The Driving Forces of Theros Block Constructed

What goes into preparing for a Pro Tour with a poorly understood format? Sam Black delves into the inner workings of Theros Block Constructed, revealing how so many top teams came to a consensus on the format’s best deck and why he considers it unbalanced.

Many of you will likely never play Theros Block Constructed. It’s not a “dead format” yet because of the Grand Prix in Manchester, but it’s one that will
never be played by most competitive players. Even if you never play the format, I think it’s a useful format to understand, both for its general lessons
about Magic theory and its potential significance as the foundation for the future of Standard.

I don’t think Theros Block was well-designed as a Constructed format. Balancing Block Constructed is a secondary goal for Wizards at best, since they
really need to focus on Standard, but this block felt fundamentally broken.

Magic formats can be broken in a lot of different ways, and learning to identify them and identify new ways in which things can be broken is extremely
valuable. We don’t see things broken the way that Urza’s Saga block was broken, where every other rare led to a completely degenerate combo, but there are
still solvable formats where you can get a huge edge by learning the solution first.

The clearest recent example for me was M14 Limited, where the combination of cheap, versatile blue removal and the fact that there were no creatures with
built-in card advantage meant that card draw was much more valuable than ever. Now that’s a formula that I know to look for. I think it’s more similar than
it may first appear to the brokenness of Urza’s Saga in degree, but not in kind.

So, let’s get into how Theros was broken.

Like most Block Constructed formats, the mana was pretty bad. As usual, there were few dual lands, but in this format they were particularly powerful. If
you have time for them, Temples are great; many of our two-color decks would play off-color Temples to scry more. Unless you were trying to be as
aggressive as possible, there was more upside than cost to playing tapped lands. When you combine this with the fact that the only other dual land was Mana
Confluence, which taps for every color of mana whether you need it to or not, there was virtually no advantage to being two colors instead of three. The
mana would often work out better because you’d pick up more Temples than you were likely intending to play otherwise, and they would help you find your
extra color.

The mana in these three-color decks was still very slightly worse than you want with just Temples and Mana Confluence. The best fix by far was Sylvan
Caryatid. There’s no edict and no Wrath of God, and it was difficult to build a deck that used Anger of the Gods because there were very few good red cards
that weren’t aggressive. This meant that Sylvan Caryatid never incidentally died; it was a Rampant Growth that found a land that tapped for every color and
could block. No matter which two colors you wanted to play, if you weren’t very aggressive, you could basically just make your mana better by adding green
for Sylvan Caryatid.

Once Sylvan Caryatid was in your deck, it was very difficult to justify not playing Courser of Kruphix. Like with Sylvan Caryatid, nothing really punished
it, and Sylvan Caryatid curved perfectly into Courser of Kruphix; often, you’d want a four-mana spell to follow up Sylvan Caryatid, but so often you’d only
have one untapped land, which you’d play on Turn 2 so that you could play the Caryatid. On Turn 3, your plan would be to play another tapped land, but you
could do that after playing Courser of Kruphix, and you could hope to spike a free land.

Trying to attack into Sylvan Caryatid and Courser of Kruphix with small creatures is miserable. These creatures aren’t in these decks to block, but they
get to do a great job of doing that for free. They make “going wide” on the ground fairly hopeless.

For those who aren’t familiar, “going wide” is a relatively new term. It may have existed before, but it wasn’t terribly relevant. A natural play pattern
of Theros is to go big by loading enchantments on a single creature. Cards like Loyal Pegasus are designed to support and alternate strategy of going wide,
or playing several different creatures. Going wide would generally be a great strategy in a format with awesome removal spells like Hero’s Downfall and
Silence the Believers and no sweeper like Day of Judgment, but it’s difficult when you’re also absolutely required to go big enough to get over Sylvan
Caryatid and Courser of Kruphix.

One way that you can go wide to get around those creatures is to play creatures with evasion, maybe cheap fliers like Hypnotic Siren and Loyal Pegasus. The
control and midrange decks are leaning on cards that incidentally lock up the ground and Planeswalkers, so those should be well-positioned. We already see
that kind of thing work in Standard with Judge’s Familiar and Cloudfin Raptor.

The problem is that this isn’t a format with no sweeper; Drown in Sorrow is an incredibly good sweeper against small creatures that happens to play
particularly well with the green creatures that naturally live through it, and on top of that, the life gain from Courser of Kruphix is actually very
difficult to relevantly race with small creatures.

It’s also worth noting that the Drown in Sorrow problem for aggressive decks is radically exacerbated by the abundance of scrying, which means that your
opponent is substantially more likely to be able to find Drown in Sorrow when they need it.

Attacking in this format is incredibly difficult.

We saw a lot of aggressive decks on Magic Online that looked to dodge the problem of bad mana and punish people for playing tapped lands, and we saw
Stanislav Cifka make the Top 8 of Pro Tour Journey into Nyx with an aggressive deck. I don’t think any of these decks were reasonable choices. The
format is just too punishing. This is not a format with an equilibrium that allows aggressive decks to succeed. If this format were to be played regularly
by large number of players, we might see weeks where things got so inbred that an aggro deck could put up a good finish, but in an unknown tournament like
the Pro Tour, people just had to be ready for aggressive decks, and that was just too easy to do.

I’ve gotten slightly ahead of myself. I explained that going wide doesn’t work because the mana pushes every deck to have Courser of Kruphix, which beats
going wide when paired with Drown in Sorrow (or Anger of the Gods, incidentally). I haven’t gotten to the difficulty of going big.

That’s all. Hero’s Downfall is relevant too, but Silence the Believers is just outstanding at what it does. If you build a big creature with bestow, you
can always expect to lose it all. If you expect the game to go long, you can’t expect big creatures to stay alive unless they’re hexproof, and you have to
expect that you’re going to lose more than one if you put multiple creatures into play.

Historically, most removal spells have some kind of restriction: they can’t kill black creatures, or artifact creatures, or big creatures, or something.
Those cards that can tend to be prohibitively expensive. This block has an abundance of great cards that can answer anything. The cost is higher
than we’d like for removal spells, but the nature of the lands and the free blockers (Sylvan Caryatid and Courser of Kruphix) means that nothing really
happens in the first couple of turns anyway, and everything you actually care about killing costs three or more mana, so you never relevantly fall behind
when you rely on these cards. The traditional limitation of filling your deck with expensive, versatile removal just doesn’t exist in this format because
of the lack of pressure; basically, tempo isn’t a resource creature decks can use to stay ahead.

There are a few specific cards that come close to being exceptions to this, and they’re the backbone of the success of Patrick Chapin’s Pro Tour-winning
deck, Fleecemane Lion and Brimaz, King of Oreskos. Fleecemane Lion is the only creature in the block that can attack through Sylvan Caryatid and survive
Drown in Sorrow while costing less mana than the good removal spells. Courser of Kruphix can block it, but unlike Sylvan Caryatid, that can simply be
killed, and Patrick’s deck was packed with the same removal as the other black decks. Fleecemane Lion also has the ability to become hexproof later in the
game, which is basically the barrier to entry to a creature to really matter in this format.

With tempo out of the equation, the way that creatures can beat the removal are though card advantage and hexproof. As a result, we see creatures like
Eidolon of Blossoms that offer card advantage and creatures like Prognostic Sphinx and Reaper of the Wilds that can gain hexproof as the most successful
creatures. Planeswalkers are also great, basically as an alternative to Eidolon of Blossoms. Thanks to Hero’s Downfall and Banishing Light they still
usually die, but they get to do something relevant most of the time first.

I see the most important cards in block as a progression of something like this:


Mana Confluence

Sylvan Caryatid

Courser of Kruphix

Stormbreath Dragon

Elspeth, Sun’s Champion

Hero’s Downfall

Silence the Believers

Prognostic Sphinx

Eidolon of Blossoms


The mana in the format leads to wanting the green shell, which forces people to go big to try to win. The best big threats are Elspeth and Stormbreath
Dragon. The best answers to those are the black removal spells, and the best answer to those are the card draw and hexproof creatures. In a healthy format,
one can usually build a flow chart of progressive answers and causalities like this that loops back in on itself; at some point you go so far down the line
in answering things that something earlier in the progression becomes an answer to the end and a loop is established. Here, I don’t think the cards exist.
Once we get to Prognostic Sphinx, Eidolon of Blossoms, and Planeswalkers, we’re kind of stuck.

Traditionally, the way to beat cards like that would be with counterspells; they’re expensive sorceries that are relatively low-impact but hard to answer
in other ways. It’s difficult to build a deck that can use counterspells in this block format, though; there aren’t very many good blue cards and the mana
is difficult. All the reasonable counterspells cost two blue, and once you go through the trouble, there’s still Thoughtseize. If there were a counterspell
deck, then maybe an aggressive deck could emerge to go under that and get trumped by the Caryatid deck and create a loop, but the Prognostic Sphinx deck is
the Sylvan Caryatid deck, and it beats both bigger and smaller threats.

It’s significant that there’s no real trump. There’s no Cruel Ultimatum, Aetherling, or Sphinx’s Revelation that can go bigger than everything your
opponent’s done. Your evasive hexproof creatures race their deathtouch hexproof creatures or Planeswalkers or whatever, and the player who wins is the
player who gets ahead on unanswerable threats. Card advantage is real, and really useful, but it’s also possible to just fall behind something like a
Reaper of the Wilds and die with a bunch of answers in hand when you’d thought you were up several cards.

My conclusion is that the format as it stands is as midrange as they come. Almost every card you want to play costs three to five mana except for Sylvan
Caryatid; Fleecemane Lion; and Elspeth, Sun’s Champion; and every deck just wants to have a good mix of reasonably difficult to answer threats and
versatile removal.

I came to this conclusion after testing a lot of strategies that focused on synergies and trying to get something going that would overpower the default
good cards. Admitting that a focused strategy can’t beat a collection of good rares is the last thing I want to do.

The card that I was most drawn to through all of testing was Strength from the Fallen. This card offers a durable threat that can overpower defenses. It’s
actually very good against most of the midrange strategies, but it requires so much dedication to creatures and graveyard enablers that it can’t interact
well with opponents, and because it takes time to set up, it tends to be behind other aggressive decks. As the format gets closer to the midrange
equilibrium, I predict Strength from the Fallen might become the way to prey on that, but it’s possible that the decks are just a little bit too weak
anyway, particularly because the black removal spells are instants and the decks tend to have access to enchantment removal anyway.

Archetype of Endurance is an effective sideboard card that I had my eye on, but a lot has to go right for it to work. You have to get to eight mana and
actually find it and resolve it through potential Dissolves, Ashioks, Thoughtseizes, and Psychic Intrusions. It’s good, but not enough to really
revolutionize anything.

Standard should always be fast enough to avoid this trap, but this is how Theros Block Constructed was one of the least-balanced Constructed formats,
despite its diversity of midrange decks, and how both CFB Pantheon and CFB Prime almost unanimously and independently arrived at nearly identical
conclusions for the format.