This entry is part 13 of 41 in the series In General

Grandpa (Eric)

By Eric, AKA Grandpa Growth


I’ve been really impressed with Shadows Over Innistrad so far. I’m just getting into Lovecraftian horror, I’m a newfound Sherlock fan, we have a flavorful plane to revisit that explores new design space in some of my favorite old mechanics, and–best of all–the set is completely juiced, particularly at the higher rarities. I don’t do set reviews anymore, so I don’t get too many opportunities to talk about new tech in my articles, but I want to take a week off from my normal strategy philosophizing to put the spotlight on some new cards from SOI that I think will have an impact on my Commander play.



Let me confirm your suspicions: I like counterspells. The evidence isn’t exactly hidden. Five mana is a very steep price for an answer, though, so I expect a massive amount of extra value. Recently, I’ve been employing Mystic Confluence in many of my test decks and it’s greatly overperformed my expectations. Countering a spell and drawing two cards is absolutely insane. It’s tough to lose a game where you ambush them with a Confluence. Confirm Suspicions isn’t exactly identical, but it has some interesting comparison points.


First, you get a hard counter. I often say that soft counters are just as good as hard counters in Commander, but in this case we don’t even have to toe that line; it just says “no.” Secondly, it always draws cards, and it even draws more cards…you just have to pay extra for them. Countering an opposing spell and getting rewarded with a two-for-one has always been a powerful play in Magic, but it’s never been firmly established how much value you can place on future cards. They aren’t much help if you need additional answers now, but you can break the clues at your leisure as you need them, which shouldn’t be so bad for a deck that already wants to keep its mana open to interact on the opponent’s turn. There’s a good possibility that you’ll cast this, sac a clue on their end step, then untap and sac another one next turn. That’s already just as good as Confluence and you still have another clue to cash-in in the future. Confirm Suspicions is completely missing the ability to bounce creatures, and this is a big problem, but I know from my own experience that bounce is the mode I choose least often on Confluence. The distribution is about 95% counter-draw-draw, 2% counter-draw-bounce, and 3% for all other combinations.



Fact or Fiction is one of the best raw card advantage spells ever printed and it continues to dominate games of Commander to this day, more than a decade after its first printing. There have been many attempts to imitate it–none successful–but alas we shall try, try again. Epiphany has more cost flexibility, which is often a significant plus when it comes to Commander, because we can produce quite a bit of mana in this format and thus scale our cards up to impressive heights.


Unfortunately, this card is worse than FoF at every price point. For one mana, you get nothing. Two  mana gives you the worst of the two cards on top of your library, which is almost certainly worse than just drawing a random card. At three, the situation begins to deteriorate substantially: you’re generally going to get one card, or a bad card and a land. Which, again, is generally worse than just drawing two, but Divination is a sorcery, this is an instant. That’s a point worth noting. At four, you get the worst two-card pile, which wouldn’t even cut it in booster draft, much less Commander. This general pattern holds true all the way up to infinity: at odd mana costs you can get some value, but at even costs you are generally getting ripped off. Things only get worse the more mana you spend because you could just be playing a Mind Spring type card that would generate enough quantity to override any potential small gains in quality.


So, if I don’t think the card is any good, why waste time talking about it? First, FoF is a good friend of mine and if he wants me to look at his cousin’s resume, I’m going to do it. Second, I’m doing a little set up here for a card I’ll talk about later. Epiphany and Sin Prodder both feature the “punisher” mechanic, so-named because it was supposed to put opponent’s in a “damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t” scenario. No-win situations are supposed to be the default for Magic cards. You play cards that are going to help you win and do nothing to help your opponent. Even one “out” for an opponent is one too many, because they’ll always pick the choice that offers them the best outcome, rendering the card less useful.


This adds some difficulty to designing “opponent’s-choice” cards, because opponents tend to be so self-interested (can you blame them, though?). If the choices aren’t perfectly balanced to be equal, commensurate to their costs, and universally bad for the opponent, the entire card won’t work. The separate options also need to be sufficiently different to justify giving them a choice at all. More competitive players will appreciate a powerful card that puts the opponent in a no-win situation, but the lack of diverse choices will limit the appeal it has to a more casual set of players. There have been dozens of horrible punisher cards, but only a few good ones because of this specific obstacle.


Browbeat offered essentially no choice. You can give the burn deck great value with a five-point burn spell, or you can give them three cards, which is likely going to mean seven damage or more on the next turn. If you were dead to one, you’re certainly dead to the other. Fact or Fiction doesn’t always flip up your best cards, but the opponent has to make the hard choices. There are so many places to go wrong when you split the cards into piles, because you don’t know what the Blue player already has in hand. Steam Augury failed because of a tiny change in the text which re-assigned the responsibility for the tough choices to the casting player. When you split the cards it’s much tougher to conceal your intentions. You can’t put all the good things together, because you’ll just get nothing. So you must intentionally deprive yourself of some good stuff in order to coax your opponent into giving you what you want. It’s like the card is punishing you instead of the opponent. Epiphany is permanently stuck with this problem, on top of the distinct lack of value underlying its flexible cost.



Behold Gentleman! It’s….A Tutor! I liken this to Tooth and Nail, which is a pretty good sign already. For seven mana, you essentially guarantee yourself a win in the future. For more mana, you can initiate that combo early. Tooth gave you a huge discount on dumping your tutor targets into play by charging just two mana to Entwine; Behold stands to charge you significantly more. You actually need to cast those cards individually and ditch your hand for the privilege. This isn’t likely going to matter because you’ll have spent most of your hand before you deploy this. Whatever is left is expendable, given the fact that you can tutor out a combo and simply win the game. You don’t get extra points for winning with a full hand.


This third card truly is significant, because it represents an advancement for an entire class of infinite combos in eternal formats. Three-card combos are tougher to assemble than two-card combos, and are thus worse. There already happened to be some great enablers for two-card combos (like Tooth) that pushed them even further. For many years, there just wasn’t a satisfactory card that single-handedly assembled three-card combos. Increasing Devotion gave you a shot in the original Innistrad block, but you had to invest a total of thirteen mana (themes, guys) and you actually had to resolve it twice. Diabolic Revelation represented a significant discount on that benchmark and remains in top Commander decks to this day. Behold is a little slimmer on mana, but has a higher total cost including the drawbacks and lack of flexibility. It’ll be interesting to see how this affects the overall position of three card combos as we approach a critical mass of capable one-shot-win sorceries. A future could exist where a larger breadth of combos become consistent win conditions and we, as players, will need to present answers to more demanding challenges.



Okay, guys time to talk Punisher Mechanics. If this is the new Browbeat, I’m okay with that. It doesn’t do any damage if they answer it, which was also true of its predecessor. You get to do damage three at time, though, which can surpass five points pretty quickly; especially when they aren’t likely to be blocking. Menace is still a silly name, but it’s one heck of an evasion mechanic.


Now let’s look at that card drawing mechanic. It’s a fully punished version of Dark Confidant. You keep the cards or they pay the life. This seems pretty sweet, but it’s also quietly the best Red card draw engine… maybe ever? They don’t want to pay because you’re pressuring their life total through combat, but they’re also unlikely to win the game if they allow you to draw a ton of extra cards.


Obviously, this is of speculative value if all your cards are cheap. Doing one damage on average isn’t very exciting, but doing two is pretty hot. Of course, it’s the worst when you flip a land. You get nothing and they don’t have to pay any life, but you’re still probably happy to get a land off the top of your library in a burn deck. In Commander, though, you could push your average converted mana cost to three or even more in some decks, which is quite a punishment for your opponents indeed.


I don’t know if this is going to take over competitive Magic, but it does offer a significant amount of value. Imagine if you took this card and separated it into two. You take the Madcap Skills away and what are you left with? With no power it can’t really attack, but you have a permanent that sits on the board dealing some damage and drawing a few cards over the course of the game. That’s well worth paying one mana. I hope that Wizards R&D adopts this model for Red card advantage going forward. Just imagine how sick this text box would be on an enchantment or artifact.



Seasons Past makes for another favorable comparison to a Confluence, this time the Verdant one. Returning three cards is my primary mode for that card and it only works on permanents. You’re almost assuredly going to get three cards from Seasons Past and they don’t even make restrictions on what card types those need to be. If you’re me, you’re absolutely getting a fetchland or Strip Mine for free. It’s going to be a rare day when you return less than three cards with this and they’re all going to be choice picks that you really would like to reuse. In that frame, this card reminds me more of All Suns Dawn. Except, where that card was essentially restricted to play in five color decks, this can easily slide into any build and probably generate more cards to boot.



The final card. The one card from Shadows Over Innistrad for which I’m most excited is… an Aether Vial for instants and sorceries. I have been waiting for this card for a long time. Yes, I have to put up with the fact that the price has doubled and that you have to pay to activate it, but still. This is an extremely powerful effect that lets you dramatically increase your effective mana production. Brain in a Jar also solves the problem that Aether Vial had where you would have it stuck on a higher value than you wanted. You can basically tick it down to find more spells and set up a free spell from your hand on your next turn. This pleases me.


What cards are you most excited for from SoI? What decks do you think will take advantage of the new technology? Share your answers in the comments below, follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and be sure to support on Patreon.



“In General” is the place where I share my ideas on unconventional topics that are often only tangentially related to Magic. This column is a mixed bag where I collect and present ideas that don’t have a home anywhere else. If you want a column about strategy, psychology, design, economics, philosophy, internet culture, and referential humor, you have come to the right place.


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