2021 has been a great year for Magic the Gathering sets, including the excellent Innistrad: Midnight Hunt, and now finishing up with Innistrad: Crimson Vow. Where Midnight Hunt was all about Werewolves vs Villagers, with a sprinkle of witches, Crimson Vow is themed around a vampire wedding. This hook makes it really one of the first Magic the Gathering sets I’ve played in the last 9 years where I’ve been genuinely interested in the story (I am a sucker for a vampire romance, ngl).
The main set theme is blood tokens, which makes sense. If Hollywood has taught me anything it’s that vampires only love two things: blood and teenage girls. Blood tokens are token artifacts with the ability of “(1), tap, Discard a card, Sacrifice this artifact: Draw a card”. It’s a lot of effort just to get a card, particularly when you’re unlikely to be able to play much from your graveyard in a limited scenario. I’m also slightly irritated that the Blood tokens don’t better follow the effects of vampirism. Surely dealing one damage to an opponent and gaining one life would have been a better use of blood in a vampire set? Or using it to take control of a creature opponent controls through thrall. Like, it’s cool, it’s fine, it’s a nifty mechanic, I just wish it had been thematically more en pointe.
The set also has two new keyword abilities for players to master: Cleave and Training.
Cleave lets you pay a different cost to remove the words in brackets. A good example of Cleave is Alchemist’s Gambit, a sorcery with a mana cost of (1)RR that reads:
“Take an extra turn after this one. During that turn, damage can’t be prevented. [At the beginning of that turn’s end step, you lose the game.]”
There are plenty of times where it’s worth giving it a shot and throwing everything on one final turn. But, if you pay the Cleave cost of (4)UUR, you can remove that last sentence in the square brackets, and suddenly Alchemist’s Gambit becomes a gamechanger you can come back from if it doesn’t work out. Cleave also shows up on plenty of other cards with varying usefulness.
Training is more straight forward: whenever this creature attacks with another creature with greater power, put a +1/+1 counter on this creature. It’s simple, handy, and, if you squint, you can almost see the connection to a vampire wedding.
Across the whole set, the day and night mechanic is back and ready to shake things up. And, for a set themed around vampires, it still has some amazing green cards: Avabruck Caretaker is going to go in every deck I can make it fit.
Crimson Vow commander decks
Of course, with each new set comes more new Commander decks, full of specially designed cards that aren’t legal in other formats.
As a green/white player who hates blue and has very little patience for Instants and Sorceries, I was somewhat apprehensive going into the pre-fab commander decks for this set. But, I was pleasantly surprised to discover they weren’t as far from being my jam as I feared. Spirit Squadron (blue/white) does dabble a little in blue’s irritating tendency to cancel spells and kill all creatures, but it’s also about building a token army of spirits, which I am most certainly down with. Meanwhile, Vampiric Bloodline (red/black) is all about life gain, Blood artifact tokens and drawing cards.
Both decks are perfect for casual play, and compete well against both each other, and the pre-fab Commander decks from Midnight Hunt (from which Coven Counters is the best pre-fab Commander deck I’ve ever played). As with most good Commander decks, they’re best played in games with 3+ players, and are chock full of cards that mean you’ll be lucky to get out of any game in under an hour.
A step in the right direction
Another cool thing is that there’s a card with a lesbian couple: Halana and Alena, Partners. One of the things I love about the card is that they are unambiguously queer, and live up to my expectations of what a lesbian couple usually looks like: one is a majestic, elegant archer, and the other is an angry sword goblin with terrible dress sense (in my marriage, I am the goblin).
Alena and Halana were first introduced in card-form last year, as Legendary Creatures with Partner, so both could be used as your Commander at the same time. Giving them a shared card and making it clear they’re both together and key to the story is incredible, and something I couldn’t have imagined when I first started playing.
I used to run the Melbourne chapter of Planeswalkers For Diversity, which was a regular play group, and I still remember the excitement when Ashiok, the first genderless Planeswalker was introduced. Much like Disney, there have been many “first queer character ever” cards, but unlike Disney, they often felt meaningful, and usually were treated the same as any other character or card.
Halana and Alena, Partners is just the latest in a series of cards that shows Magic the Gathering is slowly (ever so slowly) becoming more inclusive in its lore. Wizards of the Coast has only actively included canon LGBTQ+ characters in the MtG lore for a quarter of its 28-year history, and that seven years hasn’t been without incident. In 2019, Wizards of the Coast got in trouble for straight-washing Chandra, a popular planeswalker, so any progress is welcome.
Earlier this year Secret Rendezvous from Strixhaven was so beautiful, and powerful. The story of Kynaios and Tiro of Meletis from Theros also holds great weight. It’s the delicate handling of these cards that give me great hope.
Interestingly, Magic the Gathering has had a better strike rate with trans and genderqueer characters than with LGB characters, which is extremely unusual and quite cool. Trans and genderqueer people have so little representation, and Planeswalkers for Diversity often had more trans and genderqueer regulars than cis-queer people, which anexdotally says the demand is here. So, I’m so happy they have characters like Ashiok, Niko Aris, Alesha, Xantcha, Karn, the Aetherborn, and Hallar. Alesa, Who Smiles At Death even has the most metal card name of all time, so that’s neat.
At my count there are currently 19 canonically queer characters in MtG lore (if we include Ajani, Chandra and Nissa), which is not many. But it’s progress, and that’s not nothing.
Overall verdict of Innistrad: Crimson Vow
Overall, while I’m not sure whether Crimson Vow will be remembered as one of the greatest sets of all time, it has good cards that are worth playing now, and makes a valuable contribution to diversity across the planes.