If you haven't been playing since the dawn of forever, you might not have ever encountered it, but its lineage lives on in some more contemporary examples.
Every one of these cards is framed as a way to punish greedy opponents for not playing or having enough mana to operate normally. A tax of one mana is seemingly small, but often incredibly significant. Just compare these two cards.
Glory Seeker is somewhat Limited playable, but never has seen an ounce of Constructed play. Isamaru, Hound of Konda, on the other hand, was an all-star in its prime and would likely see play in Standard and Block Constructed if printed in some form today. And the only difference is a single mana.
So why, then, are players voluntarily starting with a Sphere of Resistance in play in Theros Block Constructed?
Let me explain. While discussing the format on Day One with Hall of Famer Patrick Chapin, he dropped this gem that seemed to sum up the tension in this format.
"All of the three color decks are basically starting with Sphere of Resistance in play because they have to play all of the scry lands," Chapin said of the two-color comes-into-play-tapped lands that define the fixing in this block.
So, we've established that Sphere of Resistance is bad. We've also established that playing three colors pretty much means getting stuck with a virtual Sphere of Resistance in play. It's like a math problem.
Sphere of Resistance = Bad
Three-color mana base = Sphere of Resistance
Three-color mana base = Bad?
Given the popularity of three color decks this weekend – including Red-Green Elspeth, the most played deck – the conclusion in our little logic problem is clearly incorrect. If we take Chapin's comment as a given, that somehow means that, in this format, Sphere of Resistance isn't actually all that bad.
"Card qualities for aggressive decks are just lower and are more or less just worse," said Hall of Famer Luis Scott-Vargas. "The aggressive decks are really just missing Mutavault."
As it turns out, aggressive strategies are a little short on power as a result of sticking to one or two colors. Since they're a little less powerful, they're also a step slower and prone to flooding here and there.
However, much of their power comes from the de-facto Sphere of Resistance on the other side of the table.
"It makes aggro viable. They can steal games before the slower decks get set up," Scott-Vargas said.
But, while it makes aggressive strategies viable, they have their own mana problems.
"The mana in two-color decks is just bad, you end up having to play too many basics," Hall of Famer Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa said. "For example, in white-red Prophetic Flamespeaker is really good, but sometimes it just couldn't cast Flamespeaker on turn three. If you can't cast your three drop on turn three, it's not good. But if you're trying to cast Hero's Downfall on turn five, it's still fine."
Additionally, the two-color aggressive deck Damo da Rosa most respected, White-Blue Heroic, doesn't flood the board for the most part. Instead, it tries to make one or two large creatures to get through with.
"Against them, you can afford to take 5 damage for a turn because you just kill their big creature the next turn," he said.
So two-color mana decks have mana problems and don't go wide enough, mono-color aggressive decks have power issues, and three-color decks have Sphere of Resistance.
Everyone has something, right?
Well, it turns out there's more to the story. The three-color decks, even with all of those scry lands, can have issues with their mana symbols.
"We would have eight lands and not be able to cast Elsepth," Scott-Vargas said of the team's attempts at Esper control.
As a result, pretty much everyone trying to go longer than the fourth or fifth turn is playing these two cards:
And, as it turns out, they're something akin to Time Walks in the scry land format. Sylvan Caryatid lets players get ahead on mana and Courser of Kruphix lets players play all of those scry lands a turn earlier than normal in many cases. They not only fix mana and block smaller creatures, they actually do a lot of work undoing the Sphere of Resistance problem.
Which leads to our new math:
Sphere of Resistance = Not that bad (in Theros Block Constructed)
Three-color mana base = Sphere of Resistance
Three-color mana base = Not that bad
When you add in the power of Courser of Kruphix and Sylvan Caryatid, multiply by the power increase you get by playing additional colors, and divide by the awkwardness of two-color mana bases, you get a pretty interesting tension between the slower, more powerful multi-color decks and the faster, less powerful aggressive decks.
To find out which way the pendulum swings, stay tuned!