Hey, look, another new set! The first set of a new block is always exciting; we get a bevy of new and old mechanics as well as a large number of cards to consider for inclusion. This time around, we get some new combinations of card types that we haven’t seen before, too! Wrap it all up in a package that is part Kamigawa block and part My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and you have Theros! I’m not going to rate every card out of the set. I’m just going to comment on ones that I think will have an impact/other people think will have an impact/I want to make fun of. I will rate the cards on a scale of 1-5, with the following basic meanings:
2– Good enough in the largest of Cubes (720+); Very good cards that fill roles/provide support/have just been forced out over the years (Sigil of Distinction, Transcendent Master, Jeska, Warrior Adept, Exclude)
As with any ‘evergreen’ format, all card evaluations need to be done relative to every other card printed. While some cards may be powerful in a vacuum, they may suck in Cube next to other older cards. With that in mind, I’m also going to suggest cards that can be cut if you want to add these new cards.
Note: I reserve the right to change my opinions at any time. These are mostly ‘testing in my head’ predictions, and I am never too proud to admit that I was wrong on a card evaluation, or missed a card entirely. I’ll eagerly update you on any new findings in future articles.
Off we go!
Chained to the Rocks – It is difficult to not draw comparisons to Swords to Plowshares and Path to Exile (even in name, X to Y!), but Chained to the Rocks has a different kind of drawback and benefit: this is definitely a red/white card, sorcery speed, and has the ability to be reversed…but your opponent gains NO advantage! Unfortunately, I think the drawbacks/conditions are just a bit too steep for a competitive section like R/W in any but the largest of Cubes. I think it will be a shoe-in for constructed Boros decks, however.
Elspeth, Sun’s Champion – Wow, another great Elspeth! It meets all of the preliminary requirements that I look for in a planeswalker: ability to defend itself, synergistic abilities, and a game-winning ultimate. Making three tokens as a +1 is a deceptively powerful ability, and the -2 clears out large threats to Elspeth’s life. As she ticks upwards, you are also accumulating threats to make her ultimate a true game winner. I feel like this card is everything that Elspeth Tirel wanted to be, and should be an almost automatic inclusion in any Cube. This card plays well in token strategies and control decks alike, and will be seen for years to come gracing the Cube draft tables.
Fabled Hero – Double strike is a powerful ability, and cards that are less than 4 CMC with it should all be evaluated for possible inclusion. When they have the ability to grow, it makes things even more interesting because of the potential for large damage chunks when combined with tricks. While heroic doesn’t exactly impress at this point in Cube history (with the outdated nature of auras and pump spells), there are some that combo quite well with this Hero, like Rancor. White is starting to really get some nice 3-drops, and that fact that this card is a Human fills in another piece of the Champion of the Parish puzzle as well.
Rating: 2.5 seems to be about right; if you have lots of pants and/or a human theme, then he is a solid 3.
Heliod, God of the Sun – One of the new God cards, Heliod is likely one of the worst as far as Cube goes. In non-creature mode, its abilities are a bit lackluster: four mana for a 2/1 isn’t that great, and vigliance really isn’t that impressive. When you also consider the mana cost issues (being double white and being in the high-competition four-drop spot in white), I just don’t think it is good enough.
Hundred-Handed One – A complete flavor win. Jay-Z references aside, this card just doesn’t fit into standard-type Cubes. Super ultra-mega bonus points if you can attack for lethal past it with the 101st attacker, however!
Soldier of the Pantheon – For such a good card, there really isn’t much to say about it. Two power for one mana with not one but TWO additional benefits? Sign me and every other Cube owner up. Oh, and it’s a Human, too.
Possible replacement for: Virtually any white card that isn’t helping your aggressive decks is defendable. If you are out of space for one-drops, you can just upgrade your Savannah Lions/Elite Vanguard, but I don’t think any but the absolute smallest Cubes can do that quite yet.
Spear of Heliod – Another card in a Theros-specific cycle, Spear of Heliod adds another anthem effect to the Cube pool that is best utilized in token strategies (seeing a trend, here?) but with the extra benefit of being able to Reciprocate(ish) their creatures. Even though you get the added vulnerability of it being an artifact (allowing red to actually interact with it, actually), I think it is well worth a spot if you like anthems/tokens/spears.
Rating: 3 if you support tokens.
Rating: 2 if you do not.
Possible replacement for: Global pumps like Crusade.
Master of Waves – While I like the concept of Master, I don’t like the execution. Blue really doesn’t have that many <4 CMC permanents with lots of U symbols in them that makes a bevy of 2/1 tokens relevant (unless you have a merfolk theme). I also don’t like that the tokens are 1/0, because there are plenty of non-red ways to remove Master in the Cube. Bleh. Rating: 1
Prognostic Sphinx – So this guy seems close to impossible with which to deal in regular limited, but in Cube I’m just not that impressed. Scry 3 is no joke, but it doesn’t have a very fast clock, removal of ANY sort prevents it from attacking/blocking due to tapping itself to get hexproof (Icy Manipulator types are its worst enemy), and frankly I think Sphinx of Lost Truths has better upside. If you are winning a game by attacking with the Beaver Sphinx, I feel like the scry is likely win-more. However, there just aren’t that many blue 5-drops.
Possible Replacement for: Sphinx of Lost Truths is it, because honestly I like all of usual suspects at five mana better.
Thassa, God of the Sea – Thassa’s value is going to be almost entirely wrapped in how good scrying for one each upkeep will be. Blue isn’t a ‘play creatures’ color that often, so devotion will be hard to reach on that avenue; creature enchantments will be the way to go (Control Magic et al) to get to attack with this god. This will often be how you get value out of the activated ability as well, since lots of blue creatures that see Cube play often have evasion anyway. Besides the Think Tank-like ability, the mana cost is the most appealing part of Thassa. Being only three mana (and only one blue mana) is a huge benefit, and Thassa would definitely benefit all of the tempo decks that use blue as a support color. I’m going to give it a try.
Rating: 3, but could slip down to 2 easily if the scrying isn’t good enough.
Erebos, God of the Dead – Your opponents can’t gain life…sure. Pay two mana AND two life to draw a single card? That seems a bit expensive for my taste. While black certainly can have easy access to devotion (think Geralf’s Messenger), I just don’t think the supplemental abilities are good enough to include this guy.
Hero’s Downfall – As I’m sure many others did, this was exactly my guess for the 5-word card with ‘planeswalker’ on it. While I’m not a fan of 3-mana removal spells (I didn’t like Murder), this card gives Cubes another way to interact directly with planeswalkers outside of combat, and it’s nice to have an unconditional way to kill an annoying planeswalker. The fact that it is instant speed pushes it over the top for me. An upgrade for lots of Cubes.
Rating: 3, possibly a 4.
Tormented Hero – This hero is another great aggressive one-drop for the Cube, and this time in black. No one cares that it comes into play tapped, and every once in a while you’ll get an extra point or two of damage outside of combat. Automatic inclusion for Cubes if they have any sort of aggressive black deck. Oh, and it’s another human!
Possible Replacement for: Any leftover one-drops with less than one power, like Fume Spitter.
Whip of Erebos – Four mana for mass lifelink isn’t exactly spectacular, but the Corpse Dance-esque ability is certainly useful. The big problem is that it will cost you eight mana total to use the ability once. Once it gets going, I can see how it could be hard to beat, but you can’t really abuse it with a sacrifice outlet because of the exile clause. Seems much better in slower Cubes or multiplayer Cubes.
Anger of the Gods – I personally don’t like this type of effect in Cubes, especially when the spell doesn’t hit players (and ergo, planeswalkers) as well. I suppose if aggro runs wild in your Cube, you can run this alongside Pyroclasm and Slagstorm. That day isn’t here for my Cube.
Ember Swallower – I really want to like this card. A 4/5 for your mana is certainly not scoff-worthy, and it actually fits perfectly into the often misunderstood and underutilized Wildfire/Burning of Xinye strategy. The monstrous ability also fits pretty well into the Wildfire strategy, but I’m not a big fan of the monstrous abilities that cost significantly more than the creature. I’m also considering what effect the ability will have once you have enough mana to activate it. In this case, how effective is both players sacrificing three lands if your opponent already has six or seven? Not very much in Cube, I don’t think. But, I do think that ability could be VERY effective in a Wildfire/LD shell for the second wave of lands. I think the biggest obstacle for inclusion is the competition at the 4-drop spot in red. It’s not better than Hellrider, Flametongue Kavu, or Hero of Oxid Ridge, so I’m just not sure how much more room is leftover in small cubes. If you are looking for more Wildfire support, however, this is your…swallower?
Rating: 2, but possibly a 3 or 4 if you are pushing Wildfire.
Firedrinker Satyr – ANOTHER 2/1 for one mana! This one is a “strict” upgrade to Jackal Pup, a card that the vast majority of Cubes play in support of red aggressive decks. You should be playing this card, too.
Possible Replacement for: Less aggressive one-drops like Magus of the Scroll. But seriously, just find room for it and don’t remove another 2/x for one for it.
Hammer of Purphoros – While Spear of Heliod is a definite inclusion because of its similarity to another oft-played card, Hammer of Purphoros most resembles Fervor, a card not seen in Cubes. Unlike the Spear, the Hammer doesn’t have an immediate board impact the turn you cast it, and the granting of haste isn’t a large boon to red at that point in the curve because most of red’s four- and five-drops already have haste. Fires of Yavimaya is played partially because the cost is much easier on green decks, and partially because green’s creatures can benefit from the haste ability much more than red’s can. With the heavy red cost, this card is going to be much more difficult to cast in decks whose main color isn’t red (even though the three mana CMC is nice), and I think that reduces its value quite a bit. The nice part of this card, I think, is the token generation. Three mana and a land (any land, not just mountains) in exchange for a 3/3 haste creature is a pretty good way to generate some reach, and will certainly be taking over limited games for the next year or so. Is it good enough for Cube, though? I’m leaning towards no.
Lightning Strike – And yet another reprint/upgrade to a card that already has a home in Cube for the long term. There is something to be said for redundancy.
Purphoros, God of the Forge – Purphoros is what I believe to be the best of the gods. While he doesn’t do anything the turn he comes into play (like some of the others do), what he offers in return are giant vicious beating possibilities and extra reach. While the four mana slot in red has a lot of competition (see above), I think this card is worth it for the value you will get across all the different archetypes. To wit:
Red-based Aggro: You get extra value from all your mid-late game creature drops, and red has some of the best red-intensive mana cards that can reach enough devotion (an opening of 1-drop, Ash Zealot/Kargan Dragonlord, Sulfuric Vortex/Boros Reckoner, Purphoros is quite good!). Don’t forget that you also have the ability to pump your team! Not the best 4-drop on curve if you are planning on winning t4 (not sure how this is happening through resistance, though), but it definitely has a home.
White/Red Tokens: Great googly-moogly is this card awesome in this archetype. I want you to envision Purphoros in turn four then the following on turn five through seven: Geist-Honored Monk. Cloudgoat Ranger. Siege-Gang Commander. Conqueror’s Pledge. Elspeth, Sun’s Champion. Martial Freakin’ Coup (Martial Coup). See where I’m going with this? Even something under the curve like Spectral Procession is going to deal six just for resolving, and even steady generators like Elspeth, Knight-Errant are going to be sick!
Storm: Empty the Warrens much? (Mostly kidding…mostly)
Have I even mentioned Young Pyromancer yet?
Rating: 4 if you support tokens, 3 otherwise. I hesitate to give this card a 5 without playing it, but I can’t imagine many other cards I would want in the R/W token archetype more!
Stormbreath Dragon – I feel like I was just talking about a 5-drop hasty dragon recently; oh yeah, last year! Unfortunately, I think this dragon is a victim of the numbers game at the 5-drop spot; I don’t want it over cards like Thundermaw Hellkite, Zealous Conscripts, Siege-Gang, etc. I like the Monstrous ability, especially being able to play this guy post-sweeper vs. the control decks, but I’m just not sure that’s enough at this point. He can certainly see some good play in larger Cubes, however.
Two-Headed Cerberus – Remember when I said you have to evaluate creatures with double strike under 4CMC? Yeah, this one didn’t take much evaluation.
Boon Satyr – Four power for three mana is pretty good, and flash is a powerful ability as well. Add Bestow on top of that, and what you have is a seriously good card for green aggressive strategies. The big problem? That two toughness. That means that Boon Satyr is going to die to pretty much every other non-defender creature in the Cube, unlike Wolfir Avenger who has been known to eat an aggressive creature and live to tell the tale. However, if you are supporting green aggressive strategies in your Cube, I don’t think there is any way you can pass this one up.
Rating: 4 if you push green-centric aggressive strategies, 3 if you do not.
Bow of Nylea – Wow, this card has a lot of abilities. There is certainly value in flexibility, but all of the abilities are just a bit underwhelming. Three mana and a card for deathtouch, and only when attacking, is kind of meh. Gaining three life and putting a +1/+1 counter on something are mildly useful, shooting a flier is limited in scope, and the graveyard recursion seems close to useless in Cube. Even when all put together, I just don’t think this is the kind of card you want in typical Cubes.
Nylea, God of the Hunt – Trample is pretty low-impact as far as creature abilities go in Cube, and paying four mana to give a creature +2/+2 is pretty underwhelming as well for a card of this supposed magnitude. I’ll pass.
Polukranos, World Eater – Remember when 5/5s for 2GG used to have drawbacks? Worse than originally believed (it was believed to activate for xGG, which would have been completely busted), Polukranos is still a pretty darn good card with the printed activation of XXG. The ability to remove creatures in green is pretty rare, and when stapled onto an efficient body that gets better at instant speed it means you have the makings of a solid Cube card. Green aggressive, midrange, and ramp decks will like this card, so I like it too.
Rating: 3.5. It might be the best green 4-drop, but I just don’t know without playing it yet. I enjoy Master of the Wild Hunt, Obstinate Baloth, and Thrun, the Last Troll for their roles; I’m not sure yet if this card is better.
Sylvan Caryatid – This card is everything Utopia Tree ever wanted to be. It’s a two mana ramp spell that also doubles as a blocker for lots of the aggressive one- and two-drops. Granted, you will likely only be blocking with it for one turn (the turn it is played), but the possibility is there to block if you under-drop. Making any color of mana is strong, which makes it good in the high nonbasic land four- or five-color decks as well. My only gripe is that it won’t be good in decks with sweepers, but that’s pretty minor. I think this is a welcome addition to the Cube midrange and ramp decks.
Rating: 3.5. I think this can make smaller lists if the blocking ability makes a big difference.
Anax and Cymede – A 3/2 vigilant first striker actually sounds awesome, until you realize this is a multicolored card that contains a lot better cards unless you get seven or more cards deep into the section. I could see this having a home in large Cubes, however, to keep the aggressive card density high enough.
Ashen Rider – The obvious comparison here is to Angel of Despair, and as far as function is concerned it is an obvious upgrade. I feel as though this is an easy switch, even with the one additional mana. Either this guy is getting reanimated, or that control deck that was planning to cast a 7-mana guy can likely easily cast an 8-mana creature with more upside. If you support reanimator, this is an easy add.
Rating: 4 if you support reanimator. 2 if you don’t.
Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver – Planeswalkers that cost less than four mana certainly warrant a look, and moreso when they can bump up to five loyalty right away. Ashiok is awesome in the control mirror, much like Jace, Memory Adept was in the standard of a year+ ago. Beyond that, it seems towards the weaker end of the spectrum against the aggro decks and just average vs. the midrange decks. Can it protect itself? Conditionally and slowly. Does it have synergistic abilities? For sure. Does it have a game-winning ultimate? Not really, although it is very good vs. the control decks. I’m not sure U/B needs more cards good vs. the control decks, and I’m not sure that it is better than the cards already in the color pairing (especially considering that it has virtually zero impact the turn it comes into play, and may even not have an impact until the third turn or later once it lands). I’m not sure if this is bad Ash or good Ash; time for some playtesting!
Rating: I’m going to say 2, although it is certainly more interesting than other three mana U/B cards like the counterspells (but may not be better).
Fleecemane Lion – Watchwolf hasn’t been good enough for Cube in years, and the monstrous ability just isn’t that impressive in a cost analysis to effect analysis. With the recent arrival of Voice of Resurgence, there is no need for Fleecemane in this very deep colot combination.
Steam Augury – Fact or Friction, Fiction or Fact…we’re all tired of the new names for this card (although I do like Frack or Fiction), but I’m certainly not tired of thoughts of playing this card in my Cube for a long time to come. While not good at finding a specific card when you need it (like a sweeper), this card will be a great value play every single time. With the role reversal, you will be able to set up the piles that you will benefit no matter which pile your opponent chooses. I do like the idea of setting up some 4/1 splits for the mind games, however. This “fixed” FoF being a very good card should give you some idea of how insanely good the original one is.
Rating: 4, because it’s probably the 2nd or 3rd best U/R card.
Xenagos, the Reveler – I really like this planeswalker, and I have a feeling it will much more consistent than Sarkhan Vol ever was. It defends itself well while also fitting into aggressive or midrange/ramp decks by either allowing you to underdrop and get a “free” planeswalker left behind. Its abilities work well together, as the second ability feeds the first. Does its ultimate win the game? It certainly can, in the ramp decks. The biggest problem will be finding space for this guy, as R/G is starting to get crowded towards the top.
The Scry Lands – These seem awesome for constructed, but they just aren’t good enough for Cube.
We actually get a couple of very important reprints of Cube staples, one of which will certainly help from a financial standpoint (Thoughtseize) and the other of which will give us a great new artwork while putting a lot more into circulation for new Cube builders (Magma Jet).
That’s it! I think there is a lot of potential in this set for Cubes, there appears to be a lot of support for token archetypes, AND we got a number of very welcome aggressive one-drops. I’m curious if we will get more monstrous cards that will be worth the cost in the future, but we will have to be satisfied with Eating Worlds for now.
May all your squares be three-dimensional!
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