Grand Prix Sacramento marks the end of Theros Limited play for most people reading this article (if I am wrong about the extent of my Japanese/Malaysian/Australian readership, I stand corrected). With that event coming up after almost a month and a half since the last major event of the format, I figure we could all use a refresher on how it works.
This is going to look a lot like the article I wrote in October. I've just become much better at the format in the three months since then.
The mechanics of Theros combine to make an environment where a large number of cards can take down a game on their own. Heroic turns men into monsters, bestow turns anything into a monster, and monstrous turns monsters into even bigger monsters.
Games of Theros are typically won by runaway threats. Not by card advantage. Not by tempo.
As a result of the above point, rares matter less in Theros.
It's not that the rares in Theros are bad. There are a ton of very powerful cards at the higher rarities that win games. A quick glance shows that ignoring multicolor issues about 60% of the rares and mythics in Theros are first-pick power level.
The issue is that the same description applies at a (relative to rarity) high rate to commons and uncommons. Arbor Colossus is clearly better than Centaur Battlemaster, but if either one is a 9/9, your opponent is probably losing about the same amount to it. Aside from a few outliers (Elspeth, Sun's Champion being the best example), the rares are only slightly more efficient or resilient than the readily available options.
There's also the standard issue that plagues rares in aggressive formats. When games are shorter, there are just less cards you see to find your trump. Theros games are often deceptively long, as all of the mechanics besides scry make games snowball out of control for the losing player. While the games may last eight or nine turns, they are often decided to a point where a rare at best brings parity two turns before that.
Thanks to scry and bestow the format is light on traditional card draw. That means building a traditional "draw, removal, rares" control deck is especially difficult and more often than not your deck has rares to randomly have them and not as a full game plan of living to cast them.
If there is one thing that ties everything together, it's that having the ability to win a game against one of these giant threats is a must.
If you're all Wingsteed Riders and/or Favored Hoplites, you may be able to count on your threats racing theirs since they come down first. If you're anything less, you can't rely on that being the case. You need removal to swing the games where they're going to win the race.
Keep in mind that as per the above notes on card draw, quick games, and the general scarcity of removal it's not about reliably having an answer. It's just about pushing the odds of coming out ahead in the game-breaker fight in your favor.
In Sealed the removal that matters is mostly the ones that can take down anything. At common that means Divine Verdict, Sip of Hemlock, Time to Feed (in base green decks with large creatures), and basically anything blue.
In Draft the things that handle cheaper creatures matter more. This is due to the altered rarity distribution and the non-random common distribution. There is half the number of rares per player when the rares are the cards that require the unconditional answers, and despite the reduced number of commons, there are fewer dead copies that end up sitting in sideboards.
As a result Wingsteed Rider, Staunch-Hearted Warrior, and the various uncommon heroic creatures play a bigger role in the format. Ordeals also get much better as curves get lower and can support them reliably. Removal that takes those out before they turn into an issue becomes a priority, and unassuming cards like Last Breath can actually be quite important. Lightning Strike goes from the seventh to tenth best common in Sealed to the first or second in Draft.
Step 2: Find the game enders. Rares, Ordeals, heroic creatures, monstrous creatures, and even things like Vulpine Goliath.
Green, blue, and black are the best colors in no specific order. White is notably best when paired with green due to the heroic overlap (Staunch-Hearted Warrior, Wingsteed Rider, pump spells on both sides of the split). If you're solidly playing red, I either wish you good luck or think you already have it based on your rares.
Aside from the above notes, the key to Theros Draft is realizing that the packs are always deep. You have the luxury of taking time to see what's open in pack 1 before committing.
The reason for this is that the jump from top-tier cards to the average or even slightly above-average cards in Theros Draft is massive. Wingsteed Rider and Nessian Asp are going to singlehandedly win games. Leonin Snarecaster and Nylea's Disciple, while still reasonable cards, will not.
The goal in each draft should be to access the most tier 1 cards possible. Being in a color that you're being cut out of does not line up with this goal.
The following evaluations are for Draft only. Ranking between colors isn't especially relevant since every pairing but U/R is typically fine. The key is finding the ones that are open.
The issue with white in Theros is two-fold. First, you're heavily invested in heroic synergies when your only common heroic creature is Wingsteed Rider. Second, you're lacking in mid-tier cards. The average white spells in a deck are two heroic creatures, a bestow creature, two combat tricks, and some 2/2s.
If you're playing white in a draft, you need cards that make those 2/2s relevant. Ordeals are the best option since they play into the heroic plan, but each color has a unique way to handle it.
Black and green pair with white by dominating the playable count.
Blue leans on bestow and fliers to make tempo matter and the uncommon Battlewise Hoplite to maximize your nut heroic draws.
All red ever wanted in life is more 2/2s to bash face with, so it gets what it was looking for.
I would still take Wingsteed Rider over all of these first pick. Ordeal is the only one that's close because it just ends games. The rest are all better than Hopeful Eidolon, but depending on your deck later in a draft, both Phalanx Leader and Favored Hoplite could be worse.
Note that all Ordeals can drop drastically in this pick order if your deck happens to be unable to get them on a two-drop. The white one just happens to be the one in the color that always has two-drops.
Phalanx Leader can be awesome in certain decks and just okay in others, but it conflicts with the red cards it works best with. Dragon Mantle and Two-Headed Cerberus pull you in the complete opposite direction in terms of mana, so don't expect to cast it often on turn 2.
Favored Hoplite requires Auras to be good. Just using pump spells on it doesn't make it relevant enough fast enough. Ordeals are obviously the dream, but even Chosen of Heliod, Scourgemark, or Fate Foretold is fine.
Prescient Chimera and Vaporkin are tier 1.5 commons at best, but they're worth listing. Note that the reason Vaporkin isn't top tier is that it still leaves a hole in your early game when defending, which can be an issue in nonwhite decks that are trying to play for higher-power late-game cards.
Blue in Theros tends to be a very traditional support color. You aren't really curving out on blue creatures, but it brings the removal spells you need and fills in a card or two here and there.
Lost in a Labyrinth is underrated. It often doesn't serve an exact role in your deck and sits on the sidelines, but even when it doesn't make the maindeck cut I find myself boarding it in a lot. One-mana tricks are always big, and one-mana tricks that trade for a card and gain additional value are rare. Just be aware that there are matchups where using it to kill a smaller creature doesn't matter.
I've heard people say Sea God's Revenge is overrated. It's not. If your deck isn't able to apply pressure at any point, it might be bad. At that point the issue is also that your deck is just bad.
As a heads up, 90% of the time playing around Triton Tactics is just wrong. More accurately, playing around it in a way that you end up not playing into it later on is almost always impossible.
Lash of the Whip and Disciple of Phenax are traps. I don't mind having either, but they're not incentives to move into the color. They don't actively win games and are only okay at fighting the relevant fights.
Cavern Lampad, on the other hand, wins games. Just remember that it grants Intimidate and not fear.
Keepsake Gorgon is good, but the way it looks like it should play out is a trap. Remember, just because it's a two-for-one and a 2/5 doesn't mean it can't beat down.
I used to love Insatiable Harpy, but over time I found it a little low impact. It's good, but it's not game-endingly absurd like the other cards here.
This is why people hate red. Ill-Tempered Cyclops is close to here but not quite.
That said, I'm a pretty big fan of the color. Its strength is that all of its non-tier 1 cards form a cohesive game plan of getting them dead. Just add enough removal to make them stumble and take advantage of the fact that their curve has holes where they're trying to focus on synergy.
Oddly enough, the best removal color (blue) is the worst color to pair with red. While you really love Voyage's End, the other cards in the color don't further the plan. When U/R works, Aqueous Form is usually involved.
I rarely play Deathbellow Raider outside of B/R. White has too many alternative two-drops that do a better job, while blue and green need a two-drop that isn't committed to offense and Abyssing itself.
Lightning Strike versus Stoneshock Giant is a pick I'm still debating. I have no idea which is better because Stoneshock Giant offers a very unique angle. Magma Jet is definitely worse than Lightning Strike due to Nessian Courser.
Purphoros's Emissary is just a creature and mostly interchangeable for the other four-drops. I used to be really high on it, but most of the time its ability is just okay and the 3/3 ground body is undersized compared to your other four-drop options.
Staunch-Hearted Warrior has a huge upside but can often be very mediocre. Adjust accordingly later in the draft.
Green's weakness lies here. The uncommons are okay, but most of them aren't game breaking.
Nylea's Emissary is an extremely overrated card. It's an overcosted 3/3 for the color, and the bestow is just an expensive effect in a color that has more powerful effects that stand alone for the same cost.
For the format being all about cascading advantages, I've had a lot of fun playing Theros Limited. I look forward to what Born of the Gods has to add, especially since it should tone down some of the linear nut draws I've seen as the only real downside of a great Limited experience.