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Silvestri Says – Theros Limited in a Nutshell

Next week will be a full blown data article, just like my M14 piece, on Theros Draft and Standard—so if you’ve been waiting for that, keep an eye out. This week I’ll focus primarily on Sealed since we lack data for that, and it differs immensely from draft.

Draft is pretty much an average speed format, and there’s not a lot to talk about strategy wise. The fast decks are almost universally either heroic decks or red/black aggro. Yes, the bonkers heroic decks exist and will give you flashbacks to losing to Boros curve outs or Zendikar aggro landfall shenanigans. Most of the time, though, decks only end up with a handful of heroic, or underrate the best enablers, so often people can’t get everything together.

For everyone else, the usual principles apply, you still want to have a curve, both keep up with aggressive starts and to pressure people who keep 4 lands, 4-drop, 6-drop, trick. Bestow and some really good combat tricks make leaning on your 4-drop to stabilize a pretty weak plan at the best of times. Obviously, if you back it up with a [card]Voyage’s End[/card] or [card]Lightning Strike[/card] you have a much stronger argument. However, I see a whole lot of people keeping speculative hands under the mistaken impression that only heroic decks can be aggressive.

Simple starts like [card]Grizzly Bear[/card], [card]Nessian Courser[/card] into bestowed [card]Leafcrown Dryad[/card] can be surprisingly effective. Your mileage may vary, but at least from my drafts online I find people tend to overrate 4+ mana cards and skimp on 2-drops. While this won’t hurt you most of the time, it does mean mediocre decks can sometimes sneak up on you with aggressive draws, and bomb early drops absolutely dominate.

On the other hand, Sealed is glacial—unless you get the nuts heroic deck and probably waltz directly into the Top 8. I had what I felt was a very average UW deck and easily 5-1’d*, losing a mirror because I misread one of my rares game two and failed to draw anything to finish my opponent after getting him to 2 in game three. Everything not blue felt miles behind me, as I got to cast sweet [card]Voyage’s End[/card]s, and [card]Battlewise Hoplite[/card] dominated.

*My car was dead at this point, and at the time I thought I had just gotten lucky with a bad UW deck. So when I was paired against a friend, I beat him in the swiss and then scooped and dropped.

Standouts of that particular pool were both Hoplites ([card favored hoplite]Favored[/card] and [card battlewise hoplite]Battlewise[/card]), [card]Voyage’s End[/card], [card]Gods Willing[/card], and [card]Vaporkin[/card]. This was also my first major foray into the format, and I quickly learned that bestow is the most important mechanic. While I lacked [card]Nimbus Naiad[/card], I did have a pair of [card]Vaporkin[/card] and a [card]Wingsteed Rider[/card] that I put pants on in many games and easily won from there.

The standard M.O. of a lot of decks (esp. WU/WB/WR and Bx) is to ride a massive creature with multiple auras attached. Bestow makes this plan very attractive, since you can go all-in on a creature, force through a bunch of damage or bad blocks, and when it finally kicks the bucket you still have guys to pump. Considering how good white’s combat tricks are, that’s a great place to be. I’ve killed plenty of people after they’ve dealt with my biggest threat by simply playing a combat trick or two.

Also, because a lot of decks are just building up massive creatures or trying to ride 5s and 6s to victory, it makes bounce, countermagic, falter, and threaten effects that much better. [card]Portent of Betrayal[/card] is one of my favorite cards to open in Limited due to the number of massive creatures you can steal. Taking a giant bestow guy and clobbering the opponent to death with it is a common scenario, and even better if the opponent doesn’t suspect it. While I hate splashing in this format, if I have an [card]Traveler’s Amulet[/card] and [card]Burnished Hart[/card] or scry land I’m very tempted.

Blue felt like the best color in Sealed, and continually playing the format leads me to conclude it is the best color, while green remains the deepest. This led to lots of solid UG decks in Sealed practice, while my decks with bombs largely stayed on the sidelines because I simply couldn’t match playing huge creatures on curve backed by bounce and bestow unless I drew my bombs every game.

Of course, that isn’t to say that the bombs in this format aren’t completely ridiculous at times. Cards like [card]Whip of Erebos[/card], [card]Elspeth, Sun’s Champion[/card], [card]Abhorrent Overlord[/card], and [card]Agent of Fates[/card] are all pretty warped ideas of fun. None of them are [card]Pack Rat[/card] level, but hell is it annoying to be in a dominating board position and then get wiped off the map when Elspeth hits the field. A round of chump blocks and -3 activation later and suddenly it’s a struggle to get back into the game.

What is nice is that you often can race these massive bombs. There isn’t much in the way of mana acceleration, and the best bombs are almost all very expensive which means you have time to set yourself up in a position to handle them. Also, if you happen to be blue, you have [card]Annul[/card] and [card]Dissolve[/card] as reasonable answers to any late-game bomb (other than [card]Mistcutter Hydra[/card]).

Because of the aforementioned slowness and people trying to build a monster, curving out with bears and auras is completely legit. Heroic decks will often just get you with Hoplites (Favored and Battlewise) or [card]Wingsteed Rider[/card], and can easily race green decks by triggering two or three times. Watching the few good heroic decks also drove this point home because of how little relevant cheap removal there is.

Removal in this set tends to be very bad. Blue’s bounce spells on the other hand are amazing. Both [card]Voyage’s End[/card] and [card]Griptide[/card] are unreal when used fairly, let alone for an aura or monstrosity blowout. Let’s not even talk about [card]Sea God’s Revenge[/card].

Finally, I want to talk about a few trap cards. Gods are mostly terrible, other than [card thassa, god of the sea]Thassa[/card] and [card heliod, god of the sun]Heliod[/card]. [card purphoros, god of the forge]Purphoros[/card] can be insane in the right build, and in draft all the Gods are basically stone awful unless you build around their abilities. It’s very difficult to turn them on consistently and three of them don’t have strong enough static effects to be worth using. Thassa has two unreal abilities and Heliod’s 2/1s can often stall until you get to 8 mana.

God weapons are all absurd (Whip being best in both Limited formats, Hammer weakest—at least in Sealed) and very tough to beat given multiple turns. These cards almost dictate having access to artifact removal or countermagic in whatever Sealed pool you have.

Limited Takeaways

1) Blue is the best color in Theros, but it’s dominance is not as total as it was in M14.

The primary reason blue is so good in this format is completely different from why blue was awesome in M14. Bounce is amazing in this format as the only cheap, no-restrictions removal in the set. And, while evasion isn’t quite as good in this format, the bestow mechanic makes it much easier to suit up a creature and kill them in 3-4 turns.

It helps that the commons in blue are all mana efficient and allow for a lower curve. [card]Nimbus Naiad[/card] may be the best [card]Wind Drake[/card] of all time, so that helps us out when looking at creatures. What’s nice is that your top picks all help flesh out your curve so the big guys aren’t sitting embarrassed in your hand while you eat a bunch of heroic damage.

In Sealed, green is arguably a better color simply because your creatures are the most efficient, and your end game can trump multiple bestows on the same creature. [card]Nessian Asp[/card] is a solid card and only gets that much better in a slow Sealed format.

2) Either red or black is the weakest overall color depending on what you value in Limited, but neither should be actively avoided.

This isn’t an M14 or Avacyn Restored situation where the weakest color is unspeakably bad. Red is just best suited to be a support color unless you end up very aggressive, and that requires a specific suite of cards. However it often can be the backbone of very strong Sealed and Draft decks by giving you options that no other color can. I actually really like having the option to run or even splash [card]Portent of Betrayal[/card] in my deck in Sealed.

Why? Where else can you get a reasonable answer to a huge bestow creature? Better still, your answer will involve killing the opponent the same turn you cast it most of the time. It has some of the only cheap removal that will permanently deal with early threats and Minotaur tribal can be surprisingly effective. In draft you need to constantly be aware of the kind of deck you want to draft because it’ll shape your pick orders in a big way when in red.

As for black, it lacks early drops, and the ones they do have tend to only be good in one mode. Very rarely will you encounter a creature good at attacking or blocking that costs less than four. The one exception is [card]Agent of the Fates[/card], and that’s one of the best cards in the entire set and a very good dual mode card even if you never trigger heroic. [card]Baleful Eidolon[/card] is my favorite early creature simply because it trades twice later in the game. Obviously the late game is dominated by [card]Gray Merchant of Asphodel[/card], and often the primary way black decks end the game.

3) Ever since Gatecrash, people have learned about how important curves are—so stop ignoring them.

Bestow cards are pretty much perfect cards for decks that want to curve out, which is why the good ones should be valued highly. You can consistently play them on turn 3/4 and if you flood or draw them late, you can still get value out of them. The majority of monstrosity cards are expensive and then get more expensive! If you aren’t willing to play a monstrosity card for its initial mana cost, don’t play it because the monstrosity looks good. Remember that you’ll only hit 7 lands in about 40% of your games in draft. In Sealed, that number goes up a bit, but it’s still only around half your total games in a tournament.

That’s all for this week, next week I’ll be back with some thoughts on the data of 60k Theros draft games where we see some clear patterns. For those of you only interested in Standard, that data will be there as well! To tide you over, here are the rough tiers on Magic Online up to the GP weekend.

Tier 1: Mono-U, Esper, GR Devotion
Tier 1.5: Mono-Red, UW Control, Boros, MBC
Tier 2: Almost everything else
Tier 3: WRB Mythics

Contest article coming later this week!

Josh Silvestri
Email me at: [email protected]

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