Graveyard-themed sets have a much better than normal chance to produce eternal-playable cards, thanks to the traditionally heavy usage of the graveyard as a resource in the most powerful formats. Graveyards have a natural tendency to fill up fast, and squeezing extra value out of cards you’ve already spent has always been a great way to optimize the value of every spell in your deck. Not only can the graveyard optimize the utility of your cards, it can also be the centerpiece of your strategy. Vintage, Legacy and (to a lesser extent) Modern all feature dredge variants that aim to play almost exclusively out of the graveyard. Cards that are balanced for play in Standard can turn into allstars when joined with the more powerful enablers and bigger payoffs available in the eternal formats. So with that in mind, let’s start off by looking at the delirium mechanic.
Similar to the threshold mechanic from Odyssey Block, delirium grants an upgrade to a creature or spell based on the content of your graveyard. Threshold was reached at 7 total cards. Delirium is a bit trickier, requiring 4 different card types in your yard. But a good place to start is to look at which deck archetypes have utilized threshold, and then see how much harder it would be to reach delirium and whether it’s worth the effort.
Dredge decks obviously have the ability to fill their yard quickly, and could have threshold as early as Turn 2. Those decks have utilized Putrid Imp, but primarily as a discard outlet. The primary threshold cards in this archetype have been the lands, most notably Cephalid Coliseum.
Finally, aggro-control decks have often made use of the mechanic, and in one notable case they still do. The RUG Delver deck began life as a deck known as “Canadian Threshold” and featuring Nimble Mongoose along with Werebear. A previous G/W/x threshold deck had played Mystic Enforcer. The core idea here is that a cheap threat deployed early and protected for a few turns naturally evolves into a larger threat that can put away the game. Tarmogoyf has usurped that role for most U/G/x decks, but Nimble Mongoose lives on in the RUG Delver decks of today.
How easy would it be for those archetypes to hit delirium? Dredge decks in any format should easily hit creature, sorcery and land, although in the case of dredge there is a substantial “luck factor” because you are mostly milling yourself to get there while casting the occasional sorcery. Most dredge decks will have a set of Bridge from Below to add enchantments to the yard. In Vintage, a handful of instants including Mental Misstep and Nature’s Claim are commonly played, while the best openings for Legacy dredge will often involve a Lion’s Eye Diamond heading to the yard.
Storm combo will typically fill the bin with land, sorcery and instant naturally — with the exception of some Legacy variants that use pentacolor lands instead of fetches and duals. Legacy versions will be sacrificing Lotus Petal to add the artifact card type.
As for aggro-control decks, 4/5 Tarmogoyfs may be quite common by the second or third turn, but getting 4 card types in strictly your own graveyard doesn’t always come as quickly. But it should come eventually, as you likely have 12 creatures in your deck, plus fetchlands or Wastelands, instants such as countermagic or removal spells, and sorceries such as cantrips or Duress effects. Indeed, this is a deck type where reaching delirium might even happen before reaching threshold in many cases. You fetch a dual to cast an early Delver, which dies to removal, then you cast a Ponder, and use a Force of Will, and just like that you’re there.
So what does Shadows Over Innistrad give us as a payoff for reaching delirium? There are some good effects available at cheap mana costs, so let’s take a look at the best candidates for eternal.
Searching for a basic land won’t do much in older formats, but the delirium ability basically turns this into a variant of Worldly Tutor or Living Wish, allowing you to search for a creature or for any land including nonbasics. One mana is a good price for an effect that is eternal-playable, but are there any homes for this card?
The first thought I had was of Life from the Loam decks that include the Dark Depths + Vampire Hexmage combo. These decks did play Living Wish when they were popular. However, in the past two years, the Marit Lage lovers of the format have migrated towards the new iteration of 42Lands.dek which uses Thespian’s Stage in place of the Hexmage. That deck is running Gamble for tutoring, and is not well suited to hitting delirium anyhow unless it accidentally mills or randomly discards an Exploration or Mox Diamond.
There are, however, some dredge decks that have experimented with running Dark Depths + Hexmage combo, often out of the sideboard. If the maindeck isn’t running pentalands, the board plan will involve Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth and potentially Riftstone Portal. The inclusion of Riftstone Portal would give them the ability to cast Traverse the Ulvenwald and easily search up any of the lands or creatures needed for the combo.
Finally, the Modern format gets its own Envelop! I know we were all clamoring for this, go ahead and breathe a sigh of relief guys.
But wait, there’s more! With delirium turned on, you’ll get to exile the spell from the graveyard after it is countered, and proceed to Surgical Extraction all the other copies from your opponent’s deck. Scapeshift combo remains popular in Modern, and if the namesake sorcery is fully exiled from their deck they will be left to slowly kill you the natural way with one Valakut trigger at a time. Scapeshift is almost uniquely vulnerable in this way. Making things even better for Invasive Surgery, Scapeshift fights almost exclusively with soft counters, so the cheaper the better on your side of the stack! Scapeshift can’t kill you with their combo until they have at least 6 lands in play, and 7 is more typical. If they want to cast it while holding Cryptic Command up, their only hard counterspell, we’re now talking about 8 lands. In the sideboarded games where this is likely to come up, they may have some number of Negate, nonetheless I think this is a powerful bullet against them if you choose to fight that deck on the stack.
In Legacy, the most obvious application is against Time Spiral in the High Tide combo deck. This deck is not at all popular online, despite being significantly cheaper there than in paper Magic. In paper tournaments, it rarely has much success outside the hands of its most famous pilot, Feline Longmore, who singlehandedly accounts for nearly all of the deck’s Top 16 finishes in large events over the past few years.
Most of the other sorcery-based combo decks in eternal formats have backup plans strong enough to overcome this. Show and Tell has its Sneak Attacks, Through the Breach is often paired with Goryo’s Vengeance and so on. And unless you are the dredge deck, you probably won’t have delirium turned on when your opponent casts their first Show and Tell — which is, of course, when the extraction effect would be most powerful.
This is still a fine sideboard card in several matchups, but merely a fair one and not a crippling stroke.
While it doesn’t solve as many problems as we might hope, I can almost 100% guarantee this sees play in Legacy. It’s a strict upgrade on Envelop, and that card has been a singleton sideboard option in BUG Control and occasionally in BUG Delver for several years now. BUG Control actually has a very good chance of turning the delirium ability on quite easily, as the deck features several artifact creatures such as Baleful Strix and sometimes Shardless Agent.
In Vintage, there are several powerful sorceries it would be incidentally nice to exile on the cheap, such as Tinker or Time Walk, but the most powerful sorceries are nearly all restricted cards. This is likely too narrow and doesn’t provide enough utility compared to Swan Song which hits a wider range of threats such as Oath of Druids.
Madness was an extremely powerful mechanic at one time, combining solid creatures that had discard abilities with spells whose madness cost put them well above the power curve for that era.
But several things have changed since that age of Magic. Overall the power level of creatures has increased such that Arrogant Wurm doesn’t look as good as it once did, and there’s nothing in Shadows Over Innistrad that matches even that creature. For another thing, Survival of the Fittest was the most common home for madness creatures, in particular Basking Rootwalla, and Survival is now banned from Legacy. Even with Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy as a tempting enabler that has begun to see play in older formats, none of these new madness cards are worth the payoff.
If the mechanic returns in the next set, and perhaps gives us a counterspell on par with Circular Logic, we might yet see it materialize in Modern. For now, the return of this mechanic appears to have been a dud.
Double-faced cards are back, and here we have the most popular early candidate for eternal play:
I’ve written before about the history of “grow” creatures in eternal formats, and the evolution from vertical-growth creatures such as Quirion Dryad towards horizontal-growth creatures such as Young Pyromancer and Monastery Mentor. But as vertical-growth creatures go, this one is a whopper. At 7/8, it’s going to outclass any creature on the board that wasn’t cheated into play — and if they did cheat something into play, this bounces it! It will even do so at instant speed if you can set it up, no need to wait until the upkeep to check the conditions, as soon as that last ice counter drops off you’re getting an Evacuation. Against any midrange or tribal creature aggro deck in Legacy, being able to do this on their end step could be devastating.
It is also worth noting that the rules for flipped double-face cards have slightly changed with this set release. These creatures now retain the converted mana cost of the front side even after flipping. So for example, it will still be vulnerable to Abrupt Decay on either side, but Engineered Explosives will have to be set at 2 to take it out.
In Legacy, Delver decks and BUG Control decks should be well suited to incorporate this if they’re interested. There may be some mild dissynergy for the Delver pilot if it bounces a flipped Delver, but the BUG control deck probably won’t mind having a Strix or Shardless Agent bounced back to its own hand to draw another card or earn another cascade!
With 0/4 base stats on the front side, the creature seems well-situated in Modern to survive the ubiquitous Lightning Bolt and occasional Lightning Helix. Bounce spells will be a danger there, as both Merfolk and some Delver variants are known to employ Vapor Snag — but those are decks where the Evacuation ability can hit them pretty hard even if the 7/8 doesn’t stick around too long.
MISCELLANEOUS QUICK HITS
These three all have a shot to see play in one sort of graveyard-based deck or another.
Drownyard Temple can be returned from your yard to play, allowing a dredge-style deck to get a landfall trigger for Bloodghast. In Modern, some dredge decks have followed in the footsteps of the old Standard Dredge-Vine decks and utilized self-milling by way of Hedron Crab, in which case the landfall trigger might also be of some use.
Prized Amalgam rewards you for doing what your graveyard deck is already built to do. If you return a Bloodghast, Ichorid, Narcomoeba or Gravecrawler to play, Amalgam is coming right along with it. The weakness is that it comes into play tapped, and not until the end step. This limits its recursive applications, since you’ll only get the effect once per turn, and it limits its board impact. You won’t be able to use the Amalgam to cast a Cabal Therapy or Dread Return in Legacy until your next turn, which is an eternity in powerful formats where you are inclined towards getting what you want right away. Still, it comes into play from your yard for free, putting it in the same class of all the best dredge creatures throughout history, and I think that makes it worth a look. Aside from dredge strategies, it also works with any creature that has undying or persist, in what might be simply a grindy attrition-based deck.
Finally, Insolent Neonate is among the cheapest discard outlets available in Modern. Faithless Looting may give you more resources to work with in the long run, but Neonate’s discard-first-draw-second phrasing allows you to discard a Golgari Grave-Troll and then immediately dredge 6 cards. Because both the discard and the sacrifice are part of the cost, you can only do this once, and can’t stack several discards. So if you use it to bin a creature with dredge, you aren’t able to also bin Bloodghasts stranded in your hand, for example. Still, if that one big dredge hits a Narcomoeba and perhaps the aforementioned Prized Amalgam, you’ll have some bodies on the board right away.
I’ve long enjoyed these dredge strategies in Modern, and have played a couple of them in this article series, so I hope some of these new cards might turn the deck into a contender, and I look forward to brewing with them!
Thanks for joining me for this roundup of Shadows over Innistrad, and if you have a favorite new card that didn’t make it into this article, I’d love to hear your suggestions in the comments section. See you next time!
Just before publication of this article, the announcement came down from the DCI restricting Lodestone Golem in Vintage. Lodestone Golem was definitely the true ‘problem card’ of Shops. Sphere effects on their own can shut down an opponent, but because Shops lacks the velocity of the blue decks and their draw spells and black tutors, the opponent would often have a chance to draw out of it. Likewise, simply powering out a Juggernaut and putting the opponent on a clock was not enough. Even the most aggressive Workshop variants, such as the affinity variant that was dominant in the old Classic format and has seen occasional Vintage play, nevertheless found it necessary to play Lodestones and Spheres. Power on the board means little in Vintage unless it comes stapled to disruption. The combination of disruption and a 4-turn clock on LSG is what made it the best card in Shops, and the one you most feared coming down on Turn 1.
It is, however, unfortunate that this comes hot on the heels of the recent Chalice of the Void restriction. The purpose of Shops in the metagame has typically been to fight Storm and the other Gush decks. In their own ways, both Dredge and the BUG decks evolved to fight Shops, forming a more balanced metagame. With both Chalice and LSG restricted, this has the chance to upset the metagame much more than intended. Indeed, the controversy leading up to this ban was that the celebrity power of the Vintage Super League players were openly putting their finger on the scales, pushing in high-profile fashion for a format with more action on the stack. That format may make for swingier matches and better entertainment, but many longtime Vintage players doubted that it would make the format better overall.
We shall see in future weeks how it plays out. It may be that Shops is still powerful enough to fulfill its role. Or it may be that blue combo decks and Monastery Mentor / Young Pyromancer decks run wild and unchecked. My suspicion is that LSG should have been restricted last time and Chalice left unrestricted as a check against storm, but time will tell.
Additionally, Modern saw the unbanning of Thopter/Sword combo and Ancestral Vision, along with the banning of Eye of Ugin. Whether this will result in the emergence of stronger control strategies in that format is something we’ll be watching.