First Look At Theros

Brian Kibler talks about the cards that have caught his eye in Theros so far and provides some rough sketches to illustrate what they might be capable of in Standard.

We’ve only seen a fraction of the cards in the set, and I can already sense that Theros is going to be a sweet one. Sure, I’ve been critical of some of the design decisions that went into the set, but I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t super excited for a chance to start playing with these cards. There’s a ton of cool stuff that has been revealed already, and we’ve only seen about half the set! This week, I want to look at some of the cards that stand out to me at first look and explore how they might fit into the new Standard format.

The first group of cards I want to look at are the Gods. These are the hardest cards to evaluate at a glance simply because they are so different from anything we have ever seen before. How difficult will it be to reach five devotion in a color? How many ways will there be to remove indestructible enchantments? It is amusing to me that you can Chained to the Rocks a God—that seems like the sort of thing they wouldn’t like—and there’s also Glare of Heresy that can take care of Heliod. I suppose he blasphemes a lot against himself.

I think one of the best ways to look at the Gods is to look at what they offer in the situations in which they aren’t enabled. How powerful is their enchantment effect when they’re not actually in creature form?

One that stands out to me is Erebos. While the ongoing effect of Erebos to prevent your opponent from gaining life isn’t all that impressive now that Thragtusk is gone, the activated ability is extremely powerful. Yes, drawing a card for two mana and two life is a weaker version of Greed for the same mana cost. Greed may not have seen much play in its time in Standard way back when, but it didn’t come with a body attached.

Erebos seems powerful to me because his ability can actively contribute to achieving his devotion threshold. If you play Erebos out at or near the top of your curve in an aggressive black deck and your opponent wipes your board with Supreme Verdict, you can use his activated power to rebuild your resources to turn him back into a creature again.

Interestingly, while black has historically featured heavy colored-mana requirements, the departure of Geralf’s Messenger (and the rest of Innistrad block) leaves very few good low-cost black devotees. Ravnica block’s multicolored focus gave us very few double-black cards, and the hybrid options are pretty bad—Rakdos Shred-Freak, Slitherhead, Deathcult Rogue, and Cryptborn Horror are all pretty hard to play, although Nightveil Specter is interesting.

The most interesting card to pair with Erebos in my mind is Dark Prophecy. As a BBB enchantment, it contributes massively to your devotion to black without being vulnerable to creature removal. Granted, it has no immediate impact on the board itself, but like Erebus it can help keep you drawing a steady stream of cards to ensure you keep your devotion high. If we want to go really extreme, we can take a full-on devotion approach and try the Gray Merchant of Asphodel. A 2/4 creature for five mana is hardly a great deal, but alongside heavy black cards like Dark Prophecy, it definitely has huge potential upside.

Here’s a very rough sketch of a potential Erebos deck maximizing the devotion mechanic. This is certainly far from a competitive deck at this point and is merely meant to show off the concept:

The other God that is exciting to me is Purphoros. A big part of this is that red has far better options for establishing early devotion. Thought draws with multiple Burning-Tree Emissarys were frustratingly powerful before?

They’re only going to get worse when they start enabling devotion.

There’s also the not-so-minor detail that Purphoros has what is almost certainly the best of the God weapons. (Well, the Bow might be better, but I keep falling asleep reading the list of different abilities and never make it to the end.) I was actually thinking not long ago that Fires of Yavimaya would be a sweet card to have around, especially now that so many of the sweet haste creatures we’ve been playing with for the past few years are gone. While literally all sixteen of the haste creatures from my G/R deck are rotating out, now we have the Hammer of Purphoros to get everyone in the red zone right away.

That said, I’m not sure Purphoros is a great option for all-in rush-style red decks simply because if you get to the point in the game at which you have a bunch of creatures in play that your opponent hasn’t dealt with, there’s a good chance you’re already winning. I suppose it’s possible you end up in a stalemate situation that Purphoros could help you break through, but much of the time you’re likely better off with some kind of burn spell or haste creature to back up your Rakdos Cacklers and the like.

Purphoros seems more exciting to me as a tool for a more midrange-style red deck. The recently spoiled Anger of the Gods seems like a fine tool for such a deck, which can enable devotion with Boros Reckoner, Chandra’s Phoenix, and Chandra herself.

Purphoros also offers tremendous combo-kill potential with token-makers. His Pandemonium style ability makes Young Pyromancer triggers that much more exciting. The problem with a Young Pyromancer focused Purphoros deck is that you’re unlikely to be able to satisfy the devotion requirements very often in a deck full of spells to trigger Pyromancer.

In any case, here are quick sketches of all of these: aggro, midrange, and combo.

The other Gods just don’t excite me nearly as much. Thassa seems pretty nice since she’s the cheapest of the five at only three mana and free scry plus the ability to make your creatures unblockable are both powerful. The problem is that blue is the least proactive of the colors and has the hardest time establishing a board presence to enable devotion. Even most aggressive blue decks (outside of lord-spamming Merfolk) are typically about establishing an early threat and backing it up with disruption rather than playing out a bunch of permanents to the board. Perhaps we’ll see that change, but I doubt it—if anything, the cheaper cost of Thassa is a nod to exactly that fact.

On the subject of the more mortal denizens of Theros, I have to say that I really like the monstrosity mechanic and am very excited about many of the monsters we’ve seen. I love the fact that monstrosity can allow for creatures that are costed aggressively for the early and midgame to also provide significant value later on.

It’s no secret that I am a fan of midrange strategies—that is, decks that are capable of changing gears and taking an aggressive posture against control decks or playing defensively against aggressive decks. The best midrange cards are those that can have a significant impact at any stage of the game. These are cards like Scavenging Ooze and Knight of the Reliquary that can come out early to either apply or relieve pressure and can still be significant threats if a game goes on for a long time.

Monstrosity offers exactly that—the ability for a card to impact the game early when you play it for its normal mana cost, as well as later on when you activate its monstrosity ability. An obvious example is Polukranos, World Eater, which offers a substantial board presence early as a 5/5 for four but also threatens to destroy your opponent’s entire team and become absolutely enormous given sufficient mana to go monstrous. And green certainly isn’t lacking in ways to generate extra mana, especially with our new buddy Xenagos, the Reveler around.

Maybe this deck should have more than one copy of Nylea, God of the Hunt in it since it’s clearly capable of reaching the devotion threshold very quickly and at bare minimum the trample passive effect is powerful with cards like Polukranos and Arbor Colossus. I like the fact that the monstrous creatures in here give you a great use for mana late in the game, especially now that we’re lacking something like Kessig Wolf Run. Nylea’s activated ability helps there as well.

I’m a little hesitant to play a green creature deck in what I imagine is a world of Lifebane Zombies, but I’m also really impressed by the potential of Fleecemane Lion. A 3/3 for two isn’t as impressive as it was when Watchwolf showed up– we have Krosan Tusker at GG nowadays, and there’s already Call of the Conclave. That said, a 4/4 with hexproof and indestructible is very impressive, especially when it comes in that same 3/3 for two package. Right now I’m not as impressed by the options available for G/W as I am for G/R, though—it’s hard to beat having two planeswalkers in your colors, especially when you’d have to give up actual removal in the process.

As I was writing this, the spoiler went up for Firedrinker Satyr, which means that a red deck can have quite a few two-power one-drops—and even more of them if you dip into black as well. Going B/R also gives you access to the impressively named Tymaret, the Murder King. Maybe you could play something like this:

This isn’t the most exciting mana base, but there’s a lot of power here. Twelve two-power one-drops and eight three-power two-drops—half of those with haste! Late in the game, most of your team can speed up thanks to Exava, Rakdos Blood Witch, who seems poised for a breakout now that competition from Hellrider and Falkenrath Aristocrat is gone. The combination of Tymaret, the Murder King and Hellhole Flailer give the deck a great deal of reach as well despite only playing four Lightning Strikes for actual burn, and Dreadbore provides catchall removal to help keep your creatures pounding through. I wouldn’t want to play this deck in a world full of green creatures like my last list above, but if that’s where things end up, you could always play some Lifebane Zombies . . .

One thing that this decklist highlights is that while the new set only has Temples for five color combinations, it doesn’t appreciably impact the mana quality available to the other pairs. The Guildgates offer a nice bridge that gives each guild pairing access to eight dual lands—granted, not as high quality as we might be used to, but functional nonetheless. There aren’t color combinations that simply aren’t playable because of a lack of mana fixing, which is something that has happened after the rotation of lands in the past.

How about something completely different?

4 Young Pyromancer
4 Frostburn Weird
2 Nivix Cyclops
4 Spellheart Chimera
4 Izzet Charm
4 Steam Augury
4 Quicken
3 Magma Jet
1 Turn // Burn
3 Lightning Strike
2 Ral Zarek
1 Thassa, God of the Sea
4 Steam Vents
4 Izzet Guildgate
9 Mountain
7 Island

This deck gets a lot of juice from Theros, with both Steam Augury and Spellheart Chimera giving a lot of potential power to a spell-based Izzet deck that was somewhat lacking before, not to mention Magma Jet to help get your spell triggers while still getting some value. Frostburn Weird may seem, well, weird, but it’s a great blocker against early aggression that can also hit really hard. The fact that it provides two devotion for Thassa is relevant if you end up going more in that direction as well.

As I mentioned at the start, these are all very raw lists just meant as proof of concept for the potential of various cards in the set. I haven’t played a game with any of them, as I always wait for the full set to be released before I start my testing in earnest. That said, there are quite a few cards in Theros that have my creative juices flowing already, and I can’t wait to get my hands on them and start battling.

What Theros cards are you most excited for?

Until next time,