The new year has begun, and with it comes the first Magic release of 2020 - Theros: Beyond Death. We return to the Greek mythology-inspired plane of gods, heroes and monsters of legend. Last visited over the three-set block of Theros, Born of the Gods, and Journey into Nyx from fall 2013 to spring 2014, the world is one remembered fondly by players for its feel and flawed-but-fun play environments.
With this review, I’ll be giving my estimation of the set by framing it with the same five aspects used in my Throne of Eldraine article. Onward to battle!
The fact that Theros is Magic’s approximation of ancient Greece tells you a lot about what to expect from Theros: Beyond Death (THB). The aforementioned gods are extremely powerful deities with massive physical bodies both majestic and menacing. The heroes are clad in Spartan-like armor and fight with skill, cunning, and might for glory. The monsters include many that have become staples of fantasy - hydras, minotaurs, centaurs, satyrs, and gorgons - as well as some more on the periphery, like chimeras, ceberuses, and catoblepones.
The storyline of the original Theros block revolved around fan-favorite planeswalker Elspeth, her victories over the legendary hydra Polukranos and planeswalker-turned-deity Xenagos, and her eventual demise at the hands of Heliod, the white-aligned god who once had proclaimed her his champion.
Now, Elspeth has managed to escape from the Underworld - perhaps permanently, perhaps not - and would seem to have it out for the god that took her life. The brand-new green-red god of destiny, Klothys, takes issue with this subversion of fate and has somehow created a planeswalker, Calix, to track down Elspeth. Meanwhile, another favorite, nightmare weaver Ashiok, has their own plans for exerting influence and gaining power on a plane clearly on the verge of conflict.
As a set very much designed in a “top-down” manner, THB has many incredibly evocative cards, from the Magic versions of Achilles (red-white rare Haktos the Unscarred) and Narcissus (blue uncommon Alirios, Enraptured) to the foundation of Athens (white uncommon The Birth of Meletis) and even the Olympics (green rare The First Iroan Games). As someone who grew up reading tales of Greek mythology, it is an absolute delight to see these figures and tales brought to life as pieces for my favorite game - and I doubt I’m alone.
Speaking of bringing things to life, the imagination, talent, and flair that went into the art direction and execution in Theros: Beyond Death really makes the set sing when viewed as a whole. From the return of the starry borders of the enchantment creatures to the moody grey hazes of the Underworld and the bright blazes of red god Purphorous’s forge, the visuals alone convey the sense of wonder and awe so closely associated with the source material.
What’s more, several new ideas have been implemented via alternate art versions of various key cards, and two of these have been almost universally praised: borderless planeswalkers featuring the set’s three central figures (Elspeth, Ashiok, and Calix) as gorgeous stone statues and each of the six mythic rare gods and five uncommon demigods as constellations in the night’s sky (officially referred to as “Constellation Showcase”). The practical-minded player in me may prefer to use regular frames in my decks, but the collector in me cannot deny that these impress in a big way; regardless, the larger community is clamoring for them.
Another experiment is the Nyx basic lands, one of which is included in each draft booster in the standard basic land slot. Again incorporating a starfield backdrop to evoke the celestial realm of Theros’s gods, these lack any sort of physical representation of the geography referenced in their names and instead have an ethereal rendition of the appropriate mana symbol taking up the majority of the card face. These have been more controversial than the other releases - some liken them unfavorably to the Pokemon TCG’s energy cards - but they’ve definitely grown on me, despite my typically traditional tastes. The good news for those that don’t care for them is that they’ll be fairly hot commodities on the trading block for a while, going for considerably more than the typical basic land - so there’s equity to be gained no matter your opinion.
One other new take on an existing card type worth mentioning is the sagas included in THB. Returning from their last appearance in Dominaria, these enchantments stand out for their vertical side-by-side layout, text on the left, image on the right. Appropriate to the setting, each of the pieces used on the 10 cards in this cycle depicts a sculpture, fresco, scroll, or painted urn depicting the “story” being told by the enchantment. Without exception, they grab the eye and have you noticing new details each time they pop up - another fantastic touch.
Before moving on, I simply must point out a few personal favorites: Zack Stella’s Callaphe, Beloved of the Sea; Magali Villaneuve’s Calix, Destiny’s Hand and Klothys, God of Destiny; and Johannes Voss’s Gallia of the Endless Dance are particularly enjoyable for me. The first three impress upon the viewer the grandeur of these divine entities, while Gallia bursts with irreverent, indulgent joy and will have you chuckling each time you look at it.
Theros: Beyond Death is headlined by one new mechanic, escape, and two returning favorites, devotion and constellation. The former illustrates the emergent crisis the plane is experiencing since last we left - that creatures are escaping the Underworld - while the other two play into the themes of “commit to one color of mana” and “enchantments matter,” respectively.
Escape is an ability word appearing on several card types, but most commonly on creatures. It allows the owner of the card to play it from the graveyard for an alternate casting cost - typically an amount of mana greater than the normal casting cost as well as exiling a number of other cards from their graveyard - and in the case of creatures, they almost always escape with some number of +1/+1 counters on them.
Shorthanding escape as a “different kind of flashback” isn’t a bad comparison - just like that mechanic, it allows players to replay spells from the graveyard. But there’s a key distinction that makes it play out in its own way: escaping a spell or permanent does not result in the card being exiled after resolution the way flashback does. If it’s a permanent, it goes to the battlefield, and if it’s an instant or sorcery, it goes back to the graveyard. That means cards with escape can be recurred more than once over the course of the game - but that, of course, is contingent on the player being able to pay its escape cost multiple times.
Devotion is a fairly simple mechanic that asks the player to count the total number of mana symbols of a given color (or colors) in the casting costs of permanents they control to determine either the strength of an effect or if a condition has been satisfied. A card might gain the player life equal to their “devotion to green” - the number of green mana symbols on their permanents - or, in the case of the gods, require that a certain devotion to their color is met before the type “creature” printed on their type line is active in play.
Finally, constellation is an ability word on permanents signifying that they produce an additional effect whenever an enchantment enters play on their controller’s side of the battlefield. It’s very similar to the landfall ability from the sets on the plane of Zendikar - it encourages you to play a deck dense with enchantments to trigger a powerful suite of constellation abilities.
So far in my experience, escape is a powerful mechanic, but even in the grindy games of Limited, it doesn’t come up very frequently. It has you thinking “if my opponent ever escapes that big creature from their graveyard, I’m in trouble” - and whether or not that opponent does may well be the deciding factor in the game, but it really requires a large amount of resources.
Devotion was a dominant mechanic in Standard when it last appeared, and I expect it will have at least some role now that it’s back - the aforementioned gods will no doubt see play, so we’ll at least see a good amount of attention paid to the mechanic in decks that play them. Constellation had a lesser impact last time around, but it’s my pick for what to build around based on some of my favorite cards in the set. I think we’ll see a handful of enchantment-packed lists pop up in the near future.
While it is too early to say what cards from THB will be the strongest, there are some early frontrunners for both the bread-and-butter “staples” and the game-winning “bombs.” For example, in Limited (and quite likely some Constructed formats) blue mythic rare saga Kiora Bests the Sea God is being regarded as one of the absolute most difficult-to-answer spells to see print in a while. A massive hexproof kraken followed by a one-sided lockdown and topped off with a permanent-stealing effect is effectively impossible to combat, even if the enchantment costs seven mana.
Blue-black mythic rare Ashiok, Nightmare Muse looks to be the planeswalker most primed for Standard play, as it combines elements of both Teferi, Hero of Dominaria and Teferi, Time-Raveler with an extremely efficient +1 creature-creating ability. Back on the topic of the gods, white mythic rare Heliod, Sun-Crowned has already been tagged for its infinite-combo synergy with Pioneer staple Walking Ballista.
Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath is the third in a growing list of “broken” blue-green mythic rares, the previous entries being Ravnica Allegiance’s Hydroid Krasis and Throne of Eldraine’s Oko, Thief of Crowns. Considering how popular its color combination is in Standard, it seems like a can’t-miss.
Just how much the set shakes up the various Constructed formats again remains to be seen, though I will say that at first blush it may not be quite as high-impact as Eldraine - but that says more about ELD’s absurdly pushed cards than it does about Theros: Beyond Death’s objective power level.
Finally, even though I am not a connoisseur of Commander, it is definitely worth mentioning here that there are three “big mana” cards that are highly likely to become important: Nyxbloom Ancient, Dryad of the Ilysian Grove and Nyx Lotus. In a format known for big, splashy, overpowered, and sometimes wacky plays, they’re bound to factor into many players’ plans.
After several innovations with Throne of Eldraine, the product lineup here remains largely the same. You’ve got your regular 15-card Draft Boosters, found at local game stores and mass market outlets alike, good for playing Limited formats or opening right away. As always, they can be purchased as single packs, bundles (10 packs, a spindown die, a pack of basic lands, and a nice box) or booster boxes (36 packs and, if ordered soon enough, a special buy-a-box promo).
Collector Boosters are also back, and they contain a similar breakdown of “fancy” versions of cards as their ELD counterparts - you’ll get one rare or mythic rare with extended art; one foil rare or mythic rare; eight foil commons and uncommons; one saga, Constellation showcase, or borderless planeswalker; one foil Constellation or borderless planeswalker; two foil Nyx lands; one ancillary card from a planeswalker deck or theme booster; and one foil token. With their much higher price tag compared to Draft Boosters, how enticing these are is fairly subjective, but it’s nice to see them back for those into blinging out their decks.
Planeswalker decks starring Ashiok and Elspeth are decent starting points for new players, but like I said in my Throne review, some additional guidance will be necessary for total newbies beginning their journey with these. The versions of their central planeswalkers are also distinct and less-powerful compared to those appearing in the Draft Boosters, so that’s also something to keep in mind.
And speaking of starting points, I think Theros: Beyond Death would serve just fine as a new player’s first set, but it doesn’t shine in this respect as much as Throne of Eldraine did. For one, Greek mythology is certainly resonant and popular in today’s culture, but it’s probably not as recognizable as fairy tales. What’s more, the story was set in motion with the first Theros block, so the characters, settings, and conflicts require a bit of backstory to understand.
And perhaps most importantly, the mechanics - namely escape and constellation - require a little more rules knowledge than, say, ELD’s food token mechanic. Still, by no means would I say that someone getting into the game shouldn’t dive in and experience all that this incredible world has to offer. Slaying mighty monsters and reveling in the grandeur of gods is a sublime way to experience Magic, if I do say so myself.
Now go play some Theros: Beyond Death - and may the pantheon favor you!
Written by John McCurdy