Goodbye Friends, Romans, and Countrymen. Theros Block Farewell by Liam Casserly
Oh boy, I do love this time of year. For some reason after the Summer I’m always ready for a little bit of Autumn. A lot of my favourite sports return and it always seems more socially acceptable for me to sit around for entire days playing board games. All this was true even before I discovered Magic, but now the changing of the season brings with it something else to be excited about: rotation.
Rotation brings with it hope. Hope that your favorite style of play might match up with what Wizards are trying to push for this Standard season. It also gives us that feeling of excitement. I like to joke that, as a community, we get Christmas 4 times a year. But the Autumn is special because of the sets that leave. It is both literally and figuratively a game changer. As of next year we will move to a twice yearly rotation but I’m not going to focus on that just yet as it only slightly affects what will happen once Battle for Zendikar is released.
The temptation during rotation is to look to the new set for direct replacements for either your favourite deck or the strongest deck of the time. When Blue and Black Devotions were a thing and Return to Ravnica was leaving Standard, some players were looking toward Khans of Tarkir to have cards to 1-for-1 replace the lost cards. Most of the time this just won’t be the case and it’s much more a “The King is dead! Long Live the King!” deal. What I mean by that is rotation kills decks. It’s what it’s there for. Can you imagine having Sphinx’s Revelation in every Standard? I think that would be a quick way to reduce the number of Magic players.
One of my favorite decks, which I have won a few FNMs with, is on its way out. I’ve really enjoyed Green/Red Devotion. It’s not just the case of some of the better tools for the deck leaving and getting replaced with lesser cards, which was the case with Blue and Black Devotions. No, this time the heart of the deck is leaving. Once Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx is gone, there is nothing left to be devoted to. Will there be a Red/Green Monsters deck in the next Standard? Probably at some point, but I doubt it will be there Week One.
Right, that’s enough looking forward, let’s look back. Let’s look at what was good and what was bad about Theros block.
Two things going on here: the flavour theme and the mechanical theme. I think this perfectly sums up the hits and misses for the Theros block. Way back when all we knew was the code names of individual expansions (Friends, Romans and Countrymen), the internet was rife with rumours. They tell us every time that the code names mean nothing and they are randomly selected, but people were convinced that this time they had double bluffed us and this was a Roman-themed set. I must say the thought of that got me excited and because I wanted it to be. I was prepared to believe those silly internet rumours.
After a while the rumours changed and the general consensus was it was ancient Greek and Roman themed. Ooooooh… that’s exciting! As a child I had grown up watching the Ray Harryhausen stop motion animations of all those great Greek stories. I was certainly up for fighting a reanimated skeleton army that grew straight out of the ground. When the official announcement came and told us it was 100% Greek-based set, I was a little sad but also wondered if they had kept a Roman-themed set for another time. I would love a plane where we get to experience the Roman legions conquering the Barbarians and establishing a Roman peace.
When the set was released flavour was as I expected it to be. Great. There were all the tropes I expected but not just that, there were stories I had never heard of from Greek myths that I learnt through cards. This, however, was a double-edged sword. For story reasons, they made cards legendary when they didn’t actually feel legendary. It’s a small gripe on the flavour of the set and probably much more to do with game play, which bring us on to…
The headline we were given was enchantments. Enchantments were the thing for Theros; it was an enchantment block. Anyone who played at Manchester GP last year will have enjoyed the puzzle that was Block Constructed, but they would have also noted that enchantment decks were not a thing. Sure, players had powerful and cool enchantment cards in their decks, but there wasn’t an outright deck built around them. Nope, for that we had to wait until Magic Origins was released and it was mediocre at the top tables. I haven’t seen much of it at FNM either.
The dediacated mechanic was called constellation. It was very similar to the landfall mechanic, but the problem was it only showed up in the last set, Journey into Nyx. Even in this set it was sparse. It was a hard thing to draft well and normally only ended up as sub theme. Eidolon of Blossoms was a great card, but even in the Enchantment deck it didn’t feel broken. I’m going to make an excuse for this being underwhelming. Wizards knew that landfall was coming back and I think they purposely avoided having too similar a gameplay environment. It doesn’t fully excuse the fact that it was bad, it does make some sense as to why they didn’t push it.
As I said before, devotion-based decks was a big hit in Blue and Black in the days after Theros rotated in. It took an unexpected Pro Tour win for Blue to make a splash, but a lot of players were looking at Gray Merchant of Asphodel from pre-release thinking this was going to be a card to break. It took two 50p rares to get there. Pack Rat and Nightveil Specter, the latter also featured in the Blue version thanks to hybrid mana.
Green Devotion has been around for a while and, just as Theros/Tarkir Standard draws to a close, White Devotion has made a claim to be a real deck too. Leaving only Red not getting on the train, unless you count the two or three cards it helped out with in the Green deck.
Ah, Heroic… I think this mechanic is great. It was good in draft, but bad in Standard to begin with. Lots of FNM players tried to run it, but they all made the mistake of building a better draft deck, where all your heroic enablers were bestow creatures (we’ll deal with bestow later), but when the deck broke out it was just a bunch of regular auras that made it work. I had fun with the White/Blue Heroic deck and it was capable of some astonishing wins. Hitting for 24 damage was a regular way I was winning games.
What of the other mechanics in Theros? The ones whose names we can’t quite remember… what was going on with those? Like the one where your opponent chooses what you get: tribute. This sort of thing works well with cards like Fact or Fiction, where nearly always they have a difficult choice to make. This time around it felt a lot like playing Vexing Devil in Modern: if they let you keep it, they have removal. It just felt like a lot of the time you would get the half you didn’t want.
My son, who is a better player than me, made a deck with all the mono-Green tribute cards and Whip of Erebos. The way he explained it to me was that each turn you either play a tribute card or whip back and you force your opponent to make more decisions than they were expecting. They’re thinking about their cards and the lines they should take and then you keep harassing them with your cards and decisions. He told me they quickly start making mistakes. This is a legitimate strategy in chess and it worked for a while with this deck. After a while he found it was just easier and less fuss to build a cleaner ramp version of the deck to smash face with. And that was the problem with tribute. In the end there was nearly always a card that let you have the thing you want all the time – instead of some of the time.
Remember when they spoiled Pain Seer and everyone was like ‘Oooh, this could be the new Dark Confidant’? Wow, that was a crazy morning. In fact, remember when spoilers used to come out in the morning? Anyway, it seemed like it would work. I mean all you have to do is untap your creature and you get your bonus, and I’m always untapping creatures, like in nearly every game. How hard can it be to make this thing a Bob? Boy, did it take a lot of effort to do that. Just play a playset of Read the Bones and you’ll be better off. The Seer was slightly better in draft, but not a great deal.
Cards on the table first: I loved Theros, Theros, Theros draft. It was the Magic of big swingy matches and huge battlecruisers. Bestow worked really well in that first set, also there was enough variance that I could draft an Aggro deck one week and a Control deck the next. All the things in between were tried during the lifetime of triple Theros draft. I won a lot of my games in that period. so it is probably through that lens that I’m remembering the draft experience. As the block went on and the newer expansions joined the draft, I enjoyed it less and less. I think that my own feelings came into line with the overall feeling that Theros Block draft wasn’t that great.
Monstrosity (you thought I’d forgotten about this mechanic, didn’t you?) was a decent mana sink in Limited games. Not just if you had the good fortune to open one of the bomb rares that had a decent monstrous ability, but just the plain old common and uncommon monsters that you could play out in the midgame. And if they stuck around till the late game, they would be huge and smash up the place.
What felt fun and fresh in triple Theros grew tiresome and dull as Born of the Gods and Journey into Nyx came out. It didn’t help when Khans of Tarkir was released. That was an absolutely brilliant draft set and made you realise how joyless Theros had become. Saying that, I will probably grab a box of Theros boosters and stash it for a flashback draft.
The All Stars
No.1 on my list of Theros block all stars has to be Courser of Kruphix. This horsey lady has been in so many of my decks in Standard. When it was spoiled I recall a lot of unfavourable comparisons to Oracle of Mul Daya but times have changed, Magic has moved on. Courser has been a fine card. Will it stick around in Modern? Probably not, but it should go in your Cube for sure.
What else was good? Planeswalkers, they nearly all saw top level play. Some were more present than others. Poor old Ajani, Mentor of Heroes was the least of these. Elspeth, Sun’s Champion was everywhere. Xenagos, the Reveler, Kiora, the Crashing Wave and Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver did a great job in decks that wanted them. Once again though, these are probably EDH and Cube cards.
Was there any cards that made it into Modern and beyond? Well, there were some decent merfolk on Theros, Master of Waves being the foremost. Thassa, God of the Sea, whilst not a merfolk, has seen some play in Modern. Speaking of the gods, they were very popular and saw play in all sorts of decks, usually as a one-of though. Wizards really wanted them to be a thing and they kind of were, but their time was brief and in the end they weren’t as popular as their more efficient creature analogues. Keranos, God of Storms does see play as a hard-to-remove enchantment in Splinter Twin decks sideboard.
Oddities like Swan Song have made it into decks, not just in Modern but Legacy, too. It saw next to no play in Standardm but one might suspect that it was always designed to be that way. Anger of the Gods has a job to do in the sideboards of Modern for a while yet, but by far the biggest winner here is Eidolon of the Great Revel. I have played with this card in Standard, Modern and Legacy, and it is great in all of them. In fact, I tried to pick up a second playset because I was worried I would wear out the first.
Where does Theros leave us now that it is going? I remember some iconic cards rotating out from past sets and people were relieved they would never have to play against such oppressive cards and tactics again, but Theros doesn’t seem to generate that kind of emotion. It feels like when two lovers know the magic has gone and decide to go their separate ways.
So long Theros, it was fun for a while. We will always have Scry.
Community Question: What are you glad to see go or will miss the most after Theros rotates out?
Thanks for reading,