As you are probably not familiar with who I am, I should probably start with an introduction. I've been playing Magic since Mercadian Masques block, and I love brewing decks. I've had the luxury of brewing and testing with a number of talented magic players over the years, including Gabe Walls, Ben Rubin, and Brian Kibler. Here is a brew that I did well with at an MTG Fanatic $5K in Texas a few years ago:
Eric Heumann - 2nd place
This deck was similar to the U/G Time Warp ramp decks floating around, except that my deck was really well positioned to beat aggro decks with the walls and white removal spells in the sideboard.* As you can see I like to build decks that do sweet things, such as casting Avenger of Zendikar on turn 4 or using Eye of Ugin to tutor up and cast an Ulamog. You know, fun decks—decks that are fun for me to play, not necessarily fun for my opponents' to play against. Now that you know a little bit more about me and my deckbuilding tendencies, we can delve into today's topic:
Devotion is one of the central mechanics of Theros, and demands significant resources to please the respective colors' Gods. While you won't be forced to break out prayer mats mid-match to show your devotion, you will need to build your decks with devotion in mind.
When Theros was first spoiled, a lot of people brewed up decks built around turning the God creatures in the different colors into indestructible creatures. The quickest ways to gain high levels of devotion involve putting into play a number of cheap creatures (and/or enchantments) that have a lot of mana symbols in their cost. However, the tools are not there to build devotion decks in every color.
The best ways to achieve devotion are in red for a few reasons. For one thing, red has some of the best 2- and 3-mana permanents that enable devotion. Ash Zealot, Burning-Tree Emissary, Boros Reckoner, Chandra's Phoenix, and Hammer of Purphoros are all very good cards on their own.
The second big reason why red devotion decks are better is Burning-Tree Emissary. Burning-Tree Emissary allows you to dump a bunch of red permanents onto the board quickly, or it can played for free in conjunction with another creature to quickly rebuild your devotion after an opponent sweeps your board. You can even use Burning-Tree Emissary as a ritual in conjunction with Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx. Play lines such as turn 2 Ash Zealot, turn 3 Burning-Tree Emissary, play Nykthos, activate it and cast a 4-drop are really powerful.
As you may or may not know, the first place deck list from the standard portion of the SCG Open Worchester this past weekend was a mono-red aggro deck sporting a four-pack of Fanatic of Mogis. To compliment Fanatic of Mogis, the deck plays a bunch of double- and triple-casting-cost red creatures. While the deck does not need a high amount of devotion to function, it has been built with devotion in mind:
Mono-Red Aggro Devotion
Ash Zealot, Burning-Tree Emissary, Boros Reckoner and Chandra's Phoenix are all good at enabling the 4 Fanatic of Mogis. Fanatic is often a Lava Axe + a 4/2 for the low price of 4 mana, and the threat of playing a Fanatic with a bunch of creatures in play can cause the opponent to play out their removal spells more quickly than they would like. While the permanents in the main deck are all creatures (and thus prone to sweepers), Chandra's Phoenix in conjunction with the 10 burn spells in the deck provides a very resilient threat and devotion enabler.
The eight haste creatures, ten burn spells, and four Lava Axe's on a stick provide this deck with a deceptive amount of reach. Additionally, the eight first strike creatures combined with the burn spells give the deck a legitimate way to beat other creature decks in the midgame.
Out of the sideboard, Frostburn Weird and Mizzium Mortars provide more game against other creature decks. Hammer of Purphoros is incredibly good against control decks, as both giving your creatures haste and making 3/3s is tough for them to deal with, and Burning Earth is devastating against the three-color control decks in the format, primarily Esper.
My biggest concern is that this deck only plays 21 mana sources in a deck with four Fanatic of Mogis and Burning Earth/Chandra, Pyromaster out of the board. I would like to cut a spell for a Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx in the main deck, and another spell for a second Nykthos in the sideboard that can get boarded in when you want another mana source. Nykthos can help you cast your 4-drops, it can lead to explosive turns, and it is devastating in conjunction with Mizzium Mortars. Playing an overloaded Mizzium Mortars against other aggro decks is often game ending, and you are already boarding in Mizzium Mortars against other aggro decks as it kills almost everything. Mono-Red Aggro Devotion is a really exciting deck that I think will be a big player in the newly forming metagame.
While Philip's mono-red deck has a lot of reach, the deck's biggest weakness is that it wants to extend a large number of creatures onto the board early in the game. Burning-Tree Emissary enables overextending, and Fanatic of Mogis rewards the mono-red player for doing so. This opens the deck up to board sweepers such as Anger of the Gods and Supreme Verdict. And while Burning Earth helps you to play out your hand while playing around sweepers, it is only good against the three-color control decks (not U/W Control).
For the past couple of weeks, I have been working on a midrange red devotion deck that is designed to fight through control decks and their sweepers, while leaning on fatties plus Mizzium Mortars in the aggro matchups. It's also built to fully leverage the power of Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx. Here's a midrange red devotion deck with a little bit more staying power:
Red Midrange Devotion
This midrange red deck is more resilient to sweeper effects than the aggressive variant. Frostburn Weird, Ember Swallower, and Stormbreath Dragon survive Anger of the Gods, while Hammer of Purphoros, Xenagos, the Reveler, and Purphoros, God of the Forge dodge both Anger of the Gods and Supreme Verdict. Ember Swallower demands a quick answer or threatens to eat the opponent's mana base, and Xenagos is both a threat and a mana source in a mana-hungry deck. Playing a midgame overloaded Mizzium Mortars can be game ending against other creature decks, and the Boros Reckoners and Ember Swallowers help you win the creature battles. Purphoros is both a source of inevitability, a mana sink, and a large creature when turned on.
Notice how well both the Hammer and Xenagos play with Purphoros's triggered ability—Purphoros doesn't have to be a creature to affect the board. This deck can present a number of unique threats that attack the opponent in different ways.
Against Esper decks, Mizzium Mortars and some of your weaker creatures are taken out for stronger threats. Burning Earth is a huge problem for any 3-color control deck in this format—they answer it or lose. Fanatic of Mogis provides some reach, as well as another way to kill off troublesome planeswalkers.
Mutavault comes in for the third Nykthos for a few reasons. While Nykthos is pretty powerful, it is legendary—and drawing two Nykthos is really bad against control decks. Additionally, Nykthos is less likely to generate a lot of mana with all the removal Esper plays. I think it is worth playing the third Nykthos maindeck because it is really good in your non-control matchups, and is still good when it's good against control decks. If you suspect that your opponent is boarding into Blood Baron of Vizkopa, keep in some of the Mizzium Mortars.
Similar to the Esper sideboard plan, except you're not boarding into Burning Earth because they have a lot of nonbasic lands in their deck. Polis Crusher is a solid creature that matches up well against Detention Sphere and Elspeth because the Crusher has trample. It's possible that this card should be something else, like a Ghor-Clan Rampager (to serve as a 4/4 trampler or a pump spell to kill planeswalkers) or a third Fanatic of Mogis.
Mono-Red Aggro (Devotion)
While Hammer can be a source of inevitability against aggro decks, you never want to draw multiples. Giving your creatures haste isn't all that sweet in this matchup as you are holding your creatures back to block a fair amount. Xenagos is not likely to stick around for long due to hard-to-block creatures like Boros Reckoner and Chandra's Phoenix and Fanatic of Mogis. Flames of the Firebrand out of the sideboard can serve up a nice two-for-one, Lightning Strike and Shock are removal spells that keeps their devotion count low, and Polis Crusher is just a big creature.
White Weenie/Boros/Fast Mono-Red (e.g. Owen Turtenwald's deck list):
Hammer of Purphoros is way too slow to be an effective card against these decks. Purphoros, God of the Forge is inconsistent and loses a lot of its luster against a red deck with burn spells, especially when you are boarding out one of its strongest enablers in Hammer of Purphoros. Xenagos, the Reveler actually seems all right against small creature decks that don't get to play Fanatic of Mogis.
Xenagos, the Reveler isn't terrible here, but also isn't that exciting. The extra removal spells help to slow them down, and Polis Crusher is just a big creature with an affordable monstrous ability. It is difficult for G/W aggro to beat Purphoros when it's in creature form, and their lack of removal means that he will often be a creature. Pacifism is a sideboard card I suppose, but it still doesn't stop Purphoros's pump ability from messing up combat, especially in conjunction with your 8 first strike creatures.
Removal in general is good at weakening and slowing down devotion decks, so that is where to look if red devotion decks start to take up a large share of your metagame. Chained to the Rocks, Azorius Charm, Last Breath, Doom Blade, Dreadbore, Izzet Charm, Putrefy, Hero's Downfall, Anger of the Gods, and Supreme Verdict are all valuable tools in combating the Devotion.** It remains to be seen how long red devotion decks will hold a place in the metagame, but I believe that they are here to stay. Scoop up Boros Reckoners while you can!
*Garruk Wildspeaker was much better then Oracle of Mul Daya in my version of the Time Warp ramp deck (it was both an accelerator, a threat when in Beast-making mode, and a kill condition when the Overrun ability was combined with creature tokens/manlands… and it didn't die to creature removal). Getting to play Celestial Colonnades was also sweet when you could tutor them up with Primeval Titan and kill your opponent's planeswalkers (and your opponents) with them.
**Aside: I truly believe that UWR is one of the best control decks in the format because of the high amount of quality, efficient removal that it gets to play, and that the right build hasn't been discovered yet.