From the Theros product page on DailyMTG:
Prerelease Events: September 21-22, 2013
Release Date: September 27, 2013
Magic Online Release: October 7, 2013
So, this set has now been around for a while. It has even been drafted at both a Grand Prix and a Pro Tour already. And yet, publications all over the net are still struggling to come to terms with the fundamental dynamics of this environment, even though a careful analysis of the set’s card pool would have allowed for predicting them even before its first boosters were opened at prerelease tournaments. Sadly, the art of such analysis seems to be lost, since most players prefer practice to theory, which is even true when it comes to reception of content. Tobias Henke, chief editor of PlanetMTG, explicitly told me that his site is no longer interested in theoretical articles addressing limited strategy, because draft videos are immensely more popular; and this very trend has, with a little delay, become obvious on english speaking sites, too. More or less, the only widely popular remnant of text-based analysis of new sets are LSV’s preview articles on ChannelFireball, which embody everything I used to fight against years ago on German sites (even with moderate success): They’re written before the author has any real clue about the environment; they use an impractical and barely meaningful rating system; they are written with the hottest needle available, processing from card to card without any effort to group cards in a sensible manner, to outline important concepts, or to summarize uninteresting and obvious comments; and they take weeks to get from the beginning (invariably the color white) to the end (usually artifacts and lands). Oh, LSV’s stuff is actually even worse, since he idiotically mixes up limited and constructed previews! If any unknown author would dare to offer such pathetic content, they would surely become the target of well deserved, generously dealt out flaming and sneering, and not even an avalanche of puns of (at best) highly variable quality would save them. There are not many people in the world who COULD write a really good limited preview, and if those people decline to do so because they fail to put even the slightest effort into their writing, relying on their household name to gain public approval (which works like a charm each time, since Magic players are really big on hero worshipping), this infuriates me.
However, the negligence of not even trying seems to have fostered the issue of actually no longer being able to! Unless they are misleading their viewers on purpose (and I must confess, I’m really close to believing they actually do), LSV and his teammates – some of the very best players in the world, including proven limited authority Ben Stark – showcase in their draft videos that they have actually fallen short of grasping the basic nature of this draft environment. If those pros are unable to discover swiftly what’s going on, how should anyone else? Well, several other people were, at the same time, already considerably further ahead on the learning curve; but more importantly, there are basic analytic tools available to gain a good fundament of knowledge about a set’s draft dynamics, which I will explain later in this article.
Let us talk about what has most probably been instrumental in giving many drafters completely wrong ideas about the nature of Theros draft: LSV’s first installement of Theros previews; and Marshall Sutcliffe’s limited column following a few days later (while Marshall is obviously not nearly as much a lauded pro as LSV, he reaches a lot more people since he writes for DailyMTG).
There were two outstanding passages in LSV’s article which made my jaw drop (actually, I was shouting at my screen in disbelief):
Theros is shaping up to be slow enough
White… doesn’t look particularly aggressive
Let that sink in for a moment.
What do you say – these are rather vague expressions with little clarity on what „slow enough“ or „particularly aggressive“ means? Well, vagueness is a good reason for criticism in itself, but in this case the context is sharply illuminating the intended meaning. You see, in that review LSV gives both Favored Hoplite and Ordeal of Heliod a 1.0 (according to his own definitions, stated anew at the beginning of every article, this means „I feel bad when this card is in my main deck“). He also gives a rating of 1.5 to both Traveling Philosopher and Silent Artisan. His top 5 commones include Divine Verdict, but not Battlewise Valor. All this makes for an actually VERY clear (and thus, VERY wrong) statement: White does not want cheap drops and efficient creature pump, because you usually can not expect to draft an aggressive white deck.
Now, the reality check: RW is the fastest archetype in the environment (maybe tied with BR). UW can be drafted in every speed in between very slow and very fast – but usually, the faster it gets, the stronger it becomes. GW can either be implemented as fast aggro, or as a kind of midrange deck which tends to win with a sudden burst of speed rivalling that of low-curve aggressive decks in actually slow formats. BW gives you incentives to be a little more controllish, but you will stil win many games on the back of cheap creatures, some evasion and a plethora of combat tricks and good enhancers. Overall, White is probably the fastest color (only real contender is Red) in an environment with a large number of really fast archetypes.
Other than the color combinations with White, there is also BR (which really wants to be fast beatdown), a beatdown version of BG, a beatdown version of GR, and UR and UG, which both lead to very unforgiving tempo decks if drafted correctly. Actually, the only 2-color combination which really wants to be controllish (and does reasonably well with it) is UB, while the other slower archetypes are Mono-Black, Green-based ramp, lategame-oriented UW skies and lategame-oriented UR instery recursion. But even those slower decks tend to employ threats able to win out of nowhere in short time quite early. Putting down consecutive Gray Merchant of Asphodel on turns 5-7 (maybe with the help of a Rescue from the Underworld) is not exactly slow in the way many M14 decks were slow, and neither is going monstrous with Nessian Asp or Nemesis of Mortals on turn 6, or bestowing an Emissary on Benthic Giant on turn 7.
Theros might not be quite as fast as triple-Zendikar was (although some of its archetypes rival the fastest from that environment with their speed, you have a more realistic choice to do something else than go all-out on aggro in Theros), and there is an interesting debate lurking here about how to exactly define the speed of a limited environment, but for the purpose of drafting, building and piloting your deck, you have to be aware that you live in a fast world, where turn 4 kills will actually happen; where stumbling on either early mana or early drops will often already decide a game; and where nearly any opponent can win in the blink of an eye seemingly out of nowhere, even if you believe you have answers ready. (There are a LOT of wrong answers in Theros limited!)
But why is that, when there seemed to be many indications that Theros should be slow, and players like LSV (or, much more relevant here, Ben Stark) fell for it? Allow me now to quote from Sutcliffe’s article (which convinced me that this guy should better not write about limited strategy at all):
The removal in Theros is slow! Very slow. Some of the slowest removal I have seen, in fact. And as I mentioned at the onset of this article: the slower the removal, the slower the format.
Now, do you spot the mistake here? Okay, apart from much of Odyssey-block removal actually being even slower than Theros removal, it is of course the assumption in the end which is faulty: The slower the removal, the slower the format.
Really, can’t that guy write about… I don’t know… maybe, Snakes and Ladders instead? Let me break that down for you: All other things being equal, the slower and more inefficient the removal, the faster the format. This is because the speed of a format lies in its abundance of aggressive cheap creatures, its density of affordable evasive creatures, and in its abundance and efficiency of creature enhancers (including combat tricks). Cheap, efficient removal tends to slow a format down: While both aggressive and defensive decks can make excellent use of it, defensive decks NEED it to answer evasive creatures and to neutralize enhanced creatures. At the same time, such removal makes combat tricks less attractive and enhancers in general an invitation to get blown out, severely hampering aggressive decks‘ abilities to break through opponents‘ defenses.
Now the situation in Theros is this: Most removal is either situational, or expensive, or both. Creature enhancers, on the other hand (this includes auras as well as the heroic and monstrosity mechanics), are stronger than ever before. Combat tricks are cheap, efficient and plentiful. There is no dearth of quality cheap creatures, and there is a very reasonable amount of evasion in the set. All this points to Theros draft being quite a fast format!
Do people not realize how much Theros resembles Zendikar in single cards and mechanics? Vaporkin is Welkin Tern. Leonin Snarecaster is Goblin Shortcutter. Yoked Ox is Kraken Hatchling. Borderland Minotaur is Shatterskull Giant. Fleshmad Steed is a kind of Hedron Scrabbler – you better don’t plan on blocking with it too often. (Minotaur Skullcleaver and Deathbellow Raider, on the other hand, were borrowed from the lightning-fast Boros Archetype in DGR.) Heroic has a similar dynamic as allies. Both monstrosity and landfall allow decks to keep up and even intensify pressure if they hit a clump of lands.
Some things are different, however. Removal in Zendikar was a lot more efficient, but at the same time there also was a lot more evasion. Good defensive creatures are more plentiful in Theros. The latter fact is the biggest trap in evaluating this environment, though, because playing a big creature is unlikely to stem the tide if it is already your last resort after a slow start! Every kind of creature enhancing (which includes the three most prominent set mechanics!) favors per definition the attacker (since he is the one having his mana open in combat); and tempo cards – which are high quality in Theros, unlike straight removal – always punish big creatures on defense. If you are behind on the board, it is really tough (not outright impossible, but unlikely) to come back with a big play.
On the flip side, if you are already applying pressure, all your enhancing tricks are that much better, since you can safely use them when you forced your opponent to tap out. This is why bestow actually makes the format faster, even though it is expensive: It works best if you already have a board presence and your opponent is backpaddling. From that it follows that you want a good curve, including 2-drops (even though they might become irrelevant a few turns later) and even 1-drops (to put your Ordeals on, which apply Steppe Lynx / Plated Geopede level early pressure to your opponent). 2-drops becoming irrelevant in the lategame is actually not a big deal, because a) there will often be no lategame, and b) the lategame is usually won by ONE BIG THREAT, and it doesn’t really make a difference if you chump that ONE BIG THREAT with a lowly Satyr Rambler, or with a reasonably big Borderland Minotaur – well, actually it does: The Rambler is much more likely to be actually on the board to chump!
So, overall, Theros plays like a mixture from Zendikar and Rise of the Eldrazi: You need to be active, you need to be on the board as early as possible, and you need to be able to go big on whatever your chosen synergy (ultra-aggro, heroic, tempo, ramp, devotion) is consistently. Most of this could have been found out quite early by carefully analyzing the spoiler and do a couple mock drafts on LeBestiare or a similar medium – and I actually did (check out my tweets if you don’t believe me!)
So this is what I guess led to the false impression that Theros draft is a „slow format“ (by the only useful definition of allowing you to get to the lategame without substantial concessions to early plays, and enabling you to consistently answer threats with reactive builds; two assumptions which are both dead wrong):
1. Both monstrosity and bestow need a lot of mana, so we can assume we will regularly be able to spend that much mana (this is wrong because bestowing or going monstrous is actually only needed once in most cases to end or – if you’re lucky – turn around a game).
2. Removal is expensive, and you want to play that removal, since you need to deal with monstrous/bestowed creatures, so games will come down to big threats vs expensive removal (this is wrong because games instead often come down to fast threats against uncastable cards or big threats against irrelevant cards, and because removal, even when finally online, cannot reliably remove big threats).
3. Heroic is a niche archetype which is easily hated and not really THAT fast since the best heroic creatures cost 3 mana (this is wrong because heroic becomes unstoppable too fast, and because heroic enablers also go well with more conventional aggro strategies, both preventing them from being hated too easily and allowing them to be used by more drafters).
At least I suppose it must have been something like this (note that it never really occurred to me that Theros could be a particularly slow environment)… but why did the best players in the world, even after several test drafts, not notice that their initial assumptions were wrong? Well, that phenomenon is known as „incestuous playtesting“ (or, more nicely put, convergent groupthink): If no one in a group believes aggro is the way to go, then aggro will not be drafted (at least neither often nor consequently enough). Decks without early pressure will face off against each other, and here, of course, the slower decks will prevail, even strengthening the intial bias.
It happened before. I remember when some pros claimed that Reckless Scholar was the best common in Zendikar draft, because that environment was so slow… no, I’m not making that up – honestly! I ridiculed that opinion immediately, but since it was voiced by pros, and I was not a pro, I was ridiculed back. Steppe Lynx, by the way, got an 1.0 from LSV for limited back then – sounds familiar? And even on the first professional event featuring Zendikar draft, top pros left the Lynx in the sideboard of nominally aggressive white decks. In comparison, misjudgement of Theros is not even quite as egregious, but unfortunately, more persistent!
In my next entries (soon to follow, I hope) I will take a look at a few draft walkthroughs which are available on the net, comment on the drafting which took place, and analyze the games to illustrate my points (while I’m reasonably confident in my ability to predict draft environment dynamics, I do not assume that I could never be wrong, and thus I did a lot of checking up on other players‘ experiences to complement my own experiences and theories).