The Golden Rule of Theros Limited

Today I’ll be covering an element of the Theros block draft structure that is the fundamental basis for how the draft structure plays out.

One of the themes of this set is is the hero overcoming the odds and becoming stronger through conflict. Gameplay-wise, this manifests in the form of auras, with Heroic abilities chipping in to help. This creates a fast snowballing affect, where your first guy gets an aura, becomes larger then everything else, and can attack without fear, before future auras come down and just put him far out of reach. Normally, this kind of gameplay is suppressed by the inherent card disadvantage of auras. If you spend your second turn on a two drop, and your third turn on a three mana aura, only to be met by a removal spell, you’ve spent two cards and two turns to get basically nothing.

As the designers wanted this style of gameplay to be viable within Theros (“building a battleship”, as it is colloquially known), changes had to be made in the environment to support it, such as bestow creatures “falling off” to negate the aura disadvantage. One of these changes was the scaling back of removal, in order to allow time for players to build up their heros.

Rage of Purphoros          Sip of Hemlock

Expensive Removal is the norm in Theros Draft

However, the scaling of the heroes is generally faster then the scaling of the removal, meaning that even if you have the answer, you might just be dead before you can cast it. To take a practical example, Ornitharch is considered to be one of the best uncommon in Born of the Gods. If tribute is paid, it is a 5/5 flying creature for five mana, which is a great rate for Limited.

Wingsteed Rider          Feral Invocation

Now Imagine we curve out a Wingsteed Rider, into a Feral Invocation. By combining just these two cards, we have built our own Ornitharch! Except instead of casting it on turn 5, we’re attacking with it on turn 4. That’s a huge difference. If we’re relying on the slower removal to answer this threat, we’re either taking 10, or losing some flying creatures of our own.

This leads to what I’ve dubbed “The Golden Rule” of Theros.

If you don’t have cheap interaction, you’re at a huge disadvantage

While cheap interaction is generally beneficial regardless of what format you’re playing (for example, a cheap interactive spell allows you to deploy threats while still interacting with you opponents game plan), in Theros, it takes on a far more important quality. If you let you opponent build a giant threat without any interaction, you’ll play behind very quickly, and the game might not be that long. While it is, of course, possible to play against a more attrition-based deck with a longer endgame plan (see Gray Merchant of Asphodel), the prevalence of aggressive heroic-based decks in this format means you need to be prepared to fight them.

“Cheap interacton” falls into two categories here: Cheap disruption, which is used to hit the small creatures before the become large threats, and cheap protection, used to ensure whatever giant threat you have is not dealt with by your opponent. We’ll investigate both categories, starting with cheap disruption. I’ll define “cheap” as being two mana or cheaper for the purposes of this discussion, pointing out exceptions where necessary. Once again I’ll only be covering commons and uncommons here. While something like Chained to the Rocks certainly applies, it won’t normally be found in the vast majority of Theros drafts. We’ll start with Theros:

White:

Last Breath         Glare of Heresy

As White is often the aggressive colour in Theros, it is generally more concerned with beating the opponent with a giant threat then with having answers. Nonetheless, these are the two primary answers within the colour. Last Breath is mainboard worthy, although an aggressive deck will be more concerned with the life gain then most. It hits most of the heroes before they get bigger, but will be ineffectual once they’ve gone large (this will be a common theme amongst these spells). Glare of Heresy is strictly sideboard only, but will take out a white hero no matter how big it is. Ray of Dissolution is three mana, but certainly falls in the disruption category.

Blue:

Voyage's End

Here we can see why Voyage’s End is one of the most important spells in the format. Not only does it meet our criteria for cheap disruption, it does so no matter what point it is drawn at. Any +1/+1 counters and auras the hero has acquired will disappear and not be present when it comes back. It’s bigger brother Griptide also brings these benefits, but Voyage still has the edge due to being cheaper and having the scry effect.
One could argue Triton Tactics has a place in this category as well, as the tapping effect is very strong if you can land it without losing your creatures. Dissolve is the catch-all answer of blue, but holding up three mana in this format is generally a big deal.

Black:

Pharika's Cure

The premier spell here is Pharika’s Cure. This spell helps a base-black deck bridge the early and mid game, killing an early threat while providing a little extra life, and as such is crucially imprtant for these decks.

Baleful Eidolon          Returned Phalanx

The other cards that help a black deck survive the early game. While the game plan of black decks tends to be more drawn out, as discussed, you can’t afford to sit there and ignore your opponent. These creatures help mitigate the damage any early aggression may cause. Baleful Eidolon, of course, can be bestowed if drawn late.

Red:

Lightning Strike          Magma Jet

Once again, we can see one of the accepted “best commons” in Lightning Strike. This is not a coincidence. Magma Jet also gets the job done in most cases, but misses a few notable targets like Nessian Courser.
With the advent of Born of the Gods and more 1-toughness creatures (Loyal Pegasus, Akroan Skyguard), Spark Jolt has improved considerably, and can be included in this category.

Green:

Sedge Scorpion

In general, the role of Green in Theros is to ramp into its bigger monsters and win by having larger creatures, the problem is, this isn’t necessary true with the heroes involved. This is another reason why Time to Feed, greens premier removal spell, is somewhat outclassed in this format. Not only is it a three mana sorcery, but it requires a decently sized creature on your board. By the time you’ve met all these conditions, your opponents giant threat may have grown out of reach.

Savage Surge

The untap clause puts this in a different category then the white pump spells in the set, making it more likely this card will be used to ambush something then force through damage, although it does go both ways.

Leafcrown Dryad          Defend the Hearth

Leafcrown Dryad is notable for being an early drop that interacts with fliers, as well as having bestow. Defend the Hearth is a sometimes-necessary sideboard for the aggressive decks. Shredding Winds is also fine here, although three mana escaped our definition.

So we can see a small handful of cards that are either useful in the early game or prevent the snowballing effect. What did Born of the Gods bring us in this category?

White:

Revoke Existence

Once again, White not being too concerned with having the answers in this block, although the effect is nice.

Blue:

Crypsis

A blue trick for creature-based strategies (so primarily white and green), this card is a little narrow, but will generally get the job done.

Nullify

A card that can either take down the cheap heroic creature if on the play, or can hit a bestowing creature late, Nullify is a very useful tool in the blue arsenal.

Retraction Helix

While technically meeting our requirements, it’s worth noting that Retraction Helix is slightly clunkier then it looks. The best targets for this tend to be three mana, such as Triton Fortune Hunter and Wavecrash Triton, so this generally ends up being cast on turn 4. Nonetheless, it still has all the advantages of bounce in this format, so is still a very reliable spell.

Vortex Elemental

The blue Sedge Scorpion, this little guy does an excellent job of deterring attacks. Any ground guy with a sufficient number of auras won’t want to go near him, and in the late game he can just hunt them out instead.

Blue:

Bile Blight

Removal designed for constructed sticks out in the Theros landscape (this card was designed to target multiple Burning-Tree Emissary draws in standard). This does an excellent job dealing with early threats, and occasionally you’ll even get a two-for-one.
Asphyxiate deserves a mention here despite being a three mana sorcery.

Red:

Fall of the Hammer

While not always being played on turn two (unless you played a Sedge Scorpion, in which case you’re living the dream), this is generally good enough to snag an early creature.

Searing Blood

Like Pharika’s Cure, two damage to an early creature for two mana is good enough in this format. The double red in the mana cost ensures that this only goes into base red decks.

Green:

Unravel the Æther

Vastly outclassing Fade into Antiquity, this Naturalize variant, while not dealing with the heroic creature itself, ensures it doesn’t stay too big, allowing greens creatures to be a match.

Now we’ll deal with cheap protection. In general, these are the spells you’ll cast alongside your auras and pump effects in order to dodge the removal that your opponent will throw at you. Not even card will protect you from every effect above, but this should give you a good idea of what to look for. We’ll again start with Theros and then move into Born of the Gods.

White:

Gods Willing

One of the best spells in Theros, this card allows you to protect your creature from any of the above effects, get a heroic trigger, and scry… all for the low, low price of one mana. Applying what was said above, it’s not hard to see why this is one of the best cards for the heroic deck.

Black:

Boon of Erebos

This card is slightly under the radar, as black does not tend to be a heroic deck. Nonetheless, as a “worse” God’s Willing, this still does everything you want a one mana protection spell to do.

Red:

Coordinated Assault

Likely the most powerful one mana trick in the format. Red isn’t generally concerned with protecting its creatures, but this powerful spell does that and more.

As we can see, there aren’t a great deal of cheap protective effects, which isn’t too surprising. As such, it is likely any such effects in Born of the Gods should be prioritized highly, such that you can focus on your disruption and threats in Theros.

White:

Acolyte's Reward

Acolyte’s Reward is an odd one in the sense that it’s a weird hybrid of the protective/disruptive split. In general, I see it as a protective spell with a possibleupside, hence its placement here.

Hold at Bay

While hardly the most exciting spell, this will generally get the job done. It also triggers heroic, for what that is worth.

Red:

Rise to the Challenge

Admittedly more of a trick then a protective spell, but red doesn’t have pure protection.

Green:

Mortal's Resolve

One of greens strongest acquistions in Born of the Gods, this is a very strong protection spell that generally only gets foiled by bounce. A very strong card in any green deck.

That’s all for now! Hopefully people enjoyed the more theory-based article, and that this has helped your understanding of what makes the format tick. I don’t have many drafts lined up in the near future, so I’ll probably have to come up with some more archetype breakdowns to fill in the time.

Until next time,

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