The Evolution of Theros Limited

August 18, 2016

Tiago Chan

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

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Right after the Theros Pre-Releases I wrote an article about Theros Limited
which you can read here. At the time I knew some of my ideas had potential while others had the risk of being unaccurate and I expressed the desire of doing another article on this topic once the format had matured. This article is the perfect time to do it, since I did a decent amount of preparation for Grand Prix: Valencia and the single Portuguese PTQ, both Online Drafts and Online Sealed Decks thanks to the 8-man Sealed Deck queues which temporararily replaced the Daily Events. Not only that but Theros Limited seems to have been widely explored and analyzing the format would allow us to understand what’s the current state of Theros Limited awaiting the release of Born of the Gods to shake things a little.

1. Theros Limited overall impression

The first, the biggest, most obvious misconception we all had was that Theros was a mana hungry big monsters format. Soon, I started to realize that the format was faster than we all initially thought, and event after event I was worrying more and more about tempo and gradually reducing the mana costs in my decks. In less than a month I was already convinced Theros was the most Tempo-based Limited format I had ever played. (I didn’t play during Zendikar block, and after a couple of drafts I stopped playing the Triple Gategrash format instead going back to Triple Return to Ravnica).

1.1 No good blocks

Just like in Gatecrash or Zendikar, it is very difficult to get profitable blocks in Theros. In Zendikar, “Landfall” meant those creatures would receive a bonus when a land came into play, which in most cases where a fetchland wasn’t involved it meant during your turn, which meant a bonus for attacking and not blocking. In Gatecrash, with the “Batallion” bonus and “Bloodrush” tricks one would also rather be attacking. The comparison in Theros is the abundance and quality of combat tricks, along with the shortage of cheap effective removal to make the combat tricks unprofitable, meant that everytime there was an attack it was safer to not block, and just strike back instead of offering a trade in combat.

During Grand Prix: Valencia, I discussed with a fellow MTG Madness Team member how blocking was not profitable. His point was, in case blockings ocurred, you would still get a 1 for 1 deal because if nothing happened, you traded creatures, and if he had a trick you would still get a 1 for 1 card trade and your opponent had already used it. This is usually not a good deal because:

a) Your opponent will get the final option of using a trick or letting the creature die.
b) Sometimes it will not end in a 1 for 1 trade. Most notably Feral Invocation, but also Dauntless Onslaught, Coordinated Assault, Cutthroat Maneuvers
c) Even if you end getting a 1 for 1 card trade, you may end up falling really behind if you traded the creature you spent a turn to play, for a trick that costs only 1 (or 2) mana which allows the opponent to play another creature in the same turn. (God’s Willing, Triton Tactics, Boon of Erebos, Titan’s Strength all cost just a single mana).

1.2 Advantage of having the initiative

From a tempo perspective, the Theros mechanics “Monstrosity”, “Bestow” and “Heroic” have a similarity with “Morph”, the main mechanic of Onslaught, another very tempo based set. There were so many creatures with “Morph” at all stages of rarity spread through all colors. The most common play on turn 3 was play a morph, or something around that power level. That’s why commons like Shock and Glory Seeker were very good, because for less mana you would get something equivalent to a morph on turn 3, which could be played a turn earlier, or could be played along with a morph on turns 4 or 5.

The common point here is, in a typical Onslaught “morph” battle with no symmetry breaker like Shock or Glory Seeker, the morph battle was won by who went first and had the option on turn 4 to unmorph his creature or add another one. In Theros, the player who went first will be able in theory to play an Aura with “Bestow” or reach untapped “Monstrosity” mana first which will constrain blockings from the opponent. The same thing with “Heroic”, if both players have a turn 3 Wingsteed Rider the one who went second can never effectively block.

1.3 Ordeals

The cause of most of my losses in this Limited format were the Ordeals, more specifically an early Ordeal (turn 2 or turn 3). If I did not have an answer or couldn’t block and trade with the enchanted creature the turn it was enchanted, chances were I wouldn’t be able to deal with it on the following turn, and the next, and the game would be over soon. I feel the Ordeal cycle is too powerful to have at Uncommon, and it’s complexity justifies having the cycle at Rare, altough that would probably occupy many of the Rare card slots. As it is, having one per colour at uncommon affects deckbuilding and gameplay. If you don’t have bounce, early removal, or a deathtouch creature you are really praying for your opponent not to have a creature into Ordeal start. When it happens, the game is over really fast.

1.4 Bombs have less impact

This is a consequence of the format being fast. Most of the losses happen because one player had the initial upper hand and out-tempo’d the other player. Sometimes bombs still show up and can turn the tide, but I feel there is a better balance in the amount of games closed out by bombs. Sometimes it means that Abhorrent Overlord or Shipbreaker Kraken were just too slow. Some of the better bombs are the ones who gain you a really big early advantage and threaten to end the game really quickly like for example Fabled Hero, Agent of the Fates or Polukranos, World Eater

This doesn’t mean I’m not excited when looking for rares in my cardpool or by having them in my deck. I know that they will still provide me with their share of free wins whenever I play them, but so will an Ordeal into an early creature. In this format it was more frequent to out-tempo or being out-tempo’d than overpower or being overpowered.

1.5 The format was quite different from what we expected but it was solved quickly

Once the format matured, it became established rather quickly, with no hidden gems or archtypes. I still think it’s a good format, different from what we had in the recent past, that was a little tricky in the beginning, but soon the possibilities became limited and I found myself playing other Magic formats. I think one of the reasons was the pointers and reasons to follow a route were too good to not take them. In fact most of the possibilities were already predicted by many players the days following the Pre-release such as: White “Heroic” decks, Black “Devotion” decks, Green or Blue Tempo decks, Red/Black aggro “Heroic” or Minotaurs.

2. Theros Sealed Deck building

I had two major Sealed Deck events, Grand Prix: Valencia on November 9th and the Portuguese PTQ on November 23rd. My preparation was done playing dozens of Sealed Deck queues on MTGO, and even after the events I continued playing them as I thought they had reasonable value for the fun obtained and the time/tix invested, plus I was having a decent run in them until they extinguished them.

So far we’ve seen the format is very tempo based, there are plenty of tricks to make combat math difficult, there are many cards that threaten to end the game quickly and you want to have the initiative casting your spells and putting pressure on the board, even in a virtual way, like an “Heroic” or “Monstrosity” creature which could be triggered at any moment. How does this affect the way I build my decks?

– Stay on 2 colors!
– Avoid playing with double mana costs on both colours, especially on early game cards; for example: Two-Headed Cerberus and Phalanx Leader
– I try not to play more than 1 card with mana cost 6 or higher, and with not many cards with mana cost of 5.
– By making the deck lighter there is no need to play 18 lands like we initially thought. Also, I tend to stay away from Scry lands unless they provide mana for my 2 colors.

All these rules serve the same purpose. To make your deck more maneuverable and to make your draws less clunky. These rules seem a little strict but need to be, because more often than not, you will be tempted to bend them. It is not a necessity that you follow them religiously. Sometimes, go ahead and splash that Sea God’s Revenge in your Green/White deck since you’re already playing Opaline Unicorn anyway. Other times you really can’t avoid not playing Disciple of Phenax and Prescient Chimera in the same deck. And what about if your card pool presents you with an Abhorrent Overlord, are you really gonna cut Sip of Hemlock from your deck just to make your deck lighter? The point is, these guideline are flexible, but if you stretch them all too much, then you might as well ignore them all, because you’re just cheating yourself.

Concerning colors, even tough it is very dependent on what you open, both in quality and quantity, it is possible to classify the colors by depth. There are two colors that clearly stand above the others by depth, amount of playables and overall quality of those playables: Green and Blue. Your Sealed deck should be playing with one of these colours, otherwise it means sometime either really bad or really good happened with your pool. When I’m opening a Pool, what I’m really hoping for is for Green to have enough playables, because that can salvage most of the card pools and allow you to end up with a reasonable deck. On the opposite the color I feel has the least depth is Red, but not by a big margin since White these days is usually split in aggro White cards and controlish White cards and you never really know what to expect from your White. There is one exception in the color combinations which is Black and Red aggro which is viable altough not desirable. To put it in order, here are my preferences for Theros Sealed.

I would be most happy with: Blue/Green
Good: (Blue or Green / No Red): Blue/White, Blue/Black, Green/White, Green/Black.
Ok: Black/Red, Green/Red,
Wouldn’t be too happy: Blue/Red, White/Red, White/Black

When playing Theros Sealed I treat it the same way I would with Theros Draft. I don’t think there is much difference between them. There aren’t cards which I would value higher or lower when doing a crossover between the formats. They are both very tempo based, and all the mechanics are quite good in Limited so you should expect them to be relevant even if the deck was not drafted from a card pool. As a general tip I will remind you to not be greedy and respect the tempo. Most of the time it will be correct to play your bestow card as a vanilla creature just for the board presence. Once I even had to sideboarded in Triton Shorethief just to make my deck lighter and it was actually quite good in that game, altough the decision to bring him in involved a very specific set of circumstances.

3. Theros Draft

I have already mentioned some things related to Theros Draft. The format in it’s gameplay is very similar to Theros Sealed, and so the overall impressions can also be applied in Draft gameplay. Once you keep in mind the importance of tempo, and recognize the path your draft is going, things shouldn’t be much complicated, each archtype is very clear in what cards need.

Like I said, the Theros Draft format became a little repetitive sooner than a new Limited set usually becomes, so I ended up not doing as many Drafts as most of you did. However, one of my friends like to keep track of stats, color combinations, scores and those kind of things, so everytime I drafted Online and remembered doing it I noted down which combination I drafted and what score I achieved. My records are:

Blue/Green: 8 times
Green/Red : 3 times
Blue/Black: 2 times
Blue/Red: 1 time
White/Green: 1 time
White/Black: 1 time
Red/White: 1 time (I timed out my first pick and randomly got a Wingsteed Rider

I may have done other drafts Online where I forgot to write down, plus some others in real life. Also at Grand Prix: Valencia I drafted Red/Black and Blue/Green to a 2-1 score on both pods. It appears that Blue and Green is my favourite color combination, which is no surprise since I consider them the two colors with the most depth.

The way I draft Blue/Green is very simple. Take Voyaging Satyr above everything else. Then take the bounce spells. Then take the rest. Give priority to cheaper creatures, never worry of having too many Voyaging Satyr or Nessian Courser because you will eventually end up with some action for your turns 5 and 6, there are plenty of fatties, or you could be Bestowing or playing non creature spells, the importance is an early board presence and gaining advantage in tempo. Once again, this is not static, ocasionally you will be drafting Nessian Asp when a cheaper card is in the pack, but just keep in mind the tempo, the curve, and it’s very hard to go wrong.

4. Cards that changed in evaluation

Theros is not a set with many hidden gems, or maybe some of them are still hidden waiting to be used when future draft sets are added. Most of the cards who changed in our evaluation were because of our initial misconception of the format. Before mentioning which cards surprised me the most, I will copy paste my Top 5 commons list I wrote 3 months ago:

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

At the time this was a bold statement. Right now it is arguable whether or not these cards are indeed the best commons, but a case could be made for them, and they are clearly top level ones. So I think I got these ones right, and I can’t be surprised by how good they are. The cards who surprised me the most were:

Dragon Mantle: I initially thought this card would be just an “heroic” trigger like Scourgemark or Chosen by Heliod. Just a playable in some decks, or a necessity in more dedicated decks. But it was the card that I was most wrong about. I see it now as one of the best Red commons, that fits any deck. It’s better than all the other cantrip auras of the same cycle. They all trigger “Heroic” and draw a card, but Dragon Mantle costs one less mana, which is a huge deal in this format being able to draw a card and trigger “Heroic” cheaper. The ability it grants to the creature requires mana to activate, as opposed to a +1/+0 or +0/+2 permanently granted, but it makes any of your creatures a threat, capable of trading with virtually any creature your opponent plays, or deal large amount of damage.

Ill-Tempered Cyclops: This card is relatively easy to evaluate, a Hill Giant with two added bonuses, so what was wrong here? I misjudged the “Monstrosity” cost. In my last article, I wrote Hopeful Eidolon and Leafcrown Dryad were better because they allowed you to “Bestow” a turn earlier than average. Ill-Tempered Cyclops is the cheapest “Monstrosity” creature with the cheapest activation cost. It comes down relatively earlier, a 3/3 Trample on turn 4 is a decent play, and two turns after, on it’s second attack phase it is virtually unblockable by anything the opponent could have played by then, so the Cyclops will often attack into more expensive creatures who can’t block him. Also, in the late game, a 6/6 Trample is very hard to chump-block.

Sedge Scorpion: At first I looked at this card and saw what was written there, 1/1 Deathtouch, how tricky can this be to judge? It depends a lot on the format. In this one, it is one of the very few reliable blockers, at any stage of the game, be it an early Ordeal or a late game monster. Ordeals impact the format so much that you need to keep attention to what answers you might have and I’m glad there are two cheap Deathtouch creatures. Also, you can’t just sit and ignore the Scorpion due to the lack of pinger effects you will need to trade a card to get him out of the table, and often a good card.

Opaline Unicorn: At first I was a little suspicious of playing with a 3 mana Elf in a two colors deck, but turned out to be a fine playable more often than not. First it’s an Artifact so it helps you increase the amount of playables to keep your deck 2 colors only. I have already said how high I value Voyaging Satyr and altough less effective, the Unicorn still accelerates you into one or two fatties or a “Bestow” Aura or a “Monstrosity” activation one turn earlier than expected. In case of “Bestow” the Unicorn also provides a body to be Enchanted, which become a threat, and when dealt with you merely lost a mana elf.

God’s Willing: From this list this was the card that surprised me the least. For one mana it saves any of your creatures from any situation with an added bonus of Scry 1 is a good deal, and also acts as another “Heroic” trigger. The hidden added bonus in this format is that it protects your investment. Sometimes you invest in growing a creature becoming a large threat hard to deal for your opponent. You spend resources such as cards or turns doing it so, and God’s Willing guarantees that your investment is protected, and if finding one card to deal with a threat might be dificult, imagine having two in back to back turns. God’s Willing ranks very high on the White common picks, but also because White isn’t very deep.

In my perspective this is how the Theros Limited format evolved until now, and I don’t expect many things to change until the release of Born of the Gods. The set was fun, the mechanics well designed and well balanced. The format seems to have been solved a little too fast, but we are in an era of large and fast flows of information, people draft more than ever, there are articles, streams, podcasts and everything. In any case, the next set is just around the corner hopefully with many surprised.

Let me know what you thought of the Theros Limited format as well as any critics you may have about my review, and thank you all for reading!

Tiago Chan

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