Hark, and hear the hounds of Hades howl! The arrival of Theros Beyond Death draws near, and it is time for us to review the most exciting cards spoiled in black for this new set. Fans of red, white and blue can catch up on the previous articles in the series — but for those who appreciate greatness at any cost, reading ahead will bring the true bounty Theros has to offer.
Poor old Erebos is a little lonely this time around. He’s the only mono-black mythic in the set, since there are multiple multi-colored mythics taking up the other slots (more on them later!). The God of the Dead is doing his best to hold it down for his color, though! While a four-mana 5/6 is a nice bonus for decks with enough devotion, the power here is all in the two abilities. This is definitely the best “enchantment” out of the new God cycle.
The activated ability is quite fairly-costed for what it does, and it will win games of Limited — check out how many X/1’s are in Theros Beyond Death! But most Constructed players will want Erebos, Bleak-Hearted for his static ability, which is a game-ending combo piece in many scenarios. We’ve seen the ability to draw off death triggers before, but to get it in Standard — without the “nontoken” restriction, on an indestructible permanent, which is also its own sacrifice outlet — is something else entirely.
The Pioneer community has hyperfocused on the combo between the new Heliod and Walking Ballista, but if Erebos isn’t already capable of combo-killing in that format, I expect he’s only one card away from becoming this set’s sleeper hit.
Winner of this set’s “card most likely to be mistaken for a Dark Souls boss,” this rare saga aims to empower a number of different decks. The first review I heard called it “black History of Benalia,” and it does provide a similar mid-game power spike for black aggro. In Pioneer, where Zombies is a real tribal deck, this builds toward the Rally the Ancestors/Return to the Ranks endgame that Corpse Knight and Wayward Servant have created in that archetype.
One thing to note is that you must exile a creature or enchantment to produce a Zombie token. You’ll want to play this card alongside Stitcher’s Supplier and have a very high density of creatures and enchantments that you don’t mind exiling. This self-mill plan does at least synergize with Standard’s enchantment-based graveyard payoffs like Dance of the Manse — or the next spoiler…
I first saw Aphemia spoiled with only a rough English translation, where her legendary status wasn’t clear, and I got extremely excited. But even having a single Aphemia in play is a tremendous engine for just two mana. The question with Aphemia is going to be finding the right home to unlock her potential.
Aphemia runs into the same problems I described for Archon of Sun’s Grace in my review of white’s spoilers: it’s an aggressive, combat-focused card that also requires a high density of enchantments. The simplest answer for Standard is to construct the best aggressive curve you can around enchantment creatures, auras, and token-making enchantments like Tymaret Calls the Dead or Omen of the Sun. In this case, it makes natural sense for the deck to be WB so both Aphemia and the Archon can benefit.
I can also see a home for Aphemia in slower, attrition-based enchantment lists. Abzan colors look like they’ll have an easy time filling the yard with enchantments, and any WB Doom Foretold deck would welcome free tokens while arm-wrestling the opponent over their permanents. Even if she’s a little small-ball for most Commander groups, Aphemia’s future in Constructed is bright.
If you had showed me Nightmare Shepherd and Aphemia, the Cacophony together without their names or type lines, I would definitely have called this as the legendary card design. Nightmare Shepherd seems like a delightful effect to have on a Commander, and I expect it to become a staple of the format overnight despite its inability to lead a deck.
In competitive Constructed, I’m a little less certain about any combo ability attached to a fragile creature, although a 4/4 flyer does dodge a good amount of removal in Standard and Pioneer. It’s also extremely powerful alongside almost any creatures with “enter the battlefield” or “dies” triggers, and it doubles the value of sacrifice outlets. This even has some cachet as a curve-topper in black aggro, since it offers a strange sort of wrath insurance which could be highly synergistic if your other creatures work well as 1/1’s.
The cost may be a little steep, but the last creature I can remember being pushed this hard as a combo enabler was Prime Speaker Vannifar. This one doesn’t even need to tap to go off — just drop it onto a board primed with a sac outlet and you’re on your way.
Not many commons can say they became the face of their respective set, but this fellow was a bona fide phenomenon in original Theros block. I’ll admit I was really hoping that “Gary” would be honored as befits his memetic status by being reborn as a legendary creature this time around. (I even designed one in the lead-up to spoiler season to imagine what it might look like.)
Instead, we get a reprint, but at the less Limited-defining rarity of uncommon. Gary will continue to be extremely strong given the seeding of heavy-black mana costs across this set and Throne of Eldraine, slotting straight into Aristocrats as a new finisher. He also combos extremely well with Nightmare Shepherd! And if we are ever to see a mono-black control deck around Dread Presence, it seems probable that Gary will be there as usual, picking up the slack and closing out the games. A true king of (un)commons.
Black picks up a lot of new tools for Aristocrats-style decks with the release of Theros Beyond Death. In line with the original Theros, players are being lured away from two-, three- and four-color variations on the archetypes we see currently, and back to mono-black.
Woe Strider is a great argument in favor of Mono-Black Sacrifice, with efficient stats spread ideally across two bodies. It’s a free value sacrifice outlet, providing much-needed card selection to an archetype filled with bad top-decks and a late-game mana sink that consistently generates a real threat. You can’t ask for much more, and even if this gets lost behind more splashy cards in week one, I fully expect it to find a place in the Standard and Pioneer metagames.
There seems to be a desire at Wizards to diversify competitively viable discard spells — in particular, they seem to be aiming for something maindeckable but slightly less dominant than Thoughtseize. I think they’ve finally hit the mark with Agonizing Remorse, providing an interesting layer of flexibility and exiling power which offsets the necessary extra mana in the spell’s cost.
If Thoughtseize is ever banned in Pioneer, this card will likely become its replacement. Until then, I’ll delight in playing them alongside each other, and I’ll be glad to have this effect in Standard without having to splash blue for Thought Erasure.
Another obvious tool for black’s toolbox (there are quite a few of those in Theros Beyond Death). And considering that Noxious Grasp has been a best-in-slot main deck removal spell for most of current Standard, I feel this was definitely the right time to print them.
Drag to the Underworld has been praised for its potential in Pioneer, but I don’t know if destroying any creature is enough to see it take slots from spells which are consistently castable on turn two. In Standard, however, this stands out as a staple for sets to come, and one of the biggest arguments for the mono-black archetypes alongside Gary.
OK, I admit I buried the lede here. Treacherous Blessing is my favorite card in Theros Beyond Death, in any color. It’s also extremely powerful, and several respected players and deck-builders are already discussing its potential. Any card that draws three cards for three mana is guaranteed to see a lot of play, and Treacherous Blessing has even more to offer.
Obviously, this card is ideal fodder for Doom Foretold, and having access to such a powerful draw spell in black is what will enable that deck to shrink back from Esper to pure WB. It is also remarkably powerful alongside Vraska, Golgari Queen in an Abzan build, which has a ton of potential build paths, from sacrifice value to conventional midrange.
But you don’t even need to be able to remove Treacherous Blessing for it to be great! The life tax doesn’t matter when you’re an aggressive black deck using it to refuel for a last push. Even with a couple copies in play, it takes a while to seriously sting slower decks, and it’s not difficult for incidental lifegain cards to offset the loss.
I’ve been testing Treacherous Blessing alongside several other Theros Beyond Death cards in my Pioneer Gideons deck, and I end up ignoring them most of the time. This is the most half-hearted of drawbacks, stapled to a king-size tank of nitro-laced gasoline. Play Treacherous Blessing everywhere you can.
LAST PIECE OF THE PIE
We’re getting very close to the prerelease now, when everyone will finally get their eager hands on Theros Beyond Death cards for the first time. But before the set tramples into full release, we still need to review the almighty green options. Look for that next week!
Tom’s fate was sealed in 7th grade when his friend lent him a pile of commons to play Magic. He quickly picked up Boros and Orzhov decks in Ravnica block and has remained a staunch white magician ever since. A fan of all Constructed formats, he enjoys studying the history of the tournament meta. He specializes in midrange decks, especially Death & Taxes and Martyr Proc. One day, he swears he will win an MCQ with Evershrike. Ask him how at @AWanderingBard, or watch him stream Magic at twitch.tv/TheWanderingBard.