Heroic Revisited

In this week’s article, Sam presents a set of experiments that delve into exploring heroic to see if we’ve reached the point where it needs to be taken seriously in Standard.

Born of the Gods doesn’t really bring any new mechanics to build around for Standard. Before the whole spoiler was released, I hoped we might see an inspired deck. But outside of Pain Seer there isn’t much payoff, and outside of Springleaf Drum there isn’t much to enable it.

In a relatively weak set, what we do see outside of a few standouts is a shift in focus for devotion and continued support for heroic.

Devotion is the natural mechanic to look for in the set since it’s been the dominant mechanic in Standard since Theros’ release. This is largely because devotion plays well with the hybrid mana theme from the previous block. As we move forward, that block becomes less of the focus of Standard, and we get to see more of what Theros as a block is doing. (As an aside, I think it’s likely that after Ravnica block leaves Standard devotion will be a lot weaker since that block has a lot more colored mana symbols than we can expect another block to have and future design will likely be careful about printing CCC cards moving forward after the mechanic has already had its chance to shine.)

Heroic is essentially a linear mechanic because it requires such specific support. Fundamentally it asks us to do something we rarely want to do in Constructed, but as more cards are printed to reward this uncommon play pattern, it behooves us to see if there’s anything there. As such, in the name of due diligence, I present a set of experiments that delve into exploring heroic to see if we’ve reached the point where it needs to be taken seriously.

First, the most basic approach, which is a mono-white deck that takes advantage of the natural synergies between bestow and heroic:

By taking advantage of bestow, this deck manages to have twenty ways to target its heroes, nineteen enchantments to power Ethereal Armor, and twenty-eight creatures (plus four Mutavault). Bestow also gives us a smooth low curve since the bestow creatures can be played as bodies if needed. Lastly, Hero of Iroas makes the bestow costs far more affordable.

It’s noteworthy that this is a white deck without Brimaz, King of Oreskos. That’s not a selling point—the card is great, and passing on it is definitely going to be questionable. White has an incredible number of great three-drops at the moment and a relative shortage of good twos. This deck is likely doing enough to take advantage of the three-mana spells it’s playing that it wouldn’t be better to just cut some of them for Brimaz, but the fact that a deck can be built to maximize Brimaz instead means that there’s a heavy burden on building a deck around weaker three-drops like Fabled Hero and Eidolon of Countless Battles.

This deck is also playing Favored Hoplite over Soldier of the Pantheon and Spirit of the Labyrinth + Akroan Skyguard over Precinct Captain. Those cards can be changed at a relatively low cost to the rest of the deck, but every step away from supporting the central engine is a step closer to the tipping point at which the deck should just be a Brimaz deck.

The next natural consideration is to add a color now that white has all four Temples. Any color is an equally reasonable consideration.

The first color I want to look at is black. Black has a few exciting heroes, notably Agent of the Fates, and a reasonable bestow consideration in Herald of Torment, but the real draw for me is in one of my favorite cards. Cartel Aristocrat may not be a bona fide hero, but I’d often rather enchant it anyway.

Here I’m actually using Pain Seer, a card I’m not generally optimistic about, because I’m well positioned to be able to let it keep attacking throughout a game. The card draw would be particularly awesome since I’m a synergy-driven deck with a low curve.

This only has eleven enchantments for Ethereal Armor and only seven that Hero of Iroas can reduce the cost of. With that much less dedication, I think it’s better to change focus. Boon of Erebos is interesting to me. It’s often going to accomplish the same thing as Gods Willing except that it lets the creature trade up and saves it from Supreme Verdict. Losing two life is a lot worse than scrying, but there still could be something there.

What I don’t want is to find myself in a position where I’m spending my reactive spells proactively in order to turn non-threats into threats. I need to play creatures that are good enough to be worth protecting rather than small heroes. With reactive "heroic enablers," Tormented Hero becomes better than Favored Hoplite. An approach that goes even further is to use Ordeals to build threats and Gods Willing or Boon of Erebos to protect them:

I hate cutting Mutavault. But the mana really wants all colored lands and no Gates, and Mutavault makes holding Gods Willing or Boon of Erebos really awkward.

Brimaz, King of Oreskos is the ideal threat that stands on its own that I want to be using my reactive spells to protect, and it also happens to offer fodder for Cartel Aristocrat.

Hero of Iroas isn’t here to let me bestow earlier as in the decks above, but of course it can still do that with Hopeful Eidolon. Instead it lets me easily play Ordeals while holding mana up to protect my investment. One possible nice start is:

Turn 1: Temple of Silence.
Turn 2: Swamp, Hero of Iroas.
Turn 3: Plains, play two Ordeal of Erebos, protect with Gods Willing, attack for seven, and make them discard four.

Another way to build around Ordeals is with blue, which offers the best Ordeal. I like the idea of building around fliers to maximize the strength of Ordeals:

This deck feels particularly fragile—the creatures are low power on their own, the heroic enablers don’t double as extra creatures, and even the heroic enablers themselves are particularly narrow, split between proactive and reactive spells when you need to draw a mix. I think this highlights the strength of what the mono-white deck is doing, where its pieces are maximally interchangeable. Here I’ve built a deck that has to draw the exact right combination without enough payoff. It’s possible that the heroic mechanic is primarily the support for what is actually a bestow deck.

What I do like is that Triton Tactics is a lot better in a world where black is using Bile Blight as its go-to removal spell, as Triton Tactics now counters black or red removal in addition to saving creatures in combat. Let me try one more look at spell-powered heroic before getting back to bestow:

The green splash here is greedy, but I really like Warriors’ Lesson and am curious about Hero of Leina Tower. The fact that you have to have extra mana to get anything out of its heroic ability is a problem, but it might offer enough power later to be worth it. A trap of spell-based heroic outside of the fact that all the cards are inherently more narrow in application is that the spells that target your own creatures tend to be reactive in nature, which is a problem when your creatures don’t do anything until you target them since your opponent can just ignore them until you invest a card that wants to be reactive proactively.

For example, you get very little value out of using a Gods Willing or Triton Tactics in your main phase to power up your Favored Hoplite and/or Battlewise Hoplite. Hidden Strings and Warriors’ Lesson shine here since they’re spells that you actually want to use proactively, and Nivmagus Elemental helps take some of the sting out of using a spell at the wrong time while also capitalizing on Hidden Strings’ cipher copies.

Temples help with the problem of needing the exact right mix of everything, but they’re also fairly clunky for a combo-aggro deck. Still, there is some chance that I actually want more of them than I’m using here. Overall I think the payoff might be a little higher here than in the previous deck, but I still think I need to be focusing more on bestow.

The best bestow creature in Theros is Boon Satyr by a fairly wide margin. Green has a problem of not having great heroes because you have to pay such a premium to get their multiple +1/+1 counters, but white has more than enough heroes to go around at this point so pairing them makes sense.

Raised by Wolves is likely too clunky, but I like the idea of trying it with Elvish Mystic and Hero of Iroas. Hunter’s Prowess is potentially a great answer to Supreme Verdict—as long as you have any creature bestowed or a Voice of Resurgence in play, you’ll have a creature to target while they’re tapped out, and you’ll draw at least four cards but often more than that. An optimal line might be:

Turn 1: Elvish Mystic.
Turn 2: Hero of Iroas.
Turn 3: Pass, end of turn bestow Boon Satyr on Hero Iroas.
Turn 4: Hunter’s Prowess Hero of Iroas, attack with an 11/9 trampler, draw all the cards.

With a line like that, blockers don’t matter at all. If your opponent foolishly tapped out for a Nightveil Specter or Desecration Demon while you had a 1/1 and a 2/2 and hadn’t played anything on turn 3, they’re suddenly in horrible shape.

Note that this deck could also be pushed toward being a little more proactive by cutting Gods Willing for Ethereal Armor. There’s also the option to cut heroes for Witchstalkers in the maindeck, possibly with Unflinching Courage and maybe even Fencing Ace, and this will make Hunter’s Prowess even better since you won’t care if you opponent has mana up if you’re targeting a Witchstalker.

The last direction I want to look at is a W/R heroic deck that focuses on making tokens:

While I like the theory of having eight heroes that make tokens and five to eight heroes that pump all your creatures, the mana is something of a nightmare when trying to lead Akroan Crusader into Phalanx Leader when most of the dual lands enter the battlefield tapped. What I realized is that Phalanx Leader and Vanguard of Brimaz might work together but the deck that tries to do that has to be mono-white. A better way to combine red and white would likely be:

This deck is more like the first mono white deck: 24 enchantments, 24 creatures, 28 ways to target, and 12 heroes. This direction looks fairly promising to me. Hopeful Eidolon will often be cast as a one-drop here since it’s easy to follow up with Madcap Skills or Ethereal Armor + Ethereal Armor or Dragon Mantle to hit for four or seven lifelink on turn 2. Against control decks, the optimal line will be to bestow as much as possible and then use the non-bestow enchantments as finishers after removal (ideally an expensive sweeper) knocks off the bestow creatures. If the overall power of the deck turns out to be a little low, that’s easily fixed with Eidolon of Countless Battles, but I was trying to keep the curve as low as possible here to keep the land count low.

I hope it was useful to you to see how some different directions heroic decks can go might look. I know that for me thinking through the decks has made me a lot more interested in exploring the cheap bestow options and less interested in using spells, even spells that target multiple heroes. As a result, I think heroic decks should generally look to play only enough heroes to regularly have one to target and maximize the number of bestow creatures rather than try to have multiple heroic creatures in play. Brimaz, King of Oreskos sets a really high bar for a "good stuff" white deck, but there still might be room for Hero of Iroas and Born of the Gods’ bestow creatures to shine.