With Shadows over Innistrad finally going live on MTGO, I finally managed to really dig deep into the set, banging out draft after draft to get an idea of how each archetype plays. I've gotta say, this set is a lot more complex than it looks on the surface; with multiple color pairings can go in several different directions, depending on the rares and uncommons you pick up Covering every single variation would take quite a long time, so I'll only be touching on the decks I've personally experienced.
This pairing has always been known as the “fliers” deck, and things are no different in this set. But rather than the “wall ‘em up and knock ‘em down” defensive style, WU runs more as a tempo deck this time around.
Blue has a few defensive options with Erdwal Illuminator, Silent Observer and Drownyard Explorers, but the majority of its common-tier board interaction comes in the flavor of bounce spells: Just the Wind and Gone Missing. Also taking into account the small size of most fliers, the last thing you want to do is play a prolonged match where your opponent gets all the time in the world to play their fatties and power through your suite of bounce spells, then force you to grapple with them for board control.
WU also has a minor Spirits theme. While there aren't enough synergy spells to push you in that direction when weighing weaker spirits against stronger on-color cards, small payoff cards like Apothecary Geist, Rattlechains and Spectral Shepherd can be tie-breakers when two picks are relatively close in power. Keep in mind, however, that these cards are usually worth running even if your spirit count is low, since their abilities and power/toughness are all well-costed.
Word of Caution: Blue is a very defensive color, so it can be tempting to try to turn this into a long-game control deck. The fact is, all the removal in white and blue are just strong cards that will be quickly snapped up by any drafter who happens to be in that color, so the chances that you pick up enough Puncturing Light, Angelic Purge, Bound by Moonsilver and Sleep Paralysis to make up for your weak creatures are very, very slim. Don't get caught in that trap: build for tempo.
Cards to Look For
WB's schtick seems to change from one set to the next, but what it usually brings to the table is a huge stock of removal spells. With Angelic Purge, Puncturing Light, Murderous Compulsion and Dead Weight all at common and Bound by Moonsilver and Sinister Concoction at uncommon, this deck tends to lean toward goodstuff control.
With control comes the potential for Delirium. The new mechanic finds its place pretty easily in this deck, with removal spells spanning instants, sorceries and enchantments. Two of the scarecrow creatures, Wicker Witch and Wild-Field Scarecrow, find their place here as well, counting as both a creature and an artifact for the sake of Delirium, and Thraben Gargoyle does the same, without clogging up the contested 3-drop slot, while providing some late game utility. The biggest payoffs for getting Delirium are the powerful Kindly Stranger and Topplegeist, but the incremental upsides gained by Inquisitor's Ox, Tooth Collector and Reaper of Flight Moonsilver can add up over the course of a longer game.
Add in a bit of graveyard synergies with cheap commons like Ghoulcaller's Accomplice and Dauntless Cathar, and you have a deck that does an admirable job gumming up the board and allowing you the time to play grindy, clunky, or expensive win conditions like Drogskol Cavalry, Accursed Witch and Triskaidekaphobia.
Word of Caution: It's easy to draft all the value cards and neglect your air game. A dedicated flier deck can bypass your entire defensive line and peck you to death, while you scramble to deal with every one of their threats with your removal spells; and you will eventually run out of removal spells. A couple 1/1 spirit tokens won't keep an aerial army at bay, so draft accordingly.
Cards to Look For
Unlike the previous block, there are very few consistent synergies to be found in WR. Humans, vampires and werewolves are all a mishmash that you can haphazardly throw together, and generally end up looking like a pile of vaguely aggressive cards that resemble a deck. Where this deck comes together, however, is in its ability to interact with the board.
White brings its own suite of removal, and red supplements this with the efficient Fiery Temper and more expensive Reduce to Ashes. There are also a handful of uncommon removal spells that you'll likely see one or two of, if red is relatively open in your seat. But perhaps more important than the removal spells are the big, blowout combat tricks. Spiteful Motives tends to be a huge blowout, usually netting at least a 1-for-1 on the turn it's played, then often providing a huge creature that the opponent is forced to take damage from for at least another turn or two while they dig through their deck for an answer. Malevolent Whispers and Uncaged Fury are often a little too unwieldy and expensive for the more synergistic red decks, but can quickly close out a game in WR, where we're sacrificing synergy for pure, individual card power.
Just as important as ways to kill your opponent's creatures are ways to circumvent them entirely. Expose Evil fills this role rather well, forcing a hole to attack through, as well as replacing itself with a Clue token. Even better is Nahiri's Machinations, which can give you free attacks simply based on threat of activation. Stern Constable can serve as an offensive tapper in a pinch, if you're sandbagging extra lands, as well as offering a free Madness outlet.
Word of Caution: This is a deck you should only go into when there's absolutely no other color pairings open in your seat. You're losing a lot of synergy bonuses, and hoping to make up for it with uncommons that you may never see come around the table. It also runs out of steam very quickly if you don't have any ways to draw cards, which are notably absent in both of these colors, short of loading up on Thraben Inspectors or getting a lucky Tamiyo's Journal.
Cards to Look For
WG has always been about playing creatures and turning them sideways, but this time we get to go one level deeper to the ultra-vanilla: the tribal theme here is Humans! Yes, this pairing has a number of cards that care about other creatures being humans, like the temporary stat boost from Intrepid Provisioner, or the activated double strike offered by Veteran Cathar. Since all the other worthwhile effects are all at rare, this set of synergies doesn't run very deep, but like Spirits from the WU deck, having these creatures in your pool may edge you toward adding more Humans in your deck if the cards involved are comparable in power. Since green is one of the Werewolf colors, it's important to remember that you will also get these bonuses when the Werewolves on on their “day” side.
White and green don't have much in the way of aggressive 2-drops, so while this is a beater deck, it tends to fit in the mid-range category, with most of its power sitting in the 3-4 cost slot. As always, Dauntless Cathar serves as a great value creature, but don't neglect Byway Courier, as the Clue token it generates when it trades goes a long way toward keeping your hand gassed up. Gloomwidow also offers some great utility in the 3-drop slot, giving you an aggressive 3/3 when you're on the beatdown and turning into a great blocker when you're up against those annoying flier decks. Inspiring Captain can be a great turn 4 play if you manage to curve out properly, offering a well-rounded alternative to the Human-specific Intrepid Provisioner, but the real powerhouse 4-drops for this deck are Pack Guardian and Solitary Hunter, both bringing a lot of stats for their mana cost.
The 5-drop slot shouldn't be too contended, but I've found one of the best creatures for this slot is Emissary of the Sleepless. With a lot of ground combat taking place, it shouldn't take too much work to get your Emissaries to come into play with a 1/1 buddy, and that extra little bit of power in the air can make the difference in a ground stall.
Word of Caution: Like most beater decks, it's hard to take control of the game if your opponent gets a faster start than you do. This deck doesn't have a very strong 2-drop slot, but you still need enough creatures you can play by then so you don't get run over by the red-based aggro decks. It's usually correct to mulligan if you're on the draw against an aggro deck and your first playable creature is a 3-drop.
Cards to Look For
The theme of the day is Zombies, but since every synergy payoff is at uncommon or above, UB often just plays like the standard durdley control deck. That said, many of the cards with the Zombie sub-type are just good cards, so if you manage to pick up a couple Drunau Corpse Trawler or luck into one of the rare/mythic synergy cards, you won't have to pay much of a premium to make sure that synergy is online 80% of the time.
In the case that none of those payoff cards come around, you're mostly going to be playing a goodstuff deck. Locking up the ground with Rancid Rats and Ghoulcaller's Accomplice early on is important to making sure you can deploy fliers to start pecking away at your opponent's life total. Like WU, half your colors don't offer a good selection of hard removal, but unlike that archetype, half your colors also don't offer a good selection of fliers to help close out the game. Picking up defensive creatures like Lamplighter of Selhoff, Drownyard Explorers and Silent Observer can give you the time you need to piece together your win condition, which can be anything from Morkrut Necropod to a suite of cheap fliers like Crow of Dark Tidings and Niblis of Dusk.
Despite (or perhaps due to) the synergies in this deck being on the lighter side, you have some flexibility in your win conditions. Aside from fliers or a big, evasive beater at the top end, you could easily gear your deck more toward a mill option with Manic Scribe and Fleeting Memories. Pairing up Call the Bloodline with Sanitarium Skeleton can also combo out an alternate late-game win, and is worth considering drafting early just in case the pieces come together.
Word of Caution: Unlike many of the other decks in this set, UB doesn't have a built-in win condition. You need to actively piece together how you're planning to take the game long and turn it in your favor. It's fun to draft all the value cards, but make sure you don't neglect to draft the redundancy you need to guarantee your opponent won't cripple your deck with a single piece of removal.
Cards to Look For
While UR doesn't have a tribal synergy, Prowess going evergreen not long ago has pushed this color pairing into the “spells matter” deck. While there is the possibility of drafting a low-creature, high-spells version of this deck (less than 10 creatures, total), that one tends to rely on getting lucky with bomby mythics like Thing in the Ice. Normally we're going to have a few more creatures than that, but with spells that create creatures like Dance with Devils and Rise from the Tides, we can afford to be a little lax on our official creature count.
We're going to end up with a few bodies just to fill out the ranks, but among those should be any number of Sanguinary Mage and Pyre Hound, which are both low pick commons for other decks, and pay us off for playing a spell-heavy deck. Aberrant Researcher is at its best in this deck, having a much higher chance of flipping, and since you'll be playing a lot of instants, Stormrider Spirit gains a lot of value as well. Reckless Scholar and Mad Prophet should be your top priority, however, since digging through your deck for your threats is what makes it easy to run with a low creature count, with the added bonus of enabling any Madness cards you happen to pick up.
If you can manage it, every creature in your deck should either synergize with a spell-heavy deck, have some sort of utility that keeps you in cards, or be an evasive threat that can crack in for damage unimpeded. This is the quintessential tempo/aggro deck, with much of your strength tied up in the ability to just hold up all your mana and make your opponent play around any answers your might have in your hand. The moment you lose that initiative, your chances to pull out a win quickly nosedive.
Word of Caution: It's tempting to stuff your deck with draw spells to get to your threats, but you may end up just spinning your wheels and not doing anything to affect the board. Generating clues is a much more efficient way to draw cards, since they tend to come tacked onto other spells that actually do something, but powerful draw spells like Pore Over the Pages and efficient card selection spells like Catalog can be worth a spell slot as well. Make sure you find a good balance.
Cards to Look For
UG is probably the hardest deck to write about; while “Investigate” neatly sums up its theme, its construction and win conditions vary wildly. Your standard Clue generators like Byway Courier and Drownyard Explorers all apply, but with the ability to really pile on the tokens with cards like Ulvenwald Mysteries and Briarbridge Patrol (not to mention the rares that are more nuts), suddenly enablers like Erdwal Illuminator and payoff cards like Graf Mole spike in value.
The most important thing to note, however, is that there are multiple avenues for win conditions. More so than UB, your constant stream of Clues turns Fleeting Memories into real win condition. And even though I mentioned Ulvenwald Mysteries as a way to generate clues, it can also serve as a win condition in and of itself (though if you go deep on this one, you'll want a way to avoid decking yourself, like Epitaph Golem). Then there's always your standard fallback of just burying your opponent under card advantage and bigger (or evasive) creatures, making sure you pick up one or two Confront the Unknown along the way.
Most of the really good payoff cards and win conditions are uncommon or higher, so this deck won't always come together. Usually the “draw cards and beatdown” version will happen when you just didn't get the uncommons, so the deck is at least playable at the common level, if not quite at its best. Fleeting Memories can be a good sideboard win condition if you run into a grindy deck that you can't punch through, but the best version of this deck is going to contain an Ulvenwald Mysteries and a couple of Graf Moles so you can bury your opponent under literal and virtual card advantage.
Word of Caution: There are a lot of synergies to be had here, so it's easy to sort of spin your wheels and never actually threaten your opponent. Drawing cards is powerful, but if the average card in your deck is less impactful than your opponent's average card, they can play 1 spell to your 3 and still easily take away the game. Much like UB, you need to make sure your deck has a game plan besides stalling for time.
Cards to Look For
The fastest and potentially most swingy deck in the meta, BR plays highly aggressive and synergistic Vampires, with a strong set of Madness cards to supplement the rush strategy. Uncommons like Heir of Falkenrath are good enough to play in any black deck, but they get especially nuts when you can pair them up Fiery Temper or the dream turn 3 Incorrigible Youths. Even Bloodmad Vampire can put in some work with enough discard outlets, and Senseless Rage can serve as a great combat trick if you end up short on removal spells.
With so many Madness cards in this color pairing, cheap discard mechanics are at a premium. Call the Bloodline, Ravenous Bloodseeker, Mad Prophet, Lightning Axe and Sinister Concoction are all powerful uncommons that many other decks will want, but even commons like Tormenting Voice and Insolent Neonate can put in a lot of work as Madness enablers that also double as card filtering.
With so many potentially durdley decks in the format, sometimes you just need some raw punching power. Evasion is still important, so Olivia's Bloodsworn is a high pick in a color pairing that doesn't usually get fliers. Any removal and combat tricks that will keep you on the offensive are important, even if they're subpar cards like Reduce to Ashes and Rush of Adrenaline. But the big payoff is Stensia Masquerade, which makes your creatures exceptionally hard to block, and only more so as the game goes longer. Indulgent Aristocrat can also give this deck's smaller creatures some punching power, especially when paired with Call the Bloodlines for a steady stream of sac fodder.
Word of Caution: As good as it feels to get these Madness cards firing off for their Madness cost, sometimes it just doesn't come together; either you end up short on Madness cards, or you end up shot on discard outlets. This is perfectly fine, but don't try to force it by drafting and playing subpar cards that hurt your overall game plan of aggression and being the beatdown.
Cards to Look For
While WB naturally works well with Delirium, BG is the the actual “Delirium deck”.
Cards like Kessig Dire Swine, Kindly Stranger, Moldgraf Scavenger, Stallion of Ashmouth and Obsessive Skinner are only sort of okay in their vanilla state, but become serious threats once Delirium is turned on. Worse than that, Autumnal Gloom does absolutely nothing on the board until you have Delirium, but once enabled it becomes a beater that your opponent has no way of interacting with outside of combat.
Fortunately, Autumnal Gloom doubles as a Delirium enabler, and the number of enablers you manage to draft will make or break the deck's strategy. The most straight-forward way of doing this is to follow the same method as the WB deck by varying your spell types with off-beat cards like Dead Weight and Vessel of Nascency, and artifact creatures like Wicker Witch, which are all commons. There's also the option of blind milling yourself, like with Autumnal Gloom, or with cards that also add something to the board state, like Crow of Dark Tidings and Crawling Sensation.
Additionally, it's easy to pick up one or two Fork in the Road, which gets you halfway to Delirium on its own. It's not an especially great option though, unless you're splashing a third color. But considering the strength of some of the white Delirium cards, it's not uncommon to splash white, or play straight Abzan colors, so you will often want to play one or two of these to simultaneously fix your colors and help you get one of the more difficult card types into the graveyard.
Word of Caution: It's tempting to snap up a lot of the payoff cards that come around immediately and put off the enablers until later, but many of the Delirium cards in this color pairing are low picks for any other deck. You can usually wheel your Moldgraf Scavengers and Kessig Dire Swines in favor of grabbing your enablers early so you don't end up with a pile of mediocre cards and no way of turning them on.
Cards to Look For
On the flip-side of the supernatural coin, RG brings us Werewolves. This deck is also a beatdown deck, but it relies more on mid-game beaters than getting off the ground quickly on turn 1 or 2 like the Vampire deck. The big bodies offered by Solitary Hunter and Gatstaf Arsonists are difficult for most decks to handle, and can easily take over a game when backed up with the solid suite of combat tricks and removal offered by this color pairing.
Even more so than RB, RG has a lot of great synergy cards. Howlpack Resurgence and Moonlight Hunt are the biggest payoffs, especially since they're likely to go late in most packs if you're the only Werewolf deck at the table, but Ulrich's Kindred isn't far behind in raw power, and Cult of the Waxing Moon is a good effect stapled to a big body. Then you have cards like Duskwatch Recruiter which allows you to improve your board state in what is ultimately a very creature-focused deck, Breakneck Rider that eliminates chump blocking as an option for your opponent, and Hermit of the Natterknolls which punishes your opponent for trying to play combat tricks during your attacks. Even Howlpack Wolf essentially becomes a 3/3 for 3 with no downside, since you should have so many Wolves and Werewolves in your deck that it almost never comes up.
While it's tempting to load up on a lot of the valuable 3-drops and 4-drops, it's important not to neglect your 2-drop slot. There are some great creatures to be had here as well, between Kessig Forgemaster, Quilled Wolf and Lambholdt Pacifist, but it won't always be possible to pick up cards in this slot that synergize well with the rest of your deck. Don't be afraid to just pick up a couple creatures that you can jam in that slot to keep yourself alive against the other aggressive decks, so you can give yourself time to get your beef online.
Word of Caution: Getting your Werewolves flipped can be a bit of a dance, especially against draw-heavy control decks that can play two spells a turn to keep your creatures sunny-side up. Sometimes it's correct to pass your turn without playing a spell so you can transform your creatures, but many times it's not. Be careful about reading the board state when you make your decision, and stock your deck with a number of Instants and non-spell mana sinks so you'll have something to do on your opponent's turn.
Cards to Look For
More than most sets, Shadows over Innistrad lends itself to some weird, quirky decks that just don't come together very often. Most of them are just off-shoots of regular archetypes with odd card selections that just happened to line up perfectly, but others are straight up archetypes in and of themselves. I've only run into a couple so far, but I fully expect more to spring up over the course of the set.
White Human Equipment
Outside of blue, it doesn't matter much what color you pair this up with, as long as you're deep into white. Green is the most obvious pairing, due to natural synergies, but most colors have a number of Human creatures running around; if you're deep enough into white, the second color will usually be more of a splash for removal and tricks, but green can alleviate the color burden. This deck tends to run aggressive, and the big sellers are True-Faith Censer, Harvest Hand and Slayer's Plate. With a heavier investment into equipment, you're also happy to see late Militant Inquisitors and Strength of Arms that nobody else wants. Avacynian Missionaries moves quite high in the pick order as well.
While UG is the natural Clues deck, white has a number of Clue token generators as well, making this deck far better than it might seem at first. If you manage to pick up any of the Graf Moles and Ulvenwald Mysteries, or luck into a Tireless Tracker, white can easily shore up the other side of this deck with Thraben Inspector, Expose Evil and Humble the Brute. In addition, white has a stronger removal suite than blue, a larger number of bomby rares, and just as many fliers, making this deck play much more like a regular control deck than you might think.
I've hammered out a lot of drafts over the last couple weeks, and it feels like most color pairings are at least viable. The most interesting part, however, is that there are a lot of build-around rares and uncommons that can pull a draft in wildly different directions. Most sets seem to value staying open and trying to find your color pairing, then just drafting the good cards in those colors, but the more drafts I play, the more I feel like this set rewards jumping on those build-arounds and taking advantage of the cards that go late in the pack because they only go in one or two specific decks. I've had a lot more fun with this set than I have in any from recent memory, and I'm looking forward to seeing how the rest of the set shakes out!
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