The Theros Draft Pantheon: Know Your Limits by Sean Davey

Know Your Limits: Tempo Swings in Limited by Sean Davey

The Theros Draft Pantheon: Know Your Limits

Hey guys, thanks for tuning in for another ‘Know Your Limits’. I feel it is about time I got a format overview for Theros draft out there as I’ve certainly played enough of it!

My pack count has been slowly increasing since Theros was released, from playing only 8-4 draft queues and the odd sealed event. I find it doesn’t usually go this well even if you feel very comfortable with a set, so I am reasonably confident in my assumptions this time around.

We’ve only got a couple months left of triple Theros, but I don’t expect the format to change significantly until Journey into Nyx arrives in May 2014. Hopefully this guide can help you in your drafts up until then, although of course expect to hear from me with a Born of the Gods update. Without any further ado lets jump in!

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Pillars of the Format

There are two archetypes that are far and away the most influential in the format. The first is a heavy black deck featuring a lot of devotion that tends to have only a tiny splash of a second colour. The other is a white based deck filled with heroic creatures and ways to trigger them, supported by either blue, red or green.

If one of these archetypes is open, you should probably move in. They really are the tier 1 strategies and if you are well fed with the key commons you will be well set up to take down the draft. It’s definitely within reason to first pick these to hedge against the possibility of the relevant archetype. If you see them 3rd/4th it could mean something unusual has happened with the packs, but it’s probably the beginnings of a signal.

Mono-Black Devotion

Gray Merchant of AsphodelWhat are these key commons you ask? First let’s look at the black deck.

I think the power of Gray Merchant of Asphodel is well known by now. I pointed out in my pre-release article that he was the guy to look out for going forward, but he has surpassed even my high expectations. No need to talk about him much further, but just know that if your mono-black deck has less than 2 Gray Merchant of Asphodel it is not going to run how it is supposed to.

Almost as essential as the Merchant is Disciple of Phenax. Mono black decks are typically in for the long haul, which means there is a high chance your opponent is going to at some point draw a powerful expensive card. The Coercion effect is an important way to avoid randomly losing to a bomb, especially non-creature ones.

A lot of strategies in Theros hinge on putting together multiple cards to create something that is worth more than the sum of its parts. In some situations Disciple of Phenax can even create virtual three for ones by taking a powerful bestow creature, blocking a 2 power creature and ensuring that an opposing Favoured Hoplite remains an irrelevant 1/2.

I’ve been really impressed by Disciple of Phenax just as a card and it is of course the best enabler for black devotion shenanigans. Pick this card high if you are in the mono-black strategy and if you are seeing them past 5th or 6th pick it likely means that the archetype is open, but the first set of packs happened to be short of Gray Merchant of Asphodels.

Baleful EidolonThe best removal spells are Baleful Eidolon and Sip of Hemlock. They might not look very exciting, but they are really good at tackling the problems that get thrown at you. I have actually played as many as 3 Sip of Hemlock, which I would have not expected at the start of the format. Baleful Eidolon has the nice bonus of providing devotion from a spell like effect.

Just in general with this strategy you will want to keep your count of black permanents as high as possible. Fellhide Minotaur, Viper’s Kiss and Returned Phalanx without Islands are all pretty marginal, but get a huge amount better when your deck has say 2 Gray Merchant of Asphodels, 2 Disciple of Phenax and a Mogis’s Maruader.

As for the colour you pair with black, it doesn’t matter a great deal as you will want to minimize the amount that you actually use. You are looking to fill out your deck with extra interaction like Lightning Strike, powerful creatures that black doesn’t tend to have access to such as Nessian Asp and potentially some of the awesome gold spells eg. Shipwreck Singer that you can often grab fairly late.

Do make sure cards from your support colour have just one coloured mana as you want to try and play as many as 11 swamps. It really would take something as strong as Shipbreaker Kraken to convince me to add a double colour card, even Bident of Thassa would be a difficult sell. A non-black spell is by definition weaker in your deck, so don’t feel bad about missing out on a strong card in a support colour if there is a reasonable black option.

I feel this deck is probably the most unbeatable when it truly works. It has many ways to disrupt an opponent’s strategy and it’s own is very difficult to mess with. If I was able to cherry pick my strategy I would take a Grey Merchant of Asphodel heavy deck every time.

Heroic White

Wingsteed RiderWhat about the white heroic deck then? Well there is this guy leading the charge.

Again I won’t waste your time explaining why Wingsteed Rider is good. I will say that while this guy is your flagship common, it’s entirely possible to draft a good deck without him. This is in contrast to the mono-black deck, which is decidedly disappointing without Grey Merchant of Asphodel. This makes this deck a little safer to jump into.

In the white based heroic decks you want to as much as possible have every card in your deck contributing to the plan. In an ideal world you would only include heroic or other creatures that wear enchantments well, heroic enablers, interactive spells and individually very strong cards. Try to avoid generically decent effects like card drawing or defensive creatures unless you are shoring up serious holes in your curve. Every card that isn’t an enabler or a good target for one dilutes your plan.

White/Blue – This one is considered by many to be the best version of the heroic archetype. It has more evasion and good backup plans if your basket of eggs should fall. You also gain access to the quickest interaction in Voyage’s End and Griptide. Sea God’s Revenge happens to be particularly unbeatable in this colour combination. In addition, the gold uncommon Battlewise Hoplite is perfectly suited to the deck, which I can’t say is the same for the other ones.

I would go as far to say that this strategy is the most consistently strong out of any in Theros. I would probably go even further to say that if Wizards R&D could go back in time and slightly weaken it, the format would be a little bit healthier.

White/Red – It seemed that Red would be the strongest colour to pair with White initially. It is certainly the most aggressive and can easily goldfish a turn 5 win. It can however struggle against some relatively simple cards like Nylea’s Disciple. It turns out this strategy isn’t very resilient, but is still very strong and is fully capable of just killing your opponent before they can start trumping you.

White/Green – The Selesnya colours can be very strong, probably the most overwhelming when it works, because of the addition of Staunch-Hearted Warrior and Centaur Battlemaster. Unfortunately, a lot of the best green commons are focussed on defending and playing for the long game (Sedge Scorpion/Voyaging Satyr), which is entirely not your goal. It also has trouble actually closing out games that you are already ahead in, so consider some out of the box options like Prowler’s Helm.

With both Heroic White and Mono Black Devotion there is one catch. You will find that especially in the 8-4 queues on Magic Online, but also likely at your local shop, both strategies are heavily favoured and are often overdrafted. This means you’ll have to be aware of the other archetypes to avoid being one of those people who forces the same deck every time and occasionally smashes the table because of it, but ends up with a lot of train wreck drafts.

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And the rest…

I’ll just quickly sketch out the other main archetypes, what their goals are and what to look out for in the draft.

Tier 2

Green/Black – The late game power in this deck is astounding with a slew of fatties and removal at hand. You certainly have the tools to get to the late game as well with the deathtouch duo of Sedge Scorpion and Baleful Eidolon. Voyaging Satyr is better than even Nessian Asp in this deck. You have loads of powerful spells, the problem is getting them on the table quick enough. There is a danger of being tempoed out or hit by too many evasion creatures, especially by decks with blue in them, so be careful about getting too greedy. Overall I do like this deck quite a bit, the cards work together in a cohesive way and I am a sucker for durdling around.

Returned PhalanxBlue/Black – When I can get it this deck it is definitely my favourite. I like how you can grind out a long game, but also create a surprising amount of tempo. With the generous amount of evasion you can switch from control to aggressor very quickly. You can use Gray Merchant of Asphodel quite pro-actively in this deck to totally dominate a race. Returned Phalanx is quietly one of the best cards and it’s not hard to get lots of them. I usually average about 3 per deck! The other gold card Shipwreck Singer is always great and sometimes shuts down entire strategies.

Red/Blue – I think this colour combination is a bit underrated. You have the very best in cheap interaction that Theros offers in Lightning Strike, Voyage’s End and Magma Jet so the heroic bogeyman will struggle to stick an early guy. Two-Headed Cerberus is at his very best here, sent into the air with Nimbus Naiad or having the way cleared for him via blue’s excellent tempo spells. You will look to keep the lid on what your opponent is doing for a short while, then end the game in a couple almost combo like turns.

Blue/Green – I wrote an entire article about this deck, so I’ll just send you there. The shorthand is that I love this archetype and play it a lot, the huge depth of playable commons means it’s open most of the time.

Tier 3

Red/Black – The issue that happens here is that the red cards want to end the game very quickly, but the black ones benefit from a longer game. The mechanic that is worth taking advantage of is actually Minotaur tribal. Kragma Warcaller is absurdly powerful with other Minotaurs and will make it’s way to you very late if it’s in a pack, but unfortunately being an uncommon means it doesn’t show up as often as you may like.

Scholar of AthreosWhite/Black – Some of the same issues arise here with cards pulling in opposite directions. The other problem is that black has very few good ways to enable heroic shenanigans, which white is all about. Scholar of Athreos allows you to go into a grindy strategy, but I miss having blue or green to pair with my black in this sort of deck.

Green/Red – This deck kind of has the opposite problem in that a lot of the cards step on each others toes. There is plenty of monstrous, unfortunately though monsters are better in small numbers where you actually stand a good chance of being able to pay for them all before the game ends. I can’t put my finger on exactly why this archetype doesn’t tend to pan out, but it just seems not fast and/or powerful enough to compete with what other people are doing.

I usually end up in a Tier 2 strategy, because they are usually a great compromise between powerful options and working well with what the rest of the table wants to do. I’m not a fan of ‘forcing’ a Tier 1 deck as many people seem to in 8-4s. At the same time Tier 3 decks are weak enough that even if they are open you can still end up with a sub-standard deck.

It is possible you can land in a Tier 3 deck that is so open you take people off guard with a surprising deck made up of tons of late pick powerhouses. Don’t be offended if your pet deck is labelled at Tier 3, it’s not at all that they are bad, just that the ratio of quality commons is a little lower. Any colour combination is more than capable of winning.

My Approach

Sea God's RevengeI personally love picking up good blue cards early. Cards like Voyage’s End and Griptide are so good at answering what cards and strategies are most commonly used in Theros. I’m pretty much always happy when I have a few of these effects in my deck.

It is also the only colour in which all four colour combinations have a cohesive game plan. The other colours all have one or two combinations, which I have already described as Tier 3, because of either a dearth of good commons or a lack of synergy between them.

In addition, all the best blue cards only have a single coloured mana in the cost and fit several strategies very well. Therefore when I pick a great one early there is a very high chance I will actually play it in my deck. Occasionally they are even worth splashing for, particularly if there is a hole in your strategy that needs to be filled.

An interesting thing is while blue has most of the highest impact commons and uncommons (see Nimbus Naiad, Thassa’s Emissary, Sea God’s Revenge etc.) it actually has the most situational or unplayable cards. It is quite difficult to put together a heavy blue deck with consistently high card quality.

This normally puts me in a spot where I have blue in place as a support colour. I will then work out what colour is the most open based on what is passed to me. It usually ends up as the other colour becoming my primary focus with blue backing it up with it’s excellent utility and cross strategy all-stars.

Ordeal or no Ordeal

Ordeal of PurphorosThe Ordeals cause some of the most heated discussion out of all the cards in Theros. On the whole though, they are pretty overrated. I have seen people first pick these, which is nearly always incorrect in all but the weakest of packs. Even second or third is a stretch.

It is true that when you cast them and your opponent fails to present an adequate answer you do tend to run away with the game. However, they are some of the few auras that actually allow you to be blown out by removal. The Bestow creatures and the cycle of cantrip auras all have built in defence against this.

In addition you do need to have quite an aggressive deck to get consistent use out of them. Games where you are behind on the board will have you wishing your Ordeal was anything else. I like my early picks to be flexible spells that will slot into any strategy and Ordeals are just too much of a liability.

In most packs they should really be falling somewhere between pick 4 and 6. I almost never get to play with them, because other players are drafting them significantly higher than they should be.

Even though I don’t think this cycle is the bee’s knees I still think it’s important to prepare for them adequately. When you get to the point where your decks are generally better than most of the table you have to look at ways you can lose and shut off those angles of attack.

One of those angles is that your opponent simply casts an Ordeal and you sit there looking sad as you fail to draw an answer. For this reason I prioritise cards that are solid anyway, but also punish an Ordeal opening very highly. These cards include the deathtouch creatures Sedge Scorpion, Baleful Eidolon, and cheap interaction Voyage’s End, Lightning Strike, amongst others.

A card like Sip of Hemlock is excellent and will allow you to take out opposing voltrons, but it’s a little slow in regards to interacting with an Ordeal start. This is why in my Blue/Black decks I’d much rather pick up a Griptide if given the choice.

Personally I believe the format would be better served without them. 90% of the time they are cast one of the players gets upset. Either the Ordeal player crashes in and takes an easy win or gets massively blown out by an answer card, which usually leads to defeat. Both of these outcomes make for pretty unsatisfying game play.

As someone who plays a lot of draft this level of variance gets old extremely quickly. In my eyes these cards, whilst having cool flavour, are poor design as they create way too many ‘feel bad’ moments on both sides of the table. In any case love or hate them, you best be prepared.

Underrated Gems

Stymied Hopes

Stymied Hopes

Stymied Hopes is a card that I have really had massively over perform compared to general consensus. Even I thought it was unplayable at first, but now a fairly high percentage of my blue decks end up including one.

If it’s in my starting hand Stymied Hopes usually just trades for a 2 or 3 drop while picking up a little scry value. Later on it’s amazing how often people tap out in Theros draft and you can blow them out hard. Even the aggressive decks are usually pumping all their mana into a big bestow that was intended to smash through your defences. It’s simply not reasonable to play around an 11th pick counterspell if you haven’t seen it yet.

I will usually side Stymied Hopes out if I got someone really good in game one as it loses a lot of it’s lustre if your opponent is trying to dodge it. It will still be doing work sitting in your sideboard though as there is a very good chance your opponent will slow roll some of their more critical spells whenever you have 2 mana open.

The heart of why I like this card is that you do not need to spend a pick of any value at all on it. If you are in blue and you want a Stymied Hopes, you will get one. I would not even take it above a sideboard card, because I just know at some point I am going to get it 12th pick. It is essentially a free addition to your pool in 90% or more of drafts.

I recently wrote an article on how to make the most out of your worst cards and Stymied Hopes encapsulates many of the qualities I talked about in that piece. It is cheap, tends to trade for a card and allows you to ‘get lucky’ in big ways.

That said, if I do have a very solid deck Stymied Hopes is not going to make the cut. While you really do get great value 80% of the time it is not a card you want to top deck late game and occasionally you just never get to counter a spell. What we are really looking at here is a 22nd or 23rd card that can really pull it’s weight.

Gods Willing

Gods WillingUsually a spell like Gods Willing is one of the more marginal effects in an environment, Pay No Heed and Emerge Unscathed never turned any heads for example. In Theros though, Gods Willing actually enables some of the most unbeatable draws in the entire format.

If you are in white, you are almost by definition a Heroic deck. As I’m sure you have experienced there are not tons of ways for your opponent to deal with your voltron threat and the games usually hinge on whether or not you can ride it to victory. They will often only see one good answer per game, so if you can shut that option down with a single white mana the game starts to become very awkward for your opponent.

If I have a draw involving something like Wingsteed Rider and Hopeful Eidolon, which has a very high likelihood of putting the game away I will almost always wait a turn, so that I can keep Gods Willing at the ready. If I do not have another play on turn 3, it gets a little more debatable, but hand me a Nessian Courser and I will make the less powerful, but safer play every time.

An Error in Judgement

Hopeful EidolonThere is one card that I have been staggeringly wrong about. That card is Hopeful Eidolon. My initial read on the main strength of Bestow was that you had great flexibility on how you could use the creatures, either filling out your curve adding late game punch when you had excess lands.

Hopeful Eidolon didn’t quite fit into this line of thought as the base creature is a functional reprint of the famously unplayable Trained Caracal. I appreciated that the aura half was pretty decent, a bad version of Armadillo Cloak is still ok in what I thought would be primarily a racing format (turns out it definitely is), but I felt you could be virtually two for oned in a way that the other Bestow creatures couldn’t, because the creature left behind was not worth a card.

I was wrong in two major ways. Firstly, a bad Armadillo Cloak is not ok in this set, it’s absolutely fantastic. The interaction in Theros is highly limited, rather than trying to always answer what your opponent is doing, you really need to just do something better than them. Lifelink is absurdly good in these situations where you have a creature that hits hard itself while negating your opponent’s attempts to attack back effectively. Heroic of course adds even more to what might seem at first like a mediocre targeted effect.

Secondly, Trained Caracal is actually a relevant card in Theros. Slap a Nimbus Naiad onto that cat and you have Baneslayer Angel’s younger sister. Random creatures with useful combat abilities are actually not so bad, size does not matter so much in this format. It is still true that a 1/1 lifelinker that never becomes enchanted is still not affecting the board in any reasonable way, but the chances of you not having something relevant to enchant it with are pretty low.

Thoughts on the Play Experience

I’ve definitely been liking Theros draft, even though it has some aspects that naturally lead the game into binary ‘do you have it or not?’ situations a little bit too often for my tastes. I believe this is because the format has some really good overarching qualities that add a lot of depth to the experience.

The chief one is quite a high density of playable cards. It sounds like a simple thing, but it really does make a huge difference. If you look at a format like Cube Draft, almost all the cards are going to be playable at some point, because even though the power level is not completely flat the difference between them is minimal. This means rather than drafting the best cards period you end up drafting the best cards for your deck knowing that the synergy between them will more than make up for the relatively small gap in power.

This produces a much more dynamic format where the value of a card can fluctuate wildly based on what you already have in your pool. You know you will hit your playable count, so feel free to take a bit of a risk on a card that could potentially be fantastic over the reasonably solid alternative.

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I’m not sure how many of you have played Blizzards online CCG Hearthstone (currently in closed beta), but the main problem with it’s drafting system right now is that you play every single card you draft. There is basically no room to try and build an archetype even though the cards to do so are very much there, because if it doesn’t pan out you have to play some cards that are simply shocking out of context. Therefore, you always end up in a good stuff / value deck. The only real challenge is to evaluate cards correctly and stick to a good curve.

Magic can and has been better than this, at least most of the time! The variety of decks you could find yourself in goes up significantly when you are allowed a little bit of breathing room to experiment. I think everyone will agree that is a good thing.

Nimbus Naiad 233The other great feature Theros has is a large amount of modal cards, that have at least two different states or casting costs. Bestow is an obvious example. When you draw a Nimbus Naiad you instantly start to plan out what you are going to do. Do you want to make sure you curve out? Have a specific creature to enchant in mind? How greedy do you want to get? I find there is always a good tension between choices with these spells.

Even outside of specific mechanics a card like Agent of Horizons has a different application early on where you can use it as an on curve creature to keep the pressure on or effectively trade, then later becomes a source of inevitability.

Going back in time a bit other examples include Kicker or Fuse. Both mechanics add a lot of game play and are still very intuitive to new players.

This doesn’t really add to the complexity of situations when you have a lot of spells in hand, because there will almost always be a better play than going for say, a big monstrous activation. The correct time to do this is mostly when hands are low and there is maybe only 1 or 2 other ways to utilise that mana.

The effect that ends up happening is that rather than adding extra branches to earlier decision trees meaningful decisions keep happening as you go later in the game. This way the matches become more eventful and skill intensive for a longer period of time. There is simply more play extracted from the same amount of cardboard.

I think it’s quite a testament to these qualities that even though I don’t enjoy the voltron theme of the set, I am still having a lot of fun drafting it.

Out of the all the environments constructed by Wizards the one that most epitomises the points I have made is Modern Masters. I truly hope they learnt from it and we start to see this become the norm when they build limited formats in the future. Of course the huge amount of complexity is unsuitable for new players, but this is not the thing I think makes the format so great and it is still possible to have a rich format with plenty of replay value without a massive amount of mechanics.

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Wrapping Up

On an unrelated note I really want to take a moment to highlight the monthly standard GPT tournaments that have been going on in Taunton. I am a pretty busy person and don’t consider myself a very good constructed player, but I always make time for these events. You won’t find a more welcoming community and the prizes are fantastic with at least one booster box for each top 8 competitor!

You can check out the January 5th one here. Note that in no way do I profit from this event, I just enjoy them so much and would love to see them grow even further.

That’s it for this time, I hope this has helped you solidify your approach and planted the seeds to improve your game in some small way.

Feel free to get involved in the comments section, I like to hear everyone’s thoughts. Do you agree or disagree with any of the points I made? Have something further to add? Let me know, I’ll do my best to answer any questions.

Thanks for reading, have fun continuing to draft Theros and I’ll see you next time!

@seanplaysdraft (follow me on twitter for some extra bits of limited tips and comments)


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