ROLL WITH IT plays Magic: the Gathering – Innistrad: Crimson Vow

Magic: the Gathering is daunting in 2021. There are years of releases, history and mechanics to learn, so starting fresh is a huge undertaking. If there was one thing that might bring newcomers into the fold, that might draw in curious onlookers to play Magic: The Gathering… it’s vampires. There’s an aesthetic, thematic romance and appeal to everyone’s favourite velvet-wearing bloodsuckers, but with Innistrad: Crimson Vow, we finally appear to have met the ultimate fusion between tight card game mechanics and Castlevania-worthy goodness.

Magic: the Gathering is, on the surface, a pretty simple game. Grab a deck, deploy land cards, then tap them to deploy creatures or spells. You need to effectively whittle away the health of the player (or players) sitting across from you, with your creatures and spells acting as your army.

It’s a battle, basically, and if you’re as into world-building, lore and gorgeous artwork as I am, MtG is an absolute treat – it’s hard not to spend hours pouring over the painstaking illustrations and flavour text on the cards, trying to flesh out the world you’re occupying as you perch on the edge of your seat, gripping your hand of cards.

Magic: the Gathering – Innistrad: Crimson Vow

Innistrad: Crimson Vow is, first and foremost, a Magic release that bleeds worldbuilding. Essentially, you’re attending a vampire wedding. Wizards of the Coast were kind enough to send me two commander decks, one themed around a vampire patriarch and his creepy army of thralls, and the other, a wronged geist trying to bring down said patriarch with as much prejudice as possible.

So… it’s not good versus bad, perse. In Magic: the Gathering cards are split into five different groups and colours; White, Blue, Black, Red and Green. Each colour represents a faction. From the Magic: the Gathering Fandom page;

  • White: Peace, law, structure, selflessness, equality
  • Blue: Knowledge, deceit, caution, deliberation, perfection
  • Black: Power, self-interest, death, sacrifice, uninhibitedness
  • Red: Freedom, emotion, action, impulse, destruction
  • Green: Nature, wildlife, connection, spirituality, tradition

The black/red deck of the vampires does tend to lean towards the ghoulish, and the white/blue does fold in knights, villagers and friendly (Casper-esque, even) ghosts to present a thematic tilt towards justice. It’s a nice bit of flavouring that makes playing against your opponent a little more interesting than playing draft; opening card packets and playing with whatever you’ve got on the fly.

This expansion sees a couple of really fun, crunchy mechanics – there’s a day/night cycle, with certain creatures (werewolves, for example) transforming depending on whether it’s dark or light out. The disturb mechanic makes playing against spirits finicky and a little frightening, too.

The training mechanics gives specific creatures +1/+1 whenever marching into battle alongside a creature stronger than them, giving the battlefield a real mentor/protege flavour. Oh! And there’s the blood mechanic! Certain actions taken by vampiric creatures will yield blood tokens, which you can pay one mana and tap to discard a card, then sacrifice the blood token and draw a card.

Blood as a resource which you gain from chomping your way through your enemies? Very cool.

The press kit I was sent looked like a rather large coffin. Twisting a small key, it opened and I was presented with all of my Innistrad-themed goodies – it’s sort of tricky to not get swept up by that kind of novelty, but honestly, Magic: the Gathering is a supremely moreish game already.

Some of the best, most varied artwork out there comes from this game, with the latest expansion boasting grimy, filthy, almost Edwardian gothic etchings; hell, they even got the artist behind Castlevania, Ayami Kojima, to illustrate a card for the set. But the gameplay is also wildly unpredictable, even when playing with the prebuilt commander decks.

It is, in short, popular for a reason. If you’re sitting there wondering whether you ought to dip your toe in, now is a really interesting time to start. And if you’re a stalwart fan of the game already, whilst some of the new mechanics might at times tilt gameplay a touch towards the asymmetrical (which I personally love – not every fight can, or should, be fair), you’ll dig it, I promise.

The author and PowerUp! Gaming were sent Magic: the Gathering press kits containing cards from Innistrad: Crimson Vow by Wizards of the Coast.

Paul Verhoeven
Paul Verhoeven
Writer of Loose Units for Penguin. Host of ABCs Steam Punks. Host of 28 Plays Later. Unicorn enthusiast. Unicron enthusiast.

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