Theros Beyond Death Review for Highlander, Part 1
- Dominik Broßell
It's time to take a look at what dwells deep in the underworld and high up in the heavens of Theros Beyond Death. Singleton formats in particular stand to gain a lot of exciting toys. That's not just true for Commander, but also for the competitive world of one-on-one European Highlander!
2019 was a ridiculously strong year for Highlander. We may as well consider War of the Spark and Modern Horizons the biggest one-two punch of all time. These two sets remain unrivaled as far as density of new format staples and wealth of playables go. Wrenn and Six, Teferi, Time Raveler, and Urza, Lord High Artificer shook up several formats at once and European Highlander was no exception. Later in the year, Oko, Thief of Crowns wreaked havoc on all formats known to man, and Highlander games have been elked up accordingly. Not to mention that Throne of Eldraine featured even more instant staples such as Brazen Borrower // Petty Theft, Bonecrusher Giant // Stomp, Once Upon a Time, and so on.
The winning decklist of the latest premium tournament in Berlin contained a whopping seven cards from 2019, and Grixis doesn't even have access to many of the year's strongest. Cards from all of Magic's history fight over the slots in Highlander decks, and yet, 2019 left a heavy mark. So, where do we go from here?
Well, the list of options from Theros Beyond Death worth considering isn't short. In fact, there is so much to talk about that I had to split it up into three parts. This article looks at white and blue cards, the next will continue the review with black and red, and the third part will conclude with green, multicolored cards, artifacts, and lands.
The New Decade Kicks Off with Complexity
Theros Beyond Death revisits the Greek antiquity-inspired plane of Gods and enchantments. The original Theros block did not yield an overabundance of cards with an impact on the format, and it doesn't top any charts in terms of power level generally. As a result, Highlander players went into the preview season somewhat lukewarm and sharpened their pitchforks — yes, the community is notoriously critical.
While assembling this set review, I talked to several trusted Highlander experts about the new cards and about how they might fit into the environment. While there is a considerable number of options players are excited to try out, almost none of the cards garnered the instant-staple stamp of approval. This is a high-synergy set that ups the ante in terms of card design. Considering word count on cards, Theros Beyond Death is one of the most complex Magic sets of all time, one that warrants exploration like few others.
Delve with me into the depths of Theros Beyond Death from the perspective of a European Highlander player and you will see that this set is deeper than its surface power level suggests. If you do not know European Highlander yet, I suggest checking out my introductory article. If you are a Commander player, note that many of the points below are relevant to all singleton formats.
I won't review all the cards but will rather focus on cards with noteworthy relevance to the format. If you think a card is missing, shoot me a comment below! Also note that this is my personal estimation backed up by some insight from fellow Highlander players. If you think I am misjudging here or there, I'll be happy to discuss!
Alseid of Life's Bounty: This helps protect your biggest threat against spot removal and can sometimes enable an unblockable attack. The decks that want this are few and far between, though. White Weenie is almost always looking for 2/1s in the 1-drop slot — except for the duo of Mother of Runes and Giver of Runes, which both do Alseid's job better. The Alseid could be a consideration for Enchantress strategies, though, as it is a cheap enchantment and protects the important enablers like Setessan Champion and Mesa Enchantress.
Archon of Sun's Grace: I will write about the Enchantress archetype a lot in this set review because it gets so many new toys. This Archon sits at the far end of the curve and can enable some exciting Serra's Sanctum turns. In one sense, it competes with payoff like Sigil of the Empty Throne which is harder to kill and an enchantment itself. However, Highlander players are always on the lookout for redundancy, and Archon's power level is certainly enough to be considered as a second Sigil.
Daxos, Blessed by the Sun: Speaking of lifegain, this demigod makes a strong impression as another Soul Warden-esque creature. If there is a lifegain-centric deck somewhere in the format, Daxos could play a role. Being both an enchantment and a legendary creature makes the card more susceptible to removal, though.
Eidolon of Obstruction: White Weenie and Death and Taxes decks are always interested in 2-drop 2/1s that have a taxing ability attached, so this will certainly see play. Add to that that recent Magic products featured a bunch of powerful planeswalkers and the Eidolon becomes even more appealing. But make no mistake, Thalia, Guardian of Thraben this is not. The Eidolon neither keeps your opponent from developing the board with a planeswalker, nor does it completely stifle their abilities as most of their activations are worth a mana anyway. In an average game, the Eidolon will maybe make one to two of your opponent's spells slightly worse. My guess is that the Eidolon does not have enough impact as such.
Elspeth Conquers Death: I doubt that players will spend a whopping 5 mana on this, although the Saga's value outclasses its initial cost. For the final chapter to be good, however, you will need a worthwhile target in the graveyard. If you're working toward this, there are much easier ways to Reanimate creatures.
Elspeth, Sun's Nemesis: The first planeswalker with a built-in recursion ability is a powerful one. Elspeth has board impact the turn she comes into play, likely enables some powerful attacks — especially on turn four, when midrange opponents are able to put more toughness onto the table — and will occasionally take you out of burn range. While Elspeth cannot tick up, she does come back at a reasonable cost. This card directly competes with Elspeth, Knight-Errant and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar in aggressive to midrange-oriented white decks. It may make the cut above them as the escape mechanic gives such strategies an otherwise rare option for the late game.
Heliod, Sun-Crowned: This card is making waves in other formats due to its combo potential with Walking Ballista and Spike Feeder — and Triskelion if you want more. This may be interesting for Highlander as well, as both halves of the Heliod-Ballista combo are easy to tutor up. Creature toolbox decks could find the room for Heliod, Ballista, and Spike Feeder. While Walking Ballista and Spike Feeder are decent to great cards on their own, Heliod, Sun-Crowned is too weak in isolation, which is problematic in Highlander. White Weenie could want Heliod as a beater, but my guess is that the fail rate on this card is simply too high.
Shatter the Sky: The printing of a new 4-mana Wrath of God is always noteworthy. In a creature-dense metagame, white control decks may include this as a third Wrath next to the original and Day of Judgment. It does have a downside, though, so you really want to be in the market for 4-mana Wraths. White-blue control decks also have access to Supreme Verdict, so it's unlikely we'll see the sky shatter often.
Taranika, Akroan Veteran: This legend produces little swinging Gideons, which is cute. However, to make this work you have to check several boxes. Taranika needs to survive a turn and then have a target. The legendary supertype as well as the low toughness hold the card back, too. Taranika could have been an interesting inclusion in white-based aggressive decks if she had Brimaz, King of Oreskos stats, but even the fabled Cat legend is seeing little play nowadays.
The Birth of Meletis: This card seems unassuming, but it does a good job of tying the first turns together. It helps you find an important land in the early game and keeps you from getting killed — much like Wall of Omens. In summary, this checks several boxes for the control archetype and I would not be surprised if people erected some Walls in the future.
Alirios, Enraptured: Flicker/blink decks may be interested in this, as Alirios's enter-the-battlefield trigger actually has a decent effect. Alirios's main body also makes for a good sacrifice for Neoform and Eldritch Evolution. To top it off, you can do some cute things with Karakas.
Glimpse of Freedom: This card would be decent if the escape cost was not this steep. As it is, Glimpse interferes with delve too often to make it playable in decks that are interested in cantrips.
Medomai's Prophecy: I actually like this card quite a bit as it does generate some decent value for the initial investment and has a relevant subtype. The trick is to stick to the plan once the second chapter triggers. This means that you (a) telegraph your next turn, potentially undermining your own flexibility and (b) give your opponent valuable information. In singleton formats, the downsides are a bigger deal as your game plan turn-by-turn will be much more variable than in non-singleton formats. Communicating your next play feels really bad in a format where your opponent often won't enjoy the luxury to play around things. As such, this Saga won't be told often.
Nadir Kraken: This is a cheap enough threat-that-must-be-answered to make blue players interested. Double blue mana is a real cost though, and I'd argue that 1/1 tokens are not enough of a payoff for the investment. But Nadir Kraken does have synergy with card-draw spells, and I can imagine a future in which monoblue players will jam this.
Omen of the Sea: This is an instant-speed Preordain for 2 mana which already makes for a fine deal. The difference is that the Omen does not enter the graveyard quickly, making it harder to fuel your Treasure Cruise and Dig Through Time. The payoff is elsewhere, namely mainly in the card type and secondarily in the activated ability. Enlightened Tutor now finds a cheap cantrip in a pinch and Enchantress stands to gain a bit of consistency. Omen of the Sea is somewhat pushed at common and could see a decent amount of play.
Thassa, Deep-Dwelling: This can act as a second Soulherder in flicker/blink decks. Once the card gets going, it generates an absurd amount of value when paired with creatures like Eternal Witness, Spell Seeker, or Reflector Mage. Thassa is even harder to kill than Soulherder. The downside is, of course, the difficulty in enabling devotion to also get a beater out of the deal. But people will be more than fine just having the card hang out in the back row. The activated ability can win a board stall or help you survive. I like Thassa and will test the card extensively in my Bant midrange deck.
Thassa's Intervention: Good modal cards are hot in Highlander because you can basically slot two cards into your deck at the cost of one. Granted, Thassa's Intervention is both a bad counterspell and bad card draw, but having both available at instant speed may make this a serious consideration. I definitely see this in Tolarian Academy decks that want to find specific combo pieces and love the ability to hold this up as occasional disruption.
Thassa's Oracle: This card is scary because it can win the game on the spot, where Laboratory Maniac needed another turn cycle or draw effect. There are several ways to empty your library: Leveler is expensive, but searchable as both creature and artifact. Name Storm Crow for Demonic Consultation and not run any doubles for Tainted Pact. Hermit Druid mills your entire library if you don't pack any basic lands and enables other combos at the same time. If necessary you can even cast Thassa's Oracle as a decent blocker with card selection attached. I have talked to some Highlander players who will try this, and it's easy to see them succeeding. I don't need to ask an Oracle for that!
Thirst for Meaning: If you pack a good amount of enchantments — like in, say, Enchantress — this is a really good draw spell. Reanimator decks may play this for the discard alone and have in fact packed Thirst for Knowledge in the past. Sometimes, when you want to get ahead on cards, you'll even be able to discard enchantments such as Animate Dead and Dance of the Dead.
Wavebreak Hippocamp: If you can resolve this and untap with it, and play an instant-based deck, you can draw so many cards. The Horse Fish's body is sadly feeble and dies to almost everything. I believe trying to enable this is far too risky and that such plans only really pay off if you manage to trigger the ability twice at least. If Hippocamp had flash, I'd be much more interested.
Whirlwind Denial: This is a premium counterspell and should see a good amount of play. The flexibility of this card is awesome. At worst, it's a simple counter, but at best it wins the game against Tendrils of Agony and almost all combos that put multiple things on the stack at the same time. The Whirlwind will often be fine as another copy of Stifle too, sniping a fetch land or negating an activation of Griselbrand. Not to mention that this stops any Bloodbraid Elf shenanigans and wins all counter wars in control mirrors. What's more, even the greediest mana bases can cast it. Highlander simply loves such flexibility and therefore Whirlwind Denial gets an easy nomination from me for best card in the set.
Plowing Through the Field of Cards
We have already discussed a bunch of interesting Theros Beyond Death cards for European Highlander and only covered two colors so far. However, there are many, many more toys to discover. Join me next time when I dive into black's underworld and try to keep pace with red's card designs!
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily Cardmarket.
If you're interested in picking up any of the new cards, check out our Theros Beyond Death page!