Over the last two weeks, I have gotten quite acquainted with Theros Block limited, in all of its forms. The set came out and I began by jamming some drafts, for recordings as well as to practice for the Pro Tour. Initially, as one might expect, I was drafting the same as I had been when it was two set limited. Over the last two weeks, my thoughts on the format have changed quite a bit and I wanted to discuss some of the things you might do to gain an edge in the format or simply to broaden your approach to the game.Don't be Afraid to Brew
Many, if not most, limited formats tend to appear relatively straight forward. You draft aggressive decks or control decks, depending on what colors you are or what the card file for that set looks like. Some formats have one or two quirky decks that you can be, such as Dampen Thoughts mill back in Kamigawa, while the rest of the format is more traditional. Other formats, like Rise of Eldrazi, or Innistrad block, are far from straight forward. While there may be traditional archetypes, there are also a lot of viable decks that most would scoff at as being too "cute."
If I were to tell you the concept of the following deck, what would you generally think? So, the format is dominated by a GW aggro deck as the best deck and three mana 4/6s and two mana 3/3 intimidate creatures show up all over the place. In this format, you want to draft a deck that mills yourself in small increments over time. This includes playing cards that have no impact on the board and only mill yourself. Then, at the end of this milling process, you flashback a seven mana sorcery that puts a bunch of 1/2 reach tokens into play. Sound good?
Of course not. That deck sounds gimmicky as all get out and many good drafters would tell you to avoid strategies like that. Generally, they are probably right. When you draft M13, you might draft the mill deck every once in a while to mix it up, but it is generally not going to be in your best interest to draft that strategy often.
But Spider Spawning was a consistent and powerful rogue strategy to use. Multiple people could not be in the archetype, but one per draft was usually sustainable.
Those types of strategies are everywhere in Theros. You have your balancing decks such as RW aggro, Wx Heroic, or UG Tempo/Ramp, but if you look further, there are a host of interesting strategies to try out.
Black/Green DredgeBlack/Green ConstellationBlue/Red ScryBlue/Red Spells MatterBlack/White ControlBlack/Whiter ConstellationRed/Black MinotaursBlue/Black Control
That is just a few of the louder archetypes that are available and should be taken advantage of. And often there are mini strategies that use one or more of these archetypes as a base, but have some fancy twist. For example. Strength of the Fallen decks tend to look like BG Dredge and Constellation combined and they can be one of the most powerful decks you can assemble when done right!Pick Orders are Highly Contextual
Journey into Nyx has been out for a month now and I still hear people asking about picks as if they occur in a vacuum. P1P1 do you take Hubris or Sigiled Starfish? Well, that depends on a lot of things and is no way cut or dry. Personally, I, along with every limited player I respect, would say that Starfish is significantly stronger in a vacuum. However, that doesn't tell the whole story.
What other cards are in the pack?
Do you feel comfortable drafting and playing a strategy where Starfish can shine?
Starfish is basically Merfolk Looter, however it has a lot of obscure uses in this block. If the player is unfamiliar with all of those synergies and they just want to play big green creatures while tempoing you out, Hubris is a defensible pick and probably is even correct there.
You will see this develop even heavier in white as they have such a unique problem where they have 4 commons that all compete so closely in power level that there is not one correct pick almost ever.
- Oreskos Swiftclaw - Ajani's Presence - Akroan Mastiff - Supply-Line Cranes
Which of those cards is best? In general, the most powerful card here is Ajani's Presence, but at the same time, picking up three copies of that card is not necessarily something you want to do, which is not the case with the Swiftclaw. What about once you have an Ajani's Presence and then you see these four cards in a pack? What if you have first picked Hour of Need? The way packs can play out is so dynamic that you need to not be relying on any hard pick order memorization because it will be wrong more often than it is right!
Meanwhile, if you look at the deck below, you will see two copies of Thassa's Devourer featured. Is Devourer a card you should actively be seeking for your blue decks? Probably not, but it is a gigantic butt for a creature and it does come with a way to win the game built in. If you can find a really grindy blue/black or blue/white deck to abuse the slow grind, Devourer can be perfect as it plays defense while winning. That said, for most decks, you would not waste one of your first six or seven picks on it.There is no Unplayable Color Combination
Because brewing is possible, you will find that there is basically no two-color combination that does not have some merit worth exploring. Going back to Innistrad, Wizards has done a good job of rewarding players for any two-color combination in one way or another, even if it is just a single card, but if you look at Theros, some of the least drafted combinations have some strong incentives waiting for you, should you venture down that way.
Blue/red is one of the shunned archetypes for example, but I think it is quite good. First of all, you have sweet cards like Spellheart Chimera waiting for you should you make it to pack three and in pack two Stormcaller of Keranos is quite the card. Neither of these is pushed on to you the way that a guild in Ravnica might be, but rather through natural incentives.
Starfish is a standout card in this example. While the card clearly has plenty of value right up front, it is great in one of the coolest and most effective red/blue strategies which is one that is high reliant on scry. Knowledge and Power and Flamespeaker Adept are both waiting to be abused. More than once, someone on the team opened up with two copies of Sigiled Starfish and then found a Knowledge and Power third or fourth and it was on. The deck ends up really good too!
Black/white is another color combo that might be tricky to maneuver, but Scholar of Athreos and Underworld Coinsmith are two extremely strong black/white cards that other color combinations can barely answer with rares in terms of power level. Generally white/black wants to be a defense-heavy constellation deck, but it can vary slightly. Grim Guardian is a subtly powerful card that works well with other things offered in this color combo though.
You do need to be aware of limitations of a color pairing though. At Grand Prix Atlanta, I had one deck where I was essentially Monoblue Control, but I touched white for a sweeper and another removal spell:
2 Dakra Mystic 2 Sigiled Starfish 1 Deepwater Hypnotist 2 War-Wing Siren 1 Nyxborn Triton 1 Thassa's Emissary 2 Thassa's Devourer 1 Prescient Chimera 1 Mnemonic Wall 1 Horizon Scholar 1 Retraction Helix 1 Hubris 1 Voyage's End 1 Last Breath 1 Battlewise Valor 1 Hour of Need 1 Whelming Wave 1 Fated Retribution 1 Temple of Triumph 10 Island 6 Plains
If you notice, I have quite the pool of cards from pack one, which is how this deck came together. Amongst those cards include two copies of War-Wing Siren, which is used here primarily for defense and to enable Hour of Need later on in the game. However, most of the time, I would not encourage anyone from taking it highly in UW as it is a low power, high toughness card and white does not pair well with that. They offer cards like Chosen of Heliod, which is not helpful, or one-time pumps, like Battlewise Valor that could be spent better places on a non-evasive creature. Compare that with the offerings of green with things like Nyxborn Wolf or Spirepine and you will see what I am talking about.
Blue/white is certainly not unplayable, but it just does not facilitate a card like War-Wing Siren as well as other combinations. Starfish goes best in UR for example due to scry synergies, but you will obviously play it anywhere.
There is some way to play every color combination in the block but that does not mean you can play any color combination in any way that you want. Capitalize on the incentives granted to each pairing and you will end up with some sweet decks.Splash with Care
This format tends to be one where you end up with something that you might want to splash in your sideboard. Maybe it is just a Lightning Strike, or a Lash of the Whip, but I see a lot of first picks or waiver selections end up in the board. I think that generally players look to splash these types of cards when they can, but I believe that Theros is a risky place to take the gamble.
The power level of some of the early game sequences that this block can produce is so high that ruining your mana in almost any way is dangerous. If your opponent opens on Wingsteed Rider into Hopeful Eidolon or any one-drop into any Ordeal, you cannot afford to stumble on your answer, whether that is a blocker or something else.
Green decks are the obvious exception here as they have access to a lot of mana fixers, but most of the mana fixers available for the colorless crowd are clunky. Unknown Shores is a good example here. The card might seem like an easy way to splash the activation on your Crackling Triton or Returned Phalanx, but because there is such a healthy dose of double pipped cards, those Shores will often end up being like you have to play around Force Spike the whole game as all of your spells cost one more.
Green decks get to fit their fixing into their game plan. Font of Fertility is a card that many two color decks want just as a Rampant Growth and perhaps Nylea's Presence for its cantrip clause. With a single source, you now have access to a light splash. While that single source could potentially hurt you, the chances are so diminished that it is often worth the increase in value from having a powerful 22nd or 23rd card as opposed to a less than stellar option.
Meanwhile, in your white/red deck that features both Two-Headed Cerberus as well as Wingsteed Rider, splashing is only going to get you into trouble. You cannot afford to run a Traveler's Amulet or Grotto in that type of deck so just steer clear of any fancy planeswalker you might have picked up and just go with a solid two-color build.Wrap Up
I was very much not happy with this block when it was but its pieces. Triple Theros was ok, but it was so heavy toward building Voltron over and over that I would have been sick of it if it were to stick around. Born of the Gods significantly hurt the format in my opinion as it was just not a very good limited set. With Journey now though, everything seems to just click.
There are power points in different places throughout the packs which really rewards people differently if they plan correctly. For example, white has one of the best pack ones you can possibly have but then falls off hard aside from key pickups like Wingsteed Rider. Green has a pretty rough pack one aside from Golden Hind but then picks up fast when pack two and three show up. Red has a dip in pack two, etc., etc.
All of these things, along with a very diverse set of options in terms of archetypes, add up to make a really awesome format in my opinion. If you have not had the chance to brew a little with Journey, give it a shot as I am sure you will be pleased with what you find! Thanks for reading!