Variations on a Greek Theme

Posted in Event Coverage on October 11, 2013

By Marc Calderaro

"Be like water." Echoing Bruce Lee, this is the advice from Pro Tour winner Paul Rietzl about the Theros draft format. "I find that my amount of preference for a specific draft archetype is inversely proportional to the amount of my preparation in the format." Though that can be said about most draft formats, the pros are mostly in consensus that it's particularly true of Theros Limited. Before the draft rounds started, I grabbed some competitors as they readied for the first rounds to get a sense of the day to come.

Everyone appeared to agree that Theros is a strong format. There is no archetype worth forcing, the game length is variable, and there are a laundry list of playable cards. As Patrick Chapin put it, "there was one time that I only had 24 playables, but I had switched out of both my colors in the second pack." No. 24 Ranked Player Ari Lax emphasized the importance of reading the signals and being aware of what you are passing and when. Rietzl echoed this: "A fourth-pick Lightning Strike does not mean that red is open, but a sixth pick Baleful Eidolon probably means black is." A similar situation played itself out in the first draft on the draft viewer. Andrejs Prost took an Abhorrent Overload early while shipping a Gray Merchant of Asphodel. Though Chinese player Zhouran Liu took the passed merchant as a sign of black's openness, Prost ending up cutting the color from Liu the whole draft.

Paul Rietzl advocated the importance of evaluating cards and the openness of archetypes based on the relevance of the cards within those archetypes. A Lightning Strike doesn't necessarily mean red is open, but a late Baleful Eidolon signals that black is for the taking.

However, though variability is high, that doesn't mean there aren't good archetypes and bad archetypes—there just isn't consensus on what those archetypes are. No. 4 Ranked Player Yuuya Watanabe prefers the deep commons available in blue-green, Conley Woods enjoys the under-drafted cards like Tormented Hero and Scholar of Athreos in white-black, while Lax particularly will avoid white-black. Lax also stays away from blue-black, though he admits it's mostly just preference. Grand Prix Atlantic City winner Jon Stern, who was seated next to Lax at the time, reinforced this statement by immediately responding that he prefers blue-black. Stern likes the combination because it's often "anti-heroic," which means you fight less often with other drafters. Woods avoids the variance of white-red, while it's the dream archetype of self-proclaimed "Best Theros Drafter" Christian Calcano.

As far as specific colors and broad card strategies, Chapin and Rietzl agree that red is the thinnest color, while blue is the thickest. The best blue commons are unconditionally good and aggressively costed. "Bounce is better than it's ever been," Rietzl said, referencing both Griptide and Voyage's End. In Theros, he continued, "the removal costs more but the bounce is still cheap." This is important because by the mid-game, your opponent will have built some monster, and you want an "unconditional way to deal with it." He said that cards like Lash of the Whip aren't as good as ones like Sip of Hemlock because the conditionally of text like "-4/-4" limits its effectiveness in a world of 4/5s, 7/8s, and 9/9s. Even though the bestow mechanic has eliminated the "two-for-one" problem of auras, Rietzl said "when you Griptide a creature [enchanted] with a Hopeful Eidolon and leave them with a 1/1 Lifelink, it's like a 1.95-for-1."

Conversely, No. 22 Ranked Player Alex Hayne thinks that proactive strategies, including strong heroic and bestow, are the way to go. In his opinion, the bounce doesn't hurt too much, because ideally you're "bestowing on a bestow guy anyway; so yeah, sure, bounce that." The Pro Tour winner said, "the bestow payoff is high enough anyway; it's like Mark of the Vampire with an upside."

One sure aspect of the format is the playability of just about all ten color combinations. And with the differences in pick even within combinations – like mostly green green-white versus mostly white green-white – it's possible for two players to each draft solid decks without hating too much from one another. As both Chapin and Woods alluded, you'll never be short of cards in your deck because of the large amount of conditionally playable cards that can be outright blowouts in the right deck but awful in the wrong one. Tormented Hero is solid in the slow-out-of-the-gates white-black strategies, but is mediocre to bad just about anywhere else. With so much depth and variability, as long as you play enough to read the signals correctly, you can do well.

Though there is a general feeling reverberating that the Mono-Black Gray Merchant of Asphodel deck is the best if you can get it (No. 2 Ranked Player Ben Stark has been noted for espousing that point), just stay away from the all-in archetypes, and pick a combination that allows you to unconditionally deal with, and dish out, monsters and you should be fine. However, one player, Grand Prix winner, grinder, and all-around mensch Christian Calcano begged to differ.

Pro Tour World Traveler Christian Calcano has very solidified thoughts on which cards are good and which should be avoided in Theros Limited.

"I'm better at this format than just about anyone, because I know how to correctly value the cards." Calcano felt strongly on the issue. "Titan's Strength is probably the best red common and Magma Jet is basically unplayable; it doesn't kill anything." About green he said, "People are still undervaluing Nylea's Disciple. I'll pick it over Nylea's Emissary every time." He said that because most of the emissaries aren't that good unless you cast them as enchantments, there are usually better picks in the color. "Even though the blue one [Thassa's Emissary] is the best of them, I'm still taking Nimbus Naiad." Calcano's strong feelings extended to his preference for Red-White Heroic, as it's just the most powerful deck in format. And he made sure to add: "Oh yeah, and never first-pick a God; they are not good."

Though the views on the draft format are varied, and we'll have to wait until the weekend's over to see who is right and who is wrong, Patrick Chapin summed up drafting >Theros best. "You just can't be afraid to abandon your first four picks. If it's not there, don't force it." Because of all the variation and the depth of playable cards for each archetype, you can find the one that no one else is drafting. And if you find the "correct" deck to be making, you won't be fighting the waters. You'll be like water.

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