You Gotta Believe: Devotion in Standard
- Gianluca Aicardi
Theros Beyond Death has brought back the devotion mechanic, one of the defining and most popular elements of the original visit to the plane inspired by ancient Greece. What did Standard do with the new Gods and their followers so far? Let's take a leap of faith together and find out!
When devotion was first introduced with Theros in September 2013, it immediately seemed like a very flavorful way to depict what having a god on the battlefield could feel like. The Gods weren't just mighty beings. After all, a lot of the creatures and planeswalkers in the game could already be described as godlike. These new cards had a built-in relationship with their cultists, drawing power from their belief, like characters out of a Neil Gaiman book.
All the Gods and devotion cards from the primordial Theros block used mana symbols in permanents' casting costs to signify their allegiance. (Contrast this with how the Amonkhet Gods would instead be all about fulfilling their philosophical codes.) This encouraged monocolored builds, as the major Gods and payoff cards were of a single color and cared for that color only.
And it proved restrictive; with the exception of the versatile and extremely overpowered land Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx, which still causes a ruckus to this day in Pioneer, only a handful of devotion cards saw some measure of play. Rares like Abhorrent Overlord and Reverent Hunter barely qualified as casual fare, while the success of the only non-God devotion mythic, Master of Waves, was entirely due to its individual strengths, and had very little to do with any mechanical application.
Fast forward to seven years later, and we're back in the lap of the Gods. They mostly ask you to be monocolored once again; is this a better time to be, with Throne of Eldraine's adamant still in the mix? Let's see what each color's best devotion build looks like.
Livin' the White Life
Deck: Monowhite Devotion by SimplyCole
Main Deck (60)
Being the primary home of the Cleric subtype, white seems like it should be the most fitting color for a religion-heavy mechanic like devotion. And indeed the color of law and order was able to produce a solid lifegain-based deck exploiting Heliod, Sun-Crowned's trigger.
It came together thanks to the simultaneous presence in Standard of a series of key factors: reliable 1-drop lifelinkers in Healer's Hawk and Alseid of Life's Bounty; ultimate monowhite lifegain payoff Ajani's Pridemate and its own daddy, Ajani, Strength of the Pride; the resident Demigod Daxos, Blessed by the Sun, acting as a surrogate Soul Warden; and last but not least, the white member of Throne of Eldraine's triple-mana cycle, Linden, the Steadfast Queen, tying it all together with the trigger, as well as greatly contributing to Heliod's awakening, just in time for the God to do some swinging and boosting on turn four.
It's a tremendously consistent build, capable of achieving more explosive board states than any iteration of Monowhite Aggro from last year, but characterized by a more delicate frame, in which disabling a single piece could cause the whole plan to fall apart. For its aggressive qualities, as well as the inherent resilience to Monored, it was briefly deemed tier two or three. Alas, Monowhite quickly fell out of favor after the resurgence of highly interactive decks that have an easier time opposing its linear strategy.
Thassa Sings the Blues
Deck: Monoblue Devotion by hikiyamajasmine
Main Deck (60)
Blue has the best God in the set fighting on its side — though also, unfortunately, the worst Demigod. Thassa, Deep-Dwelling is a beast of a flickering machine, coming online right away and giving birth to scary, game-breaking interactions like the one with Agent of Treachery. Soon, it became evident that you don't actually need to be monoblue in order to exploit the sea goddess's mad skills. But Monoblue Devotion was still seen as a rare opportunity to build a permanent-oriented deck in the color most known for its nonpermanent spells.
In fact, Standard at the moment offers so many relevant cards able to contribute big chunks of blue devotion, from Thassa's Oracle and Gadwick, the Wizened to Arcanist's Owl and Cavalier of Gales, that the color works best with Theros Beyond Death's one devotion-based mana producer, Nyx Lotus. In trying to avoid the Nykthos pitfall, Nyx Lotus was subjected to an overly cautious design that sees it hit the board as a tapped 4-drop. Still, one can be amazed by the amount of devotion a dedicated blue list can generate — granted, Arcanist's Owl is not something you would play otherwise, but it's a decently sized flier that can dig for a Lotus or Thassa — to the point that the main win condition becomes drawing most of the library with Gadwick, then casting Oracle for that seemingly random "you win the game" clause.
It can be very exhilarating, but the overall pace of the deck is not competitive in current Standard. The one featured above is a refined list that tries not to get too cute with the ways to untap Lotus, like Corridor Monitor and Kiora, Behemoth Beckoner (plus Thassa still hasn't forgiven the cheeky merfolk for that whole Kiora Bests the Sea God incident). But it remains a list that does very little before turn four, mostly relying on the Oracle's toughness or the occasional Petty Theft, perhaps Vantress Gargoyle in some other builds. Not enough to stop aggro, while the unprotected endgame is bound to be thwarted by control.
Fifty Shades of Black
Deck: Monoblack Devotion by telsacow
Main Deck (60)
Gray Merchant of Asphodel — also known as "Gary" — used to wreak havoc in Limited, since it was somewhat regrettably printed at common back in Theros. Now that's been upgraded to uncommon, it's less of an issue for drafting. At the same time, the new environment has gifted the devoted Zombie trader with some improved Constructed functionality, due to the possibility of being sacrificed to Woe Strider under the watch of Nightmare Shepherd, thus immediately returning to the battlefield as a tiny but still deadly clone token. More lifedraining potential per individual copy makes Gary into a better build-around card.
This central setup is surrounded by a worthy menagerie of creatures with plenty of black symbols in their costs: an excellent 3-drop in Ayara, First of Locthwain; a decent, if not very synergistic Demigod in Tymaret, Chosen from Death; a disrupting little critter that plays into the Strider/Shepherd's routine in Yarok's Fenlurker. There's also a vast amount of available customization. Agonizing Remorse provides a way to preemptively strike against card types black has a hard time removing when it's on its own. Some builds include Spawn of Mayhem, Dread Presence and/or Liliana, Dreadhorde General at the top end. Even more commonplace are one or two copies of Bolas's Citadel, which improves the devotion total for Gary's lethal math and benefits from lifegain. Some degree of hybridization with a sacrifice theme is also usual, be it the "Cat in the Oven" package, or Priest of Forgotten Gods — best pal Gutterbones is typically already here — or both.
Monoblack Devotion is a serious archetype that's perfectly capable of stealing games out of nowhere and was rated as high as tier two at some point. It receded into lower tiers lately, mostly for being too midrange for its own good, struggling when faced with aggressive starts or with sweepers, something that unfortunately characterizes the entirely of the field right now.
The Red-Nosed Raider
Deck: Monored Aggro by Biagio Ruocco
Main Deck (60)
Well, okay, this is not a devotion deck. Red doesn't seem to like devotion much — possibly because it's too individualist. Even Purphoros is not really operating in that business, just doing a fatally slow, too conditional impression of Sneak Attack.
Purphoros's boy Anax, though, single-handedly rescued Monored from its Cavalcade of Calamity days. It's not that the Cavalcade decks were outright bad. They just didn't compare favorably with the recent past, after the glorious Hazoret era and the very successful Chainwhirler era. The Cavalcade archetype was a distant country cousin to those lists. But now that Anax has arrived, Wrath effects aren't enough to hinder red anymore. Plus, you won't find a better carrier for Embercleave. So tier one here we come again.
It's Not Easy Being Devoted to Green
If red devotion amounts to just one card found in a mostly unrelated archetype, green devotion doesn't even have a sample list to its name. One issue is the fact that Stompy doesn't currently identify with a very well-established iteration — Nylea is a good card, but I guess she would have loved to be in the same Standard as Steel Leaf Champion. Sure there's Yorvo, Lord of Garenbrig that acts as a dignified replacement for the massive Elf, and Vivien, Arkbow Ranger has three green mana in her cost too. But these cards don't particularly need Nylea, not in the way they would have welcomed a 3-drop like Rhonas the Indomitable three years ago.
On top of that, Nylea aside, there's not much that's useful in the green devotion compartment. Renata is a slower Grumgully, the Generous, which is not the most played card to begin with, and a 3-mana 3/3 that doesn't meaningfully impact the board the turn it drops is still better than roughly the same thing one turn later. Tthe rest of the green devotion cards are even more clearly intended for Limited, at best: Klothys's Design might just be the worst Overrun variant ever.
Speaking of which, the two multicolored devotion cards should at least be mentioned. Klothys, God of Destiny, rising to take the place left vacant in the pantheon by Xenagos's demise, is a valuable addition to Gruul lists. Meanwhile, the Buy-a-Box promo, Athreos, Shroud-Veiled, is little more than a casual-oriented off-color take on what Thassa does better and faster.
In conclusion, devotion remains a fascinating mechanic to build around, something people enjoy for its linear feeling and sometimes powerful payoffs. For the same reason, it couldn't be designed in a way that leads to exceedingly profitable archetypes — the Nykthos lesson having been learned. Because by its own nature those lists would risk to be too easy to assemble, and too consistent.
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