Standard: Beyond Death
To kick off a brand new year and a brand new decade what better plane to return to than one of the most flavourful planes ever created. At the end of this month we return to Theros and get a deeper exploration of the Underworld!
Today I’m taking a look at what cards from Theros: Beyond Death could be making their way into the standard metagame. There’s lots of cards that have popped up and got my deck building juices flowing, some of which have already turned out to be trash. As always, to get a better look at what may be acquired by the metagame, we need to start by looking at what the metagame already has to offer and what archetypes are sitting on the top spots.
The Good, the banned, and the ugly
After a myriad of bannings over the last 3 months, the once dominant Simic/Sultai Food has gone from oppressive all the way down to non existent. With the removal of Once Upon a Time the consistency wavered a bit, but the final nail was Oko, Thief of Crowns. Oko gave decks such a powerful array of abilities that most of the time he took over a game from the moment he hit the battlefield, but that’s all behind us now. No longer will you have to sit across from an Oko, pondering the decisions that got you to this place as your opponent plays with elks and food until you die.
Jeskai Fire-walk with me
Jeskai Fires was the next deck to take up the mantle of top dog, with its powerful creature package and the namesake of the deck allowing you to play free spells. The real kicker was Fae of Wishes to give you a wish-board package that was usually filled with answers to almost everything in the metagame and, honestly, rewarded you for poor deckbuilding. Since then most Jeskai Fires decks have dropped the wishboard in favour of consistency by employing the more linear Sphinx of Foresight’s Scry effects. This deck doesn’t live or die in Fires of Invention but it does come close at times, shut off the enchantment and their game slows considerably by losing the ability to double spell every turn.
Enter Idyllic Tutor.
Idyllic Tutor fits into Jeskai Fires so well, giving you a great turn three tutor into turn four Fires of Invention and it could be the card that allows you to trim on some Sphinx of Foresight which isn’t the best card in the deck. Sphinx gives you a bit more consistency to draw Fires of Invention but why would you need it if you have a card that just find Fires of Invention. It is true that Idyllic Tutor doesn’t play as well with the rest of the deck but with Fires of Invention being so integral it’s definitely a viable option. I feel that if you’re going to cut any Sphinx then you cut them all, one of the main reasons it’s seen play is for the opening hand trigger and while Idyllic Tutor doesn’t set up your first three turns, it does keep your deck furiously on track and make you even more of a linear deck.
Tectonic Giant is the next card I’m going to look at and it represents a threat and more utility, two things the deck loves. Sometimes you might want to just bolt your opponent, whereas other times you might need more spells to cast for free with your Fires of Invention, well Tectonic Giant does both quite nicely. It is a great target for any removal spell and it’s pretty simple to trade with in combat, but you’ve managed to trigger it either way so you're happy. I’m not sure getting one trigger from your four drop is where Jeskai Fires wants to be, plus it contends for the four drop slot with the most important card in the deck, land Tectonic Giant against a control deck however and you could have a very powerful engine on your hands as they either bounce it or are forced to use a Wrath effect on it, both being great for you.
Banishing Light is something to think about. It’s cheap, which means it plays well both before and is effective with Fires of Invention by giving you a free way of dealing with any pesky permanents. It doesn’t give you the Scry that Prison Realm does but sometimes being able to keep up with the pace of the opposing deck by double spelling could be enough. Banishing Light their Planeswalker and then Deafening Clarion to clear up the ground in turn five is very effective in the right spot as it can be a key, corner-turning turn, and Prison Realm doesn’t lend itself well to that sequence of plays.
So that’s the unfair deck of the format covered. Next up a slightly more fair deck, Jund Sacrifice.
Sacrifices must be made
Jund Sacrifice has risen up in the recent weeks, now that all of its creatures don’t run the risk of being turned into a 3/3 Elks. It has a powerful engine in the form of Witch’s Oven and Cauldron Familiar to whittle it’s opponent’s life total down, sometimes very quickly, while also helping you bolster your life total but it also got a buff from the Brawl decks thanks to Korvold, Fae-Cursed King allowing you to turn the corner immediately, apply a lot of pressure and gain card advantage in the process. The key to Jund Sacrifice isn’t just the Cat-Oven engine or the big dragon you drop on turn 5, it’s the sheer versatility and value that every part of the deck gives you. Mayhem Devil creates a clock without having to attack, Murderous Rider pulls double duty as a removal spell and phenomenal creature, Massacre Girl does a brilliant Damnation impression whenever you need it, and Trail of Crumbs keeps the deck ticking over nicely. This is a deck that is hard to combat as it attacks from so many different angles, every aspect of this deck is built to almost always get value in either life, card advantage or board advantage and sometimes all three.
But what’s the one thing that Jund Sacrifice is missing? Of course it’s a free Sacrifice outlet.
Free sacrifice outlets have always been powerful. Take Nantuko Husk for example: a card that looks very innocuous on the surface but the minute you play against it you realise just how much of a nightmare combat becomes, and at little to no cost. Well, Woe Strider is an absolute treat for a deck like this and sits on exactly the same part of the mana curve at three mana but swaps the combat oriented part for card selection, something that is much better in a vacuum. It even brings along a friend for you to chump with and get a Scry effect from when you sacrifice it to Woe Strider. The full effect of this three mana horror is almost boundless in Jund Sacrifice: it lets you keep your Mayhem Devil triggers coming, triggers your Korvold, helps dig you towards whatever answers you may need and, at worst, is a three mana 3/2 that is fine in combat and can sacrifice itself if needs be. In the late game Woe Strider gives you such a good clock and it won’t even be hard to fund the Escape cost with all the things you’ll be sacrificing. I would look at trimming some Trail of Crumbs as the effects are comparable but Woe Strider’s effect is much more powerful in a vacuum and you don’t have to put the extra mana in, maybe also a land. The deck as it stands is very tight and has some key things at three mana, so there will probably be a slight reworking but the payoff that Woe Strider offers is definitely worth it.
Carrying on with the sacrifice theme, because if it ain’t broke don’t fix it, Blood Aspirant is the next card that I feel could have a place in Jund Sacrifice. Being a deck that aims to sacrifice permanents you would think Blood Aspirant would be a slam dunk inclusion, however two things come straight to mind. Firstly, the mana curve again comes into play: Jund Sacrifice likes to play each turn either on the curve - turn 1 one drop, turn 2 two drop etc - or double spelling when it can - turn 1 one drop, turn 2 two drop, turn 3 one and two drop. Secondly, it has no immediate effect, rather it waits for something like Korvold or Witch’s Oven. That doesn’t make it bad, just slow, and everything on the two mana part of the curve wants to either ramp you - Paradise Druid - or gain you card advantage - Trail of Crumbs. The given with a creature like Blood Aspirant is that is can always be hit with a removal spell but that can be said for most of the deck, given time and allowed to dodge those removal spells though, Blood Aspirant could end up steamrolling everything. The ability, additionally, isn’t nothing: paying two mana to get your Korvold or Massacre Girl through can be utilised effectively to get that successful final swing while also giving you another sacrifice trigger. I’m on the fence but I think I’m leaning more towards Blood Aspirant not making the cut, it does still remain an aggressive option however for the times that the deck wants to get rolling very quickly.
My last take on Theros cards making their way into Jund Sacrifice is Erebos, Bleak-Hearted. Back in old Theros the gods ran riot, I think every one of them saw play in Standard at one point or another and this time around will be no different, sure the gods have suffered a nerf but it was necessary. Erebos gives Jund Sacrifice another good sacrifice outlet while also giving you removal and card advantage all in a nice, four mana package. This is everything the deck wants to do and it comes at the low cost of two mana at a time. I would like to add in that you get a sweet, Indestructible 5/6 to beat with but that’s where the synergy falls down somewhat: With the constant want to sacrifice things and, bearing in mind that the only cards you’re playing that have multiple black pips are Murderous Rider and Massacre Girl, you will often find yourself in a position where Erebos is just an enchantment. I don’t think you want to be attacking with the black god though, it’s fine to have it sat there as an optional card draw engine in the late game. Almost certainly a one of that again may cause Trail of Crumbs to be called into question.
Those are the two biggest decks of the format but honestly now Oko has disappeared, the metagame is quite open.
There are two other decks hanging around on the fringe of tier one: Simic Flash and Rakdos Knights.
Simic Flash has gone through a fair few changes from the hyper reactive days of Brineborn Cutthroat and Spectral Sailor. Right now it functions much more like a Simic value deck with cards like Hydroid Krasis and Nissa, Who Shakes the World. It does keep some of the old Simic Flash elements however such as Frilled Mystic and Nightpack Ambusher to help apply pressure in the late games when things have started to slow though which is nice.
There’s a few things Simic a Flash could pick up, such as Wavebreak Hippocamp - which can give you a tad more card advantage, though it is a slow set up and takes your entire turn three to cast and is fairly ineffective in the late game.
Stinging Lionfish is an interesting one - It comes down early and can help buy you some time against the more aggressive decks. It’s not terrible in the late game either: drop Stinging Lionfish and on your opponent’s turn, bounce a creature with Petty Theft, tap another dude and then cast the Brazen Borrower at the end of the turn to start attacking with. Even being able to tap your opponent’s Gilded Goose in their upkeep with an Opt isn’t a bad plan, it’s not terribly powerful but it will happen every now and again.
The Omen cycle is an interesting one to me. Having a cheap enchantment with a decent enter the battlefield effect and that lets you fix your draws on the way out will help a lot of decks run smoothly in the upcoming format, especially now we have a very good mana base that can push people to play four or five colour decks. Of this cycle Omen of the Sea is by far the best by giving you a what is functionally additional Opts that also help fix your draws on the way out. I don’t know why these have Flash but I think it will make the upcoming metagame quite interesting by giving every possible deck a decent source of card selection.
If this deck was the old, hyper reactive version then I think Naiad of Hidden Coves is a slam dunk inclusion. As the deck stands it’s not terrible but with Paradise Druid, Hydroid Krasis and Nissa, Who Shakes the World popping up in these lists more and more, Naiad will most probably end up being a three mana 2/3 that occasionally gets you some more value. It’s the type of card you really lean into and I don’t think this iteration of the deck does that enough.
Rakdos Knights is your typical aggro list. You want to get some guys down, attack with them and at some point put an Embercleave on one of them. It’s plays on the knight tribal theme a bit but that’s mainly to get mileage out of Blacklance Paragon by helping to trade up or gain life in combat.
Kroxa, Titan of Death’s Hunger is a definite consideration. It’s not pretty and it’s not a knight but it offers you some hand disruption early on and a big 6/6 later down the line, with the added possibility of tearing your opponent’s hand apart as the game goes on.
Other than that, there’s some sweet removal Rakdos Knights could pick up.
Eat to Extinction is a great way of getting rid of the gods and gives you a tiny bit of card selection to boot. Unless the gods become very prevalent however Rakdos Knights already has a powerful removal spell in the form of Murderous Rider that already hits creatures and Planeswalkers and gives you a creature on the back end is lends itself better to devotion strategies. What I'm saying is I think the having a cheaper removal spell that also has a threat attached is slightly better than taking a look at the top of your library.
Drag to the Underworld is almost certainly an inclusion here and a much better one for Rakdos Knights than Jund Sacrifice as you’re more likely to have black pips on the battlefield and helps you keep a low curve for those times you do need to double spell in a turn.
So that’s the current meta that could be picking up some new Theros: Beyond Death cards, but what about new decks that could show their faces.
Hopelessly devoted to you
As we’ve gone back to Theros it would be bad if I didn’t touch on devotion.
Devotion strategies are powerful when built correctly. The upside is that you can lean heavily on whatever colour you’ve chosen to devote yourself too. The downside? You’re restricted to that one colour and maybe some Artifacts. The first devotion deck we’ll look at today is obviously Mono Black Devotion, the minute Gray Merchant of Asphodel was spoiled this deck became a thing again, the reach that this five mana zombie gives you is insane as early as the mid game and just gets better from there.
Here is a mock up Mono Black deck that I’ve grown together. This is by no means the refined list but I think it has a lot of key players that will see the final cut.
Mono Black Devotion
What we’ve got here first off is the standard Cat-Oven set up which gives us play against early drop aggressive decks, giving us both a blocker and access to life gain later down the line. We want to apply pressure early so we also have the full playset of Knight of the Ebon Legion and, with these and Cauldron Familiar, loading up on one drops also helps make Drill Bit more effective turn two. I think Legion’s End is a fantastic card against almost any creature, mainly because it gives you a peek at your opponent’s hand, but it can have those times where it just clears the way of any tokens. Our other two drop, Priest of Forgotten Gods, is a little sketchy but it can help give you this good turn three/four plays to start overwhelming your opponent before turning the corner with Gray Merchant. Ayara and Murderous Rider are slam dunks: both give you a good amount of black devotion, one helps mitigate the life lost over the duration of a game while giving you cards and the other is the perfect removal spell/creature combo. Drag to the Underworld is a great removal spell in this deck as it almost always costs double black and I could see there being a shout for Eat to Extinction but I think that’s a meta call and may require some rejigging of your mana curve. On the five drops we have Gray Merchant of Asphodel, the big payoff for Mono Black Devotion, if they don’t deal with your permanents in a timely manner then Gray Merchant can dome them out of nowhere. Alongside Gray Merchant we have Cavalier of Night - a card that helps with your devotion and gives you a big threat with some removal attached - and Massacre Girl - for those times the board gets a little out of hand and you need to do some spring cleaning. Lastly in the non-lands we have Erebos’ Intervention, a brilliant scaling removal spell at instant speed that also helps take care of any sneaky Escape creatures in your opponent’s graveyard. The Castles in the mana base can give the deck a much needed source of card draw although I don’t think this version of the deck leans on it hard enough when you compare it to Rotting Regisaur decks turning the black Castle into a Phyrexian Arena. There’s shouts for Erebos in this deck but with the solo black pip in its mana cost and the fact that you would be sacrificing your devotion to fuel the enchantment-god’s effect, I feel it would be a bit backwards. One thing I do like about devotion decks, and black in particular, is how you can easily play the Leylines even in the main. They all add two coloured pips to your favoured devotion deck and all have pretty decent abilities, especially Leyline of the Void with Escape being a big mechanic of Theros: Beyond Death.
The key to any good devotion strategy is the payoff. Black is a good example because of Gray Merchant of Asphodel but there are some cards in other colours that could be worth trying out. As it stands the payoffs in other colours don’t really measure up to Gray Merchant of Asphodel in terms of raw power, the white devotion pay off for example - Reverent Hoplite - is on the same part of the mana curve as Gray Merchant but is no where near the power level. Creating a small army for five mana isn’t the worst thing in the world but it’s a lot easier to deal with creatures than it is mitigating life loss. I’m much more excited about the green devotion payoff, Setessan Petitioner, as green is very good at ramping quickly and has the ability to drop a load of small green creatures it can easily get the mileage out of this three mana 2/2. If you can find a way to recast it even the most aggressive of decks will struggle with all the life you’ve gained. These aren’t the only devotion pay offs, there’s an entire Demigod cycle that plays off of your devotion, but the enter the battlefield effects on cards like Gray Merchant and Setessan Petitioner are definitely good enough to make you look twice at devotion strategies.
Mono Green Devotion
I’m always up for a good green deck brew so I’ve thrown one together utilising Leyline of Abundance to both help boost your mana development by enhancing Gilded Goose, Leafkin Druid and Paradise Druid, but also plays into the Devotion count for Renata and Setessan Petitioner. This is a traditional “go big or go home” ramp deck with a top end featuring Nissa, Who Shakes the World, Feasting Troll King and Voracious Hydra to try and go so far over the top and really get your money's worth out of your mana. In between the early drop mana dorks and the big splashy game winners you’ve got some nice utility such as Vivien, Arkbow Ranger and Thrashing Brontondon and some solid creatures like Renata and Yorvo. There’s definitely flexibility in this deck but I love what it’s going for in the sense of just making some big dumb creatures and seeing if your opponent can deal with them.
Always respect your elder...giants
While Simic Ramp is most definitely a thing, it’s been wallowing a bit of late due to being overrun by the value that the Jund Sacrifice decks can amass. Over the months Risen Reef has been in and out of the deck for one reason or another, but now we may have found the card that surpasses Risen Reef in the three drop slot.
Uro, Nature’s Hunger is an absolutely insane card, another of the Elder Giant cycle - along side Kroxa that we looked at earlier - and it doesn’t disappoint. Typically on the front end you’re looking at a three mana gain 3 life and Explore, not bad at all when all you want to do is make mana, draw cards and cast big creatures. Later in the game you have access to a four mana 6/6 with the gain 3 life and Explore every time you attack, the potential for double and even triple spelling in a turn is huge. This is better than Risen Reef in almost every way to the point that I could see running four Uro just to maintain consistency.
A control-ing nature
There is one archetype that has been missing throughout this article and that archetype is Control. Control fell off the radar a bit because it wasn’t able to keep up or deal with...well...anything. When Oko was legal he was running rampant and making everyone who wasn’t playing him look like idiots or was stuck in a Simic Midrange Mirror that took forever. Then Cat-Oven decks took over and Control wasn’t able to deal with the even earlier drops of both Cauldron Familiar and Witch’s Oven or have a consistent way of stopping the engine. Jeskai Fires didn’t care about counterspells and just wanted to play it’s free spells and undeservedly win the game out of nowhere by playing a double black double green spell out of the SIDEBOARD of their RED/WHITE/BLUE deck, I mean who does that. Turns out the game is much easier when you functionally cheat a bit is what I’m saying, but all of that aside Control might now be able to make a resurgence.
First of all we have the removal spells we mentioned earlier - Eat to Extinction and Erebos’ Intervention - both are fantastic utility cards to a deck that is looking to control the board and dig to find its bigger threats. They have access to Thassa’s Intervention which doubles up as good card selection and a great counterspell later on in the game. Duress and Agonizing Remorse offer a good suite of hand disruption if you need them in the board and you already have a versatile finisher in the form of Lochmere Serpent. Another good finisher however could be one of the new planeswalkers on the block: Ashiok, Nightmare Muse. This this huge five mana threat gets to work immediately one way or the other: have a really good blocker with a decent effect or deal with a permanent and a card from your opponent’s hand. I don’t think it’s unrealistic for you to be able to ultimate Ashiok and get some sweet value from your opponent’s stuff. This does every a Planeswalker should do: it protects itself, it gains just enough value and its ultimate isn’t just a win more.
Here we have a very rough Esper Control list:
Now, I will always be the first to say that I’m not the best at building control decks but for the most part I think this one has some good ideas. You have some early play with Thought Erasure and Banishing Light to help you keep up with the faster decks of the format while also still being effective later on. Over the two, three and four drops the deck is quite removal heavy with cards like Legion’s End, Murderous Rider, Eat to Extinction etc, but we live in a creature heavy meta right now and you’d do better with removal than you would counterspells. Every Control deck wants to build up to their late game bombs and this one is no different. Ashiok, Liliana and Lochmere Serpent give you some versatile threats that attack from a lot of angles. Ashiok deals with anything going on in their hand or on top of their library, Liliana goes for the more creature focused removal and Lochmere Serpent is relentless. The two Interventions - Thassa’s and Erebos's - are so good in this type of deck and I think they will be a mainstay in Control and slow Midrange decks for a long time. They add to the bevy of versatile spells that blue white and black have access to and you would be a fool not to include them in your builds.
Theros: Beyond Death is giving us a wealth of cards and strategies to be played around with in the upcoming months and, thanks to an almost perfect mana base, I think we will be seeing a lot of different decks being picked up throughout most of new-standard. Devotion decks are sure to make a splash in the metagame along with Red/Green aggro decks that will start to become more prevalent again thanks to cards like Klothys, God of Destiny - who by the way looks like a bit of a messed up card and you shouldn’t sleep on the red/green god. .
When the dust settles I feel that Jund Sacrifice will still be the benchmark, though I will be keeping an eye on Simic Flash as I feel that a return to the hyper-reactive build will be in good stead against the possible uptake in control and can still keep pace with aggressive decks.
This has been my look at the possibilities accessible in the new standard metagame. This is very much an overview and by no means are any of the deck lists final, refined versions but I do think they have legs. Maybe you can find a better version of them, in which case why not let us know.
Until next time guys, happy gaming!