Some of the most powerful Magic cards to see print EVER were printed in 2019, and 2020 doesn't look like it plans to slow down. Preview season for Theros Beyond Death is now fully underway and it's got some busted looking cards. While some cards like Ox of Agonas or Underworld Breach look to be immediate staples in Modern and Legacy, I'll be focusing on the cards with the biggest potential impact on Standard and Pioneer, the formats I will continue to write metagame breakdowns for in 2020. Let's dig in.
Elspeth is back to headline the set, escaping from the underworld to be activated over and over again. All minus abilities is a big downside, but a planeswalker you can cast multiple times a game is a big upside. Elspeth, Sun's Nemesis will find a home in Standard in white aggressive or midrange decks, especially alongside convoke spells.
In Pioneer I think she's unfortunately a bit on the slower side, where four mana is an even bigger investment than it is in Standard and the 1/1 Human Soldier Tokens mean a lot less. Six mana to escape is just a lot to ask, and there are stronger options in the format for control mirror breakers.
Daxos, Blessed by the Sun is a bit on the small side, starting as a two mana 2/2, but does potentially gain a lot of life. Notably Daxos, Blessed by the Sun lacks the "nontoken" clause a lot of these "soul sisters" effects can have, making Daxos, Blessed by the Sun potent with token generators like Elspeth, Sun's Nemesis and March of the Multitudes. Triggering on both entering and dying creatures means a lot of life, and the key is to find some way to abuse that. Either take advantage of the time generated to go over the top of your opponent, or find a way to convert that life into another resource.
In Pioneer, double white is a steep cost and life isn't as valuable a resource as it could be. Daxos, Blessed by the Sun is too small and doesn't threaten anything himself. It's much easier to clean up a board in Pioneer and it's much harder to go over the top of other decks.
This card is frankly far more powerful a draw spell than I thought we'd see in Standard again. Thirst for Knowledge is an absurdly powerful card, and while enchantment is a narrower restriction than artifact, three cards is still a lot to look at. Instant speed and a mere three mana is a big deal and Esper Dance in particular will really enjoy this card. There are going to be three abuse cases for Thirst for Meaning in Standard: enchantment decks (the face-value case like the aforementioned Esper Dance), graveyard-heavy decks that can abuse the discard, and decks that have a lot of narrow but powerful answers (Izzet Flash springs to mind).
In Pioneer this card is going to power some truly disgusting Dig Through Times. Thirst for Meaning and Dig Through Time are going to provide a huge amount of consistency to a lot of combo decks, allowing archetypes like Lotus Field Combo to see their important pieces a majority of the time. It's also going to help graveyard decks, though not to the same degree. In Pioneer three mana is a lot to pay for an enabler and I don't think that Thirst is going to be worth it over the cheaper Cathartic Reunion or fueling the yard with self-mill.
WHOA. This card is incredible. An instant speed, zero-mana sacrifice outlet that brings its own fodder. Sign me up. This card is going to find homes with all the Aristocrats players who love this type of thing, and Cat/Oven was already a very powerful engine. This may not find a home immediately, but I would be utterly shocked if this card didn't see Standard play in the first three months it's legal.
Pioneer is where it gets interesting. This card helps rally decks out by being both Nantuko Husk and Catacomb Sifter. Playing recursive threat, sac outlet, card filter, and fodder generator is a lot of roles from one slot. Woe Strider is also a Collected Company hit! It's really incredible how much this card does for Aristocrats decks in Pioneer.
Erebos, Bleak-Hearted is incredibly powerful, both in Aristocrats-style archetypes and by itself. Two mana and sacrificing a creature to lose 2 life, draw a card, and give a creature -2/-1 means that you can chump block and lose the same amount of life shrinking another attacker but still net a card. Of specific note, you can target the creature you are sacrificing to still use the ability and get a card on an otherwise empty board.
In Standard this slots immediately into the fringe Mono-Black Sacrifice deck, but alongside the reprinted Gray Merchant of Asphodel, makes for a strong return of Mono-Black Devotion. Ayara, First of Locthwain and Cauldron Familiar are already a lot of devotion and a ton of synergy with Erebos, Bleak-Hearted.
In Pioneer I think Erebos, Bleak-Hearted might be too slow, but you do gain access to Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx and cards like Scrapheap Scrounger. Again this is just where four mana is a lot of mana and the burden of proof that Erebos, Bleak-Hearted is worth the cost is considerable.
History of Benalia meets Stitcher's Supplier. Not quite, but in order to play this card in Standard you will want to build your deck to make a Zombie on the first two turns. This means either playing a high density of enchantments and creatures (30 hits is just under 90%) or playing self-mill to have a bigger graveyard ready off the bat.
In Standard I think this is largely going to be the former, but there are archetypes we've seen before based around Molderhulk and Lotleth Giant. Both of these cards are conveniently Zombies and would benefit massively from six cards of self mill, even if Tymaret Calls the Dead does exile two of the creatures.
In Pioneer this is more likely to go in Dredge-style decks built around Creeping Chill, Narcomoeba, and Prized Amalgam. These decks are already stacked full of Zombies and self mill and has enabler creatures that can be freely exiled once they hit the bin. Six cards of self mill is a lot from one source, so Tymaret Calls the Dead could make the cut despite costing three mana.
Sneak Attack, but with power and toughness. Okay, so Purphoros, Bronze-Blooded costs more to play, more to activate, and is limited to red creatures and artifact creatures, which is quite a bit worse. That said, there's still a lot worse you can get than Sneak Attack and still be good in Standard. Ilharg, the Raze-Boar saw some fringe play and Purphoros, Bronze-Blooded is very powerful with Fires of Invention. Granting your creatures haste has been a key part of the Fires of Invention archetypes thus far and Purphoros, Bronze-Blooded also gives you the ability to cheat the two-spells-only restriction on Fires of Invention. There are some absolutely lethal turn five plays with Fires of Invention and Purphoros, Bronze-Blooded, and people are going to push it to the limit.
In Pioneer Purphoros, Bronze-Blooded has a lot more to prove. Mono-Red Devotion has been a fringe archetype hanging out in the lower tiers for a while, but the deck doesn't have anything worth cheating into play for three mana. It's possible that Purphoros, Bronze-Blooded is a nice backdoor option for some form of reanimator archetype, but I'd need a lot more convincing.
In Standard, Storm Herald is a decent haste beater. There aren't any reasonable auras yet, though I expect that to change as we see more Theros Beyond Death cards. I would look for a card like Dragon Mantle or Hammerhand and not worry about going too all in on this in Standard. If you work too hard for this card in Standard your deck is likely to have failrate issues.
That's probably still true in Pioneer, but the payoff is much sweeter in the expanded cardpool. All That Glitters gets backed up by Ethereal Armor, and there are plenty of auras to punch through blockers.
Tireless Tracker this is not, but Setessan Champion is still really strong. As long as you have a decent number of hits you're going to be drawing a few cards off of this and it doesn't take many to pay you back. Unlike Tireless Tracker the card draw on this is immediate and doesn't cost any mana which is going to matter a lot to more tempo focused builds like Auras, and this card works incredibly well with the above Storm Herald. If an all-in build for Auras works in Standard it's probably playing both Storm Herald and Setessan Champion.
In Pioneer there's already an established Auras archetype, and while it's a bit weak this is exactly what it needed. I'm not sure if this is a maindeck or sideboard card, but people were already stretching to play Season of Growth and this strikes me as a stronger inclusion.
Ashiok, Nightmare Muse is probably the card I've changed my opinion on the most so far. They generate bodies, have a Dinrova Horror effect for the minus, and have an ultimate that generates a large amount of card advantage. Until we have the full format context for Standard I can't tell if the 2/3s are great or just barely too small, but in a lot of attrition scenarios Ashiok, Nightmare Muse is going to subtly take over. Even in spots where you're playing defense Ashiok, Nightmare Muse will provide you with a lot of time to recover.
The place I'd first start with Ashiok, Nightmare Muse is the Grixis Fires shells people have been trying for a while in Standard. Board presence and a target-agnostic bounce effect is a good set of abilities to have access to. In Pioneer I think Ashiok, Nightmare Muse is going to be just too slow at five mana.
Klothys, God of Destiny is a bit of a weird one because you want her to make you mana right away but in Standard it's fairly unlikely to have any lands in the graveyard that early. That said, the ability to drain your opponent turn after turn as the game grinds on is incredible; Klothys, God of Destiny likely slots immediately into Jund Sacrifice. The other archetype that loves Klothys, God of Destiny is Gruul Aggro, where it's very easy to assemble enough devotion with all of the RR, GG, and RG costs in the deck. The drain gives Gruul Aggro access to something it's largely lacked in the format: reach.
Gallia of the Endless Dance plays incredibly well with the Pioneer Gruul builds, where she has plenty of attacking friends and allows the deck to filter out lands in the late game. The Satyr lord effect isn't likely to come up, but Gallia of the Endless Dance is good enough on rate that it isn't likely to matter either.
In Standard, Gallia of the Endless Dance is a bit small and less likely to trigger the draw effect. That said, depending on the remaining contents of Theros Beyond Death, the haste and +1/+1 for other Satyrs may come up quite a bit more. Keep an eye out for even one or two other Satyrs to give Gallia of the Endless Dance that extra bit of power in Standard.
Guard dog of the afterlife. Guard Dogs? Either way, this Grafdoggos Cage is going to be a potent hate card in both Standard and Pioneer. The stats alone are pretty solid, but the legendary tag prevents it from being a four-of in most contexts. A hybrid anti-aggro card and anti-shenanigans card is going to stay a staple sideboard effect in Orzhov in most contexts.
Theros Beyond Death looks to have a very high power level, as promised by WotC. There's some absolutely breakable stuff in here and a lot to look forward to building around. As always I'll be building 50 decks before the set releases, and while some of that will be posted here in my articles you can follow the whole build over on Twitter. Let me know what you all are looking forward to, where you think I'm wrong, and what cards you think I missed! I'll be back early next week for TCGplayer's official preview for Theros Beyond Death—have those f5 keys ready for next Tuesday.
Adam "yoman5" Hernandez is a streamer, brewer and competitive player with a keen sense for what makes a deck tick. He writes about changes in Standard and Pioneer and the art of deckbuilding.
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