned in part one that the ellipsis cards are going to be the powerhouses of this set. No exception here: this is the best flavor text we’ve seen about a werewolf trying to stay human, but failing to hold back his wolf side. Hanweir Watchkeep tried for something along these lines, but the high word count and terrible night side kept it from seeing much use. This card gives a much purer expression of the idea. Solid horror tragedy.

Nearheath Stalker
There are a lot of Innistrad cards you can run with this to good effect. The obvious support you want here is a reason the elder vampires disapprove of this guy. Some good options:
Bloodcrazed Neonate (Drinking blood too eagerly is childish), Vampiric Fury (He isn’t helping the peasants’ image of vampires as elegant), and Markov Patrician (His taste in wine of the vein isn’t refined enough).

You could also decide to ignore the elders’ rules and play Rakish Heir and Night Revelers. Just don’t mix those two approaches.

Russet Wolves
Surprising cross-tribe synergy here. We’ve been missing a way of fitting vampires and werewolves into a deck together. And on top of that, the bonus against zombies is very relevant. If this card gets passed to you in a draft, you know red is wide open.

Scorch the Fields
A very surprising card. Despite not having the Curse subtype, the flavor text is structured as a curse, along the lines of the two best ones from Innistrad: Curse of Death’s Hold and Curse of the Pierced Heart. Within Dark Ascension, only Curse of Thirst comes close to this. If you’re making a Curse deck, don’t fall into the trap of overlooking Scorch the Fields just because of its type line; it’s a solid inclusion.

Torch Fiend
None of my criticism of Forge Devil applies here. With goblins not being appropriate for this block, this is a good way of retaining some of their usual staples for red. Compared to what we’re used to seeing from sets with goblins, this is less jokey (but still on the jokey side), more fire-based, and a bit more menacing. Goblin one-liners have been a key part of the red color pie for a long time, but I think Innistrad has shown that cutting back on them doesn’t stop red decks from being playable. If the devils we’ve been seeing are a sign of a new direction from R&D, it’s going to disappoint some casual players, but Limited will get by just fine. Put this card in your decks where you’d normally have a goblin joke, and I bet you’ll find it plays just as smoothly.

Wrack with Madness
This is a decent card, but as an introduction to the skathul, it’s pretty scattershot. They’re revenge spirits, but their whole thing is causing insanity. Maybe they went insane in life, and they’re trying to take it out on others? And when they’re looking for someone to attack, they get agitated and start to fester? I really don’t see how festering is the right thing to have them do while on the hunt. There’s some good material here, and the art is exciting, but it doesn’t come together well enough to be a high pick. This card won’t see play in Constructed, but might be worthwhile in a Sealed pool that supports an insanity or anger deck.

 

Green:

Crushing Vines
I haven’t been able to care about the B plot with Garruk chasing Liliana. This is partly because it hasn’t been mentioned in any other flavor texts before, partly because Innistrad has plenty of other stuff going on that’s more exciting, and partly because planeswalkers, especially the ones from Lorwyn, tend to be extremely boring characters. So far there’s no sign of the veil curse affecting the actual Innistrad plot, but it’s possible that this will change in the third set. If so, maybe this card will see play in Standard then, but for now, it’s not doing anything worthwhile.

Dawntreader Elk
Matt Tabak said it well: “Amidst this world of unparalleled horror and gore, misshapen zombies and savage werewolves, there’s an elk. Just doing elk things.” The flavor text does a good job of promoting that concept, but would be even stronger if it didn’t even bother to mention zombies. Just say that it seeks wild unspoiled places. I realize that this kind of elk/zombie interaction is something that they couldn’t do outside of this block, so if they’re going to print this card at all it has to be now, but I’d really prefer a simpler version of the basic elk mechanic.

Favor of the Woods
Better execution of “people are resorting to pagan magic” than Divination. There’s nothing too fancy here, but the card provides a nice reminder of the central “Avacyn is missing” plot. You won’t pick these early, but you will end up with some, and you’ll be glad to run them.

Hollowhenge Beast
I’ve said before that I like flavor text that leaves some details up to the imagination, but this goes too far in that direction. We’re hardly given any information about what this creature is or what it does. It doesn’t help that Beast is one of the more generic creature types. I understand that they’re going for the horror movie thing where a monster’s scariest before it’s revealed, but we haven’t seen anyone running from this beast or  been given any idea what it does that’s scary, beyond eating something that has a skeleton. Since there aren’t any attributes here, this can be safely disregarded as a vanilla flavor text.

Hunger of the Howlpack
Flavor text writers love to describe thing as combinations of X’s something and Y’s something else. This is a nicely executed example. Since it plays up the joining of human and animal in a single being, you could get some card advantage from running it with werewolves that seem accepting of their dual nature, like Kruin Outlaw or Villagers of Estwald.

Kessig Recluse
“You’ll be safer staying away from this creature” is a staple effect for green, but it was oddly lacking it in Innistrad. The closest we had was the less direct Boneyard Wurm. Because of that, even though this card doesn’t look too fancy on its own, its presence here could make green-heavy decks more viable.

Lambholt Elder
I’m glad they decided to make this a straight warning about the werewolf, instead of saddling it with a cheap irony drawback. We had cards in Innistrad that would have turned something like this into “This woman seems so gentle. I bet we can trust that at least she’s never going to turn into a monster.”
So, the warning here is pretty solid, but keep in mind that there’s no flavor text on the night side. If this card transforms, it becomes a vanilla creature.

Scorned Villager / Moonscarred Werewolf
The last of the three ellipsis double-faced cards in this set. We’re seeing the range of design space for werewolves here: Hinterland Hermit / Hinterland Scourge had a werewolf leaving his village voluntarily to protect them, but returning against his will. This werewolf was driven away, and wants to return to get revenge on them. The best comparison I can see for evaluating it is Ulvenwald Mystics / Ulvenwald Primordials, the ellipsis card from Innistrad. Both deal with wanting to become a wolf, and in fact, both mention the fury/ferocity of the wild. If you have the sort of green werewolf deck that would run Ulvenwald Mystics, possibly with some copies of Full Moon’s Rise or even a Kessig Cagebreakers, Scorned Villager is an obvious inclusion. But in draft, is it worth picking this up in the first pack on the chance that you’ll get those cards? That’s really a matter of how much risk you’re personally willing to take. Keep in mind that the potential upside is huge. For myself, I can’t see first-picking it, but by the third or fourth pick, if you’ve seen that none of the people around you are in green werewolves, I’d be pretty eager to take it.

Somberwald Dryad
This card reminds me most of Sphinx of the Steel Wind, from Alara Reborn. It’s a little odd to imagine her going through the motions of asking the question of everyone she wants to kill (implied to be a lot of people). That’s more in character for a sphinx than a dryad, but you can see this as fitting an old, dark fairy-tale world. The sort where the third son is the first person who’s clever enough to convince her he had a reason to pass through the Somberwald. Anyway, when it comes down to it, people played Sphinx of the Steel Wind, and they’ll play this card too.

Ulvenwald Bear
Introducing a fictional saying to show how people in the setting view the subject of a card used to be common in flavor text. Mirage had a bunch of them, like Harbinger of Night or Windreaper Falcon. For some reason, R&D has been skittish about printing cards like this lately; I don’t know when it last happened, but I don’t think there were any in Scars block, Zendikar block, or even M12. Now that we’ve seen Stony Silence in Innistrad, and this new followup, maybe it means they’re back for good? I sure hope so. The power level concerns always struck me as misguided; they’re strong, but not so strong that they warp the game.

This card’s a good example. It uses the expression as a creative way of telling us that Kessigers see bears as dangerous. Is it better than something like “If you chase after a bear in Kessig, the other villagers won’t wait to mourn”? Yes, but not strictly better: remember, the expression formula requires three lines of text. And the fact that these are always tied to a particular culture leaves room for answers. I expect that cards like this, assuming they print more, will be good for the health of Standard.

Wild Hunger
In general, I’m opposed to flavor text in this block trying to do humor instead of horror. Innistrad draft was all about crafting tight, synergistic decks, and going so completely against the block’s central concept just wasn’t worth it. This card has sort of a whimsical Edward Gorey feel to it that I find oddly charming, so I’m more positively inclined towards it — but it still doesn’t really have a home within block. I’m sure we’ll be seeing it put to creative use in Commander decks.

Young Wolf
Very nice interpretation of the undying mechanic. If you can’t find an effective way of dealing with this wolf, you’ll just end up with a stronger wolf. It’s not so much “kill a creature, then it comes back” as “you didn’t actually kill it, and now it’s stronger.” One of the best-executed undying flavor texts.

 

There aren’t any common artifacts or multicolored cards in this set (except for a couple with no flavor text, but they don’t matter), so we’ll finish this off with the two common lands.

Evolving Wilds
Even before looking at the text box, we’re starting off in a bad place here. This isn’t a card name I would expect to see in Innistrad block, where the main thing you notice about the wilds isn’t that they’re evolving, but that they’re dark and scary and full of monsters. This isn’t just a matter of the wrong register; horror stories about the dangers in the wilderness tend to focus on it being ancient, not on it adapting.

Of course, it’s unfair to judge how playable a card is just by its name. Let’s take a look at the flavor text. We have another Thalia quote, so this might work well in a white deck. Unfortunately, the quote doesn’t actually address the subject of the card. She mentions the fact that there are wilds in the world, but only in passing as an excuse for getting back to the topic of defending Thraben Cathedral. I’m not against the Thraben Cathedral theme in principle, but it feels awkward here, like it was tacked on to the card in development just to boost that mechanic’s numbers. This card suffers as a result.

Haunted Fengraf
Not a very complicated card to end on. If you’re making a deck that can get some use out of ghoulcallers, there’s obvious value, but you’ll also want to play this in Sealed if you just need a random three-word text to fill out your curve. If you’d told me a couple weeks ago that Dark Ascension would have a card with the word “playground,” this isn’t what I would have imagined, but it works out just fine.

 

That’s it for the commons. I’m feeling pretty excited about the prerelease now. I think I’ve learned a lot from writing up my thoughts on these cards, and hopefully it’ll translate into winning some matches. If you go to any prerelease events after reading this, let me know if the advice turns out to be useful to you.

Dark Ascension Commons, Part 1 of 2

The Dark Ascension prerelease is almost here. Are you prepared for it? I’m going to review each of the commons in the set, so that you’ll know which cards to watch out for, which to avoid playing, and what this all means for the Innistrad archetypes you’re used to. Remember, even though common cards don’t make for splashy previews, they make up the majority of what you’ll be seeing in Limited, so knowing them ahead of time is vital.

This post will cover white, blue, and black. I’ll deal with the rest of the commons in part two, which will be up soon. I don’t think deckbox.org has the individual Dark Ascension cards up yet, so for now, you’ll want to pull up the card image gallery and follow along.

First, white:

Bar the Door
White got a few self-undermining cards in this set. This one has someone talking about how the door is sure to hold, but the subtext, with the art and all, is that he’s desperate and in denial about how good his security measures really are. Run with cards that expect your creatures to die, like Elder Cathar or Skirsdag Cultist.

Burden of Guilt
There’s a surprising amount of tension here. It’s concepted as someone not fighting because she feels guilty, but the flavor text suggests that people are rallying despite being sad. It’s misplaced focus, and Thalia’s stilted delivery doesn’t help.
The main use for this card is filling out a Thalia deck in draft (alongside other late picks like Rebuke, which has text that doesn’t actually work as a rebuke), but it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to make that come together in Sealed.

Elgaud Inquisitor
At first glance, you might evaluate this card as a straightforward inspiring statement about the human spirit. But it has the drawback of not saying anything profound. Steel alone won’t stop them? We knew that. We’ve seen the monsters. Humans fighting them with weapons isn’t working. This won’t bring any new value to your resourceful/defiant human decks in block. Instead, it’s primarily a Standard card. It combos with several steel-related cards from Scars of Mirrodin, especially Slice in Twain, another card that says something ridiculous about steel’s properties.

Gather the Townsfolk
Solid card. It delivers on the “humans are pulling together and fighting back” flavor that the previous two cards failed at. Even if you don’t get many other cards with that theme, this is playable just based on the clever way it describes the fateful hour mechanic in flavor terms.

Loyal Cathar / Unhallowed Cathar
Like many double-faced cards, this is a strong two-for-one: you get two separate pieces of flavor text for running this one card. Innistrad set a pattern for these with Civilized Scholar / Homicidal Brute and Thraben Sentry / Thraben Militia. Both of those cards had day side text about how it sure was unlikely that anything would happen to flip them, and night side text about what happens now that, surprise, the cards flipped.

This new card puts a twist on that theme: the day side is the one saying that transformation is likely, and the night side is the one saying no, surely it’s not going to transform. Not a direction I think anyone predicted for Dark Ascension, but it does manage to maintain the same level of unsubtle irony. The “Thalia says things that are incorrect” deck is getting a good piece here. May see Constructed play.

Midnight Guard
This guy is actually focused on his guard duty, making the card closer to Mausoleum Guard than Thraben Sentry. But unlike Mausoleum Guard, he understands that the situation is serious. It’s unfortunate that there aren’t any Olgard of the Skiltfolk cards to combo with it besides Bar the Door, but this card is playable in its own right.

Niblis of the Mist
Chilling effects aren’t something we’ve seen directly on geist cards before, except for a dismissive mention on Battleground Geist. It’s a versatile tool for geist decks that goes beyond what we’re used to from Burning Vengeance. If you pick up this and Niblis of the Breath, you may be able to surprise opponents who are still thinking in terms of what geist decks could do in Innistrad.

Ray of Revelation
Turns out the tomb inscription line on Innistrad’s Naturalize was only the beginning. This card gives another interesting look at what tomb inscriptions are like in Innistrad. If someone plays it against you, watch for the way it uses the artwork as an indirect connection between card name and flavor text: there’s a ray of light, it’s shining on this tomb, here’s what it reveals. It’s easy to leave yourself open to that trick if you’re not expecting it.

Sanctuary Cat
The only white card that mentions devils. This can be played in two ways: as a splash in a red devil deck, or as a sideboard card against opponents who run lots of devil flavor texts. See Black Cat for my thoughts on why the two Cat cards don’t work together as well as you might hope.

Silverclaw Griffin
Another good vigilant patrol card. This and Midnight Guard are solid defensive cards, but white’s still missing an active threat at common. Even the white rares are more defensive than usual. I think the main role of white in Dark Ascension Sealed is going to be as support for keeping yourself alive until you can cast flavor text bombs from other colors.

Skillful Lunge
“Currency” is the wrong word choice here. Not only is the metaphor of people spending valor in their transactions forced and confusing, the register is off. This doesn’t work as something being said during a fight, during a pre-battle speech, or during training. Unplayable.

 

Blue:

Artful Dodge
This card and Erdwal Ripper offer two different takes on the Erdwal. Artful Dodge says it’s a good place to hide; Erdwal Ripper says it’s a place where you’ll be easy to catch. The best way to reconcile them is to assume that no humans, not even the ones who live there, “know the alleys and sewers of the Erdwal,” only the vampires and other monsters who go there. What this means for you in practice is that this doesn’t fit into a sneaky human deck very well. Consider it for a splash in a red or red/black vampire deck.

Bone to Ash
An unplayable do-nothing card. Ludevic rambles for a bit without getting to any point other than “That’s a bad way to go.” Fortunately, this set has fewer Ludevic cards than Innistrad. He’s not as bad as Geralf when it comes to half-hearted jokes, but he still doesn’t quite fit the gothic horror theme. People who want to play with dumb jokes will go with Geralf cards instead, people who want gothic horror will avoid them both, so Ludevic ends up being unplayed.

I would say this is a somewhat reasonable pick if you first-pick a Ludevic’s Abomination and are intent on forcing a Ludevic deck, but the way draft order works now, that’s not a possibility.

Chant of the Skifsang
The idea of sailors using magic instead of nets is certainly interesting. I’m not sure how much sense it makes here, though. If humans have magic that powerful, and it’s common enough that even the sailors are skilled magicians, you’d think they’d be doing better against the monsters. There are ways this could be justified — maybe all Nephalian wizards go into the fishing business, maybe these spells don’t work on land, maybe sea monsters all happen to be weak against magic — but as is, that’s a weakness in a card that otherwise does a nice bit of storytelling. Still, you should be prepared to have this card played against you. Especially if you play against someone who likes the show Deadliest Catch.

Divination
Even the House of Galan! Who… we’ve never heard of before. The theme of people resorting to pre-Avacynian magic comes up elsewhere, notably on Favor of the Woods, but it doesn’t support the kind of irony this card seems to want. Why should mystic scholars be expected to avoid exploring other kinds of magic? You could play this card and also give a description of the House of Galan that explains why this is actually noteworthy, but then you’ve two-for-oned yourself.

Griptide
A really versatile blue common. It deals with seagrafs, geists, and sailors. If you’re making a deck that relies on any of those, this is a solid inclusion. The only weakness is that “seagraf” is still just as ugly a word as when it first appeared on Nephalia Drownyard, but there are enough graf cards in Dark Ascension that you’ll have to suck it up and play them anyway.

Headless Skaab
Contradicts Skaab Goliath, which is a plus as far as I’m concerned. Use this in the blue zombie mirror and you may be able to disrupt your opponent’s strategy.

Nephalia Seakite
Nice indirect way of talking up this creature. The first sentence starts you off thinking the danger will be the bird making you fall, then the second sentence gives a much better way of stating it. This card belongs in a controlling deck, one where you’re saving your threats rather than rushing them out onto the battlefield as soon as the paragraph starts.
Also, I have to say: “Manfried Ulmach, Elgaud Master-at-Arms”? His name and title barely fit on one line. Couldn’t they have found something shorter to call him?

Saving Grasp
Straightforward aphorism. Could have been in a core set; there’s nothing here that makes it fit into Innistrad in particular. No real downside to playing this card, it’s just rarely going to be worth a slot in your Sealed deck. That said, it does work decently with Think Twice, another card that avoids any ties to the setting. Borderline playable, a late pick that you’ll occasionally end up running.

Screeching Skaab
A little bit too cute. Cards that try too hard like this always get overvalued initially, especially at the prerelease. If you see this card from your opponent, odds are their pool didn’t have as much depth in blue as they think.

Shriekgeist
Another “milling is sanity damage” card. The parallelism in the text is a strong effect, but I have reservations about saying physical wounds are no big deal. Innistrad has a lot of dangers that aren’t to the mind, and you don’t want to minimize them. If your deck has red or green cards that present damage from monsters as a significant thing, don’t run this card. Major antisynergy there.

Thought Scour
A good deal better than the Geralf cards we’re used to from Innistrad. As far as terrible things stitchers do to people go, I would rather run Sensory Deprivation than this, but both are solid cards on their own.

 

Black:

Black Cat
There’s been some talk of making Cat decks now that we have this and Sanctuary Cat, but they don’t actually complement each other very well. Not only do they have opposite views of what the cats are like, they handle narration completely differently. Sanctuary Cat has neutral, descriptive narration, while Black Cat takes a more active voice by addressing you. None of that gets in the way of the card’s playability, but if you do play it, make sure it fits into your plan for reasons beyond Cat tribal. It pairs well with Screeching Skaab and other cards that talk about their effect on you.

Chosen of Markov / Markov’s Servant
This is one of the parts of Dark Ascension I’m the most excited about. The flavor text on the two sides is a single sentence broken up with an ellipsis. We saw one card like this in Innistrad: Ulvenwald Mystics / Ulvenwald Primordials, an uncommon. Dark Ascension has three, all at common. What’s more, they all have different approaches to the idea of transforming (more on this as I get to the other cards), so you can build a pretty versatile deck around them. Also noteworthy is that all three manage to keep the word count low by double-faced card standards. Ulvenwald Mystics was a strong card, but it did have the drawback of using a few more adjectives than it really needed, especially on the night side. Now that we have cards like this to shore up that weakness, this could be an archetype to watch for.

Death’s Caress
Nicely atmospheric. It’s rare to see a card that opens with something on the level of “the faint smell of cloves.” The sentence leaves the right amount to the imagination, builds with a poetic rhythm, and describes it very aptly as paralyzing. “Fathomless” is an odd adjective to use, though. Does a tomb being really big make it scarier to anyone? This could just be a matter of individual play style, but for me, Claustrophobia was one of the standout cards in Innistrad.

Falkenrath Torturer
Oddly wistful tone here. Normally the vampires are happy to have tortured or fed off of humans, but this guy’s almost nostalgic about the days when they were still around for him. This echoes the set’s backstory, and how Sorin was motivated to create Avacyn to protect humans from dying off. If you happen to open Sorin Markov, this card’s value goes up significantly for you.

Gravepurge
The Blessed Sleep is also mentioned on Unburial Rites, Urgent Exorcism, and the new Ray of Revelation, making this another card that goes well in the white/black decks everyone is excited about. Personally, I think that archetype is overhyped; the Blessed Sleep isn’t bad as an afterlife concept, but with all the ways dead people can turn into monsters in Innistrad, it’s not at all certain that anyone reaches it.

Highborn Ghoul
I’m calling it now: green/black “you can’t take it with you” decks are going to be big. Mulch covers commoners and nobles being the same once they’re buried in the ground, and Highborn Ghoul complements that by explicitly showing that this also doesn’t make a difference for reanimated corpses. The closest thing Mulch had to a support card before was Gallows Warden, which doesn’t have the same focus on class. You’ll see pros drafting this archetype before long.

Reap the Seagraf
I could see first-picking this card. Great horror imagery, and a nice way of indicating the flashback. This will play especially well with Griptide, putting out enough threats themed around shore danger that opponents won’t be able to get past the coast.

Sightless Ghoul
“Direful” stands out as an odd word choice, but one that fits the gothic horror theme. Good sideboard card against white decks, which rely heavily on keeping Thraben defended.

Spiteful Shadows
“Human cattle” is the sort of thing I’d expect a vampire to be saying. It’s a little odd that it’s a demon-worshipping human saying it here, but still, a viable inclusion in a vampire deck. And speaking of red/black decks, this card is even more obviously begging to be played with Skirsdag Cultist.

Tragic Slip
Kind of a bland attempt at a pun, I guess? Well, not so much a pun as an awkwardly extended metaphor. We see cards like this pretty often. It’s playable, and works as indirect removal, but don’t expect too much value. If your black card pool has a couple bombs but is otherwise shallow, this can end up being maindecked.

Undying Evil
Innistrad only had one card with a planeswalker quote. It was one of the worst cards in the set, so I was hoping we wouldn’t see more planeswalker quotes in Dark Ascension. The bad news is that there are several, but the good news is none of them are as bad as Bramblecrush.
On this card, Liliana Vess is announcing that she’s about to turn someone into a zombie. It’s not clear what exactly she hopes to find out about evil from doing this, but the line does deliver on the main point that someone’s coming back from the dead through dark magic. Borderline playable, and that’s saying something for a card about a character who was created as an anagram of “a villainess.”

 

That’s it for part one. Hopefully you’ve got a better idea of what to look for from those three colors now. There aren’t any common multicolored or artifact cards in this set (aside from a couple with no flavor text, which don’t really count as cards), so part two will just cover red, green, and lands. I’ll try to have that up later tonight, so that you have some time to read it over before the prerelease.

Innistrad Lands

This blog is where I plan on posting my thoughts on Magic flavor text. Not enough people writing about Magic address this topic, probably because they get distracted by the non-italicized text, which I’m told matters for some sort of game. But here, we can leave that behind and focus on what really matters.

I’m going to try to start this off right: with a review of all the lands in Innistrad. Well, all the ones with flavor text. Sorry, Moorland Haunt.

First, the cycle of enemy dual lands. These present an odd challenge. They chose carefully generic names for them, possibly with an eye towards future reprints. This means any ties to the setting of Innistrad have to be carried by the art and flavor text. The art doesn’t do much for this beyond the usual Innistrad land themes of darkness and low viewpoints, leaving the flavor text to make the explicit connections. It’s probably a tricky thing for a flavor text writer to handle, especially since enemy color pairs weren’t really concepted as a part of Innistrad.

Clifftop Retreat
Nicely done. This feels like the right sort of thing to be happening in a clifftop retreat in this world, and the part at the end adds some depth to the cathars. At first I thought it was a bad move for the monsters it mentioned to be a red/black tribe and a black tribe (as opposed to, say, a red one and a white one, or two non-red non-white ones), but on reflection, that’s a pretty narrow way of looking at color identity. A card can produce red mana without having to take a position about everything red’s associated with in the set.

Hinterland Harbor
Compared to Clifftop Retreat, this is a total cop-out. “This card is about the sea meeting the trees. That doesn’t relate to Innistrad in any obvious way, so let’s forget about that.” I think it would actually have been improved by taking out the mention of Innistrad. You’d still get flavor text that didn’t relate to the setting, but it wouldn’t be declaring that fact quite so loudly.

Isolated Chapel
A different solution to the dual land problem. This one could be reused for another plane, but it fits a horror setting especially well. Nice and short, doesn’t devalue the ominous feeling by overexplaining it. Looking at this alongside Hinterland Harbor gives a good example of the difference between mentioning Innistrad and being about Innistrad.

Sulfur Falls
No major problems here, but it does surprisingly little that’s specific to sulfur falls. Compare “Skirsdag cultists meet in an isolated chapel and plot with demonic forces.” “Skirsdag cultists meet on an arid mesa.” “Skirsdag cultists meet at a flooded strand.” “Skirsdag cultists meet on Teferi’s Isle.” OK, maybe not that one.

Woodland Cemetary
The most ambitious one of the cycle. A story with three major actions in it is a lot for a single flavor text. As such, it’s terse enough with its details to raise a few questions. Was burial really the best option the farmers thought they had? Were the dead that got strangled the ones that hadn’t risen, or are zombies slow enough to get killed by growing roots? Are treefolk or other such plant monsters implied here? Since this happened long enough ago for the trees to grow back since, was Avacyn’s protection in effect?

Raising questions isn’t a bad thing, mind you. I can believe that this story would happen, perhaps with a few changed details that fell prey to length requirements. There’s an odd rock/paper/scissors feel to it: farmers beat trees, zombies beat farmers, trees beat zombies. That last part might appeal to Plants Vs. Zombies fans who saw Grave Bramble and were left wanting more.

Next, the allied-color activation lands. These ones do have setting-specific names: all but Moorland Haunt (the odd one out again) use proper nouns that only work in an Innistrad context. The flavor text for this cycle tends to be more specific than for the dual lands.

Gavony Township
Straightforward exposition of the central “Avacyn’s protection is fading” plot. It’s important to have cards that deliver information like that clearly. Interesting choice to end on an upbeat note; the humans’ determination to find ways to defend themselves fits the land’s ability well. There’s a definite first-act feel to this.

Kessig Wolf Run
We’re not expected to take this at face value. The howl doesn’t really keep echoing all night long, because that would be silly. The point here is that this folk myth about werewolves tells us something about the people spreading it. Which is . . . hmm. They think werewolves are scary? They dread loud noises? They’re fearful in general? Yeah, probably that last one.

Nephalia Drownyard
When I first saw this card, I wasn’t quite sure what “seagraf” meant. It wasn’t on any other cards, or even the Planeswalker’s Guide to Innistrad. Since then, it’s been explained that a seagraf is a seaside cemetary where sailors are buried. With Dark Ascension previews, we’ve also seen fengrafs mentioned on Ghoultree, and Grafdigger’s Cage shows that Innistrad doesn’t use the word “gravedigger.” Graveyard Shovel is still a thing, though. I’m not fond of these graf words. They sound jarring and kind of silly. Grafyard Shovel would be a ridiculous card name. Gravedigger’s Cage would be at least as good as Grafdigger’s Cage. All we gain from them is a sense that Innistrad folks have a lot of specialized terminology for types of cemetaries, but wouldn’t we still get that from seagraves and fengraves?

Anyway, armed with knowledge of what a seagraf is, let’s look at this flavor text again. Jadar, being a ghoulcaller, sees people dying in a coastal shipwreck as a source of dead people by a coast. That’s deep.

Stensia Bloodhall
Resonant fantasy tropes here: vampires drink blood and are creepy about young women. Also, the card name tells us that vampires are well established in society here. Given how open they are about their existence among humans, it’s reasonable that they would publically call this place a bloodhall. The other thing going on here is a nice use of tense. Even though the artwork depicts a time when the revelry is over, but the flavor text can’t say “The revelry ended when . . .” without losing the sense that this keeps happening. That sense of this being a continual event reinforces the idea that the vampires are an entrenched part of society.

Last, the two reprint lands:

Ghost Quarter
First, I’m not sure “deserted” and “uninhabited” really have the kind of hair-splitting difference that separates out “filled with ghosts.” Second, even if they do, this isn’t saying anything of importance. The flavor text from Dissension would be inappropriate for this setting (life doesn’t cry out to be reborn on Innistrad, it gets reborn in spite of any desires for the Blessed Sleep), but no flavor text at all would have been fine.

Shimmering Grotto
Reprinting the original flavor text would have been even more inappropriate here. The new piece addresses my central concern about this card: are shimmering grottoes really an Innistrad thing? The answer: not so much. They’re rare and have to be carefully hidden. It seems to me there are worse things about being preyed on by monsters than having to keep your beautiful grottoes hidden, but I can accept the idea that Hildin is in a position where he mainly has grotto-related concerns.