Theros Beyond Death Set Review

Theros Beyond Death Set Review

The original Theros block is one of my favourites. Mr first Magic purchase was the Heroes Vs Monsters duel deck and I was very hyped when I heard we were returning to Theros. I’m sad that the bestow and heroic mechanics didn’t return, but there’s so much in this set, something had to miss out.

Like all my set reviews, I focus on my favourite cards in the set. This could for new designs, beautiful art, excellent flavour or fun gameplay. These are all more important to me than power level, so don’t be surprised if I skip stand out cards for constructed.

Top Rares and Mythics

Nyxbloom Ancient

A good mythic is a little shocking. A great mythic should be jaw-dropping. Nyxbloom Ancient is all this and more. Effects that double your mana have existed before, usually on enchantments like Mana Flare and Mana Reflection. Those effects are very powerful, and Nyxbloom Ancient is extreme. Being a creature helps balance it out, by being weaker to removal. This will be an instant hit in Commander and I’m excited to see if it appears in Standard. Simic Ramp has been an extremely powerful archetype recently, and a Hydroid Krasis is a bonkers follow up to a Nyxbloom ancient.

Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath

I love Nyxborn Ancient, but I know that Simic ramp got another mythic that is much stronger. The titans are escaping the underworld and they are incredible. Only two titans, Uro and Kroxa, Titan of Death’s Hunger feature in the set but they pack a real punch. They only way to get them to stay in play is to escape with them which is a perfect fit for the storyline.

The two new titans follow a similar format to the original five colour cycle from Magic 2011. The original titans like Primeval Titan and Grave Titan are still some of the best creatures ever printed. All of them share the same power and toughness, and trigger powerful effects when entering play or attacking. Uro and Kroxa have new abilities that combine two colours together, and a very cheap mana cost to help you get them into the graveyard. What makes Uro my favourite is that its triggered ability makes it much more likely that you can pay the colour intensive escape cost. I expect both of the new elder giants end up being as popular as the original titans.

Heliod, Sun-Crowned

Theros wouldn’t be Theros with out the gods. Including the buy-a-box promo, there are seven gods this time. Since gods were introduced on Theros, we have seen different interpretations of god-hood. It’s good to see the original god mechanic return for Theros. These gods will reward those who truly believe in their ideals, but they have a fickle nature. If you aren’t committed to that god’s nature, they won’t appear in their full form. This is one of my favourite mechanics of all time, because the flavour is a perfect fit.

The five mono-colour gods return, being the most important gods on Theros. Heliod is my favourite because I love lifegain as an archetype for casual decks. Heliod has also seen a lot of discussion in competitive circles for a game winning combo with Walking Ballista.

The other gods are also very interesting. Purphoros, Bronze-Blooded is a new take on Sneak Attack and special mention must go to Klothys, God of Destiny. When we first visited Theros, there wasn’t a red-green god until Xenagos ascended. It turns out there was a fifteenth god to complete the pantheon, but Klothys was simply in the underworld guarding the titans. I like how smoothly this new character fits into the existing lore, without invalidating anything from the previous block.

Elspeth’s Sun’s Nemesis

Elspeth is the face of the set, and a big reason why many were clamouring to go back to Theros. Killing a popular character is risky business because death is generally permanent in Magic. Fortunately the rules are different in Theros and it was obvious that any return to Theros would feature her ressurection. Many expected Ajani to stage a rescue, but Wizards rightly decided that Elspeth should be in charge of her own destiny. From this idea came the mechanic of escape.

Elspeth is currently the only planeswalker that you can cast from the graveyard. This recursive ability lets Elspeth generate card advantage in a different way to other planeswalkers. There are far fewer ways to permanently answer a threat if it can be repeatedly cast from the graveyard. Elspeth’s abilities also play into this. She has no way to increase her loyalty but her suite of minus abilities mean you can always get her into your graveyard if you need to. Mark Rosewater has often said that planeswalkers have the smallest design space, so it’s great to see a planeswalker with novel play patterns.

In fact one of the other planeswalkers in the set is also a breath of fresh air. Calix, Destiny’s Hand is unplayable except in a deck full of enchantments. We saw a lot of narrowly designed planeswalkers such as Liliana, Untouched by Death in Core Set 2019, and I’m glad to see this trend continue. Being a nyxborn planeswalker, Calix also raises interesting questions about Magic lore. Normally artificial creations are incapable of planeswalking, but it appears that the gods on Theros are capable of creating beings with sparks. This could be just be a singular exception or it might have wider ramifications for the Magic multiverse.

Setassan Champion

Magic has had plenty of artifact blocks but enchantment themed blocks have been few and far between. Urza’s Saga block had an enchantment theme, but it was completely overshadowed by many broken artifacts. Theros brought more enchantment payoffs including the constellation mechanic which rewards you every time you cast an enchantment. Unfortunately the constellation mechanic was reserved for the final set. This meant that there weren’t enough rewards for filling a deck with enchantments.

There are two differences between Constellation now and in Journey into Nyx. The constellation cards are concentrated into just three colours making it easier to build a deck around the mechanic. The other big difference is that it now appears on non-enchantment creatures instead of enchantment creatures. At first glance this makes the cards weaker, but it allows Wizards to push the abilities on the new cards. Setessan Champion is the newest in the line of ‘enchantress’ cards such as Mesa Enchantress and Yavimaya Enchantress. Not only is it the newest, it’s also one of the most exciting. Being able to grow huge whilst plowing through your deck is incredible. This will be a popular build around for years to come.

Haktos, the Unscarred

Magic design has a complicated relationship with randomness. Coin flips appear on a few cards like Molten Birth or Mana Crypt but dice rolling is relegated to silver bordered cards like GO TO JAIL or Painiac. A number of players vocally dislike randomness in Magic and want the game to revolve around skill as much as possible. Some randomness is necessary to allow weaker players a chance against stronger players and to make match-ups less repetitive because the game can play out in different ways. For me, the cards you draw and the order you draw them is a big enough source of randomness that Magic doesn’t need random effects on cards as well.

The big exception for me is if a particular design really benefits from randomness. Haktos is Magic’s spin on Achilles, who was invincible, except for one weakness. Every deck will have an answer for Haktos but when left answered he becomes a game ending threat. Without a random element, Haktos would be much easier to exploit and if he became a hit in constructed, it would warp the format around a single converted mana cost. I hope Haktos does see play in Standard, because it would create an interesting incentive to diversify the creatures and removal that a deck runs.

Eidolon of Obstruction

Following War of the Spark there is an unprecedented number of powerful planeswalkers in Standard, and planeswalkers have become a cornerstone of many older formats. Many people bemoan the lack of answers to planeswalkers so every new approach is interesting. Eidolon of Obstruction is not strong enough to be classified as planeswalker hate, but it’s an interesting hurdle for opponents to overcome. It forces planeswalkers played on curve to wait before activating an ability.

One of the strengths of planeswalkers is that their controllers can hold priority after it resolves to ensure they always get one activation. Even if your planeswalker is killed immediately, the trade was probably a net positive for you. Eidolon of Obstruction is also a good two mana creature on its own, so if you can hinder your opponents development with lots of similar taxing effects, you can make profitable attacks. It also reminds me of Spirit of the Labyrinth which was one of my favourite cards from Born of the Gods.

The First Iroan Games

Sagas first appeared in Dominaria, and are an excellent card type for telling stories. With a beginning, a middle and an end, there is lots of possibilities for designs. They also draw inspiration from many different places. Kiora Bests the Sea God retells part of the last block’s story, whilst The First Iroan Games is an allegory for the Olympics. Another reason sagas are so exciting is the artwork. Being art of art, they are always unique pieces often in styles or even art forms never seen on Magic cards. The Akroan War looks just like a real tapestry and Elspeth Conquers Death looks like a mosaic. I can’t wait to see sagas appear on more and more worlds and see what art forms await us.

One of the big innovations of Theros Beyond Death is to have sagas with a fourth chapter. The final chapters are often small and minor, and this is a good thing. Four turns is a long time to wait for a powerful final chapter, but when the chapter is minor, you can sacrifice the saga or flicker it without missing out on the chapter you really want.

The First Iroan Games is my favourite of all the sagas, both on Theros and Dominaria. It manages to tell so much in a single card. An athlete starts his or her career small and weak but trains hard and becomes ready for the games. After being found worthy, he or she wins a gold medal. Normally stories on magic cards have to be pieced together from several different cards. Sagas are such wonderful because they can combine multiple ideas into a structured narrative seamlessly.

Enigmatic Incarnation

Build-around cards are a highlight of draft and casual constructed formats. Typically they are enchantments that do nothing unless the entire deck revolves around one thing. There are surprisingly few build-around enchantments that focus on enchantments. Cards like Sigil of the Empty Throne and All That Glitters are very simple, but other examples are some of them are the most puzzling of build arounds. To get Skybind and Starfield of Nyx to work for example you need a cohesive game plan that actually benefits from the rewards on offer.

Enigmatic Incarnation is a new entry into this lineage. Birthing Pod is a incredibly powerful card, and Enigmatic Incarnation is very similar. They can both tutor for the exact card you need at the time, and reward you for playing lots of creatures with enter the battlefield abilities, so you get immediate effect from tutoring them. Enigmatic Incarnation doesn’t require any additional investment once you cast it, but the requirement of sacrificing enchantments makes it very unique. Do you play enchantment creatures that can be both set-up and payoff? Do you play enchantments like Omen of the Sea that you are happy to sacrifice? How do the mana costs of your enchantments and creatures line up? Solving puzzles like this is one of my favourite things about Magic.

Woe Strider

One of the most shocking cards to appear in this set was humble Woe Strider. Free and repeatable sacrifice outlets are very powerful and historically always see play. Woe Strider then has two big upsides. It comes with a goat token, so your sacrifice deck has fodder to get its game plan going. Killing Woe Strider isn’t enough, because escape means it can exile the creatures you sacrificed to return.Red-Black got some other great tools in this set. Blood Aspirant and Slaughter-Priest of Mogis both trigger from ordinary actions such as cracking an Evolving Wilds or using treasure. It can even sacrifice Kroxa, Titan of Death’s Hunger before it sacrifices itself for extra value. This is going to be a fun deck to build and play.

Underworld Breach

Throne of Eldraine was full of cards that shook all formats. Theros Beyond Death has a had a smaller impact, but there are some very notable cards. Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath has made a splash and Thassa’s Oracle has seen a lot of play in Pioneer as a win condition after emptying your own library. One way of doing this is with Inverter of Truth but there is a more complicated way of doing it with Underworld Breach.

Past in Flames and Yawgmoth’s Will are two iconic cards that let you reuse your graveyard. One notable restriction to them is that you can’t just cast the same spell over and over again. Underworld Breach has more set up cost, but taking way this restriction lets crazy things happen. Hidden Strings untapping Lotus Field enchanted with Chronic Flooding sounds like a janky casual combo, but combined with Underworld Breach and Thassa’s Oracle it becomes a game ending threat. Theros Beyond Death has had a big impact on Pioneer, introducing a number of decks with game winning combos. I’m excited to see how this new format adapts to the new archetypes.

Atris, Oracle of Half Truths

Fact or Fiction is a brilliant card that forces your opponent to choose how to divide four cards into two piles. If they don’t understand your deck, or what cards you need at that moment, they can accidentally give you a huge advantage. Fact or Fiction is popular with competitive players who want results to depend on skill as much as possible. In Shadows over Innistrad, we were introduced to an exciting new twist on Fact or Fiction in Fortune’s Favor. Putting some cards face down means both players are faced with challenging decision, and there is so much potential for bluffing.

Unfortunately the mana cost of Fortune’s Favor prevented it from seeing widespread play. This is why I’m so excited by Atris. The price is much more efficient, and reducing the number of cards to three opens interesting bluffs. The piles will always be unbalanced, but hard to compare. If a single card is face down is it a bomb or a bluff? I love cards that offer this kind of shenanigans but also reward skillful play.

Atris is one of many legendary creatures in Theros Beyond Death. In order to support Brawl, we can expect to more sets to have a higher number of legendary creatures. Dalakos, Crafter of Wonders also stands out to me. For a long time, the red-blue colour pair lacked any commanders to support artifact decks, despite it being a common theme for the colour pair. We’ve seen a few such commanders now, and Dalakos offers new options, especially if you like equipment. If you focus on equipment such as Loxodon Warhammer which give a big boost to a creature’s power, adding haste and evasion becomes very powerful.

Top Commons and Uncommons

Omen of the Sun

White usually gets a two or three mana spell in most sets that creates two one-one tokens. Recently we’ve seen Sworn Companions and Raise the Alarm and in limited these spells are often only wanted by a go-wide aggressive deck. Omen of the Sun has lots of subtle upgrades that give it a much wider appeal. Being an enchantment helps it trigger constellation and boost devotion. The activated ability provides late game value and fuel for escape. On top of all of this it also has flash and the tokens have lifelink. I love how powerful basic effects are in Theros Beyond Death.

Omen of the sun is part of a five colour cycle. All of them are important basic effects with lots of extra value in Limited. I also like that the art features close ups of the five mono-colour gods. These gods are the stars of Theros, but in the past we haven’t seen them in the art of many cards. I like the contrast between the epic pictures on the god’s mythic appearances and the intimate close ups on the common omen cycle.

Mirror Shield

Theros is Magic’s take on ancient Greece and I love how the myths and history of ancient Greece are translated into card designs. These are known as top down designs, and are popular because they are so evocative. When you see Mirror Shield you remember the story of Perseus and Medusa. The ability on Mirror Shield is long and wordy, but the evocative nature of the design makes it easy to understand.

Another flavourful artifact is Wings of Hubris which is a wonderful homage to Icarus who flew too close the sun. In past formats Cobbled Wings has been underwhelming, but in Theros boardstalls are very common. Wings of Hubris lets players force through damage when they otherwise wouldn’t be able to.

Inevitable End

My favourite flavour text in the set comes from this uncommon removal spell. I love how such simple things as a name and flavour text can conjure up the feelings of a tragic destiny. These things have no mechanical impact but are a perfect fit for a world where the gods are very real characters.

I also love seeing how different people approach evaluating this in limited. At first glance it looks like an unconditional kill spell with the upside of triggering constellation which is a great limited card. Then you realise that it’s unreliable at killing really powerful creatures, because other creatures can be sacrificed if the enchanted creature wins the game quickly. This is a drawback, but how big is it? Trying to analyse new cards with unique abilities is a fascinating problem. The cards also adds layers of decision making to the game. Which creature do you target? Which creatures are going to be sacrificed? I think this card provides more novel and interesting gameplay than a tried and tested kill spell like Murder or Doom Blade.

Daybreak Chimera

Devotion is one of my favourite mechanics of all time and it was no surprise to see this popular mechanic reappear when we returned to Theros. Colour intensive costs such as those on Steel Leaf Champion or Torbran, Thane of Red Fell are traditionally seen as a drawback that stretches your mana base and limits the decks that can play those cards. Devotion turns this orthodoxy on its head, and makes these costs highly desirable. Unlike most set mechanics, devotion pairs well with cards from across the whole of magic’s history and offers immense freedom for those building a devotion deck.

The biggest problem with devotion last time around was that it appeared on 33 cards and some of them like Skyreaping and Thassa’s Rebuff were very underwhelming. Of course the gods and cards like Gray Merchant of Asphodel were big hits, but there weren’t enough for each colour.

Daybreak Chimera is an example of a great devotion card. Using devotion to reduce the cost previously appeared on Marshmist Titan, but the Chimera is far more exciting. A cheap three-three flier is almost always a good threat so unlike the titan it can’t be stumped by a wall of ground creatures. As well as being a better reward, the Chimera also better supports devotion by providing two white pips. If you cast one chimera for four mana, then the next one only costs two white mana, which is excellent.

Whirlwind Denial

Counterspells are supposed to be clean answers to anything, but there are several things that are traditionally hard to interact with. Abilities like escape can be very powerful, but very few counterspells can target abilities. The storm mechanic is also very difficult to interact with. Spells like Empty the Warrens and Brain Freeze create so many copies that countering only one copy is useless. Flusterstorm is the premier answer for storm spells, but it loses it’s luster when used as a counterspell against a single spell. Very few spells can handle both situations. Summary Dismissal exists, but four mana is a lot for a counterspell. Whirlwind Denial saves one mana, which is a big upgrade.

The red-blue archetype in limited is focused on playing spells on your opponent’s turn. Payoffs include Wavebreak Hippocamp and Stinging Lionfish. There’s some awkward tension here, because the payoffs are always sorcery speed threats which inhibits your ability to hold up mana for instants. My favourite feature of this archetype is the sheer number of three drop spells that can be cast at instant speed. There are removal spells, combat tricks, Vexing Gull and Thirst for Meaning. When your opponent is holding three mana open on your turn, it becomes very challenging to play around what they could have open. This cluster of spells makes each one in the group individually stronger.

Anax, Hardened in the Forge

The original Theros set touched on many of the highlights of ancient Greek mythology, but it didn’t feature any demigods. The concept of gods seducing helpless mortal women was understandably unappealing so it’s not surprising we didn’t see them. Theros Beyond Death introduces demigods to magic for the first time, with a clear route to semi-divine status but it comes with a price. Each of the five main gods of Theros has chosen a champion to fight for them, blessed by their patron after death to become a demigod. I think demigods are a great way to enlarge the pantheon on Theros which is only fitting for a plane based on ancient Greece.

The demigods are united by having their power or toughness defined by your devotion to the appropriate colour. This is a new use for the devotion mechanic, and it appropriately mirrors the way devotion strengthens the gods themselves. All of them are exciting in the right deck, but Anax will be explosive. When you attack with a large board, Anax is huge. Against sweepers, he helps you rebuild by leaving behind an army of tokens, and alongside a sacrifice outlet, he can win the game.

Daxos, Blessed by the Sun is also a great card. Devotion decks often want to slow the game down so they have time to play lots of cards. Daxos’s toughness and lifegain abilities both fit perfectly with this plan. The demigods are designed to complement and synergise with their god, and Daxos is the perfect partner for Heliod, Sun-Crowned. When designing cards, you can’t just consider cards in a vacuum so you must build cards with interesting interactions and interplay in the environments where they will see play.

Soul-Guide Lantern

I’m glad to see this at uncommon, because in years to come this could become a much sought after card. Graveyard hate is often an essential part of sideboards in larger formats. Cheap and colourless options like Tormod’s Crypt and Relic of Progenitus see a lot of play in a wealth of decks. Soul-Guide Lantern combines the best of both worlds, and since many decks can get some value from their own graveyard, the lantern can shut down an opponent’s plan without hindering your own.

The Birth of Meletis

I had to include a second saga on my list, and the uncommon cycle of sagas has some interesting entries. The Birth of Meletis tells a story like all sagas, but it’s a little more abstract than other sagas. First the people of Meletis find a location (the plains), build a city (the wall) and prosper (the lifegain). Each effect is small, but the complete package gives lots of value. It may not be as good as Wall of Omens, but there are many ways to build synergies with this saga. It triggers constellation, fuels delve, triggers life gain, and you can bounce or sacrifice the saga for value. It also counts double for cards like All That Glitters and Shambling Suit.

Medomai’s Prophecy is one of the strangest sagas ever printed. It provides a lot of card selection, but very slowly and two of its chapters read like flavour text. The second chapter in particular is amusing. You can name a card you saw when scrying the previous turn and hope your opponent doesn’t mill you. Alternatively you could name a card you don’t have to force your opponent to play differently.

Nessian Hornbeetle

Power matters has been a recurring theme in the red and green colours for a number of years. It is a draft archetype in Theros Beyond Death, we saw it recently in War of The Spark with cards such as Challenger Troll and Kiora, Behemoth Beckoner. It traces its roots back to the ferocious mechanic in Khans of Tarkir as seen on Savage Punch and Wild Slash. This means deckbuilders have a wide pool of cards to chose from when crafting a deck. Themes often have to be repeated several times before they are fully supported as casual constructed decks.

The natural problem with such a deck is what cards to play in the earliest turns. You can play Alpine Grizzly or Loathsome Chimera on turn three, but on turn two you need to play support cards. Theros Beyond Death offers some great options. Nessian Hornbeetle is on curve, which helps you pressure your opponent, but if left unchecked, becomes a high power creature itself. Ramp is another great early game option, and Ilysian Caryatid provides this while sticking to the theme. With all these new tools, this is a great time to dig through magic’s history for high powered creatures and build a fun deck.

Sweet Oblivion

I always reserve a slot on my set reviews for the card with my favourite art. I have no idea what is going on in the art, but it’s definitely sweet and I love it. The main use for this card is as a win condition in limited when the game has ground to a halt. However my favourite way to play Sweet Oblivion is to mill yourself repeatedly, simply exiling the cards you milled last time. Once your deck is nearly empty, Thassa’s Oracle becomes a win condition. Why win normally when you can win with a weird self-mill card with weird art. As a bonus, Sweet Oblivion is hard to interact with as only graveyard hate can be used to stop it once your graveyard is fully stocked.

Pharika’s Libation

The colour pie maybe the foundation of Magic, but it isn’t fixed and unchanging. A recent change is allowing black to have some answers to enchantments. Creature removal and artifact removal belong to three different colours, but only two colours can answer enchantments. To balance this, black is getting limited answers to removal. Sacrifice effects are being used to make it feel black, and to prevent black players destroying their own enchantments. This is important because some black enchantments are balanced and flavoured around their drawbacks. These represent making a deal with the devil that you can’t escape. Great examples are Demonic Pact and Null Profusion.

This colour pie shift started in Commander 2019 with Mire in Misery. Mire in Misery is an interesting first for black, but I much prefer Pharika’s Libation. If your opponent has one key enchantment and some creatures, Pharika’s Libation is far superior. It costs more mana and only hits one player, but is an answer to an other difficult permanent type. I don’t expect black to ever get premium enchantment removal like new card Mystic Repeal but it’s exciting to see new design space being carved open before our eyes.

Alirios Enraptured

I’ll finish my set review with another great top-down design from Greek myth. This design is a fantastic representation of Narcissus who was unable to stop looking at his reflection. You get a lot of power and toughness for three mana, especially in blue, but with the catch that you have to wait before half of it can be used. Alirios can be used as a solid value creature, but also makes a great target for blink and flicker effects.

The unequal power and toughness is a nice touch on Alirios, because it is inverted for the reflection token. Small details like this are the icing on cake. I also like to see obscure creature types getting some love. Reflections have only appeared three times before, but they have all been unusual designs. They appeared most recently on Aurora of Emrakul, and before that on two wacky older cards Pure Reflection and Spirit Mirror.