How to Draft Synergistic Decks in Theros

October 31, 2013 | Posted by Will

When I first tried drafting, I didn’t feel like I knew what cards were good, not just because of my (admittedly weak) card evaluation skills, but also because I never had to look closely for card synergies before. Plus, it’s tough to evaluate cards when they are not in play or in a specific decklist where the themes are highlighted.

Card evaluation is a frustration of many new players as well as knowing which colors you should be in or whether you can splash. It’s easy to become intimidated with these things, but fear not! Wizards of the Coast has made things a lot easier.

I hope you tuned in to Pro Tour Theros. I had it on in the background while working. The coverage was great, the action was awesome, and as always happens this time of year – we got to see a lot more sides of this set than we’ve seen so far, and we’ve got a lot more eyes on it.

The Pro Tour had a lot of implications to the Standard format and the excellent draft coverage provided a glimpse as to what you’ll find when you crack some packs and sit down for a game of Limited.

The most interesting thing I saw covered was a Limited topic that kept cropping up amongst the designers and developers of Theros and other recent sets. I would like to speak about something that Zac Hill kept bringing up and Marshall Sutciffle was keen to talk about. It’s a topic I have discussed at great length with Dee when looking at the glory of the “modern” (recent) Magic set as view through a Limited lens… sign posts!

Sign posts? Sign posts!

When you see a card that suggests a specific draft strategy, Wizards of the Coast wants that strategy to be viable. They want people to see two color cards and decide to try those two colors. They want people to see heroic cards and heroic enablers (spells that target) and have them try out a heroic themed deck!

They want people to see a card like Commune with the Gods and Nemesis of Mortals in the same pack and think “I bet that combo is fun and powerful!” Wizards of the Coast has designed the sets to guide you in a direction that takes some of the pressure off in learning how to draft.

With some older sets, you needed to know going in that certain colors weren’t very deep or certain strategies were not viable. Those may happen in future sets, but Wizards wants to point you where to go more than pointing you in the wrong direction, so if the signs seem clear to you…there’s probably a deck there.

Before we go any further and discuss any specific sign post cards, give any specific examples, or even further define this very important subject, please allow me to be clear: just because something sounds cool, just because there is ONE RARE in the set that has a strategy, do not say “this card is supposed to be a sign post.” It may not be supported in the set.

Mill is probably NOT a strategy. If you REALLY like mill, you shouldn’t get mad that it doesn’t work out. If you want a game plan that always works…you shouldn’t be trying to mill people out.

(Just in case, when I say “mill,” I mean causing your opponent to draw out their entire library of spells as a win condition. Typically, this happens by taking cards from the library and putting them directly to the graveyard, but other cards have recently started exiling from the library and big draw spells can be used to make your opponent draw the final cards as well.)

Along those lines, if you’re forcing colors because you picked up a sign post for the colors that is NOT available in your seat… well I can’t help you after the fact, but keep reading Magic Game Plan, we’ll talk about how to avoid that in the future!

Some people have written great articles about the Limited decks of Theros. I have seen lists that range from six decks up to 14!

That’s 14 different deck types that are actually viable against most decks. First we must realize that the author of the six decks did simplify down to six strategies and what colors are best but allowed for any color combinations.

The point that we should take here is that at the very least you ALWAYS have the 5 basic colors, the ten different two color pairs, or guilds, and in a set like Theros, there are a few two color cards in each pair that are worth building around. These are all potentially good cards to build around if you are in those colors.

For example, take a look at Spellheart Chimera. I have personally made a deck that was full of flyers, instants, and sorceries that took advantage of this creature. I would Magma Jet, Griptide, and Lightning Strike all day long, keep winning combat, and be really aggressive!

That was a really awesome deck that I went 2-1 with because of a terrible misplay on my part where I cast a Lightning Strike thinking it was a Magma Jet…killing their creature instead of killing them with direct damage. I felt bad, but I still loved that deck.

I have, however, been on the opposite side of that coin as well. I picked up a few Spellheart Chimeras really late in pack two, but I couldn’t run them. I just didn’t have enough spells. I had several good creatures already and my instant and sorcery slots were already filled with premium enchantments. Ordeals are really powerful when you can take advantage of them fully through evasion.

In this case, I have to make one very simple card evaluation: here is a two color uncommon card with what may or may not be a powerful ability. But how likely am I to have more than two instants in my graveyard? And on what turn do I cast this card? The card truly shines when have something like five mana and a counter spell or removal spell or both if you’re living the dream!

Unless you draft enough synergistic cards to go with Spellheart Chimera, the answer is probably that if flying is REALLY GOOD against your opponent, and you really need this guy, he might be the best sideboard card ever. Or he might only be an 0/3 in the air that chumps an Asp that’s monstrous while you slowly die.

The more typical sign post cards are tied directly to the mechanics. These same questions must be asked and the more synergy you have in your deck already, the more powerful these sign posts become!

Everybody wants to talk about the heroic decks. They are probably the perfect example of this topic, so I will just jump on that bandwagon myself. Let’s say you pick a really great heroic card like Phalanx Leader! Phalanx Leader is going to really be powerful if you can follow that heroic sign post to a deck.

The sign here says “Hey you, drafter, uh man I like, I really want you to target me” and so when you see a pick two Ordeal of Thassa or Wingsteed Rider, you have a choice to make. The best part here is that you can’t really know what the best move to make here is, but I can give you my opinion.

The Phalanx Leader is so powerful that you are going to put as many targeting spells in your deck as possible, and there are a LOT of things that target in Theros. So many in fact, that you can afford to have a few crappy ones in your deck if you have to, as long as they’re always targeting some AWESOME heroic creature.

It’s far better at this stage in the game to stay in one color and pick the really good evasive heroic creature to give yourself the best path to drafting that strategy.

I recently first picked a Sylvan Caryatid. I knew the card was VERY powerful if I could put it down on turn two reliably. Plus, there are many cards that I could get that would allow me to do further ramping or take advantage of the green devotion mechanic.

I easily picked up many Sedge Scorpions, Nessian Coursers, and a Karametra’s Acolyte. Now I knew I had a better chance of going big with Green! I picked up two Nessian Asps, two Leafcrown Dryads, and some Nylea’s Disciples. Also, after drafting the Acolyte and late first pack Nylea’s Disciples… I first picked a Nykthos, Shrine to Nix in the second pack.

I picked up a few very powerful white spells along the way and a few utility white spells that would be great for sideboarding purposes. In the end I had five white cards: 1 Divine Verdict, 2 Gods Willing, and 2 Hopeful Eidolon.

I had a somewhat powerful green/white deck that will ramp to allow a lot of bestowing and I have big Asps for protection along the way. Do you see how the sign posts of mana ramping and green devotion lead me down this path?

Among my green cards, I also had 1 Centaur Battlemaster and 3 Staunch-Hearted Warrior. I actually left 2 Warriors in the sideboard because the Sedge Scorpions were so very powerful when you bestow upon them.

So I had a green devotion deck that used bestow as a heroic trigger. That’s a lot of sign posts that I, admittedly, kind of fell into.

When you open your next booster pack, I want you to look through the cards just like Marshall and Brian do every week on Limited Resources. I want you to pick a card that is powerful and that you feel comfortable building around. Then in the next pack, I want you to FIRST look for the most powerful card. Then, look for the most powerful card that plays nice with your first pick.

Over the next few picks, pay attention to the colors that seem to be open and the strategies you noticed within those colors. What sign posts have you been seeing? Monstrous? Heroic? Devotion? Ramp? Mill? (No, you didn’t see it, not in Theros, I’m SORRY.) Green/black self-mill ramp into giant monstrous guys?

In Theros, there are a lot of ways to MAKE THINGS WORK. The fine folks at Wizards of the Coast have put a lot of effort into finding ways to make our card evaluation skills be subjected to jungle gym with these new mechanics… while at the same time making these really difficult draft decisions easier for the newer player.

You have my permission and my encouragement to try any strategy in Theros you want. I would love to hear what new decks you find working for you.

I also would love to hear the epic failures as well. Sometimes you build what appears to be the exact deck of your dreams, the strategy you never expected to get, and here it is in your hands or on your screen! But it’s simply not powerful in this format and even though half the games you played you got to execute your big combo…it rarely closed them out. I’d love to hear about those messes as well!

Next time we’ll be talking about the much beloved topic of first picking! Are you a flashy rare type of person, a “build around my uncommon” guy, or a “more power” kind of picker? How often do you let go of your first pick?

Thanks for reading. You can follow me on Twitter @whatsblocking and leave a comment below.