Set Theory – Winning at Innistrad Sealed (Part 1)
This weekend, thousands of Magic players will be lining up to take the dark, horror inspired world of Innistrad out for a spin. Prerelease events are this Saturday and Sunday, and your first chance to play with double-faced cards is on the moonlit horizon. Of course, if you're like me, not only do you want to play, you want to win.
Double Faced Cards
The big innovation in Innistrad is double-faced cards. They start out in play on their front side, and through some sort of condition, they transform into the card on the back face. To evaluate these cards, we need to look at how easy it will be to transform the card, and what value we're getting out of the card if it never transforms.
All of the Werewolf cards in Innistrad share the same transform mechanic.
The front side of each Werewolf card has a transform trigger based on no spells being cast the turn prior. The back side of each Werewolf card has a transform trigger based on a player casting two or more spells the turn prior.
Obviously, the cheaper a Werewolf spell is, the easier it's going to be to transform from the human side to the werewolf side. Reckless Waif is a one-drop, so you can always consider her Merciless Predator side. Conversely, Grizzled Outcasts costs five mana, so you won't often get to see the softer side of Krallenhorde Wantons. On the back side, getting the werewolves flipped back to humans requires a player to cast two spells in the same turn. If werewolves are good in limited, then players are going to bring their curves down a bit so they can reliably flip opposing werewolves back. If they're running a lot of werewolves and trying to be aggressive, you may see them run less optimal instants over better sorceries so that they can maximize their mana usage from turn to turn without bringing day back to the battlefield. Let's take a look at the common and uncommon werewolves and see what they have to offer our decks.
Village Ironsmith // Ironfang - 1R
A 1/1 first striker isn't exciting at all. You need to have this guy transform before he becomes useful. At 1R, he's going to be able to flip a lot and stay flipped for a while. The value in Ironfang is going to be how good a one-toughness creature is. We'll take a look at that more closely when we look over the removal available in the set.
Villagers of Estwald // Howlpack of Estwald - 2G
A 2/3 for 2G is slightly below the curve. A step better than a 3/2 for sure, though. On the play you might be able to skip your four-drop to transform Villagers of Estwald into it's furry side. On the draw, however, you'll be hard press to force the issue yourself. In the end, you're getting a 4/6, which is really good for 3 mana, but it's gonna be hard to make the back half of that deal work out. You'll need to evaluate this card based on the front side, and a vanilla 2/3 for three isn't embarrassing, but nothing to write home about.
Tormented Pariah // Rampaging Werewolf - 3R
For 3R, you get the flipside to Villagers of Estwald. A 3/2 that transforms into a 6/4. A 3/2 for four is actually embarrassing and the back half is going to be hard to achieve. You won't be able to put on the brakes for a turn to flip him, and even if you get him flipped, you get to the point in the game where your opponent can turn him back off... or you might have to you yourself if the board requires you to commit extra forces to the battlefield! I'm not excited at all about the prospects of getting to Rampaging Werewolf.
Grizzled Outcasts // Krallenhorde Wantons - 4G
A 4/4 for 4G is unspectacular filler, but it does have size at the top of the curve. If you can summon some Wantons out of the grizzled soup, the 7/7 is one of the biggest things on all of Innistrad. Getting on his good side's gonna be real difficult, though. It's not likely that your opponent is going to be out of spells on turn 5/6. And even if you take the time to flip him, your opponent can easily calm him down with a couple spells for a turn. Being this expensive is a bit of a boon, though. Unless your opponent is drawing extra cards, they're probably not turning him off more than once. I wouldn't want to be depending on a lot of Outcasts, but one might not be the worst thing in the world. You can probably do better, though.
Reckless Waif // Merciless Predator - R
R for a 3/2 is nothing to sneeze at. Aggressive, cheap to control opposing werewolves, and difficult to justify using removal on half the time; this card is all upside. There aren't a lot of one-drops I'd like to play, but this is certainly one of them.
Gatstaf Shepherd // Gatstaf Howler - 1G
Grizzly Bears with upside are nice filler for your sealed decks, depending on the format. In Zendikar and M12, any bear will do, while in Rise of the Eldrazi, Glory Seeker is a fairly late pickup. A 3/3 intimidate creature is pretty nice for 1G, but it's only going to flip on an opponent who stumbles on their curve or starts late with you on the play. If your deck needs a bear, play it. If it doesn't, think twice before putting this one in your deck.
Hanweir Watchkeep // Bane of Hanweir - 2R
Bane of Hanweir attackes each turn if able.
Man, that 5/5 at the end of the rainbow for 2R, that's a good deal. It feels like it'll be easier to skip a turn yourself with Hanweir Watchkeep in play since it has such a huge body. The 'drawback' on Bane of Hanweir isn't all that much of a drawback, unless they have a Typhoid Rats or two. This card is probably making the cut, unless your deck is extremely aggressive.
Ulvenwald Mystics // Ulvenwald Primordials - 2GG
G: Regenerate Ulvenwald Primordials
No one's gonna run out and embrace a Hill Giant, especially in green. If you can get him to flip, you get a card that's slightly better than Cudgel Troll without the guarantee of regeneration all the time. This card is probably riskier than you'd like for an investment of 2GG.
Other Transform Cards
While werewolves are the showcase for the double face card mechanic, there are a handful of other transform cards, highlighted by Garruk Relentless. Some allow you to control when they transform. Others are a bit less predictable.
Delver of Secrets // Insectile Aberration - U
At the beginning of your upkeep, look at the top card of your library. You may reveal that card. If an instant or sorcery is revealed this way, transform Delver of Secrets.
Obviously, the more instants and sorceries you play, the better this card gets. There's no top of the deck manipulation in Innistrad, so you're going to be flying blind on flipping this critter. To have this guy flipped by turn 4 over 50% of the time, you'll need 8 or more instants or sorceries. By that time you could have a 3/2 flier the easy way with Moon Heron. Probably best to avoid this dirty little secret unless you have a good reason to be running 10 spells or more.
Civilized Scholar // Homicidal Brute - 2U
T: Draw a card, then discard a card. If a creature card is discarded this way, untap Civilized Scholar, then transform it.
At the beginning of your end step, if Homicidal Brute didn't attack this turn, tap Homicidal Brute, then transform it.
Looters are typically good, although this one is particularly fragile and can't block all that well. UNTIL IT GOES MAD! But are you really gonna want to risk sending your looter into combat as a 5/1, especially if you won't get to loot again for a while? I think the loot until you have to block then MAKE HIM ANGRY plan is probably the best for our Civilized Scholar.
Cloistered Youth // Unholy Fiend - 1W
At the beginning of your upkeep, you may transform Cloistered Youth.
At the beginning of your end step, you lose 1 life.
I'm not super excited about this angry little girl. Being able to control when Cloistered Youth will transform is a bonus, but Unholy Fiend isn't particularly exciting, even for a 2 drop. No one jumped for joy when Sangrophage was printed. I'm afraid the kids will need to stay in bed when I play my next sealed deck.
Screeching Bat // Stalking Vampire - 2B
At the beginning of your upkeep, you may pay 2BB. If you do, transform Screeching Bat.
At the beginning of your upkeep, you may pay 2BB. If you do, transform Stalking Vampire.
Now this is a bat I can get behind. Wind Drake is a perfectly reasonable card for limited. It's pretty pricey to get yourself a 5/5 at 4BBB, but it's not the most embarrassing thing in the world. Add in the fact that you can control the transformation both forwards and backwards and this card seems really sweet.
Thraben Sentry // Thraben Militia - 3W
When another creature dies, you may transform Thraben Sentry.
A 2/2 vigilance creature for four mana is well below curve. Thraben Sentry does create an interesting subgame when he's in play though. Every trade offered makes a 5/4 trampler loom on the horizon. But how good is a 5/4 trampler? This is the one transform card you can reliably turn over the turn you cast it. 5/4 for four mana is slightly above the curve. The question is how easily it will be to kill this guy with the transform trigger on the stack.
Next up, we'll take a look at the removal in the set. What kills big guys? What kills little guys? What kills everything?