A Layperson's Guide to the Gods
- Gianluca Aicardi
They're hungry for devotion on Theros, ask feats of the mortals on Amonkhet, and have literally two faces on Kaldheim. Magic's Gods are a colorful bunch—and not just figuratively, as they mostly appear in five-color cycles. Let's gaze at them in awe, from the dawn of their creation to their not quite Götterdämmerung.
With the release of Kaldheim, which adds twelve new members to the subtype, the God tribe will include 47 different cards. It has undergone a very curious growth since it debuted in 2013 with Theros and its ancient Greece-inspired block, progressing through large chunks of additions concentrated in just a handful of separate occasions: in 2017, Amonkhet/Hour of Devastation introduced the Egyptian-based deities, which two years later ended up enslaved by Nicol Bolas in War of the Spark; then last year we returned to the original quasi-Greek Gods in Theros Beyond Death; and now we're meeting their Norse cousins in Kaldheim. In every plane, the concept of godness received a specific mechanical identity with little overlap, making God one of the most varied tribes of its relatively small size, as well as one whose discrete elements rarely play well with one another.
With one notable exception, all the Gods so far have belonged to only three planar pantheons, those existing on Theros, Amonkhet, and now Kaldheim—unsurprisingly all settings based on real-life cultures that developed well-known polytheistic religions. Before the creature type was created, though, we encountered a few examples that could have deserved its inclusion in their type line, most notably the monocolored Myojin from Kamigawa, the other major top-down setting in Magic's history.
These mighty spiritual beings are kami, which is the Japanese word for "god" (among other things), the very same term that would later appear on Japanese cards depicting creatures with the God subtype. Furthermore, they are indestructible, if conditionally, a characteristic that would define the first several instances of the future tribe. Shrines bearing their epithets are erected in their honor as part of their worship. They're evidently akin to divinities. Unfortunately, when Champions of Kamigawa was released back in 2004, the idea of using God as a creature subtype hadn't formed yet, so they only got the Spirit one, which had great mechanical relevance in the set.
Mark Rosewater openly stated that today each of them would be printed as a Spirit God. However, errata was never issued, neither for the five Myojin nor for the even godlier O-Kagachi, which played a crucial role in the Kamigawa story as the supreme kami but only turned into a card in Commander 2017.
Among other creatures from the past who nowadays would probably get the God subtype, Alara could make a convincing argument for the massive Godsire (sort of a race of self-reproducing god-beings) and an even more convincing one for the notorious Progenitus. Down in Dominaria, Karona, False God might seem like she's disproving her case right there in her name. But we've learned (first from Xenagos and most recently from Valki) that if enough people deeply believe you're a god, then you indeed are one. Lastly, the hybrid Spirit Avatar cycle from Shadowmoor/Eventide featured creatures with suggestive names like Deity of Scars, Deus of Calamity, Divinity of Pride, and Godhead of Awe, reinforcing the frequent reciprocal intersections between metaphysical subtypes such as Avatar, Incarnation, God, and sometimes even Spirit and Elemental. And shouldn't Demigod of Revenge at least be recognized as what its own name asserts?
All this said, when it comes to the actual Gods of Magic, we can break them up into their three pantheons—one of which has an interloper among its ranks, and it's not necessarily who you're thinking of.
The Theros Pantheon
First Period: Theros (2013)
The tale of the Gods started with five monocolored creatures referencing ancient Greek mythology. (Often meshing multiple sources together would remain a creative modus operandi for the tribe.)
- Heliod, God of the Sun (inspired by Zeus and Helios)
- Thassa, God of the Sea (a gender-flipped mixture of Poseidon and his son Triton, but also the primordial sea goddess Thalassa)
- Erebos, God of the Dead (Hades and the near-namesake Erebus)
- Purphoros, God of the Forge (Hephaestus)
- Nylea, God of the Hunt (Artemis)
All of them are indestructible, to translate their immortality, and all of them are enchantments, since that's the nature of entities and items that come from Nyx, the Gods' celestial abode. On Theros, godly beings are called into existence and sustained by the collective subconscious of their believers, so these Gods only actively become creatures when five points of devotion are accrued on the battlefield. Given that they all contain only a single colored mana symbol in their cost, four more are required. While they're enchantments, they still generate a static or triggered ability and can still use their activated ability multiple times per turn.
Magic's first foray into godness produced five fairly decent cards, though none of them proved to be a smash hit. Thassa, being the cheapest, saw competitive play in Standard as the centerpiece of the at times dominant Monoblue Devotion. (Pro Tour Theros concluded with a mirror-match final between two such decks!) Nylea fits midrange monogreen builds quite aptly but faces steep competition at that point in the curve. While Purphoros is the only card that lends itself to combo-oriented applications, it does so in an awfully clunky way. Nonetheless, they all got a second chance in Commander, if hardly ever as the main attractions.
Be that as it may, these first Gods, taking their cue from their Myojin precursors, established the general expectations for the subsequent members of the tribe: midrange creatures appearing at mythic rare in horizontal cycles, somewhat hard to kill, and characterized by some special rule pertaining to their divine nature. These cards also first determined a naming convention through the use of the originally male "God" as a gender-neutral form for all. One might wonder if the intent weren't better served by the use of an actual gender-neutral term, like "deity" or "divinity."
Second Period: Born of the Gods (2014)
The winter follow-up to Theros brought about the first assembly of dual-colored Gods.
- Ephara, God of the Polis (transposing the civilization-supporting facets of Athena)
- Phenax, God of Deception (mostly based on Hermes in his form of protector of thieves)
- Mogis, God of Slaughter (a Minotaur-looking embodiment of the more brutal side of war, referencing Ares, his carnage-loving sons Deimos and Phobos, and his bloodthirsty wife Enyo)
- Xenagos, God of Revels (the ascended Satyr planeswalker, already a nod to Pan and Dionysus)
- Karametra, God of Harvests (Demeter and her daughter Persephone, but also Hestia)
The multicolored Gods retain the enchantment type, the indestructibility, and the devotion mechanic. But they replace the static ability and the activated ability with a single triggered ability—or with the granting of an ability to other creatures in the case of Phenax. They also have, on average, a higher casting cost compared to their monocolored counterparts and are harder to appease and turn into creatures. They each contribute two mana symbols to their devotion but require five more instead of four.
Karametra's ramp upon creature casting is the strongest effect of the lot and would prove particularly popular in Commander, considering it's able to fetch any land with the Forest or Plains type, not just basics. Xenagos has some value as a finisher in aggro decks but is expensive and pretty terrible on an empty board, a flaw it shares with its color components, Purphoros and Nylea. For the rest, Ephara only works if at least one creature enters the battlefield every turn, which is not what white-blue decks are usually about; Phenax requires a specific build-around to serve a battle plan that's rarely going to be effective; and Mogis is just very low-impact.
Third Period: Journey into Nyx (2014)
The spring set wrapped up the block by adding the remaining five dual Gods, this time enemy-colored.
- Athreos, God of Passage (inspired by Charon, the ferryman to the underworld, who in Greek mythology wasn't actually a God, but a psychopomp in the service of Hades)
- Keranos, God of Storms (pairing the more lightning-strike-prone traits of Zeus with Apollo's penchant for oracles)
- Pharika, God of Affliction (Hecate and her daughter Circe, goddesses of witchcraft)
- Iroas, God of Victory (a Centaur who represents the nobler aspects of war and is eternally battling his twin brother Mogis; inspired by Athena and Nike)
- Kruphix, God of Horizons (the oldest entity in the Therosian pantheon, overseeing time; a fusion of various deities including the Greek primordial gods Uranus and Chronos and the Romans' Terminus and Janus)
This last group of Gods from Theros is arguably the most powerful. Athreos is a three-drop with a punisher trigger that results in either recursion or a considerable loss of life and can easily lead to abuse. Keranos's trigger doesn't require any action from the player and offers either a free Lightning Bolt to cast every turn or an immediate redraw to offset the presence of a land on top. Pharika creates deathtouchers, while Iroas and Kruphix break the mold that was set by the previous multicolored Gods by having two abilities, very impactful for aggro decks in the former's case and a boon for ramp in the latter's. Many of these had a more meaningful presence in Standard than most of their predecessors, Keranos even showed up in larger formats, and all went on to become quite popular in Commander.
Fourth Period: Theros Beyond Death (2020)
Six years since we bid adieu to Theros the first time, a return to the plane was overdue. By now, the three-set model had given way to a single-set paradigm, so there wasn't room to accommodate the full pantheon of fifteen Gods. But at least the five monocolored representatives all enjoyed new incarnations, this time bearing proper literary epithets.
- Heliod, Sun-Crowned
- Thassa, Deep-Dwelling
- Erebos, Bleak-Hearted
- Purphoros, Bronze-Blooded
- Nylea, Keen-Eyed
This is truly the revitalized quintet, almost uniformly superior to their older outing. Heliod and Thassa in particular sport automatic triggers that organically lead to combo setups, with Heliod even causing the banning of Walking Ballista in Pioneer. The other three have received less fanfare, with Purphoros still quite janky even in the new Sneak Attack impression and Nylea once again plagued by a lack of essentiality in the most favorable environment, that is, Monogreen Monsters. But on the whole they're all sound designs.
In the multicolored department, one God returned and the previously unseen Gruul representative (hence the name specifying domain rather than appellation) made a first appearance following the usurper Xenagos's death during the events of the original Theros block.
- Klothys, God of Destiny (the oldest of the Gods along with Kruphix; they're Destiny and Time, after all)
- Athreos, Shroud-Veiled (in keeping with the set's underworld theme)
Klothys makes for an impressive card, capable of dropping early enough in the curve and providing free graveyard hate, life gain, an automatic source of damage, and at times even ramp. Athreos was the Buy-a-Box promo not found in boosters. It's a more expensive variation on the previous incarnation, now producing creature recursion directly onto the battlefield and without the opponent being allowed to spend life to impede it. The new Thassa achieves most of the same goals for a lower casting cost by just blinking the creatures, but Athreos can still be a fun commander with an extensive range of synergies.
The remaining eight multicolored Gods are mentioned in the set only through other cards, like Mogis's Favor, Karametra's Blessing, Pharika's Libation, and Iroas's Blessing. Phenax is represented by Atris, Oracle of Half-Truths, Keranos by Storm Herald and Storm's Wrath, Kruphix by One with the Stars and Enigmatic Incarnation, while Ephara is depicted on The Birth of Meletis and Stern Dismissal. The related Demigod type also makes its entrance, with five creatures linked to the main monocolored Gods: Daxos, Blessed by the Sun, Callaphe, Beloved of the Sea, Tymaret, Chosen from Death, Anax, Hardened in the Forge, and Renata, Called to the Hunt. In addition, Calix, Destiny's Hand is technically Klothys's designated Demigod, but a planeswalker spark unexpectedly ignited inside him.
The Amonkhet Pantheon
First Kingdom: Amonkhet (2017)
The second advent of the Gods had an Egyptian flavor, in line with the secretly Bolas-ruled plane of Amonkhet. Following Theros's example, a cycle of five monocolored creatures is presented in all their theriocephalic magnificence.
- Oketra the True (cat-headed goddess of solidarity; the main inspiration being Bastet but also integrating elements of healing and protection from Sekhmet and Nebet-Het)
- Kefnet the Mindful (ibis-headed god of knowledge; Thoth)
- Bontu the Glorified (crocodile-headed goddess of ambition; mostly Sobek but also Set and Ammit)
- Hazoret the Fervent (jackal-headed goddess of zeal; Anubis with aspects of Set and Sekhmet)
- Rhonas the Indomitable (cobra-headed god of strength; Wadjet/Renenutet with the gender swapped)
Interestingly, none of these Gods pulls its inspiration from one of the major Egyptian deities, like Ra, Amun, Isis, or Osiris, describing a small pantheon of divine beings with equal standing among themselves. Amonkhet's Gods don't inhabit some inaccessible mystical realm; they walk amidst the mortals that worship them and actively assist their community as part of a complex social system. (This becomes problematic only because that system was put in place by Nicol Bolas for nefarious ends, but the Gods eventually tried and rebelled against it, once the truth was unveiled.)
Mechanically, these Gods inherit the indestructible keyword from their forerunners as well as the same types of activated abilities that don't require tapping. They don't grant a static ability or generate a trigger, instead picking up a combat-related evergreen keyword, to denote their more hands-on approach in the affairs of the mortals. They're entirely physical entities of flesh and blood, hence the dropping of the enchantment type. Devotion is also replaced by a different clause used to make them become functional creatures, and that's where the individual designs greatly differ from one another, in a very hit-or-miss fashion.
A few of them, like Kefnet and especially Bontu, have very restrictive conditions to de-pacify themselves. For others, like Hazoret and Rhonas, it's just a matter of finding the right build—Red Deck Wins for the former and Stompy for the latter, two perfect homes embraced with great competitive success during their Standard tenure and, to some degree, even beyond that.
Second Kingdom: Hour of Devastation (2017)
The second and final set in the Amonkhet block focused on three multicolored divinities, so old that their original functions and even their very names have been forgotten. In time, they have been corrupted by Bolas into becoming his mindless lackeys, as hinted by their color pairs, all contained within the blue-black-red triplet, Bolas's own color allegiance.
- The Scarab God (inspired by the god Khepri)
- The Scorpion God (reminiscent of the goddess Serket)
- The Locust God (lacking a clear reference, other than to the biblical Plagues of Egypt)
These altered the ongoing pattern for what a God creature is. They're not indestructible anymore, and they don't look for any condition to be satisfied, instead hitting the battlefield while already fully operational. A modicum of godlike resilience is represented by their returning to hand upon death, but their primary merit resides in their matching abilities, one activated and one triggered by that same activation, or at least resulting from it. The Scarab God in particular instantly became a Standard powerhouse as a finisher in control decks, able to eternalize any and all dispatched creatures from the opponent's graveyard. The Locust God found an easy combo partner in every effect that draws a card when a creature enters the battlefield, for example Sage of the Falls, Beck // Call, or Kindred Discovery, igniting a loop of infinite locust tokens. The Scorpion God card has its own share of combos, for example with Blowfly Infestation, but it's definitely the least popular of the trio.
Most of the Gods from Amonkhet have canonically died. The Scorpion God killed Oketra, Kefnet, and Rhonas, before being dispatched by Hazoret. Bontu, who had allied herself with Bolas, was eventually betrayed and murdered by the Elder Dragon, as one would expect. Hazoret, now known as the God-Survivor, is the only named God still in existence, with Amonkhet's surviving population rallied around her in a new society. The Scarab God and The Locust God still wander the plane, forgotten once again.
Third Kingdom: War of the Spark (2019)
But—plot twist! The four monocolored deities that were slain in Hour of Devastation have been turned into zombified Eternals and sent to lead Bolas's invading army on Ravnica. To wit …
Hazoret's place in the cycle was taken by Ilharg, the Raze-Boar, a local Gruul deity, which became the first creature with the subtype that doesn't belong to one of the three widely explored settings and cultures of Theros, Amonkhet, and Kaldheim. Ilharg and the God-Eternals were designed along the same lines of the battle-ready Hour of Devastation Gods, even reworking their recursion clause—except they can endure exiling too; as a downside, they return to the library third from the top rather than to hand, costing us a draw and missing the action for a few turns. In the plus column, they're all very solid designs, if once again aggressively midrange-skewed, each revisiting their past self's combat keyword (and Ilharg debuting trample), and offering a wide range of remarkable triggered abilities. Oketra and Kefnet slot perfectly into a creature list and a spellslinging list, respectively, although neither of them rose to prominence during their time in Standard, or at least didn't prove a crucial part of any top deck's proceedings.
Ilharg and Rhonas are both very effective at what they do, even if they lean more toward Timmy-friendly casual play. Bontu popped up occasionally in top-tier sacrifice decks.
The Kaldheim Pantheon
First Saga: Kaldheim (2021)
The Norse-inspired world of Kaldheim changes the God paradigm once more. For one thing, the set includes a record number of twelve God cards. (The previous largest number was seven with Theros Beyond Death.) Nine of them have a monocolored identity.
- Halvar, God of Battle (based on Týr)
- Reidane, God of the Worthy (based on Sól and Forseti)
- Alrund, God of the Cosmos (based on Odin)
- Cosima, God of the Voyage (based on Rán and Njörðr)
- Egon, God of Death (based on Hel)
- Tergrid, God of Fright (based on Nótt)
- Toralf, God of Fury (based on Thor, naturally)
- Birgi, God of Storytelling (based on Freyja, Sága, and Bragi)
- Kolvori, God of Kinship (based on Sif)
Three other Gods from Kaldheim have a multicolored identity—even if you couldn't really tell at first glance; more on that later.
- Valki, God of Lies (based on Loki)
- Jorn, God of Winter (based on Skaði)
- Esika, God of the Tree (based on Idunn)
The first peculiarity to note here is the complete absence of any kind of survivability. These Gods are portrayed merely as legendary creatures, no more likely to ignore removal than your average dude on the battlefield. This is an apt way to adapt the Norse culture, whose Gods do in fact die, at the very least once the Ragnarök comes. The overall quality of the creative team's research into their basis of inspiration appears outstanding, with the Viking Age brought to life throughout virtually every card in the set, and not just the religion. They didn't stop at Odin, Thor, and Loki either; many of those Norse deities being reimagined as Magic cards haven't had any widely recognized pop culture representation before. In fact, some of them qualify as the kind of deep cut into the source material that has made Kamigawa a beloved cult block over the years.
And then of course comes into focus the element that makes these Gods something wildly different than your regular legendaries. They are all modal double-faced cards, with the God itself on the front and a different permanent on the back. The Gods of Kaldheim's other face hosts the full range of nonland permanents: artifacts, including Equipment and Vehicles, enchantments, creatures, and even one planeswalker, since that's actually good old devilish Tibalt masquerading as Valki.
Other than the choice between casting them or casting whatever is on their back, the Kaldheim Gods don't share any specific functional template. They can alternatively care for or affect snow permanents, Equipment, lands, cards in hand, the graveyard, the foretold mechanic, the boast mechanic, other legends, or what have you. They can feature one combat keyword, two combat keywords, or no keyword at all. They can have triggered abilities or activated abilities. They can cost just two mana, which is unprecedented for their subtype.
The future of the God tribe has arrived; now it's time to build, and not just snowmen.
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