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Walking with the Gods: a Theros Draft Primer

Written by LegitMTG Staff on . Posted in Competitive Magic, Limited

Theros draft has proven to be an interesting beast with some amazing facets that have not been seen in a while. Heroic creatures are everywhere along with epic monsters and intricate tactics provided by devotion. Theros has brought something fresh and exciting almost every time that I have drafted it. The difference between victory and defeat is often an incredibly thin line. After several drafts of Theros (placing each time) here are a few things that I’ve picked up on:

Aggro is not dead, it has just changed

In a recent article Marshal Sutcliffe discussed the speed of Theros relative to the removal that was in the set. His final conclusion was that the set was much slower than many of Magic’s previous expansions. For the most part, Sutcliffe is completely right. The removal in the set is overpriced almost across the board and creatures like Scholar of Athreos, Guardians of Meletis, and Returned Phalanx certainly throw some obstacles into the “turn sideways and win” plan. However, while aggro decks certainly have their work cut out for them they are not down for the count by any means.

Where removal falls off, we have a truly baffling suite of pump spells. In a draft on popular draft site draftmagic.com, Derek Boyko commented that the aggro deck he built for the event was weaker because it lacked a mass of pump spells. Every single one of the colors has a spell that can target two creatures with the two best for aggro decks being Dauntless Onslaught and Coordinated Assault. Both of these spells can be especially backbreaking. In addition, there are other fantastic and cheap pump spells including: Savage Surge, Boon of Erebos, Titan’s Strength, and Battlewise Valor. All are cards that can find a place in a deck with a critical mass of creatures. In addition to pump spells, there a several cantrip enchantments that can pump creatures and draw cards such as Dragon Mantle.

For these strategies, there are a number of good, cheap creatures that players can rely on. In the two drop slot there are creatures like Deathbellow Raider, Arena Athlete, Satyr Hedonist, and Leonin Snarecaster that can help you push through damage and gain some extra benefits. Any one of the five common enchantment creature nymphs can help as well. In particular, Leafcrown Dryad and Observant Alseid are great both because they have cheap casting costs and reasonable Bestow costs meaning they can fill curves and crush face. Other creatures like Satyr Rambler, Staunch Hero, Favored Hoplite, and Phalanx Captain not only fill your curve but play nicely with pump spells and cheap enchantments. Finally, there are some standout creatures in the three drop slot at common. As I learned the hard way in a few drafts, an empty board on turn three can result in some massive damage at the hands of the appropriately named Minotaur Skullcleaver. Also remember that Nessian Courser is in the set, and while certainly not flashy, it can definitely get you there.

However, all of this would be a moot point if there were not ways for aggro decks to push through the final points of damage. Fortunately, to help these decks there are many commons and uncommons that can push through tons of damage. One of the best creatures to accomplish this is Mogis’s Marauder which is best defined as a Teleportal with teeth. Occasionally, there will be times when he can only bring one or two creatures with him, but many times this single creature can take your entire board on a one stop journey to your opponent’s dome. This can again be seen in Derek Boyko’s draft. Let’s also remember that for those daring to go a more aggressive R/U route with Spellheart Chimeras and friends, there is the phenomenal curve topper: Sea God’s Revenge. Anyone that has been on the other side of this card will know that it can be a blowout. Removing three blockers from the table and then fixing your next draw is devastating. Finally, there is also Aqueous Form for those who just need to sneak in a few extra points of damage. Heck, with in the right conditions a Calvary Pegasus and a handful of humans can close out a game.

Being Heroic is kind of hard

Heroic seems to be kind of counter intuitive in terms of drafting. Ideally you want to create a deck full of creatures that grow stronger when you play spells, and either let you push through damage or stay alive while battling other monsters. On paper this looks like an easy plan to victory, however, there are a few things that can get in your way. First, many of the spells that you want to run in your deck are being sought after by other players. There are very few cases where a Dauntless Onslaught or Triton’s Tactics will not be excellent in any sort of white or blue deck. Second, the best Heroic decks have a critical mass of spells and abilities. The combination of low supply coupled with high demand of top quality instants means that you will end up targeting your own creatures with spells like Lost in the Labyrinth more often than not.

While all the colors have Heroic creatures and great spells, I would suggest going W/U. The number of creatures that can break this strategy wide open in this color combination is ridiculous. Many of them are mentioned in a recent article by Marshal Sutcliffe. Phalanx Leader is a phenomenal enabler of this strategy and with two instants and two other creatures this guy turns into the little hoplite that could. Wavecrash Triton is the second major piece for this deck. The ability to simultaneously gain the effects of whatever instant you play and tap down blockers or attackers for multiple turns is huge. Wingsteed Rider is also a powerful player in this archetype and can easily grow from a humble 2/2 to a mighty 4/4 within the course of a game. You also gain access to two of my favorite instants in the set: Dauntless Onslaught, and Triton’s Tactics. Dauntless Onslaught’s value is clear already, but some players still are not convinced with the abilities of Triton’s Tactics. While I normally do not get excited about instants like this, I swear by this one. For one mana, this card: protects from some removal and combat tricks, provides instant defenders, leaves your opponent open for a counter attack all while triggering Heroic on your creatures. It is truly a phenomenal piece to the W/U aggro puzzle.

This is not to say that other combinations of the Heroic deck do not exist; it is just that these colors have proven to be competitive when I have played with it or against it. Certainly the potential for any number of interesting decks exists in all the colors and I think time will show us if there are other strong builds out there.

There will be bombs

When the set was spoiled for the first time it was readily apparent that big, expensive creatures and spells were going to play a huge role in the strategies of Theros. One thing that I have noticed is that creatures in this set are as powerful as they are hungry for mana. At the common level you have a significant upgrade to Giant Spider: Nessian Asp. The Asp can hold down the ground and the air, while constantly threatening to go monstrous and end the game. Setessan Griffin is one of the best variants of Rootwalla that I have played with in a long time. The potential to become a 5/4 flier is absolutely huge in a common. There are other creatures that fill out the curve while threatening to go big in the late game as well. Ill-Tempered Cyclops is a great variant of the classic four mana 3/3. Even if it was just a 3/3 with Trample for four mana it would be good but with Monstrous it can be downright backbreaking.

While creatures like this are all powerful and incredibly relevant the question at the beginning of the set was whether or not players would reach that pinnacle of land/mana producers to make use of those creatures. The answer is an emphatic yes! Creatures like Nessian Asp are not only going to see play but many times will go Monstrous. First, games tend to stretch long meaning players have far more time to draw their lands and get to that critical mass of lands needed to supply those creatures. Second, there are several creatures that are able to produce mana and accelerate out larger monsters. Creatures like Opaline Unicorn and Voyager Satyr do a great job of getting those creatures out onto the field quickly.

A Few Other Things Worth Mentioning

Be afraid of the Gray Merchant of Asphodel. No seriously, be terrified. This card has been called many things by different players. I have heard it mentioned as: “The Gray Merchant buzz-saw” or “The next Kokusho” . While many players were skeptical of the power of the Devotion mechanic when the set first came out, Grey Merchant has proven that this mechanic can be devastating. The Grey Merchant ranges from a decent creature to an outright bomb depending on the deck he is placed in. In combination with creatures like Disciple of Phenax and Insatiable Harpy, it is not unlikely for this monster to hit for 4-8 points of damage with little trouble. Combine this effect with multiple types of recursion such as Voyage’s End or March of the Returned, Gray Merchant is a threat that can come back time and time again.

Enchantment removal is another interesting topic to consider. With the sheer amount of enchantments and enchantment-creatures it seemed like a good idea to main deck multiple versions of enchantment removal. Cards like Annul and Artisan’s Sorrow seemed like great ideas and many players (myself included) thought that they would be destroying enchantments consistently. The reality is that while cards like those make for excellent inclusions to most sideboards, you will not need too many of these cards. Despite this they are certainly “main-deckable” depending on the circumstances.

With that I would like to leave some closing thoughts. First, this is one of the most entertaining draft formats that I have played in quite some time. There is almost no strategy that is not viable, and there are many cards, even in the later stages of draft, that are useful for many different decks. This is a set that encourages players to try something new when they draft and it is certainly something that you should try. Good luck and may the gods be with you! (Or may you defy the gods if you’re in to that sort of thing).

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