I'm writing the article this week while traveling back from Grand Prix Albuquerque. It was a great event, capped off by a star-studded Top 8 and a spectacular finish. For those of you who tuned in, you'll know that the seven of the Top 8 decklists were built around the devotion mechanic. A staggering percentage to be sure.
Why am I infecting your brain with talk of sixty-card decks? Because it's Devotion Week, of course. While devotion has been dominating Standard, it's kept a fairly consistent role in our beloved Limited decks. Constructed enables you to build around the mechanic in a very focused manner. The decks are designed to abuse devotion, not just tack on some extra value here and there.
In Limited, we rarely have the opportunity to dial our build in to that level. While monocolored decks will pop up occasionally, they aren't part of the broad draft metagame. In Sealed, it's even more difficult to cull together a monocolored deck. No, what we expect from devotion in Limited is far less than what we would from Constructed. Thankfully, the common and uncommon cards that have devotion ask little of us while still rewarding us for committing to more mana symbols.
- Paradigm Shift
After just a few Theros drafts, my approach to devotion needed some tweaking. See, I figured that I'd draft a bunch of devotion cards and a bunch of cards in the same color and that everything would work out. While this approaches the correct strategy, it needs some changes. Namely, I overlooked that it was the permanents specifically that I needed to stock up on in my chosen color. Just a pile of spells in the same color isn't enough to get the job done.
This also brings up another fascinating aspect to devotion: it changed the way we look at casting costs.
When a friend forgot which card Silent Artisan was, I only half-jokingly told him that it was the "strictly better Siege Mastodon." The "strictly better" thing is a joke my friends and I share, but my point was that Silent Artisan was actually better in Theros because it had two white mana symbols in its casting cost instead of one, like Siege Mastodon.
This represents a big departure from standard thinking. Much like Zendikar taught us that a land drop had more use than we knew, Theros has shown us a different way to look at mana symbols on our permanents. Suddenly, we want our permanents to be more difficult to cast, as we are rewarded down the line by an increased devotion count.
Let's take a look at some of the more commonly played devotion cards for Limited, as they aren't all created equal.
Gray Merchant of Asphodel, or "Gary" as it's colloquially known, is the headliner for the entire devotion mechanic. It took little time to figure out just how powerful this common is. Many consider it the best common in the set, and it's on my short list as well. Upon first reading, it was difficult to grasp how impactful the "enters the battlefield" ability really is. Gray Merchant is capable of massive life swings. Even if your devotion is only four, it represents an 8 point life swing! That is insane, especially considering that you get a 2/4 creature left behind.
While Gray Merchant has been a known quantity since the earliest days of Theros Draft, it has been interesting to see the progression. Initially, people were drafting mono-black decks with Gray Merchant as the finisher. I had the misfortune of playing against this deck a few times very early in the format. As long as they didn't fall too far behind too quickly, they could just power out Gray Merchants to shore up the long game. Those days are long past us now, as it's difficult to get even one Gray Merchant in your pool, since people take it so early.
An interesting side note about this card is the debate formed when you have a pack one pick one choice between Gray Merchant and Keepsake Gorgon. Where do you fall on that spectrum? (I'm on Keepsake Gorgon these days.)
Let's not forget Gary's best buddy, Disciple of Phenax. One half of one of the more devastating one-two punches available in Theros Limited, Disciple is a great way to get a card out of your opponent's hand, play defense on the ground, and power up our Gray Merchants. Disciple of Phenax shows us yet again that two mana symbols is better than one in this set. Disciple of Phenax would be a significantly worse card if it cost instead of . Talk about words I never thought I'd type.
Mogis's Marauder is a solid finisher for black decks. It's one of the few ways to get by the great blocking available in Theros. Stoneshock Giant is nice, but it costs way more mana to play and activate. Mogis's Marauder is much more streamlined. I have seen games that looked completely finished stolen out of nowhere thanks to a Marauder. The key is getting the timing down, as a 2/2 for after the initial effect isn't too impressive.
If timed perfectly, it has a unique and profound effect on the game. If not, it's just mediocre.
Outside of Heliod himself, white only gets one devotion card in Theros, Evangel of Heliod. Frankly, Evangel is kind of a mediocre card. It's one of those cards where whenever it's cast against you, it seems good. But when you cast it yourself, it fails to impress. Weird how that works out sometimes.
The real issue is, of course, the mana cost. Six mana for a 1/3 is one of the worst Vanilla Test failures in recent memory. The good news is that Evangel of Heliod brings at least two friends to the party. Still, it just feels too slow to be considered a top-tier devotion card, even if the ability can result in some impressive board states.
I feel like there is a deck to be built around Evangel of Heliod, I just haven't figured out what that deck looks like yet.
Fanatic of Mogis serves two roles in an aggressive, red-based deck: it acts as a finisher and as a beater. If you get enough red mana symbols in your deck, you can have a creature that offers 4 power for four mana and packs quite a punch in the late game without even attacking.
It's this flexibility that makes Fanatic of Mogis so interesting. Play it on turn four for a couple of extra damage and big threat. Or top deck it in a stalemate and finish off your opponent without even entering combat. Not many cards are good at both stages of the game, but Fanatic pulls it off.
Dragon Mantle becomes an even better card with a few Fanatics in your forty. Already adept at triggering heroic, Mantle also adds to your devotion to red, making it a real all-star in a heavy red deck.
Green gets a pair of devotion creatures, each playing different roles but working toward the same endgame. Green is more controlling in this format than it normally is. While it doesn't have access to much removal, it has unusually good blockers and a very powerful late game.
Karametra's Acolyte is capable of producing massive amounts of mana late in the game. Under normal circumstances, a mana-producing creature that comes down on turn four would have limited application. But thanks to monstrosity and bestow, there is always a place to put your mana as the game grows long. A 1/4 blocker is okay in this format as well, helping you get to the late game. Remember, Karametra's Acolyte can always produce one mana, as it counts its own green mana symbol.
Need a good way to get to the late game? Nylea's Disciple is a fantastic insurance plan to help you get there. I've stated before that I'm no fan of lifegain for lifegain's sake. I rarely play spells that do nothing other than gain life; they aren't worth the card. But when it comes to incidental lifegain? I love it. Gaining life can throw off combat math and can offer protection from reach spells like Fanatic of Mogis and Lightning Strike.
Nylea's Disciple has done nothing but go up in value for me as the set has progressed. If you are a little behind against an aggressive draw from your opponent, Nylea's Disciple will not only help stabilize the board itself, but also will bolster your life total.
Another interesting pack one pick one: Nylea's Disciple or Nylea's Emissary? I know, making Nylea pick from her two favorite children is awkward, but sometimes that's how the packs are opened. (I am still on Nylea's Emissary as the pick, but it's closer than I thought it would be.)
- Still Devoted
I really like how the devotion mechanic has worked in Limited. It's not the big home run play that it can be in Constructed, but it's a value add and certainly relevant every time. I also appreciate that the devotion cards pull us in directions that we may not otherwise go. Having two or three devotion creatures in our pile can be a serious tiebreaker when it comes to close picks.
Additionally, just the dream of having the monocolored devotion deck in Limited is a nice carrot to dangle out there. While not as immediately rewarding as heroic, or bulletproof as bestow, devotion holds its own in Theros.
Until next week!
Limited Information Archive
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.