Theros Beyond Death: An Early Limited Primer
It’s been nearly four months since the last standard set was released, and although Throne of Eldraine is a great Limited format, I’m ready for something new. Fortunately, something new is coming in the form of something old: Theros Beyond Death, a sequel that’s been six years in the making. What’s in this new set? It's the week leading up to Prerelease, so let’s dive in!
Major Mechanics and Themes
Theros was known for its enchantments, and it’s no surprise to see a major enchantment theme return. Cards that care about enchantments are plentiful, from one-shot effects such as Lagonna-Band Storyteller to cards like Setessan Champion with the Constellation keyword that encourages you to stuff your deck full of enchantments. However, Theros Beyond Death has one notable difference from original Theros: the enchantment payoffs are not enchantments themselves. Where can you find the needed enchantment cards?
The answer is: nearly everywhere else. Every color has a plethora of enchantment creatures, and there is no lack of effects that are normally placed onto sorceries or instants being stapled onto enchantments instead. This means that enchantment hate cards are extremely valuable: such cards will have a plethora of targets against an enchantment based deck, and a non-enchantment deck will still have plenty of incidental targets.
Another returning mechanic from original Theros, Devotion rewards loyalty to a color. It’s a clear sign that Theros Beyond Death is designed to support mono-color Draft decks. Sealed is a different story, it’s highly unlikely that your 84 card pool will give you 23 playables from a single color. As a result, cards such as Setessan Petitioner, which is terrible with a low Devotion count, will see more play in Draft, where you have a greater influence on your build pool than in Sealed. On the other hand, Blight-Breath Catoblepas has a high enough floor to be good in a deck with low Devotion to Black. When in doubt, ask if the effect would be good with one additional devotion. If not, it’s a good idea to lean towards only including the card in a mono-colored slanting deck.
Here’s a twist: Theros Beyond Death is also a graveyard set! However, Escape differs from mechanics such as Flashback and Embalm in that it reframes the rest of your graveyard as a limited resource. The mechanic leads me to ask, on average, how many cards do you have in your graveyard at the end of a Limited game? Most likely enough to use the Escape ability on Polukranos, Unchained approximately one and a third times. And if you Escape out Underworld Rage-Hound, are you cutting yourself off from being able to re-cast a far more powerful card?
All of this turns the graveyard is a secondary battlefield in Theros. If you’re playing strong Escape cards, you’ll want to fill your graveyard up using cards such as Towering-Wave Mystic. If you’re scared of your opponent’s Escape cards, you’ll want to use cards like Scavenging Harpy to exile their graveyard as fast as you can.
There are a few minor themes to be aware of. I’ll explore them in greater detail during the next section:
- First Spell on Opponent’s Turn (Blue/Red): Cast spells on your opponent’s turn for fun and profit!
- Self-Sacrifice (Black/Red): Sacrifice your own creatures and enchantments for power and damage!
- Heroic (Red/White): Pump up your own creatures for fun and fortitude!
- Power 4 (Red/Green): Control big creatures for destruction and bounty!
Note the common color; it’s no coincidence that Red only has two Devotion cards and no Constellation creatures.
Magic often encourages players to pick two colors in Limited. Similar to in Throne of Eldraine however, Theros Beyond Death also supports mono-colored strategies, so let’s start by exploring those.
Mono-color decks are less flexible than multi-color decks; but what they lose in flexibility they gain in consistency. For that reason, it’s important to understand what a mono-color strategy is trying to accomplish when choosing to play a mono-colored deck.
Each color features an uncommon Demigod and mythic God, both of which care about Devotion. Payoff for Devotion varies greatly beyond that.
The Devotion abilities on Reverent Hoplite and Daybreak Chimera perfectly encapsulate White’s winning strategies: going wide and/or going evasive. It can take time to establish an army of tokens of fliers, so it’s fortunate that cards such as Daxos, Blessed by the Sun buys you time to do exactly that with incidental lifegain. White also has excellent enchantment and heroic themes that can turn a single creature into a game-ending threat.
How many Blue devotion cards are there? None at common, and only the two above at uncommon. Blue feels like it has the weakest color identity, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be effective at winning through flyers, tricks, and card selection. Still, if I were drafting and found myself mono-Blue after two packs, I’d be tempted to dabble in a second color for more threats or removal.
If you played during the original Theros era, you probably have (un)pleasant memories of Gray Merchant of Asphodel. Well, the merchant has returned and remains an incredible win condition in a mono-Black deck. Black wants to play early blockers, pick off major threats using its excellent removal, and claim a late-game victory.
Red has the dubious honor of being the color with the fewest Devotion cards: literally just Anax, Hardened in the Forge and Purphoros, Bronze-Blooded. That doesn’t mean mono-Red is bad however; it just means that this highly aggressive color needs the least amount of Devotion support to be viable. It’s easy to imagine a mono-Red deck simply relying on in-color synergies - such as self-sacrifice or heroic - to power out a quick win.
Green likes to smash, but with force. The principle Green strategy is to hit, and hit hard. Nylea’s Huntmaster is a great card to grow your creatures ludicrously large. But your opponent can always just chump your massive attacker… until you play a creature such as Nylea’s Forerunner and trample right over their’s.
Each two color pair has a “signature uncommon,” that embodies what the archetype is all about. But this doesn’t mean that other mechanics shouldn’t play a role in two color deck. For example, a Blue/Red deck with a few Constellation cards may want to prioritize Flash enchantments for unexpected Constellation triggers; and a Black/Green graveyard deck could do worse than to include a sacrifice outlet or two.
White and Blue share their love of fliers and enchantments, and it’s no surprise that Staggering Insight pushes a player towards both. The trick here is to pick the right time to load up a creature with Auras. Do it at the wrong time, and your creature will simply get picked off by a removal spell. Do it at the right time, and a card like Starlit Mantle will turn the opponent’s removal spell into wasted mana.
White/Black does not sound like a natural color pairing - don’t those two colors, like, hate each other? - and that confusion is reflected in the pairs signpost uncommon: a card that encourages you to care about Enchantments and your graveyard. If I played this archetype in Theros, I’d prioritize picking Auras, since you’ll end up having something in the graveyard by the time you cast a card like Rise to Glory. That being said, this card is obviously better if you can reanimate something big and chunky, so take advantage of Black’s self-mill if you can. White/Black is slow and durdly, relying on early trades and removal to survive before using powerful late game two-for-ones to swing the game in its favor.
Blue/Black has a pretty clear graveyard plan, and Devourer of Memory powering out Escape cards while giving you a way to push damage through is a premier example of that. Blue/Black is traditionally a slow, grindy archetype, and it remains so in Theros. Pick up defensive creatures and win through evasive creatures and the card advantage you gain from your graveyard.
The Blue/Red “cast-a-spell-on-opponent’s-turn” archetype may waken bad memories in those traumatized by Simic Flash decks in Standard. The payoffs for this archetype, embodied in cards such as Mischievous Chimera and Dreamstalker Manticore, are definitely powerful. But none of the payoffs have Flash themselves, so you’ll have to actually cast a fair amount of spells on (gasp) your turn. In order to guarantee value, you’ll want to balance casting spells on your turn and on your opponent’s turn, which makes cheap enablers such as Stern Dismissal especially valuable.
Black/Red - the archetype where you win by murdering your own creatures - could be the perfect color pair for you! Much like the Rakdos decks of yesteryear, you’ll be attacking aggressively. Unlike those decks, you’ll be actively sacrificing your own creatures in an attempt to go over the top and win. Cheap creatures are perfect for both attacking early and sacrificing, and if they’re like Grim Physician and give you a benefit when they die - even better! There’s even enough cheap sacrifice outlets that Portent of Betrayal may be extremely valuable as a virtual removal spell, allowing you to steal an opponent’s creature and then sacrifice it.
Black/Green is the graveyard archetype. It’s the best at both filling up the graveyard and extracting value from it. With cards such as Acolyte of Affliction and Relentless Pursuit being especially strong. This strategy isn’t all that fast however, and in order to stabilize you’ll want removal and creatures like Venomous Hierophant that can kill anything it blocks.
Although it’s not a named mechanic in Theros: Beyond Death, Heroic, the “when you target this creature…” mechanic of original Theros returns. Every creature whose name begins with “Hero” has the classic ability: a buff that triggers when you target the creature. However every “heroic” creature has the same effect: +1/+0 to your entire team. And, well, that’s the Red/White archetype in a nutshell: go wide and attack. How do you get those heroes to trigger? Auras help, but the best card may be Phalanx Tactics - a targeted buff that also buffs your entire team. If you have two creatures and one heroic trigger, that’s a net buff of 5 power for 2 mana - and it only gets better from there.
Those of you who played War of the Spark Limited will recognize Warden of the Chained as a return of the Red/Green strategy from that set: play big creatures and smash. But big creatures are usually expensive, so what can you do in the early turns of the game? Theros has convenient answers in cards such as Stampede Rider and Nessian Hornbeetle. These are cheap creatures with great bonuses once you reach the four power threshold.
Although Green/White is similar to Red/White, it actually plays quite differently. The archetype can win by swarming the board, but it’s better at clogging up the battlefield and then using a variety of tricks to win combat. Green and White also have excellent Auras to turn any creature into a beast, and Theros does an excellent job of negating the inherent disadvantage of Auras (the possibility that your creature is killed and you lose two cards) by having many of them generate additional advantage, while also creating incidental Constellation triggers.
Often, Green/Blue does not have a pronounced identity in Limited formats, but in Theros it’s obvious what the pair cares about: Enchantments. In order to make those Enchantments pop, you’ll need to grab the non-Enchantment enablers with Constellation, and I’d make sure to have a couple of those before truly diving into the archetype. Green/Blue is not exactly an aggressive color pair, so expect to play a midrange or tempo game that takes advantage of Blue’s card draw and filtering in order to find the power you’ll need.
If you’ve played any recent Limited format, the removal suite in Theros: Beyond Death will feel very familiar. Black has the best removal, Blue can neuter creatures with enchantments, White has pacifism effects and conditional kill spells, Red has a variety of burn spells, and Green has fight cards.
However, the preponderance of enchantments means that specialized enchantment removal is maindeckable. Don’t sleep on these, they’ll often have a target!
Lastly, note that there’s an uncommon colorless option for “picking apart” an opponent’s graveyard:
Soul-Guide Lantern is the perfect counter to any Escape deck, so i’d consider it when sideboarding.
The non-rare mana fixing in Theros: Beyond Death is fairly inefficient:
Interestingly, this represents an improvement over Throne of Eldraine - and if the drafters around you are playing mono-color decks, mana fixing may be easy to find. Splashing for bombs and/or removal is definitely possible.
As usual, including Green in your deck leaves you with a few more options:
Theros: Beyond Death feels like a ton of fun! All the two color archetypes have bountiful payoffs and enablers, and none of them seem inherently worse than the others. I’m also curious about how mono-color Draft decks will work out. At first blush, I’d say that the Black, Green, and Red decks could be very strong. Mono-White and Mono-Blue feel weaker.
Good luck at your prerelease and beyond!
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