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Sperling’s Sick of It: Theros Beyond Death

With many of us still reeling from a 2019 that upended every Magic format and shook our confidence in the balance of the new cards to its core, Theros Beyond Death just hit shelves to kick off 2020 and I’m nervously optimistic that it will be better than what we saw in 2019.  How much better, only time can tell, but no set is perfect and we know this one was designed before any paradigm shift in R&D, so let’s dive into what I’m seeing so far.

The Mechanics of Theros Beyond Death

We’re going back to a world we’ve already experienced, but at least is a first return, not a “Return to Return to Shock Lands” situation.  Given that this is the first time back, there should be plenty of design space to remind us of what Theros is all about, but with totally new stuff.  

The mechanics of Theros are: Escape, Devotion, Constellation, and Sagas.  

Escape is pretty cool as long as you don’t find a way to retroactively give it to Lion’s Eye Diamond, but the others better be bringing some HEAT in terms of fresh designs if this thing is going to not feel like a retread.  Well, here are the cards with Constellation:

Archon of Sun's GraceCaptivating UnicornFavored of IroasPious WayfarerProtean ThaumaturgeSage of MysteriesShoal KrakenTriton WaveriderNessian WandererNexus WardensSetessan ChampionSetessan SkirmisherEutropia the Twice-Favored

The wrinkle is that they are not enchantments themselves, so something else has to trigger them.  WOW! Slightly less functionality! If anything, it feels like this is the non-turbo-charged version that came out after the fast one.  And there’s just nothing interesting going on here. The biggest constructed threat is an enchantress, something we’ve seen over and over.   

They played around a little bit more with Devotion, with cards like Thassa’s Oracle, but overall the main innovation seems to be that pips (colored mana symbols) are tougher to come by in limited.  

The Sagas feel just like they did last time, whether or not there’s an extra chapter now with insanely powerful “ultimates” like create a Treasure (called Gold as a concession to the token making lobbyists) or look at the top card of each player’s library or you gain 2 life.  You might as well just print “end the game” on these. How are you gonna lose after you learn what each player has on top?  

Overall, the way new mechanics were brought back here feels more lazy than inspired, and more like a 3rd or 4th visit to the well than a 2nd.  

Wait a Minute, is that the list of Mechanics?

Giving the Heroic creatures the Tireless Tracker treatment (Landfall without saying the word Landfall) would make sense if they were in a world or a set without a focus on that mechanic, as Tireless Tracker was.  But this is Theros. And there are several of them in the set. Why are they showing devotion to (sorry) a certain number of keywords/ability words rather than being true to what they’re doing, which is having Heroic cards in this set?  Did they think complexity would scale too high if players encountered another ability word? I find that kind of hard to believe given that players would still need to learn what these abilities do and the link between them to understand how the set plays.  Constellation is in more colors than Heroic is, but that score of 5 to 2 doesn’t fundamentally change whether it’s helpful or not to see an ability word in front of a recurring ability.  

Even more Fun with the Tireless Tracker Treatment

At least with Heroic and Landfall, the words didn’t mean anything, ability words are just reminder text.  But Surveil doesn’t work that way.  

Eat to ExtinctionBlood OperativeDisinformation Campaign

There are enough Surveil Matters cards to be a theme in a Commander deck (if that isn’t true now or in the future, it would be pretty strange to have made a multi-card Surveil Matters theme). But their commitment to the Tireless Tracker treatment means new cards don’t play nice with those slightly older cards, and this time it isn’t even aesthetics, it’s gameplay.  

Sagas are Still a Clunky Patchwork of Rules Steps

I had forgotten until this week that the Sagas gain a counter as you draw a card, but trigger in your main phase.  It’s always fun to have to learn and relearn something that doesn’t let you leverage 25 years of experience with how things with an upkeep trigger work.  At least you can always scoop immediately to Kiora Bests the Sea God and never have to worry about timing issues. Which bring me to…

Rares and Mythics for Limited

Every few drafts or sealeds, I catch myself having fun with Theros Beyond Death limited.  But it never takes long before a thoughtful opponent jolts me out of that mood with something like 

Dream Trawler

Ah yes, a rare.  Not a mythic rare though, because we want many many players to have the experience of battling this thing in limited.  But Matt, at least it’s not splashable! Great, I get to also feel frustrated when I open it and have to pass it. It’s like having private planes I can’t afford to charter fly over my house all day.  And if you think my opponents haven’t splashed it and killed me with it, you don’t know me very well.  

But this isn’t the only mythic masquerading as a rare.  Here are some more:

Elspeth Conquers DeathArchon of Sun's GraceNadir KrakenThryx, the Sudden StormNightmare ShepherdTectonic GiantHaktos the UnscarredShadowspear

I haven’t even gotten to the Mythics.  Ashiok and Polukranos can feel beatable for a turn or two before reality sets in.  But good old Kiora Bests the Sea God never seems beatable, which, again, is appreciated.  

Utility Spells at Mythic

Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath has a primary mode of Explore & Gain 3 Life for 1UG.  That’s a pretty nuts & bolts type spell (it functions like a spell thanks to the sacrifice clause) to see at Mythic.  One of the sweet things about Growth Spiral was that it was beloved by tournament players and casual players alike, and it was common.  They gotta find a way to move cardboard, as does my patron CFB, but this one just hurts a little.

Well, lets be fair.  Uro is a pretty powerful Legendary Permanent with casting cost 1UG, and those just don’t come along very often.  We were due for one of those at Mythic driving booster sales.  

Soldiers vs. Warriors

The set has 8 Warriors and 10 Soldiers (not counting tokens and cards that don’t appear in boosters – more on that later).  If they are trying to draw some organized fighting unit vs. guerrilla fighter distinction, you tell me if you can spot it in the difference between these two cards:

Hero of the NyxbornHaktos the Unscarred

OR how about:

Leonin of the Lost PrideHero of the Pride

They’re cats that fight in a pride and use weapons you can see used by creatures of the other type in the same set, but, like, one of them just is more warriorish.  Compelling stuff.  

Dryads vs Non-Dryads

Dryad of the Ilysian Grove

How is this Dryad not a Dryad?  Matt, it says right there it’s a Nymph.  Okay…

Leafcrown Dryad

Border Gore

Eutropia plays in an enchantment theme deck and has a weird border/card frame (I’d like to have the concepts border and card frame be distinct, but that’s kind of what we’re talking about, isn’t it).

Eutropia the Twice-Favored

But it’s not an Enchantment Creature!  Duh! It’s part of the cycle of uncommon gold cards that feel legendary.

Hero of the Nyxborn

Just like this card that has nothing to do with enchantments but feels like a legendary hero.  Obviously this is a legend too and also not an enchantment…. Uh oh.  

But Matt, don’t you realize from the Proper Name vs. Descriptive Name which are Legendary?  I would, if I wasn’t forced to unlearn that when learning to play with Questing Beast.  

Okay, this is a giant mess, but thank the Gods they didn’t print any Legendary Enchantments in the set and have to create a new border so subtly different from the Legendary border that it can only be noticed by pedantic columnists looking at every detail to fuel their click-inducing rage.  That just wouldn’t happen.  

Daxos, Blessed by the SunTaranika, Akroan Veteran

It’s not bad enough that sometimes my opponent’s Urborg has the special border and sometimes it doesn’t, and Planeswalkers don’t have a special border despite being legendary?  You have to make new borders and mix them within the same cycle of uncommons?  

Return to Nature

Georgia O’Keeffe’s first Magic credit.  

Bronzehide Lion

It continues to be a bit weird to have Leonins and actual wild cats share a set and creature type.  But you know what, MaRo fights for the things he loves like Licids, and the Bestow creatures didn’t feel enough like Licids last time around, so MaRo (I assume) went to the mat for this card.  This card ends with a line of text “and it loses all other abilities” where the “it” refers to the now-aura Lion and not the creature it is enchanting, even though the last referenced card is the enchanted creature.  Finally, the ease of figuring out what is happening that the Licids gave us is back. Well done.  

Centaurs, Unicorns, Pegasuses, Hippocamps, Chimera, Minotaur, Satyr, Griffin (ridden by Hero of the Winds), Bull (ridden by Stampede Rider), Goats, whatever the hell a Catoblepas is, an Ox for good measure, whatever Archon of Falling Stars is riding

This couldn’t be narrowed to 3 or 4 or even 6 types for some simplification?  

Dalakos, Crafter of Wonders

Not a single artifact in the set costs more than 4 mana.  They couldn’t have thrown this guy one bone? 

Commanding Presence

What the hell is happening in this art?  I see one soldier is ready to play his War Cello, but why are their eyes glowing?  Why is he throwing a jab in a sword fight? This is how auras were illustrated in 1998, and I didn’t know we were going back.  

Extended Art!  Sweeeeeeeet

The novelty of this stuff wears off.  We all acknowledged it with the Inventions/Masterpieces/Etc.  Now we’re doing the same thing with extended art and when I go to buy cards and search Elspeth 100 things drop down there’s the fake one from a theme deck, foil regular, regular regular, decaf, decaf extended art, alternate art foil extended.  I’ve asked CFB to add a “no bullshit” check box to get regular, non-foil only but they said misclicks make up 45% of their revenue since Throne of Eldraine so I guess they can’t do it.  

Cards that Aren’t in the Damn Boosters but Are Still Potentially Playable

Athreos, Shroud-Veiled - Foil - Buy-a-Box Promo

Another massive turd dropped in the pool of set collectability.  I’ll stop when they stop. One of us is going to blink and it won’t be me.  

Eidolon of Obstruction

Enchantment Creature – Spirit, specifically the Spirit of POTUS’ first term in office.  

Zone Creep

I want to invent and introduce a concept here of Zone Creep where they have something you can’t interact with like the Removed from Game zone, and then they add shit to interact with it, and now they need new zones when they really don’t want you interacting with it (Command Zone being the most iconic).  And then it’s not long before effects happen in the Command Zone and now “I need to be able to Doom Blade anything” timmy is like wtf give me something to KO those Command Zone cards or Emblems.  

Another type of Zone Creep is things that are indestructible or hexproof being destroyed or targeted.  I guess I’m glad Shadowspear exists at this point, but its definitely a spider-that-eats-the-fly type of situation where not printing stuff like Lotus Field was the best option.  

I can’t wait though for them to give up on Hexproof, bring back Shroud, and regret that this card doesn’t also take away Shroud.  And I don’t need your overconfident predictions about this, if Protection from X can come back, so can Shroud.  

Thassa’s Oracle’s Magic Online Interface

You trained me for years to trigger things during my upkeep, then you give me Sagas.  But at least MTGO makes Sagas easy (unless you draw something you want to cast before the trigger goes onto the stack and don’t have a stop set).  

Now, you train me for years that putting cards back to your library with scry and similar abilities on MTGO involves clicking the cards and telling the system where to put it, or if selecting it means highlighting and then clicking Done.  And then Thassa’s Oracle just immediately puts the card you click on the top and the rest to the bottom so fast you don’t even know what happened (nor can you look up what the other cards were in a game data feed only you can see. This was a fun experience.  It happened so fast I think as soon as my eyes looked at one of the cards, my webcam registered the visual location and put that card on top of my deck. Just kidding, that would require cutting edge technology to be used on a billion dollar game.  

Heliod and Walking Ballista

Cat combo – banned in Pioneer.  Splinter Twin – banned in Modern.  Vault Key – banned in Legacy. Okay that last one is a stretch.  But you get the idea. Two-card combos that are easy to assemble and use cheap playable or semi-playable components are very strong.  Walking Ballista is a very playable card.  And Heliod is fine too.  Why introduce this into the mix? 

Or did Design and Play Design not spot it?  I suspect they missed it, but I don’t know if they’ve gone on the record to say so.  It’s kind of a damning card either way, since the combo is with a very popular card, not something obscure like Saheeli Rai used to be.   If they did spot it, printing it ignores the history of these combos, and if they didn’t spot it, then they aren’t good at spotting what matters by searching for cards that use +1/+1 counters and focusing on the very best ones legal in Pioneer, for example.  

It sometimes feels these days like Organized Play decisions are outsourced to Twitter, and card balance decisions are outsourced to MTGO and Arena, and the customers pay in time and money for the lag between release and fix/ban.  Sperling’s Sick of It. See you next time, thanks for reading.  

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