Welcome to part three of the Scry Five Gatewatch Retrospective! The last two weeks I’ve looked at Magic Origins and the Battle for Zendikar block. This week, it’s time to follow everyone’s favorite mind-mage as Jace leads the Gatewatch to Sorin Markov’s home plane. So, let’s look back at Shadows Over Innistrad and Eldritch Moon!

The Cards

Wizards took a step forward from the previous block in their handling of what would become the story spotlight cards—at this point they were called “pivotal moments.” It is a little hard to find official recognition of which cards were intended as the five spotlight moments—I really appreciate the addition of the watermark in Kaladesh for this reason—but most of the cards that seem to tell the story feel important and with nice and clean beats. Nahiri attacks Markov Manor (Declaration in Stone), the angels turn on the people of Innistrad (Descend Upon the Sinful), Jace figures something out (Epiphany at the Drownyard), Jace finds Tamiyo and comes into conflict with the mad Avacyn (Avacyn’s Judgment), and Sorin makes the save and kills Avacyn (Anguished Unmaking).

I have to give Anguished Unmaking a particular citation here because it is, perhaps, my favorite piece of Magic storytelling art. While I’m not blind to the arguably misogynist trope it draws upon—feel bad for this man for just having to kill this woman who is dear to him—it gives the story’s first act a clear tragic arc in Avacyn’s downfall. And that art—the fallen holy symbol of Avacyn in the corner, Avacyn seeming to submit to the necessity of her destruction and fulfill her duty to protect Innistrad, Sorin’s rage, and the surprise reveal of Jace and Tamiyo in the corner in the full art of the Game Day playmat (of which I am a proud owner)—simply exquisite.

There are also a few nice snippets of story elsewhere. The fdouble-sided cards for Archangel Avacyn and Westvale Abbey hint at intriguing stories about the plane. Always Watching captures the eeriness and the power of the mad angels really nicely, while Hope Against Hope lays out Odric’s personal conflict quite effectively. Liliana’s Indignation gives her a nice moment of terrifying strength and sets up Jace’s distrust of her (which has recurred in story several times since), while Jace gets several cards showcasing his investigation. Merciless Resolve’s art and flavor text sets up Sorin’s rage well. Call the Bloodline and Olivia, Mobilized for War offer a great setup for the ascension to power that Olivia enjoys at the end of Eldritch Moon’s story. In short, planeswalkers and legendary characters who proved central to the story all got nice moments.

In Eldritch Moon, the beats are cleaner still. Emrakul comes to Innistrad (Coax from the Blind Eternities), Sorin seeks his revenge upon Nahiri (Campaign of Vengeance), the Gatewatch shows up (Deploy the Gatewatch), Liliana comes to their aid (Dark Salvation), and finally Emrakul gets imprisoned within the silver moon of Innistrad (Imprisoned in the Moon). Imprisoned in the Moon particularly deserves credit for solving the Fall of the Titans problem from the previous set: it captures the resolution of the story, but it does so in an ingenious way that does not give everything away (in this case, as the story later reveals, that Emrakul facilitated her own imprisonment).

The Collective mini-cycle (Collective Defiance, Collective Effort, and Collective Brutality) gave us a nice series of “Gatewatch at work” cards, supplemented with Nissa in Splendid Reclamation. Give No Ground’s art and flavor text are a great moment of Gideon being Gideon, while Oath of Liliana captures her sarcasm and self-devotion well. I don’t know if this was the intent, but Mind’s Dilation always makes me think about the Tamiyo being taken over by Emrkaul, and it’s nice to have a card that evokes that moment. It’s a shame we didn’t get a card commemorating Nahiri trapping Sorin in stone, though—it’s fun watching her show off her talents in Nahiri’s Wrath, but her victory over Sorin really deserved its own card.

The Story

Overall, I thought that the Shadows Over Innistrad story worked, and many of the individual stories were effective. I bought the overarching story that Nahiri would call Emrakul to Innistrad for revenge upon Sorin, the Gatewatch would come to try saving the plane, and Liliana would join the Gatewatch. I certainly see the argument, however, that Wizards should have saved this storyline, as I know many players experienced Eldrazi fatigue.

The story team writers on Shadows Over Innistrad had a particularly challenging task: madness was a key theme of the set, and they were extending that to the story by having Jace go mad along the way. For me, it made some of the stories very difficult to read, especially the story based on Epiphany at the Drownyard. The larger story also tragically wasted a compelling character in Arlinn Kord. Her first appearance, as a wild woman commanding a pack of werewolves? Awesome. To only get a semi-origin story in the Eldritch Moon block and to not see her integrated into the narrative more fully was a true shame.

The block was, I would argue, in dire need of a wrap-up story like Battle for Zendikar’s finale. The planeswalkers’ stories wrapped up well (except for Arlinn’s), but the plane was left unusually adrift. The strange alliance of races in the battle for Thraben and Sigarda’s ascension as the chief angelic protector of the plane begged for some attempt to parse the new normal. It is a shame we didn’t get that.

Beck’s Top Five Stories of Shadows Over Innistrad Block

I do want to give an honorable mention to Kimberly Kreines for Under the Silver Moon. This was a wonderful introduction to the block, with three immediately compelling characters in the lesbian monster hunters Halana and Alena (add them to the list of Magic multiverse characters who should
have their own TV shows). Arlinn appearing naked in the woods, stunning the hunters with her ability to transform at will, is one of the most compelling debuts I’ve read in the Magic Story.

#5—The Promised End by Ken Troop

“The Promised End” has been a gift that keeps giving, with its foreshadowing of the Gatewatch’s adventures in Kaladesh and the return of the angel Emrakul in Nissa’s mind on Amonkhet. Through Jace’s side of the story, Troop takes us on a wonderful tour of personal nightmares, as well as bringing Jace face to face with the seeming madness of Emrakul’s own cosmic vision. With Liliana, meanwhile, he shows us how we get to having Magic’s most iconic black planeswalker join the cause of the Gatewatch. Closing with Tamiyo’s revelation of her possession by Emrakul, warping one of the forbidden scrolls and setting into motion more hard-to-fathom repercussions, casts a perfect shadow over the Gatewatch’s apparent victory as the block’s story ends.

#4—Stories and Endings by Nik Davidson

After chasing her for weeks, we finally met Tamiyo. Her story brought surprising glimpses of lore and legends throughout the multiverse. As she sneaks into the archives of the Thraben Cathedral, we get a trio of stories and poems that span the multiverse, including Kamigawa and Mirrodin. Her encounters with Jace and Avacyn are well-written, including Jace’s attempts to persuade her to join him in fighting Avacyn and her final refusal to use her forbidden scrolls (which, incidentally, set up the conclusion of the whole story really effectively). And the words she sends to Jace in refusing, accepting both her own death and his—as far as she knows—put one heck of a cap on the story and communicate volumes about her lawful nature.

#3—Sacrifice by Michael Yichao

“Sacrifice” is a pure stand-alone based on The Gitrog Monster, perhaps thematically connected to the larger story through the theme of madness. Given that I tend to get revved up about continuity and the overarching story, this should not have landed for me the way it did. And yet, I found this story completely engrossing. It is just a really well-executed monster story, with a wrenching final twist that caught me off-guard. Innistrad needs some pure monster stories, Yichao brought one, and it was most welcome.

#2—Games by Alison Luhrs

Fan favorites Gisa and Geralf got just one story, but boy is it a fun one. Luhrs trots out the old form of the epistolary story (a classic form that, fittingly for this story’s subjects, Mary Shelley drew upon in writing Frankenstein) to give us a look at the lives of Ghoucaller Gisa and Stitcher Geralf. Their sarcastic attacks on each other are a riot to read, and along the way we get tiny hints at the larger story, as when Gisa meets Nahiri and begins calling ghouls to serve her new friend’s mysterious needs. In an otherwise very grim block, Luhrs’s humor was a delightful breath of fresh air.

#1—Promises Old and New by Ari Levitch & Stone and Blood by Kelly Digges

Okay, okay, I’m cheating a little, but in this case these stories stand out as much as they do because of the way they build upon each other. First, in “Promises Old and New,” Sorin crashes a party at Olivia Voldaren’s manor to seek her help; the story bounces between Sorin’s interactions with the irreverent and decadent Olivia and the heavy drama of Sorin and Nahiri’s clash after Sorin
failed to answer Nahiri’s call. Sorin’s introspection really puts Levitch’s story over.

This is one of my favorite exchanges in all of Magic Story. But, Sorin’s account of his encounter with Nahiri cuts off strangely, in a way where it sort of works (Sorin and Avacyn have won) but the precise end remains unclear. The payoff comes in Digges’s “Stone and Blood,” where we first learn that Sorin imprisoned Nahiri in the Helvault and then follow Nahiri to the devastated Zendikar. The two stories work together well to shift our sympathy between the characters, rendering their conflict all the more compelling.


Overall, I do think Shadows block’s storytelling succeeds, although it is also perhaps the most flawed of the Gatewatch blocks so far. The overarching narratives—the battle between Nahiri and Sorin and Liliana joining the Gatewatch—work. The Gatewatch’s pyrrhic victory over Emrakul strikes an ominous tone. The on-card storytelling was strong, with solid story beats, good extra moments for both planeswalkers and planebound legends, and Anguished Unmaking and Imprisoned in the Moon are particularly excellent storytelling cards.

Arlinn Kord, however, is one of the biggest storytelling misses of the last two years. Her disappearance from the story, along with Kiora’s walking off into the sunset on Zendikar, formalized a trope that I call the “planar guardian” planeswalker: in every block one character (usually an exciting new character) stays on the plane with no reason to show up elsewhere anytime soon (see also: Saheeli Rai and Samut, the Tested). The lack of an aftermath story that folds in some of the popular characters on the plane and the sometimes murky writing in the Magic Stories also disappointmented.

Next week, I’m going to take a break from the Retrospective to indulge in some Ixalan speculation. Then, in two weeks, we will pay a visit to Kaladesh!

Beck Holden is a Ph.D. student in theater who lives in the greater Boston area. He enjoys drafting, brewing for standard, and playing 8-Rack in modern. He also writes intermittently about actually playing Magic at beholdplaneswalker.wordpress.com.

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