Building Blocks: Preliminary Thoughts on Theros Block Constructed

Hello! I took a bit of a break during the summer to recuperate from over-Magicking, but I’m back to see a new Bock Constructed format come about with Theros’ pending online release. I’m writing this the day after the paper prerelease*, so there have been no tournaments of any kind. Therefore, I’m basing all opinions in this article on my own intuition instead of the data banks I like to draw on.

(*To toot my own horn, I went undefeated in the Sealed portion with U/R and then lost the draft easily at 1-2 (U/W) with my playgroup’s pack winnings.)

The first way I like to look at a new block is to evaluate the strongest cards in the set. What is Return to Ravinca without Jace, Architect of Thought or Angel of Serenity, or Innistrad without Champion of the Parish or Garruk Relentless? The strongest cards in a set define the entire format. And planeswalkers are often among these strong cards, so I like to look at those first. There are three in this set: Elspeth, Xenagos, and Ashiok.

Planeswalkers

Elspeth, Sun’s Champion is the most expensive planeswalker in the set, but she does a whole lot for her cost. Importantly, she has a large impact on the board with her +1 cranking out soldiers turn after turn. Her -2 has use, especially against the large monsters in this set, but you’ll mostly see Elspeth as the centerpiece of a white control deck, or as a top-end/sideboard card in an aggressive deck with Spear of Heliod or Anax and Cymede to pump the soldiers.

Ashiok is not a very impressive card at first glance. He just doesn’t do very much, can’t protect himself, and requires quite a few turns to get any return out of him. The only deck Ashiok is playable in would be a control deck, and even then he is probably only good in the sideboard against other control decks. This format doesn’t have the removal to protect him that Standard does, so he’ll end up doing a lot less in Block than in Standard. I don’t expect him to make any real waves in Block, especially since blue is a fairly weak color.

Xenagos is probably my favorite walker in this set. He fits well into aggressive decks (though he is clearly no Domri Rade), and can even make RUG control possible. This is due to his incredible +0 ability. 2/2s are fine at offense and defense alike, and pumping out 2/2s with a planeswalker nonstop has been good since Garruk Relentless. Of course, where Garruk had a removal spell for an ability, Xenagos has mana. This confused me at first and I couldn’t really think of a use for it. But then I remembered that the two main mechanics for Theros – monstrous and bestow – cost a lot of mana. And while bestow isn’t that great in constructed, there are a few playable monstrous cards. So after a few turns of pumping Satyrs, you can make an Ember Swallower or such monstrous a few turns early. I think Xenagos can go in quite a few decks, but will mostly be at home in midrange or aggro decks.

Goodness

Planeswalkers alone don’t define Block. I want to talk about a few cards I think will have an impact on the shape of the format.

Scry Lands (Temples) – I would be remiss in my duties if I didn’t mention the format’s mana. We will be using the temples to define viable color combinations. What is interesting about them is their haphazard arrangement. It isn’t five allied combinations (Scars fastlands) or five enemy combinations (Innistrad duals). Instead, we have a little of each. Here are the color combinations we have:

The color that is in the middle of the each color triplet is the color which the two duals share. This can be problematic in building decks because your tricolor deck will work best if skewed towards that shared color. So RUG in Theros (green-based) will look significantly different from RUG in Innistrad (blue-based). Something to keep in mind while building.

I noticed while picking out the good cards that they fell into a few archetypal camps. So the rest of the article will be talking about the good cards in the context of what decks I think those cars will be headed.

Midrange

Ember Swallower: These next few cards are all R/G 4- drops, so note that they compete with each other and with Xenagos for inclusion in your deck. I think Ember Swallower is the 4-drop of choice, though, because of its aggressive stats and the ability to ensure the game with Monstrosity (Xenagos even helps Ember Swallower reach critical mass). Compare to…

Polukranos, World Eater, who starts out larger, but whose monstrosity effect will generally have less impact. Of course, Polukranos is quite good against small creatures, so a couple somewhere in your 75 is likely a good idea. Just keep in mind that this hydra is legendary!

Polis Crusher is likely worse than both of the two previously mentioned cards, unless enchantments become extremely rampant and Destructive Revelry isn’t enough. Judging by the scarcity of extremely good enchantments, I think Polis Crusher will be warming the bench until it’s his time to shine.

Stormbreath Dragon is very aggressive, with flying, haste, and the ability to upgrade via monstrosity. But it also has protection from white, making it dodge any white fliers, plus Divine Verdict and Chained to the Rocks. A good, resilient threat for closing out a game that will be very prevalent in block.

Mistcutter Hydra, on the other hand, is a hasty card that fills any spot on your curve and makes blue (already a very weak color) completely miserable. This card probably shouldn’t have haste, but it does, so it is very good.

Removal

There aren’t very many good removal spells in Theros. There are two very good removal spells – Chained to the Rocks and Lightning Strike. The cycle of hate cards (Gainsay and company) are also very good sideboard cards due to how efficient they are; however, they aren’t maindeckable. Even Peak Eruption is a fine card since it allows you to kill Chained to the Rocks. Murder Hero’s Downfall and Magma Jet follow Chained to the Rocks and Lightning Strike closely, but Chain and Strike are cheap and effective, so decks that can play both of these cards to effect will be well-positioned. Which brings me to…

Weenie Aggro

Anax and Cymede/Spear of Heliod: Both are 3-drops which encourage an aggressive weenie strategy, generally red/white due to the previously mentioned removal spells, plus fixing in Temple of Triumph. These 3-drops just help your weenies push through and become extremely threatening. Anax and Cymede does require some way of targeting it (them?), and I haven’t looked at the logistics of deckbuilding with heroic in mind, so I don’t know if a dedicated heroic theme is worth it or not. Either way, Anax’ base values are fairly good with only a few ways to target them. Spear of Heliod isn’t glamorous but works exactly like you’d expect – and it works well.

Control

Finally, I’d like to touch on control cards, a.k.a., Whip of Erebos cards.

I think every control deck in Theros will need to play Whip of Erebos. It is insanely strong, granting you both survivability via lifelink and inevitability due to its active ability. The lifelink also helps to mitigate the loss of life to what I think will be the backbone of control decks – Thoughtseize and Read the Bones. Yes, in Theros, control decks will be black-based rather than blue-based… at least until more blue duals come out. As anyone who has ever played in any format it has been legal in can tell you, Thoughtseize grants enormous control over the game for just a single mana and two life. Read the Bones, on the other hand, is likely the best card selection and card draw spell printed since Sphinx’s Revelation or Preordain. How to finish the game as control is up to you, but I think I would go with Ashen Rider… who also has pretty good synergy with Whip of Erebos.

That’s all I have for today. I feel pretty confident saying R/W, G/R, and W/B(r) will be prevalent, but anything can happen. Who knows?: Maybe someone will find a reason to play blue despite the scarcity of obviously powerful cards. Theros comes out online in a couple of weeks, so I’m looking forward to getting into the thick of things and battling some Block Constructed. Until next time!

Lee McLeod
@leemcleo on Twitter
Gard on MTGO

 
  1. Can you explain, why is blue weak in theros? Almost everybody wanted to play blue in the prerealese!
    Whats bad about a counterspell? And blue has very good tricks, like “Triton Tactics”
    Blue even has “hard removal” in “Curse of the swine” okay you have to deal with the boars, but they are much simple to handle than a big monster!
    But I’m not an expert in Block constructed! I think blue can be a good support color! The tricks are good, and a counter spell to protect your board is good!
    By the way I played green monsters with 5 blue “tricks” and won the prerealese. I think I would have lost without blue…

  2. @random: I shouldn’t speak for Lee, but as I understand it, because of the limited mana fixing in Theros Block Constructed, blue can only reliably pair with green and black, missing out on the two better planeswalkers and also most of the good removal in the set (Hero’s Downfall excluded, though it costs 2 black mana to cast).

    Also, Lee didn’t say that blue was bad in Limited (sealed, draft, etc.), rather that it didn’t have a chance to play the best constructed cards alongside a stable mana base.

  3. Like PlanetWalls said, I think you need keep in mind how different games will be in block constructed vs draft. Draft is mainly about commons not mythics and planeswalkers. You also won’t always be able to draft and play a particular archetype like you could do with a constructed deck. There also doesn’t appear to be any disadvantage to your mana base to play blue in draft.
    It doesn’t mean there won’t be a base blue deck that dominates block constructed at some point either. You just need to figure out how you can best take advantage of blue’s strengths and what you would pair it with to come up with a good deck for block constructed.

  4. @random: My esteemed colleagues have deduced my thinking. Blue isn’t completely worthless – it’s probably just fine as a support color. But I can’t go into the format thinking “Man, blue is so good because of X card!” because there really is no X card to get excited about.

  5. Tip tip and cheerio, esteemed lad. Would that I were silly enough to partake in revelry and cheer to talk like a fedora wearing hack, because then I would fit right in!

  6. Master of Waves is a blue card to get excited about, same with thassa. Making them work is the hard part.

    -orvn

  7. I spent most of the day playing theros block constructed on mtgo. My thoughts are: monoblack is insanely good and the mana fixing is better than it looks. My fave deck to emerge was a four color wugr heroic deck. Polis Crusher and fade into antiquity kept whip decks under control while hoplites provided a fast beatdown that could get out of hand if not dealt with.

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