Recurring Nightmares – TheRelease

Heading into Theros prerelease weekend, I had no idea what the format would look like. For me, flavor-heavy Limited sets like Theros are some of the most fun—far more interesting than the straightforward M14 (though in terms of core set Limited, M14 is pretty good). Still, despite the interest and enjoyment once the set gets on its feet, I have a tough time analyzing it before I get to actually lay hands on the cards and see them interact together for the first time. I’m not particularly adept at dissecting a spoiler for interactions, not for Limited play anyway, and it takes me a little time to digest all the new information.

Fortunately, the prerelease is the perfect opportunity for me to get that first exposure to the mechanics of the set, which is why I think I enjoy playing the prerelease weekends so much. A low-competition environment is perfect for making mistakes before they become game losses, and to start to understand what works and doesn’t, before putting anything tangible on the line, like at a PTQ or Grand Prix.

For the last few blocks, Wizards has created a very new experience for the prerelease weekend, much different (and in my opinion, in most ways better) than the large regional events we once had. While you lose some of the interactions and trading that’s part of gathering a giant group of players from all over in one place, you gain a ton in community-focused environment, where players of all skill levels can enjoy and inspect the new cards. It also leads to the gimmick-focused events that began with Scars block, where you’re asked to make some kind of choice upon entering the event, and are subsequently invested into a particular faction or color.

I think giving this kind of emotional investment to the prerelease is great, as it asks players to become involved in the event beyond simply creating a Sealed pool like any other, and a promo card that they can’t play with anyway. Still, there are pros and cons to the gimmick format. It isn’t all sunshine and rainbows.

For this event, as there was no specific battle being waged between the colors or storyline to follow, we were asked to choose a color with which to align, which included a “seed pack,” containing a specific promo rare highlighting a new mechanic from Theros, and a number of cards of various rarities to support that color, in order to all but ensure you’d be rewarded for playing the color of your Champion.

On the plus side, the inclusion of the Champions in these seed packs means you’re guaranteed at least one bomb rare, so you’ll never be playing a totally mediocre deck without any kind of powerful, flashy rare card. This is great for new players who don’t want to feel like they were steamrolled by more powerful/more rares that other players were lucky enough to open and draw. On the other hand, the inclusion of the Champions in the seed packs means you’re guaranteed bombs. You’ve essentially ensured that there will be at least one powerful spell in every deck, meaning each player will have to expect the opponent to have something they’re capable of drawing off the top to make a huge impact on the board. In a set with five rare slots dedicated to lands, with few hard removal spells in the common slot, this means there will be games where the opponent lands their bomb on curve and you just have no way to deal with it ever.

On the positive side, the seed pack gives you a focus for the rest of your cards. You’ve had some of the work of constructing the Sealed pool done for you, as the distinction between what colors you should play is far less difficult when you’re up an entire pack’s worth of cards in one color. You chose white, you should probably be base-white and considering which colors will be your secondary color or splash. Of course, this comes with a drawback, which is the removal of the decision trees that make the Sealed format interesting to begin with. Just as you’re given a road map through the color selection process with the seed pack, you’re also spoon-fed your primary color, since—as I mentioned—you’re guaranteed at least one bomb rare in the selected color. If you happen to have a couple more rares in the same color from the rest of the packs, you’re well on your way to being sold without much of a second thought.

I enjoy the unique experience of creating a Sealed pool when they’ve been front-loaded with good cards from a specific color, or guild, or faction, because there’s a feeling that makes the prerelease decidedly different than a regular weekly Sealed or Draft event. There’s definitely something to be said for that inimitable event—setting it apart from other more mundane events means it has much more appeal to the casual player, even beyond the fact that it’s the first chance to play with the cards. The reason Wizards continued to play the gimmick game after the Scars block faction packs was because it worked! People liked choosing sides, and getting into the events. The problem with this type of event is that the format is singular to the prerelease, and some of the information you glean from it isn’t applicable to normal Sealed events, since they don’t include seed packs. For a set like Theros, released during a Limited PTQ season, this makes the learning curve just a little steeper.

I think the cons are easily acceptable given how much fun prereleases have become since adopting these gimmicks. I haven’t missed a non-core prerelease in years, because I’m consistently reminded of how much fun Magic can be when you step aside from the competitive nature of the game, and focus on how friggin’ cool the cards are. And every time I get the chance to play against an opponent at the prerelease who hasn’t been jaded by the tournament scene, and is just genuinely excited to check out what all these awesome new cards do, a part of the initial attraction I had to Magic all those years ago is felt anew.

Because I wasn’t particularly clear on what the format was going to look like before the event, I let the employee behind the desk at my LGS decide what color I would play. He said I should be blue, since the Kraken that I’m guaranteed is the only one of the Champions that doubles as removal, and there’s not a lot of removal in the set. This sounded like sound reasoning to me, so I went along with it. I was fortunate to open a very strong pool, and eventually settled on this build:

BUtSP-RCEAEfTRU

I began with this deck, minus green and an [card]Annul[/card], plus black and a [card]Thassa’s Bounty[/card]. I just wanted to draw cards as much as possible, and the pair of [card]Read the Bones[/card] along with a [card]Lash of the Whip[/card] and [card]Shipwreck Singer[/card] felt like a good reason to pull me to black. After playing a round, I rapidly discovered how important having an answer to artifacts and enchantments will be in this format (especially in Sealed), and switched to blue/green, with a number of answers.

I ended the day at 4-0, losing only a pair of games to some extremely powerful draws from the opponents and particularly poor draws on my side of the table. I feel like I have a bit more perspective on particular spells in the format now that I’ve had the opportunity to play with and against them, so I’d like to share some specific experiences with you.

Annul

[draft]Annul[/draft]

I was pretty hot on this card going into the day, recognizing that there were enough enchantments to want at least one in the main deck. I quickly discovered that this was far worse than a [card]Naturalize[/card] against everything that wasn’t a God, and worse than [card]Fade into Antiquity[/card] against even the Gods. While Annul allows you to preemptively answer a powerful card like [card]Hammer of Purphoros[/card] without the opponent gaining any benefit from it, you need to draw your Annul before they draw their Hammer, and have an Island available when they cast it. This is sometimes easier said than done. Very few of the enchantments in the set have the ability to just kill you on the spot, so it isn’t particularly necessary to answer them immediately, as much as have an answer to them eventually. Even when you do have the Annul, you’re only getting a 1-for-1, which is fine, but not impressive. I’d still start one, but I don’t think I’d be slamming 4 in the deck unless my opponent gives me a good reason.

Ordeal of Thassa

[draft]Ordeal of Thassa[/draft]

I only ran the blue Ordeal, though I had the opportunity to run the black or green one and chose not to. There seem to be many differing opinions on the value of these cards, depending on who you ask they’re either good/fine to bad/unplayable. Personally, I was more impressed with the Ordeal I ran than I expected. Initially, I saw it as a way to trigger heroic on the pair of creatures I ran with that ability, as well as its synergy with the hexproof [card]Benthic Giant[/card]. More often, I ended up slamming it on a turn 2 [card]Vaporkin[/card] and attacking for 12 over the course of three turns, while drawing two cards and putting the opponent under serious pressure. The removal spells that do exist in the format are very restrictive, expensive, and easy to play around (or they’re red). Without a reason to expect the opponent having a [card]Voyage’s End[/card] (merely a 1-for-1 and tempo), a [card]Pharika’s Cure[/card] (you can see BB up easily), or a rare removal spell, I would still go for it. The times you don’t have an evasive two-drop, I would still run one of these enchantments with three or more ways to utilize it for value without it needing to trigger from three attacks. I leveraged bestow and Ordeal on my [card]Wavecrash Triton[/card] over the course of a few turns to lock down an opposing [card]Ember Swallower[/card] long enough to close out the game before it became threatening. While I don’t consider this to be a premium spell, it is nowhere near bad/unplayable, and has synergy with the other mechanics in the set.

Bident of Thassa

[draft]Bident of Thassa[/draft]

This card. Phew! I managed to draw approximately a bajillion cards off the Bident over the course of the tournament. In one game, my opponent had both [card]Whip of Erebos[/card] and [card]Bow of Nylea[/card] in play, and I still managed to draw so many cards that I needed to elect not to draw from certain attacks, because I was getting close to decking myself before I’d be able to kill him through his life gain. Along with the aforementioned pair of [card]Vaporkin[/card], I also had a pair of [card]Nimbus Naiad[/card], which allowed my early roadblocks to turn into evasive threats. My opponents also seemed incapable of playing around the second ability of the Bident to good effect, as they had to choose between establishing a defensive board to prevent me from burying them in card advantage, only to get them forced into bad attacks, or just let me draw infinite cards. I was far more impressed with the card than I expected, and it was much more than a [card]Coastal Piracy[/card]—though even that would have been fine.

Speaking of Nimbus Naiad, I’m of the mind that this little fish may secretly be the best common in the set. The +2/+2 bonus allowed me to easily play around the Bow of Nylea that would otherwise have dismantled my team, and the evasion allowed me to put a serious clock on the opponent with cards like [card]Breaching Hippocamp[/card] and [card]Benthic Giant[/card]. I did manage to win a game with a flying Kraken, but I’m pretty certain I had that one in hand anyway. Beyond simply putting pants on your guys, this was another way to trigger Heroic, and cantripping off your [card]Spectral Flight[/card] was a serious game.

Wavecrash Triton

[draft]Wavecrash Triton[/draft]

There’s a real tension in this set between the controlling and aggressive blue deck. On the one side, you have cards like Vaporkin and Bident that reward you for being aggressive early and taking the attacking role. On the other, you have cards like Wavecrash Triton and [card]Omenspeaker[/card] that want you to slow the game down and defend. What I found excellent about the Wavecrash Triton was the way it let me switch gears rapidly—I could end step a Hippocamp, and then untap into Bestow on the Triton (locking down a threatening blocker) and go on the offense for a serious amount of damage out of nowhere. Because the ability to boost the attack power of your creatures is so prevalent in the set, even an innocuous defender like this 1/4 has the ability to just suit up and smash. I was much more impressed with his ability to facilitate an enormous attack than I was his ability to defend.

Voyage’s End

[draft]Voyage’s End[/draft]

10/10, would play again. In fact, I would play every copy of this card I could possibly get my hands on in a Limited environment. It does everything. With each and every impactful play costing 4+ mana, you’re gaining a ton of tempo at all times, and smoothing out your draws in the meantime. In an aggressive blue shell especially, returning a creature to hand is often as good as killing it. Breaking up a bestow Voltron is also quite awesome, as it’s much easier to deal with a couple 1/1s and 2/2s than a 6/6 lifelink-deathtouch-first-striking machine.

Artisan’s Sorrow/Fade into Antiquity

[draft]Artisan’s Sorrow
Fade into Antiquity[/draft]

I made some mention of these spells in the section on Annul, though I would like to reiterate that point. Having access to this effect will be a significant boon. Bestow creatures are legal targets regardless of the mode they’ve been cast in, and there are heaps of other saucy targets. [card]Fade into Antiquity[/card] was much better than Sorrow, despite the lack of scry, specifically because exiling is important in a format where there are indestructible enchantment creature Gods. Green is a seductive splash color specifically because it has access to an “exile an enchantment” effect. In the prerelease, I managed to exile Porphoros twice and Nylea once with Fade into Antiquity, where literally any other card save [card]Chain to the Rocks[/card] leaves me drawing dead.

Phalanx Leader

[draft]Phalanx Leader[/draft]

In one of the games I lost, my opponent curved out on turns 1 through 3, and cast Phalanx Leader on turn 4. On turn 5, he played [card]Chosen by Heliod[/card], [card]Dragon Mantle[/card], [card]Messenger’s Speed[/card], and [card]Titan’s Strength[/card] on it.

Gray Merchant of Asphodel

[draft]Gray Merchant of Asphodel[/draft]

I was fortunate enough to avoid running into the Gray Merchant buzzsaw this weekend, but I have heard a number of tales regarding 20 points done by the Merchant alone. I don’t stand the slightest bit surprised. A couple weeks ago, I mentioned the possibility that this guy was reasonable in Constructed because of how strongly he resembles [card]Tendrils of Agony[/card]—abusing his drain effect in Limited as a common seems all too easy. New Philosophy of MerchantFire—count up your opponent’s devotion to black, plus 2. If you’re in range, be afraid.

Anger of the Gods

[draft]Anger of the Gods[/draft]

I have a hard time figuring out how anyone beats this card on turn three on the draw from an opponent. If you see it once, you have to play extremely conservatively from then on, but I can’t imagine that it doesn’t just win the game once per round.

Bow of Nylea

[draft]Bow of Nylea[/draft]

I played against this card with the deck I would assume is most vulnerable to the things it does—kill little blue fliers—and was wholly unimpressed. Much as many of my compatriots have said, the fact that it does four things is nowhere near as impressive when the four things don’t really DO anything. I suppose if I had played my Vaporkins and Naiads into it, it would have been great, but as it was I found the card particularly easy to play around, Naiad even doing most of the work for you. I don’t think I would first pick this in a draft, which is saying something, since it seems great on first glance.

Nemesis of Mortals

[draft]Nemesis of Mortals[/draft]

You could substitute any of the big monstrous dorks for this card—really any of them that don’t have an impact on the board when you pay their monstrosity cost. You’re running a giant tempo-risk when you activate these. For the most part, despite the fact that the format seems relatively slow, there are plenty of ways to get and stay ahead, and investing a ton of mana to make your large guy larger is not one of them. I think Nemesis in particular is fine as a 5/5 that’s usually cheap, but beyond that, it is activate at your own risk. My judgment is clouded by the fact that I had access to Voyage’s End and potentially [card]Griptide[/card] (in color, though I had none), but there are an impressive number of ways to handle larger creatures in this set. I found my Kraken, for example, much more valuable as a 6/6 that threatened to go monstrous than I did as a 10/10 that already locked four guys down. In fact, the only time I actually activated the Kraken was when I needed a seven-mana [card]Giant Growth[/card] to deal lethal damage a turn sooner.

Xenagos, the Reveler

[draft]Xenagos, the Reveler[/draft]

Each and every player in the prerelease who opened Xenagos was excited to play with it—until round one was over, and each of them lamented how terrible it was. The most prominent complaint was that it just didn’t do anything relevant, and then it died. There were enough removal spells and evasive guys flying around that you couldn’t guarantee it would live long enough to be effective. It was inefficient as a ramp spell, since you needed a board presence to make it generate mana. You could make a 2/2 when you play it, at the risk of it gaining no loyalty—but often this meant you spent four mana on a 2/2, because you need to choose between protecting it and getting something reasonable out of it. Unless you curved two-three-Xenagos+two, it was just low-impact. I still have a feeling it will see Constructed play (perhaps once we see [card]Domri Rade[/card] rotate out), but at this point I am significantly underwhelmed by it.

With the set finally here and accessible, drafts are being scheduled, and I should have much more information once I get to expand my experience to more of the card pool. My initial confusion about the set is rapidly turning into excitement, because once again Wizards has created a really awesome Limited environment where tons of interesting interactions are taking place. It seems like a slower, more controlling atmosphere, which is right in my wheelhouse for Sealed. I’m excited to crack packs during a Limited PTQ season, and that’s a very good sign.

Adam
@AdamNightmare

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