Fighting the Good Fight: Thalia, Guardian of Thraben
Modern's circle of best two-drops for each color are well documented: Tarmogoyf for green, Snapcaster Mage for blue, Young Pyromancer for red, and Dark Confidant for black. White, oddly enough, has many people pointing towards the banned Stoneforge Mystic, rudely ignoring the true best two-drop white has to offer in the format: Thalia, Guardian of Thraben. If you've faced off against her, you know how powerful she can be, and this article is devoted to answering the question, "How can we plan around her?"
The Power of Thalia, Guardian of Thraben
Thalia's power level is deceptive on first glance, especially when we consider what generically powerful cards look like. We oftentimes think of planeswalkers, spells that cheat on mana, and creatures that provide immediate card advantage as the cards that tend to be powerful, and Thalia certainly doesn't match any of these descriptions. Instead of being a beater like another two-drop Tarmogoyf, she's a meager 2/1 with first strike, nowhere near big enough to tussle with the Gurmag Anglers, Hollow Ones, and Death's Shadows of the format, so what makes her the powerhouse that she is? The answer to this question lies in her taxing ability and the surprising prevalence of low-toughness creatures.
The taxing ability of Thalia that forces players to pay one extra generic mana for non-creature spells is game-warping in two major ways: tempo and main-deck hate. Thalia affects tempo because once she is on the battlefield, the opponent's non-creature spells that affect the board become less mana efficient. To use an example: If you're on the draw playing Blue Moon, you might play a Steam Vents tapped to preserve your life totals against an unknown opponent. Your opponent who then plays a Thalia on turn two now has thrown a cog into your sequencing: the Lightning Bolt you have in your hand is no longer trading up for mana against your opponent's Thalia because it now costs 1R. Perhaps you draw a Serum Visions the next turn – you can no longer cast that and bolt the Thalia in the same turn. If you draw your Spell Snare, you can't cast Bolt and hold up Spell Snare, either. Even if you do begrudgingly cast the Lightning Bolt on Thalia, your opponent is mostly likely going to follow up with another threat, and now you're backpedaling to try to keep the board at bay. Now, imagine if you didn't even have that hypothetical Lightning Bolt – you would be at an even bigger tempo disadvantage!
In a similar vein, the fact that Thalia acts as anywhere from soft hate to hard hate that is played as a four-of in the main deck oftentimes makes her the best card in a given matchup. Thalia, as the previous example showed, can be considered "soft hate" because she can punish control decks that are looking to trade tempo for card advantage. Draw two cards with one card might be great, but the mana inefficiency that Thalia enforces makes that trade unappealing. Thus, Thalia becomes even more potent when she's up against combo decks that rely on their non-creature spells to assemble and complete their combos. Having to pay one extra mana for every spell they cast slows down the speed of the decks by one, if not two turns, and that's only accounting for what Thalia alone does. Combined with other elements of disruption, the tempo of the Thalia decks can dispatch combo decks well before they can win. The opportunity cost of being able to include such a powerful hate card in the 60 makes Thalia a versatile threat in a format in which linear strategies dominate.
Additionally, Modern is a format where creatures with less than two toughness are everywhere, making Thalia extremely difficult to block. Cards such as Goblin Guide, Snapcaster Mage, and Young Pyromancer match up poorly against Thalia. The most popular tokens that are created, such as 2/2 zombies, 1/1 flying spirits, and 1/1 elementals, need multiples to block Thalia, and attack through her is an even more difficult task. While cards such as Tarmogoyf are difficult, the surprising number of creatures with low toughness in Modern make Thalia - even after all these years – still a menace that can chip in in the early game for free points of damage. In the tempo-oriented decks that play her, these extra points of damage go a long way in deciding the game's outcome, and thus her ability to win combat adds an extra layer of power to the card.
The Big Picture: Macro Approach
The two major archetypes that play Thalia, Guardian of Thraben are Five-Color Humans and Hatebears (also known as Death & Taxes). Both are tempo decks, with Humans taking on a much more aggressive, linear slant than Taxes. The best way to beat these decks on an archetype-to-archetype basis is by playing a deck filled to the brim with removal. Jund, Mardu Pyromancer, and UWx Control decks have good matchups against these Thalia decks, as they should be able to leverage the amount of removal into a clean board state, even if some games involve simply getting out-tempo'd.
A deck that I don't oftentimes see mentioned in these conversations is Skred, the mono-red deck that utilizes cards such as Blood Moons, Skred, and Koth of the Hammer. The repeatable value gained by Skred from its planeswalkers, as well as the maindeck Anger of the Gods can be enough to take out the tempo that Taxes and Humans generate, especially when they're backed by eight or nine copies of spot removal. Especially with the breakout performance of Black-Red Vengevine decks, Skred's maindeck exiling effects in the form of Anger and Relic of Progenitus combats the go-wide graveyard strategies effectively.
The Devil in the Details: Micro Approach
A micro approach to combating Thalia means taking a look at the individual cards that would be effective against her. The biggest weakness that Thalia has is her power and toughness – particularly the latter. Playing bigger creatures that can block or attack past her is an easy answer to Thalia, but cards that attack her one point of toughness are incredibly effective. These cards include, but are not limited to: Izzet Staticaster, Night of Soul's Betryal, Electrickery, Grim Lavamancer, and Liliana, the Last Hope.
Additionally, a few more tips to remember when facing off against Thalia are…
- Plan your sequencing with Thalia in mind. If you're holding up non-creature spells, make sure that your sequencing isn't going to be terribly punished if Thalia were to resolve. Holding up a counterspell that you can't cast anymore because of Thalia is a terrible feeling to have, especially if it forces you to waste said counterspell on Thalia.
- Keep in mind all your creatures with a toughness of three or greater. While Thalia's taxing ability is key to her power, her two points of power and first strike are also what lets her get in those early points of damage. Cards such as Courser of Kruphix are very difficult for Thalia to get through, and there's a big incentive to rely on them to keep her at bay.
- Don't forget the first strike! This sounds silly since it's right there on the card, but abilities that affect combat can be easy to forget, with cards Worldbreaker, Flameblade Adept, and our girl Thalia being the oft-repeated villains of combat-step horror stories.
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