With Noel Neo deep in conversation with most of the Top 8 from Theros' inaugural Grand Prix: Hong Kong, I managed to snare a moment with perennial Pro Martin Juza and Grand Prix Bangkok's finalist, Nicholas Wong. We had some quick chats about the development of the format, and of one particularly contentious deck-building decision by Tom Martell on his way to victory last weekend in Sacramento.
We've had a few months now for the Theros Sealed and Draft formats to mature. What has changed in your perception of the formats over time?
Juza: In Sealed, it's difficult to tell, because there are fewer events. But in Draft, people have been creating more and more aggressive decks. At the birth of the format, particularly at Pro Tour Theros, players were focusing on the monstrosity mechanic, large creatures, and the most powerful bestow effects.
As the format has matured, though, the value of cheap tricks, aggressive creatures and tempo-gaining cards are all rising. The Ordeals - even the 'bad' ones - are a good example of this. Aqueous Form is a great example of a card that's gone from a possible 23rd to a confidently mid-range pick.
Wong: I haven't been particularly enamoured with the Theros Limited environment, and I'm quite keen to see what Born of the Gods brings to the tables. Theros Draft and Sealed is increasingly about controlling the tempo of the game, and this leads to swingy board-states. Investing time and mana into either a monstrous creature or using a bestow ability reduces the effectiveness of damage-based removal.
The best removal in the format right now is blue, which is a little silly. Griptide, Voyage's End and Sea God's Revenge are all impressive cards. Especially when players are concentrating on gaining advantage through bestow or heroic triggers, being able to make a creature even temporarily disappear can give you an overwhelming advantage.
Are there any Born of the Gods cards that have caught your attention? In particular, what do you think of the Inspired mechanic?
Juza: I haven't looked at many of the Born of the Gods previews yet. The inspired mechanic looks like it will create some interesting decisions in Limited. Players tend to fantasise about how their decks will curve out - "Two-drop, three-drop, five-drop, bomb!" - but gloss over the far more common situations where you have a bunch of 2/3's staring each other down and not much happening on the board. Having creatures that specifically force you to tap them down - either with the little instants and tricks in Born of the Gods or through attacking - will lead to more complex game states and more choices to make.
Wong: I'm glad to see Springleaf Drum printed as an enabler for the Inspired mechanic. I think it will have some higher value in Limited, as it lets you turn on your Inspire guys and smooth out your mana and draws at the same time.
That said, the most-hyped Inspired card, Pain Seer, falls well short of the Dark Confidant-level hype that has surrounded its previewing. Dark Confidant created card advantage on its own, without needing to necessarily interact with either other cards in your deck or your opponent (through attacking). Even if there's a way around those issues and your Pain Seer can survive early combat and draw you a couple of cards, Dark Confidant variants aren't in an inherently strong place right now.
In terms of other cards, I'm keen to have a play with Phenax, God of Deception. He seems underpowered initially, but I think there's a deck for him somewhere. And if it's possible to break him, then he could end up being one of the stand-out cards of the set.
In winning last weekend's Grand Prix Sacramento, Tom Martell drafted and then consigned to his sideboard a copy of Whip of Erebos, widely considered a powerful card if not a certified bomb. Your thoughts?
Juza: I don't actually like the Whip at all. I would happily take most of the top commons from any colour over it in a draft. In fact, that's what happened to me at Pro Tour: Theros. I had a pack 1, pick 1 choice of Whip of Erebos and Heliod's Emissary, slammed the Emissary, and didn't look back.
The problem with the card is that it's pretty often a Time Walk for your opponent. Spending a whole turn to gain 3 or 4 life at some point down the track is not the best deal. Sure, there will be times when you live the dream and win a race through lifegain or actually get a relevant creature back, but there will be more times when the card effectively does nothing while your opponent plays things that beat you.
Wong: Martell made a good call, and he won, so who am I to second-guess him?
Whip of Erebos is a great example of a card that spends most of its time either helping you win more, or being a distraction from actual victory. Because the format is increasingly tempo-based, spending four-to-eight mana without seriously affecting the board state is often going to be a losing proposition.
That's not to say there aren't times that the Whip will be phenomenal. I'm not a fan of the whole weapon cycle - perhaps in Constructed, but I like my Limited cards to be more impactful.