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Examining The Mechanics Of Theros Beyond Death For Constructed

Brad Nelson breaks down the four known mechanics of Theros Beyond Death. How will escape, devotion, constellation, and Sagas affect Standard?

This past weekend centered around comfy seats, good food, and satisfying competition as I was devoted to watching every minute of the Players’ Championship. It was a much-needed break, as I was “beyond death” after the saga that was back-to-back-to-back Mythic Championships. It was an honor to watch the new generation of SCG Tour players find their footing in competitive Magic.

I was particularly impressed with Oliver Tomajko’s play through the event. While most of his opponents played well, many of them showed weakness at times, a misstep here or a judgment error there. The pressure was on at times, and a few players cracked underneath the weight of being the next Players’ Champion. 

Oliver Tomajko, 2019 Star City Games Players’ Champion

That’s just a part of it all, though. We’ve all been there and had to learn from those mistakes. I’m very excited for these players to learn from their own mistakes, strengthen their mental games, and eventually come get some for yours truly. I’ve said it once, and I’ll say again, I’m ready to get dethroned. After a decade of competitive Magic I sort of want this chapter in my life to close. Don’t get me wrong — I still love making content and playing in the event and that’s why I’m just not going to give it up without a fight. I just understand everything is finite and I really hope one of these kids takes it from me, thus helping me move onto my next chapter, whatever it may be. 

Magic-related, of course. 

Speaking of  being beyond death (I’m killing these transitions Cedric), Wizards of the Coast (WotC) just released the mechanics from their upcoming set, Theros Beyond Death. Now there aren’t enough cards previewed yet to start building decks, but just knowing the mechanics will give us some insight into what to expect from the next expansion. Today I’m going over all four of Theros Beyond Death’s mechanics, and theorizing how they’ll interact with one another. Now let’s escape this painful intro and get into the action! 

Ok, I lied. Before we get into the mechanics I do want to take a moment to tell you all that the Theros world is by far my favorite from a lore perspective. I just love the idea that in a universe that includes Magic, if enough beings worship a god, they end up creating one. Those gods then become powerful enough to lord over their servants and woke characters like Xenagos come around to try to shake up the patriarchy.

Anyway…

Escape

Escape is the only new mechanic to come out of Theros Beyond Death, but it’s similar to things we’ve seen before from a design perspective. It’s actually close to the embalm mechanic as escape is designed to be a mana sink that gives you an advantage in the longer games. Having access to escape cards means it will be difficult to run out of action as the game progresses and you trade resources. Now, you don’t want to get overzealous with the number of escape cards you put in a single deck, as the only way to gain value from these spells is the exile other cards in a graveyard.

From a Limited perspective, escape should be great at giving you some inevitably in the late-game, but I don’t think that’s how it will operate in Constructed. By design, escape cards will be weaker than normal cards as they have the ability to recur themselves from the graveyard, which is a great form of card advantage. Just take Elspeth, Sun’s Nemesis as an example. On the surface she’s pretty weak, as all of her abilities cost loyalty, but that’s because she’s “beyond death,” constantly coming back to the battlefield. There’s no way escape can be put on the best cards in Theros Beyond Death as that would be more “broko” than Oko! 

Remember me?

My prediction is escape cards will be used mostly by aggressive and tempo-based strategies in Theros Beyond Death Standard. Escape cards will act as ways to try to close games as quickly as possible before an opponent turns the corner with more sustainable sources of card advantage. It could just be that the only cards previewed so far with the escape mechanic seem very aggressively leaning. I could see some big dumb Dimir threat having escape, but they never really make it to Standard. Odds are this mechanic will mostly be in aggressive decks willing to lose early resources trying to threaten damage. 

This also makes a lot of sense if you think about the other mechanics in the set. Both devotion and constellation are mechanics that function best when trades aren’t happening. Devotion wants colored symbols on the battlefield, and constellation is all about permanents on the battlefield triggering when enchantments resolve. Decks trying to get the most out of these mechanics will try to trade as minimally as possible, while decks with escape cards will be trying to force their opponents into losing game states. Obviously this is all speculation, but it does seem like this would create some interesting tension in gameplay. 

Devotion

Do sins of the parents fall on the child? 

Last time we were in Theros, devotion pretty much stole the show. Mono-Black Devotion, G/R Devotion, and Mono-Blue Devotion were by far the best decks in Theros Standard for some time, and for very obvious reasons: mana acceleration and card advantage. All three decks had a plethora of ways to draw extra cards and also accelerate their mana thanks to a very broken land that’s recently found its way to Pioneer.

With the return of devotion I just can’t imagine a world where WotC repeats these mistakes. I say they’re mistakes, but they might not be. I just personally hate mana acceleration in general, as Standard always feels better when it’s at a minimum. Not just acceleration, but free mana in general just irks me. I really hate cards like Fires of Invention and Wilderness Reclamation, and while I get that people out there enjoy these effects, from a competitive stance I don’t find any enjoyment from them. 

Anyway, devotion is a tricky mechanic to design and develop so I have no clue what they’re going to do with it this time around. If they want single-colored decks to be played, some of the cards they print will have to be extremely powerful. I hope to see payoffs on the same power level as Master of Waves, but I would rather not see enablers like Underworld Connections printed.

I understand that card advantage will always be the most important aspect to Standard, but I’d much rather get it from cards like Athreos, Shroud-Veiled. This is a very interesting card, as it’s abilities are pretty good even when it’s not a creature. The “dies or is put into exile” clause really seals the deal for me as there will be very few ways to permanently remove creatures from the battlefield once enough coin counters get added. I really hope this card is playable, as it will make for some very intricate sequencing in the games it’s involved in.  

Constellation

Constellation is another mechanic being reintroduced to us thanks to a return to Theros. Last time, there were some very cool decks that revolved around this mechanic, and some insane turns to boot!


Much like Mono-Green Devotion, these constellation-based strategies really did revolve around the card Courser of Kruphix. While I played an absurd amount of games with Courser, I’ve now realized it was poorly designed. For starters, green card advantage yada yada yada, but also just always knowing the top card of the library made for boring breakdowns of games. While I don’t think a card like it will see print, it’s already confirmed that a new Eidolon of Blossoms will be in Theros Beyond Death

Now this is a card advantage spell I can get behind! I love Enchantress-style creatures when they can be removed from the battlefield before any cards are actually drawn, yet they also have to be built around. Deckbuilding constraints are what make deckbuilding so interesting. When you remove it with cards like Oko, Thief of Crowns, everyone just plays it since it’s effectively free to do so. Hell, give us another Doomwake Giant while you’re at it, WotC, because those decks were fun, interesting, and just powerful enough to compete at the top tables. 

Sagas

Here to interact favorably with the other three mechanics are Sagas. They’ll do something powerful before fueling escape, help devotion cards “turn on,” and trigger all of your constellation cards. They’re unique cards that explore an interesting design space, yet also synergize with the entire set. Bravo WotC, this just feels like it’s going to be a home run!  

It’s really difficult to go deep into Sagas as they are quite difficult to evaluate. For example, I spent a ton of time trying to make Song of Freyalise work until I ultimately decided it was just straight unplayable. It’s rare for me to just be that completely wrong when it comes to cards, which is why I found Sagas so refreshing. 

I have no idea if The Akroan War is going to be good. My gut says no, as the card feels like a convoluted mess, but I’m unfairly thinking about it in Standard. The card’s probably going to be great in Limited (well, as long as you survive the war, that is…).

I do really hope they get aggressive with the design of these cards, though. I quite enjoyed the first run of Saga cards in Dominaria, but they all fell a little short for Standard. Given that, by design, they’re here today and gone tomorrow, I hope WotC takes a few risky shots at making them Standard-playable. Who knows what they will do, as they all have the ability to tell a complete story from the lore, but I really hope to cast some of them in Standard. 

Anyway, that’s all for me this week. Now it’s time for me to head back to North Dakota and spend some much-needed time with my family. I’ll be taking next week off and the plan is to have some Pioneer content for you next year. I’m starting to get my feet wet in the format and am confident that there will be some sort of Golgari primer in the near future. 

Happy holidays!