Welcome, Battle Boxers and fans of non-traditional Cube building! Today, I’ll be providing my thoughts and insights about Magic’s newest expansion, Innistrad: Crimson Vow, and the cards I’m most intrigued by and excited to play with in my Danger Room/Battle Box stack.
Reader’s who follow my content know that while I was an accomplished professional player the focus of my play in the present is casual, fun and with an emphasis on providing budget-friendly options for playing high quality games.
As I did my customary spoiler read through Crimson Vow I had a very positive response to the flavor of the set as well as the cards themselves. In terms of “flavor,” I’ve never kept it much of a secret that I’m a big fan of the horror genre and the way Innistrad incorporates those elements. One thing I’ve always thought the subsequent returns to the plane of Innistrad sets have done sell is to constantly bring new elements of horror to the flavor and make them centerpieces of new expansions.
To my own detriment, I don’t pull my punches when it comes to criticizing elements of flavor and game design that I believe to be good for Hasbro’s bottom line at the cost of quality of game play. I do not believe “selling a lot of product” is a direct corollary to a game being of high quality.
In the case of Innistrad: Crimson Vow, the space within the horror genre being explored is the trope of the vampire, and in particular, the vampire romance novel. I read the fluff and flavor of the set drawing heavily from authors like Anne Rice (An Interview with the Vampire) and Stephanie Meyers (Twilight). Both of these authors’ work is aimed at, and tends to be consumed by, a predominantly female audience which is an extremely savvy and interesting set for Hasbro to take.
I think for the first time ever, Wizards of the Coast has produced a Magic expansion that actually takes women into consideration in terms of its design and flavor. I think that’s really cool. As a white man who has been the target audience of every single Magic set for the past 25 years, I personally find it refreshing to see new perspectives represented in the cardboard. In fact, I’ve said it many times that “seeing something I hadn’t seen before” in terms of art and literary flavor texts in 3rd Edition Revised and Legends is what made Magic appealing to me as a teenager. I see that quality of showing people something they haven’t seen before as a part of Magic that has actual value to fans.
Anyways, it took 25 years, but Crimson Vow is a set that acknowledges women exist and play Magic.
While the idea of a vampire romance is extremely referential to vampire romance novels, I think more importantly is the fact that we see Olivia Voldaren depicted as the primary character in this narrative in a way that feels cool and powerful.
In terms of flavor, I want to see Magic sets that feel authentically Magic multiverse (not The Walking Dead or Stranger Things) and explore new territory. Crimson Vow captures both of these criteria in spades.
As a matter of taste, I don’t particularly enjoy Anne Rice or the Twilight Saga, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy seeing this territory explored in the multiverse. On the contrary, I find it very interesting.
The novel flavor also works well because the cards themselves are quite good and interesting.
In terms of game design, I love blood tokens. As functional as I think the mechanic will be in Constructed Magic, I believe it will be exponentially more interesting in Limited and in formats that draw inspiration from Limited like Cube and Battle Box.
The big breakthrough in terms of design is that WotC has developed a way to generate a resource that is somewhere in between a singular “scry” and “drawing a card” or “making a creature token.”
It’s sort of an in-between space. I love that Blood tokens are also cheap madness outlets, which is an area I’ve always wanted to incorporate more strongly into my Danger Room, but struggle to implement because there simply are not enough quality cards to do so.
Despite not being a Twilight fan, Crimson Vow is full of cards that I still wanted to own and play with. I preordered foil copies of 40 different cards I think have great application in my Cubes, Battle Boxes and Commander decks (so approximately 1/6 of the set) and it cost me $35. I would consider that to be a level of interesting playability I’d expect from a premium set like Modern Horizons.
Ugh! I’ve already spent so many words talking about the set in the abstract that I have to transition to my set review now – but I thought the set was worth it and there are elements that should be commended that most content creators will overlook.
For most of the life of the Danger Room, I’ve taken a “binge and purge” approach to working on my stack. I add cards, I play with them and then I sit down and rebalance the stack (often with friends present to bounce ideas off of). I’m not cutting anything from last time yet. I expect I’ll be able to play significantly more games in the coming month and will do a rebalance to reflect the consensus of that play experience.
I also wrote an article this month about an Innistrad Cube I’ve been working on:
All of the cards I single out today, regardless of whether they make it to the final cut of Danger Room are strong candidates for an Innistrad Cube (or really any Limited-inspired Cube).
White had some really strong Limited designs at common and uncommon.
I think all of these are fine considerations for a Cube and will make their way into my Innistrad Cube.
Both of these cards will likely find their way into my Danger Room. In fact, both remind me of designs I think are particularly well suited for Box play:
I’d also add that I love the way the disturb cards from Crimson Vow return as Auras. I’ve commented many times about how difficult it is to put Auras into the stack in a way that drawing them isn’t a liability or impedes gameplay. Having Auras be a flashback mode of a creature or spell largely fixes the problem and so I’m excited to add some of these disturb Auras.
The bar for sweet blue cards is set so high that it’s often difficult to find new designs that actually excite me. In many ways, the powerful blue commons and uncommons from the first 15 years of Magic history serve as the baseline around which the gameplay of my Danger Room has been designed.
I mentioned a general lethargy toward blue cards for Battle Box in relation to older cards. It’s hard for a new blue card to stand out:
Lantern Bearer is a solid one-drop. I love my one-drops in Battle Box and there doesn’t exist enough of them yet to facilitate the size of the stack I’d like to design.
Mischievous Catgeist is my favorite design in the entire set. It’s a great card with excellent flavor and disturb. It’s also a really neat take on a cute card. I give this card high marks all around – especially in the context of an Innistrad set which tends to have a lot of guts and gore (Grisly Ritual is the torso of a guy exploding like the famous scene from Nightmare on Elm Street!). A little cute (even in a ghostly way) goes a long way.
In my set review notes for Mischievous Catgeist, the only note I have written next to the name is: “WOW!!!” That says it all.
I was a little bit surprised with how few black cards I found appealing for my Battle Box from Crimson Vow for two reasons. First, a horror theme set tends to lend itself very well to black designs. Second, across all of Magic history, there are more quality black designs than any other card by a wide margin. It’s on par with the rest of the colors in terms of how many cards seem like they could be a nice fit in my sack (1.5) but I am a little surprised I’m not choosing between five sweet black spells from an Innistrad set.
I don’t mind because black is already so much deeper than the rest of the pack. I always have to make the hardest cuts from black. With that said, there’s lots nice cards for the Innistrad Cube
The black (and red) cards play heavily into tribal themes which invalidates a lot of designs for Battle Box (since I can’t build in enough tribal synergies without sacrificing card quality) but there are a lot of sweet designs for any cube looking to enhance the tribal element.
Undead Butler is a slam dunk for Battle Box. It’s really a fantastically powerful synergy cog card for any graveyard deck and probably a huge sleeper card in the set. I could see myself putting Mr. Carson here into a Zombie graveyard deck similar to the Hogaak one that dominated Modern in Spain.
I also bought a Showcase Bloodsworn Squire to try out. I think this card is really pushing it in terms of power level and feels very much like a mythic uncommon to me. Everything about this card feels flavorful and interesting to me and so I’m going to shuffle it in and see how it plays.
It’s been a five year trend that I find myself saying red cards get the most fun Battle Box designs and there are clearly some neat ones here. In terms of sweet Cube cards, red gets the best of Blood tokens because of its strong link to Vampire tribal. Red = Blood and I’d be surprised and disappointed if that wasn’t the case in a set literally called Crimson Vow.
The cards I’m most excited to try in Battle Box:
I typically try to stay away from rares from a new set but this one is priced like bulk and it insulates the one-drop spot which I’m always seeking to enhance. I love that its got utility on turn one and can do some work in the later phases of the game when one-drops tend to feel like dead draws.
Magma Pummeler is a fun one. In general, I like how X spells scale up to do different things as the game progresses and the design of Magma Pummeler is different. In the limited number of games they’ve been drawn, I don’t have a problem with other powerful X creatures like Stonecoil Serpent or Mistcutter Hydra thus far. The hard-hitting X creatures add a different dimension than “Fireballs” (which I think serve a productive purpose but in moderation).
I think green got a little bit lost in the wedding shuffle and for the most part, green guests got seated at the “garbage table,” so to speak. The multicolor green spells (we’ll get to those next) were substantially more interesting than the mono spells, which is fair because this is a Vampire set and it wouldn’t be right to let the Werewolves steal their thunder on the big day.
I actually really like the Cartographer’s Survey card for Cube, but also Commander.
The one card I’m excited to add:
I love simple cards with a lot of functionality. It’s perfect right down to the bright glowing slug.
One thing I noticed while I was designing my Innistrad Cube was real “slim pickings” in terms of multicolor options (which is a really bummer when drafting!). Multicolor spells lead to interesting choices in terms of draft pick scenarios.
These five fall right on the borderline of making it into Danger Room but likely just a bit short of the options I already have. With that said, they’re solid options to fill in a guild roster without having to buy a more expensive card option.
These are going to find space in the Danger Room:
I particularly love the Vilespawn Spider design as a UG card. I spent a year critiquing how Simic cards are so imaginative to the point I wasn’t able to find 20 cards that would even work in a Battle Box since they are all just different flavors of the card Explore. Lo and behold, the past few sets have all included a Simic card that is not only playable, but quite good in Battle Box!
It’s fun to imagine designers actually read my content and take it to heart. Regardless of whether they do or don’t, I’m glad to see some of these spaces getting filled up with new fresh ideas and designs. The “disturb” Auras also stand out to me as an extremely cool, fun and functional way of making Auras less of a one-tricky pony.
Crimson Vow is not much of an artifacts-matter set but there’s a couple of intriguing cards.
I love the functionality of this card. It’s one of my overall favorite designs in the set and I’m actually bummed out I’ll never be able to play with it in Pauper because a supplemental, non-standard set dropped a mythic common (Bonder’s Ornament) into Pauper to make the already overpowered best deck (Tron, of all things) inexplicably better. With that said, Heirloom is a sweet card that I’ll find other places to utilize and enjoy.
Cheap and functional Equipment are fantastic in Danger Room. I love the way the Blood token is in play and can be used later on to set up a madness sequence, or simply loot away a one-drop that is drawn in the later turns of the game – as opposed to tapping a Merfolk Looter where you have to make the decision on the fly.
It’s also worth noting that Ceremonial Knife is fantastic to use as a substitute for some of the expensive Equipment that is currently in my stack if you’re looking for more budget-friendly options. It’s worth noting that the “money cards” that are in my stack were pretty much all bulk cards when I initially added them and became expensive over time.
I don’t typically add many new rares (especially not expensive ones) but I have noticed some of the cards have gotten pricey over time and so that is something I’ll be thinking about for the next big rebalance. With a few exceptions of old foils I was missing from my collection (for instance, Undermine), there are very few cards I’ve paid more than a few bucks to add to my stack because I either bought them when they were dirt cheap or cracked them from a booster pack while drafting.
Battle Box and Danger Room are not meant to be a money pit experience like other Constructed formats where the cost of acquiring the new cards is a source of dread or anxiety. As I stated in the intro, it cost me approximately $35 to get 40 new foils I’m excited to play with for my Cube and Battle Box and I’ll be playing with those cards 10 years from now (the same as the other Battle Box staples I’ve acquired over the past 15 years since I invented the format).
I’ll also say that the relatively modest investment I’ve made with each expansion release has gained a ton of value relative to the rest of my non-Reserved List Magic collection because I tend to buy first version printings of new and exciting designs that are fun and interesting to play with in the abstract (as opposed to being defined competitive “format staples” which are only contextually useful in a game where context always changes).
With all of that said, as I’m writing my set review in advance of release weekend, I have a very strong positive reaction to the flavor and design of Innistrad: Crimson Vow (and I’d be the writer to tell you I didn’t, if that’s how I felt!). Blood tokens are a great in-between resource that has some cool synergy with other draw and discard mechanics. I also find the set to be familiar enough as an Innistrad offering that also explores some novel themes I hope are appealing to a more diverse Magic fanbase.
I’m trying to remember if MTG has ever had an expansion where a woman was the primary character and I can’t think of one; so, if that was ever the case, the character was so unremarkable to me I’ve already forgotten. I still have nightmares about Grand Prix and World Championship Limited matches I lost to the card Olivia Voldaren and I think the raw power of that card and character were an excellent choice to build an expansion around. I hope she finds her spark in the story and is added to the pantheon of planeswalkers because in terms of female characters I associate with being powerful, she’s very close (if not) number one in my Magic imagination.
This is an excellent looking set. I’m looking forward to seeing Blood tokens in action when playing Draft and Sealed next week when the set is available for cardboard sale.