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Magic History: Innistrad

Magic Untapped takes a look back at the set Innistrad.

After nearly 30 years of Magic: The Gathering, it's nice to look back at older sets to reminisce and see just how much the game has changed over the years.

In this video, we look back at Innistrad, the first set in Magic: The Gathering's original Innistrad block.  And joining as a special guest for this retrospective is Mark Rosewater, the game's head designer.

Check it out:

Video Transcript:

Innistrad is the first set in its namesake block and, with it, comes a new plane, a new story, and the 56th expansion in Magic: The Gathering history.

The set came out on September 30, 2011, roughly a month before Halloween, which is relevant because the plane is a top-down-designed horror-themed setting and block, complete with zombies, vampires, werewolves, ghosts, and terrified humans.

And, what does it mean to be a top-down designed set?

<<Maro 3:25-4:02 “I really like the idea…feel of the genre.”>>

As for what the difference between a top-down designed set and a bottom-up designed set goes…

<<Maro 4:09-38 “A bottom-up set is…you’re doing here.”>>

As for the story of Innistrad, you can check out the novel….  Wait a moment…  Crap…  You know what?  There is no novel for Innistrad (though there is an art book that released years after the set’s debut that can be found for around $30-40, if y’all are interested).

<<Maro 10:34-39 “When we started…going to be.”>>

Instead, Wizards of the Coast let snippets of the story out via an augmented reality game as well as a few short stores that could be found on the Magic: The Gathering website (at least, they were there until Hasbro/Wizards of the Coast re-did their website in early 2023).

Thankfully, we did our homework and were able to put together this block-wide story summary for you:

Thousands of years ago on the plane of Innistrad was an aging alchemist named Edgar Markov.  Fearing death from old age, he was experimenting with ways to achieve agelessness not just for himself, but for his beloved grandson, Sorin.

Famine began to take hold of the land, which made Edgar even more committed to his experiments.  That’s when Shilgengar, a powerful demon lord on the plane, convinced the human alchemist to begin experimenting with blood.  Taking the demon’s advice, Edgar traps one of the plane’s angels and exsanguinates her.

The alchemist forms a concoction from her blood and, after learning the secrets of sangromancy from Shilgengar, formed a ritual that granted agelessness in those who took part in it, as well as the ability to exist on the consumption of another’s blood.  Quite literally, it turned Edgar and all those who take part in the ritual into vampires – a race that had previously not existed on the plane.

Seeking to bestow the same boon upon Sorin as he had himself, Edgar put his grandson through the same ritual.  The experience proved quite troublesome for the Markov heir.  The trauma of it all caused Sorin’s latent planeswalker spark to ignite.

Once recovered from the ordeal, the now vampiric Sorin departed the plane partially in disgust of what Innistrad had become.  Time and time again, however, he would return to keep an eye on the happenings there.

Over the course of his visits, he noticed that the vampires were pushing humanity towards the point of extinction.  This caused Sorin to figure out a way to save the humans and, in doing so, the vampire race as well.

Using existing legends about the moon he created a network of enchantments which could help protect the humans and also created a symbol to be at the center of them.  That symbol would be the archangel Avacyn, a divine being of his own creation.

With Avacyn in place, humanity began to survive and thrive in the darkness of Innistrad. Avacyn’s creation, however, had an unintended consequence as, with the influx of such light into the plane the forces of darkness also increased.  Demons and devils came into corporeal form and their numbers increased dramatically.

One day, Avacyn was challenged to a battle by the demon Griselbrand whom had landed on the Helvault – a giant piece of silver that is presumed to be from the plane’s moon and, thus, considered one of the realm’s most holy objects – as an act of defiance.

The battle took place out of the view of all but Avacyn’s host, Mikaeus the Lunarch and the highest ranking clergymen in the Church of Avacyn.  As the battle met its climax, Avacyn decided to trap Griselbrand within the Helvault.

As she began to cast the binding spell, however, the demon impaled her through the heart with her own spear.  This caused the spell to backlash and Avacyn to be pulled into the Helvault along with Griselbrand.

Mikaeus and his bishops quickly covered up Avacyn’s un-intentional imprisonment and temporarily succeeded in diverting the public’s attention from her absence. Unfortunately, Avacyn’s disappearance would have catastrophic repercussions throughout Innistrad as the protective wards and the faith based magic her followers employed became increasingly weaker as time progressed.

Darkness began to engulf the plane once again.

The spirits of the dead began to linger on the plane more often and became even more violent then before.  The dead rose from their graves and legions of undead began wiping out outlying villages.  Werewolves and vampires began slaughtering humans at an ever increasing pace.  And demons and devils became even more commonplace than ever before.

It was at about this point in time that two insane siblings, the mad scientist apprentice Geralf and his necromantic sister, Gisa, launched their attack on Thraben – one of Innistrad’s largest human cities – with their armies of undead.  While they succeeded in overtaking the outer ring of the city and even in killing the Lunarch Mikaeus, their zombie army was ultimately destroyed by the church and its forces thanks to the quick actions of the cathar Thalia.

Meanwhile, Liliana Vess was also in Thraben busily searching for information about Griselbrand as he is one of the four demons she struck a bargain with after the nature of her planeswalker spark changed, ensuring her immortality and power.

Unfortunately, as she would quickly learn, the only person who knew where Griselbrand is, Lunarch Mikaeus, is now deceased.  She gains access to Mikaes’ corpse and, using the power of necromancy to bring him back to un-life, she learns the whereabouts of Griselbrand.

Quickly, she makes her way to the Helvault supported with a modest force of summoned ghouls.  Unfortunately for Vess, though, once she arrived she found herself surrounded by the forces of Helvault’s guardian, Thalia.  Finding herself unable to destroy the holy monument and release her demonic target, Liliana instead cast a spell that could wind up forcing Thalia to destroy the very thing she had been sworn to protect.  With a wave of her hand, Vess made Thalia’s men paralyzed and, thusly, unable to defend themselves from her army of ghouls.

Liliana then gives Thalia an ultimatum: either she will destroy the Helvault or her men will be killed.  Thalia took a moment to ponder the decision, but the strangled cry from one of her men forced her hand.  Disappointed, Thalia pointed to the Helvault.  Knowing she had won, Liliana nodded and completed her mission.

Cracks immediately began to appear and spread across the surface of the Helvault.  A moment later, it shattered completely.  As it shattered, a brilliant golden helix shot skyward.

It was the archangel Avacyn, finally free from her prison.  Grislebrand, too, was freed, as were many other demons whom Avacyn had previously trapped within the Helvault.  As for Grislebrand himself, he made a beeline for his lair.  Vess followed in pursuit.

Shortly after Avacyn’s return, a massive surge was felt in what remained of her protective wards and holy magics and flights of angels returned, seemingly in numbers than ever before.  Once again, humanity began pushing back against the darkness that had spread in Avacyn’s absence.

It was also around this time that Liliana tracked Griselbrand to his lair. After a brief confrontation she drew power through the Chain Veil and cast a spell that destroyed the demon outright.  One down.  Three more to go until Vess can claim herself for her once again.

And that (more or less) covers it for the story of the Innistrad block.  As for the set of Innistrad, though, there’s far more to tell.

<<Maro 5:52-6:44 “The story of Innistrad…and used that as its impedance.”>>

Innistrad’s gothic horror emphasis established, the set (and, really, the block as a whole) makes extensive use of horror tropes such as werewolves, vampires, zombies, and the number 13.  But it goes beyond that by utilizing real-world inspirations such as “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hide” by Robert Louis Stevenson, “The Raven” by Edgar Allen Poe, the classic “B” horror movie, “The Blob,” and more.

<<Maro 13:11-58 “We just made…scientist into monster.”, Maro 2 23:54-24:10, 24 “We got Dr. Jeckyl and…make a cool thing.”>>

Innistrad, however, wasn’t Wizard of the Coast’s first foray into gothic horror themes.  In fact, the set Homelands from 1995 dabbled in the genre.  Interestingly enough, for just a moment, Wizards considered making a new set based in Homelands’ setting of Ulgrotha before settling on creating the then-new plane of Innistrad instead.

<<Maro 7:32-8:31 “So, Homelands is…we want to build.”>>

Innistrad features graveyard and tribal mechanics with the set’s five main tribes each being split mostly between two colors:

  • Spirits in white and blue;
  • Zombies in blue and black;
  • Vampires in black and red;
  • Wolves (both feral and were-varities) in red and green, and;
  • Humans in green and white.

In terms of keyword mechanics and whatnot, Innistrad has a nice selection both new and returning.

First off, flashback, which originated in Odyssey and made a return in Time Spiral, comes back.  Then there’s fight, which is a new keyword for an old ability that had been used for years prior on cards such as Arena and Tahngarth, Talruum Hero.

<Maro 19:02-31 “Fight goes back…to keyword it.”>>

Innistrad also introduced the new ability word morbid, which signals that a spell or ability has a different or additional effect if a creature had died at some point earlier that turn.  And, finally, there’s transform.  It’s an ability that changes what a specific card is and does.  And, to do that, Innistrad also introduces a new, double-faced card that, instead of the traditional Magic card back, it has a card’s transformed front.  And, because of that, Wizards of the Coast included checklist cards with the traditional Magic card back in booster packs so that players can mark which double-faced card they’re using should they be playing with opaque sleeves or no sleeves at all.

<<Maro 15:36-16:50, 23:20-24:14 “Tom LaPille…in your sleeves.” “Once we knew…be a trope.”>>

A new enchantment subtype also makes its debut in Innistrad: curses.  Curses are aura enchantments, but instead of enchanting a creature or other permanent, it enchants a player and grants them a detrimental effect.

<<Maro 28:08-29:33 “Curses owe their origin…the sub-type of curses.”>>

In terms of cycles, Innistrad features five:

  • Rare flashback cards, each of which carry a very expensive flashback cost;
  • Allied flashback cards, which have a flashback cost in a color that is allied with the card’s actual color;
  • Enemy flashback cards, which have a flashback cost in an enemy color;
  • Allied utility lands, each of which tap for one colorless mana, but have a second activated ability involving an allied color pair, and;
  • Enemy-colored taplands, each of which producing either color of an enemy-colored pair, but come into play tapped unless its controller already controls a land with a basic land type that shares a color with it.  Also, these enemy-colored tap lands finish up a ten card mega cycle with the allied-colored taplands that were introduced in Magic 2010.

In terms of notable and valuable cards, Innistrad has a nice selection and includes such noteworthy cards as:

  • Bloodline Keeper, a popular vampire tribal card that not only can create its own vampires, but (once transformed) can also provide a sizable buff to them all;
  • Delver of Secrets, which is widely played in aggro-control tempo decks and can be quite strong as it transforms from a one-drop 1/1 into a 3/2 flyer – sometimes on the very next turn;
  • Garruk Relentless, the first ever double-face planeswalker in Magic.  It’s also the first planeswalker card to have five loyalty abilites;
  • Geist of Saint Traft, a powerful early-game creature that can protect itself through its hexproof ability and can hit hard thanks to it creating a 4/4 angel whenever it attacks;
  • Laboratory Maniac, a card that allows you to win the game if you have no more cards left in your deck rather than lose it;
  • Liliana of the Veil, which instantly became one of the top planeswalker cards ever printed thanks to its ability to shift the game in your favor through discard and board control.  The card is a Modern staple and is also seen on the Legacy scene;
  • Parallel Lives, an enchantment that doubles the number of tokens as they are being put into play, and;
  • Snapcaster Mage, a defining card that had a big impact not just in Standard at the time, but still today in Modern and Legacy.  The final Magic Invitational prize card to be printed, it was made by and bares the likeness of Invitational winner Tiago Chan.

But there were also other cards that were planned that had to be cut from the set for one reason or another.  For example…

<<Maro 12:01-05, 12:13-36 “The plan was…to be Arlinn.” “There were only…that Arlinn had.”>>

Thankfully for Magic players and werewolf fans alike, Arlinn would finally get her own card when Magic returned to the plane of Innistrad in the set Shadows over Innistrad.

And, while we’re on the topic of single cards, Innistrad’s prerelease promo was the rather underwhelming double-faced card Mayor of Avabruk/Howlpack Alpha.  Likewise, the set’s release promo was yet another double-faced card: Ludevic’s Test Subject/Ludevic’s Abomination.  Innistrad game day participants were handed a full-art Diregraf Ghoul.  Top-eight Game Day finishers got were awarded a full-art, foil Elite Inquisitor.  Innistrad’s buy-a-box promo card was Devil’s Play.

And, while the overall reception of Innistrad’s assorted promo cards was lukewarm at best, the reception of the set itself was anything but.

<Maro 2 12:38-13:19 “People ask me all…what top-down sets were.”>>

So, is Innistrad one of your all-time favorite Magic: The Gathering sets?  Love it or hate it, let us know your thoughts in the comment section below.

If you’d like to support Magic Untapped and more videos like this, please remember to like this video, subscribe to the channel, and pop a buck in our tip jar on Patreon.

Thank you for watching.

Barry White

Barry White is a longtime Magic: The Gathering player, having started in 1994 shortly before the release of 'Fallen Empires.' After graduating from the University of Nevada, Reno, he went on to a 15-year journalism career as a writer, reporter, and videographer for three different ABC affiliate newsrooms.