Like its predecessors in Odyssey and Innistrad blocks, Shadows Over Innistrad has a major mechanical focus on using cards in the graveyard. For Spikes, this is always exciting territory, because using the graveyard always means value. If our card can trade for an opponent’s card or replace itself, but still give us an effect afterward, we essentially got to play an extra card that our opponent did not, which is a great way to win games of Magic. There are several different approaches to graveyard value in the draft format, and I want to explore three of the most important and how we can push that value to its maximum.
Although the flashback mechanic itself did not return in Shadows Over Innistrad, we did get a number of cards which can exile themselves from graveyards for a spell-like effect. These are some of the most straightforward graveyard value cards in the set, because they are simply good in every deck that can cast them and don’t require building around at all. However, the ability to be cast from a graveyard means if we do choose to build around them, we can find more ways to turn them into card advantage.
The key enablers for maximizing these cards are self-mill and looting effects. If we can either get them into our graveyard without having drawn them or discard them to an effect that draws us a card (actually or virtually), we essentially draw an extra spell in the form of the flashback ability. The green decks have the most powerful self-mill engines in Vessel of Nascency and Crawling Sensation, while red and blue have the uncommon looters Mad Prophet and Reckless Scholar, and colorless has Skeleton Key. White does not explicitly have an enabler for these cards, but in the white delirium decks I am a big fan of Shard of Broken Glass. This normally marginal card can become integral in white decks by activating both graveyard synergies and the equipment synergies with Avacynian Missionaries and Militant Inquisitor, allowing it to pull a lot of weight with the right combination of payoffs. Whenever you have one card of either category, flashback card or enabler, move up cards in the other category in your pick order. Pack one pick one you may prefer Quilled Wolf to Ghoulcaller’s Accomplice, but once you have a Mad Prophet, favor the Accomplice.
While a less powerful interaction, these cards can also gain some value with cards that demand discarding as a cost, such as Heir of Falkenrath and Stitchwing Skaab. This isn’t an effect to build around necessarily, as you still end up down a portion of a card, but it’s an important interaction to consider while playing decks that contain both types of cards, which you often will in the format.
Take all of these cards highly and play them in every deck you can, but take note of your opportunities to push their synergies a little bit deeper and you will gain small edges that can make all the difference in long games.
One of the named mechanics of the set, delirium has turned out to be a very powerful and interesting draft mechanic. It is one of the most flexible of the graveyard themes, as it can be minor or central to a deck and be good either way. When you do choose to maximize delirium as a theme, the payoffs are very large, as you can optimize several of the most powerful uncommons in the set. If you are the only one on your side of the table drafting those cards, you may get some of them very late and in multiples.
There are two main ways to construct your delirium deck. The first is to aim for very early delirium, around turns 4-6, to gain a rapid board advantage once your cheap delirium cards turn on. In this deck, you want enablers that put two or more card types in your graveyard for a single card, because it is critical to reach delirium quickly. These enablers are Vessel of Nascency, Fork in the Road, Sinister Concoction, Wicker Witch, Wild-Field Scarecrow, Angelic Purge, and Merciless Resolve. The faster your deck is, the more you prefer the enablers that impact the board like Wicker Witch and Angelic Purge, and the less you want cards like Fork in the Road or Merciless Resolve, but you will play all of them if you need to. Note that the black and white enablers sacrifice lands. In the BW delirium deck specifically, keep your curve low when using these enablers. You want to be able to confidently sacrifice your fourth or fifth land, and if your deck has too many five and six cost cards, this can seriously hinder your development.
The second way to build the deck is to build primarily around milling yourself. Milling is slower, but it has the upside of interacting with all of the other categories of graveyard value as well. If you have a lot of flashback and recursion cards along with your delirium, milling is the exact enabler you want, as it gives you value in multiple ways. This deck tends to be much more controlling, primarily wanting to block and cast removal spells early, then develop an inevitable grindy lategame. In this deck, you just need enablers that will get you to delirium eventually, at which point cards like Obsessive Skinner and Kindly Stranger can take over the game. The key enabler in this deck is Crawling Sensation. It’s the most powerful, hardest to disrupt mill engine at uncommon, and it helps buy you time to set up all of your synergies. However, it is slow, which is why it’s important to have early game control cards when playing with it. Vessel of Nascency is also strong in this deck, which doesn’t mind a few cards without direct board impact. Barring those cards, Shard of Broken Glass and Autumnal Gloom can also achieve similar results, but they are much less effective, as Shard goes best with aggression, and Gloom requires a lot of mana investment that Sensation does not.
These two options are not binary, there is a range of other speeds and mixes of enablers in between, but you should try to match the speed of your enablers to the speed of your deck as much as you can. Be conscious of your curve and how aggressive the creatures in your deck are, and aim for getting delirium at a time that complements that strategy, with card types that strategy would want to play anyway, and you can construct a wide range of focused, synergistic decks with value to spare.
This is the most complex category of graveyard value, as it requires a lot of setup to get these cards going, and they are all quite bad at face value. However, when turned on, these cards can lead to an unbeatable lategame advantage. The idea behind these cards is to pair them with a repeatable effect that would normally cost a card each time, then buy back the card from the graveyard so the effect can be used multiple times. The key enablers for Groundskeeper and Sanitarium Skeleton are cards that can discard or sacrifice repeatedly for value. These cards are the looters mentioned in the flashback section, Call the Bloodline, Indulgent Aristocrat, Markov Dreadknight, Stern Constable, and Reaper of Flight Moonsilver. When combined with these effects, both Sanitarium Skeleton and Groundskeeper can essentially draw an extra card per turn or more, depending on how much mana you have access to. Because these two cards are very bad when not turned on, it is important to have multiple uses for them in any deck built around them. Drawing the recursive card with no enabler will not have a full card’s worth of impact on the game. These cards both also combine well with self-mill, but you need some way to make use of the extra cards they generate beyond that. They are not themselves worth playing in your deck just for mill value the way the flashback cards are, because the fail case of just drawing a one mana 1/2 is a lot worse than the fail case of drawing a two mana 2/2.
Epitaph Golem requires its own explanation, as it is one of the strangest and most unique build-arounds in the set. The idea behind this card is to mill your entire library, usually with Crawling Sensation, and then begin looping cards from your graveyard to hand and back again so that you can recast a removal spell every turn, or redraw your best threats when they die. If you can keep your Golem alive, very few decks can beat you tutoring every turn while they have to rely on their random draw step. This strategy is quite vulnerable to disruption, so be careful to play around removal, and if possible draft redundancy in the form of multiple Golems or cards like Macabre Waltz and Not Forgotten to rebuy one. This is the most controlling of the strategies, as a turn three Crawling Sensation will take until turn 13 or so to reach the bottom of your library, and from there it will still take several more turns for your Golem to generate enough advantage to win the game. Be sure that you can lock down the game with strong blockers early on, and you will be rewarded with the grindiest lategame the format has to offer.
Once you are comfortable with the more straightforward graveyard decks in the format, these are the cards with which you can go deep to construct decks that truly operate on a different plane from normal limited and utilize cards no other players want, allowing you to assemble a powerful deck without needing to fight for the more obviously powerful cards in the draft. Groundskeeper often goes last pick in draft because very often no one at the table is in a place to draft around it, so being prepared to turn it into a card advantage engine when combined with Call the Bloodline and Crawling Sensation gives you a very big edge when you can pass it early and expect to get it for free on the wheel.
You will notice that the enablers for all of these card types cross over quite a bit, and cross over with other non-graveyard synergies in the set. The best decks will not just use one of these synergies, but as many as they can reasonably combine. Don’t hesitate to combine multiple themes and multiple two-card interactions if you can find a crossover point. Take the enablers that work with the highest number of cards in your pool while drafting. Sometimes Shard of Broken Glass might be better than Crawling Sensation, but in the next it might be reversed. The more synergistic the format, the more the idea of a pick order is useless. Succeeding on Innistrad isn’t about knowing the best cards overall, but which cards work best with each other. Now you know which graveyard cards to pair together, but that’s just the beginning of the value to be found in Shadows Over Innistrad: keep looking for it everywhere.
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