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Color Pairings in Theros Limited

My initial reaction to Theros was that certain color pairings were very weak, while others were heavily favored. White decks full of heroic creatures seemed like a natural mix with red’s removal or blue’s bounce. Black devotion-based strategies looked strong when partnered with a light touch of blue to enable [ccProd]Returned Phalanx[/ccProd] and [ccProd]Shipwreck Singer[/ccProd]. Red and green both have big monsters, etc. However, the more I play with the format, the more other decks have come to stand out. What I’d like to do today is walk through the various color pairs and talk about what makes them hum. There are a lot of under-utilized cards that can really enable some odd-ball decks.

First, I’d like to discuss red and blue. As of late October, this color pairing was the least drafted online, but one of the most successful in terms of win percentage. I will note that I’ve only drafted this deck three times, but in each case where it came together, I swept my pod. Izzet is typically going to be base-red with a light blue splash, but what really draws the archetype is 2 uncommons: [ccProd]Spellheart Chimera[/ccProd] and [ccProd]Flamespeaker Adept[/ccProd].

[draft]Spellheart Chimera
Flamespeaker Adept[/draft]

These powerful 3-drops both want the same thing—a deck heavy on removal and tricks. The interaction with cards such as [ccProd]Voyage’s End[/ccProd] or [ccProd]Titan’s Strength[/ccProd] is tremendous, and can power explosive 10+ damage turns. Combined with other solid removal, such as [ccProd]Griptide[/ccProd], [ccProd]Lightning Strike[/ccProd], or [ccProd]Sea God’s Revenge[/ccProd], it can play a powerful tempo game. Even marginal cards such as [ccProd]Spark Jolt[/ccProd] or [ccProd]Stymied Hopes[/ccProd] are quite good in conjunction with these two monsters.

I suspect that the reason this deck doesn’t often come together is that the centerpiece creatures are uncommon and all of the spells you need to power the deck are highly sought after by other drafters. Cards such as [ccProd]Nimbus Naiad[/ccProd], [ccProd]Vaporkin[/ccProd], [ccProd]Wavecrash Triton[/ccProd], or [ccProd]Two-Headed Cerberus[/ccProd] certainly play a role, but the explosiveness of the Chimera or Adept gives the deck a unique power boost. When these decks come together, they will often include at least 10 spells with a focus on low-drop creatures to maximize the tempo.

Green/white has been getting much better over the past few years. WOTC’s decision to give green some common creature removal has shored up its traditionally weakest link. In Theros, this gives you not only a color combination with access to a wide range of combat tricks and powerful creatures, but it also has a fair amount of removal as well. The big selling point for going Selesyna here is [ccProd]Time to Feed[/ccProd].

[draft]time to feed[/draft]

The card is fairly good in any green deck, but with a deep pool of heroic creatures to pick from, Time to Feed really shines. [ccProd]Gods Willing[/ccProd] is also very important, as GW’s worst situation is usually against bounce spells that undo all of your hard work. This deck is often quite aggressive, powering out large ground pounders and relying on life gain or reach creatures to offset the opponent’s more evasive threats. The color pairing is very strong against base-red decks and can be frustrating for black as well, since [ccProd]Lash of the Whip[/ccProd] is often too slow to address your heroic creatures. They can reach 5+ toughness very quickly by bestowing cards such as [ccProd]Leafcrown Dryad[/ccProd] or [ccProd]Hopeful Eidolon[/ccProd]. The cards that will give you the most problems are often deathtouch creatures, so keep an eye on your Human count. [ccProd]Cavalry Pegasus[/ccProd] can be a very effective trump for most deathtouch creatures.

Black/green, on the other hand, is generally among the most controlling of decks. Looping [ccProd]Pharika’s Mender[/ccProd]s makes for a powerful late game and you can utilize marginal cards such as [ccProd]Returned Centaur[/ccProd] or [ccProd]Commune with the Gods[/ccProd] to fill up the graveyard for future plundering. Because this combination is slower, you will prioritize stabilizing cards, such as [ccProd]Sedge Scorpion[/ccProd], [ccProd]Baleful Eidolon[/ccProd], cheap removal ([ccProd]Pharika’s Cure[/ccProd], [ccProd]Hero’s Downfall[/ccProd]), ramp effects ([ccProd]Voyaging Satyr[/ccProd], [ccProd]Opaline Unicorn[/ccProd]), and any life gain you can get hold of ([ccProd]Whip of Erebos[/ccProd] is at its best in this color combination). Just keep in mind that a controlling black/blue or black/white deck can have a strong end game as well, so make sure to sideboard appropriately in those matches. The life gain/deathtouch is less critical, so you can focus on slower removal such as [ccProd]Sip of Hemlock[/ccProd] or bigger slower threats (such as [ccProd]Akroan Horse[/ccProd] or [ccProd]Colossus of Akros[/ccProd]).

On the other end of the spectrum is Boros heroic. The key to this deck is in finding quality attackers on the low end of the curve. You want to have a solid base of 1-3 drops—probably at least 12 creatures in that range. Depending on how many heroic creatures you are lucky enough to get, you will want anywhere between 2 and 7 combat tricks. While [ccProd]Titan’s Strength[/ccProd] is fairly solid in any aggressive deck, many of the others are mediocre if you are just enhancing [ccProd]Satyr Rambler[/ccProd]s and [ccProd]Traveling Philosopher[/ccProd]s.

Quality removal such as [ccProd]Lighting Strike[/ccProd] or [ccProd]Chained to the Rocks[/ccProd] should be your first picks, followed by your creatures, then pumps last. There are many to choose from, so you shouldn’t have a problem filling out your deck. As with many aggressive strategies, the key is a good mana base. You want to curve out smoothly each game, which means trying to avoid a deck that has 2x [ccProd]Wingsteed Rider[/ccProd]s, 2x [ccProd]Two-Headed Cerberus[/ccProd], 2x [ccProd]Dragon’s Mantle[/ccProd], and 2x [ccProd]Phalanx Leader[/ccProd]s. The cards are individually powerful, but that setup is pulling your mana in different directions and it will make for ugly opening hands. You’ll want your deck to lean on one color more than the other. White is more often the primary (as it has better and more heroic creatures), but red can be a perfectly suitable main color as well, particularly if you have a [ccProd]Fanatic of Mogis[/ccProd] or two supporting that decision. If possible, you want the cycle of cycling enchantments ([ccProd]Dragon’s Mantle[/ccProd], [ccProd]Chosen by Heliod[/ccProd], [ccProd]Fate Foretold[/ccProd], etc.) to be in your base color. They can really smooth out your draws, but only if you can cast them in a timely manner. Depending on how low and how color balanced your curve is, you can often shave lands in these decks. I’ve seen them go as low as 13 before, particularly if you end up mono-red or with a very light splash of the other color.

Simic is a very popular combination, the mix of large green monsters and blue bounce can turn the game quickly, assuming you can gum up the opponent’s ground assault. The card that shines the most here is [ccProd]Nimbus Naiad[/ccProd].

[draft]nimbus naiad[/draft]

The gift of flight is at its best, turning an unassuming [ccProd]Staunch-Hearted Warrior[/ccProd] into a life-ending threat. [ccProd]Aqueous Form[/ccProd] is actually quite strong as well. I don’t normally like to play it, but getting it onto a [ccProd]Centaur Battlemaster[/ccProd] or [ccProd]Nessian Asp[/ccProd] will put the opponent on a very short clock that is surprisingly hard to interact with.

Blue and white can break in two different directions, depending on the heroic count in your deck. While my initial reaction was that you’d always go heroic, there are a couple of factors here to consider. First, the cards that you need to make it work are also in high demand. Black/white might not care too much about it, but you are fighting with every other color pairing for those white heroic cards, most of which are uncommon. The blue heroic creatures are fairly weak (outside of [ccProd]Battlewise Hoplite[/ccProd]) at enabling aggressive starts. Also, Nimbus Naiad is somewhat less impressive here than it is in green/blue since your best drop already has evasion ([ccProd]Wingsteed Rider[/ccProd]), and [ccProd]Gods Willing[/ccProd] can often perform the alpha strike roll if needed. That’s not to say that the deck is bad, just harder to pull together than it initially appears.

Sometimes you will end up with a more defensive deck, relying on [ccProd]Wavecrash Triton[/ccProd] to clog up the ground and [ccProd]Divine Verdict[/ccProd]s to take out opposing attackers. This is where the large blue uncommons and rares can come out to play, taking down the opponent once the board has been stabilized (even [ccProd]Benthic Giant[/ccProd] can be ok, if you can’t find something better). This second build will be more blue-centric (probably the only color pairing where this can happen) and can leverage the ability of [ccProd]Triton Fortune Hunter[/ccProd] to good effect. The thing to keep in mind with blue decks is the need for a clock. While blue has access to excellent bounce in the set, if you are only hitting for a point or two per turn, the tempo they grant you will fade, and the loss of cards will build up. You need to leverage your bounce to go on offense, using it purely to stay alive is a losing proposition.

Black/white is the only white color pairing that doesn’t care a great deal about heroic triggers. It’s possible to build an aggressive white deck that splashes black, but there are much bigger selling points in the other colors than going down that route. Typically, this color pairing will lean more on black, using its strong devotion triggers and spot removal to blunt the opponent’s offense. [ccProd]Scholar of Athreos[/ccProd] and [ccProd]Sentry of the Underworld[/ccProd] are both terrific creatures that can hold the ground while providing an evasive threat once the mid-game has been reached.

[draft]scholar of athreos
sentry of the underworld[/draft]

[ccProd]Hopeful Eidolon[/ccProd] is fantastic in this deck, particularly if you have a Sentry to put it on. The biggest problem with black and white is that your best drops are all much higher in the curve (5+), so prioritize early game removal such as [ccProd]Baleful Eidolon[/ccProd], [ccProd]Pharika’s Cure[/ccProd], or even [ccProd]Returned Phalanx[/ccProd]. Phalanx isn’t optimal without blue (obviously), but think of it as a removal spell and trade it off early. If it trades for a combat trick, that’s fine as well, you just need to stall until you hit 5 mana. This is the color pairing where I am most often going to play 18 or more lands. You have plenty of ways to utilize excess mana (Scholar in particular), so flooding out is rarely a major concern. [ccProd]Read the Bones[/ccProd] is pretty spicy in this color pairing as well, but don’t go crazy—one copy is probably enough, since it’s not easy to find a time to cast it early. If your first play on the draw is a Read the Bones, you are probably dead if the opponent has any early action. I would always take the cheap removal spells over it.

Red and green—here be monsters. This is a pairing that seems as natural as breathing and has traditionally been strong in most Limited formats. Also, they are the two colors with the most monstrous creatures, making a heavier land count and mana ramp a logical, linear approach to take. That said, it has the lowest win % of the colors, so why is Gruul often ineffective? [ccProd]Griptide[/ccProd], I think, is the primary culprit. While Griptide is very scary for a heroic deck that spent a turn or two leveling up, they have access to [ccProd]Gods Willing[/ccProd], and probably only invested 5 or 6 total mana on the creature, so the tempo hit isn’t as bad.

[draft]griptide[/draft]

In the case of monstrous creatures, however, Griptide is devastating. It can offset the trigger and force the opponent to re-invest another 10-12 mana to get back up to speed. Also, in case it wasn’t clear, the creature must successfully become monstrous to get its triggered effect (say [ccProd]Stoneshock Giant[/ccProd]’s Falter), so if you go for it and they have the bounce spell it’s often game ending. Red/green also lacks an inexpensive way to gain hexproof, making it vulnerable even if it could keep a spare mana up. Keep an eye out in Born of the Gods—if an effect such as [ccProd]Ranger’s Guile[/ccProd] is in the common run, it could change this matchup around a bit.

That said, red/green is pretty solid against most non-blue decks, and its lack of popularity often allows the gold rares (such as [ccProd]Polis Crusher[/ccProd]) to come around late. This deck can do okay, but you need to either prioritize massive ramp effects (such as [ccProd]Karametra’s Acolyte[/ccProd]), or focus on more [ccProd]Nessian Courser[/ccProd]s and [ccProd]Leafcrown Dryad[/ccProd]s and less on bigger dudes. The bestow creatures in general can be frustrating for a blue player, as bouncing them often gives them a bigger headache than leaving them on the table. In general red is simply giving green more fat, which isn’t its priority. Splashing for a couple of bombs and [ccProd]Lighting Strike[/ccProd] is often the better way to go, while pairing green with one of the other colors to shore up the Griptide issue.

Moving over to Gruul’s boogeyman in the format, we have the Dimir guild, reconstituted as a powerful control strategy. While it is possible to have an aggressive start of [ccProd]Tormented Hero[/ccProd] into [ccProd]Vaporkin[/ccProd] into [ccProd]Blood-Toll Harpy[/ccProd], then bounce any opposing drops, this is not too common. More typically, you will open on [ccProd]Returned Phalanx[/ccProd] or [ccProd]Omenspeaker[/ccProd], then kill a 3-drop, then bounce a 4 and continue to hit land drops, bringing out your bigger guns, such as [ccProd]Gray Merchant of Asphodel[/ccProd], [ccProd]Keepsake Gorgon[/ccProd], and others.

Either approach can benefit from a clock that helps to keep you on pace to finish a game, so keep an eye out for evasive threats that can fit earlier into the curve. As is typical with most black strategies, you are likely to be centered in the dark color, while splashing a fair amount of blue. The key is not getting run over. Some of the decks in the format are very fast, and cards like Vaporkin don’t play defense well. You need to maintain a balance and shore up the ground early. [ccProd]Returned Centaur[/ccProd] is a fine body for that purpose, and [ccProd]Mnemonic Wall[/ccProd] can play a role here as well. An interesting late game approach is to loop [ccProd]March of the Returned[/ccProd] with these two, creating a fairly fast milling kill. This style can brick-wall the decks that lack burn or evasion threats. This was showcased in the Top 8 of GP Toronto, check out William Jensen’s first match and deck for reference.

Finally we have Rakdos, another less than popular guild to draft, but with a surprisingly high win rate. In my first article, I had mentioned that I considered [ccProd]Tormented Hero[/ccProd] to be a very high pick and it raised a lot of eyebrows. The reason why is this color pairing. Truly great black/red decks in this format are not easy to pull together, but when you get them, they feel a step apart from everything else.

[draft]tormented hero[/draft]

The key is in getting a good mix of low drops (similar to the Boros decks), but instead of just having tempo plays, we can actually kill off or steal the opponent’s monsters. From a control approach standpoint, Rakdos doesn’t have many selling points—I’d rather go with any other black pair, as only [ccProd]Lighting Strike[/ccProd] is of real use. However, when we turn aggressive, everything starts to click. Red becomes a much larger role player, often taking the lead position on mana. To make this work, I want any 1-drop I can get—[ccProd]Firedrinker Satyr[/ccProd], [ccProd]Tormented Hero[/ccProd], and [ccProd]Akroan Crusader[/ccProd] are all great, arguably much better here than in R/W because of the bevy of cheap removal we can access to keep the path clear for them. They also enable a turn 2 Ordeal, which on the play can be damn near impossible to stop.

[ccProd]Favored Hoplite[/ccProd] is the better carrier of Ordeals, no question, but it’s harder for white to keep his path clear. The opponent often just chumps him to reach the mid-game, but Rakdos doesn’t play that way. They can kill the low drop and continue to crack in the opponent’s skull. This deck makes excellent use of [ccProd]Deathbellow Raider[/ccProd], [ccProd]Minotaur Skullcleaver[/ccProd], [ccProd]Blood-Toll Harpy[/ccProd], and [ccProd]Mogis’s Marauder[/ccProd] to take large chunks out of the opponent’s life total before they can hit their third land drop.

[ccProd]Portent of Betrayal[/ccProd] is at its best here, often ending the game on turn 5. As you may notice from above, many of the drops we want in the deck, from [ccProd]Fanatic of Mogis[/ccProd] to the Raiders are Minotaurs, and [ccProd]Kragma Warcaller[/ccProd] is a beast of a curve topper. He frequently tables in drafts (particularly in packs 2 and 3) and 5-drops are not a priority here beyond Gray Merchants, so keep an eye on your creature types. The Warcaller can be surprisingly powerful, putting the opponent into a situation where he has 12 power coming at him from just 4 at the start of the turn. This just destroys the combat math and is very hard to play around. I don’t really advocate running the weaker Minotaurs over better cards ([ccProd]Blood-Toll Harpy[/ccProd] is better than [ccProd]Felhide Minotaur[/ccProd], Warcaller or no), but several of our best drops on curve are the horned men.

When this deck comes together it snaps into focus, turning a pile of mediocrity into a borderline Constructed deck. It’s not a strategy to force (you need the [ccProd]Lighting Strike[/ccProd]s and [ccProd]Magma Jet[/ccProd]s in multiplies for it to really gel), but keep your eyes open for the opportunity if it presents itself. Many of the cards you want (such as Portent, Deathbellow Raider, Warcaller, Tormented Hero) are not prized by any other color, so you can get them later. Take the removal first, but as you get into the later packs, if the deck seems viable, keep an eye out for the aggressive low drops, you can’t really have enough of them. Cards like [ccProd]Keepsake Gorgon[/ccProd] or [ccProd]Ill-Tempered Cyclops[/ccProd] are not as important, since you don’t want the games to go long enough to level them up. Let the other players have those, while you focus on the cheap threats and removal needed to get a critical mass.

So that brings us to the end of the color pairs. There are a few other viable archetypes, as green can easily splash a third or even fourth color, making a cute deck, but it’s likely to be base green/blue, and plays similarly. Mono-red is viable, but it’s often worth a light splash to increase its power level. Mono-white heroic is theoretically viable, but I’ve never seen a pod where white wasn’t over-drafted. The power level of the white cards varies a lot between the best 4-5 commons and all the rest. Mono-black seems to be everyone’s favorite thing to try, but as with white, it’s a heavily drafted color, I doubt it’s ever really justified to go mono-black, as you never need more than 10 Swamps or so to meet your color requirements, so playing a splash of a second color is more or less free and will significantly increase the deck’s power level (even if it’s just for a couple of [ccProd]Griptide[/ccProd]s and allowing your [ccProd]Returned Phalanx[/ccProd]es to attack).

I hope that you found this summary to be helpful, particularly for evaluating which cards to lean towards when drafting a particular archetype. Wizards did a good job with this set of giving you specific role playing cards that only one color pair really wants, much as they did in Innistrad. This allows you to try to wheel picks and plan ahead in the draft—it doesn’t always work out, but with ten possible color pairings and only seven other drafters, something has to be open. It’s a race to see if you can figure out what that deck is and get settled into it before anyone else does. The best way to do that is to be comfortable with as many different archetypes as possible and see what comes back from your opening back. If a powerful gold card is still there (say [ccProd]Spellheart Chimera[/ccProd] or [ccProd]Sentry of the Underworld[/ccProd]) and you share at least one of its colors, think about making a move into that guild—the rewards of reading an open color pairing get deeper with subsequent packs. Try to be flexible in your early picks, then once you are ready to commit, build your deck with a goal toward filling out your curve and taking the cards your deck needs to compete with, not the objective “pack-one-pick-one” most powerful card in the pack.

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