This past weekend my preparation for Pro Tour Theros began in earnest. I made the drive from San Diego to Las Vegas to spend my nights not at the blackjack tables or in clubs but at Eric Froehlich's house playing Magic with the rest of my playtest group.
With the Pro Tour starting in a week, I am officially on radio silence when it comes to Standard. I don't want to feel like I can't give my honest opinion about cards and decks, and I also don't want to let anything slip that could undermine my chances in Dublin. I'll discuss my experiences with our testing once I'm back from the event, but until then Standard is off limits as a topic.
What I can talk about is my experiences playing Theros Limited. I did not attend a Prerelease, so my drafts this past weekend were the first chance I had the see the set in action. Sitting down at a draft table with some of the best players in the world is a great way to get a sense of the format—a real trial by fire, if you will. I did a total of six drafts over the course of the weekend, and I want to talk about how each of them went and what I learned.
Draft #1: G/W Heroic
With my first drafts in a format, I usually aim to try out the major mechanics available and try to take them to extremes. This was the first time I'd ever played with any of the cards, and I wanted to see just how far one could go with the heroic mechanic. I ended up with a deck with three Favored Hoplites, two Staunch-Hearted Warriors, and about ten different ways to target them, including several bestow creatures and Auras but mostly pump effects like Savage Surge.
The deck had some impressive moments, like killing my opponent from double digits with a single attack plus triple combat trick, but overall played out poorly. My Favored Hoplites got outclassed very quickly and were particularly poor when I drew them in multiples because I couldn't even afford to attack with more than one without having to commit tricks to each of them to make them relevant in combat. I lost several games to drawing too many pump spells and not enough creatures.
My takeaway from this draft was that heroic isn't a mechanic that you want to try to go "all in" on. By nature it requires a mixture of heroic creatures and enablers, and the majority of the creatures are weak on their own. This means that a deck with a lot of heroic creatures runs the risk of not being able to enable all of them and ending up with a collection of underpowered threats. It was also evident that combat tricks are not the kind of enablers you want. You certainly don't want to use a Giant Growth effect just to put a +1/+1 counter on one of your heroic creatures. The enablers that impressed me the most were bestow creatures, the cantrip enchantments, and cards like Gods Willing that are powerful outside of their ability to turn on heroic.
Draft #2: R/B Aggro
In this draft, I wanted to see how effective a focused aggressive deck could be in the format. Most of the decks I saw in our first draft were fairly slow, and it seemed like there was room to punish them for it. I first picked a Hammer of Purphoros, went into black for a Sip of Hemlock and a Lash of the Whip, and then rounded out my deck with a collection of cheap, efficient creatures, including three copies of Deathbellow Raider.
While I won some games on the back of my Hammer, the rest of my deck did not perform well. My creatures were quickly outclassed, and I fell behind my opponents' superior boards. The thing that stood out to me most with this draft was just how bad the removal spells were. Sip of Hemlock, Lash of the Whip, and Rage of Purphoros are all very expensive, and the latter two frequently aren't even able to kill what you're looking to get off the board once you have enough mana to cast them. This makes it difficult to play an aggressive deck because you don't have good tempo plays that allow you to keep getting damage through.
Draft #3: G/U Rares
This draft was fairly amusing. I opened Arbor Colossus and ended up solidly in G/U by the end of pack 1, and then I opened Prognostic Sphinx in pack 2 and a second Prognostic Sphinx in pack 3. My deck ended up coming together very well overall, and the three rares certainly didn't hurt. I was able to pick up several of the G/U support cards—Agent of Horizons and Horizon Chimera—along with a solid suite of bounce and combat tricks.
My real takeaway from this draft, though, was to pay closer attention to what cards actually do. I was mired in a long match with Josh Utter-Leyton when I made an attack with my Prognostic Sphinx into his board of a 3/4 flier and Shipwreck Singer. When Josh first double blocked, I was surprised because I didn't realize Shipwreck Singer actually had flying, and then when he activated its ability, I was again surprised that it gives attacking creatures -1/-1 and not just -1 power. I ended up throwing away my Sphinx in a trade when I could have easily ridden it to victory if I'd just taken the time to read everything his card actually did. Better there than at the Pro Tour, but it's an important lesson—read the damn cards.
Draft #4: R/W Heroic
This draft was by far the strongest of all of them. I opened Labyrinth Champion and decided to try my hand at the W/R version of a heroic deck using what I'd learned from my first draft. Things came together much better for me this time. I ended up with just a handful of heroic creatures, including the Champion, Phalanx Leader, Favored Hoplite, and Wingsteed Rider. My enablers included two Ordeal of Purphoroses, two cantrip enchantments, Gods Willing, and Coordinated Assault along with several Bestow creatures.
The deck was absolutely gross. I had a game where I played a turn 3 Wingsteed Rider and on turn 4 enchanted it with two Ordeal of Purphoroses, leaving me with a 6/6 flier and wiping my opponent's board. I had several games where I just curved out then played Phalanx Leader and triggered it a few times, absolutely burying my opponent under my superior board position.
While the deck was great overall, it's worth noting that the Labyrinth Champion specifically was underwhelming. Creatures in this format get big pretty quick, making the Shock heroic trigger rather unimpressive overall. I much preferred using my heroic enablers on my Phalanx Leader, who is absolutely bonkers, or just the Hoplite or Wingsteed Rider to generate individually large threats.
It's also worth noting that this deck helped drive home just how much more powerful the Ordeals are when combined with the heroic +1/+1 counter creatures. While their synergy is fairly obvious, it's important to note that it's a lot easier to get two (or even just one) safe attack in with an enchanted creature than it is to get three.
Draft #5: U/B Control
I had seen a number of effective U/B Control decks in our drafts (most notably the one where Wrapter destroyed me due to my inability to read his cards) and decided to try out the strategy myself. I picked an early Gray Merchant of Asphodel and several Disciple of Phenaxes, giving me a heavy devotion theme, and got some solid early defense with Returned Phalanxes to support my long game of Thassa's Bounty and March of the Returned.
The deck turned out to be quite strong despite the fact that Shuhei Nakamura was to my left and also ended up in the exact same color combination. I was able to leverage my early defense and disruption to play long games where my card advantage effects were able to take over. Returned Phalanx and Shipwreck Singer put in a ton of work against the aggressive decks I faced. Conley Woods had a R/W beatdown deck with two Akroan Hoplites and a ton of small creatures, and I was able to completely brick wall him with the Singer and a single blocker.
One thing that stood out to me from this draft is how powerful many of the two-color cards like Singer can be and how they can shape your drafts. With eight players at a table, you won't cover the full range of color combinations, and it's unlikely that anyone will be in the exact same pairing that you are drafting. This means that it's worth using the two-color cards to inform your draft decisions since each pairing has a common and uncommon gold card or card with an off-color activation.
Some color pairings—like B/U, G/U, and B/W—have very attractive multicolor cards, while others—like G/R and B/R—have weaker options. All other things being equal, I'd much rather draft a color combination that has cards like Shipwreck Singer or Sentry of the Underworld as possibilities for me to pick up late in the packs because no one else can play them rather than having my reward be something like Destructive Revelry or Kragma Warcaller.
Draft #6: U/G Ramp
Speaking of powerful gold cards, I started this draft with one of the most bonkers cards in the set: Prophet of Kruphix. The Prophet's untap ability is absolutely ridiculous. Untapping your lands and giving your creatures flash effectively doubles the amount of mana you're able to spend each turn. Not only does this allow you to play out creatures much faster than your opponent, but it also enables you to do things like activate monstrosity and still have mana up on your opponent's turn to react to whatever they do.
My deck came together very well, with two copies of Sea God's Revenge and three copies of Nessian Asp as the highlights next to the Prophet. Sea God's Revenge is incredibly powerful, providing an enormous board swing whenever you cast it—especially if you have a Prophet in play that lets you also cast creatures on your opponent's turn after you play it! The fact that it has scry 1 is kind of hilarious to me because that add-on seems like the sort of thing that you tack onto a weaker card to make it more attractive—"Hey, at least I get to scry!." In a lot of contexts, Sea God's Revenge says, "Win the game. Scry 1," which kind of makes me laugh.
Nessian Asp isn't quite as powerful as Sea God's Revenge, but it's also a game winner. A 4/5 reach body is already attractive for five mana since it's very tough for anyone to get around. Monstrosity making it an 8/9 turns your defensive powerhouse into a game-winning monster, which is a perfect combination. Anything that both helps you get to the late game and also helps you win there is very attractive, and that combination makes Asp one of the best if not the best green common in the set.
Unfortunately, despite my collection of bombs, the deck didn't play out as well as I'd hoped. I lost a close match to Shahar when game 3 stalled out and both of my triple bounce spells were in the bottom four cards of my deck, and then I lost another match to Wrapter when we split mana-screw games and he came out on top in the one real game we played thanks to bouncing his Fanatic of Mogis to deal huge amounts of damage repeatedly.
Overall, I'm really enjoying Theros Limited, and I've had a lot of fun learning the ins and outs of the format. I'm looking forward to the set hitting Magic Online so I can get some more drafts under my belt and start making videos to share what I learn with all of you.
By the time you're reading this, I'm going to be on my way to Dublin. It's unlikely that I'll find the time to write anything next week due to Pro Tour preparation, but I'll be sure to make it up to you all with a Pro Tour win report the following week. See you then!
Until next time,