Feature Article from Melissa DeTora

Evaluating Mechanics in Theros Limited

Melissa DeTora

9/24/2013 10:00:00 AM

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I hope everyone had a great Theros Prerelease! I definitely did. While I only played in one flight, I was there the entire weekend as a judge, so I got to watch a lot of Theros games in action. So far the set looks really fun and interesting. Today I'm going to discuss the general strategies in Theros sealed and draft and some typical interactions you can expect to see at a Theros limited event such as a PTQ.

Theros Sealed deck is a little different from what we were playing at the Prerelease. At the Prerelease, we had to “Choose a Path,” or pick a color that we wanted to play with. We were given five packs of Theros plus a booster that was heavily biased towards that color. The booster had a foil promo card, a rare of that color, and about half the cards in the pack were of your chosen color. That's not really typical of what a normal sealed deck looks like.

For example, if you chose white, you were pretty much guaranteed to receive two good white rares because you were going to get a Celestial Archon no matter what. If you were lucky enough to open a mythic in your pack, it was always going to be a God. That leads to some very overpowered decks at the Prerelease which is not exactly good practice if you're preparing for a PTQ.

Now that the Prerelease is over, we can forget about Prerelease packs and start analyzing the actual limited format. Before we start cracking packs to draft with, we should know what the mechanics are in Theros and what kinds of cards we can expect to see. Let's get started.

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Bestow

Auras are my least favorite limited cards. While most people value cards like Mark of the Vampire and Trollhide very highly, I think they are practically unplayable. Nothing feels worse than casting an aura on your best creature only for your opponent to respond with Shock, Doom Blade, Disperse, or any other removal spell. It feels even worse when you have something like Ranger's Guile to protect your guy but your opponent casually casts a Celestial Flare which doesn't target at all. Getting two-for-one'ed is the absolute worst in limited.

The bestow mechanic changes all of that. Bestow is a new mechanic in Theros where you are given a choice. You can cast a bestow creature as a creature for its printed mana cost, or for additional mana you can cast it as an aura spell. The fact that you can cast it as whatever is best in your current situation is great. For example, let's take a look at one of the common bestow creatures, Nimbus Naiad. If it's turn three and you need to play a blocker or start applying pressure to your opponent, you can just play your guy as a 2/2 flyer. If it's really late in the game and the ground is gummed up, you can pay five mana and cast the Naiad as an aura spell targeting one of your creatures. The result is you will have a beefy flyer and a huge threat that can swing the game in your favor. The best part is that if your flyer is killed somehow, the aura won't go to the graveyard like usual, even if it's killed in response to the aura spell. It will simply stop being an aura and will become a 2/2 flying creature instead. The days of getting two-for-one'ed are over!

The best thing about the bestow mechanic is the versatility of it. You can play the card based on whatever is best for you at the time. You may need a 2/2 flyer on turn five. You may need to give your Hundred Handed One flying in order to block 99 of your opponent's flyers. You may have no idea which ability is better for you. Decisions like that are what distinguish great limited players from average ones. If you always know how to play your bestow creatures (and your decision is also correct), you will have a huge advantage over your opponent.

One thing to be aware of with bestow is that you can still get two-for-one'ed if you're not careful. There are a lot of enchantments in this set, making enchantment removal very good maindeck cards. If you attack with a 2/2 creature enchanted with Nimbus Naiad (now a 4/4), and your opponent casts Ray of Dissolution before blockers are declared, your 2/2 creature can now be blocked and killed by a 3/3 creature. That's an easy two-for-one for your opponent, so be careful when attacking into any potential Disenchant effects.

Remember, bestow creatures are both enchantments and creatures at all times, regardless of what they are while on the battlefield. If you have a bestow creature in play, it can still be affected by an enchantment destruction spell such as Artisan's Sorrow. If you are casting it as a creature spell, it can be Annulled. Of course, this means that there are now more cards to play around in limited.

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Heroic

Heroic is another sweet ability that is great for limited. Heroic reads, “When [this] becomes targeted by a spell you control, do X.” Having lots of heroic creatures can lead to some potential ways to gain card advantage or tempo. The green and white heroic creatures are especially good, because most of them get +1/+1 counters when they become targeted, resulting in potentially winning the game out of nowhere. Think of a mini Primeval Bounty on a creature. In one M14 draft I did a few weeks ago, I had a Primeval Bounty in play, attacked with a creature, and after my opponent declared no blocks I double Giant Growthed it, giving it +6/+6 and putting six +1/+1 counters on it. My opponent had the Doom Blade of course, but I had Ranger's Guile, which was good for another +4/+4. My opponent, who thought he was safe to not block my 2/2 at a healthy 18 life, was now dead! While that series of events will usually only happen in Christmasland, having some heroic creatures and pump spells will sometimes replicate that.

The best thing about Heroic is that it will make your opponent play around everything. If you attack with a Centaur Battlemaster with two mana open, you could have Battlewise Valor, Triton Tactics, Titan's Strength, Savage Surge, or a number of other combat tricks. If you have more than one of those spells, your Centaur Battlemaster can just kill your opponent out of nowhere. The threat of giving your guy +9/+9 or more will lead to early chump blocks for them and card advantage for you.

Here is one interesting situation that came up at the Prerelease last weekend. I had a 2/2 Staunch-Hearted Warrior and attacked it into my opponent's 1/1. He blocked and cast a Savage Surge. I had Last Breath in my hand. I could have Last Breathed my opponent's creature in response, trading for two of his cards, but instead I cast Last Breath on my own creature. Heroic triggered, giving my guy two +1/+1 counters, and the Last Breath was countered on resolution because my creature was no longer a legal target for it. By casting the Last Breath on my own creature, I was able to permanently pump my guy and avoid giving my opponent four extra life.

Heroic will lead to many players putting bad cards in their deck just to have ways to trigger the ability. It's not worth playing marginal spells or bad auras just to trigger heroic. Bad cards are still bad. Messenger‘s Speed, Scourgemark, Dragon's Mantle, and the other cantrip enchantments are some of the cards I wouldn't want to include in my limited decks. Cantrips are nice, but I really want cards to have an impact on the board, and these do not. I would reconsider playing these cards if I had some insane heroic creatures such as Labyrinth Champion or Agent of the Fates in my deck.

Remember, bestow creatures that are cast as aura spells will trigger heroic as well. Good job Wizards for giving us a set with an amazing amount of synergy!

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Monstrosity

Monstrosity is an ability that puts +1/+1 counters on creatures and may also trigger other abilities. Creatures with monstrosity are huge to begin with, and they only get bigger once you activate monstrosity.

Overall, the monstrous ability is very expensive. The average cost to activate a monstrosity ability is about seven and you may not even reach that much mana in a game of Magic. Players usually value their creatures so highly that they will protect them or choose to not trade them off only to hope they draw that eighth land to activate a monstrous ability. In reality, they will probably lose before they draw their eighth land.

Monstrosity is a great way to use excess mana late in the game and it gives you something to do when you are mana flooded. However, it's not something you should rely on. Let's say that you are at eight life and have a Stoneshock Giant and seven lands in play. It would be awesome for you to draw your eighth land to activate monstrosity, but your opponent is beating you down with a 4/4. You have the option to either trade off the Giant or go to four and hope you draw that land on your turn. In this situation it's better to trade off your creature. If you miss your land drop and instead draw a random 2/2 or a spell that doesn't deal with a 4/4 such as Lightning Strike, you are going to wish you traded your guy. Now, you would need to block with your Giant and are down four more life that you shouldn't be. However, your decision will change if your opponent is at eight or less life. If you do draw that eighth land, activate monstrosity, and resolve the trigger so that your creatures are unblockable, you can attack for exactly eight and win the game. It's worth taking the risk if drawing the land will win you the game.

It's very tempting to take that extra damage and wait a turn to see if you draw the land and get a huge creature, but waiting could be the difference between winning and losing. Additionally, if your opponent responds to the monstrosity activation with a Voyage's End or Griptide, then you will have to wait a turn to replay your guy and then wait another turn to make it monstrous. You are giving two extra turns to your opponent that you shouldn't have.

Monstrous is not bad and is in fact very good if you actually have the mana to activate it. You just need to play smart and know when it's safe wait to activate monstrosity or if it's better to trade your guy.

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Scry

Scry is a returning mechanic that we've seen in multiple sets before. Scry lets you look at the top X cards of your library and put any number of those cards on the top or bottom of your library in any order. Scry is an awesome mechanic and one of my favorite mechanics of all time.

Scrying is an awesome mechanic because every time you scry, you are helping yourself win the game. You can find specific cards you need at the time and can put useless or situational cards on the bottom of your library.

When you scry, it's important to have a plan. Do you need land? Removal? One specific card? You should have some idea of what card you are looking for when you scry, and you should never scry randomly. Scrying is not cycling. You should never keep a one land hand with double Lost in a Labyrinth with the hope to cast it to find land. Casting those cards does not in fact help you find your lands. It is more like mulliganning to five. Even if you find lands to leave on top of your library, the cards do not replace themselves and you are losing card advantage by casting them. Similarly, you shouldn't keep a five or six land hand that relies on one scry spell.

Another thing that I see players do all the time with scrying is putting lands on the bottom at all times, even if you need the land. No one wants to get mana flooded so it's really tempting to always bottom a land, but you should never do that if you don't have enough lands to cast the cards in your hand. I played against a player at the prerelease who had a really good blue red control deck with Dissolve, Titan's Strength, and three Magma Jets. This guy was constantly scrying throughout the game. We played a very long game, but my opponent never made it past five lands. After the game, he stated that he should have bottomed some of his spells that he kept so he could find lands to cast the six drops he was holding. There were so many good spells on top of his library that he failed to realize that he needed land to cast the cards in his hand. Don't be greedy!

Obviously scrying is not easy. You need to have a good understanding of what cards are in your deck and what your outs are in a given situation. Once you know what you are looking for, every time you scry you are actively getting closer to winning. Although you may be drawing the same amount of cards as your opponent, you are seeing more cards in your deck than he is. Card selection is very valuable in limited. You may not be able to gain card advantage in your game, but if your card quality is better than your opponent's, you will usually come out ahead.

Wrap Up

All prerelease players received a Hero card in their prerelease pack. You can use this card on Game Day when you play against the Hydra Challenge Deck. What do you plan on doing with your Hero card? I've heard of many interesting uses for it, such as adding it to a cube (you can draft a Hero and it starts in play in your cube games), or using it in Commander games (each player starts with a random Hero in play). I've also seen players give or throw them away. I'm interested to know if anyone found other uses for them. Please let me know in the comments!

Now that the prerelease is over, I am going to be drafting this set a lot in preparation for Pro Tour Theros in October. Theros is still an unexplored format, and I'm looking forward to learning the ins and outs of it.

Until next time, good luck at your Theros Release events and I hope you open all of the mythics!

Thanks for reading!

Melissa DeTora
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