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Pacing in Theros

Last week, I talked about quick-sketch reviews on the packs in Theros, using tiers as a shorthand for pack management.  What I’d like to do today is talk a bit more about the unique Limited environment created by the crew at WOTC.  

Theros is interesting in that your sideboard really matters.  A lot of the cards can vary wildly in strength depending on the matchup, so keeping track of your board and moving in the correct cards will be key in games two and three. Quick example: [ccProd]Sip of Hemlock[/ccProd] can be pretty bad in a controlling deck against an aggressive strategy, as the mana cost and lack of instant speed often has too little impact and is too late to the party.  Conversely, using Sip at the top end of an aggressive black/red deck can be fantastic, blowing a key blocker out of the way and dealing some damage, destroying the opponent’s combat math. [ccProd]Divine Verdict[/ccProd] is almost the exact inverse—great for the control decks, but mediocre at helping an aggressive strategy push through the final points of damage.

        So what really defines this format? Is it fast? Slow? Midrange-y? All of the above? Typically when we look at a format’s characteristics, we are looking for the quality and quantity of removal, the curve of the creature base, the power of the combat tricks and any inherent synergies.

Gatecrash was fast, with tons of removal, cheap aggressive creatures, and a messy two-color mana base that resulted in a lot of free wins for the aggro player. Innistrad was slower (outside of [ccProd]Invisible Stalker[/ccProd] nonsense) with a lot to do with your mana as the game went on, allowing you to build combo-ish decks with [ccProd]Spider Spawning[/ccProd]. How does Theros fall on this spectrum?

        First, the removal. It’s not spectacular, but there are some decent spells. [ccProd]Lightning Strike[/ccProd], [ccProd]Voyage’s End[/ccProd], [ccProd]Griptide[/ccProd], and [ccProd]Time to Feed[/ccProd] are all quite good, as are [ccProd]Pharika’s Cure[/ccProd] and [ccProd]Divine Verdict[/ccProd] in the right matchup. [ccProd]Time to Feed[/ccProd] looks pretty bad when you compare it to [ccProd]Prey Upon[/ccProd], but it’s all within the context of the format. Stapling life gain onto it has a lot of value.  The rest are playable, but you won’t want more than one in your deck in most cases. I would have to say that the removal is not a format definer, it’s neither overpowered or notably weak.

How about the curve? This is where we start to see a lot of discrepancy. Once you factor in the uncommons, there are a surprisingly high number of powerful 1-3 drops in the set—particularly in white and red. Green and black want to play higher in the curve, slamming massive 5-drops onto the table as soon as possible. Blue has most of its solid drops at 2-3 mana.  The bestow mechanic also gives these lower curve decks a way to utilize their mana in the 4-6 range without giving up the tempo of the early drops.  What is interesting about this is that it really varies by archetype, so depending on which matchup you face, you may have a very different set of priorities. This makes it hard to give Theros a one-size-fits-all approach.

The mana in Theros is better than in most forced gold sets as well.  You can really cement one color as your primary and have a mid-light splash of a second color.  This allows for a lot of 10/7 mana bases, which tend to be the most stable (sometimes as light as 9/6 for very aggressive decks).  Generally fewer games will be decided by one player not being able to cast spells.  Blue really shines here, as nearly all of its cards are wonderful as splashes, while not demanding the double colors of the others.

Combat tricks are pretty awesome in Theros.  If you asked me for a stand-out element, this is the where I would look.  You have excellent, cheap tricks that also fix your draws ([ccProd]Gods Willing[/ccProd], [ccProd]Titan’s Strength[/ccProd], [ccProd]Battlewise Valor[/ccProd]).  Auras that replace themselves ([ccProd]Scourge Mark[/ccProd], [ccProd]Dragon’s Mantle[/ccProd], [ccProd]Chosen by Heliod[/ccProd]), leave a permanent pump (Ordeals), or become creatures ([ccProd]Nimbus Naiad[/ccProd], [ccProd]Leaf Crown Dryad[/ccProd], etc.).  Finally, the standalone tricks such as [ccProd]Triton Tactics[/ccProd], [ccProd]Coordinated Assault[/ccProd], or [ccProd]Dauntless Onslaught[/ccProd] are just absurd for their cost. There are so many that I think we can lose sight of how good they are—it also makes it very hard to play around all of them.

So where does that line of thought bring us? If blocking is for suckers and the removal is okay, but not great, how does a more controlling, midrange strategy compete? Not everyone at the table can draft an aggressive deck, so if we want to be slower, but successful, how do we go about it?  The answer is that lifelink and deathtouch are particularly powerful in this environment.

Traditionally cards that gain life don’t get much consideration for Limited, as card advantage is typically much more important. However, Theros draft archetypes look a lot closer to Constructed decks than Limited ones. Because of this, synergy, curve, and tempo all play a much larger role than they did in full RTR block. This is fairly typical when you have 3 packs from the same set vs. 3 different packs. The ability to get multiple commons/uncommons allows for more consistency in your deck and can reinforce a linear approach. In regard to gaining life, this becomes key against the faster aggro decks, just as plopping down multiple [ccProd]Obstinate Baloth[/ccProd]s (or 3 stupid Elephants for those that remember the original Ravnica in Constructed) can stone wall a red blitz strategy. Most Limited formats don’t allow for such a smooth, early, and aggressive curve as what can be developed in Theros. To be competitive, the good guys (midrange in this case) need to stabilize above all other concerns, and gaining life gives you the time and breathing space to do so.

For life gain there are several great options at common. [ccProd]Hopeful Eidolon[/ccProd] is much better than it looks, as bestowing it onto an evasive threat can negate the bulk of the opponent’s incoming attacks. [ccProd]Gray Merchant of Asphodel[/ccProd] is a powerful tempo swing, and while it will occasionally cold-cock a player out with the direct damage, it’s much more common use is to stabilize with the life gain. [ccProd]Scholar of Athreos[/ccProd], [ccProd]Time to Feed[/ccProd], and [ccProd]Pharika’s Cure[/ccProd] provide some board control while bringing that all-important life total outside the range of a single-pumped attacker. The difference between getting control of the board at 5 life and 10 is tremendous. If you are at 5 or less, there is a real risk of a single unblocked creature getting pumped and becoming lethal.

I have a lot of [ccProd]Whip of Erebos[/ccProd] in my MTGO account and I have found that the lifelink ability is powerful enough to justify playing the card even if you never activate it. When you live the dream and Whip a [ccProd]Gray Merchant[/ccProd] or [ccProd]Abhorrent Overlord[/ccProd] into play it’s obviously insane, but more often you’re bringing back pedestrian 2-power critters.  Whipping them into action isn’t that exciting, but that constant padding of the life total can crush an aggressive strategy in a perfectly workmanlike way.

In a different fashion, humble deathtouch cards, such as [ccProd]Sedge Scorpion[/ccProd] or [ccProd]Baleful Eidolon[/ccProd] can also punish the focus on auras and combat tricks. First strike is not very common in the set, with red having the bulk of it. Trample is also pretty sparse, making the single point of toughness less relevant.  Most of the tricks just pump up the creatures stat-line, so these little dorks can often slay the various assembled Voltrons, or at the least force a removal spell from the opponent that will almost certainly cost more. Watching someone [ccProd]Rage of Purphoros[/ccProd] my little Scorpion always brings a smile.

In essence, what we are doing with these cards is attempting to shift the tempo of the game.  We want to force our aggro opponents to respond to our board state and play defensively. Most of the combat tricks mentioned above are less potent on defense ([ccProd]Triton Tactics[/ccProd], [ccProd]Gods Willing[/ccProd], and [ccProd]Coordinated Assault[/ccProd] are notable exceptions) and with the auras being predominantly sorcery speed, we can narrow down the range of options we need to play around.

If we are successful in that, we can then begin to play with all of the cool toys that the mid-range player has access to. Monstrous critters begin to hulk up, clogged boards make devotion counts thicker, evasive threats can chip away at the opponent’s life total, and we will likely have more relevant draw steps, as our aggressive opponents will be favored to peel more 1-3 drops, while we bring the beef.  

This focus on defense in the main deck can also lead to some odd situations when two control players get paired up. Here it’s often whoever can go over the top.  I lost in the finals in a black/white on black/white control mirror match when my [ccProd]Hopeful Eidolon[/ccProd] bestowed [ccProd]Sentry of the Underworld[/ccProd] (i.e. [ccProd]Batterskull[/ccProd] with wings) was trumped by the [ccProd]Colossus of Akros[/ccProd] my opponent boarded in.  We both had a ton of life-gain and control elements, so he had the time to get the big idiot online and I didn’t have a single card in my deck that could interact with it. Incidentally, Colossus is an excellent sideboard option for control decks, whenever I’m playing a slower deck, it’s the card I’m most afraid of seeing on the other side of the table. In a format where going big wins the late game, you just can’t get any bigger.

Which pretty much brings me back to the beginning of this article. There are a lot of cards that will vary wildly depending on the matchup and even whether you are on the play or the draw.  In this regard, Theros draft is one of the closest formats to Constructed I have seen in ages. It is very different from RTR block drafting, which needed to prioritize mana fixing due to the larger individual power of the gold cards. Most of the heft in Theros is a deck’s theme and cohesion. Individually weak cards (such as [ccProd]Akroan Crusader[/ccProd] and [ccProd]Satyr Rambler[/ccProd]) can make for a powerful opening when backed by [ccProd]Lightning Strike[/ccProd]s, [ccProd]Titan’s Strength[/ccProd]s, and [ccProd]Fanatic of Mogis[/ccProd] and a clean mana base of 14 Mountains to ensure smooth openings.   

Since the decks that you draft are quite focused, the “metagame” of your draft pod is more relevant.  Keep an eye out for sideboard cards—not simply the [ccProd]Dark Betrayal[/ccProd] cycle (though they are excellent), but cards such as [ccProd]Spark Jolt[/ccProd], [ccProd]Vanquish the Foul[/ccProd], [ccProd]Aqueous Form[/ccProd], [ccProd]Shredding Winds[/ccProd], [ccProd]Guardians of Meletis[/ccProd], and other oddballs that can shore up weaknesses or allow you to trim underperforming cards.  I had one opponent board in [ccProd]Peak Eruption[/ccProd] against my 5-color green deck when he noticed I had multiple [ccProd]Nylea’s Presence[/ccProd]s in the first game. That was clever, and cost me the second game when I’d kept a land-light hand (I ended up winning the third, but that play line still sticks out in my head as a creative approach to a bad matchup).

Next week, I’ll drill down a bit more into the specific color pairings and the archetypes that spawn from them.

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