Theros: Blue & Gold!

Hall of Famer Patrick Chapin finishes his pass through Theros, focusing on his Top 5 blue and gold cards today just in time for SCG Standard Open: Cleveland this weekend.

In just hours, I board a plane for New York. A couple days at Casa de Finkel, and then it’s on to the castle in Dublin to break it with the rest of Team StarCityGames. The fall rotation is definitely my favorite Magic of the year, and Theros looks awesome.

Today, I’d like to finish this pass through Theros, focusing on blue and gold cards. We discussed black and red on Friday and then white and green on Monday. Of course, in building decks with the other four colors, we ended up using many of the top blue and gold cards and already covered obvious control decks, such as U/W and Esper (Monday) and U/R and U/W/R (Friday). So instead today is going to center primarily on archetypes we haven’t hit yet.

Top 5 Blue Theros Cards

5. Master of Waves
4. Gainsay
3. Thassa, God of the Sea
2. Prognostic Sphinx
1. Dissolve

Honorable Mentions: Shipbreaker Kraken, Artisan of Forms, Bident of Thassa

To be blunt, blue’s cards in Theros are not that good. There are some solid role players, some cards that will show up, and some cards that are not terrible, but probably the biggest thing blue gained is how much hostile stuff rotated out.

As a result, it’s not just that Dissolve is better in this format than it would be in a lot of other formats; it’s that a lot of cards from Return to Ravnica block have gotten much stronger (like Syncopate and Jace, Architect of Thought).

We’re going to go more in depth on each of these cards, but given how much we’re immediately going to start hitting the gold cards (it’s sort of the nature of the format), I want to post that list too.

Top 5 Gold Theros Cards

5. Steam Augury
4. Prophet of Kruphix
3. Xenagos, the Reveler
2. Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver
1. Fleecemane Lion

Honorable Mentions: Akroan Hoplite; Tymaret, the Murder King; Underworld Cerberus; Psychic Intrusion; Horizon Chimera

There are a few great gold cards in Theros, but what there is a lot of are weird niche cards. I love that the gold cards in Theros don’t try to beat Return to Ravnica block at its own game but instead are (mostly) well positioned to complement it.

Up first? The most requested blue deck this week:

This first build is basically an update of the Block deck Team StarCityGames played in San Diego, where I finished 40th and Reid Duke, Gabriel Nassif, and Tom Martell all made Top 16.

Yes, Dissolve is in here, but about the only time the card gets particularly interesting is when you are debating between it and Counterflux. We played Cancel in San Diego, so not surprisingly a pure upgrade sounds great.

Perhaps the more interesting observation about Dissolve is how much better three-mana counterspells are than last month. It’s not just Cavern of Souls rotating out; it’s the format generally slowing down and featuring less punishing diverse threats than the old format had. Blue control was the defining archetype of the last Pro Tour (with more people playing Sphinx’s Revelation than not!), and that is at least going to be somewhat true at the start of this new format.

How good is scry 1? It obviously varies a great deal depending on context. A good rule of thumb is that it’s worth about a quarter of a card, and these days an extra card is worth almost three mana. That makes scry 1 worth roughly 0.65-0.75 mana. As a note, this doesn’t mean every card gets better if you pay a mana more for scry 2 (which is generally more than a mana worth of value) since sometimes you can’t afford to take the time to do that sort of thing.

The more interesting element of the above list is Prophet of Kruphix. That might be my pick for most underrated card in Theros (now that Ashiok is no longer underrated).

Do you suppose people would respect it when they feast their eyes on it if it were an artifact? What if it sword of had to actually hit your opponent to get the virtual Time Walk?

Prophet of Kruphix is a free spell if it lives! That is already pretty sexy, but then you get add three very important features:

  • It’s half of a Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir, letting you play creatures during the opponent’s attack or end steps.
  • It’s a Sword of Feast or Famine worth of extra mana every turn (even untapping your Sylvan Caryatid).
  • It gives your creatures vigilance, letting you pressure opponents while still defending yourself, which is particularly nice with Loxodon Smiter.

Prophet of Kruphix is actually tougher to kill than it looks.

The biggest obstacle standing in the way of Prophet of Kruphix is that green is naturally the least appealing color to pair with blue at level 1. White and red are the only two colors with sweepers. Black and white are the only two colors that can kill big creatures.

Black has discard, great spot removal, and Ashiok. White has Supreme Verdict, Sphinx’s Revelation, and Detention Sphere. Red has Anger of the Gods, good removal for weenies, and Counterflux.

Green has Prophet of Kruphix and . . . G/W gold cards?

Still, there is a lot of profit to be made from exploring this avenue, particularly if the g/w gold cards give us the defense against aggro we need while still being good against control decks like Esper. If we want even more, Fleecemane Lion is totally an option. The only reason I left it out of this list was mana considerations. It’s not really Plasm Capture that’s the problem.

Sylvan Caryatid helps give us what we wish Farseek would do for us, though it does interfere with our ability to Supreme Verdict. We may just need to suck it up and play more Guildgates.

I do like that Sylvan Caryatid helps give us more defense against Burning Earth. How are people forgetting just how important that card is? Look at StarCityGames.com Standard Open: Worcester Top 8: Four decks that get hosed by Burning Earth, three Burning Earth decks, and a U/W Control deck that primarily cuts black to gain percentage against Burning Earth.

In testing for Pro Tour Dragon’s Maze, I remember how much we all wish we had Sensory Deprivation to gain some much-needed tempo against fast aggro. Now we actually have it! The card isn’t super powerful or anything, but if you just need a tempo solution to one- and two-drops, it’s not bad.

Of course, there are lots of ways to try to build Bant. One possibility is to embrace our creature theme even more.

Here, we try to develop an early board presence and play one of two ways depending on our opponent. If they are aggressive, we try to defend ourselves with creatures early and then go a little bigger. If we’re against control, we pressure them early with difficult threats and then secure the kill with a timely Dissolve for Sphinx’s Revelation or an instant speed threat of our own when they Verdict.

Notice how few Gainsays these lists use! Gainsay is a trick! It is a giant prisoner’s dilemma designed to get blue mages to turn against each other!

Hey blue mage, want your Negate to counter Aetherling? How about some Gainsay in your life?

If all the blue mages start their sideboards with four Gainsays, none of them are any better against each other while all of them are worse against everything else.

Gainsay is the worst card in the new set for blue!

I’m not saying it’s not a strong card; I’m just saying the further everyone goes into the Gainsay arms race, the better it is for nonblue decks. It doesn’t even counter Thoughtseize; Elspeth, Sun’s Champion; or Assemble the Legion!

Of course, the natural question to ask is if we can afford to cut a color. What about pure Simic? Without Selesnya Charm, Azorius Charm, Detention Sphere, or Supreme Verdict, we couldn’t really kill creatures, so what can we do?

Ok, I’ll admit that this one is a little wonky. You have to bend over backwards to not use white, and Kalonian Tusker, while underrated, is miles from Fleecemane Lion, let alone Voice of Resurgence.

I generally don’t love Horizon Chimera because it is super vulnerable to Shock and Magma Jet, which is the matchup where you need the card most (and where their small burn is generally weak).

However, I do like Polukranos in U/G. His hard body is much appreciated, his removal is worth extra to us, and he really pays us for Prophet of Kruphix tricks. That we can go DI with Prime Speaker Zegana is a nice bonus but hardly mandatory.

Boon Satyr is another card that gets the nod here simply on power level, but the card is not at its best in decks that do more blocking than attacking. That said, if the format turns out to be as control-heavy as it looks so far, Boon Satyr is a great way to add to your clock without investing more to the board. It’s also a great instant-speed threat against decks with a lot of counterspells and sorcery-speed removal.

It just wouldn’t be a true blue-centric brew session without a little Grixis in our lives:

Obviously, the experiment here is moving away from permission, relying on discard to disrupt opponents and planeswalkers to gain an advantage.

Yes, Read the Bones is generally better than Divination if you can afford the life. There’s a lot of aggression, a lot of good ways to pay life, and a shortage of good life gain, so the answer won’t always be yes.

To understand why Ashiok is good, think of it this way. There are two types of opponents: those with creatures and those without. If they have creatures, you immediately go to five loyalty and gaining two a turn. That is a ton of life gain in a format where you desperately want some. If Ashiok lives (which it usually does), you get to start playing creatures out of your opponent’s deck. Within a turn or two, you should have something sweet, whether it’s a Voice of Resurgence, a Loxodon Smiter, a Stormbreath Dragon, or something else. That is pretty awesome value for three mana when you also get to keep Ashiok in play afterwards!

Even if all you get is an Ash Zealot, at least you are gaining two life a turn if they attack Ashiok and getting extra blockers if they don’t.

The other big deckbuilding decision is to load up on Doom Blades and Dreadbores. Planeswalkers are everywhere, and I’d actually use some Hero’s Downfalls if we didn’t need more two-drops desperately. One of the big features of this format seems to be an embarrassment of riches at the three spot but a real shortage of good two-drops in some colors.

Alternatively, here is a very different direction one could go with Grixis:

This is a very crude implementation, but the general idea is to defend yourself early with cheap removal, loot away some Dragons, maybe cast one, and look to set up an Immortal Servitude for five, getting back three Dragons and usually killing your opponent outright.

These Dragon Reanimator decks are pretty far from a form I’d want to run, but the important element is the engine. Scourge of Valkas actually scales pretty well if you are putting three or more Dragons into play at the same time since each Dragon does damage equal to your total number of Dragons. How best to accomplish this is the real question.

Here’s another attempt that is probably similarly bad but in a slightly different direction:

This version has a very real chance of playing Immortal Servitude much earlier and puts Dragons in its yard much easier. The tradeoff? This version is pretty bad at defending itself aside from a little blocking. It’s also pretty dead to a Scavenging Ooze.

Switching back to blue decks, there are some Theros cards that call for very different sorts of blue decks than the ones we’ve gotten used to. For instance, Bident of Thassa is a potentially exciting payoff for playing a bunch of tiny evasion creatures, but that hasn’t been a thing in quite some time.

There are a lot of one-mana fliers, which is pretty interesting, but I’m not sure we can actually race ground creatures. And even when we stick a Bident and draw a lot of cards, are we drawing enough cards that matter? Maybe we can add white for Detention Sphere and Azorius Charm.

Claustrophobia is clearly a bit underpowered, but it is a makeshift Doom Blade in a format where Doom Blade is awesome. It also synergizes very well with Thassa, God of the Sea and Master of Waves.

Master of Waves is actually totally sick here, giving us a legit plan against red decks and also just producing an army of blockers against green. Faerie Impostor + Master of Waves is actually pretty filthy, and Master of Waves is another reason to use Voyage’s End instead of Cyclonic Rift.

Remember, Mutavault is a Sliver!

. . .

We’ve already discussed U/W, U/R, and even U/G Control, but what about U/B? U/B Control is often great, so what’s missing in this format?

Simple: a good sweeper.

It’s so loud that black doesn’t have anything at all that my guess is that WotC is setting up for a black sweeper somewhere later in the block. Yes, black has Merciless Eviction, but that requires white, which already has tons of sweepers.

Could we be on the verge of a Damnation reprint? It has exactly the right flavor for Theros, it is exactly what black is missing, and it’s the only thing missing from Mono-Black Control. It’s not like it would even help Esper much, as they already have Supreme Verdict. There are even more ways to hose Damnation than ever before (Boros Charm, Rootborn Defenses, etc.). I don’t know, but I wouldn’t be surprised.

As for today, well, we have to make do without such nice things. If we don’t get a sweeper, than we can’t afford to fall behind. This suggests playing a more tempo-based deck. What about something like this?

Ashiok and Nightveil Specter provide twin three-mana threats that can each win the game for us on their own if we can just not die for a while. Jace, Memory Adept provides a nice backup kill condition that synergizes with Ashiok for faster kills.

Psychic Intrusion is a card I haven’t seen talked about but that doesn’t seem that bad against midrange and tapout control. As long as you have some bounce, like Far // Away, it’s usually not going to be dead even against faster decks (though I wouldn’t certainly board it out against red aggro).

Why the one Psychic Strike? Mostly just to compare it with Dissolve. I’m pretty sure Dissolve is just too much better, but I like being able to cast it with only single blue. I wonder at what point the mill starts to help you with your mill plan, but if I played this in an event tomorrow, I’d use Dissolve instead.

Pharika’s Cure is actually exactly what we need against fast red decks, particularly when it can help buy us time to drop a Master of Waves. Master of Waves is the closest thing we have to a sweeper against red aside from Ratchet Bomb. We plan to get just one Wave, but if we ever combo it with Nightveil Specter, we can always just do a happy dance.

One last blue concept I want to share before switching over to nonblue gold cards is that of Spellheart Chimera. This is another speculative brew, but there are some interesting things going on that could be poached for another deck:

Young Pyromancer and Spellheart Chimera each pay us for playing a lot of spells, and the rest of the deck is just about all spells!

Rather than actually trying to take over a game, this list tries to gain a board advantage and win before the opponent can do their thing. If the metagame were full of decks with no removal, something like this could shine. However, my suspicion is that in the next few weeks removal will be pretty good.

This deck makes particularly good use of Steam Augury since raw quantity of spells is the important thing, plus we get paid from dumping cards into our graveyard.

Hammer of Purphoros? You know what Spellheart Chimera really wants? Haste! It’s also a good backup kill condition and a way to alleviate flood later.

This deck’s biggest weakness? Creatures that are not easily burnt can be a real problem. Could Claustrophobia really be the answer? I don’t know. It’s pretty sketchy. Maybe Turn // Burn is better . . .

Turning our heads to nonblue decks, probably the most glaring omission is Junk, a color combination that has been fairly popular in recent years. Here, I think the real question is what color is your minor color. My first draft settled on minor white. Temple of Silence makes us want to use a lot of Forests, which points us towards Elvish Mystic. As for black versus white, Hero’s Downfall, Lifebane Zombie, Desecration Demon, and better early Thoughtseizes proved more enticing to me than Soldier of the Pantheon, Trostani, Angel of Serenity, Elspeth, and Archangel of Thune.

Like most Junk decks, this is just a collection of good cards. We’ve got a passable curve full of efficient bodies with a little black utility to round things out.

What is there to say about this sort of deck? The cards are all great, it’s hard to hate out, and it’s just a question of selecting the efficient cards that match up well against the format.

Golgari Charm is particularly important for giving us a counter to Supreme Verdict with tons of discard to rip apart the hand of control players. It also gives us enchantment removal in an age when it seems almost everyone has enchantments. Add to that its ability to sweep small creatures and you’re talking about a pretty awesome trick.

I’ve seen a lot of people jamming four Advent of the Wurms into everything, and while the card is pretty sweet, you do get diminishing returns. Obviously, if you have populate, you’d play a lot more than four Advents, but if you’re just playing it for value, you get less value when they can reliably put you on it. I also just love Desecration Demon in a format full of 5/5s and Doom Blades.

Speaking of Desecration Demon, here’s an update to R/B, a deck that is looking better and better now that it’s clear Doom Blade rocks:

Play some removal spells early, get ahead with Read the Bones and Chandra, and then put the game away with a big flier or Rakdos’s Return. You even get Burning Earth out of the sideboard!

Alternatively, here’s a very different Rakdos deck that tries to capitalize on the strength of Doom Blade in a different way:

It’s like a fast red aggro deck, but it trades worse mana for Doom Blades and more cheap, high-damage threats. Doom Blade is particularly valuable against Fiendslayer Paladin, which I expect to be very popular. It’s a great card in the format, and fast red aggro won the SCG Standard Open in Worcester.

Tymaret, the Murder King isn’t actually that crazy or anything. But we do need another two-drop, and it’s at least passable. Where it really shines is against removal-heavy decks where it can turn into a sort of card-advantage engine, sacrificing creatures in response to removal spells to get it back.

On the topic of red decks, I would like to point to a red card I missed on Friday, Fanatic of Mogis:

Fanatic of Mogis is a great finisher for fast red aggro, often dealing five or six points of damage on turn 4 while leaving you with a hard-hitting body. I especially like its strength against planeswalkers. It’ll be interesting to see how the competition between Purphoros, Chandra, and Fanatic goes, but I suspect people will be better set up against fast aggro this week. If enough people play cheap removal like they should, the slower, more stable alternatives start to look good.

Of course, one also needs to beat control, and here we find ourselves in a similar spot to Pro Tour Dragon’s Maze, which is to say that the format is primarily about extremes. Control pulls really hard in one direction and fast red aggro in the other. Finding cards that are good against both is one of the keys to the format.

Ok, I gotta head to the airport, but I’ll be back Monday with one more look at Theros before the Pro Tour. Any suggestions on other decks to try would be much appreciated. What are your predictions for the Top 5 decks of Pro Tour Theros? Post ’em here, and whoever’s closest will get a shout out in the article after the PT and sick bragging rights.

See you Monday!

Patrick Chapin
"The Innovator"

Next Level Deckbuilding