How To Win Your Theros Pre-Release
Hey guys, good to see you for another Know Your Limits. As I mentioned last time, myself and many of my friends were heading to the MSI Mindsport Festival. To those of you who came, I hope you had a great time.
Sadly none of my local players made a finish of note in the sealed portion, but standard was a different story. Congratulations to Michal Zawada for making third place with a deck a few cards shy of my U/W control list and Roo Fitzpatrick for his fantastic second place finish with Bant Hexproof!
On to the main topic of today. Theros is so close now and it is just days before we get our hands on some fresh cardboard! The Spoiler is up and I would advise you to have this open for reference whilst you read this article. The first thing you’ll want to do is to head on over to the Official Pre-Release Info Page to check out the details for the event.
We’ll look at the implications of the ‘Heroic Paths’ later on, which is unique to the pre-release format. Largely though the tournament will be close to normal Theros sealed. You will also get a ‘Hero Card’, which has a marginal bonus on the game similar to the old vanguard cards. Bizarrely you are not actually allowed to play these in the pre-release, so I won’t mention them further.
Now that you know what is going on let’s talk about how you go about actually winning the thing. I’ll be discussing the featured mechanics in Theros and the format as a whole. Here we go…
The Theros Mechanics
There are five major mechanics in Theros. They are Heroic, Bestow Monstrosity, Devotion and Scry.
I’m not going to tell you how the mechanics work within the rules. There is a great little page on the mother-ship that describes this much better than I can. Instead I’m going to focus on the ramifications for gameplay and what we can best do to take advantage of them.
I have to be honest, when Heroic was first revealed I was unsure how well it would play. It seemed like you would be strongly encouraged to voltron up a heroic creature with multiple effects, creating an all-in play pattern where you would either win very quickly or suffer a huge blowout. At the same time I worried that as you generally don’t target your own creatures with spells that often it could be a bit of a lame duck mechanic.
Fortunately, as the veil came off the set my worries quickly evaporated. The enchantments ended up more like Knightly Valour than Madcap Skills and there appear to be a number of smart ways to activate heroic. It’s most definitely going to be a big part of Theros limited going forward.
Fate Foretold is a great example of a direction they have gone with some of the heroic enablers. In this instance you are not actually buffing the creature in any way, rather doing something you already want to do which is drawing cards, but tacking on a target to get a free heroic trigger out of the deal. Heroic also plays very well with Bestow, which I’m sure isn’t a coincidence.
Heroic is one of those mechanics which has two types of card. Enablers (spells which target your own creature) and payoffs (the heroic cards themselves). Each time you include a card from one category every spell in the other is improved. Ideally your deck is made up of purely these cards, but in real life that doesn’t actually happen. This makes me think Heroic is going to be more present in draft than in sealed. We shall see how it develops.
To fully abuse this mechanic you want to look for enablers that have one or more of the following qualities; The ability to target multiple target creatures, draw a card as part of the effect, are cheaply costed and/or work at instant speed.
Basically you are looking for spells that match this one as closely as you can…
A few notable ones I have picked out are Dauntless Onslaught, Warriors’ Lesson, Dragon Mantle, Time to Feed and Coordinated Assault. There are many more littering the set that share these qualities. In fact there are so many I believe getting the creatures themselves will be the hardest bit.
Realistically though I don’t think your deck is going to be packed to the brim with loads of great Heroic synergies. In sealed I would be really surprised if you had more than five enablers and/or heroic cards in your deck. Therefore you want to make sure that any Heroic creature is something you would be ok with casting even without the ability. You’ll happily play Wingsteed Rider in any case, but it’s probably best to leave Setessan Battle Priest on the sidelines.
You might be unimpressed with Bestow, but I can assure you these cards look much worse than they are. Spells with small and big modes have been traditionally very strong in limited as they both allow you to keep up in the early game and then overtake in the late game. You can’t ask for much more than that kind of consistency.
Often when you bestow a creature you are building a threat your opponent must deal with and when they do you even get a free creature out of the deal. It’s a very low risk way of putting a lot of pressure on.
In the proud tradition of the blue card being the best in a cycle, Nimbus Naiad in particular looks absolutely excellent. Wind Drake and Griffin Guide have both been great historically and this little Nymph is both of them at common.
It is important to note that much of the flexibility of these cards is that they are reasonable creatures on their own, but turn on the afterburners in the late game. If the creature itself is not very good such as Hopeful Eidolon you lose the main power of the card. If the aura is quite weak, but the creature is decent as in the case of Baleful Eidolon this is much better. You should view Bestow as a pure upside ability on an otherwise playable card.
As my little public service announcement please be aware that this mechanic was described in a misleading way on the Limited Information column at Daily MTG in which the common cycle was spoiled. If you attempt to cast an instant speed removal spell on a creature that is being targeted by a Bestow aura, you will not get a two for one as you might expect.
Instead the Bestow spell will resolve as a creature. The key is the phrase ‘when it’s not attached to a creature’ as opposed to something like ‘when enchanted creature leaves the battlefield’. It also will specifically mention this in the updated rule book. Don’t get caught out by this, as it’s the kind of misunderstanding that could cost you a game.
How you would achieve a two for one is via a disabling effect that does not remove the creature from play. This could include some kind of repeatable tapping, a Pacifism style card that prevents participation in combat or similar.
Wavecrash Triton is my pick for sleeper hit of the set for this reason. Both Monstrous and Bestow encourage you to pump a significant amount of mana and sometimes multiple cards into one threat, which this merfolk can keep handily under control. If the Heroic enablers prove good enough this card can potentially dominate board states and win races. Used with just one instant speed spell Wavecrash Triton can lock down an opposing voltron for two entire turns.
Instant speed enchantment removal like Artisan’s Sorrow can also be effective as surprise removal of an aura could leave the previously enchanted creature dying in combat for no value.
Again similar to Bestow it’s important to value these cards primarily on the base creature and factor in Monstrosity as extra gravy on top of a card you would be happy to play anyway. A creature like Nessian Asp is desirable even without it’s monster bonus, but if your deck is good enough you might want to shy away from Ill-Tempered Cyclops who gives a mediocre return on the initial mana.
You may need to be a bit careful with your Monstrous activations. After investing a lot of mana in one creature the last thing you want to see is it getting hit by a removal spell. It’s usually going to be better to spread out the risk by developing your board with cards from your hand instead.
It might be tempting sometimes to go all in on a big monster that dominates the board, but I would generally exercise restraint wherever possible. I view Monstrosity more as an extra bit of gas in the tank than anything else.
Sealed is where these cards are really going to shine as the majority of matches come down to a bit of a late game grind or are won with large finishers. Monstrosity is good at creating both of these scenarios, so I would advise you to play all the on colour ones you get. In draft where tempo is more critical you might find that you have to be a bit more picky with which monsters you play.
This is the really interesting one and I think you will find that Devotion cards are going to be the most swingy in power level out of all the mechanics in this set. Gray Merchant of Asphodel could mean enormous swings of life and Mogis’s Marauder can end games out of nowhere… or they could just be Highway Robber and Blur Sliver.
It’s also very intriguing that the normal downside of colour intensity can actually be turned around into an upside in this set. It relies on something you usually don’t care about, so it’s likely this mechanic is going to be misunderstood at first.
If you have a critical mass of colour intensive cards and/or devotion in a colour it may be worth heavily skewing your mana that direction. I’m thinking as many as 10 sources in your primary colour as it’s going to be really important to get those colour intensive cards out early and reliably. Although this is likely to be more of a draft strategy, it’s something to think about if your pool cracks the right way.
It’s worth noting that Devotion is quite a parasitic mechanic. Nearly all of them actually are quite colour intensive themselves meaning that all the Devotion cards will feed off each other and every one will become extra powerful as you add more. This makes me think Devotion is going to be a bit of an all or nothing strategy.
You are not typically going to be playing Devotion cards just for their individual value as most of them are not great on their own. You are either going to heavily commit to it or forget about it almost completely.
It looks like in draft it it going to very profitable to try and latch onto an open main colour. You might find that if you have positioned yourself well it will be possible to see some very late gems. Karametra’s Acolyte is a card that doesn’t just require it’s controller to be green, but heavy green, meaning that even many green players are going to pass it. If you have the tools to utilise it this card and other similar ones they could do some crazy things.
It’s unlikely that it will ever be correct to play devotion cards from more than one colour, so I would advise you not to attempt it. The gods get angry if you try and make them compete for your affections. Overall, I’m definitely interested to see how this one pans out and I’ll talk about it a little more in the ‘Colour’ section of this article.
Scry is back again and probably not for the last time. This mechanic only subtly affects it’s environment and you are not going to be making big changes to your deck because of it’s presence. It is however important to value it appropriately, given that it is a somewhat under or over estimated mechanic.
Realistically I find that it’s worth is about a third of a card. My reasoning is if I were offered the opportunity to draw 1 card or Scry 4 I would usually choose the Scry, if it was Scry 2 then I would probably take the card. Scry 3 or draw however would give me pause and probably totally depends on the game state.
Omenspeaker would come in at two thirds of a card drawn of value, if you can wrap your head around a partial card. This card is shaping up to be quite a good blocker given the high density of 2/2′s in the set, so expect to run into this lady if you are trying to be aggressive.
If you do incidentally have a lot of Scry in your deck, narrow cards with situational applications do see an improvement. If they are just right for the current game state it’s possible to dig for them and if they are pretty much a dead card it’s no sweat to send them to the bottom of your deck.
Besides Flamespeaker Adept there are no blatant synergies with Scry. Careful forward planning is the main way you can take advantage of it. That and knowing it’s relative worth when evaluating cards are the main skills at work here.
I believe having Scry in a format benefits the game greatly and I’m glad Wizards keeps bringing it back. There are simply less games decided by lack of mana or lack of spells, which nobody enjoys and there are also more small decisions where you are able to get an edge.
That’s all the mechanics there are in Theros. I’m now going to take a broader view of the environment and some of the concerns that are common to every limited format.
I think this format is going to be surprisingly aggressive. I don’t mean this in a triple Zendikar or Gatecrash way where your goal is simply to deal as much damage as fast as you can. All three of the creature focussed mechanics, Heroic, Bestow and Monstrosity are best used to grow your creatures on your turn in order to enable profitable attacks. This means in a combat phase the attacker is generally going to have a slight edge, so make sure you are the one turning guys sideways rather than the one having to deal with it.
There are not tons of aggressively costed high power and/or evasive creatures a la Gatecrash, but there are many ways to keep pushing the creatures you have through for damage. A lot of games are going to be won by getting a quick lead then spending every turn after using more spells to keep punching through your opponent’s subsequent plays.
In addition both Bestow and Monstrous give your cheaper creatures more legs in the late game, so you are not punished for playing tons of low cost spells. This is certainly going to help speed things up a little. Think in the vein of leveller deck from Rise of the Eldrazi. Your actual mana curve was very low, but realistically there was a lot of mana spent levelling up your guys when they needed to get over the next defensive obstacle your opponent presented.
I’m actually beginning to consider that outside of bombs, expensive cards of 6 mana or more are possibly just bad, even in sealed. When you consider that even your cheap cards have mechanics that allow you to pump more mana into them for a greater effect, it may be better to rely on these for your late game advantage. I feel that it will be more critical to have a consistent curve early on than it will be to have big spells later as your cheaper ones have plenty of fuel in the tank.
It will be important that your strategy is focussed on being proactive. In M14 it was extremely easy to one for one your opponent with spells like Essence Scatter and Time Ebb until both your resources were largely depleted then recoup the cards with Divination, Archeomancer or if you are lucky enough to have one Opportunity.
In this format you will likely find that most strategies are incapable of dealing with some threats effectively. In this case you will need to race your opponent. To give you an idea of where I’m coming from, if Feeling of Dread was in the format it would be extremely powerful. Of course removal will be as awesome as always, but it will probably take much more of a support role rather that a strategy unto itself. Focus on doing your thing and less on stopping the opponent at every turn and you will see better results.
Devotion rewards you for staying heavily within your main colour. There are some fantastic cards along the lines of Phalanx Leader and Wingsteed Rider which are very strong if played on curve, both to make use of their heroic abilities as much as possible and to set up your subsequent devotion spells. If not played on curve however, they are somewhat less impressive.
I would be looking to run an absolute minimum of 9 white sources to support these cards. There is actually just about a 70% chance to cast a double colour 2 drop like Phalanx Leader on time with 9 sources, which is a tad risky for my tastes. If possible I would like to fit in 10, to improve the odds.
On the pre-release itself you will be choosing a ‘Heroic Path’, which basically means that one of your 6 boosters will be focussed on a single colour. This means you are likely going to have a critical mass of your chosen colour and can make good use of devotion as well as the colour intensive cards.
However, there is a bit of an antithesis to this and that is the high number of 5-colour mana fixers. There are three common colourless fixers which are Traveler’s Amulet, Opaline Unicorn and Unknown Shores. These, with a few cards at other rarities and in other colours are going to enable multicolour play quite readily. Apparently there is going to be a bit of tension in how much you are going to devote yourself to a colour when it is so easy to play more.
What I am imagining are decks with one dominant colour that are essentially splashing one, two or maybe even more other colours. This strategy takes great advantage of powerful, but committing colour intensive and devotion cards whilst still giving you the freedom to include many of the individually high power cards from other colours. Who knows, it may be correct to simply play a five colour good stuff deck if your pool opens in the right way.
Scry also plays very well with splashing. You can send away spells you don’t have the mana to cast, find mana to cast spells already in you hand or put surplus splash sources on the bottom, amongst other things.
With all these enablers I am pretty sure that you will be splashing all the high impact bomb cards at the pre-release you get, just as long as they have only one off-colour mana symbol. The ones with two, say Elspeth, Sun’s Champion (my pick for supreme mega-bomb), will require a bigger commitment to a secondary colour and at minimum seven sources of that colour mana.
If you are not playing any ramp spells there is a possibility that you will want to play 18 lands in this format. There are going to be a bunch of times where you just want to top deck that one last land to activate a key Monstrous ability or to pay the expensive half of a Bestow creature. Further, there are even a smattering of very solid creatures with expensive activated abilities Agent of Horizons and Setessan Griffin.
Overall what I am seeing is that individually the cards have more utility throughout the game, but put more pressure on your mana.
Whether you add the extra land or not will largely depend on the quality of the spell you are cutting for it. Additionally if you have a decent number of Scry cards they will be very helpful at sending lands to the bottom of your deck in the late game, which is going to be something else that will help convince me to add the extra land.
It’s going to be a little pool dependant, but I am going to go in thinking of it as an option.
Play or Draw?
One thing I am pretty sure about is that I will be drawing rather than playing in this sealed format. You will likely find that it feels very important to hit your land drops even past 5 or 6 and the extra card is going to help make that happen. I also want to give myself the best chance to cast some of the more colour intensive spells on time, which are going to be more important than usual. That extra shot at hitting the right land on turn 2 or 3 could change the way the game pans out significantly.
Remember the aggression in this format is looking more inevitable that fast, so we are looking to mount a consistent assault rather than a speedy one. There are of course the usual sealed considerations of card advantage and getting to your bombs/answers, which provide additional reasons to draw.
Perhaps you will have the nut aggro deck and can kill people before they even get going. In this case, or if your opponent has this deck perhaps playing first will be in you favour, but I expect this to be the minority rather than the majority. I’ll be tipping the numbers in my favour at the pre-release and playing second.
I really like how this set is shaping up. There are a lot of spells with both early and late game applications, which means your cards will have plenty of play whatever stage in the game it is. In my experience these formats involve more opportunities for decision making and simply more fun. Formats such as Rise of the Eldrazi and Innistrad share these characteristics and have both been well loved. I already have some boxes on pre-order from Manaleak, which are very much destined for drafting.
I hope you enjoy your Theros pre-release and use some of the above knowledge to smite your foes. What do you think the format will be like and do you agree or disagree with any of my assumptions? After the weekend is over I would really like to hear how you did in the comments of this article. Perhaps you can shed some light on cards and interactions that weren’t obvious at first. Good luck!
Thanks for reading and I’ll see you all next time!
@seanplaysdraft (follow me on twitter for some extra limited tips and comments)