Most set reviews are tantamount to movie reviews based at worst on only the trailer and at best only on the script. Some of the reviews are just reviews of the pieces (the cards) with little discussion of the whole. More accurate forecasting perhaps, but not much of an actual “set review.”
Until we’ve all played the set, then played it again, and again, nobody has much of a clue about how good it will be. I have to admit that when I read the spoiler of the worst draft set of the modern era, Coldsnap, I thought, “this could be fun.” Teens in a horror movie arriving at a weekend cabin have had that same thought and not been more wrong than I was when that spoiler came out.
What follows is my attempt to review the Theros set. Not card-by-card, and not in anticipation of what I think might happen, but a holistic account of what actually is happening.
What’s it Like to Draft Theros?
Drafting Theros is great. Next section. Okay I’ll add some color. Like Rise of the Eldrazi and Innistrad, Theros is very deep in terms of how many of the cards are playable, and offers the right amount of linear strategy (devotion, heroic), synergy & archetype (powerful gold cards and colored activations, [card]Mnemonic Wall[/card]-type cards, and WB sucks*), and individual card strength ([card]Nemesis of Mortals[/card], [card]Griptide[/card], monstrosity, many of the rares/mythics).
It’s incredible that in a set with mechanics as linear as heroic and devotion, in most decks, Theros is about figuring out how to get the most powerful cards, not synergies, online.
Theros shares many things in common with one of the most revered draft sets of all time, Rise of the Eldrazi. Rise of the Eldrazi had some crazy linear strategies with its level-enablers abundant and powerful, its ramp and fatties unlike anything before or since, and its token swarm enablers, deadly enough to turn 0/1s into quick kills. Yet despite all that, one of the best commons was a [card]Dehydration[/card]/ [card]Pacifism[/card] variant called [card]Narcolepsy[/card]. Another good common was [card]Dawnglare Invoker[/card], a [card]Wind Drake[/card] that could take over the game by itself if the opponent ignored it. Among the synergy & archetypes were individual cards that just won games.
Rise skewed more toward synergy & archetype than Theros does. U/W (and U/B) levelers is directly parallel to U/W (and G/W) heroic, but ramp and swarm, taken together, were more of an emphasis than devotion is in Theros.
The glue holding Rise together was the Eldrazi Spawn token. A swarm attacker, a ramp piece, something to sacrifice to annihilator. Theros’ Eldrazi token makers are the enchantment creatures with bestow. They give decks a ton of permanents for devotion, they target for heroic, and they skew card evaluations by making disenchants good and blocking difficult.
Monstrosity is like leveling in a few obvious ways. It’s a mana sink that mitigates flooding and encourages 18 land, it makes bounce and deathtouch better, it creates interesting decision points as mana can be spent a number of ways in the mid-game. It’s also like the Invokers in many ways. You don’t build your deck to cast 8 mana spells very often, but you’ll sure activate an Invoker or a [card]Nessian Asp[/card] since they give you a playable card at 3 or 5 mana and 8-mana upside later.
There’s a phenomenon with a set like Rise or Theros, when the set comes out, people find these archetypes and fall in love with them. Maybe it’s their preferences, or just something they tried on a whim and pulled off, but many players will draft heroic with as many Ordeals as they can find, or RB Swarm in Rise, a week or two before their friends and the world at large figure out what the key cards or key late picks are, and they feel on top of the world. As the draft metagame evolves, these things become known, but the best sets offer enough other interesting things to do that the environment remains healthy.
This is the main knock on Innistrad. I had more fun drafting Innistrad x3 than pretty much any other set, because I loved milling people out with Uw or Ur before [card]Spider Spawning[/card] became all the rage. Once that happened, Innistrad actually didn’t have enough going on to keep people from trying to force [card]Spider Spawning[/card], so it got kind of stale. Overall, I’d still give the set high marks, but it just wasn’t Rise of the Eldrazi caliber.
Back to Theros, in some drafts, UW heroic comes together and steamrolls people, but people who love that kind of synergy are likely also drawn in by [card]Gray Merchant of Asphodel[/card] or [card]Mnemonic Wall[/card] other times, leaving the heroic cards to table or allowing that player to switch out of heroic into another deck. There’s so many things to do, and none is clearly advantaged out of the gate such that people won’t stay open-minded.
One of the archetypes Paul Rietzl and I love to draft is UG. UG is just a curve and some good cards most of the time, but it’s incredibly important to see how the cards you have impact the cards you want. Curve matters, synergy matters (do you have heroic green creatures or the [card]Agent of Horizons[/card] who can become unblockable? A good bestow creature might be better than a bounce spell), and diminishing returns matter (the 3rd [card]Voyaging Satyr[/card] or [card]Nessian Asp[/card] is actually pretty mediocre, even though the first could be an exciting first pick). So here I am, the guy with a hundred-something [card]Dream Twist[/card]s in my MTGO account, and I love drafting a UG “stuff” deck that rewards curve and card evaluation. That’s the kind of thing that makes Theros great.
How good is [card]Voyages End[/card] anyway? I don’t know; I have to see the rest of your deck.
Is [card]Lash of the Whip[/card] overrated, underrated, or properly rated these days? Yesterday I said it was overrated, but ask me tomorrow.
How good is [card]Guardians of Meletis[/card]? It sucks—not everything is a mystery.
Theros is a great draft set.
A Note on Complexity
I was pretty critical of the bestow mechanic and the legendary enchantment artifact cycle when spoiled, and I stand behind that criticism. I now understand how the rules work (mostly, I hope) but I knew I’d eventually get it. Complexity is often about barriers to entry and the risk of overwhelming a novice player. The barrier to entry for Theros proved, in practice, to be quite high. Among newer players, Platinum pros, and Hall of Famers alike. As these cards get cast in casual games for years to come, expect novice players in those games to be confused and frustrated. Bestow asks more of the players than it delivers as reward.
What Has Theros Done to Standard?
Turned it on its head for sure. But in a fun way. Very few of the old, “play the best cards in these two or three colors and call it a day” decks like Jund and UW control have survived, and Esper’s place in the metagame doesn’t feel too bad, because the other decks aren’t just more Espers/Junds. Those other decks include mono-black control, mono-black aggro, mono-blue, mono-red aggro, mono-red devotion, and mono-green.
A bunch of mono-color decks might get old in time, but it sure is refreshing for now. Easy mana sucks some of the tension out of deckbuilding, and that tension is back as easy mana is exiting stage left. Devotion, and [card nykthos, shrine to nyx]Nykthos[/card] in particular, are certainly fuel for the mono-train, but it’s just great to be back to wanting to play a basic land to make a colored mana without entering the battlefield tapped. Have you ever had a fancy wine bottle opener or electric tool, and then one day you can’t find it or are at a friend’s house and you have to use the “old fashioned” one? It feels good. Not like you want to swear off technology and never use a power tool again, but there’s a simple satisfaction that comes from getting back to basics. It’s good to see Standard in this shape.
Aggro decks playing 2 copies of [card]Mutavault[/card] is another similar tension. Even though the deck might be mono-colored, so many cards cost 2 or 3 colored mana that even a great land like [card]Mutavault[/card] can’t be included without serious deliberation.
Aside from just what colors people are playing, the cards are fun. I might be in the minority (but probably just the silent majority) when I say I love the card [card]Pack Rat[/card]. It’s just such a cool card. You start with one Rat and it just eats some resources, reproduces, and then does it again. Playing with or against it, you feel the sense of a Rat infestation. I love it.
Beating the crap out of people with [card]Polukranos, World Eater[/card] and/or [card]Stormbreath Dragon[/card] is also fun. I don’t want Magic to always be about who has the more monstrous monster, and indeed it isn’t. Sometimes your opponent is making 12 mana or eight 2/1 Elementals and your [card]Stormbreath Dragon[/card] feels like a fruit fly.
[card nykthos, shine to nyx]Nykthos[/card] brought a combo element back into Standard. It’s “combo with training wheels” since all the cards are permanents ensuring interaction points and backup plans aplenty, but it’s still combo. For those of us who get bored playing [card]Hero’s Downfall[/card]s and heroes that fall down, well, we still have to play [card]Hero’s Downfall[/card] targets, but we just might go off and beat someone so badly they tear up one of those [card]Hero’s Downfall[/card]s in frustration.
My psychographic is Spike-Johnny-Griefer-A**hole so the Pack Rats and combo kills are very welcome. But something for everyone seems to be the law of the land so far.
The set plays great and that’s what matters most, but the flavor of Theros is pretty poorly executed. In fact, when I encounter someone writing about how they like the flavor, they usually like the idea of a Greek-mythology setting and flavor more than they like specifics about the execution. Tapping into a known and colorful resource like Greek mythology does give the team a big head start, but where did they really take it?
Heroic to me feels fun, but not that flavorful. It’s just “pump this guy,” and the abilities are so similar for the most part that they don’t feel like individual heroes. Monstrosity is pretty cool and I think well executed, especially the flagships [card]Polukranos, World Eater[/card], and [card]Stormbreath Dragon[/card].
If monstrosity is the high point, bestow and the enchantment-creature-legend-artifact-sorcery-Balloon-Brigade cycle are the low points. What is happening when I bestow a creature, and what happens when that creature dies? I finally get the rules part of it, but what is the flavor? This thing just never made sense to me and still doesn’t. The legendary enchantment artifacts are basically artifacts that occasionally make people go, “oh, I can kill that with this thing that kills enchantments, cool.” They’re not a fraction as cool as legendary equipment or an actual legend.
The Gods share the tacked-on type problem as they are enchantments (which represents being “mythical” because you know the 2/2 reach for 1G must also be mythical). They make good use of the devotion mechanic and have impact before it’s turned on, so these actually aren’t as bad as I initially thought. They don’t excite me personally but on balance, after playing with them in Constructed and Limited, they’re flavorful and well designed.
In sum, if you’re a fan of Theros flavor, my guess is there are simpler, more elegant ways to design a Greek mythology set that would have gotten you even more pumped up. They entered some cool space, and kind of durdled around with enchantment on the type line instead of delivering something awesome.
I think Theros is a very well designed set in gameplay terms, providing some much needed reboot in Standard and proving to be a deeply fun draft format. However, Theros misses the mark on delivering resonant flavor and designs that contribute to that flavor in intuitive ways. For draft, the product shows signs of going above and beyond in development, and for flavor set in a world inspired by the Greek gods, the product seems like a minimum-viable-execution of the concept.
But all that is just what I think, let me know in the comments what you think of Theros.
Thanks for reading,
mtg_law_etc on Twitter
*Whether a set respects archetypes or is just some core set sacrilege can often be measured by the “Does black/white suck?” test. If black-white doesn’t suck, either something weird like guilds is being supported, or the set has gone too far into decks just want the most powerful card in each pack regardless of archetype.