Gray Matters

Posted in Limited Information on October 9, 2013

By Marshall Sutcliffe

Marshall came back to Magic after discovering Limited and never looked back. He hosts the Limited Resources podcast and does Grand Prix and Pro Tour video commentary.

Now that Theros is fully released, including Magic Online (where I play the majority of my Magic). I have found Magic Online to be the best tool with which to help me improve my game over the years. The simple ease at which you can join a draft, combined with the rigid eye of rules enforcement looking on, creates an environment conducive to improvement. I never really feel like I've started to dive into a format until it's released on Magic Online.

I do enjoy going to Friday Night Magic still, as much for the social interaction as for the Magic itself. I won't be going this week, as I am underway to Dublin to cover Pro Tour Theros! I hope you will join the coverage team and me as we bring you all of the draft action your Limited-minded heart can handle.

Speaking of Theros at the Pro Tour, what will the pros expect to see there? What are their game plans going to be going in to the Draft portions of the tournament?

While I don't know the specific answers to those questions, I wanted to take this time to look at some of the emerging archetypes in Theros Draft, as well as revisit some cards and concepts that deserve a second look.

God, No

I'll start off on a semi-depressing note: The Gods are kind of not great.

I mentioned this in last week's column about enchantments , and after seeing even more of them, I haven't seen anything to change my view.

I'm not saying they aren't playable or anything crazy like that, but I am saying that they aren't nearly as good as they look on paper for Limited. When they are creatures, they are bonkers, but when they aren't, well, they aren't.

Undercosted, massive, and indestructible beaters are difficult to deal with early in the game; nearly impossible, in fact. But if your opponent can simply keep you off of the necessary devotion, the Gods look significantly worse.

I wouldn't be surprised to see some Gods opened and then passed in favor of more powerful options at the Pro Tour. Especially later in the draft. Pack one pick one, it makes a lot of sense to pick a God, as you have a legitimate chance to be either monocolored or heavily skewed toward that color. But in the later stages, I can think of many cards I would rather pick over a God.

Which brings me to my next group of cards: the friends of the gods.

Gods Little Helpers

The Emissary cycle of uncommons had quite a bit of hype around them for us Limited players. A full cycle of "Hill Giants"—Magic slang for 3/3 creatures that cost four mana—that not only have their own powerful abilities, but also have bestow. They have delivered on that hype, as they are often the most powerful things you can do on your fourth turn, yet they also act as great topdecks late in the game.

Heliod's Emissary
Thassa's Emissary

These have been my two favorite Emissarys. They also pair together quite nicely if you are lucky enough to find yourself with both of them on the battlefield simultaneously. If you are in a traditional two-color deck, it's pack three, and you open Heliod, God of the Sun and Heliod's Emissary, which do you take?

Heliod, God of the Sun
Heliod's Emissary

I think you could make a strong argument for taking the Emissary, although your actual deck composition and strategic plan could easily sway that back in the other direction.

Just the fact that it's under consideration surprised me, but I really do think the student is better than the teacher in some cases. I'll be curious to get the pros' take on the Gods and how they get picked. If I have learned anything from talking to professional Magic players, it's that everyone has a different opinion, and the opinions will vary from one end of the spectrum to the other.

Big, Dumb, and Good

I wanted to bring some attention to a couple of creatures that look kind of boring on the surface, but have really impressed me in actual game play.

Ill-Tempered Cyclops
Nessian Asp

These two brutes are the most basic examples of the monstrosity mechanic we have from Theros. And I'm quite happy to say that they are also two underrated and solid cards to boot. Being fairly pedestrian, they tend to get overlooked and go far later than they should in booster drafts. Both of these cards are solid whether monstrous or not, and they demand answers pretty quickly if left unscathed.

One thing to be aware of, however (especially with the Cyclops), is to be careful when you decide to pull the trigger on the monstrous activation.

I was playing at a local game store last week and my opponent had attacked me with his Ill-Tempered Cyclops, which had gone unblocked. I had three cards in hand, and all manner of untapped blue and red mana. He had three cards in hand as well, and seven total untapped lands available. I could tell he was trying to decide if he should go big with the Cyclops or have me take less damage this turn, but continue to develop his board.

He decided to go big and paid the mana to make his Cyclops huge. I responded with Voyage's End on his Cyclops, ensuring that I would not only take 0 damage for the turn, but also that he wouldn't even be able to replay the Cyclops until next turn.

In retrospect, my opponent concluded that the monstrous activation was greedy, and I concurred. There is significant risk involved with firing off monstrosity, so make sure you are doing it at a time when it's safe, or when you have nothing else to do with your mana.

Devoted Merchant

I think the strongest strategy in Theros draft is mono-black. This is an exciting archetype, and anyone who has the knowledge and knowhow to draft the deck properly will be amply rewarded with what is likely the single best deck in Theros draft. Let's take a look at some of the pieces, and then discuss the deck's viability.

Key Cards

Gray Merchant of Asphodel
Disciple of Phenax

Oh, these two. They are inseparable. And if they show up on your doorstep looking to play, run.

The basic strategy for the deck is to set up a board state where a couple of Gray Merchants can win the game. Gray Merchant of Asphodel is one of the most powerful commons in the set, although it's only truly game-breaking in mono-black. It is the marquee card for this entire archetype, and I wouldn't be surprised at all to see those in the know first-picking it.

Disciple of Phenax serves three solid roles in the deck. First, its discard ability helps keep the opponent off balance so that you can control the board and set up lethal Gray Merchants later in the game. Second, it enables said merchants to be backbreakers thanks to increasing the devotion count by two. Third, it blocks some pesky ground creatures.

This is a one-two punch to be feared.


Black is rarely short on removal in Limited, and Theros is no exception. Lash of the Whip is a bit expensive, but it's an instant and kills many of the worrisome threats. Pharika's Cure is cheap and easy to cast in mono-black. It not only stocks the life total a bit, but kills most early attackers. Sip of Hemlock is clunky but can kill almost anything and helps chip away at the opponent's life total.

Viper's Kiss is interesting in that it prevents monstrosity and other annoying activated abilities all while shrinking a threat and adding to devotion. Pretty nice deal for a single black mana.

Role Players

The name of the game is staying alive while adding devotion to the board. Small deathtouch creatures like Baleful Eidolon, and big ones like Keepsake Gorgon, go a long way to creating a stalled board state. Once the board is stalled, you simply keep deploying permanents until you find your Gray Merchant of Asphodels, and then start deploying those. The game will end soon after.

Insatiable Harpy helps to pad your life total while padding your devotion count at the same time.

Advanced Maneuvers

Read the Bones
Rescue from the Underworld

Read the Bones can help you find the Merchants, and Rescue from the Underworld is savage if used in conjunction with Gray Merchant of Asphodel and, well, maybe another Gray Merchant of Asphodel. Or any black creature, really. It gets out of hand quickly.

Pay the Merchant

If this deck is so sweet, there has to be a catch, right?

Yes, in fact, there is. Positioning yourself early in a draft to be a monocolored deck is precarious. Remember, not only are you running the risk that someone else—maybe even two or three people—is in your color, but you also run the risk of being the second mono-black player at the table. If this happens, you will likely know quickly and be able to adjust course. Still, you will have used up some picks on some mediocre cards, and by the time you adjust, you may have a difficult time making it up to twenty-two or twenty-three playables.

Speaking of playables, if you are going to try out mono-black, you have to be willing to run some stinkers in order to facilitate getting to the requisite number of playable cards.

While none of these are outright garbage, they certainly aren't the cards you set out to play when you fire up a Theros draft. If you are going to be dedicated to the monocolored strategy, you will have to bend a bit and play some marginal—or even kind of bad—cards.

You will find some gems, though, that work well in the deck. Scourgemark is a good example. It's actually good in this deck as it makes your Disciple of Phenaxes better blockers, makes your Insatiable Harpys better attackers, digs you to your Merchants, and even increases your devotion count. Not bad for a fringe playable card!

Be Devoted

When I first saw the devotion mechanic, my initial reaction was how it felt like a very black mechanic. Black has always demanded that you commit fully before it rewards you. Devotion seemed like a great expression of this, and I'm not shocked that the black devotion deck seems to be the strongest.

I'm anxious to find out what the pros do in Dublin, and I hope you will join me there to watch all of the action.

City Friday Saturday Sunday
Dublin 9 a.m. 9 a.m. 11 a.m.
Los Angeles 1 a.m. 1 a.m. 3 a.m.
Chicago 3 a.m 3 a.m 5 a.m.
New York 4 a.m. 4 a.m. 6 a.m.
Rio de Janeiro 5 a.m. 5 a.m. 7 a.m.
London 9 a.m. 9 a.m. 11 a.m.
Paris 10 a.m. 10 a.m. Noon
Berlin 10 a.m. 10 a.m. Noon
Moscow Noon Noon 2 p.m.
Tokyo 5 p.m. 5 p.m. 7 p.m.
Sydney 7 p.m. 7 p.m. 9 p.m.
Find other corresponding start times around the world here.


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