A Brief History of Werewolves

We're making a double visit to Innistrad this fall, and at least the Midnight Hunt half of it promises plenty of Werewolf action. Before the moon gets full and the howling begins, let's take stock of this fascinating creature type, from its rocky beginnings to becoming one of the foundations of the Gothic horror plane.


greater werewolf - lesser werewolf

The folklore of the werewolf, or lycanthrope, is extremely old. Myths about humans being able or cursed to turn into either wolves or anthropomorphic human/wolf hybrids during a full moon date back to the first century, as documented in the writings of Roman author Petronius. Associated with witchcraft during the Middle Ages, the werewolf would emerge as either a tragic or frightening figure in the Gothic literature of the Romantic era and then as one of the most iconic movie monsters of the twentieth century.

Popularized by classic horror films like 1941's The Wolf Man with Lon Chaney Jr. and 1981's An American Werewolf in London, the werewolf is now firmly established as one of the tenets of popular culture. And that's a well that Magic: The Gathering routinely taps for resonance. However, the first attempts at translating this particular trope into the game weren't too convincing.


lesser werewolf greater werewolf

Both Lesser Werewolf from Legends and Greater Werewolf from Homelands tried to capture the idea of the werewolf transmitting its curse when biting its victims. Though, to be honest, the curse should actually make the recipient stronger, not weaker. Intriguing artwork aside, these are just bad cards from notoriously bad sets.

Treacherous Werewolf from Judgment isn't that much better, but it's the prototype for the core mechanical identity the Werewolves of Magic would later adopt: transformation. In this original experiment, threshold was used as a marker of elapsed time, separating the creature's "human form" and "wolf form" like the moon phases would. However, it's just a Wolf what Treacherous Werewolf ostensibly morphed into. By then, creature types had been introduced, so this card used Minion to signify the regular state of the creature and Wolf for the post-threshold mutation.

For comparison, the previous two shots at depicting a werewolf identified as a "Lycanthrope," later changed into "Human Wolf" during the Grand Creature Type Update of 2007. For a proper Werewolf subtype we would have to wait a few more years.

The Company of Wolves


Mayor of Avabruck - Howlpack Alpha

Fast forward to September 2011, almost a full decade after Judgment. The game is finally ready to tackle all the tropes of Gothic horror, and in a more focused and structured way than with the acerbic trial represented by 1994's The Dark. Next to bloodsuckers, ghosts, and reanimated corpses, the wolfpeople are leading the charge of the Innistrad monsters. They need to convey the notion of transformation, already underlined by Treacherous Werewolf all those years prior, which results in one the most daring innovations in Magic's history: double-faced cards.

Along with several other transformation tropes from classic horror stories—Jekyll & Hyde, The Fly, vampires turning into bats—the Werewolves of Innistrad see their rule text real estate expanded to the back of their cards. On the front side, the basic human aspect is shown, symbolized by the day icon. Then, unprecedentedly, the back side hosts a different card altogether, the transformed monster of the night.


daybreak ranger nightfall predator

Unique among all the transforming double-faced cards, the Werewolf change is achieved in its own specific fashion. This takes the form of an upkeep trigger based on the player's actions or lack thereof during the turn, designated as the shift between day and night, and back again. The first transformation into Werewolf happens when one turn passes without any spell being cast—the night when everyone's asleep. The reverse process, back to Human, instead requires for any player to cast two or more spells during the same turn—the break of a new dawn.

It's functional, reasonably flavorful, and spares the players the nuisance of separately keeping track of some lunar calendar via counters, or whatever other solution the designers may have initially considered during set development. The mechanic has the side effect of forcing the Werewolf player into committing a few creatures to the board and then essentially skipping a turn in order to convert them into their more powerful states. Conversely, the opponent is encouraged to double-spell in return, something they might find hard to promptly accomplish once they reach topdeck mode.


mayor of avabruck howlpack alpha

In general, this first pack of twelve Werewolves was well-received, especially when it came to the very first rares bearing the subtype. We got a tribal lord in Mayor of Avabruck, a repeatable removal on legs in Daybreak Ranger, and heavy hitters in Kruin Outlaw/Instigator Gang.

Another crucial characteristic of these new Werewolves was their colors, as they dropped the black of the earlier specimens to fully embrace red and green—something the tribe has, to date, never walked back on. The Werewolves of Innistrad aren't evil. They're frenzied, hard-to-control monsters that are rooted in nature by their lupine souls and the lunar cycle.


huntmaster of the fells ravager of the fells

Seven more Werewolf cards were released in Dark Ascension, the second set of the original Innistrad block. (The third and final set, Avacyn Restored, had none.) The most prominent of this second batch was the tribe's first mythic, Huntmaster of the Fells, which would prove a valuable, versatile four-drop in a variety of builds, not just the tribal-oriented ones.

The two sets also provided support cards. Moonmist allowed players to bypass the transformation clause, and Full Moon's Rise established an inextricable bond between Werewolves and actual Wolves, as exemplified by cards like Immerwolf.

The Beast Within


arlinn

We would revisit the Gothic plane five years later, with 2016's double feature Shadows over Innistrad and Eldritch Moon. The Werewolves made their expected return, this time influenced by the cosmic horror of the Emrakul-induced madness.

Out of the twelve new Werewolves from the former of these two sets, the most famous is the uncommon Duskwatch Recruiter. Its success is mainly due to the way its library-digging activation allows Modern's creature toolbox lists to find their final combo piece (Walking Ballista) once they achieve infinite mana via Devoted Druid and Vizier of Remedies. In contrast, the two rares, Geier Reach Bandit and Sage of Ancient Lore were pretty underwhelming and saw almost no play since their release.


duskwatch recruiter krallenhorde howler

The silver lining (no pun intended) was that Shadows over Innistrad also debuted the Werewolf planeswalker Arlinn Kord, though none of her abilities actually reference the Werewolf subtype. In fact, she actually plays better within a Wolf shell! (Her second incarnation from War of the Spark, Arlinn, Voice of the Pack, would later partially amend this lack of synergy with her defining tribe.) The best new support card was the bite spell Moonlight Hunt.

Meanwhile, Silverfur Partisan depicts the remnant of the merged Human-Wolf hybrids from Avacyn Restored (Wolfir Avenger, Wolfir Silverheart) that the archangel had created out of Werewolves. (This was the main reason why the latter weren't featured in Avacyn's own set.)


ulrich ulrich

Seven additional Werewolves came out Eldritch Moon. Their unifying feature was the inclusion of the Horror subtype in place of the Human subtype, having lost their humanity as a consequence of Emrakul's corruption. Each of them would transform into an Eldrazi Werewolf through a mana activation, which makes them stand apart mechanically from all previous Werewolves from Innistrad. The only exception was also the most notable Werewolf of the set, the tribe's second mythic and first legend, Ulrich, leader of the plane's largest "howlpack." Furthermore, a new "transformational cheat" came in the form of Waxing Moon.

The Howling Resumes


Werewolf Pack Leader

The Werewolves' fundamental identity as double-faced cards resulted in their forced absence from all premier and supplemental sets that followed Eldritch Moon. The majority of them couldn't casually incorporate the technology required to print cards on both sides, unless it was a central theme of the set. When that element finally resurfaced with the triptych of Zendikar Rising, Kaldheim, and Strixhaven, the double-faced cards were experimenting with modal choices, which wouldn't fit a Werewolf's transformative nature.

Eventually, the announcement of a dedicated Werewolf set in Innistrad: Midnight Hunt reignited the enthusiasm of the tribe's fans. In the months leading to that release, one forerunner paved the way for the upcoming breed: Werewolf Pack Leader from Adventures in the Forgotten Realms. Its surrogate transformation flavor, which makes do without a back side through repeatable activation, is elegant enough. The card itself is quite good too, showing how far the subtype has come since its clumsy start in the nineties.

And that's the story of all 43 Werewolves printed until mid-2021. Not counting the three original black ones, they're all legal in Modern. If we tried and put together a list for them, as of right now, we might end up with something like this.


Of course this is a very general way to build the mighty fiends. One could make room (and rework the curve) for some powerhouse creature-deck helpers like Collected Company or Aether Vial, and it sure wouldn't be wrong. There's also an argument to go more low-to-the-ground with all the one-drops the tribe has to offer: Reckless Waif, Wolfbitten Captive, Village Messenger, and Kessig Prowler.

The latter is unfortunately a nombo with Moonmist, but there's something to be said for including a mana sink or two, when the main game plan involves taking entire turns off casting spells, in order to enable the transformations. Kruin Outlaw might be also worth considering in builds more slanted toward red than green.

Fair warning, though. Wolf might just be the superior lupine tribe at this point in time. It gets Nightpack Ambusher as its centerpiece and a tribal lineup made of some combination of Young Wolf, Watchwolf, Sarulf's Packmate, Witchstalker, Wolfir Avenger, and Wolfir Silverheart, plus the support of Tolsimir, Friend to Wolves, Arlinn Kord / Arlinn, Embraced by the Moon, and maybe even Garruk, Cursed Huntsman.

But this is definitely not the time to lose hope in the Werewolves. We know they'll be transforming double-faced cards in Midnight Hunt, but we don't yet know what exactly they're going to look like. For one thing, their latest representatives, from Eldritch Moon and Forgotten Realms, proved they can be detached from their usual "no spell/two spells" transformation trigger. Will this be the case? Will the new set present a different way to switch between their day and night sides?

What we know for sure is that they're about to go on a fresh rampage through Standard and potentially beyond—fangs, claws, moon, and all.


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