Gift of Immortality | Art by Matt Stewart
ith the Theros Prerelease just behind us, it's time to start looking forward to the Release weekend, and then months of Limited play. I have to say, Theros looks promising. It seems to have a bit of everything; monocolored cards, gold cards, cards that have activated abilities that are different colors than their casting cost (do these have a name?), artifacts, enchantments, legendary artifact enchantments. Even legendary enchantment creature Gods.
New mechanics, too. Bestow, heroic, devotion and monstrosity. One of my favorite mechanics—scry—is making its return as well. Oh and flying. Love flying.
How good is bestow? Is heroic a mechanic you can actually build around, or is it best left as gravy? Do we pay for monstrosity often, or is it a rare occasion? The debates and inquiries regarding the new mechanics will flesh themselves out with time. Normally, the answers vary on a card-by-card basis, and it takes a while to figure them all out.
At the onset of a new format, one of the things I like to focus on is the removal. This makes logical sense since there are far fewer instances of removal in any given set than there are creatures. By taking a look at the removal first, we can be more efficient at figuring out how the creatures fit into the format.
On a base level, if the removal is plentiful and cheap, the fast, aggressive creatures have a chance to flourish. If the removal is slow, the format usually follows suit.
Examining the available removal also gives us an early glimpse at the attributes of a creature that will be most important. Foremost being the "magic number": the toughness level at which you can expect your creature to survive most forms of removal and combat. As an example, if we look back to Zendikar, we would see (in retrospect) that the magic number there was 3. If your creature had 3 toughness, it was far more likely to survive than if it had 2 toughness.
Why? It's pretty simple once you see the whole picture. Most of the creatures in Zendikar had 2 power. Of the good removal options available, a lot of it inflicted up to 2 damage. Cards like Burst Lightning, Disfigure, and even Marsh Casualties attempted to kill creatures with toughness 2 or less. A 2/3 creature like Kor Skyfisher or Vampire Nighthawk was a real problem to deal with in that format.
Zendikar, though, is just one example. Every set has a magic number.
Bad Removal, Good Format
One strange thing about looking at the removal in a new set is that just because the removal isn't good, doesn't mean the set isn't good. In fact, it's often the opposite. Innistrad had a slew of conditional removal spells that made you work to get the job done, but that added to the format in a big way.
I'm sure there is a line where the removal gets so clunky that the format becomes stagnant and boring. Thankfully, our friends in the R&D department are tasked with figuring that out, and all we have to do is analyze it. Yes, sitting in the seat of the critic is much easier than actually having to figure this all out from scratch.
Still, it's some work. Let's take a gander at Theros's non-rare removal suite and see how it stacks up.
Divine Verdict is a reprint, and it sets an early tone for the removal in this set. Conditional, expensive, but ultimately powerful, the Verdict gets the job done. It's very easy to play around if you are looking for it, though. If your opponent passes the turn against your big threat with four open mana and is in white, for the love of the Gods do not attack with that threat unless you have some type of backup plan.
Divine Verdict will see play either way, but it will see a lot more play if this format is slow. The fact that Divine Verdict is in the format makes it a bit slower, too, so we'll keep that in mind as we move forward.
Last Breath and Vanquish the Foul
Here we have two conditional removal spells. Last Breath is cheap and instant speed, but ultimately not that effective. Sure, it will take out a small creature, but giving 4 life to its controller means that racing becomes much more difficult. I envision this being used on utility creatures—creatures that affect the board in ways other than combat—mainly.
Vanquish the Foul is an uncommon sorcery-speed clunker of a removal spell designed to destroy big creatures. I would assume that this kills essentially everything after monstrosity has been activated, and a lot of big rares as well. Still, at sorcery speed, for six mana, it's rarely going to be a bargain for you. This will likely fall into the "necessary evil" group of removal spells—removal that you will begrudgingly run because you need answers in your deck somewhere, but that aren't very exciting.
Don't forget the scry 1 ability. Scrying late game can be very strong, as you will often want to scry away any lands sitting on top of your library, essentially drawing you a card.
Griptide is Time Ebb at instant speed. Technically, it's a one-for-one, as you are using one card from hand, but "stealing" a draw step from your opponent. Also, it's a tempo play that can knock off Auras and Equipment, or just clear the way for some attacking. It is not a permanent answer to a persistent threat.
Even at instant speed, it's pretty darned expensive at four mana. Considering it's non-stellar interaction with bestowed Auras, my guess is that it will be playable but not exciting in Theros.
Sea God's Revenge:
Oh baby, this is my kind of Magic card! Returning three creatures to my opponent's hand is something I am excited to do. Tacking on some scry just sweetens the deal even more. I would be remiss, though, not to point out that this is sorcery speed, costs a whopping six mana, and can't bounce our guys. The key words "up to" are nice to see, though, as there aren't any targeting restrictions in the case that our opponent only has two creatures, or one we would rather not bounce.
I know this isn't really removal, but it looks like blue has been put back in its place after having one of the best removal suites in Magic 2014.
I mentioned this card last week, and I'm still excited to play it. A cheap way to interact with our opponent's creatures, Voyage's End also lets us scry to help smooth out our draws and find some real answers to the threats being presented. Again, not an actual removal spell, but this is what blue normally gets, and it seems that blue is all about tempo once again in Theros.
Lash of the Whip:
Lash of the Whip gives us some major hints about the removal in this format. Do you remember Grasp of Darkness, the common from Scars of Mirrodin?
That's right, this exact same effect, at the same rarity and speed, cost instead of . This is a huge difference. Replacing colored mana with colorless mana will result in a more expensive card overall. But one black mana for four colorless? No, this card is intentionally slowed down. We are starting to form a picture here, and it's much more a bubbling, lazy flow than a raging river.
Lash of the Whip is still a strong card, as it kills things that are tough to kill—it ignores regeneration and indestructibility—and it does so at instant speed.
A functional reprint, Pharika's Cure is the rebranded Sorin's Thirst. If the format is slow, then cards like this go down in value significantly. They are great at improving your chance to race, as you can take out an opposing blocker, and make the lifegain relevant. In this case, I think it may well be used more like Last Breath; that is, to kill utility creatures.
Sip of Hemlock:
More evidence of slow removal at common, Sip of Hemlock is about as slow as it gets. Six mana to destroy any creature, with a marginal side of gravy. In most formats, this would be at the farthest end of the begrudgingly playable spectrum, but if the format is slow enough, this could absolutely see a lot of play. In a normal set, this would see very little play, so this is one to keep an eye on.
A mini removal spell, Viper's Kiss seems tailor-made to neutralize utility creatures. Either way, it's very cheap, can increase your devotion count, or take out an annoying creature. Until you attack, that is. I doubt that Viper's Kiss will be highly picked removal, but that really will depend on the targets it has.
Bogardan Hellkite minus the whole Dragon thing, Boulderfall will be the ultimate test for how slow this format really is. In any fast- to normal-speed format—heck, even some slower formats—this card would be unplayable. Eight mana is just too much to justify inclusion unless it wins you the game almost immediately (like Bogardan Hellkite did). In this case, it's a powerful spell with a massive cost. Once we start casting these regularly, we know we have a super-slow format.
Lightning Strike and Magma Jet
One common and one uncommon instant-speed burn spell. Both are efficient, powerful, and generally good in Limited. Lightning Strike may remind you of Searing Spear (and it should, Lightning Strike is a functional reprint of Searing Spear). Magma Jet takes out small creatures, but also has scry 2 to really dig through a nice chunk of your library.
If the format is as slow as we have seen so far, both of these cards will lose a little bit of punch, but my guess is that they will still see plenty of play.
Rage of Purphoros
Another burn spell, this time much more expensive. Its 4 damage to a creature will kill many things, but this is a sorcery and has scry 1 attached to it. It fits the theme of the removal we have seen thus far: it's slow, ultimately pretty effective, and has a nice little upside. The "no regeneration" clause will come up sometimes, too, so keep an eye on that.
I think this card and Lash of the Whip will be the defining removal spells of the format. By defining, I mean that they will be the middle ground, and the standard on which others are judged.
A very small removal spell for a very small cost, Spark Jolt doesn't look impressive, even with the scry ability tacked on. Perhaps it will have more targets than it seems at first sight, but I could imagine this hitting our own creatures as often as it hits our opponents', just to trigger heroic and get a scry out of the deal.
Hunt the Hunter
I had to read this card about three times before I got it. Unfortunately, after I figured it out, I realized it's not very good. The first thing to notice is that it's a sorcery. This means that the +2/+2 bonus is telegraphed, therefore not a true combat trick.
The next thing to notice is that it only works on green creatures: on both sides of the battlefield. You can't even use this if you don't have a green creature on the battlefield, and it won't fight anything unless your opponent does.
What started out as a really exciting Prey Upon ends up being a sideboard card for green.
(I mainly put this on the list to make sure you knew this before jamming it into your deck thinking it was better than it was.)
Time to Feed
Here we have a good old green fight card. This one has some incidental lifegain attached, but the key is that, once again, it's a slower, more expensive version of an effect we have had before. I think it will still be very playable, especially if paired with monstrous creatures, or even just green ones.
Because the removal couldn't get any clunkier, we have Flamecast Wheel to put the cherry on this expensive, telegraphed sundae. Yes, it only costs one mana to cast initially. Still, five mana to activate, only 3 damage, and it can only hit creatures? You can't really make colorless removal spells great, though, and this one is definitely not great. It does count as removal, and it will probably kill something over the course of our stay in Theros. Not a high pick, however.
What did we learn from this exercise? The removal in Theros is slow! Very slow. Some of the slowest removal I have seen, in fact. And as I mentioned at the onset of this article: the slower the removal, the slower the format. I think we can settle in for a slow ride once Theros drafts get underway. Still, there are some fast-looking archetypes floating around out there that may change this evaluation as time goes on.
This is a good thing. I personally love slow formats like Innistrad and Magic 2014, and I'm secretly hoping that Theros will be like that. But even if it's not, I like that there are other forces pressuring this little ecosystem. It makes it more interesting in the end.
All of this would indicate that when looking at the creatures in the set, we would assume we have some extra time to actually cast the expensive ones. It also means abilities like monstrosity will be activated more than we might assume.
Let's keep this in mind as we begin our journey into the land of the gods.
Until next week.
Marshall Sutcliffe hosts the Limited Resources podcast, does Pro Tour and Grand Prix video coverage, writes articles, and produces strategy videos. Marshall came back to Magic after discovering Limited following a long hiatus from the game, but he enjoys all forms of the game. He lives in Seattle, WA.