Rotation Grief: Theros Beyond Death, Part 2
- Gianluca Aicardi
The Standard rotation is upon us again! Time to acknowledge the disappearance from our decks of all the cards from the four rotating sets. We continue this journey of grief (or perhaps jubilation) by looking into the red, green, multicolored, and colorless cards Standard will lose when Theros Beyond Death rotates out.
Theros Beyond Death Red Losses
The Akroan War: Essentially a variant of Act of Treason, this enchantment packed enough additional value to become one of the preferred takes on the temporary steal effect. For one thing, being a Saga, it didn't require us to sacrifice the stolen goods right away but let us exploit them for a couple of turns. The other two chapters weren't always entirely relevant, but enough so that the card proved a valuable tool in creature slugfests escalating to ever-larger monsters even without sacrificial options, like red-green. The first effect alone pushed sacrifice decks into fielding this war memorial as a complement to Claim the Firstborn, which has a built-in hard limit to what it can get away with. Grief Factor: 6/10.
Anax, Hardened in the Forge: The most played of the Demigod cycle, by a considerable margin. In fact, it was the one card in which the devotion count actually mattered, rather than just representing additional value, like waking up Heliod or making Daxos more resilient. The moment the character's solo card joined Standard, Anax provided Monored Aggro with a serious midrange threat, as well as crucial insurance against mass removal. Anax's power often naturally rose to such a high amount that a single Embercleave-fueled attack would result in a one-shot kill. Grief Factor: 8/10.
Infuriate: Red's quasi-Giant Growth was given an extension of legality after its original printing in Core Set 2020. It was far from being a protagonist in the meta, but it earned itself the occasional place in the fastest iterations of Monored Aggro, or in decks trying to go all-in on a single attacker. A 3-power boost for one mana is still the best deal one can hope for without killing the creature in the process. Grief Factor: 5/10.
Omen of the Forge: Red's entry in the Omen cycle was reasonably costed, but it didn't end up seeing nearly as much play as Omen of the Sun and Omen of the Sea. Before the companion nerf, some Jeskai Yorion builds used it, and Mardu Doom Foretold even had multiple uses for it. But, at the end of the day, it was a two-mana Shock with upsides that one had to make significant. Grief Factor: 3/10.
Ox of Agonas: This mythic Ox, the very first of its kind, was designed as a midrange refueler for the type of red deck that can empty its hand very quickly. It was employed that way at times, but the cost effectiveness at five mana wasn't high enough to convince your average Monored Aggro to extend the creature curve past Torbran. It ended up carrying more weight as an escape card to pitch or mill early on, to cast later for a very aggressive mana cost. Ultimately, red sideboards liked the Ox best, as a repeatable source of gas and board presence in control matchups. Even more so, against Rogues, it would do all of this and help empty the graveyard. Grief Factor: 5/10.
Phoenix of Ash: Solid but not vastly appreciated recursive three-drop in red. It was well-designed and well-liked but, unfortunately, it had to compete with more critical same-costed cards such as Anax and Bonecrusher Giant. Grief Factor: 6/10.
Purphoros, Bronze-Blooded: Definitely the most ineffectual of the set's Gods. Purphoros wanted to be Sneak Attack on legs, but the activation cost was too steep to be paid right away and the restriction to red creatures too limiting. Just taken as a haste-giving enchantment, it was entirely too pricey. Grief Factor: 2/10.
Purphoros's Intervention: This card has two modes—either expensive sorcery-speed removal or extremely expensive Ball Lightning. Just as disappointing as Purphoros itself. If it wasn't for Anax, Theros Beyond Death would make for a very bad showing for the red denizens of Nyx. Grief Factor: 1/10.
Satyr's Cunning: Not the most appealing token-making spell ever, its recursive nature still made for an acceptable inclusion in some builds: either try-hard aggro lists or those focused on Lukka, which needed a critical mass of token production to enable their game plan. Overall, this spell gave us little reason to grieve for its departure. Grief Factor: 2/10.
Storm Herald: Combo piece for a list that tried to engineer a one-swing win by bringing back a discarded Colossification on the Herald itself or, preferably, on Paradise Druid. We could then untap the target via Stony Strength or just Fling the colossified creature at the opponent's face. In Standard, it was a rogue list at best, if an entertaining one. Grief Factor: 3/10.
Storm's Wrath: An at times influential, four-mana damage-based sweeper in red. Jeskai lists had access to the superior white versions, like Shatter the Sky, but Temur and Izzet decks had to rely on this one. And they very much did, just like they're now very much going to pine for a reprint. Grief Factor: 8/10.
Tectonic Giant: Playable midrange beater with some extra value. It didn't amount to much, lacking an extra punch to make it actually desirable. Grief Factor: 4/10.
Underworld Breach: The set's take on Past in Flames, but with escape in place of flashback—which of course is not really comparable power-wise. It had potential, and realized it in other formats, but unsurprisingly, this era's Standard was not equipped to sustain any competitive storm strategy. While Thousand-Year Storm was still legal, there were attempts at combining the two cards. They mostly resulted in electrifying jank. Grief Factor: 3/10.
Deathbellow War Cry: A Theme Booster exclusive that instantly caught the eye of any Johnny and Jenny worth their salt. At first, Standard forced us to pair it with actual Minotaurs, which didn't even become viable when Zendikar Rising added Moraug. Kaldheim's Maskwood Nexus didn't change the competitive prospects either. Grief Factor: 1/10.
Terror of Mount Velus: This Dragon is the one Theme Booster exclusive that found a modicum of importance, either as a target to fetch with Magda or in the theoretical turn two kill involving Minion of the Mighty. Neither became a tier one deck by any stretch of the imagination, but still quite the accomplishment for this kind of casual-oriented card. Grief Factor: 2/10.
Theros Beyond Death Green Losses
Arasta of the Endless Web: A fine defensive four-drop that was, however, completely out of tune with what green decks tried to accomplished during this cycle—which is also what green decks usually try to accomplish. The go-wide angle is mere wishful thinking, since the opponent won't play into it more than once or twice. The only element of Arasta that made it slightly significant is the legendary supertype. In the last stretch of its Standard tenure, cards like Kolvori and Esika would care for it, though never in very competitive fashion. Grief Factor: 3/10.
The Binding of the Titans: A self-mill-enabling Saga, similar to Tymaret Calls the Dead. The Binding was more efficient, but Tymaret's Saga was in a color more likely to lend itself to graveyard shenanigans. Grief Factor: 4/10.
Chainweb Aracnir: This little escaping Spider remained dormant for much of its time in Standard, then suddenly became a widespread sideboard fixture to fight the dominance of Dimir Rogues decks after Zendikar Rising. One point of damage was enough to kill Merfolk Windrobber, while the Aracnir's toughness lined up favorably against Soaring Thought-Thief. When escaped in the late game, it could pretty much kill any flying Rogue on the spot. It wasn't a real heir to Kraul Harpooner, but it got its job done. Grief Factor: 5/10.
Dryad of the Ilysian Grove: This card took Courser of Kruphix as a guideline—same mana value, same-sized enchantment body, as well as common roots traceable back to Oracle of Mul Daya. Each of them took a different ability from their shared ancestor: the Centaur got the Future Sight for lands, while the Dryad inherited the extra land drop. Both are valuable skills in their own way, but providing card advantage was what made the Courser worth the inclusion in any kind of green deck during its Standard legality and beyond. Meanwhile, the Dryad proved more effective as a fixer in multicolored builds, particularly in those that went for the full spectrum of mana. Grief Factor: 7/10.
The First Iroan Games: It turns out the Olympics is a green thing. This card read a lot better than it played, as it was too easy for the opponent to disrupt the card draw. Recently, Ranger Class showed us how this kind of enchantment is properly done in green. Nonetheless, the Games were frequently disputed in Brawl. Grief Factor: 4/10.
Hyrax Tower Scout: Fairly obscure untapper that had its fifteen minutes of fame (if even that) when Prime Speaker Vannifar builds very specifically took advantage of its ability to instantly go from mana value 2 to mana value 4. It's hard to see how it could have contributed a similar role in any other meta. Grief Factor: 1/10.
Ilysian Caryatid: One of the primary two-drop mana dorks of this Standard era. It arguably succeeded Paradise Druid as the best of its kind, at least until Tangled Florahedron usurped the position merely by virtue of residing in a land slot. The Caryatid's mana production was more versatile than that of its partial contemporary Leafkin Druid, which could only supply green. It also doubled more easily, thanks to the wide presence of enablers like Questing Beast, Lovestruck Beast, and Gemrazer. This kind of creature is bound to always exist in Standard in some form or other, and Florahedron will have another full year to serve after September, but the Caryatid ranked pretty high in the scale of ramp efficiency. Grief Factor: 6/10.
Mystic Repeal: Cheap anti-enchantment tech specifically designed to hit the indestructible Gods. As such, it gained some minor relevance as a sideboard card. It remains, to date, the most efficient spell for this specific task. Grief Factor: 3/10.
Nessian Hornbeetle: While the three-drop and four-drop slots are always overcrowded in Stompy, good two-drops are harder to come by. For a time, the Beetle was seen as a valid choice for that spot, enabled by the same kind of cards that also made Ilysian Caryatid good. Plus, having built-in +1/+1 counters is always a potential advantage in green. Grief Factor: 4/10.
Nylea, Keen-Eyed: One of the Gods that ended up feeling somewhat worse than their previous iteration. Once it reached four mana, there was just no compelling reason for a green deck to cast a creature whose main function is to make any follow-up slightly cheaper. On top of that, the activation was just too expensive to exploit consistently. It's not a bad card, and there were worse things a green deck could include at that point in the curve, but also a whole lot of better ones. The entire Nylea package—Nylea's Intervention, Omen of the Hunt, Renata, Called to the Hunt—was similarly composed of a group of very reasonable cards that did a good, not great job in their respective roles. Just like their mistress, they didn't affect the meta too much, except perhaps in Brawl. Grief Factor: 5/10.
Nyxbloom Ancient: The over-the-top mega-ramp card of this cycle. It didn't find any real competitive application, but was regularly featured in all the experimental/janky builds trying to go infinite, or almost infinite. After all, it's not every day that Standard contains a mana tripler, for better or for worse. Grief Factor: 6/10.
Setessan Champion: The principal build-around card for constellation, a veritable Enchantress by any other name. In fact, due to its capability of doubling as an ever-growing threat, the Champion might be considered the second best creature of its type ever printed, after the untouchable Argothian Enchantress. Constellation decks never reached proper top-tier status, but all those that tried to get there would inevitably feature a playset of this fierce Warrior. Grief Factor: 7/10.
Wolfwillow Haven: Not all Standard metas can count on two-mana enchantment ramp. In fact, in order to find the last time the format had access to it, we have to move back fourteen years, to Fertile Ground in Lorwyn. Wolfwillow Haven lacked any knack for mana fixing but made up for it by turning into a creature when the ramping had run its course. We're going to miss this little card more than we'll miss the usual two-drop mana dork, which will always feel clumsier, slower, and more unreliable compared to a land Aura. Grief Factor: 9/10.
Theros Beyond Death Multicolored Losses
Ashiok, Nightmare Muse: With the rotation of the Ravnica-based sets in fall 2020, and specifically with the loss of the planeswalker bonanza called War of the Spark, the prevalence of planeswalkers greatly declined. Of the surviving ones, this new Ashiok card was certainly high on the power scale, even just as an assembly line for some impressive tokens. But it was also a control-ish five-drop in blue and black, coming at a time when control decks started to move away from black entirely. As a result, the card never found a stable home. It was still welcome in the sporadic blue-black build but suffered from lack of interaction with the main Esper deck of the era, as tokens don't feed Doom Foretold. It felt like it was just a matter of time before Ashiok would find a way to become a more enduring nightmare. Alas, it never happened, and now it's too late. Grief Factor: 7/10.
Athreos, Shroud-Veiled: In all the four rotating sets, the Buy-a-Box promo was still an exclusive card not found in boosters. With some exceptions like Kenrith, the Returned King, these cards are usually quirky designs that don't mean to have any meaningful influence on the competitive meta. Athreos fits the description. Theros's take on Charon was kind of expected to show up in a set that intended to explore the plane's underworld. But there was no room to include a full cycle of the dual-colored Gods, so Athreos was relegated to the Buy-a-Box slot. Essentially a more expensive Thassa in Orzhov colors, the card could make for a fun, relaxed commander in Brawl but had no place whatsoever anywhere else. Grief Factor: 3/10.
Atris, Oracle of Half-Truths: Like Ashiok, Atris was another strong Dimir card that spent the last stretch of its time in Standard during a period when Dimir or Esper weren't the best options for competitive control decks anymore. (It's worth noting how all the dual-colored Gods received at least one card reminding us of their continued existence, this one being the Oracle of Phenax.) There were about eight months beforehand, however, when Esper builds had simultaneous access to Teferi, Time Raveler, Thought Erasure, and Hero of Precinct One. That was Atris's moment of major glory. It still was neither centerpiece nor must-play card, but its overall strengths will be sorely missed. Grief Factor: 8/10.
Bronzehide Lion: This imposing Cat was designed as a slam-dunk for Selesnya decks, as a two-drop 3/3 is already enough to justify an inclusion in most creature builds. Unfortunately, generic aggro lists in those colors never really materialized, and the Lion didn't synergize with anything in particular. It doesn't have +/1+1 counters, it doesn't gain life, and it's not an enchantment, at least not right away. The activation was also too demanding to keep up, and the post-mortem Aura form not useful enough. Grief Factor: 3/10.
Calix, Destiny's Hand: Klothys's field agent was a very specialized planeswalker, as they have tended to be, following the War of the Spark anomaly. Constellation decks running Setessan Champion might find some use for a couple of Calixes as utility centrals, but his presence wasn't even that necessary. And those lists haven't been much more than a flash in the pan, anyway. Grief Factor: 5/10.
Dalakos, Crafter of Wonders: Possibly this Standard cycle's legend that felt most out of place. Even if we include the four sets that rotated last year with the release of Zendikar Rising, a proper "artifacts matter" theme was never viable, at least not in the way Dalakos intended. Equipment decks would come to the foreground with the release of the 2021 sets, but they wouldn't much care for a blue splash or for Dalakos's mana production and granted evasion. Of course not all cards are designed with Standard in mind, but it's hard to fathom what format Dalakos was created for—except maybe the fig leaf of Commander. Grief Factor: 1/10.
Dream Trawler: It's not crazy to consider this sexy Sphinx as one of the best finishers in the history of the game. Almost impossible to kill with spot removal, while providing cards, life, and a reasonably fast clock, Dream Trawler really was the embodiment of any control player's wet dreams—as well as one of the main reasons why black suddenly wasn't needed in those lists anymore. There's even a world title by Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa to prove it. Whatever other curve topper will follow in the footsteps of this blue-skinned lady, it'll have big lion-sized shoes to fill. Grief Factor: 10/10.
Enigmatic Incarnation: This set's de-powered variant of Birthing Pod was an exciting card for Johnnies and Jennies, if a bit too slow to get going for truly competitive play. It was also difficult to create chains, because the Incarnation asks the sacrifice of enchantments but searches for creatures, and the two permanent types don't always line up the way we'd like to, even in a Theros-based set. Grief Factor: 6/10.
Gallia of the Endless Dance: The cutest Gruul beater ever put to card, this Satyr party girl was a legitimate contender for the two-drop slot, even while Zhur-Taa Goblin was still legal. The attack trigger might be random, but it's still a guaranteed two for one in our favor. The prospective value was enough to convince Gruul players to run some copies of Gallia alongside the same-costed Goblin, and later Brushfire Elemental. The character's contagious cheerfulness made any list more joyous and festive! Grief Factor: 7/10.
Haktos the Unscarred: A neat take on the myth of Achilles and his fatally flawed heel, Haktos was a bit too unreliable to be played straight. The card's true chance for glory came one set later, when Winota decks started exploiting any Humans with superior stats they could cheat into play via their namesake's attack trigger. Haktos was one of those, being mostly six unblockable damage coming out of nowhere. Grief Factor: 5/10.
Klothys, God of Destiny: The God cycle in Theros Beyond Death was strictly monocolored. But one seat in the larger pantheon had been left vacant with the death of Xenagos in the original block. It turns out the Satyr had usurped the red-green slot from Klothys, who was busy keeping the Titans sealed in the underworld. Now the events of the set caused the character to resurface, represented in card form by a very impactful three-drop, widely employed in Standard and beyond. It might not be apparent at first, but Klothys's functions are numerous: graveyard hate, life gain, continuous and semi-uncounterable source of direct damage, occasional ramp. Plus, it's easy to wake up in the mid-game, getting access to an indestructible 4/5, for additional mayhem. Grief Factor: 8/10.
Kroxa, Titan of Death's Hunger: One of the two Titans in the set. Not as broken as Uro, but still a terrific recursive threat, fully capable of winning the game on its own. A must-run in graveyard-based decks, it was also vastly appreciated by sacrifice builds, which enjoyed the interaction with Village Rites and other instant-speed sac effects. There was also the combo with Hushbringer, which made Kroxa stick around without escaping—not as prevalent as the more straightforward applications but always amusing to perform. Grief Factor: 9/10.
Kunoros, Hound of Athreos: A decent three-drop with a good suite of keywords. Being a reference to Cerberus, it was meant as a "guardian" against graveyard shenanigans. Unfortunately, there hasn't really been a deck in the right colors that was interested in that kind of specific, symmetrical hate. Grief Factor: 5/10.
Polukranos, Unchained: Good old Polukranos, slain by Elspeth in a previous episode, came back in Theros Beyond Death as a black-green Zombie Hydra. Its body was still big—in fact even bigger—and its fight on demand still a factor. The heyday of Golgari Midrange was long past by now, but that archetype will always prove popular, and even Sultai Control had some good showings, so undead Polukranos never ceased to be a consideration. It's an individually powerful card that can return to the battlefield multiple times, ensuring a stream of removal and a constant win condition throughout the course of a game—much in the same way as the two Titans, albeit without an immediate value trigger. Grief Factor: 8/10.
Staggering Insight: The tentative replacement to last cycle's Curious Obsession. For one more mana, we also get lifelink, and we're not forced to attack. The extra mana is necessarily white, but that wasn't really a hindrance. The real reason why this card didn't enjoy the same success of the Aura that preceded it is that its ideal home had fallen out of grace. This kind of Curiosity need a tempo deck that can drop one evasive creature and then protect it with countermagic, self-fueling it through the accrued card advantage. Azorius didn't produce anything very reliable in that department, though some such builds would appear now and then, possibly out of sheer nostalgia. Grief Factor: 6/10.
Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath: Probably the most broken card to come out of a premier set in the past two years, along with Oko, Thief of Crowns. Despite seeing print in back to back sets, the two controversial Simic three-drops didn't actually coexist in Standard at any point in time, as Oko was banned before Uro was even released. The Titan's reign lasted longer than the trickster's, from January to September 2020. Ultimately, the insane amount of meta-warping value incarnated by Uro doomed the Titan to be permanently re-sealed in the underworld. Pioneer, Historic, and Modern followed suit, just like they did for Oko. The buzz around these two faux pas shouldn't overshadow the overall evaluation of the two sets that contained them. Grief Factor: 0/10.
Theros Beyond Death Colorless Losses
Altar of the Pantheon: Secondary three-drop mana rock, less useful than some of its colorless contemporary like Heraldic Banner, Skyclave Relic, and Replicating Ring. The Altar was mostly a good fit for Brawl decks with a God or Demigod as a commander. Grief Factor: 2/10.
Nyx Lotus: A "fixed" Nykthos in the form of an artifact. It was too expensive to leave a mark as a mana engine, and no devotion list achieved prominence anyway. At one point, there was one monoblue brew that would exploit Nyx Lotus to generate large amounts of mana, thanks to enablers like Arcanist's Owl and Corridor Monitor. The game plan involved drawing the entire library via Gadwick, the Wizened, and then winning by resolving Thassa's Oracle. It didn't even begin to be a factor in the meta, but it did exist. Grief Factor: 3/10.
Shadowspear: Very playable Equipment, mostly used to provide trample to beefy green creatures, as well as lifelink to get ahead in the race with opposing aggro decks. The ability to remove hexproof and indestructible rarely mattered. It more often resided in the sideboard, but it wasn't foolish to run it main, either. As much as cheap and reliable sources of trample aren't hard to find in any Standard meta—we also had the self-replacing Setessan Training in this cycle—the quality of the Shadowspear package seems difficult to replicate. Grief Factor: 7/10.
Soul-Guide Lantern: Low-cost graveyard hate available to all colors. Slightly more expensive than Tormod's Crypt but also able to replace itself when not needed. Definitely an improvement over similar cards from recent years, like Sentinel Totem, Silent Gravestone, and Scrabbling Claws. We're certainly bound to get a replacement after Lantern and Crypt rotate out, and we can only hope it'll look more like these two than their immediate predecessors. Grief Factor: 6/10.
Field of Ruin: There had only been a short window in which this practical way to keep broken lands in check was out of Standard—the three months between Throne of Eldraine pushing out the original Ixalan printing and Theros Beyond Death bringing it back. It stands to reason that this type of effect is considered vital for a healthy environment, so we can be hopeful it'll return pretty soon, if not even immediately. The name is certainly generic enough. Grief Factor: 6/10.
Temple of Enlightenment, Temple of Deceit, Temple of Malice, Temple of Abandon, and Temple of Plenty: Once shock lands and check lands left Standard with the last rotation, we were left with the Temples as the format's primary mana fixers. They're as good as a tap land can get, with the scry often very useful to smooth our draws after we kept a rocky first hand. They're still fatally slow, though, which is especially punishing for aggro builds. And the advent of mill strategies after Zendikar Rising even nullified most of the advantage they could produce. The moment a reasonable alternative came to be, in the form of the modal double-faced lands from Zendikar Rising and Kaldheim, the Temples were happily, if not entirely, abandoned. They did their job when they had to, but nobody's going to wish for them to become the main dual land option in Standard ever again. Grief Factor: 5/10.
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