Carrie On – Playing with the Gods

Did you enjoy the Theros prereleases this weekend? I had great fun so I hope you did too! Here are my initial thoughts on Theros Sealed from the weekend.

Before the weekend, everyone seemed to assume the format was going to be slow. I was undecided, but monstrosity certainly implies potential for longer games because 8 or 9 mana doesn’t just appear. Also, presumably the set was designed to make bestow costs an option in Limited and those are an average of 6 mana.

I think it’s fair to say that aggressive strategies are alive and well in Theros. I’m not saying the whole format is fast, but fast strategies are valid and you are going to have to build with that in mind. Even better, the reach for fast decks is awesome. They can play some perfectly well-costed monstrous or bestow creatures that can suddenly push in that last bit of damage if their opponent stabilizes.

The other thing going on here is heroic. I wasn’t sure what to make of heroic. Quite a few of the effects are nice, but how many targeted effects are you going to have to run in order to trigger them enough? I realized over the weekend that it’s not about triggering as much heroic as possible. It does allow you to swarm the board with some weenies to apply early pressure, then use a couple of cheap enchantments and/or pump effects on some key guys to power your team up for the final swing. Creatures like [card]Arena Athlete[/card] are perfect for this, or you can supersize your army with [card]Anax and Cymede[/card] or [card]Phalanx Leader[/card]. I think, in the end, heroic decks are about using heroic a few times on key creatures rather than constant reuse. This means heroic creatures with less broad effects like [card]Favored Hoplite[/card] aren’t worth playing for their heroic effect.

[draft]ordeal of thassa
ordeal of purphoros
ordeal of erebos
ordeal of nylea
ordeal of heliod[/draft]

I think the other big factor enabling aggressive strategies in Theros is the Ordeal cycle. Any of them really allow you to get aggressive. Yes, a 1/1 for 1 isn’t great, but if you get to stick an Ordeal on it you will have a 4/4 in short order and some card advantage. If that 1/1 also had some side effect heroic ability then that’s even better. The Ordeals were fantastic for me all weekend. They all have sweet effects, and after playing with them I seriously don’t think many decks can justify not running their copies. You can also pull some cool tricks with them because of how the trigger to sacrifice them is worded. When the enchanted creature attacks it gets a +1/+1 counter, then the Ordeal checks if there are 3 or more +1/+1 counters on the enchanted creature. This means you can put them on monstrous creatures that already have multiple counters, attack, get another one and then immediately get the Ordeal benefit. I used this to turn [card]Ordeal of Purphoros[/card] into a [card]Lightning Bolt[/card] to get my final bit of reach in past their huge wall of creatures.

The Ordeals are just so flexible. They provide a beneficial effect and turn even the most unassuming creatures into notable and scary threats. Yes, they can be removed before the Ordeal powers up, but that has always been a risk with auras. I was expecting these cards to be good but they were just awesome all weekend.

Blue felt weak. I was very excited about all the spells in blue so I actually picked it as my color for the first event. Then I spent the whole day feeling very frustrated. I think some of this stemmed from bestow. Traditionally, you can generate value from [card]Unsummon[/card] effects when people play auras. You can’t do that with bestowed creatures. However, if they didn’t have bestow then they would have just have played more creatures, but it feels somehow unfair. Once people catch on and play the Ordeals, then [card]Voyage’s End[/card] will start to feel like a more useful card. I also had a lot of problems with my creatures being outclassed. I had fliers, but they were very small and people kept making monstrous 8/9s or blowing up my lands. I genuinely found blue frustrating in the land of Theros, but maybe my pool just didn’t have what I needed for success.

There are a LOT of mana sinks in Theros. If you have no spell, don’t worry because you can probably find some use for that mana. Monstrous abilities are a really good example of this, but I also saw [card]Scholar of Athreos[/card] doing some really good work. It is for this reason that everyone is talking about Theros being an 18-(maybe even 19?)land Sealed format and I have to agree. I even played aggro one day and wanted 18. Missing a spell doesn’t really matter when you can just make one of your guys huge. There is also plenty of scry to cycle away those excess lands in the late game.

5 toughness is important. While the set has some unconditional removal, the rest struggles to deal with anything bigger than an X/4. This makes cards like [card]Coastline Chimera[/card] and [card]Nessian Asp[/card] valuable road blocks against aggressive decks. I’m sure the set has been carefully designed this way, because I just wanted to continually beat my head against the table when my opponents put down [card]Hundred-Handed One[/card]. I wasn’t bothered by its other details, just that big butt.

[draft]sedge scorpion
baleful eidolon[/draft]

Deathtouch is more relevant in this set than average. deathtouch is always a useful tool but when you can hold off a huge creature that’s had a lot of mana invested into it with just a 1/1 for G, that’s pretty good value. This set can certainly go big, and deathtouch will prove an invaluable tool. It is for this reason that [card]Baleful Eidolon[/card] is more playable than it first appears. I thought a 1/1 for 1B with deathtouch that I might be able to bestow sometimes for a lot of mana wasn’t really going to be worth it, but it can hold the early game and has that versatility for the late game. Do not underestimate the Eidolon or [card]Sedge Scorpion[/card] when constructing your decks. I’m not saying they are auto-includes, but I’d need to be extra sure that I really don’t need what they offer.

Cards I missed in the spoilers or underestimated

[draft]Aqueous Form[/draft]

[card]Aqueous Form[/card] is a beautiful effect. I didn’t even notice this in the spoilers and didn’t see it on Saturday, so when someone was asking me if it was playable on Sunday I had to read the card. This is just what I want in a tempo deck. You grant a creature evasion and get to tune your draws? Yes please. Plus you might even get to trigger heroic. I saw this used in a blue/red tempo deck in combination with [card]Flamespeaker Adept[/card]. The scry is on attack, so you get the pump effect before damage. Also note that [card]Flamespeaker Adept[/card] also gains first strike, which I totally missed.

[draft]Gray Merchant of Asphodel[/draft]

Devotion is an interesting mechanic but what I failed to appreciate was just how good [card]Gray Merchant of Asphodel[/card] was going to be. Even if you have no other black permanents when you cast him, it’s still a nice drain for 2. If you have 4 or 5 then it’s a big swing in Limited.

Gray Merchant really gets going when you have the ability to play him multiple times. The best play I heard about was [card]Rescue from the Underworld[/card] sacrificing [card gray merchant of asphodel]Gray Merchant[/card] targeting a second Gray Merchant in the graveyard… that’s at least 8 points of drain when those come back into play together. [card]Whip of Erebos[/card] also likes this card—an aggro reach card or a control stabilizing card, it’s the perfect Limited pick and I would strongly consider first picking this card in draft and will look closely at the black cards in any pool containing this card.

[draft]Viper’s Kiss[/draft]

[card]Viper’s Kiss[/card] is a surprisingly important card in the set—well, it was for me anyway. You use it to make your opponent’s creatures unable to supersize which is very important for more controlling decks as a 3/4 [card]Nessian Asp[/card] is much more manageable than an 8/9. Equally, you can use it to shut down some nice, flexible rares like [card]Tymaret, the Murder King[/card] or (the incredibly frustrating) [card]Reaper of the Wilds[/card].

[draft]Prowler’s Helm[/draft]

[card]Prowler’s Helm[/card] was a surprisingly frustrating equipment. There is, I believe, one Wall in the set (note: Wall not defender) which basically makes the equipped creature unblockable—a good choice for getting past those deathtouch guys. I struggled to give this a slot in my deck because I didn’t feel it does enough, but after the problems it caused me this weekend I might have to try a bit harder.

Cards that failed to perform

[draft]thassa, god of the sea
erebos, god of the dead
purphoros, god of the forge
nylea, god of the hunt[/draft]

In general, the Gods were underwhelming. I never saw a player with sufficient devotion to make them creatures. I’m sure if this happened it would be an auto-win, but 5 devotion is a lot to maintain. I never lost to a God. The one except to this was [card heliod, god of the sun]Heliod[/card] who doesn’t need to be a creature to win the game. Any permanent that just sits there and produces card advantage is awesome, and I saw this guy steal games with no other cards being played. I see the value of the other Gods’ abilities but they merely help. Heliod dominates and is pretty hard to remove.

Although it’s not relevant to future Theros Sealed events, it looks like WotC will continue to use the “special” boosters for prereleases. For RTR sets, I found them annoying and actually detrimental to my prerelease experience as I was pigeonholed into one guild. This time around I was much happier. It gave a solid injection into the color I chose but I still had enough other cards to ignore that if I desired. Meanwhile, I think players less familiar with Sealed pools enjoyed the help in guiding their decks choices. I think this time WotC has found a good balance between the casual and competitive player and I would be happy to see it again.

I really enjoyed Theros Sealed. How about you? It was interesting that at our prerelease on Saturday there were almost no aggressive decks that did well, which supported the idea of a slower format. However, on Sunday the top tables were almost entirely dominated by aggro. Maybe people realized that players were trying to go big and they sent them home instead? How did your prerelease go? What was an all-star in your deck? Feel free to let me know @onionpixie on Twitter and I’ll see you next week!

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