Two Jesses’ Boy Detective Agency is out of business now that the great mystery of Innistrad has been investigated to the point of exhaustion. Fortunately they have a backup career all set as flavor judges!
Jesse K: So listen, Jesse T, I have no idea what’s going on in this set, since shortly after our last article I was afflicted by Stitchers’ Anesthesia. I’m gonna need a minute to get filled in, but I doubt I’ll be disappointed. After Shadows with its extremely flavorful horror tropes and complementary mechanics, I can’t help but imagine that this set will be a smash hit. Certainly professional fantasy gaming company Wizards of the Coast will manage to surprise and delight me with their carefully thought-through conclusion to this great block. I’ll go get caught up now.
Jesse T: If I recall correctly, in our last article we predicted that the supernatural entity trying to cross over into Innistrad was either the ancient Eldrazi titan Emrakul, or a giant Stay Puft marshmallow man. Well, the worst has happened, and I was right about something for once. Emrakul has arrived from the Blind Eternities and begun transforming the pastoral inhabitants of our most beloved plane into grotesque mutated horrors. Like some perverse cross-block synergy gone wrong, there are now Eldrazi on Innistrad.
T: It’ll all be over soon, I promise!
Themes and Mechanics
Emerge and the Return of the Eldrazi (Again!)
K: Okay, now that I’ve gotten over my absolute antipathy towards the Eldrazi appearing again, I have to say that their execution in this set is second to none, including the original Zendikar. In keeping with BFZ and OGW, these Eldrazi are of a particular brood and thus have their own identity. Unlike Ulamog’s colorless-for-no-reason pals and Kozilek’s 6th-color-but-not-really allies, Emrakul is all about assimilation. Rather than bringing along her own cadre of Eldrazi, she’s Eldrazi-fying the denizens of Innistrad. There are a bunch of ways this is mechanically represented in the set. Emerge basically represents an Eldrazi that has been slowly growing inside erupting forth like a chest-buster! Gruesome! You can see pre-evidence for this in the many Shadows cards that show creatures with tentacles or mutations. I guess they didn’t last long once the lady herself showed up. Something really cool about emerge is that you can often identify which creature the monstrosity popped out of. Decimator here is clearly a Kessig Dire Swine. He even emerges perfectly from his former form, getting the full 6-mana discount. Love that attention to detail!
T: Emerge makes sacrificing your creatures feel fresh and interesting while still staying true to Innistrad’s gothic horror atmosphere. Seeing my pets, friends, and family members ruptured from within by writhing tentacled monsters is way cooler and scarier than just having them come back from the dead as run-of-the-mill zombies. You see the shambling remains of one reanimated loved one’s corpse, and you’ve seen ‘em all. Sometimes you need monsters to be especially horrifying to stand out among the banal horrors of everyday life. Personally, I don’t know how the GOP manages to do it every 4 years.
K: The other major way this transformative power is shown is through the double faced cards, which have been… altered somewhat since Emrakul arrived. Check out that little icon in the top left, it’s not a sun and moon anymore. This shows the transformation even more clearly. I feel like this type of Eldrazi invasion fits so much better in the world of Innistrad than it ever did in Zendikar, which was ostensibly a lands/adventure plane. Unspeakable horrors that warp flesh and mind? It’s right at home here. Just too bad we had to sit through so many sub-par Eldrazis first.
T: I like that Abolisher of Bloodlines has one inexplicable goat head so it looks like a demon from the Lesser Key of Solomon. Remember to play this card in your Springjack Pasture combo deck for extra flavor synergy! Eldritch Moon‘s double-faced cards, much like those in Shadows, are some of the absolute best in the set. The new transformation symbol is blatantly evocative of Cthulhu, which really highlights how much better Lovecraftian horror works in a set that’s actually based on the genre of literature H. P. Lovecraft wrote. Unfortunately absent from Innistrad this time around are Lovecraft’s second-favorite literary villains: non-white people.
K: I also want to note that in our last article I said “It’s Emrakul, duh. I mean, it has Emrakul’s basic shape, and it kinda looks like it would be perfect for a set symbol. Like next set, where they reveal it was Emrakul all along, and Eldrazi start popping out of werewolves and seagrafs and ruining everything once again.” And here they are literally popping out werewolves and with Emrakul set symbols all over them. Told. You. So. And so did literally anyone else who even thought about it briefly.
T: Hopefully that silences any doubters of our psychic abilities. I’d invite our readers to leave comments below, but I already know exactly what you’re all going to say.
K: Oh dear god. We’ve gone fully from Bram Stoker to H. R. Giger at this point. Emmy’s influence is at its most dramatic here, where she’s turned the whole town into a goo monster. This kind of thing really communicates how terrifying the Eldrazi can be in a way that hasn’t really been captured before. The most horrifying is yet to come, and in this block, that’s a good thing! The way meld cards work in the game and play is still a bit of a missing piece for me, but the idea of actually Human Centipeding your dudes together feels appropriately disturbing. The meld mechanic only appears on a very small handful of cards, which kinda shows they felt like it was a strong enough ingredient that you didn’t actually want to use a lot of it. I feel like the idea justifies its existence, regardless.
T: I think meld is fun, intuitive, evocative, and probably a mechanic we’re going to see again in future sets. It worked out great for Yu-Gi-Oh. Still, I feel like Hanweir Garrison is a bit of a flavor fail. If you combine Hanweir Battlements with a Hanweir Garrison, you don’t get a Writhing Township. You just have a well-defended town of Hanweir.
K: That’s right, Jesse T, the only thing that can stop a bad guy with an Eldrazi mutation is a good guy with an Eldrazi mutation.
K: Well, it’s the final set of a block, so of course things are… getting more intense. What better way to represent that than with a mechanic that literally just comes out and says so? Literally, I don’t know what would be a better way to represent that, and I am the Wizards of the Coast creative department. Honestly, this mechanic is flavorless, but I like modal spells and kicker, so I can’t complain too hard.
T: Don’t you mean things are… heating up? Drawing from red’s diverse mechanical palette, they’ve taken care to subtly differentiate ‘defiance’ from ‘a Thunderbolt’ by allowing one of them to hit creatures without flying. Earthquakes? Frost? Political unrest? Red can truly represent anything as long as it’s damage to target creature or player. This is probably the low point of the set for me. I’ve said so before, and I still believe it to be completely unnecessary for Wizards to force self-imposed quotas on the number of mechanics in every expansion they release.
Returning Themes and Mechanics
K: Hey, they didn’t do that thing again where literally every mechanic from the first set disappeared! That’s cool. We have Madness and Delirium still, which makes sense as honestly the insanity is only amping up at this point. The mechanics are still good fits for the setting, but they didn’t really do much to put new twists on them, which is something I kind of miss from older sets. Maybe a madness card with an alternate color mana cost or something would’ve been cool. We lost Clues, which I think is a real shame because I loved how they played and how flavorful they were, but it makes sense within the story so I guess I’ll allow it. Hey remember how Wizards pretended there was a mystery in this block?
T: There might not be any more Clues, but I still have plenty of questions. For example, how is that vampire holding a cross? Is it because the vampires on Innistrad aren’t Christians? Would Muslim vampires repelled by stars and crescents? For the answers to all of these and more, be sure to look for our upcoming book: 50 Days of Pure Twilight: Dawn of the Vampires: A Magic: The Gathering Retrospective: Overuse of the Colon in Modern Literary Nomenclature: A Novel.
K: Tamiyo seems like a cool character from what I’ve seen of her and it’s a relief that she’s not dead. Maybe there is a potential future for characters who aren’t part of the Gatewatch™ after all. The abilities seem to fit with her character well enough and are fairly novel. I do like it when you can tell what spells a planeswalker is casting (Curiosity/Warriors’ Lesson, Frost Breath, and Omniscience). I’m not sure what happened to change Tamiyo from mono-blue to Bant colors. She did end up agreeing to help out Jace & co, so that could signal a shift towards compassion and teamwork (white/green). This is, to me, not that big of a deal, but I could see why some would be annoyed at it. Plus, this is a color combo that hasn’t gotten a planeswalker before, so the part of my brain that craves pattern completion is pleased.
T: Finally, Magic has merged a traditional fantasy multiverse with the thrilling world of academic research. It’d be cool if the second ability were a Rush of Knowledge effect so there’d be a nice clear narrative arc between Curiosity and Omniscience. It wouldn’t be at all clear to anyone at a glance, but as long as they’re making sidelong references to old cards, they might as well go all the way. Aside from being two extra colors for no reason, I think this is one of the better planeswalker designs we’ve seen. I only wish she played a more central role in the story.
K: Oh boy, Liliana’s in the Gatewatch™ now. I’ve heard that the plan is to have every set going forward revolve around their Gatewatching antics, and I feel like this is just too much. When you have your super team and it’s been established that they can beat up Eldrazi like it’s nothing, where are you going to find conflict and credible threat? Besides, I want magic to have the space to tell smaller, less impactful stories sometimes, too. It’s like if you went to the movie theater and found out the only things you could watch forever were Avengers sequels. Oh wait, I was supposed to be talking about Liliana. I like her in this set and feel like she has a lot of personality, and she’s got some great quips on various cards. She probably now has the widest spread of different abilities on her cards of any planeswalker between this and her swamp loving iteration. Is that a sign of an ill-defined character? Maybe, but I certainly can’t fault this card specifically, as it feels very Liliana to me. I think it’s very good flavor that her ultimate is an amped up Endless Ranks of the Dead.
T: After a brief delay, they’ve completed the cycle of Oaths, and all five colors are now represented. I assume the flavor text is addressed directly to me because I’m a pathological narcissist, so allow me to answer its question: Meh. There still aren’t any planeswalkers of color on the team, but a 2/3 ratio of males to females is nothing to complain about. I like Liliana’s emergent identity as the zombie planeswalker, and I hope they use that to differentiate her from other planeswalkers in the future. I’m not particularly excited to see the Gatewatch return in upcoming sets if the roster is locked in as it currently stands. Diversity makes playing Magic fun. I think it would make their characters better too. I know I’m repeating myself at this point, but I’ll keep doing it as long as it keeps being a problem.
K: Thalia’s still alive, hooray! I’m not really sure how her abilities tie flavorfully to her character (something about Kismet? Maybe she’s a really imposing figure?) Either way, it feels like this is a riff on an existing person and not just a random card with Thalia’s name thrown on it, so it gets a grade of ‘good enough’ from me.
T: I’m very happy with the new Thalia. The overall design is great, but it does lose several flavor points because I want to play both of them in Death & Taxes, and I’m going to end up with 2 Thalias in play at the same time pretty much constantly when I do that. If they’re going to keep printing multiple versions of the same legend, they should start making them work the same way as planeswalkers. Otherwise, if you can explain away past & present versions of Thalia coexisting via multiple universes or time travel or whatever, then you’d be able to summon multiple copies from nearby parallel universes by the same argument.
K: Apparently somebody wanted a legendary spider, so this one’s for you, I guess. I get it, spiders are cool, and bad tribal EDH is most definitely my jam. The thing is, I can’t really imagine anyone getting excited about a card this boring. In its most common mode it’s a Giant Spider that is slightly bigger and costs one more. If I go through the trouble of achieving delirium, I get a bad version of Siege-Gang Commander. Shouldn’t a legendary spider do something at least somewhat flavorful? Take a look at Arachnus Spinner. That’s what you can do with a top-down spider design. This card bums me out because they took something that seems impossible to make boring and did exactly that.
T: You said it. I like the idea of a making a new legendary creature for your old Spider Spawning deck, but the execution feels clunky to me. If I have 4 card types in my graveyard, shouldn’t you get 4 tokens? Does one extra spider really make this OP? Also, while we’re here, I have to get something off my thorax: I hate the word graf. Geists is a little better, but it’s painfully obvious that they just CTRL+F/replaced all the graves and ghosts in Innistrad with grafs and geists, and it’s a single ugly smudge on an otherwise perfectly evocative card almost every time either appears. They might as well have “fampyres” and “werewolfes” all over the place. Sometimes less is more, world-builders!
K: On that note, I feel like they really missed the opportunity to bring back the “vvitch” creature type in this block.
Gisa and Geralf
K: If there’s a character that you like that showed up in the flavor text but not in the set, take solace, dear reader, because these one-note joke characters that debuted in 2011 were evidently popular enough that they received 3 different cards in the past year. That being said, I don’t hate Gisa and Geralf, and they make a semi-decent zombie general. They feel a bit dry for a mythic legend, especially compared with how flashy their Commander versions were.
T: Gisa & Geralf: Innistrad’s Addams Family.
I swear, everything that comes out of that girl’s mouth could be printed on a shirt and sold at Hot Topic. It’s too bad they couldn’t find a way to make all three cards work together with meld somehow. Rumor has it that Crispin Glover is playing Geralf in the upcoming Magic: The Gathering feature film, Innistrad vs Frankenstein.
K: If you’re a zombie fan and are disappointed that your new zombie commander didn’t live up to your expectations, take a look at this card and remind yourself how good you have it. Like Gisa and Geralf and Spider Legend Whose Name I Already Forgot, this feels like the most boring a legendary mythic rare could get. And look at that flavor fail: Why can’t it fight a werewolf? It needs to fight werewolves in case someone ever does contest his alpha status. I know what they were going for here, but it doesn’t give the impression that I think they wanted it to.
T: Being an uncontested alpha must be like winning an election unopposed. This is the only werewolf lord we’re getting, so we better like it. It’s either vote for Ulrich, or let Emrakul build that wall around Stesnia and deport all the vampires. As if Ulrich even cares about what happens to vampires. Being a vampire must suck.
K: Let’s end on a positive note, shall we? Or perhaps a positive dirge? Maybe some Final Fantasy last boss music would be most appropriate for this duo here. If meld cards were worth it, it would be due to this card. I like that it wraps up the three angels storyline, the flavor texts all go together, the stats and abilities add up. It’s perfect. If I had to make a complaint, which technically I do as a member of the Board of Certified Flavor Reviewers, it would be that Gisela and Bruna don’t have much, if anything, to do with their original forms. A minor nitpick that doesn’t take away from the impressive impact of this card at all.
T: What do you get when you cross Bruna with Gisela? The same thing you get any time you play god with genetics: An unholy fusion of limbs and viscera that screams constantly and never should have existed in the first place! If someone told me that there was going to be a hideous Eldrazi-angel hybrid in the sequel to Innistrad block, I might have believed them, but if they told me I was actually going to like it, I would have laughed in their face. Now that I see it, this has got to be one of my favorite cards in the set. From its two heads and four wings, to its anti-angelic epithet, Brisela doesn’t need +1/+0 to be a 10/10. There is, however, a certain 13/13 we need to discuss before we go…
K: I like almost everything about this card. She’s got a good tie to both her Eldrazi origins and her new setting. The 13 mana casting cost, the 13/13 stats, and the delirium-esque cost reduction all give Emrakul some Innistrad flavor. Taking an opponent’s turn is a very cool ability, but needs to be used sparingly. I feel like in this case they hit it out of the park, as it feels like a very good match for the new mind-warping version of the Eldrazi big boss. It even feels like it’s slightly tied to her old identity of messing with time, since it mucks around with turns a little bit. My only gripe, and it’s a fairly major one, is that I am sick of Eldrazi after the entire last block was about them (that they ruined Modern pretty handily for a period of time is icing on the cake). It’s also very annoying that Wizards acted like maybe it wouldn’t be Emrakul, possibly because they sensed the player base’s Eldrazi exhaustion. If I’m able to judge the card in a vacuum it’s a successful and very flavorful interpretation.
T: I agree that I wouldn’t want to see the Eldrazi again for a while, but their execution in Eldritch Moon was so much better than it was in either of the Zendikar blocks. It doesn’t speak well of BFZ that the biggest criticism we both have of Emrakul is the fact that BFZ block existed. Sorry, Zendikar! Thanks for setting ‘em up so Innistrad could knock ‘em down. I’m really impressed with Eldritch Moon, and I can’t wait to see how Kaladesh follows it up! Thanks for reading, folks. If you want to know what cards have the best and worst flavor in the set, make sure to come back for our next article. If you want to know how vampires style their hair without using mirrors, that — dear readers — is an enigma as vexing as life itself.
You can find Two Jesses on Twitter @TwoJesses.