When I start working on new decks featuring cards from a new set, one of my favorite places to look is in the common/uncommon dump right after the full set is live. That’s where you find the enablers that really make an archetype tick. Those mechanic enablers are often thought of as weak or mediocre and unworthy of an entire preview slot from a content creator, but I usually find them and make them part of an interesting article revolving around the set’s marquee mechanic(s). Theros Beyond Death is no different, as the devotion mechanic requires the entire strategy to be built around it, utilizing weaker cards with more pips of devotion.
After seeing a few cool uncommons from Theros Beyond Death and hearing virtually no one talk about them, I’m taking it upon myself to go over these devotion enablers and let you know which ones I think are great, and how you can potentially utilize them in Pioneer. After all, Pioneer has been my bread and butter since its inception and I find that these midrange devotion enablers will be perfect for pairing with some of those powerful payoffs from the previous Theros block.
The cards that often go unnoticed are the one- and two-drop permanents. Two-drops featuring two pips of devotion are often much stronger than they look, if only because they help you power up your three- and four-mana devotion payoffs. The two-drops from the original Mono-Blue Devotion included Frostburn Weird, a defensive staple in Return to Ravnica Limited. So you’ll have to excuse me if I don’t immediately dismiss one of these new two-drop creatures from Theros Beyond Death.
As for the one-mana creatures, it’s tough to find the “perfect” one for your particular archetype because they aren’t always Constructed-worthy. Creatures like Cloudfin Raptor didn’t always scream “Tier 1 Staple,” but stuff like Soul-Scar Mage can be a diamond in the rough. Let’s take a look at a few of these one and two-mana cards from Theros Beyond Death and see if any of them might find their way into Pioneer!
This one is quite strange to me, yet could ultimately end up being one of the better devotion enablers in Theros Beyond Death Standard. The high toughness means you’ll likely be playing defense in the early turns, but you’ll also be able to use it to dig for your big payoffs as the game progresses. And if the battlefield gets gummed up, the likelihood of this creature winning you the game with its ability isn’t exactly zero.
Obviously Thassa’s Oracle is weaker than something like Augur of Bolas, as you don’t put the card into your hand, but you have to take all of that with a grain of salt. The second pip of devotion can mean all the difference when trying to turn on your God or get full value out of your payoff. The blue devotion decks in Pioneer have quite a few flash-style creatures at the two-drop slot, which means this will end up being a hostile and competitive casting cost.
I heard a few people grumbling about how weak Daxos, Blessed by the Sun is, but I’m not so sure. It starts as a 2/2 that gains you life whenever another creature enters the battlefield under your control. When you combine it with Heliod, Sun-Crowned, every creature you play gets a buff. And it’s toughness grows all the while, giving you a sizable defensive creature against the aggro decks in the format.
And speaking of the Heliod buff potential, why not add in a little Walking Ballista action? Putting that extra counter on it virtually for free is pretty neat, and having Heliod that much closer to becoming a creature is also pretty great.
On its face, Daxos doesn’t seem overtly powerful, but devotion enablers rarely look good on the surface. I have a sneaking suspicion that Daxos will end up being a staple in white-based devotion decks in both Standard and Pioneer.
Tymaret, Chosen from Death looks and will likely play much like Daxos. They’re purposefully built to mirror each other, but Tymaret is going into a devotion strategy that already has some decks built around it. Gray Merchant of Asphodel is one of those payoffs that’s outrageously powerful, so you have to give all the enablers a second look.
At the moment, very few two-drops are playable in the black devotion decks, with Gifted Aetherborn sitting on top. Tymaret, Chosen from Death could make the grade, as it gives you a reasonable body with an ability that gives black a way to profitably interact with graveyards while gaining some precious life points.
A one-mana creature with reach isn’t much to fawn over, but this one starts shooting webs at flyers right off the bat. And did I mention that the escape ability makes it extremely large while also potentially killing another flying creature?
Honestly, this one will be unlikely to breaking into Pioneer, but the escape is pretty interesting and it’s relatively efficient considering I’ve been contemplating adding Kraul Harpooner to my devotion maindeck.
As of writing this, Theros Beyond Death isn’t quite all the way out yet. I want to go back over this set with a fine-toothed comb and find some of those cooler and perhaps overlooked devotion enablers. The one-drop creatures just aren’t out yet!
The Hot Slot
While I wait for the rest of the one- and two-drop enablers to come out, a good many three-drop enablers (and hybrid payoffs?) are already on the list. Let’s take a look at some of them and talk about how they might affect Pioneer.
This card already exists in Pioneer, and it costs four mana. Nylea’s Disciple has seen play in plenty of Mono-Green Devotion sideboards, and this card seems like a fine upgrade to me. It’s not like we were playing Nylea’s Disciple for the 3/3 body or because it had a four mana casting cost. Instead, now we get a slightly smaller but significantly cheaper version. Setessan Petitioner is also cheap enough to potentially see maindeck play!
I’ve consistently had trouble figuring out the best creature for the three-drop slot. I’ve tried tons of stuff, but ultimately just gave up and played Scavenging Ooze instead. Setessan Petitioner could be good enough to fit the bill, and especially so if the format becomes more aggressive. During the reign of Mono-Black Aggro, I would have definitely played this card in the maindeck, if only to buy myself a turn or two for getting online in the face of Smuggler’s Copter beatdown.
On rate, a three-mana creature that gains two life isn’t exactly overwhelming, but you can’t really look at devotion enablers and payoffs in a vacuum. They’re only as good as the cards around them, and having a three-drop creature buy you multiple turns against aggressive strategies is pretty awesome. At the very least, I think this card will be a three or four-of in the sideboard of most green decks.
I’m very impressed by the idea of Callaphe, Beloved of the Sea, but mostly I’m just hoping it’s half as good as I think it is. First of all, you have to understand that this card protects all of your creatures from your opponent’s spells, including itself. It has a reasonably high power so long as you play something before attacks or have played stuff before casting this.
Callaphe looks and acts a bit like Tithe Taker, but hits much harder and is tougher to kill. It also doesn’t suffer from existing in a format where the perfect foil (Goblin Chainwhirler) also exists. Callaphe sits at just the right casting cost to fill the curve of blue devotion, will have high power, and helps protect all your other stuff. What more could you possibly want?
I won’t say that cards like Phoenix of Ash usually find their way into strategies like devotion, but it certainly helps when they’re spot on for casting cost, rate, and power level. Phoenix of Ash is just a fantastic Magic card.
For three mana, you get a creature with two power, flying, haste, pump, and the ability to come back for very cheap. It’s hard to kill, adds two devotion, and even gives you a way to use all that extra mana from Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx. Phoenix of Ash is a nearly perfect card for devotion in Pioneer, and I expect it to see a lot of play (even outside of devotion decks).
The more I think about it, the more I like this card. It’s just a great threat that’s very tough to deal with permanently. It having haste helps pressure opposing planeswalkers, and the ability to pump it when you’re flooding or use the escape ability means you’re almost always have something meaningful to do with extra mana. And if you know much about me, you should know I love having mana sinks tied into mana-efficient cards.
Taranika, Akroan Veteran makes for some interesting combat scenarios. Like Phoenix of Ash, I expect this to find its way into multiple decks, but my gut says it’ll be excellent in any devotion strategy it goes into. It works well with any creature that gains a power or toughness boost, as well as any creature that could benefit from attacking every turn with impunity (thanks to indestructible).
I’ve seen some talk of this in Modern Humans, and I have to agree. I’ve been wanting a good three-drop creature for a while now, and this one seems perfect for the archetype.
This card seems really powerful, but it’s also fighting the same slot as stuff like Goblin Chainwhirler and Goblin Rabblemaster. In the right shell, Anax, Hardened in the Forge could be bonkers in Pioneer. I’ve already been experimenting with various creatures that have three toughness to dodge Stomp and Wild Slash, and they’ve all performed well. Now our three-drop with three toughness also has high power and an ability to keep the pressure on if it dies!
Anax might not necessarily go into a “devotion” deck, but could singlehandedly fill the devotion enabler/payoff role by itself. It’s certainly not a card that looks all that threatening on the surface, but it’ll become pretty high power in a hurry and leave something behind if it dies. I’m a huge fan of this in Chonky Red!
Fourth Time’s the Charm
When it comes to devotion, the four-drop slot is usually where the payoff lies. Whether that payoff is Fanatic of Mogis or Master of Waves or the gods themselves, the four-mana slot is usually pretty heated in devotion decks. However, we will occasionally have cards that fill the role while also helping to bridge the gap to the late-game. Polukranos, World Eater was one of those threats that wasn’t exactly a devotion payoff, but certainly was one of the better mana sinks for Nykthos.
What are some of the four-drops from Theros Beyond Death that could help bridge the gap?
A lot of people have discussed this card already, but let me just say that the recursive nature allows for you to get a lot of value out of things like Nykthos. I’ve found White Devotion to be one of the worst devotion decks trying to use Nykthos because they don’t have a ton of ways to utilize that extra mana. The escape ability on Elspeth helps solve that to an extent.
I don’t think people fully grasp what escape is going to do on a permanent as powerful as a planeswalker, but I’m betting we’ll be sick to death of it soon enough.
As far as devotion enablers are concerned, Renata, Called to the Hunt seems particularly strong. Putting an additional counter on your creatures means they’re going to be pretty strong when entering the battlefield. And when you combine it with the likes of Hardened Scales and Winding Constrictor, you’ve got a bit more redundancy. I’ve already been trying to hybridize Mono-Green Devotion and Hardened Scales, and Renata seems like the perfect way to bridge that gap.
Leyline of Abundance has already shown us that putting a counter on those mana creatures is a great way to turn them into actual threats. Renata doesn’t quite do the same thing, but the ability to put counters on your mana creatures means you have the capability to turn them into real threats. It also means you don’t mind playing eight ramp creatures in your Hardened Scales strategy.
Creatures in devotion-style decks are often smaller than “regularly” sized creatures, because their addition of pips to devotion means our card selection during deckbuilding is relatively restricted. Buffing those creatures is not only welcome, it’s actively wanted.
Nightmare Shepherd seems pretty absurd when paired with powerful enters-the-battlefield abilities. I’m a huge fan of trying to make this work with Gray Merchant of Asphodel (!) but what else can we pair it with? It seems solid with Ravenous Chupacabra or anything else that triggers upon entering the battlefield. When the body is mostly irrelevant, and the only thing that matters is casting cost and abilities, something like Nightmare Shepherd starts to look better and better for devotion-style decks.
Most black devotion strategies in Pioneer have been based entirely around the Vampire tribe, though this might change that. I’m going to need to comb through all the legal cards to figure out just what this bad boy can do, but Nightmare Shepherd already looks pretty great. And we haven’t even scratched the surface on what we can do with it if we pair it with a sacrifice outlet! Who needs Rally the Ancestors when all your creatures just naturally come back as 1/1 versions of themselves?
Let’s Get to Work!
As you finish perusing this article, know that the entire set list should be available online today. I’m heading over to look over all the commons and uncommons right now to see if there’s anything that fell through the cracks! I want to find the next Frostburn Weird or Pack Rat for our Pioneer devotion strategies. After all, when you look at the traditional devotion decks from Standards past, you’ll notice they’re made up almost entirely of commons and uncommons. Outside of the devotion payoffs, the enablers were largely common and uncommon. That means we need to take a closer look at the stuff no one really takes a second look at.
The next few weeks should be a lot of fun for people trying to build new decks in both Pioneer and Standard. Devotion might have a tough time breaking through in Pioneer, but Nykthos is powerful enough that it might just turns some of these duds into studs. We’ll just have to wait and see.
Next week, we’ll have a much better understanding of what some of these cards will do to Pioneer. I’m looking forward to shaking some stuff up, as well as making some decks I already love a bit stronger. Cards that help mono-colored strategies should be pretty good for Pioneer, as the mana is significantly worse than it’s been in other non-rotating formats. Without fetchlands, it’s recommended that you play one or two colors, as playing the third color usually means you’re taking too much damage from your lands or too many lands enter the battlefield tapped. Having a set revolve mostly around monocolored cards means Pioneer should be getting some really nice upgrades soon.