Innistrad: Crimson Vow showcases some of the very best - and very worst - of Magic: The Gathering
A marriage made in Hell.
It's time for a wedding. You know, those things that are meant to be huge celebrations? Well, this one's a little different because it's between two vampires, one of whom has been brought back from the dead by his wife-to-be. This all makes sense in Magic: The Gathering because we are back once again to the plane of horror thanks to Innistrad: Crimson Vow.
Crimson Vow is kind of an oddity as a MTG set because it comes a mere two months after the last Standard set, Innistrad: Midnight Hunt. Normally, we get one set every three months and they've also largely been set on different planes since the end of blocks in 2018. Yet, here we are three years later visiting Innistrad twice in two months. That's not even counting the Innistrad: Double Feature set that's releasing in January, which smushes parts of the two sets together in a funky new package.
The latest set itself is something of a mixed bag, with one of the most glaring issues being a seeming return to printing Commander cards in Standard sets. Up until this point, the new way of doing Commander decks has been a blessing for the game as a whole - more decks mean more cards - but it also means we've seen fewer cards that feel pushed for Commander in less relevant releases.
There is a veritable smorgasbord of cards in the set that feel out of place.
In Crimson Vow, this no longer feels as though it's the case. There is a veritable smorgasbord of cards in the set that feel out of place - not thematically, but in terms of what they're designed for. Take Toxrill, the Corrosive. This is a seven-mana Black 7/7 slug that helps you wipe out enemies by putting a slime counter on each creature you don't control at the end of your end step, and then giving those creatures -1/-1 for each of those counters on them. It also creates slugs as these creatures die, and has an ability that costs one Blue and one Black mana to activate. All of this screams "Slug tribal in EDH", which isn't what the Standard sets should be going for.
It's not just that card, either. Cultivator Colossus seems built specifically for landfall decks in Commander, and Runo Stromkirk does too. Even the likes of Kaya, Geist Hunter, a three-mana planeswalker, seem like they’re not built right for most formats but will undoubtedly shine in multiplayer. It's not bad to have these cards, but they shouldn't be taking up key slots in Standard-legal sets, especially when we now get new Commander decks with each release.
With my main complaint out of the way, let's move into the set itself. Specifically, the mechanics. From Innistrad: Midnight Hunt, we're seeing the return of Daybound and Nightbound - the werewolf mechanic - and Disturb for the spirits. The only real difference here is that Disturb now has a lot more spirits becoming enchantments. This is a fairly big change from the version of disturb seen in Midnight Hunt that had living things becoming spirits once disturbed. I wasn't sure about Disturb last time around, but this set has sold me on the idea. There’s something far more enticing about spirits becoming enchantments that feels more on theme for the tribe as a whole than when they all start off as other creature types first.
The other returning mechanic is Exploit, which offers you the option of sacrificing a creature for extra effects. It fits with what you want to be doing a lot of time when you benefit from creatures dying or can bring them back thanks to disturb, so it's a good fit.
Along with those three, there are three brand-new mechanics, though each feels a little bit familiar.
First up we have Training. This has creatures gaining +1/+1 counters when they attack alongside a creature that's stronger than them. This is an incredibly cool mechanic and, as it's effectively the opposite of mentor, should be solid - if underutilised. It'll also keep weaker creatures relevant for longer, which is interesting.
Discarding and sacrificing blood tokens is on theme for vampires, but other than that the mechanic feels a bit off.
Then there's Cleave, which is a weird take on modal spells, where you can spend extra mana to remove words from a card to allow for a slightly different effect. It's a great idea, but the idea of having to edit a card in real-time is going to put some people off.
Finally, there's Blood. This is a new mechanic that creates blood tokens, which are artifacts for some reason, that you can pay one mana and tap to discard a card, sacrifice the blood token and draw a card. The act of both discarding and sacrificing is on theme for vampires, who are the ones making use of this new type of token, but other than that they feel a bit off. Why is blood an artifact? Why would it make you draw a card? It's not quite right. It feels as though they're only there to be used by other cards, instead of on their own merit, which is very odd when you compare them to clues or treasure tokens.
Outside of mechanics are the cards themselves. There are a lot of excellent choices in this set that are going to spice up a variety of different decks and archetypes, along with a bunch of cards that are just going to be a good time. We've gone into that with our list of the best cards in Innistrad: Crimson Vow, but there were plenty of other choices that nearly made the cut.
From just a more casual standpoint, we've got Faithbound Judge, which is a three-mana creature that can be cast from the graveyard for seven mana thanks to disturb, at which point it gives one player three turns to live. That's going to put a lot of people on tilt, but it's also a fun and fairly unusual win condition. It’s unlikely to be relevant in most formats outside of Commander, though we're happy to be wrong on that one.
The sheer power level of some of the cards negates any attempts at strategy.
The entire Cemetery cycle (Cemetery Prowler, Cemetery Protector and so on) seems as though it’s going to be impactful too. Though, it's very clear that Green has been blessed with the most obviously powerful choice here, which seems to play into the same Green bias that a lot of sets have had in recent years. This is most evident when it comes to Avabruck Caretaker, a new werewolf card that has hexproof and makes a single creature stronger when it's human, then does the same for all of your creatures when it's a werewolf.
This is at its most painfully obvious and problematic when you're playing in a Draft or a Sealed event. The sheer power level of some of the individual cards in the set negates any attempts at strategy or gameplay outside of "play the good card, win the game". It's something that's been an issue in other sets, but hasn't felt quite as blatant this year up until now.
Crimson Vow, while good on the whole, feels a bit like a tour de force of the best and worst aspects of Magic: The Gathering. Big game-winning cards make for an uninviting and uninteresting Limited format whenever you encounter them. The Commander focus of some cards means that you might pull a mythic rare from a pack that is utterly worthless to you unless you play multiple formats, which is harder to do with so many releases this year. Then you've got blood tokens, which just feel as though they're not quite right.
On the other hand, the set is mechanically fascinating, with the return of Disturb cementing it as one of the more fascinating graveyard mechanics we've seen, and both Cleave and Training offering fresh takes on things we've seen before. Then there are cards like Wedding Announcement, which creates creature tokens before transforming into Wedding Festivity and making them all stronger. This is where MTG has really been shining recently, with expertly-designed cards that do justice to whatever they're inspired by.
Innistrad: Crimson Vow is the final Magic: The Gathering set of 2021. It's been a long year for MTG fans, with so many new cards to learn that it's impossible to deny the new quantity-focused strategy that Wizards of the Coast must be adapting. It's not a bad set, but it feels as though it falls short of many of the big releases of the year. This is compounded by the fact that it's only been two months since Midnight Hunt, which makes comparisons not only inevitable, but also incredibly easy. Ultimately, Crimson Vow feels at odds with itself in places, which could well be a reflection of the company that has made it.