The Trickiest Cards in Theros Beyond Death, Explained
Every time spoilers from a new set begin to trickle out, social media is awash with questions about mechanics and interactions. Theros Beyond Death was no different. Many of them become intuitive over time, but some — including the ones in this article — baffle even the most experienced players.
Whenever a new card does something completely innovative or has the potential to impact multiple formats, people immediately start discussing whether and how old cards can interact with it. Particularly if it's got a lot of text or a brand new ability. There are some cards that have come up again and again during Theros Beyond Death preview season. I've gone through the worst offenders, so you can make sure the decks you're building for your favourite format work the way you want them to!
Haktos the Unscarred
Haktos the Unscarred does something a little different when it comes to protection. The card has protection from almost everything, except for one particular converted mana cost determined at random as it enters the battlefield.
Haktos will always have protection from cards with converted mana costs of 0 and 1, as well as all converted mana costs from 5 upward. This includes permanents with a mana cost of X, as the value of X is always 0 unless the spell is on the stack. Walking Ballista won't be able to deal with your opponent's Haktos, but you can target it with Purphoros's Intervention provided that the value of X plus one red mana matches the number that was randomly determined when Haktos entered the battlefield.
The big question asked when people started to get their heads around Haktos was, "What happens if I copy it?"
The clause about choosing a random number is part of a replacement effect that changes how Haktos enters the battlefield. Because of this, it depends on what you're using to copy Haktos. For example, Spark Double would enter the battlefield as Haktos, which means that the replacement effect will occur and that the second copy will have protection from all but a randomly determined converted mana cost. Importantly, the numbers that are determined to give Haktos protection are linked to the individual copies on the battlefield. So if you end up with two different numbers, the copy doesn't have the same protection ability as the original — only its own that was determined as it entered.
If a card that's already on the battlefield becomes a copy of Haktos, however, the replacement effect never occurs because this copy didn't enter the battlefield. If you activate Lazav, the Multifarious to target a Haktos in your graveyard, you won't choose a random number. There was some discussion on whether this would give Haktos protection from every converted mana cost or none of them. I'm afraid the answer is the latter. Without the random determination, the card won't have protection from anything!
One of the monocolored Gods returning to the fray, Thassa, Deep-Dwelling has a very blue ability: exiling a creature and then returning it to the battlefield. There's a difference between this ability and most others like it, though. Many such effects dictate that the card returns to the battlefield under its owner's control. Thassa's ability specifies that it comes into play under your control.
Pinched one of your opponent's creatures with a fancy enter-the-battlefield trigger? Congratulations! You can have it leave and re-enter the battlefield under your control as much as you like. What's more, if you steal a creature temporarily, perhaps with Claim the Firstborn, you can exile it with Thassa and make the change in control permanent. A permanent is considered a new object once it re-enters the battlefield, so the original control-changing effect can't give it back.
Also note that Thassa exiles and returns the creature all in one go, leaving no window of opportunity for state-based actions. If you target Master of Waves, you'll end up with more Elemental tokens than you had before, because the 1/0 creatures don't die during the resolution of the ability.
Polukranos is back! Everyone's favorite Hydra returns from the underworld as a part-time Zombie with some familiar characteristics: counters, a fight ability, and some suitably cool art.
This time, the counters on Polukranos not only give it an intimidating body — particularly if you've cast it using escape — they also prevent damage. But watch out for everyone's actual favorite green 4-drop, the surprisingly verbose Questing Beast. While easy to overlook, you shouldn't forget about its "damage can't be prevented" text. If you block Questing Beast with Polukranos or get Polukranos blocked by Questing Beast, the damage won't be prevented and Questing Beast's deathtouch will ensure poor Polukranos isn't around for long. At the same time, don't forget about the word "combat" in Questing Beast's text. If you activate Polukranos to challenge Questing Beast to a fight, the damage prevention works!
Underworld Breach piqued many people's interest, as do most cards that interact heavily with the graveyard. The most common question that came up was, "If you give every card in your graveyard an escape cost equal to its mana cost plus exiling three other cards, what about cards that don't have a mana cost at all?"
There's an important difference between cards that have a mana cost of 0 and cards that do not have a mana cost. Mox Opal for example has a casting cost of 0, but you still have to "pay" 0 mana to cast it. The interesting part is the corollary that you can't pay a cost that doesn't exist. So if a spell doesn't have a mana cost — see Ancestral Vision — you can't cast it, except when an effect — such as suspend — allows you to to ignore the mana cost. Giving Ancestral Vision flashback via Snapcaster Mage does nothing, because again you can't pay a non-existent mana cost. And using Underworld Breach to grant escape doesn't work either, because it still requires paying an unpayable mana cost.
Elspeth Conquers Death
Many people will be reasonably comfortable with how Sagas work after their introduction in Dominaria, but Elspeth Conquers Death's last chapter ability caused a lot of double takes. Putting +1/+1 counters on planeswalkers can become relevant — for example, when Sarkhan the Masterless turns planeswalkers into creatures.
In most situations putting a loyalty counter on a creature isn't going to do an awful lot. There are of course some creatures that can become planeswalkers, such as Jace, Vryn's Prodigy // Jace, Telepath Unbound, and you might think that putting loyalty counters on Vryn's Prodigy would be an excellent idea. Unfortunately, when you ignite Jace's spark and transform him into his planeswalker self, you have to exile him, lose all pre-existing counters, and return him to the battlefield as a new object. This is because planeswalkers get their loyalty counters from a replacement effect that only works upon entering the battlefield. If the Telepath Unbound didn't enter the battlefield, he wouldn't get his five loyalty counters.
There are some niche ways of keeping counters on a creature/planeswalker double-faced card during transformation. One example is Moonmist from Innistrad. Ordinarily, Moonmist would cause any such planeswalker to be put into its owner's graveyard as soon as state-based actions are checked: they never leave the battlefield and so they don't get any loyalty counters in the process. But if the creature already had a loyalty counter beforehand, the planeswalker will have 1 loyalty after Moonmist. It's niche, but it is possible!
Heliod is facing retribution for sending Elspeth to the underworld, for four turns at least. Heliod's Punishment is also proving punishing for players who want to keep on-flavor and put this particular Aura on Heliod himself, or any other God. The devotion clause that dictates whether a God is a creature or not is an ability, and the Punishment removes all abilities. Does the Aura fall off if the devotion dips below the specified threshold?
As complicated interactions usually do, it comes down to layers. Layer 4 covers type-changing effects, which in this case determine whether a God is a creature or not. In layer 6, effects that add or remove a card's abilities are applied.
This means, the type-changing effect that dictates whether or not the God is a creature will apply before the ability-removing effect that takes away the type-changing ability. At the point Heliod's Punishment has removed the devotion ability, the devotion has already been checked. When everything shakes into place, the God will either be a creature without any abilities except for the one granted by the Punishment, if the devotion is high enough. Or it won't be a creature and the Aura will be put into the graveyard as a state-based action.
School's Out! Time to Play!
A good understanding of the rules is a key tool when brewing, as it can help you spot niche interactions. This is particularly true for formats outside of Standard where older cards and newer cards sometimes combine to work in unintuitive ways. The introduction of Pioneer to the roster of competitive formats has given players a whole new area to work in when it comes to card analysis. There are always a few interactions where everyone gets stuck, but hopefully you'll be able to avoid any nasty surprises when it comes to Theros Beyond Death now!
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!