Innistrad: Crimson Vow Set Review - Red

(Chandra, Dressed to Kill | Art by Ekatarina Burmak)

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner...

In this Return to Return to Innistrad (Part Two!), someone forgot to tell R&D it was the year of white, because we've got a heck of a collection of new and exciting red cards! It's Innistrad: Crimson Vow, so let's dig into the crimson cards that will turn heads at the EDH tables!


Cemetery Gatekeeper

Right off the bat, we've got an ultra-efficient mythic that has Group Slug players drooling. That may actually be selling Cemetery Gatekeeper a bit short, however. Don't get me wrong, it will be a great inclusion in your average Group Slug build, but given that you can cater its damage trigger to a specific type of card, it's also just going to be a great punisher effect in general. While Zo-Zu the Punisher and Ankh of Mishra currently show up in a very specific type of build, any red deck can now exile a land from the graveyard, if they feel like they're ahead on life totals, to begin pressuring the entire table. If instead you're falling behind against an artifact, enchantment, or Spellslinger deck, that's fine! Just exile an artifact, enchantment, instant, or sorcery! If it so happens that you're the one playing a specific strategy, like artifacts or Spellslinger, then even better! You can just exile the card type you play the least and score some points on the rest of the table while staying squeaky clean yourself.

All in all, Cemetery Gatekeeper would be a slam-dunk just about anywhere... if it weren't for the fact that you need to have a target for it when it comes down to get that triggered ability online. Imprinting a card from a graveyard might seem easy enough, and at most points in a game, it will be, but on turn two, even at the most optimized tables, finding a dead card of the exact type you want is a tall order. Not that playing a two-mana 2/1 with first strike is the worst thing you could do, mind you. Edgar Markov loves a cheap Vampire, for example, and Zo-Zu, the Punisher or Mogis, God of Slaughter might like to hit someone's early Terramorphic Expanse, too. It's just that when all you get is the 2/1 for two mana, that's probably not the ideal effect you were looking for, so you'll have to play this card wisely to get the best from it.

Chandra, Dressed to Kill

Planeswalkers that don't protect themselves are generally considered bad, and with good reason. It's tempting to immediately put Chandra, Dressed to Kill in that pile and not think about it anymore, but I'm not convinced that's the right call. First off, three-mana planeswalkers that can immediately go up to four loyalty can actually be kind of tough to kill if they come down early, which is usually the point you're most worried about them protecting themselves. Unless there's an aggro deck at the table, often all they'll get is one or two points of chip damage, and even that's only when other players see it as a problem. As it turns out, Chandra isn't really a problem. She's mostly an overgrown mana rock with card draw stapled on for mono-red decks. Sure, her ultimate is scary, and that might mean she'll see play in some Superfriends decks that thrive on getting to ultimates at light speed, but I doubt it, given the red restriction.

That restriction is the biggest thing. I wouldn't count on seeing Chandra, Dressed to Kill anywhere but in mono-red decks, and notably mono-red Chandra tribal. She will be fairly decent in that arena, though, so if you're looking for a cheaper Outpost Siege (mana-wise, not money-wise) for your mono-red deck that doesn't rely on having a big creature in play or having lands in hand, then this is a good place to look.

Manaform Hellkite

If you're looking at things from a sheer efficiency perspective, it's hard to imagine doing better than Manaform Hellkite. The obvious usage in EDH is, of course, Spellslinger decks, especially those already utilizing Guttersnipe and looking for another finisher, which Manaform Hellkite will provide in spades. I think it has broader usage beyond that point as well, though. For instance, in artifact decks, this can be another version of Reckless Fireweaver, just one that counts on-cast rather than on ETB. Saheeli, the Gifted, for instance, will help reduce the cost of your next spell a whole lot, so you can make some hurkin' big tokens. For Superfriends, this is a huge payoff for your high-mana planeswalkers, and plenty of planeswalkers out there have very fun abilities to work off of a couple flying, hasty tokens. They don't stick around to block for the 'walkers, but if you're casting a seven-mana Bolas, it's fitting for that act to bring the pain right away. In short, if your deck is focused on anything outside of creatures, then this Dragon is a serious consideration as a finisher.

With that said, you'll have to draw a line somewhere for your builds to see if this flying, combat-based Firebrand Archer-esque mythic rare is worth inclusion, so let's find out where that line is, shall we?

Chances to get Noncreature Spells in a Given Seven-Card Hand, Based on # of Noncreature Spells in Deck

# of Non-Creature Cards in Deck Chance to Have >=1 Chance to Have >=2 Chance to Have >=3 Chance to Have >=4
10 53.3% 14.4% 2.08% 0.16%
20 80.2% 42.6% 14.1% 2.81%
30 92.5% 67.9% 35.0% 11.8%
40 97.6% 85.1% 58.5% 28.4%
50 99.4% 94.4% 78.2% 50.0%
60 99.9% 98.4% 91.2% 71.6%


Now, outside of a self-imposed deckbuilding challenge (which I totally support), you're unlikely to have all of your nonland cards be noncreature spells. That said, 30 or 40 noncreature spells seems entirely within the realm of reason, and we do have some solid percentages there to get you three or more noncreature spells in any given seven cards. Below that, however, you're looking at worse odds than a coin flip to end up with even two Hellkite payoffs, so I would say the absolute cutoff for inclusion of Manaform Hellkite is 30 noncreature spells, especially if your deck is likely to have less than seven cards fairly often.

As always, thanks to Kelvin Liu-Huang's probability calculator; feel free to use it to check my math or make some of your own for your own deck!

Volatile Arsonist

Mythics these days really seem to hit the "you can't afford not to include this" button fairly hard, but I'd resist reacting that way to this here Arsonist. Don't get me wrong, it's easy to imagine paying five, moving immediately to your combat step, and swinging in for five damage to a player while removing a chump blocker and ticking down a planeswalker; I'm just not sure that that's actually that common an occurrence. In the early game, you'll probably be free to swing in on a vulnerable player with a 4/4, and you might deal with either a planeswalker or a utility creature while doing so, especially since you don't have to target the player you're attacking. Thing is, five damage and some small-time removal doesn't seem like it's worth five mana. Just think how that stacks up compared to a Neheb or a Terror of the Peaks?

Volatile Arsonist will be a slam-dunk inclusion in Werewolf tribal or other such Day/Night decks. Outside of that, finding room for this Werewolf and his Wolf pal is iffy at best.


Change of Fortune

Wheels decks rejoice! Change of Fortune may cost four mana rather than the three mana we expect from wheel effects, like Wheel of Fortune or Windfall, but if you've already cast the other two this turn, Change of Fortune could help you draw somewhere between 20-40 cards. Sure, that's some Magical Christmasland thinking, but let's actually examine how wheel- and discard-based decks play out. If your deck is built around wheels, looting, rummaging, the new Blood tokens, Madness, or even Cycling, it's not hard to hit some pretty severe numbers and still have mana left over to cast this card. In fact, let's take a look at all the cards out there with those kind of effects that are available for three mana or less:

Top 10 Wheel, Loot, or Rummage Effects with Mana Value Three or Less

  1. Windfall
  2. Faithless Looting
  3. Frantic Search
  4. Thrill of Possibility
  5. Geier Reach Sanitarium
  6. Wheel of Fortune
  7. Magus of the Wheel
  8. Cathartic Reunion
  9. Wheel of Misfortune
  10. Reforge the Soul (if cast with Miracle)

As expected, we see a lot of wheel effects, but let's not discount the entire class of 'rummage' spells hinted at in that list too, from Thrill of Possibility and Cathartic Reunion to Tormenting Voice, Wild Guess, Thrilling Discovery, and Magmatic Insight.

The point is, if your deck is built around a mechanic that includes both discard and draw, then Change of Fortune will absolutely lead to the kind of explosive turn that wins games. Give it a shot if that's your bag, and if it's not, well, we've got plenty more cards to consider!

Creepy Puppeteer

The haste here helps a lot, but even with the speed, I'm left grasping at straws to find a specific niche for Creepy Puppeteer. While there's definitely some off-the-path playability you could find with cards that are looking to increase their power, like Spikeshot Elder or Dreadhorde Arcanist, going through all that effort doesn't seem like it'll do enough for you in the 99. That's a shame, too, because in the command zone, this could be a really fun ability. Maybe I'll ask Minsc, Beloved Ranger for help with that instead.

Curse of Hospitality

We talked a bit about Chandra, Dressed to Kill as a discount Outpost Siege, though that came with a major caveat. No differently, Curse of Hospitality will also give you cards to play, though with a major caveat: they're only going to come from your opponent's deck. Still, that never stopped hordes of folks from playing Stolen Strategy, which shows up in nearly 7,000 decks, and that one doesn't give your creatures trample!

All jokes aside, Curse of Hospitality probably isn't that good. It's a Curse, so Lynde, Cheerful Tormentor is happy. Plus, 75% decks are a great and popular EDH strategy, and this effect does fit right into that ethos. I'd expect to see this intermittently at some tables, and honestly, you're probably going to have a great time whenever you see it (provided it doesn't target you).

Dominating Vampire

If you play Vampire tribal, give this card a try. I wish I had more interesting analysis than that, but honestly, that's pretty much all there is to it. It'll occasionally have some issues with an empty board, but otherwise, this is going to fit very smoothly into most low-to-the-ground Vampire builds, stealing the biggest problem on the board and swinging in with a horde of bloodsuckers.

Ill-Tempered Loner

My first thought on reading Ill-Tempered Loner was just raw, emotional excitement at the printing of another Stuffy Doll. Then I read further, and Ill-Tempered Loner is so much more than that. First off, the damage on the Ill-Tempered Loner side can be dealt to any target, not just to an opponent, like you see with Stuffy Doll, Mogg Maniac, Brash Taunter, or even the grand-daddy of them all, Repercussion. What's even more impressive, however, is the back half, which expands the Repercussion effect out to each of your permanents, easily creating huge multipliers with mass damage effects like Blasphemous Act or Pyrohemia. For a quick example, with four creatures on your board and a Blasphemous Act, you can deal a combined 52 damage to a player (or anything else you want).

For the decks already playing these Repercussion-style effects, this thing is a complete game-changer... or at least it would be, if you could keep it on its Night side. It's easy enough to flip it initially; you can do so by just not doing anything on your turn. For it to stay Night all the way until you can cast a sorcery like Blasphemous Act, however, you need three consecutive players to not cast two or more spells, or for the player right before your turn to do absolutely nothing on their turn. I doubt you'll make it through even one turn of zero opponent activity in the average Commander game.

This is exactly why I brought up Pyrohemia. With a Pyrohemia or a Pestilence on the board, you can easily pass your turn with all of your mana up, watch Ill-Tempered Loner flip, and then start pinging everything as soon as priority is passed to you. The only real problem there is that the damage is done one point at a time, so your damage-prone permanents will drop off before you can rack up some truly ridiculous numbers. Thus, this brings me to the list of instant-speed damage-based board wipes that are the true secret tech with Howlpack Avenger:

Top 10 Red Instant-Speed Damage-Based Board Wipes

  1. Starstorm
  2. Magmaquake
  3. Pyrohemia
  4. Volcanic Fallout
  5. Flame Sweep
  6. Skirk Fire Marshal
  7. Lavabrink Floodgates
  8. Fault Line
  9. Jaya Ballard, Task Mage
  10. Bloodfire Dwarf

Not mentioned: the classic grand-daddy of them all, Inferno. After all, why kill an entire table with a bad Earthquake when you can do it with a nostalgia bomb instead?

Olivia's Attendants

The initial cost on Olivia's Attendants is prohibitively high, but you do get a lot for the price of admission. A 6/6 with menace is threatening enough, but it also coming with a means to ping blockers off the board and create six or more artifacts a turn, which could be downright game-ending in an artifact deck. Combine Olivia's Attendants with any sort of artifact enter/leaves the battlefield ability (Reckless Fireweaver, Marionette Master, Ghirapur Aether Grid, Leonin Elder, etc.) and the table is going to be absolutely scrambling for removal. Toggo, Goblin Weaponsmith, I hope you're paying attention to this Vampire! We all know you like artifact tokens!

Stensia Uprising

Token creation in red can be a bit hard to come by (Goblins notwithstanding), so Stensia Uprising should find quite a few decks interested in making a steady stream of 1/1s in a cheap and resilient package. Jirina Kudro and Silvar, Devourer of the Free, specifically, should absolutely be paying attention in class right now. While this will never keep up with an active Krenko, it's bound to stick around for a lot longer, and also get you a token the turn you play it. In short, there are sexier options when it comes to token-makers in red, but none that are as consistent and dependable, outside of perhaps the self-sacrificial Goblin Assault.

Uncommons & Commons

Vampire's Vengeance

Instant-speed removal is always welcome, and Vampire's Vengeance throws in a Blood token to boot. Fiery Cannonade shows up in 2,600 Pirate decks, so there's some demand for one-sided tribal Pyroclasms out there. It'd be nice to deal more damage, but it's good anti-token and anti-utility-creature tech for Vampire tribal decks, and, well, we're about to see a whole more more of those, so feel free to play this one, if you can find room!

Ancestral Anger

I almost dismissed Ancestral Anger out of hand, but you actually don't need multiple copies of this card for a single copy to be playable. All you need is a Feather or Zada in the command zone. +1/+0, trample, and a cantrip is a lot of effects in a little package. Feather already plays tons of other sorcery-speed cantrips to get repeatable card advantage, and it sounds pretty great to copy it onto 30 creatures in Zada. So yeah, just ignore those other words, and have fun!

End the Festivities

Similarly, End the Festivities at first glance would seem to have close to zero playability in Commander, but there's a reason Simoon saw play in competitive formats back in the day, and this is quite the one-sided boon against highly tuned or competitive decks. One mana to take out every mana dork, sac outlet, payoff, Hatebear, and token on the board is a great deal, not to mention the slight pressure on both your opponents' and their planeswalkers' life totals. If you're into high-powered Magic, give this thing a try. You won't be disappointed.

Kessig Flamebreather

As if Manaform Hellkite above wasn't enough, here's Kessig Flamebreather also trying to steal Firebrand Archer's thunder! There's nothing too complicated here: if you're playing Firebrand Archer effects, you now have another one that will survive a little bit better. Win/win!

Reckless Impulse

If you're looking for the staple common of the set, it's Reckless Impulse. I won't go so far as to say that it will see play in every red deck, nor should it, but if you're looking to dig down, this thing is absolutely in the conversation. While some of the 19,000 decks playing Tormenting Voice will want to keep their discard synergies, the vast majority of them are just looking to cheaply dig through as many cards as possible, and this does an even better job. Light up the Stage appears in 8,500 decks, and while Spectacle has its merits, this one is always consistent.

As for the 15,000 decks playing Outpost Siege, those that never use the damage ability will be happy to know that they now have their own red version of the Sign in Blood versus Phyrexian Arena conversation to muddle through. Heck, even the Izzet decks currently featuring Winged Words or Chart a Course now have a real decision on their hands! Expect to see this card soon, or even better, rip it straight out of your Prerelease pack and throw it in a red deck of your own!

Voldaren Epicure

Eat your heart out, Edgar.

In Conclusion....

Vampires, Werewolves, and efficient value is a heck of a combination. There is no doubt that we're continuing to raise the bar for red in EDH, and Crimson Vow is a significant step in that direction. From commons to mythics, there are all sorts of new playables for niche strategies and goodstuff decks alike, and even better, none of them seem to cross the line into strict upgrades and power sprint creep! A hearty thank-you to all the designers who worked hard on it, because seeing a full set like this and not having severe concerns about the future of Magic as a result of its contents has become something of a rarity in the last two years. Crimson Vow is a refreshing change of pace. Bravo!

Doug has been an avid Magic player since Fallen Empires, when his older brother traded him some epic blue Homarids for all of his Islands. As for Commander, he's been playing since 2010, when he started off by making a two-player oriented G/R Land Destruction deck. Nailed it. In his spare time when he's not playing Magic, writing about Magic or doing his day job, he runs a YouTube channel or two, keeps up a College Football Computer Poll, and is attempting to gif every scene of the Star Wars prequels.