Magic has gone through a great deal of variation in its Limited formats over the past year or so. Return to Ravnica block proved to be one of the most difficult, skill-testing Limited environments that we've seen. Moving to the core sets, Magic 2014 was a step back from the complexity, dialing the intensity back and creating an environment that highly valued the core tenets of Limited. It was incredibly balanced, and not at all overpowered. It was a good ol' knockdown, drag out, fight between 40 card decks.
Enter Theros. Theros presents a very interesting middle ground to follow the far reaches of the spectrum that had preceded it. On the surface, Theros is clearly designed with the two-color pairs in mind, each one subtly leading new drafters towards the core strategies represented by each of the combinations. It is very easy to sit down to a Theros Booster Draft and come away with a deck that you feel reasonably good about, even for newer players. Yet after drafting a few times, it becomes very clear to the more experienced players that there are layers upon layers of intricacy built into the set. Even within the ten possible color combinations, there are multiple decks within each pair. As such, card evaluations vary wildly from color pair to color pair, and even from deck to deck within a pair. More than any set in recent memory, picks past the first two or three are incredibly conditional.
The best illustration of this is a simple exercise with a trio of packs and a slew of players from different playtest groups and regions.
Here are the three packs in question:
The exercise goes as follows. First, I presented all three packs to each player to get their opinions on the first and second picks in a vacuum. I was just trying to get a quick gauge on the most powerful cards in each pack, thus the cards that are most likely to be gone after the first couple of picks. Then, I picked a random pack to assign to them as their first pack of a draft. From this, they would select their first overall pick. Then, I would randomly select a second pack, removing the consensus first pick from it. The player would then draft their second pick as though this were the second pack they saw in a draft, building from the card they had taken out of the first pick. The remaining pack would then be stripped of its two best cards, and the player would select their third pick out of it to round out the first three picks of a mock draft.
Alone, this information is nothing more than a brief insight into the power levels of a few cards in the set. The real wrinkle came when I would present them the exact same packs with a different order. This resulted in some similarities, but a surprising number of differences when compared to their evaluations of the packs the first time through. When compared across the other players that were presented with the same information (or slight variants) there was a large variety of picks and opinions. Considering how straightforward some of these decisions appeared to most of the players, yet resulting in distinct differences, this just goes to illustrate how varied the card evaluations in this set can be, and how they can change in context.
Coverage reporter Nate Price presents his pack exercise to some of the competitors at Pro Tour Theros to get their thoughts on which cards they would pick.
Here's what I mean. I'll begin with Tom Martell from Team SCG. Given Pack A as his initial open, he chose Nessian Asp, giving consideration to Chained to the Rocks. This was confirmed by nearby teammates, including Jon Finkel, who referred to the decision as "not close." He was then given Pack B without the Wingsteed Rider, the consensus first-pick out of that pack. With the easy selection out of the pack gone, he was, shall we say, less pleased with how the pack looked, picking up a Sip of Hemlock. His final pick, from Pack C without Voyage's End and Leafcrown Dryad, was a second copy of Sip of Hemlock. He put himself into black-green right behind a player playing white-green (Wingsteed Rider and Leafcrown Dryad). This was the exact same set of selections I got from Matej Zatlkaj when giving him the packs in the same order.
As you can expect from the fact that I'm even bothering to write this piece, there were obviously some variations on this theme. Zac Hill, who happened to be on the development and design teams for most of the duration of Theros's creation, opted to go with Shipwreck Singer over the Asp, but still chose the two Sips. The trio of Shuhei Nakamura, Martin Juza, and Frank Karsten came to yet another variation on this, taking Divine Verdict over the first Sip on the grounds of it being both cheaper and in a better color combination. They followed that up with Centaur Battlemaster.
That first pack, Pack A, had the widest variety of picks come out of it, and it's understandable considering its depth. Nessian Asp was the most selected card, followed closely by the hidden gold card Chained to the Rocks. Virtually every player who selected the Asp also made note of the powerful removal spell, opting in the end for the consistency and openness offered by the monstrous green common. Zac Hill even selected it early in his attempt at the exercise, citing, "I'm perfectly fine taking this white-red card knowing that the next best cards in the pack are green, blue-green, and blue-black, and I won't have much to fight over." The only reason that he changed was that he realized that the same logic applied to the Shipwreck Singer if you went a little deeper, and it was a combination that he felt more comfortable with.
Pack B was admittedly weaker than the other two, especially when stripped of the obvious best card in it: Wingsteed Rider. With the powerful white flier removed from the pack, most players were not too happy to see it. Sip of Hemlock was the most selected second card out of the pack, which surprised me quite a bit. Removal is certainly at a premium in a format like Theros, where it is generally sparse and weaker than usual. This also explains the decision to take Divine Verdict. Yet bestow cards are incredibly powerful, so it was strange to see Spearpoint Oread get so disrespected.
Pack C without its consensus two best cards (Leafcrown Dryad and Voyage's End) left for some very interesting decisions. The most common choices out of this pack was the Sip of Hemlock, but, from there, things varied wildly based on what had come before it.
When the consensus best cards are removed out of the pack as pick options, decisions on which card to take based on a player's preferred archetype start to sway from person to person.
A perfect example of this came when I opted to change the order of the packs. When given Pack B first, the unanimous decision was Wingsteed Rider. In addition to it just being really powerful in general, the pack was a bit weaker beyond that. From there, things got interesting. First up, Tom Martell chose from Pack A minus the Nessian Asp. After a lengthy discussion with his team, he opted for the Observant Alseid over Chained to the Rocks, but he admitted that the decision was close. His last pick was an Aqueous Form out of Pack C stripped of Voyage's End and Leafcrown Dryad.
"My win rate with UW is incredibly high," he told me in defense of his pick. "People just don't know how to value the cards in this archetype, I don't think. Having that constant source of unblockable damage in incredible in this deck."
Interestingly, Jon Finkel, who was sitting right next to him, opted for a different road. When Martell made his decision to take the Aqueous Form, indicating that he was considering Warriors' Lesson (the card chosen by Zac Hill in this spot), Finkel laughed a little, not at Martell's pick, but at the his own different pick.
"I don't really think Warriors' Lesson is all that good," he said. "I'd probably take the Labyrinth Champion."
Perhaps the most interesting swap for me was that of Matej Zatlkaj. Originally opting for the Asp/Sip/Sip pick order, he took a completely different direction on one of the picks, even though he shared the same colors. Beginning with Pack C, Zatlkaj took a Voyage's End, the consensus first pick out of that pack. From there, he picked up a Shipwreck Singer from the Nessian Asp-less Pack A. When he got to Pack B, a pack that he had previously taken a Sip of Hemlock out of, he opted for a different pick despite the Sip still being in the pack.
"I feel that Psychic Intrusion is simply the better card in a UB deck," Zatlkaj explained to me. He went on to describe that, while Sip of Hemlock is at its best in a slower, late-game deck, it actually gains a lot of value in the green decks that are capable of accelerating it out with cards like Voyaging Satyr and Karametra's Acolyte. Make no mistake, Sip of Hemlock is slow, so it's interesting to hear an example like this of how a card gains or loses value depending on the deck.
Other good examples of cards that change in value, or at least change why they are valuable, came up in this exercise, too. Aqueous Form is one such example. Obviously highly prized by Tom Martell in white-blue, the card is incredibly powerful for the exact same reasons in blue-green, where it allows your monsters to reach opponents untouched. It's good in blue-red, as well, but only if the deck has monstrosities or Flamespeaker Adepts to wear it. Otherwise, it's considerably sub par. In blue-black, it provides a constant source of damage in a controlling deck, but it's the scry that really makes it shine in this archetype, where filtering through cards in the later game is important.
Another great example is Divine Verdict, prized by Juza, Nakamura, and Karsten. One of the reasons that they chose it was its perfect fit into their white-green deck, a color combination that they prefer. The deck tends to need things to do in the middle portion of the game, and Verdict fits that bill. They also have a severe weakness to cards with deathtouch, and Verdict is a perfectly reasonable way to push through. While it's a fine card in a deck like white-green and white-black, the slower decks, it's sub par, so say the least, in the highly aggressive white-red and white-blue decks.