Theros has proven to be a robust and diverse Limited format. Many different archetypes are available, and the card pool has few unplayables floating around. This has led to long-term fun and what looks to be a solid foundation on which to build the rest of the block.
There are a few things we must keep in mind as we leave the triple-Theros landscape behind. When we add a bunch of new cards to the mix, not only do we have to adjust to the new cards themselves, but also we have to look back on the old ones and adjust those. I have a full cycle of awesome uncommons to preview for you this week, and they illustrate this point nicely.
Before the details, let's take a look at the new cards!
God-Favored General, Aerie Worshippers, Forlorn Pseudamma, Satyr Nyx-Smith, Pheres-Band Raiders
Regular readers of this column will be familiar with how I think you should approach brand-new cards. I like to start from the ground up, then drill down into the details as we work forward.
This approach has a couple big upsides.
First, it gives a big picture view of what we are looking at. If we analyze each card in a bubble, and determine it is an underpowered card, we know that going forward we need a specific reason to pursue it for our decks. This lets us look for that specific reason as we see more and more cards, thus determining its relative value in the set.
Second, it lets us take a natural course where we learn the basics about the card, then learn how it fits into the environment in which it lives. After that, we can go even deeper and find the niche synergies and interactions to help us get the most out of a card.
While these creatures with inspired are a cycle of cards from each color, they differ significantly from card to card. The first thing we'll note is the Vanilla Test. Each of these scores differently on the test. We'll go into that individually in the next section, but for now let's focus on the part that is similar about each of these: the triggered ability, inspired.
I'll use an example from my favorite color: blue. This is a strange bit of text, and not one we are used to seeing. Let's go deep on this one; then we can apply it to the rest of the cycle.
Aerie Worshippers says that whenever it becomes untapped, you can pay and, if you do, you get a 2/2 blue Bird enchantment creature with flying. Whoa. Every time it becomes untapped? Isn't that like, every turn? Well, it can be. And yes, just your normal untap step will trigger this, assuming the creature was already tapped.
This is clearly a powerful ability. In fact, there aren't that many turns in which you wouldn't pay for this ability if given the opportunity. An endless stream of free Wind Drakes is a proven route to victory. You also get your normal draw step for the turn, so you are getting ahead in multiple ways.
Before we get too excited, however, a reality check is warranted. The fact is that we don't get to attack every turn of the game with all of our creatures. This mechanic is not the same thing as just getting this triggered ability at the beginning of your turn every time. You are going to have to put in some work to earn those valuable untap triggers.
How well each of these inspired creatures attacks is going to be at the center of how well it performs. Additional to that, what kind of creature it produces will be a big factor. If an inspired creature attacks well, but doesn't produce a valuable asset for the three mana we have to pay, it loses value. The opposite is also true: if it doesn't attack well but produces great creatures, it loses value too. The key is finding a balance, and as we'll see going forward, each version is balanced out in its own unique way.
After we go over each one, we'll talk about other ways to enable these creatures that we already have in Theros.
A quick rules aside: If your inspired creature is tapped and untaps during your untap step, the triggered ability will be put onto the stack at the beginning of your upkeep. You aren't allowed to actually put things on the stack during the untap step in Magic, so the beginning of upkeep is where this happens.
Okay, let's go card by card and take a quick glance at this exciting cycle of uncommons!
I'll just put this out there now: this is my favorite of the bunch. I love the design on this card. It's well balanced and interesting. Before any of that, though, let us partake of some Vanilla Test action.
A 2/4 for four mana in blue, you say? Honestly, not that exciting. The best you could normally hope for is it being a ground-clogging blocker while your fliers took care of business in the air. But a 2/4 is actually an okay attacker, especially when you don't care if it actually hits your opponent or not. Easy to block, but not easy to kill. Additionally, Aerie Worshippers does a good job of blocking once we get our army of 2/2 fliers in the sky.
While Aerie Worshippers is pretty direct in its mission, Forlorn Pseudamma is much more subtle. While not great on the Vanilla Test as a 2/1 intimidator for , the fact that it has built-in evasion is enticing. We determined earlier that attacking every turn was the most direct way to extract value from a creature with inspired, and giving the creature a good form of evasion built in seems like the best way to do that.
This is where the subtleties emerge. We should assume that we aren't getting this without paying for it somewhere, and here we pay for it in two main places.
First, this creature has 1 toughness. This means that the development team realized that evasion plus inspired could get out of hand, so it made this the most fragile possible creature.
Second, while getting a creature every turn is awesome, a 2/2 Zombie isn't amazing when you compare it to the other creatures you get from this cycle.
Still, just the ability to attack without help in most match ups, and churning out hoards of crusty Zombie tokens, is great.
God-Favored General is another fascinating design. Despite the ability, a 1/1 for is completely uninspiring on the Vanilla Test. It's downright miserable, if I'm being honest. But the cool part about this guy is that he is the only one of this cycle that actually costs less than he costs to activate the inspired ability.
In practice, you will ideally play this on turn two. On turn three, you'll attack with it, perhaps backing it up with a combat trick of some sort. Then on your untap step for your fourth turn, you can pay the inspired cost and get a few tokens.
Speaking of tokens, it's hard to say how good these are. In Theros, tokens were okay. They weren't really a strategy to build around, and there weren't any sacrifice outlets to abuse them. We will have to see if that changes in Born of the Gods. If it does, I can see this card gaining a lot of value.
The key with this card is how quickly it will become outclassed on the battlefield, and if you can keep enabling its attacks. Flooding the board with tokens can be a great thing, but not if they are outmatched by your opponent's board.
God-Favored General looks to be one of the weaker inspired creatures, but that could easily change as we see more cards from the new set.
As you can see, we have gone the entirely different direction from our previous card. A massive 5/5 for is fine as far as the Vanilla Test goes, and you can imagine it being able to attack pretty freely in the later parts of the game.
This slab of beef is on the buy-one-get-one-free rack, as it produces 3/3 green Centaur enchantment creature tokens as well. I like how late-game focused this card is in comparison to the previous one.
This is your cleanup batter. You can play the attrition game, trading creatures and resources during the course of the game, then set up the win off the back of a huge 5/5 and his 3/3 friends.
Again, R&D delivers a fascinating card, offering yet another angle on this mechanic. I am truly impressed with the subtlety displayed through just this one lens.
A 2/1 with haste for passes the Vanilla Test, although it isn't great. Once you read the inspired text, however, things get interesting. First thing you'll notice is that since it has haste, it could potentially get an untap step on the immediate following turn, making it the only one of this cycle that can pay for the inspired trigger on the turn after it comes into play. (Some of the others could pay for it, but have summoning sickness and won't be able to become tapped from combat).
The creature it produces is really impressive as well: a 3/1 red Elemental enchantment creature token with haste. Yes, it has haste, too. Satyr Nyx-Smith is capable of putting massive pressure on the board in a hurry.
So what's the catch? It's a 2/1 with no evasion that doesn't come down until turn three. That's the catch. Any one- or two-drop in the set would happily block this thing before it gets out of hand.
A sequence I expect to see is something like this:
We are on the play, play a land, say go. Opponent plays a land, says go. We play a land, say go. Our opponent plays a land and a two-drop creature. We tap our lands to play Lightning Strike, killing our opponent's two-drop. On our turn we play land, Satyr Nyx-Smith, attack, and set ourselves up for a trigger on our next untap step.
What this means is that we'll have to work to get this creature going, but if we do, we'll be rewarded. I also see this as the ultimate punisher of slow decks that lack low-mana-cost creatures, as well as destroyer of opponents who stumble on mana.
In Context of Theros
Time will tell which one of these is best in practice, but I want to take a look now at some of the things they have in common. The first thing you'll take note of is that these creatures want to be able to attack, and attack every turn. Riding that particular value train is a vacation I have wanted to take for years. Imagine attacking for damage every turn while developing your board with meaningful creatures and still maintaining your draw step. Sounds wonderful.
Since the most straightforward way of getting them tapped is attacking, cards that enable attacks will be even more valuable. This isn't anything new, and Theros has plenty to offer in this category.
Bestow creatures enable attacks that weren't there previously. Many of the combat tricks available also can be a short-term solution to getting that inspired creature tapped. The cards that enabled the heroic ability can enable the inspired ability as well. Keep an eye out for cards that allow repeated attacks, like Aqueous Form, or even previously unpopular cards like Prowler's Helm, and Witches' Eye.
Another area we need to pay attention to is cards that let us untap our inspired creatures outside of our normal untap step.
Cards like Savage Surge and Triton Tactics go up in value sharply when you can use them in combat to not only protect your attacker, but also trigger inspired. Imagine attacking with your Pheres-Band Raiders, then passing the turn. Your opponent attacks with his or her creatures and you cast Savage Surge on your Raiders.
Yikes. Not only does your opponent have to deal with a 7/7 blocker, but also a fresh 3/3 to boot.
The thing to keep in mind with this type of trick is that you have to pay for the trick plus the inspired payment. This means sometimes saving your mana during your turn so you can pay for both during your opponent's turn.
This cycle has powerful, interesting, and clever cards in it. I think they will be high picks and, if played correctly, can be the centerpiece for a victory. One thing to keep in mind is that sometimes it's just better to develop your board by playing the cards from your hand than it is to keep paying for inspired activations.
I assume that paying for inspired will be something you want to do almost every time the opportunity arises, but recognizing the times when it's correct to pass on it will separate the good players from the great.
I can't wait to get my hands on this exciting new cycle.
More previews 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.