Theros Beyond Death Review for Commander, Part 1
- Robert Giel
We are kicking off 2020 with the return to a familiar plane. The original Theros offered lots of goodies for Commander players, including Gods, enchantment-matters cards, and the devotion mechanic. Will Theros Beyond Death provide sweet additions to the format on the same level?
Kicking Things Off
The original Theros has a special place in my heart. While I'm not particularly interested in the ancient Greek mythology theme, it was the set with which I first started playing Magic. Coming from Yu-Gi-Oh!, I was especially amazed by the detailed high-fantasy art that Magic had to offer, with cards like Thassa, God of the Sea and Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver as prime examples.
Many cards from that block still see play in Commander today, whether it's Gods such as Athreos, God of Passage, Kruphix, God of Horizons, Xenagos, God of Revels or devotion cards such as Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx, Gray Merchant of Asphodel, and Karametra's Acolyte. Even the banned Prophet of Kruphix hails from Theros. It's fair to say that Theros Beyond Death has a lot to live up to in terms of Commander goodies. Let's see what cards stand out!
Gods are hard to get right. They are severely undercosted creatures with massive stats that also happen to be indestructible, only limited by their dependence on the devotion of their followers. Their abilities need to be in a sweet spot so that they can claim a supporting role, without stealing games on their own.
Heliod, Sun-Crowned has the lowest cost of the five and plays very well into two themes that are present in white-based decks, lifegain and counters. While I'm aware of the combo that it boasts with Walking Ballista, I want to look at this card in isolation for Commander. While I don't expect to see Heliod at the helm of many Commander decks, I do think it's a nice addition to counter-matters decks, such as Ghave, Guru of Spores or Marath, Will of the Wild.
Thassa, Deep-Dwelling will probably make big waves in casual Commander. Blinking is a popular archetype, and Conjurer's Closet is often a staple in these decks. Getting this effect for 4 mana, slapped onto a big creature that can also tap your opponent's Blightsteel Colossus in a pinch seems like a solid card in the 99.
Erebos, Bleak-Hearted continues the trend of monoblack Commanders caring about sacrifices, with Yawgmoth, Thran Physician and both Bontu the Glorified as well as God-Eternal Bontu as examples. Finding things to sacrifice isn't that hard in black-based decks, and the real value lies in sacrifice payoffs. Because Erebos is both a sacrifice outlet and card-draw engine, it's perfectly suited to fill this position. The only issue is that Erebos directly competes with cards mentioned above, as they all enjoy the same playstyle. Erebos is a cool card with amazing art and great abilities, I just wish Wizards had turned the character into something unique, rather than more of the same.
Purphoros, Bronze-Blooded is basically the exact opposite of its original version. Purphoros, God of the Forge cared about going wide with small creatures, while our Bronze-Blooded friend wants to go big. Having a pseudo Sneak Attack in your command zone is no joke, and red offers plenty of cards that care about entering the battlefield and attacking. They will have done plenty of damage by the time you have to sacrifice them. Think of Inferno Titan, Drakuseth, Maw of Flames, Spawn of Thraxes, Bogardan Hellkite, and Wurmcoil Engine.
We saw green incorporate a minor theme of making things costs less recently, with Ghalta, Primal Hunger and The Great Henge as examples. Nylea, Keen-Eyed continues this trend by making all your creatures cheaper. The previous incarnation always felt a bit underwhelming to me and I think Wizards did a nice job with this version. A permanent cost reduction attached to a big body that provides card advantage is right in the sweet spot for green creature-based decks.
Athreos, God of Passage was one of the more popular Gods in Commander, so it's no surprise that we see a second coming in the form of Athreos, Shroud-Veiled. Where the original version was very cheap to cast, its second printing costs a whopping 6 mana. I do like the ability of granting creatures the ability to be revived immediately. But Athreos does this in a very slow and inefficient manner, making it not an automatic inclusion for aristocrats-style decks. I'm still curious to see what people are brewing.
Klothys, God of Destiny replaces Xenagos, God of Revels as the Gruul God and takes a different approach on the thing Gruul loves to do most. Where Xenagos was all about creatures, I can see Klothys lead the charge on a deck that's all about dealing direct damage, with enchantments like Furnace of Rath and Dictate of the Twin Gods. It's not my type of strategy, but it does add a new perspective to the GRUUL $M4SH!! commanders that are currently out there.
The original cycle of Titans from M11 are still staples in today's Commander, with the exception of the banned Primeval Titan. I think that these 6/6 Giants with an enter-the-battlefield and attack trigger will play a staple role in Commander from now on too.
What is it with Wizards and green-blue 3-drops? Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath is a Simic card that does Simic things that Simic players like to do. Uro is a Growth Spiral that gains you 3 life in the early game, and a repeatable source of card advantage in the late game. Uro is the ultimate "good stuff" card that is incredibly hard to get rid of. Making sure that Uro escapes the graveyard also shouldn't be much of a problem, as green-blue decks tend to include a lot of single-use spells like ramp and card selection anyway.
Kroxa, Titan of Death's Hunger is a bit more subtle in design. Where Uro does it all by providing you with every single form of advantage possible, Kroxa does the exact opposite to your opponents. Who would've thought from a black-red card, right? The real advantage here is that Kroxa is so cheap to cast that it comes down early and can then start to pressure the opponents as fast as possible. While I don't think it will make big waves as a commander, I do think there's a place for Kroxa at the helm of "group slug" decks with cards like Havoc Festival, Painful Quandary, and Polluted Bonds.
Theros Beyond Death brings back two familiar faces and adds one new addition to the planeswalker roster. While I don't think any of them will have a huge impact on the format, I still think they are worth talking about.
While I consider Elspeth, Sun's Nemesis to be a great card in competitive formats, I doubt she'll make a splash in Commander. There's a lot of competition for white walkers at this cost, and if you really want to play an Elspeth, I'd advise to go for the superior Elspeth, Sun's Champion. I could see her make an appearance in a few decks, but we're far away from a staple here as her abilities are just too neglectable for a format like Commander.
When I saw Ashiok Nightmare Muse, I thought, Hey look it's another 5-mana walker with the familiar template of: make a blocker or generate some advantage for plus, get removal and some advantage for minus, and an ultimate that likely wins the game. Though I'm not so sure about the last one. While I really like Ashiok as a character, this is by far the least exciting of the three planeswalkers. 5 mana is also a competitive slot for walkers. At this point, I think you'd rather just play an Ob Nixilis Reignited, Jace, Unraveler of Secrets, Ral, Izzet Viceroy, Nicol Bolas, Dragon-God, or Tezzeret, Artifice Master. A couple of those already are questionable cards in Commander.
Fortunately, there's a surprise planeswalker here to save the day, Calix, Destiny's Hand. Essentially an enchantment version of Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas, to me Calix looks exactly how planeswalkers should work. Not oppressive nor game changing, but rather supporting an archetype by playing to its strengths. I appreciate the way the way he interacts with enchantments in a flavorful, yet powerful way. And while Calix is far from the strongest card in the set, it is one of my favorites.
The Intervention Cycle
I'm a fan of modal cards and a fan of X-spells, as they are usually great in both competitive formats and Commander alike, simply because of how well they scale. The cycle of Interventions is no exception, and while not every entry is equal, there's a lot to be loved.
Heliod's Intervention is just a very solid card in Commander. Removing two artifacts and/or enchantments for 4 mana is already a thing with cards like Return to Dust and Force of Vigor, and it only gets better after that. Gaining life by paying X is never exciting but can still be useful in a pinch. The fact that it's an instant allows you to stay flexible with its usage.
Thassa's Intervention is clearly more aimed at competitive play and less so at Commander, so I don't expect it to show up in many decks.
Erebos's Intervention could see some play in monoblack, black-red, blue-black, or Grixis decks. The fact that it's first mode basically does two things is pretty neat. A scaleable removal spell that also gains you life isn't the worst thing, but the real power lies in exiling cards from graveyards, something that you usually can't seem to have enough of in a Commander deck.
Purphoros's Intervention — try saying that out loud three times in a row — is a bit disappointing and continues the trend of red's "deal damage or bust" theme. If it were an instant, I'd like it a lot more, but it's not, so it stays solid "meh" for me.
Nylea's Intervention's first mode is probably already worth it. We often speak of the two-land combos in Commander, and this card makes it easy to find them — and more. Just keep in mind that, for 1 mana more, Hour of Promise puts two lands directly into play. Searching for a combo with the Intervention also means your opponents can see it coming from miles away, and will prepare their own intervention. If only there was a way to put multiple lands into play …
The Obligatory Green Powerhouse
Nyxbloom Ancient is a ridiculously powerful mana engine that goes infinite with a variety of cards, Grim Monolith and Basalt Monolith being the most obvious. It's easy to cheat onto the battlefield with the likes of Natural Order or Academy Rector. It will push you to a position where no other player can keep up with you, especially in the early game. To finish it all off, it's also a 5/5 trampler. Any green deck that can play this card should play this card. I wish Wizards would make Commander cards a bit more subtle and intriguing, rather than obvious and blunt.
Commander Beyond Death
This concludes the first part of the Theros Beyond Death Commander set review. I wanted to review all cards in a single article, but there's simply too much to talk about. Join me next time when we look at further monocolored cards, at the multicolored cards, artifacts, and lands. In the meantime, let me know what cards you already picked up for your Commander decks, and what new commander you fell in love with from this set. As always, thanks for reading!
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!