I just spent 45 minutes coming up with increasingly worse titles for a Magic article, almost as a competition against myself, and then I spent even more time trying to figure out how I could go about writing the article that would fit with each title. Eventually, I gave up on that adventure and just started writing the article I was planning to write all along.
I wanted to talk about a number of things that have caught my eye regarding the new set, Theros Beyond Death. This is not just about individual cards and decks, but also general theory about how to evaluate cards and what to look for in cards. I wasn't sure how to pack everything I wanted to talk about into one cohesive theme for a piece, so I'm just throwing it out there to see what sticks.
I'm seeing a lot of people put together devotion decks for Theros Beyond Death Standard that are trying to relive the glory days of the last time a Theros set was legal in Standard, when Mono-Blue and Mono-Black Devotion dominated. Hell, Green Devotion even got its time in the sun eventually before Theros rotated.
This is all well and good, and I'm not trying to deter players from trying to make it work. Devotion might be a good mechanic again in this format. In fact, I think Black Devotion has a reasonable likelihood of being a strong deck. I'll be trying it myself. When I see people's lists, however, I see a lot of cards in them that suggest to me that they don't understand what made Mono-Black Devotion the powerhouse it was in the past.
Mono-Black Devotion was good because it had card advantage. Underworld Connections was the glue that held that deck together, and Gray Merchant of Asphodel was great almost entirely because of Underworld Connections. Gray Merchant was able to recoup lost life from Connections, and Connections fueled Gray Merchant by providing devotion to black both through its own mana cost and by drawing many extra cards to play to the board. The other cards in the deck also provided card advantage, with Nightveil Specter, Pack Rat and Mutavault having natural ways to pull ahead of your opponent on cards.
Gray Merchant of Asphodel simply doesn't work without card advantage. Playing one-for-one threats or answers leading up to a Gray Merchant of Asphodel is not a winning model. If your opponent interacts with your threats along the way, then Gray Merchant is embarrassing. A 2/4 for five mana that drains your opponent down to 11 life on an empty board is wholly unimpressive, especially without Mutavault to make that 11 life a lot more dangerous.
As a mechanic, devotion puts pieces together to make them better as a whole than each part is worth individually. Those synergy-driven strategies always fall apart in Standard when put under the pressure of disrupting decks. In fact, synergy-driven decks are almost never good in Standard for exactly that reason. Mull to five and your deck now sucks because you lack the critical mass of pieces that you need to function. Opponent curves removal on you and your deck now sucks because your top-end payoff is a 2/4 for five that requires your previous creatures didn't die to be worthwhile. When each card is reliant on the previous card to be good, then you're banking on a house of cards to not topple over each game.
Devotion gets around that problem by being fueled by card advantage. Drawing extra cards or getting extra value from your cards is the best way to ensure that you can weather the storm of people trying to pick apart your strategy and ensure that even with awkward draws, you still find enough of your synergy pieces to put together a good game plan.
So when I see devotion decks that are just a bunch of random marginal creatures thrown into the deck because they have black mana symbols in hopes of powering out Gray Merchant of Asphodel, I see a deck that is destined to failure. Gray Merchant as a cog in a card-advantage synergy-driven midrange deck on the other hand…
I really like this Mono-Black Devotion deck posted by Matias Leveratto (@levunga on Twitter). Castle Locthwain and Ayara, First of Locthwain both provide actual card advantage, although Ayara must survive to do so. Bolas's Citadel, as I've written about many times in the past, is a completely disgusting card that can provide a nearly infinite amount of card advantage, especially in combination with life gain like Gray Merchant of Asphodel. Much like Underworld Connections before it, Citadel also provides a lot of devotion to black, making it the perfect counterpart to Gray Merchant in every way.
What I like about this deck is that, even beyond the obvious sources of card advantage, this deck plays a number of creatures that add inherent card advantage synergies on their own. Witch's Oven and Cauldron Familiar is a known combo that has proven to be strong in Standard, but Witch's Oven and Nightmare Shepherd also looks like it could be really good.
Witch's Oven + Nightmare Shepherd + Gray Merchant of Asphodel's ability, which can be pretty backbreaking in most games. By itself, that's an 8 point drain. Yarok's Fenlurker + Witch's Oven + Nightmare Shepherd also seems quite good, forcing the opponent to discard two cards.
The only card that seems out of place is Tymaret, Chosen from Death, which feels like a random two-drop that's just around because of his devotion to black—exactly the kind of creature that goes against the code of Mono-Black Devotion. I'd love to see this replaced with a 25th land and something else. Likewise, I'm skeptical of Yarok's Fenlurker, which seems great in games where it picks a card and then later provides devotion for Gray Merchant, but is a really bad card on its own merit and will underperform significantly later in games, or in games where things don't flow properly.
Midnight Reaper is another card I would like to see in this deck. It also synergizes really well with Witch's Oven combined with Nightmare Shepherd or Cauldron Familiar.
Last week I wrote an article about Esper Hero. Since the time I wrote that piece, Dream Trawler was previewed and I think that completely busts the door open on Esper Hero. The deck needs some sort of powerful endgame card to serve as a top-end finisher when the normal cards aren't powerful enough to win. In the past I've played cards like Command the Dreadhorde, Liliana, Dreadhorde General, Ugin the Ineffable, Bolas's Citadel, The Immortal Sun, Ethereal Absolution, and so on, and so forth, onward ad infinitum.
Last week I wrote that my endgame finisher of choice was Lochmere Serpent, a card that I think is actually pretty good and generally underrated. However, I don't think Lochmere Serpent compares with Dream Trawler, which is easily one of the best cards from Theros Beyond Death.
Dream Trawler, the mutated descendant of Prognostic Sphinx and Baneslayer Angel, did not appear to be that good upon immediately reading the card. I looked at a hard-to-come-by mana cost, the smallish 3/5 base stats and thought it was probably yet another mediocre six-mana flying creature. The power of this card is deceptive, though.
Since you will draw a card on your draw step and also when it attacks, at worst, Dream Trawler attacks as a 5/5. That means it has Baneslayer Angel stats in combat, including the lifelink. The biggest flaw with Baneslayer Angel, or Lyra Dawnbringer for a recent example, was that it just died to removal very easily, and then you tapped out for a big creature that you'd been building toward only to have it die without providing any advantage. Dream Trawler having the Prognostic Sphinx hexproof with a drawback ability is a built-in way to remove that disadvantage.
Prognostic Sphinx was never good enough because it won games so slowly, and your opponent could take down the Sphinx by running you out of cards with their removal. The Sphinx didn't provide card advantage after all, merely selection. Dream Trawler fixes this problem by actually drawing cards, providing you with the fuel it uses to dodge removal.
So for one extra mana on the cost of either Prognostic Sphinx or Baneslayer Angel, you get a Baneslayer Angel that draws extra cards every turn and protects itself. Adding one extra mana to a card is not as simple of a drawback as it sounds, as the difficulty of casting cards with higher mana costs scales non-linearly. That said, I think the value you get from the extra mana on Dream Trawler is well worth it—incredibly so. Blue-white is kind of a yucky color combination in this day and age of Standard (read: underpowered), but Dream Trawler looks so unbelievably good that I'm going to try to make it work.
Esper Hero has so many new tools with Dream Trawler, Ashiok, Nightmare Muse and Atris, Oracle of Half-Truths that I legitimately believe it has the chance to be a real deck again. And I'm not just saying this out of bias. I put down Hero for like four months at the tail end of 2019 when it was clear it was not good enough. I love the deck, but I'm not a lunatic…
It should be Thassa, Deep-Dweller. "Deep-Dwelling" sounds weird. They really messed up.
It's easy to get lost in the hype surrounding new cards and new sets, but the bare, butt-naked truth of the matter is that 2019 was the year of busted Magic cards and sets. When the rallying cry of the 2019 Magic player is "Ban 2019" or "Unprint 2019" it would be a real shame to forget about how good those cards are when playing with new cards from 2020.
Theros Beyond Death looks like a pretty cool set, and a return to an era of Magic where you could cast removal spells on your opponents cards as a realistic strategy. However, it's pretty reasonable to think it might get overshadowed by Throne of Eldraine, Core Set 2020 and War of the Spark, three of the most busted Standard sets we've seen in quite some time.
The best strategies of the last Standard format revolved around four general pillars: Oven/Cat, Nissa, Adventure, and Fires of Invention. A fifth pillar of Embercleave was also pretty good at various times, but also got outclassed quite often.
What does this mean for Theros Beyond Death? It's fun to dream up decks that will use a bunch of Theros cards, but realistically, the best cards from this set will probably whichever ones work best with the busted cards from the previous sets. If there's a card from Theros that slots well into one of those pillars, it's pretty likely to be a good investment and one of the more played new cards.
A lot of the sweet decks featuring new strategies and cards will eventually just fall victim to not being nearly good enough to beat the already existing strategies we have access to.
When I think about cards that might slot into existing decks, there is one card that immediately springs to mind…
Thassa, Deep-Dwelling is one of the best cards in the set. On the surface it seems a bit underwhelming. It costs four mana for a God that doesn't have an immediate impact on the board without four other blue pips in play. Its ability hinges on other cards in play to make work, and the activated ability costs an absurd amount of mana for a marginal effect.
Why then do I think this card will be good?
It slots wonderfully into two existing pillars of the Standard format.
Thassa seems like a perfect fit for an Elemental/Nissa deck, much akin to what Andrea Mengucci played to a Top 8 finish at the last Arena Mythic Championship.
Thassa playing Conjurer's Closet to a bunch of cards with really great effects like Risen Reef, Cavalier of Thorns and especially Agent of Treachery looks like an incredibly powerful engine in that deck. One thing to note is that Thassa's ability returns the targets it blinks to your control, not their owner's control, meaning that if you steal creatures with other effects, you can blink them and keep them permanently.
Nissa, Who Shakes the World plays nicely with Thassa by providing extra mana to invest into her activated ability, relevant to protect Nissa or lock down the board to press damage.
Another deck where I think Thassa shines is Jeskai Fires.
Thassa's ability works really well with Fires of Invention because you can pour your mana into tapping creatures down while still casting two free spells per turn. Thassa herself also works quite well in that deck, giving you extra triggers of Cavalier of Gales and Cavalier of Flame, and at the very least allowing them to both attack and also play defense.
Cavalier of Gales provides three blue mana symbols, meaning any other blue permanent also turns Thassa into a creature. Any Teferi, Time Raveler, Sphinx of Foresight or additional Cavaliers will get the job done. Thassa as a huge creature is not irrelevant in a deck that can just one-shot people with Cavalier of Flame and its activated ability.
I also think this is a deck that can play Agent of Treachery. The interaction between Teferi, Time Raveler, Thassa, Deep-Dwelling and Agent of Treachery seems disgusting to me.
Decks are so powerful in Standard these days that you can't get away with grinding them out through small amounts of card advantage. You have to go over the top of them with something disgusting or really bury them in card advantage. Mono-Black Devotion might be good enough to do that, but I think Thassa, Agent of Treachery, and Teferi, Time Raveler are definitely good enough to do it.
While I believe that Thassa is going to be a big player in Standard, I'm not gonna dwell too deeply on that prediction. We'll have results soon enough to prove or disprove it.
Brian Braun-Duin is a professional Magic player, member of the 2020 Magic Pro League and recurring special guest on the Bash Bros Podcast.
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