Innistrad: Crimson Vow Set Review - Black
(Henrika, Infernal Seer | Art by Billy Christian)
Darkness Falls Once Again on Innistrad
Welcome everyone to another review of Innistrad: Crimson Vow! Today I'll be covering the new offerings for the color of the Soul of Innistrad: black! Vampires take center stage in this set, and you'll get to see what new terrors have befallen our favorite gothic horror plane. Zombies, Demons, Vampires, and the best Scorpion ever printed... all of this and more are yet to come, so let's jump right in!
I'm already a fan of Noxious Gearhulk, and Cemetery Desecrator gives it a run for its money. Among the "Cemetery" cycle, I rank this new Zombie near the top. While there are limitations and prerequisites to get the most from its enters-the-battlefield effect, having substantial spells in the graveyard is a part of a game's progression. Removing counters from any permanent allows this to snipe pesky permanents that normal planeswalker-style removal can't hit. Not only that, but -X/-X effects are even great for ousting indestructible targets, or occasionally finishing off a creature that already has damage marked on it from combat this turn.
While we can assume spells will be hitting the graveyard, commanders like Phenax, God of Deception or Anowon, the Ruin Thief can push the issue by milling opponents. Like many Zombies you'll see in this review, Gisa and Geralf's recursion continues to pay dividends. Araumi of the Dead Tide not only lets us create multiple copies of the Desecrator, but since the Encore ability sacrifices the tokens, we'll get to benefit from both its ETB and death triggers! I'm not sure if I would run this in Teysa Karlov, but it's certainly worth a look, especially since Teysa already runs other on-death removal.
Henrika Domnathi // Henrika, Infernal Seer
A legendary Vampire Nighthawk is a surprise, but for how popular Nighthawk card is, it's a welcome one. At a glance, Henrika Domnathi reminds me of Rankle, Master of Pranks. They both give you utility options on a four-mana flyer, but Rankle has the edge if we're looking for continuous value. Most of Henrika's value comes from her inevitable back half, which will pump up a team of well-keyworded creatures. I expect Zagras, Thief of Heartbeats is delighted by the pump, Hapatra, Vizier of Poisons is excited to get buffer Snakes, and Alela, Artful Provocateur might like the extra help pumping up her Faeries, too! Orzhov commanders are especially keen here; Elenda, the Dusk Rose likes the sacrifice on the front half, and the extra help on the back half. Felisa, Fang of Silverquill likes putting counters onto the lifelink side of Henrika, and the pump is great for Inklings, too!
Sorin, the Mirthless
Sorin's new look is the age-old template that planeswalkers were asked to fit: card advantage, protection, and a game-ending ultimate. While those three hold true for constructed formats, the ultimate is less than game-winning in Commander. Sorin's first ability is effectively an upgraded version of the famous Dark Confidant's ability. However, Sorin graciously makes sure that we can never actually kill ourselves in the pursuit of power. Creating a 2/3 Vampire token with his -2 ability isn't that impressive as a blocker, even with the utility of flying and lifelink. While Sorin's ultimate is thematic for the plane of Innistrad, spending four turns to deal 13 is not as impactful as I would hope.
It turns out Sorin's biggest advantage is exactly what I just critiqued: none of his abilities are threatening on their own. I enjoy running innocuous planeswalkers that can sit on the board and accrue value. Sometimes they'll be attacked to chip away their loyalty if they're getting too close to their ultimate, but I've found that these types of 'walkers don't have a target painted on them from the get-go.
While drawing cards is always good, some commanders, like Aminatou, the Fateshifter, or the other members of the Commander 2017 Esper precon care about the top of your deck. While this doesn't manipulate many cards, it does let us reset the top of our deck if it's not what we want. In a similar vein, Vilis, Broker of Blood cares not about the price to pay for cards. Among the newer legends, I think Anje, Maid of Dishonor might like this solely because our new wallflower helps fuel her sacrifice ability, and Anje offsets the life loss from Sorin's draw.
For many creatures, being big isn't enough to make the cut in the 99. There are some exceptions, such as Managorger Hydra, and to be clear, Bloodvial Purveyor is very close to passing that test. A 5/6 creature with flying and trample is not what you often see at four mana. Usually these creatures are left with horrible downsides, but that isn't quite the case here. The downside for bringing this massive Vampire to the fray is that each opponent will receive a steady stream of Blood tokens. This gives our opponents options for card selection, and I usually am adverse to giving any form of value to my opponents.
However, there are quite a few commanders and cards that make this downside work for us, rather than for our opponents. Geth's Grimoire and Waste Not make those Blood tokens work in our favor, and with the increasing presence of Treasure tokens, Disciple of the Vault has found a growing presence in the format. Even the venerable Hellkite Tyrant has a taste for Blood, it seems. With these options and colors, we can find quite a few commanders that would have the same tastes as this Vampire. Nath of the Gilt-Leaf turns Blood into bodies, Tinybones, Trinket Thief is a miniature Geth's Grimoire, and Nekusar, the Mindrazer will make your opponents very scared to go anywhere near those Blood tokens anytime soon.
Frankly, that's just the synergy we get from giving Blood tokens to our opponents. We haven't even gotten to the fact that Purveyor will start swinging for the fences if it survives for a few turns. It's not every deck that'll want this thing, but if your deck already has enemies scared to cycle through cards, this can add more punch to your 99.
(Of note, Purveyor's attack trigger is going to receive Day 0 errata before release to include "until end turn" on the attack ability; this is not another Riding the Dilu Horse situation.)
Concealing Curtains // Revealing Eye
To be brief, I don't think Concealing Curtains has much of a shot at seeing play in Commander. It seems geared towards Constructed formats. I could see some arguments for Doran, the Siege Tower, as it's a one-mana creature with 4 toughness, or even for some of the discard commanders mentioned above. Unfortunately for this Wizard of Oz cosplayer, it has too many hurdles to overcome. Targeted discard is woefully inefficient in a multiplayer format, and the sorcery speed of this effect limits its utility compared to something like Vendilion Clique, which has flash. Speaking of the Clique, it only appears in about 2,500 decks, and that one has combat capabilities and a relevant creature type for tribal decks. We'll pay no attention to the man behind this curtain.
When Wizards of the Coast initially previewed Demonic Bargain, Mark Rosewater explained that it was created as an homage to Demonic Consultation. While the lineage of the design is a fun tidbit, that's where the comparison stops. In Commander, their designs are different enough to divorce them from one another. Being a sorcery and three mana puts it many steps behind a card that has defined cEDH for quite a long time. How does it fare on its own? Well, tutors help you find any card you want; in a way, they act as a second copy of any card in your deck. That versatility is lessened by removing over a tenth of your deck from the game before you even get to go looking. Most decks are built with redundancy in mind, but if you need that one card to win, this runs the risk of removing it.
My first instinct was to find a way to weaponize that exile against our opponents. Eye of the Storm and the new Umbris, Fear Manifest could engineer a situation to force your opponents to continuously exile their decks if they want to play instants and sorceries. There are risks there, obviously, since it would involve giving away tutors, but giving Umbris +13/+13 on every instant and sorcery cast is amusing. This is still a three-mana tutor, so a deck that runs redundant combo pieces would maybe enjoy it, but it doesn't feel like we need to play this when we have such a lavish suite of tutors in the format already. Then again, maybe you're like me, and you enjoy semi-conditional tutors with a little risk instead of just playing the powerful classics like Demonic Tutor.
Remember when Demons had downsides? Overused jokes aside, this reads quite powerful. Each turn our Demon army is only going to continue growing stronger as long as we have fuel. Yes, it cuts us off from having other creatures in play (eventually), but that's worth creating a steadily growing army of 6/6 flyers. There are plenty of decks that will look at the sacrifice trigger as an upside as well.
The hurdle this Demon faces is the same hurdle that many seven-mana cards face: how does this immediately impact the board? I doubt anyone will argue that this has stiff competition at this mana cost, but someone out there is definitely going to have fun with this thing. Since Dreadfeast Demon's trigger only looks at non-Demons, I think that it's safe to say that Shadowborn Apostle or other Demon-focused decks are an obvious home. Rakdos, the Showstopper loves Demon tribal, and Dreadfast will eat up the occasional Devil to make more copies of itself. Athreos, God of Passage or the new Liesa, Forgotten Archangel nicely recur those Apostles to continue the sacrifices.
While those are the obvious picks, I'm going to advocate for using this card inChatterfang, Squirrel General. Worry not about feeding your ever-growing army of Demons: each new token copy of Dreadfeast Demon comes with their own personal Squirrel snack!
Dying to Serve
While many players have lamented the growing use of 'once per turn' triggers, Dying to Serve is one of the more compelling versions of that effect. Discard decks often have ways to discard on command. For example, with someone like Chainer, Nightmare Adept in the command zone, we have the potential to create a Zombie every turn. However, we're still limited by the number of cards we have in hand. While this doesn't enable huge bursts of value, you don't need to overextend with this card. You can play slow and steady and accrue an army over time. At three mana, this is also cheap enough to be played early in set-up, or later when you have a board presence. In both cases, it offers a steady stream of bodies. Zombies decks have a number of ways to discard cards, such as Necromancer's Stockpile, and some commanders like Varina, Lich Queen can do it themselves, and there are plenty of other discard payoffs in Zombie decks too, like Bone Miser, so pick your favorite tribal commander and have fun!
My top pick for this enchantment is actually going to be Extus, Oriq Overlord. Extus often plays cards that involve discard as an additional cost, which makes great use of the Magecraft trigger. By playing discard enablers and constantly returning creatures to hand, Extus solves the potential problem of running out of cards to use as fuel, so Dying to Serve can serve on into perpetuity.
Recursive sacrifice fodder like Reassembling Skeleton and and Nether Traitor are some of my favorite cards in the game. Falkenrath Forebear needs a Blood sacrifice to return, but we've seen a few legends, like Anje, Maid of Dishonor and Strefan, Maurer Progenitor, that lean into the new tokens. Because Forebear generates Blood tokens so slowly on its own, most other decks will pass on this. This card really needs Blood token support to shine. However, this card is perfect for our new Anje. Combine it with Voldaren Bloodcaster and we can recur it every turn to chip away at life totals.
Given how complex so many cards have gotten in recent years, it's nice to have something simple: a two-mana kill spell for planeswalkers. That's the gist. It'll play nicely in sacrifice decks as an emergency sacrifice outlet, but otherwise there's not too much to say about this. If we had a black version of Darien, King of Kjeldor, then we'd be talking, but we'll have to settle for the top two legends who have black and are playing Darien: Thalisse, Reverent Medium or the Partner pair Krav, the Unredeemed and Regna, the Redeemer.
Did Zombies need another way to more tokens? No, but yes! Zombies are one of my favorite tribes in the game, and the continued expansion allows multiple archetypes to be explored within the tribe. While those archetypes usually revolve around sacrificing or making more Zombies, it's always nice to receive additional options. Xathrid Necromancer is a pet card of mine, and having a new version that doesn't blur tribal lines is lovely. Play this with Wilhelt, the Rotcleaver to create an ever-expanding horde, Gisa and Geralf to get a steady stream of sacrifice options, or maybe you just want to loop Gravecrawler with Grimgrin, Corpse-born so you always have fodder around.
I've been more neutral on Blood tokens than most critics, but that changed when I read a comment that likened their ability to 'Cycling: 1'. That changed my perspective quite a bit, and makes evaluating these cards a bit different. While I lamented the lack of synergy Falkenrath Forebear had with itself, that's not the case with Voldaren Bloodcaster. Creating a Blood token every time a nontoken creature dies is fantastic. It also isn't limited to once per turn!
Blood works well with discard strategies, but if we generate them en masse, I would argue that Bloodcaster is most at home in an artifact deck. This is mostly because I'm looking for ways to keep this card from flipping; turning Blood into 2/2 Bats each turn doesn't excite me the same way an artifact-focused Vampire would. Krark-Clan Ironworks adores this card, as any nontoken artifact creature we sacrifice would effectively generate four colorless mana. I don't really have to mention that this is another cog for the Scrap Trawler combo either. Bloodcaster looks absolutely perfect for Eloise, Nephalia Sleuth, who can lean into artifacts already with her Clues, and both she and the Bloodcaster gain many benefits when creatures die.
Uncommons & Commons
- Archghoul of Thraben allows us to pseudo-Explore for Zombies. This is an incredible amount of mill support, and it even will trigger off of tokens! Wilhelt, the Rotcleaver in particular will churn through his deck quickly with this.
- Blood Fountain is not too impressive, but I could see myself playing it in the aforementioned artifact-centric Eloise, Nephalia Sleuth. At worst, this is two artifacts for one mana, which Breya, Etherium Shaper might be fond of.
- Catapult Fodder is a three-mana 5/5 if you're playing him with Doran the Siege Tower. Players have seen how powerful Brion Stoutarm or Jarad, Golgari Lich Lord can be, and this now lets us be caber tossers.
- Persistent Specimen swaps the numbers around a bit, but at the end of the day it's yet another Reassembling Skeleton variant, and I'm here for it. It'll lose out to the original if you have to pick one, but I enjoy redundancy.
- Pointed Discussion is the next iteration of black's "three mana: draw two". We still lose two life as expected, but our upside this time around is a Blood token. If you need artifact and/or discard synergy, give this a look.
- Restless Bloodseeker generates Blood consistently, but slowly. I'm not sure where this has a home, but Vampires have plenty of sources of lifelink to enable this. Maybe the new Henrika Domnathi could use this in "expensive mana sink tribal."
- Undead Butler is no Stitcher's Supplier, but I will never say no to more utility support for mill. Doubling as both a sacrificial body and a Raise Dead effect for two mana is more than enough for me to consider this.
- Vampire's Kiss is not a card I would normally talk about. Shock and other burn equivalents are not good in Commander, the damage effect is just gravy on this thing, rather than the core of its appeal. You're playing this for the ability to create two artifact tokens. If you don't have synergy for that, it's an easy skip, but two artifact tokens will matter for decks that use cards like Marionette Master.
We'll end with this uncommon, which deserves its own space and a closer look, because... well... black Mulldrifter? Black Mulldrifter! When the community response to a new card is to compare it to another card that appears in an impressive 10% of available decks, you take notice.
There are key differences between this and the flying fish, but the parallels are easy to draw. They both present the option to pay three mana, sacrifice themselves, and draw two cards. There are a few wrinkles once we get past that comparison, though. Keeping the Scorpion on board requires us to sacrifice another creature, as opposed to paying more mana. Also, if that's the option we choose, then we've also traded flying for deathtouch.
Realistically, I expect this card to be a staple for a long time. Its popularity might be a tempered by black's other draw options, but this will be a serious consideration for many decks. Unlike the venerable Mulldrifter, which finds itself primarily in blink strategies, Fell Stinger could find itself in a variety of fun archetypes. Karador, Ghost Chieftain or Meren of Clan Nel Toth can recur this every turn if needed, or even use it to sacrifice another creature they want to replay. Fell Stinger could join Mulldrifter in the similarly recursive Muldrotha, the Gravetide. Aminatou, the Fateshifter doesn't mind a deathtouch blocker to protect herself, especially if she can blink it to draw more cards later. If you're playing Read the Bones in your Aristocrats deck, you might want to switch it over to the Stinger, to help proc more Blood Artist triggers while you draw cards! Heck, if you're playing 'keyword tribal' decks, such as one Dana Roach's infamous deathtouch tribal list with Glissa, the Traitor, you've got another flexible option here, too. This Scorpion is even a Zombie, so it's not just 'keyword tribal' decks, but actual tribe tribal decks that take interest, too! I know I'm going to find a spot for this in Sefris of the Hidden Ways to venture further into the dungeon, and I think that's just the beginning for this little guy.
And the Sun Begins to Rise on the Darkened Sky
That's it for the set review! While Innistrad sets tends to quite focused on its tribes, Crimson Vow eschews that patten ever so slightly among its black cards. We get a mix of new role-players, almost an entirely new archetype with Blood tokens, and we revisit some old favorites! It's always exciting to come back to Magic's Gothic home, and I will eagerly looking forward to our next visit.
So what are my personal picks from the set?
- Fell Stinger: How can you not love this much utility? It may be a bit boring, but it's going to grease the wheels in many decks.
- Archghoul of Thraben: I could have picked Headless Rider for this slot, but Zombie-Explore is too unique to turn down, and I'm excited to revisit the swarm.
- Henrika Domnathi: There's just something fun about a legendary Vampire Nighthawk. I don't know how I would build her, but there's a simple joy to her design that I can't shake.
What are your favorite black cards in this set? Which cards do you think I'm overvaluing or undervaluing? Let me know in the comments!