Magic’s ‘Shadows Over Innistrad’ Is Garlic Sprinkled on Vanilla Ice Cream

'Arena of the Planeswalkers' always felt kinda plain. Not anymore.

Hasbro/Wizards of the Coast

The gladiatorial bouts in Arena of the Planeswalkers, the Magic: The Gathering board game that launched in the middle of 2015, are serviceable affairs. The skirmishes produce tension in easily consumable amounts, but the squads included in the original game lack spice. Shadows Over Innistrad, an expansion coming in fall 2016 (though it also works as a stand-alone entry), is clearly meant to change that. The new game is heavily seasoned with memorable characters and bold designs. It’s familiar, but also undeniably new.

What is not new is the rulebook, lifted from the classic Heroscape game engine and given a Magic multiverse dye job. (For newbies, the rulebook is laid out more intuitively this time around, with a mini-glossary of terms providing answers to a few ambiguous situations.) If you like combat games that go down fairly easy — move, play cards, throw dice, repeat — Shadows Over Innistrad falls into a comfortable rhythm; it’s the tactical board game that hears your shouts of “Free Bird!” and happily begins strumming.

Of the four new planeswalkers (essentially, the character a player chooses at the start) in Shadows Over Innistrad, the least exciting — but by no means unfun — are the wizard Jace and the vampire named Sorin. Jace is a clue-searching mage who sports the power of an extra 25 points of spell cards and the possibility of stealing the top card of your opponents deck (if you can name it, which, good luck). Sorin, a vampire’s vampire, heals himself after killing other creatures and gets to attack an extra adjacent character.

But the other two planeswalkers are where the new expansion starts cooking with magical swamp gas (Innistrad, for the uninitiated, is the “spooky” world in Magic lore). Arlinn Kord begins the game as a long-range wizard sniper, but, as a werewolf, she has the option of transforming into a melee bruiser at the end of each turn. And Nahiri, using the power of lithomancy, can pop down a bonus sand tile to give herself the high ground. Both are flavorful mechanics that do excellent work in a Magic game like this, with Nahiri physically altering the board and Arlinn’s two separate figurines showcasing her lycanthropy in plastic.

Design space reconnoitered in Arena of the Planeswalker’s first, smaller expansion, Battle for Zendikar, is mined more fully here; the new set comes with triple the multicolored planeswalkers — Sorin (black/white), Nahiri (red/white), and Arlinn (red/green) — as well as four “heroes,” more powerful types of summonable creatures that do not exist in the original game. The hero angel Avacyn flies across the board to mete out a damage point of justice to each adjacent enemy creature at the end of her turn; the Necro-Alchemist builds up charge counters and blasts them out as bonus damage dice from the end of his Ghostbuster cannon. (The non-hero creatures — including a pair of green crossbow-wielding werewolves — are a welcome addition, if only because they open up novel custom army designs when paired with the base game.)

The counters themselves are new, too, as chits produced by abilities and cards buff up creatures’ attacks and defenses. Of the enchantment and sorcery cards, there are 48, and they either do good things to you or nasty things to your opponent. Perhaps the nastiest of them all is “Fell The Mighty,” a sorcery that destroys every nonwhite creature hapless enough to be standing next to planeswalkers like Sorin or Nahiri.

Finally, there are the cryptoliths. Cryptoliths are akin to stone trees and are treated as such in the game’s terrain. Characters can climb cryptoliths to rain furious attack dice down upon enemy heads. Or, characters can chop down cryptoliths from below. Aesthetically, the twisty gray shafts are sort of uncomfortable, with a vibe that’s less “ancient mystery” and more “Cthulhuic sex toy partially melted in dishwasher.” Playing lumberjack when your opponent is a top one is fun, though.

The three cryptoliths: Weird to look at, fun to chop down.

Hasbro/Wizards of the Coast

If you liked Arena of the Planeswalkers but wished it were bolder, Shadows Over Innistrad is a necessary expansion. It is a fistful of vampire-fighting garlic tossed at the vanilla base game. In fact, if you’ve never played either and had to pick between the two, we might recommend this one over its predecessor; you get fewer figurines and characters, true, but their abilities can yield more interesting gameplay. And, unlike the original game which consisted only of set armies, the game’s multicolored planeswalkers mean custom groups are a possibility out of the box.

If Arena of the Planeswalkers was not your cup of gladiatorial sand, Shadows Over Innistrad will do little to change your mind. But if you loved Arena of the Planeswalkers, mixing in Shadows Over Innistrad will give you more of that tactical tingle.

Shadows Over Innistrad will be rolling into hobby shops and game stores in fall 2016, according to Hasbro. The 24 figures, eight dice, three awkward Lovecraft trees, 48 cards, etc. will set you back an MSRP of $29.99.