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‘Shadows Over Innistrad Remastered’ reveals what I love most about ‘Magic: the Gathering’

(Courtesy Wizards of the Coast)
(Courtesy Wizards of the Coast)

“Magic: The Gathering” has sometimes broken my heart, but this month’s new, digital-only set, “Shadows Over Innistrad Remastered” makes me want to write a love letter.

My ardor burned bright seven years ago. I remember huddling in a D.C. board game shop, passing “Magic: The Gathering” cards back and forth across a long table. I had found my lane in the “Shadows Over Innistrad” draft — werewolves. On the front side of these trading cards, a seemingly-docile human; on the back, a monstrous hidden nature.

In a few minutes, I assembled a brand-new deck and laid siege to opponents commanding legions of other gothic horror tropes: vampires, zombies, ghosts, terrified (and terrifying) humans. 2016 was still young. My career at NPR was just kicking off, and I was finally getting settled into a D.C. that had yet to transform under a Trump presidency.

This month, I sit huddled at my computer while many of the same cards pass before my eyes on “Magic: The Gathering Arena.” A lot has happened in seven years: I secured a full-time gig, got married, endured a global pandemic and the shock of an attempted insurrection just down the street from my office. For all its terrors, “Shadows Over Innistrad Remastered” conjures a simpler time.

(Courtesy of Wizards of the Coast)
(Courtesy of Wizards of the Coast)

Out of the past

“Magic: The Gathering” has changed, too. Hundreds of new cards come out each year in different collections called sets (that rate is ever-increasing). As a kid, I had only vague awareness of how one set might differ from another. I’d play as most people do: by opening packs occasionally and scraping together decks to challenge my friends with. But in college, I fell into an entirely different way to play.

You don’t bring your own deck to a Magic draft. Rather, you sit down with other players (typically seven others), open a pack, take a card, and pass it on. Do that with three 15-card packs and you’ll end up with the building blocks of a deck. Then you and your fellow drafters compete in a little tournament.

Drafting immediately hooked me. Each event might cost you the price of a movie ticket, but it’s cheaper than chasing expensive cards to keep decks competitive. I’ve often said that Magic itself is not my favorite card game (that honor would go to either the “Arkham Horror Card Game” or “Netrunner,” depending on the day), but Magic draft certainly is. Every time feels new and exciting. No two decks will come together exactly the same way. Not every set makes for a great draft experience, but those that do still get invoked in hushed tones: “New Phyrexia,” “Rise of the Eldrazi,” “Innistrad.”

So I was ready to swoon for 2016’s “Shadows Over Innistrad.” I had missed the original set, but my friends would swap tales of exploits based around cards like Snapcaster Mage, Burning Vengeance, and Spider Spawning. For the macabre part of me that came to love “Bloodborne” and “Resident Evil,” “Shadows Over Innistrad” and its immediate sequel, “Eldritch Moon” was all I ever wanted: a ghoulish setting that perfectly matched theme to game mechanics.

“Innistrad” pioneered double-faced cards for “Magic.” Designers cooked up the idea for werewolves, but other cards came to depict different monstrous transformations. A Screeching Bat turns into a Stalking Vampire, a Cloistered Youth into an Unholy Fiend, a Civilized Scholar into a Homicidal Brute. Evil always lurks just under the surface.

The returning ‘Shadows Over Innistrad’ took the micro-stories implied by these two-sided cards and twisted them further. An inspiring Militia Captain turns into a Cult Leader, a Pious Evangel into a murderous Wayward Disciple, a Kindly Stranger into a Demon-Possessed Witch. The next set, ‘Eldritch Moon’ went from the uncanny to the cosmic. Here, werewolves had lost their humanity entirely. They start in their lupine forms, only to transform into unearthly abominations like something out of “Annihilation.”

But even more unsettling is the set’s final evolution on the mechanic. Under the influence of an invading, unknowable entity, creatures start to meld with each other — their backs fit together to form one gigantic card. Cemetery rats fuse with graverobbers, a township combines into one writhing mass, two angels who had protected humanity instead merge into a ghastly, wailing nightmare that still disturbs me whenever I see it.

(Courtesy of Wizards of the Coast)
(Courtesy of Wizards of the Coast)

Into the future

Fast forward to March 2023, and I’m reunited with an old love. “Shadows Over Innistrad Remastered,” isn’t everything I had imagined, but it resembles its old self enough to compel me to draft it again and again. I’m alone on my computer, but my Magic friends aren’t gone — we watch each other’s streams to discuss every draft pick, we debate every deck build.

Where once I had to play catch-up on what made the old Innistrad great, today I’m doling out my wisdom to newcomers. I’m also opinionated. “Remastered,” is itself melded from two sets. Taken together, “Shadows Over Innistrad” and “Eldritch Moon” featured just over 500 cards. “Shadows Over Innistrad Remastered” pruned that number back to just under 300. I’ll complain about the darlings they killed — some of my favorite werewolves, from Breakneck Rider to Lambholt Pacifist. I’ll shake my head at their decision to waste spots on an unimpressive meld combo (Graf Rats and Midnight Scavengers).

But if I’m being honest, most of the cuts make sense — it feels like a more streamlined, more balanced draft experience. It’s also nostalgic in another way: each pack includes one card from a rotating selection of even older Innistrad cards dubbed “Shadows of the Past.”

It’s time for me to reveal that “Magic: The Gathering” transformed me from a mild-mannered producer into a delirious obsessive. I’ve been ‘remastering’ Innistrad since 2019, when I started curating what Magic fanatics call a ‘cube’ — a special collection of cards that simulate an actual draft experience. I’m not the only person to do this, but I’ve tried valiantly to capture the rhythm of a normal pack — broader and wilder, but not spiritually dissimilar from what “Magic Arena”’s design team just accomplished.

So while I have armchair critiques of “Shadows Over Innistrad Remastered,” it still warms my heart. It feels like springtime in my corner of the Magic world, after last year’s controversial "Anniversary Edition" had some fans howling.

Previews for the climactic, multiverse-spanning “March of the Machine” have started. A summer crossover with “The Lord of the Rings” initially raised eyebrows, but impressed with imaginative card adaptations of its characters (complete with a marketing ploy that’s also inspiring the covetous desires that drive its story).

So while I’ll never be able to time-travel to those 2016 draft experiences; I have the next-best thing: a decent online tribute to the set I fell in love with, and my own cardboard collection that requires only three to seven friends to spark real magic.

James Perkins Mastromarino Producer, Here & Now
James Perkins is an associate producer for Here & Now, based at NPR in Washington, D.C.

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