Shadows over Innistrad: Horrific Visions Review (Part 1 of 2)
One of the things I often liken preconstructed decks to is “museum pieces.” This is mainly true for decks that are from a particular set as opposed to standalone products like Duel Decks. Theme Decks- and their modern counterparts, the Intro Pack- are a great way to explore and experience the themes and mechanics of a set without investing a lot of money in boosters or individual cards.
I noted with some dismay that dual-faced cards (DFC’s) were notably absent from the precons in the original Innistrad. Whether it was more due to a cost of printing increase for DFC’s over regular cards versus perceived complexity for an introductory product, it was nevertheless quite disappointing to see a major component of the set go unincluded. Although it was much less prominent, we also saw imprint overlooked for any of the decks in Scars of Mirrodin.
So the museum piece metaphor is sadly imperfect. Fortunately for those enjoying Shadows over Innistrad, while the DFC’s once again get short shrift, we have some wonderfully dedicated decks to showcase the set’s mechanics. Our first deck, Unearthed Secrets, focused on investigate, just as today’s highlights delirium.
Delirium came about as a product of top-down design. As Mark Rosewater relates, the growing insanity of the plane of Innistrad was to be a central aspect of the set’s story and theme. How best to represent that? They started with milling, which in the past has had a very similar flavor, but but felt that the focus needed to be on preservation of your own sanity rather than interfering with that of another.
The next idea were to use ‘insanity counters’ to track your deteriorating mental health. Each time you were damaged, you’d mill cards based on how many insanity counters you’d accumulated. Although an intriguing mini-game, they found it “fiddlier” than they’d wanted but were still hooked on the idea of using the graveyard as a gauge of mental state.
They then looked back at the threshold mechanic from Odyssey, which gave some of your cards upgraded power or abilities if you had seven or more cards in your graveyard. It made a good starting point, and after some tweaking delirium was born.
Today’s deck focuses on the power of losing your sanity in a world like Innistrad. Far from being a hindrance, entering a state of distorted reality has a great deal of benefit for its pilot.
Breath on your Neck
The deck opens up with a trio of Groundskeepers. These are notable for two reasons. First, they’re one drops in a precon environment that hasn’t thus far been favoring speed. Although a mere 1/1 won’t be tearing up your opponent for long, their primary function actually isn’t tied to their stats. Rather, they have the ability to return land from your graveyard to hand.
This is an interesting card, which seems on first blush to be a better fit for a self-discard/madness style deck, where you can throw away land for an improved effect and then grab it back for reuse. That doesn’t help madness, of course, but this environment is rife with madness enablers that offer a reward for discarding from hand, and you won’t always have a madness card in your grip when you want the bonus. Indeed, this is comparable to the intent of the card in its original printing in Mercadian Masques, to reclaim land cards thrown away for ‘spellshaper’ effects (see: Bog Witch).
But of course, this is a delirium deck, not a madness one, so to a certain degree you want to have land in your graveyard. The role of the Groundskeeper, then, is to benefit from times where you have too much. You only need one, so anything beyond that is wasted (assuming your opponent isn’t playing with effects that could prune your graveyard for you).
That, of course, begs the question as to whether or not that effect is needed in the deck. The mana curve isn’t massive in the same way some of the Eldrazi-based decks in Battle for Zendikar block were, so there isn’t as much of a premium on regularly hitting your mana curve. This instead feels a bit like a Duel Deck “occasional interaction,” where often it won’t do all that much for you, but sometimes you’ll get to feel clever pitching land to a Ghoulsteed only to yank it right back.
Also in the one-drops is a Loam Dryad, a mana-fixing creature that’s essentially a Springleaf Drum on a stick. Given that only two cards have a harder to cast double-mana-cost, this also seems like an answer in search of a problem.
Moving on to the two-drops, the core of the deck starts to come together here. The first delirium creature appears in the form of the Moldgraf Scavenger, and the deck gives you a full “intro pack playset” of three of them. They’re a very solid card here, as they both slow down an onrushing opponent in the red zone to buy you time to develop (a common theme for decks in this set), as well as ‘activating’ as decent-sized beaters once you hit delirium.
This cycle started as a top-down design. We were playing around with the concept of madness, and I liked the idea that as people went crazy, they started becoming obsessive about little things, doing them over and over. In early playtesting, all five had “Obsessive” in their name. The design was very straightforward. Each had an enters-the-battlefield effect that did something, and then if it had delirium, it would start doing that effect every turn. The effects changed a bit as the file went through development, but the cycle with its basic structure stayed the same throughout.
In this case, the Skinners offer +1/+1 counters, once when they enter the battlefield, and then again every opponent’s upkeep when you’ve hit delirium. That is a useful way to break a creature stalemate, as you let your larger creatures outgrow your opponent’s defenses.
Another card in this cycle, the Tooth Collector, ushers us into the three-drops. Rather than making one of your creatures grow stronger, this one makes one of your opponent’s creatures weaker to the tune of -1/-1 each turn. Alas this isn’t a permanent change, but against a deck with a lot of smaller creatures (the 1/1 Spirits of Ghostly Tide, for instance) it can be a useful form of population control. Since the effect triggers on upkeep, it does prevent you from being able to snipe off a creature wounded in combat, as your opponent will already have the effect to contend with before they declare attackers.
Next up is the Crow of Dark Tidings, a 2/1 flier that has both an enters-the-battlefield and death trigger, letting you self-mill two cards. This is a pure delirium enabler, but in a deck with so few aerial options, it’s good to have access to one.
We find our first rare card here in the form of the Inexorable Blob. A 3/3, it channels the “split into more” vibe common to Ooze creatures when you’ve hit delirium, giving you another 3/3 creature tapped and attacking right alongside it. That’s solid virtual card advantage, though it also paints a target on the card for your opponent.
The final two creatures are important inclusions that server a very specific purpose, the Wicker Witch and Wild-Field Scarecrow. The Witch is simply a vanilla 3/1, which isn’t all that great on its own. Where she shines, however, is in being both an artifact and a creature. That’s half your quota of card types for delirium in one shot, and there will be times your opponent won’t want to block her for fear of killing her and turning on delirium.
The Scarecrow, on the other hand, can easily find its way to the graveyard when you’re ready thanks to its sacrifice ability, and tutoring up two land cards is an excellent consolation prize. This one’s a solid inclusion here, and its utility contribution- while easy to dismiss as a “1/4 defender“, shouldn’t be overlooked.
A pair of Stallions of Ashmouth are the majority of the deck’s four-drops, and they’re fairly solid. A 3/3 for four mana in Black is passable, and the “pump-shade” ability it gets when delirium is active can make it a difficult threat for your opponent to manage. It’s mana-hungry, sure, but at the latter stages of the game you’ll often be looking for places to dump some extra mana.
The deck’s foil premium rare, the Soul Swallower, also finds a home here. On its own it’s a 3/3 with trample for four mana, which is a bit weak. But like many of the deck’s creatures, it gets that much better if you’ve properly stocked your graveyard. Each upkeep where you have delirium, you get to put a trio of +1/+1 counters on it. This is a great card to draw when the red zone is stalemated, since your opponent likely won’t be able to keep up with its growth in addition to any other cards you might play. This is a great premium rare for the deck, and different from what we’ve seen in the previous two decks where you had an expensive, flashy card that you’d only want to see at the end of the game when you had the mana to afford it. At four mana, this will be easy to play, and- if your deck comes together as it should- easy to grow.
Keeping with the “evil horse” subtheme started with the Stallion, we enter the top of the curve with the Ghoulsteed. A 4/4 for five mana is again solid in color, and while the cost to return it to the battlefield after it’s left it is ordinarily fairly steep, there are ways to mitigate the cost. Also at five mana is the Hound of the Farbogs, whose stats are slightly skewed in favor of offensive might. The Hound has no way to return to the battlefield the same was as the Ghoulsteed, but makes up for that by being a challenge to block if delirium has been enabled. With 5 power, that often means that your opponent will be losing two creatures to your one- a fine bargain.
Next up is a creature with the glorious types of “Slug Horror,” the Morkrut Necropod. Unlike the Hound, the menace on the Necropod is always active, though when you use it in combat there’s a toll to pay. Losing a creature or land each time it blocks is no small cost, but it’s a reasonable price if you’re able to swing with this guy over a few turns since you’ll almost always be getting to kill more than one creature on the attack if your opponent blocks- and if they don’t, hitting for 7 is no joke.
The Kessig Dire Swine is another large beater that gets even more formidable with delirium. A six-mana 6/6 is fine for Green, the creature color, and the possibility of trample makes it all the stronger. It may not have the potential for growth as the Soul Swallower (which can attack for the first time as a 6/6), but the Dire Swine takes the swinginess out and is a simple, reliable beater.
As you’d perhaps expect from a deck built around delirium, there’s a wide range of card types contained in the noncreature suite. The removal, in particular, is especially wonky, and mainly geared towards solving smaller problems. Explosive Apparatus is a delayed Shock, and one that comes at a steep cost. While just one mana to deploy, it takes another three just to get the 2 damage out of it. Nevertheless, it’s another way to get an artifact into the graveyard, and the deck gives you two.
You also have a pair of Dead Weights, Auras which can kill smaller creatures or take larger ones down a bit in size. You have two of these as well, plus one Throttle which hits targets twice as strongly. Unlike the Weights, though, Throttle is an instant, so while it’s debuff isn’t permanent, it can be played as needed. Finally, a singleton Rabid Bite gives you some removal in Green, using a variant of that color’s fight mechanic to deal direct damage. Green also offers a Giant Growth variant in Might Beyond Reason, with a permanent bonus rather than a temporary one.
For other non-removal, you have a touch of card draw in Merciless Resolve, which lets you draw two cards at the added cost of sacrificing a creature or land. This is a solid delirium enabler, and a good way to get value from a creature that was already about to die. Being able to get land into the graveyard is exactly the sort of effect this deck wants, because the more regularly it can get four different card types in the graveyard, the stronger it is.
Vessel of Nascency gives you a permanent from amongst your top four cards, with the rest going into the graveyard. Fork in the Road is even narrower- you get to tutor up two basic lands, with one going to hand and the other to the graveyard. Crawling Sensation mills you for two each turn, with the added bonus of occasionally creating 1/1 Insect tokens. Liliana’s Indignation lets you turn your mana into a milling dump, with a potential bit of damage thrown in to make it feel like you didn’t waste your entire turn doing nothing but milling. In all these cases, you get some modest effect that rides along with the core strategy of filling your own graveyard so you can activate delirium. Although the methods vary, it’s a nice bit of focus.
Interestingly, this is the only deck of the set that has any nonbasic lands. A Warped Landscape is just another helper card to hit delirium, but the Foul Orchard does nothing but mana fixing. It’s an intriguing deck overall, and it will be helpful to take it into battle to see how well it comes together. How well does it hit delirium? How does it perform when it doesn’t? Only one way to find out!