Theros Limited: Initial impressions and strategies

by Tiago Chan on September 29, 2013

Tiago Chan

About
Tiago Chan

From Lisbon, Portugal
Creator and model for Snapcaster Mage
1st Magic Invitational 2007
3rd Pro Tour Honolulu 2006
7th Worlds 2006

Theros has shown to be a rich format both in flavor and strategy. By the time I’m writing this article I only had the chance to play 2 Pre Releases and 1 draft. Based not only on the experience of playing those events, but also from past Limited environments, I already started to develop a feeling of Theros Limited as a whole, strategies and card evaluations, and how will I first approach this still unexplored format.

Theros Limited has some similarities with Rise of the Eldrazi and Avacyn Restored. In both sets, removal was scarce, most of it conditional, or at best expensive. Those sets had emphasis on creatures in a sense that you had to build them in the early game, either by Level Ups or by pairing Soulbond, and they had powerful late game creatures in the form of the Eldrazi or Avacyn’s Angels and Demons. If you had to pay a high price, either in mana or in tempo you are supposed to enjoy having your creature on the table. In Theros you have Monstrosity and Bestow, but I don’t think the format will be a battle of Dinossaur vs Godzilla, because unlike Rise of the Eldrazi, here we have another ability that threatens to end the game as quickly as Gatecrash’s Battalion, which is Heroic, which should be able to keep the format balanced and interesting. Before analyzing specific cards or strategies I will first analyze each of Theros’s abilities and cycles.

Monstrosity

I loved how Mark Rosewater explained monsters in Theros. Those aren’t exactly his words, but my interpretation of them. Heroes, adventures and tales need epic villains. Those have to be awesome, powerful and flashy creatures, which need a really high mana cost. But they need to be relevant in earlier stages of the game, otherwise there won’t even be a heroes vs monsters confrontation. How does this translate for Limited play? Average to Good Power/Toughness and abilities to Mana cost ratio in their initial form (a solid creature) and serious threat level to virtually unbeatable once in their full monster form (a bomb). One of many many reasons to play a higher land count when compared with other sets. If you have a good Monstrosity creature you not only have an insurance against mana flood, you actually wish you draw lands so you can activate them.

Bestow

From a designer point of view Theros is supposed to be the Enchantment block, from the flavor point of view, heroes, monsters, Gods and their presence to humans (which is represented by Enchantments with the Nyx pattern) are traits of the identity of this block. It is only natural that a push was made to make Bestow cards good in Limited. How good? We’ll see in a couple of paragraphs. The rules for Bestow cards turn the traditional risks of card/tempo disadvantage the Auras possessed exactly the other way around. Looking at Bestow cards we find close to Vanilla creatures for their mana cost with 1 keyword or ability of the color, or by paying the Bestow cost they can be slightly overpriced auras but immune to removal and providing card advantage. Just like with monsters they get better if you can pay the mana for the ability, but they can be useful earlier in the game. The incentive to play them as Auras is an incentive to hit your land drops as well.

Heroic

This is the less appealing mechanic for me, I’m never a fan of the “Attack for two” strategy in Limited but I understand from a flavor perspective the need to show the side of the hero and it’s growth, and from the Limited metagame perspective to have a threat for the mana hungry decks. Heroic is more complex to evaluate than Bestow and Monstrosity, and I don’t think that is because of my dislike for this strategy. Monstrosity and Bestow cards had a common pattern in terms of what you get for the mana you had, and any of those cards would fit outside a dedicated deck. Heroic is a mechanic that requires you be more commited since many Heroic cards are below the ratio Cost / Power, you wouldn’t play some of them in your deck if you wouldn’t believe you would be able to trigger Heroic on them, and because the ability to trigger Heroic is not provided in the card like Monstrosity. Compare Heroic to Return to Ravnica Block’s mechanics Battalion and Populate, and Monstrosity to Scavenge or Bloodrush. A card with Scavenge or Bloodrush had double functions and could fit in any deck as the only card with that ability. Battalion and Populate needed more cards to function. Therefore I believe Heroic decks will be always present and more tied together on Draft, rather than Sealed.

Heroic cards can be divided into:

Fine for their Cost / Power and can be played in non dedicated decks since you still get value’s worth if you don’t trigger them, altough you would be encouraged to do it, since the effect is really worth it like for example Fabled Hero, Agent of the Fates, Anax and Cymede which are all rare. At common levels we have Wingsteed Rider, Wavecrash Triton, which provide smaller benefits.

Another category is composed of underpowered cards which you normally wouldn’t play, but you are doing it because you have enough cards to enable Heroic, and since you have those cards, you ideally want more Heroic creatures to justify playing so many Heroic triggers, examples would be Staunch-Hearted Warrior or Akroan Crusader.

Gods and Weapons

Turns out Devotion 5 was hard to achieve and so the Gods weren’t as good as initially seemed. I had the following Gods played against me during the two days: Heliod, God of the Sun, Erebos, God of the Dead and Nylea, God of the Hunt. Not a single time a God became a creature, not a single time the activated ability was used, and only once the static ability was relevant, when I couldn’t gain life from Setessan Battle Priest‘s heroic trigger because of Erebos, God of the Dead and lost the race because of that. They’re still good and cool enough to always be played in Sealed, and the reward for achieving devotion 5 is huge. In the God’s defense, I think Thassa, God of the Sea and Purphoros, God of the Forge to be the better ones for Limited, since their static abilities are the best ones, they will have an impact for the rest of the game with no mana expense, and Thassa, God of the Sea has the lowest mana cost and a cheap and impactful activated ability for Limited. On the lower end, I can see myself not playing Erebos, God of the Dead in some draft decks.

While the Gods had sort of the same feeling except maybe for Thassa, the Weapons couldn’t be more distinct and I have to start by the Green one.

Bow of Nylea: Seriously?! I played against this card and I felt I had the same chances of beating it as I had against Umezawa’s Jitte. The other weapons become better or worse according to the number of creatures in your deck / number of creatures in play. Bow of Nylea only needs one creature in play, and even if you don’t have one for a while, the Bow will be busy doing other effects.

I rate Spear of Heliod and Hammer of Purphoros at a second level. Both weapons encourage you to play with a high creature count. The Spear will grant them a permanent +1/+1 effect while the Haste provided by the Hammer only impacts the creature a single turn, but the Hammer’s activated ability can be used anytime you want, while the Spear can only be used under the condition of a creature dealing damage to you. Both activated abilities provide utility for the weapons when you don’t have creatures, so they will always be good cards.

Bident of Thassa and Whip of Erebos are very deck / situation specific. If you don’t have creatures in play, or in Whip’s case in play or graveyard, they are useless, so they should be played preferebly in decks with many creatures. I had them BOTH in one of my Pre Release deck, and I didn’t want to play Whip of Erebos as I felt it wasn’t good in my deck, only did it because it was a Rare and I like to try Rare cards since I don’t often have the chance.

Scry

Monstrosity and Bestow give us reasons to play with more lands. Scry justifies doing so. I don’t think scry to be that good in the early to mid game, because if at that point you need to play your Scry 1 combat trick to save a creature it is very possible that you still don’t know if you are going to be mana screwed or mana flooded this game. While it is a nice bonus, it is very far from being worth a physical card. In the late game cards, or if you still have or draw your cheap scry cards, then the decision to scry lands away is much easier and at the same time more valueble. Because of scry there are cards that gain a little extra value such as Returned Centaur and Thassa’s Bounty. Speaking of Thassa’s Bounty, I like holding on to Read the Bones if my hand and game tempo allow it, because early on it can be a simple Divination but in the late game it can provide you more value than the 3 cards from Thassa’s Bounty.

Because we’re playing 18 lands in Sealed (we are, aren’t we?) I will always play the Temples, Lands that come into play tapped and allow you to scry 1 at that moment, and can tap for 1 out of 2 mana, even if I will only use one of the mana types. I am still unsure if I will do it for a Temple of two offcolor colors, but it is a serious possibility if my mana isn’t very commited.

Having reviewed the new mechanics of Theros I will now start a more strategic approach on the format. I’m not qualified for Pro Tour Dublin and I’m currently not attached to any of the playtest teams, but at the same time I’m planning to play a few Theros Limited PTQ’s, and perhaps even a Limited Grand Prix in Hong Kong 3 weeks from now. This means I’m trying hard to understand the format from the beggining, but I’m not commited to keeping that information closed until the format starts being solved in public which should happen at Pro Tour Dublin.

Top 5 commons

1 Hopeful Eidolon
2 Nimbus Naiad
3 Leafcrown Dryad
4 and 5 Observant Alseid / Baleful Eidolon

I’m aware this is a bold statement but is one I will try to defend now.

The Bestow tempo strategy

These are the cheapest Bestow cost cards in Theros. I have ranked Hopeful Eidolon #1 because of it’s Bestow cost is the cheapest, and if you’re planning to put more Auras when it becomes a 1/1 lifelink, then no matter what you put on it, it will always be a threat. I wanted to have Leafcrown Dryad #2 because these two are the only cards in the set with Bestow cost of 4 mana only. If I happen to be right about the Bestow tempo theory, then Leafcrown Dryad should be rated higher than Nimbus Naiad, but still theorizing on abstract despite the higher cost both on the creature and Bestow, Nimbus Naiad provides a more significant keyword ability. By now we are all aware that Bestow is good, in my opinion so good that you want to use it as soon as possible, and when the opponent deals with the initial threat provided by the Bestow aura, and left you with a vanilla creature, not only you got your two for one, but you immediatly have a target on the table, a creature which was Mana Cost / Card advantage FREE, which might not be too intimidating, a 1/1 Lifelink or 2/2 Reach, but it was FREE, while your opponent paid mana and a card to deal with the threat, and at this point you can use your mana to pay one of the more powerful and mana expensive Bestow cards, turning your not very intimidating, but still FREE creature into a real threat. But wait, the cycle is not over here, your FREE creature is now a threat they have to deal with, and once they do so, they will have dealt with your FREE creature, and the expensive Bestow card fall on to the table.

To better play around removal or bounce, the cycle would start as soon as possible with the cheapest Bestow cards in a creature, once dealt then, upgraded to a serious threat with a more expensive Bestow, and once this one was dealt and the good Bestow aura becomes a creature, enchant it again with a cheap Bestow aura. This way, using a Cheap – Good – Cheap – Good pattern, you would always have a Good threat on the table, either a Bestow aura or Bestow creature, while alternating using cheap and good Bestow spells. That’s why probably Hopeful Eidolon is #1 and Nimbus Naiad is #2, because Lifelink and Flying make another vanilla creature become a threat, and themselves become a threat with any other Bestow on them, so they never break the chain.

I think this Mana saving efficiency can be compared to Time Spiral Block’s Suspend mechanic. You make a mana investment in the early game, for a free creature later. In order to start reaping the benefits as soon as possible you wanted to Suspend as early as possible, which made cards with low suspend costs really high pick.

Time Spiral set was released October 6th 2006. It was one of the Sets I achieved some of my best Limited results.

October 10 I Top 16 Grand Prix Athens
October 20 I Top 16 Pro Tour Kobe
November 11 I Top 64 Grand Prix New Jersey
November 18 I Top 32 Grand Prix Yamagata

These were the only events I played which featured Time Spiral Block Limited in all days of competition. I know I’m missing a Top 8 to make my understanding of the format look more credible, but November 29 I Top 8 Worlds 2006 going 5-1 on Day 2 Booster Draft, so I think I had a good winning % in high level events of that format.

My strategy for the format was to take the 1 mana suspend creatures very high. Just right after the Top 3 commons of the format, which were of absurd power level, a power level which I don’t think will be seen at common again, which were: Errant Ephemeron, Strangling Soot and Looter il-Kor. Right after those, and once you settled on a color you should be prioritizing the suspend 1 creatures: Durkwood Baloth, Keldon Halberdier, Corpulent Corpse and Viscerid Deepwalker. Ivory Giant was evaluated apart because it was an archtype staple, and outside of Rebels White Weenie it was the worst of them.

At Pro Tour Kobe I had a very long and stubborn pick debate with a friend, and by the end of the tournament I gave up. I did not concede my point, but I ended the discussion saying that by the end of the season he would be first picking Suspend 1 creatures. We did not have to wait that long.

At that time I wasn’t even very aware of this Suspend 1 creatures theory, I was just picking them higher than everyone else, and since I was winning I was sticking with it. It might be a little early to start comparing low Suspend mana costs to low Bestow mana costs, but don’t underestimate the power of a free creature on the transition step from the early to the mid game. I might be wrong on this one, after all I only did 1 draft so far, and I tried another strategy so I’m kind of relying on my analysis of Theros block as a whole, and the Bestow mechanic, and comparing it some of my past experiences. In Time Spiral you could simply play more creatures or more spells the turn your free creature became on. In Theros the ideal scenario would be to Bestow it to keep the chain going.

The problem with this strategy is, other decks won’t mind at all having Bestow cards, and the Heroic deck will actively want them.

Black devotion strategy

Devotion’s main use is to keep Gods on or off and as such there aren’t many other cards with this mechanic. Excluding the Gods we can find the following Devotion cards:

Mythic: Master of Waves
Rare: Abhorrent Overlord, Reverent Hunter
Uncommon: Evangel of Heliod, Mogis’s Marauder, Fanatic of Mogis, Karametra’s Acolyte
Common: Disciple of Phenax, Gray Merchant of Asphodel, Nylea’s Disciple

If we open Master of Waves or Abhorrent Overlord we are definitely encouraged to try and maximize their bonuses. I’m not attracted to Reverent Hunter because of it’s mana cost it’s unlikely we can grow him big on turn 3, and his initial stats are really low, besides he doesn’t have any more ability.

All of the uncommons can range from playable to really good in the right decks. But the most common build around Devotion mechanic will be Black based decks, because it’s in Black that you find the commons that reward you for your devotion, and that you can build your deck around because you can expect to see them during a draft. Nylea’s Disciple has a free and many times relevant life gaining effect, but it won’t be threatning to your opponent as a winning condition or oppressive card.

I played the Pre Release in the Southern district of Portugal, where there was only 1 Pre Release scheduled for the whole region per day, one on Saturday, one on Sunday, unlike the Lisbon area where I have a choice of 6 card stores hosting Pre Releases on both days. For this reason, and the lack of other relevant tournaments, the South Tournament Organizers and players treat the Pre Release like the big event of the season. Players attend from all South Portugal, the tournament always has a decent attendance, and the TO’s have a tradition of making a cut to Top 8, and have the Top 8 being Draft. I 5-1ed the swiss and went into the Top 8 trying to force the Black devotion deck. Despite having a R/G player to my right and U/G to my left, I only ended with an aggressive Black/White weenie, with not enough copies of Gray Merchant of Asphodel (2) or Disciple of Phenax (0).

Gray Merchant of Asphodel and Disciple of Phenax remind me of 2 cards from the past: Champions of Kamigawa’s Devouring Greed and Lorwyn’s Thieving Sprite.

The comparison of the discard card creatures is more obvious. While Thieving Sprite was often a flying Ravenous Rats it was still card advantage. Disciple of Phenax will guarantee at least a card selection of 2 cards, but loses the flying ability that allowed to attack for a few points of damage or block in a set full of 2/1 flying creatures. We’ll have to see how relevant a 1/3 body will be in this set to better evaluate the card.

Devouring Greed provided an effect similar to Gray Merchant of Asphodel, but in a different context. Devouring Greed was a win condition in a spirit deck. You would ideally only cast it for the kill, since you were sacrificing your spirits to enhance your effect. You would seldom play it on the mid game, and even tough the potential for it’s reach was very high you didn’t want too many in your deck. With Gray Merchant of Asphodel it is the other way around. The card that provides the draining life effect will also provide a 2/4 body and increase your devotion for future copies, so you want to get as many copies as you can. It’s not unreal to expect a draining effect higher than 2 on your fifth turn, and every future copy will perform much better.

The question here is once again, how relevant a 5 mana body will be in this format to sustain a draft strategy around this card. If it’s viable, expect these 2 commons to be on top of the list, right next to the removal / bounce spells and just below the Bestow cards.

Heroic mechanic strategies

Like I said, attacking for two isn’t really a thing I find myself doing often, but hopefully it’s like riding a bike and you never forget. In order to provide a richer analysis I searched the opinions of other good players. For the heroic mechanic, I found a very interesting analysis given by Mauro Peleira, former Portuguese National Champion, former Vice-National Champion, PTQ Winner, known Portuguese strategist and 1st place and 2nd Place in back to back 100+ players Theros Pre Releases.

According to Mauro Peleira, Heroic strategies can be split in two classes: Aggro Pump and Value Pump.

In Aggro Pump you will be playing with cheap creatures, cheap spells, cards that no other draft strategies want, but will be very efficient in this strategy. This will likely be the fastest decks of the format, that will threaten to end the game before the slower decks can even stabilize.

Value Pump decks will only play with more efficient creatures just counting on ocasional heroic triggers for some value, like adding a +1/+1 counter, tapping a creature or drawing a card, and it will mostly be achieved by Bestow auras since both parts of the Heroic mechanic, the card and the trigger cause are playable by themselves.

Strategy enabler / conditioner: Sea God’s Revenge

I haven’t played much Theros yet, but I’m curious to know, how early was Sea God’s Revenge added to the Theros file? Was it during Design or Development and at what point? I thought the time for the “I win” uncommons was over when Overrun became Enlarge, when Fireball became Volcanic Geyser and Mind Control became Air Servant. So why print Sea God’s Revenge? The card is better in this format than all the above mentioned ones were on their own formats. Will this card enable Blue based tempo strategies, since it combos well with Bident of Thassa for example? Or is it to put some restrains on some strategies? Everyone immediatly realized this card’s power, later we will see what role does it play in the format, if to balance or to unbalance.

There are several risks associated with being an Internet writer. If you’re right, everyone will nod, if you’re wrong it’s possible you end up being criticized. I don’t know where do I stand in there, probably in the middle of right and wrong and I will be sure to read again this article once the format has matured and I have re-evaluated my strategies. Then, I would certainly love to write another take on Theros Limited, because just like in the Hero’s path, this is only the beggining.

Thank you for reading, feedback will be appreciated.

Tiago Chan

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