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Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Shadows Over Innistrad Release Post-Mortem

I've written articles like this for every Magic: the Gathering expansion released since this business blog began!  They are some of the most heavily read and linked articles on this blog, so evidently people enjoy these observations.  Good enough for me!  (Enough that I basically copy the template and write in the details afresh each time.)  Here, then, is DSG's experience with the release of Magic: the Gathering: Shadows Over Innistrad!
This expansion returns Magic to what I believe is its best-realized setting: the plane of Innistrad, a gothic horror milieu right out of Lutheran Germany where angels and demons battle over the fate of humans.  But something terrible is happening now, and the harvest moon offers only mysteries: the Archangel Avacyn (pictured above) has gone mad and is butchering her adoring followers as punishment for their lack of perfection.  Tropes new and old return for this go-round, including allusions to Kafka's Metamorphosis, Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus, the Mountains of Madness, the World of Darkness, and many others.  I've been playing Magic since almost the beginning, starting when Revised Edition and The Dark were on store shelves, and as much as I enjoyed the Rath Cycle, Ravnica: the City of Guilds, and the Time Spiral war, none of that hits the spot for me like Innistrad did.

Oath of the Gatewatch sold reasonably at its release in January and turned tepid after that, resurging nicely after the Pro Tour when the top players told all the hopefuls what cards to play.  Unfortunately, that wave of interest evaporated when Oath made possible an Eldrazi deck that ruined the Modern format utterly and resulted in the eventual ban of its linchpin card, Eye of Ugin.  Oath-Oath-Battle Limited was also miserable, so drafts ground to a halt aside from our three- or four-pod norm at Friday Night Magic each week.  Khans-Dragons-Battle Standard settled into sort of a business-as-usual tempo for DSG where attendance was down from Khans-block norms but not out; reports of daily events failing to fire around town became a regular occurrence.  With pack openings down overall, that's about when singles sales found their footing and started pushing serious dollars again for the first time since Dump-o-Rama 2015, when the entire world sold their Magic cards to pay those credit card bills from chasing Zendikar Expeditions.  By late March, we were seeing singles sales higher than any time in the store's history.  Shadows Over Innistrad arrived, and I would kind of liked for it to have waited a while longer!

I called it in my Oath post-mortem article: Wizards of the Coast announced Eternal Masters, a reprint set including cards from Vintage, Legacy, Commander, and Cube formats, for release in June.  Then we have the Shadows Over Innistrad sequel, Eldritch Moon, in July.  Then, a sixth booster release (counting the September expansion we already knew to expect) was announced for the dog days of August: Conspiracy 2: Electric Boogaloo.  After several name changes, we learned its real subtitle, "Take the Crown."  Folks, this is a lot of product.  There is still a From the Vaults ("Lore") due in August, and Commander 2016 in November.  Even if they announce nothing else, how can most players possibly keep up with it all?  More on that later in this article.

Here is a quick bulleted list of what Shadows Over Innistrad gave us:

  • Fun!  Magic became fun again, after being mostly not fun since around Khans of Tarkir.  So it was nice to get back to a game actually being fun.  Someone tell the grinders.
  • The defining card mechanic of Innistrad and Dark Ascension: Double-faced cards that turn over to "transform."  What strikes me about the "DFCs" is that Wizards has still barely scratched the surface of what they can do in the game to merge mechanics and flavor.  
  • Normal production properties.  For the first time since last summer, we have a set with no ultra-mega-OK chase cards to pull once every umpteen boosters.  No Expeditions, no special Innistrad-flavored sacred jewels or anything like that.  And honestly, I'm glad for that.  We needed a break from the game being like a Topps sports card case break.
  • Cards for Standard.  You'd think every new Standard expansion would have these, but Battle for Zendikar and Oath of the Gatewatch had surprisingly few (at the time) because of the ratcheting down of the power level after the wedge-flavored craziness of Siege Rhinos of Tarkir and the rainbow mana bases that the Onslaught fetchlands made possible.  Virtually every push mythic and push rare in Shadows appears tailored for the smaller environment and should result in some authentic deck technology, especially with the fall rotation and ultimate departure of Jace, Vryn's Hundred-Dollar Bill.
  • Enough fat packs, redux.  In fact, after the insanity of the special fat packs for the previous block, players appeared to have been conditioned to seek fat packs right away this time.  I ordered a lot of them and saw them disappear, while my supply of boxes, concededly big from the start, remains ample after release weekend.
  • Meaningful rare lands.  They're an allied color cycle like their precursors in Battle for Zendikar, and that makes the entire environment heavily supported by allied mana with only the Magic Origins painland reprints doing much for enemy colors.  And like the fetchlands they "replace" in the Standard environment, the "Shadowlands" or "Showlands" (Port Town, Choked Estuary, Foreboding Ruins, Game Trail, and Fortified Village) cooperate well with the Battle lands, thanks to the latter's land subtypes.  These were only rares, not mythics, and most players have what they need after a modicum of opening, trading, and drafting, but it's important for cards like this to see print.  They become part of the value base of the set and shore up paucities elsewhere.
  • A delightful limited format!  Granted, this is after only two weekends of sealed deck.  For all I know, the booster drafting is terrible.  (Though I doubt it.)  It takes some practice to understand the Werewolf cadence, both for and against.  There are some intriguing build-around uncommons, and Madness is value-town just as before.  The Dark Ascension/Innistrad limited format was top three of all time (in some order with the Invasion block and original Ravnica block) while the Avacyn Restored limited format was a sewer fire, so it was nice to see the former reprised and not the latter.
  • A werewolf planeswalker that controls her own shapeshift, which is very cool.  We just need that werewolf commander legend now.  And,
  • THE HYPNOTOAD.  ALL GLORY TO THE HYPNOTOAD.

Meanwhile, here is what Shadows Over Innistrad did not deliver:

  • Heavy pre-order activity and heavy booster box sales.  Some of this may be distortion due to my placing a large bet on the set and ordering deeper than I usually have lately.  Patrick and I had gotten pretty reliable at forecasting demand to the point where our initial order more than pays for itself with pre-orders and then we end up running out right as the post-release week gets halfway through, just as replenishments arrive.  This time everything moved as predicted except... booster boxes?  I guess of all the things to be overstocked on, those aren't bad.
  • Marquee reprints from the previous Innistrad block or otherwise.  Nope, practically the entire set is new cards.  In fairness, we've got at least two reprint booster releases on deck in Eternal Masters and Conspiracy 2, so it's entirely possible Wizards is just pacing themselves on this.  Recall the uproar over Thoughtseize not appearing in Modern Masters 2013, and then there it was a few months later in Theros.  I would have expected at least one heavyweight, though.  It didn't have to be Liliana of the Veil or Snapcaster Mage.  We would have relished Cavern of Souls, Griselbrand, or one of the tribal mythics from Dark Ascension.  Something though.
  • Modern- and Legacy-oriented cards.  The set is solidly tailored for Standard and Limited play.  There isn't even much for Commander here, for the first time in many releases.

Attendance for the Pre-release tournament came up second only to the record-breaking numbers we had for Battle for Zendikar, and with the guidance of Wizards' social media outreach team, we were able to require all players to be seated for at least one round, and hit our highest total of actual reported humans at 391.  Our allocation would have allowed us to seat another few dozen people, but instead we had extra Pre-release packs to sell, and they disappeared quickly.

Our ongoing point-of-sale migration is still unfinished, and thus we had no online registration... again.  Stop me if you've heard that one before.

The DSG case breaks went off without incident, loading up a dozen or so playsets and all that comes with them for our singles inventory.  We lucked out on foils for resale purposes and opened two shiny Archangel Avacyns.  The foil I wanted for Commander, The Gitrog Monster, is one of only two or three foil mythics that haven't passed through our hands yet.  I can live with that.

I am very happy with Shadows Over Innistrad on multiple levels.  Hopefully the various formats will be healthy for its tenure in print, and will drive consistent sales of a large set for the first time since Khans of Tarkir and the second time since Return to Ravnica.  As of this writing, the September expansion has not yet been revealed.  Such intrigue!

I'm off to Grand Prix Albuquerque this weekend to test my sealed-deck mettle in this format against players far superior to me.  Wish me luck!  I'm sure I'll write about something else entirely when I get back.

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