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August 25, 2015

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Theros Block’s Impact on Modern

With the release of Magic Origins, and most players already looking forward to the return of the Eldrazi in Battle for Zendikar, it’s already the dog days of summer for devotees of Theros block. As standard players start purging their collections of rotating staples, modern players can start looking for good deals on playables from Theros, Born of the Gods, and Journey into Nyx. But just how many modern playables did these three sets bring us?

Not many. Just four cards from the three sets had a significant competitive impact, with another 13 seeing promising but fringe play (counting all 10 temples as 1 slot here). This count looks especially feeble in contrast to Khans block with its allied fetchlands, two banned cards, and format-altering bombs like Tasigur, Collected Company, and Kolaghan’s Command.

But it is what it is, and if you’re in the market for modern Theros cards these are the ones to look for:

TOP TIER (4)

My pick for the most important modern card coming out of the three Theros sets. It’s easy to forget just how dirty Birthing Pod decks were when Theros was released (although players are getting a bit of a refresher with the new Collected Company decks). Anger provided a clean answer to both Kitchen Finks and Voice of Resurgence while picking off the same mana dorks that a Pyroclasm would. Between this and killing things like Wild Nacatl and Kird Ape, Anger of the Gods remains an important sideboard card in the format, and will trade spots with Pyroclasm and Volcanic Fallout when the meta calls for the 3rd point of damage and/or the exile clause.

Possibly the biggest factor in burn’s jump from a cheap tier 2 inconsistent/vulnerable deck to a tier 1 powerhouse. Pyrostatic Pillar on legs virtually always deals 2 and usually deals 4 or more. It stops your opponent from using cards like Serum Visions to dig for answers, and can make efforts to stabilize with cards like Lightning Helix or Spellskite way less effective. Sure, sometimes it ends up killing you, but remember the lessons of Dark Confidant(“at any cost”). Eidolon’s stock has dropped a bit with the increased use of delve cards from Khans block, but it still earns 4 maindeck slots in most burn lists.

Another contribution to burn’s tier 1 status (wait – is this even a good thing?), Destructive Revelry largely replaced Wear / Tear as a sideboard answer to problem permanents like Leyline of Sanctity. What might look like a minor upgrade is actually kind of a big deal – burn frequently wins games with less than 5 life or less than 2 cards in hand so every point of damage on every card matters. While boros burn decks simply added a Stomping Ground to the mana base and played this out of the sideboard, Atarka’s Command is making a push for more gruul zoo/burn hybrids where green cards make up more of the 75.

It wasn’t immediately obvious that modern Merfolk wanted or needed a four mana curve-topper, but Master of Waves proved to be an excellent reason to tick the Aether Vial up to 4. Games that look somewhat close become laughably not close when a Master of Waves comes down and makes 4+ 2/1 creatures, gets buffed itself from other lords (and gains islandwalk), and adds an extra +1+1 on Mutavault. From there one combat step is usually all it takes to end the game.

MID TIER (7)

I was skeptical of Keranos when it was spoiled, as I guessed it would take about 3-4 triggers before the card would start being better than its mana cost (i.e. Tidings with upside). While this is true, it turns out inevitability tacked on a card that has very few answers (counterspells, Celestial Purge, Deglamer, Dromoka’s Command) is excellent for grindy decks facing down other grindy decks. Keranos is usually a 1-of in the sideboard of Grixis/Jeskai control, Temur Scapeshift, and Splinter Twin as a trump against control and midrange decks, so not a huge impact on the format but has definitely found a niche.

A card I originally overlooked in my review- I’ve seen it come up a few times recently in combo decks as a way to help something like Scapeshift resolve through counterspells. While Dispel often plays this role, Swan Song plays double-duty if your combo is vulnerable to sorceries or enchantments and is particularly helpful when countering an early Blood Moon or Rest in Peace that might otherwise pose a serious problem.

Courser originally saw quite a bit of play in Abzan and Jund midrange decks, but has since tapered off into near non-existence. The centaur provides a cheap body that survives bolt, packaged with card advantage and life gain, and can also boost Tarmogoyf by an extra +1+1 from the graveyard (go enchantment!). The trend away from courser is partly due to how lousy it is against combo decks, partly due to the fact that revealing every card you draw before you draw it is actually a real cost, and partly due to stiff competition from things like Kitchen Finks.

The Temples:

Not the dual lands I was looking for personally, but these have seen some modern play. Control decks may play one or two to help with flooding, amulet bloom can run a few copies since Amulet of Vigor removes the drawback, and combo decks like Ad Nauseum and Griselbrand Reanimator will run them to help assemble their combos. For most other decks if you can afford having lands come into play tapped odds are the worldwake manlands are better picks.

Thassa is a very optional 1-or-2-of in Merfolk decks, and it seems that she is seeing less and less play as time goes on. The combination of being able to Aether Vial her into play, easily hitting 5 devotion for a 5/5 unblockable, and gaining virtual card advantage from the free scry makes her a serviceable merfolk card, but not something the deck desperately needs. Merfolk also already has more valid maindeck cards than it can reasonably play, so its not surprising to see Thassa squeezed out of lists despite her synergy with the deck.

Usually found in burn sideboards, Searing Blood is basically extra copies of Searing Blaze against creature decks. Burn players found early on that it was still easier to hit the landfall trigger on Searing Blaze than it is to ensure the creature actually dies on Searing Blood, so few decks actually made a switch between the two cards.

Bow of Nylea saw some play as a 1-of in abzan midrange sideboards before pretty much disappearing (although I recently saw one out of a lantern control sideboard!). The two damage to flyers kills Delver of Secrets, Birds of Paradise, Lingering Souls tokens, Pestermite, Vendillion Clique, and about half of affinity’s creatures; the 3 life gain puts a serious squeeze on burn decks to end the game before the bow undoes their hard work; and the +1+1 counter and deathtouch while attacking were relevant for winning any Tarmogoyf battles (Tasigur battles, rhino battles, etc). That’s all great, except it costs 5 mana to start getting value – and like Keranos, God of Storms you really need about 3 turns of use before you’re happy with the card. That’s a lot of mana and time to turn a profit. Although grindy midrange decks are certainly the right home for this sort of trade-off, it’s generally better to play true bullets in the sideboard than a slow and expensive swiss army knife.

BREW TIER (6)

This is my pick for the theros block card most likely to be a top tier modern card in the not-too-distant future. It’s part of a fairly strong monogreen devotion deck that abuses Genesis Wave and Primal Command with Eternal Witness, and has seen play in fringe decks like pillow fort and red devotion (Figure of Destiny, Dragon Whisperer). None of these is particularly competitive at the moment, but each new card with two or more mana symbols could be the missing piece of shooting Nykthos decks into the competitive tier of modern.

A Thundermaw Hellkite by any other name… the jury is still out on the Stormbreath vs Thundermaw debate, indicative of how similar they are and how marginal the advantages of one are over the other. The main reason to choose Stormbreath is for its immunity to Path to Exile. In either case, the market for 5 mana dragons is pretty slim in modern – control decks will use them in small numbers, and skred red might run a playset as Koth of the Hammer is a realistic way to get monstrous while it’s still relevant to do so).

Ashiok saw some recent success in Sultai midrange as a 1-2 of. Milling a control deck to death is not unrealistic, and in the midrange mirror stealing Tarmogoyfs is pretty big game (although Abrupt Decay on ashiok after a +2 is a pretty bad tempo loss). This may have just been a blip on the radar as Ashiok seems to have faded back into obscurity already. The card’s biggest flaw is actually being a 3 Mana Planeswalker in colours that already have Liliana of the Veil.

If modern ever slows down to a turn 6 format I want to be among the first to curve a purphoros into a Lingering Souls + flashback for 8 damage, into two Purphoros activations to swing for 12 (exacties!). In the meantime, Purphoros is relegated to being a 4-dmg-per-turn clock in Norin the Wary decks. While Norin sisters is an excellent deck for practicing remembering triggers, its painfully annoying to play against and often goes to time due to its generally sad sack win conditions and mind numbing board states.

Doesn’t die to bolt! But, does die to Abrupt Decay. But vigilance! It’s not obvious if Brimaz is actually better than Hero of Bladehold in modern (he probably isn’t), but more importantly he’s up against a bunch of other excellent white 3 drops for decks looking at 3 mana white creatures: Blade Splicer, Mirran Crusader, Kitchen Finks, etc. Brimaz is certainly modern playable, there just isn’t a great shell yet where he is clearly superior to the other 3 mana options.

Take Infest and add scry 1 – I think that counts as “strictly better”? This black Pyroclasm variant saw some limited sideboard play as an answer to mana dorks and tokens, but generally speaking it’s worth the extra mana (if not the extra $60) to just play Damnation instead. There are certainly decks and metas where coming in at 3 mana is crucial though, and without dipping into other colours or other angles of attack Drown in Sorrow is not a totally embarrassing sideboard card (high praise, right?).

And there you have it, 17 modern-worthy cards out of 3 full sets! If you wanted to really stretch you might also include Aspect of Hydra, Satyr Wayfinder, and Aqueous Form – but these are fringe cards in fringe decks which I felt didn’t really belong alongside the ones I’ve described above.

– Darcy