The Comboist Manifesto Volume I, Article 6: A Comboist Set Review of Born of the Gods
While other people are at the Born of the Gods prerelease, I'm staying home and writing about the new set. I don't know why I'm disclosing that fact. This article won't be published for several more days anyway. I could just pretend that I wrote it after the prerelease, and say, “Oh yeah, I totally went to the prerelease and it was awesome.” Nope. Not happening. Too lazy. Also, I haven't attended such an event since Invasion and if I'm going to break from that tradition, it's not going to be for this set. That isn't to say that I dislike Born of the Gods. But I'm getting ahead of myself. I'll back up—all the way back to last year.
In the introduction to The Comboist Manifesto, I noted that I'd have a backlog of articles so that, at least for the first few weeks, I'd have no excuses for failing to meet my self-imposed weekly quota. Most of that work was done in November, and a whole lot of that was spent on my first set review. The introduction was the first article I wrote for The Comboist Manifesto. The second article that I started for this project was a retrospective review of the First and Second Editions of the core set, also known as Limited/Unlimited and also known as Alpha/Beta/Unlimited. I envisioned this as the first of many, planning to write retrospective reviews of every Magic set, commenting on every single card, with a particular focus on combo. I knew that the original core set was 292 cards, so I assumed that if I wrote a brief statement for each card, the whole review would be long, but not too long. It turns out that I am hopelessly verbose. I didn't even finish that review, and it's already about the same length as the sum of everything else I've written for this series. That is too long. So I've learned my lesson. I can't review every card, at least not in the way I've been attempting to.
For Born of the Gods, while I won't be covering every individual card, I will present an overview of the set and evaluate its contents with emphasis on two aspects...
Relevance beyond Standard
Plenty of other people have already evaluated every individual card in this set with a focus on either limited formats (mostly booster drafts) or Standard. I lack experience in those formats and will not be taking them into consideration. Cards that are very good in drafts can be worthless in constructed play, and the card pool in Standard is so constrained that once this set rotates out of Standard, much of it will be of no interest in other formats. I realize that casual Magic is highly variable. Anyone is entitled to use as many Born of the Gods cards as desired. However, in the long run, how much of an effect will these cards have on gameplay?
Among players of Eternal formats, Born of the Gods already has a bad reputation, which is largely undeserved. There is a perception that because this set, and Theros before it, don't contribute much that has been relevant beyond Standard so far, that the current block is dull, unworthy, and bad. There are some confounding factors, though. It can take time for players to figure out how to break new cards. Also, not every set can have a plethora of cards strong enough to compete with the other cards from throughout the entire history of the game: power creep would spiral out of control. Because Innistrad Block was so exceptional in the number of powerful cards those sets introduced, there's an unreasonable sentiment that the blocks that have followed are underpowered.
While I contend that Born of the Gods does deserve some lenience if it doesn't seem as powerful as sets in other recent blocks, even accounting for the cyclical nature of developments in set releases and the potential for hidden gems that players have yet to discover, the set does seem woefully underpowered. I would not mind being proven wrong on this point, but I do suspect that Born of the Gods will have little to offer once Theros Block rotates out of Standard and the contents of the set must prove themselves in other formats or be consigned to the ever-growing assortment of forgotten cards. There are a few possible exceptions, and I'll try to address all of those.
This is, as I'll point out again and again until you become so furious that you hunt me down to stop me, a combo-focused series. My main interest in examining new cards is to look for combo applications. Theros Block has some interesting concepts for the game, such as creatures that are also enchantments. While I'll set aside some space for commentary on other strengths that cards in Born of the Gods might have, the primary interest here is combo.
Unfortunately, so far, I can think of little to say on the subject of combos in Born of the Gods. At first glance, this is not a promising set for combo players. But it's also not a promising set for anyone else, so there might be some comfort in knowing that this set won't be killing combo decks. I write this having only made a cursory examination of the full set. I will peruse the set again and see which exceptions I can find.
Background on Theros and Born of the Gods
Before I delve into individual cards, I'll provide a brief explanation for what's going on with Born of the Gods, just in case anyone reading this hasn't kept up at all. This is the second set in Theros Block. Following the typical excuse storyline that has been the driving force behind Magic lore for many years, some characters who were already introduced in some earlier set arrive in a plane that was previously unexplored, inaccessible, or just hadn't been part of the story yet, and then become embroiled in the politics of this plane, resulting in a three act story, with each act having its own corresponding expansion set for everyone to spend money on. In the first act, the familiar characters learn about what the current situation is in the plane. In the second act, things get stirred up somehow, probably because of the actions of the main characters and also some other developments. In the third act, there is resolution, with some changes occurring that reshape the plane for better or worse, and we witness the final fate of the plane—at least until Wizards of the Coast, running out of new planes to make up, revisits it. In this case, Elspeth Tirel (a recurring character) planeswalked to Theros, a plane that is based on Greek mythology. Born of the Gods is the second act, in which a new development stirs things up, and in this case, the crisis comes in the form of Xenagos, a planeswalking satyr, exploiting Elspeth Tirel's actions in Theros to become a god, which turns out to be a bit of a downgrade for him in terms of playability. In the third act, Journey into Nyx, we will learn the resolution of this conflict.
I'm being flippant, but really, I don't have anything against Theros Block, other than the fact that its cards are too weak for me to be interested in playing them. I actually like the design and really appreciate the way they've drawn on Greek mythology. Even though I'm not attending a Born of the Gods prerelease, I do have a foil Questing Phalddagrif that was printed in Classical Greek for the Planeshift prerelease that I also didn't attend, and that almost counts, right? I'm not completely missing out on the sweet combination of Magic cards and Greek stuff. Also, I do have some Theros cards. Speaking of which...
Some of the mechanics from Theros also appear in Born of the Gods. While Theros is still relatively new, it has been out for a sufficient period of time for players to try out the set's mechanics. While none of these mechanics are really exciting, some of them can be fun or interesting. Players who are familiar with Theros cards will recognize “devotion,” enchantment creatures (including gods, which require devotion to be creatures), “heroic,” and “bestow.” I am a fan of enchantment creatures, especially ones with “bestow.” However, they tend to cost just enough mana that they are incapable of competing with cards from earlier sets. Born of the Gods also introduces brand new mechanics...
-Inspired: I really like this one in theory, although I suspect that it's not usually going to be practical. This mechanic appears on creatures and gives them a triggered ability. Whenever these creatures become untapped, something happens. Sometimes that thing is merely an option to pay mana for a token, which seems lackluster, but a few of these abilities are really cool. Most of the creatures with this mechanic are not particularly useful on their own: none of them have activated abilities that tap them, and if they attack, they are liable to be blocked and killed. Arbiter of the Ideal is a possible exception, being a bulky, flying creature that could very likely attack and survive to become inspired. But I do see some potential for combos, especially with the creatures with abilities that don't need mana. Born of the Gods might not have them, but there are a whole lot of ways for players to use cards that tap their own creatures, often accomplishing something while doing so. This could turn tapping a creature, something that is normally a mild cost, into a benefit, because when the creatures untap, their abilities trigger. This mechanic won't be a tournament powerhouse, but it does provide some nice opportunities in casual play.
-Tribute: Frankly, this mechanic sucks. I've seen some spirited defenses of the “tribute” mechanic by players who point out that even though it gives opponents a choice, both options are always beneficial. The mechanic has also been likened to Fact or Fiction, the most famous card to explicitly give opponents options. Sadly, the favorable statements about this mechanic are all wrong. Firstly, I was around when Fact or Fiction came out. I played with the card and against the card. I saw how the card was used in multiple formats, and I can confidently say that Fact or Fiction is and always has been overrated. Oh, it's still good, but nowhere as good as the hype—that's why no one uses Fact or Fiction anymore, except in Highlander decks (and I'd totally still use it in such decks myself). Secondly, there have been a whole lot of other “give opponents a choice” cards printed since Fact or Fiction, and they're actually not like Fact or Fiction at all, but instead are bad cards (I'm ignoring Gifts Ungiven because no one else seems to remember that it exists, but if you do, then just bear with me). I've even been in the unenviable position of having to play such cards. What these cards almost always do is give opponents a chance to pick whichever option hurts them least. For those who actually played with Fact or Fiction instead of just hearing somewhere that it was a powerful card and that it gave opponents a choice, the difference is abundantly clear. Fact or Fiction doesn't let your opponent have whichever option hurts them least. It lets your opponent set up two piles and then lets you choose the option that suits you. Your opponent may not even have sufficient information to know how to split the piles in a way that makes your choice hardest. That you have the final choice instead of your opponent is a huge deal (Gifts Ungiven also gives you the choice). It's why Steam Augury pales in comparison to Fact or Fiction. “Tribute” isn't like Fact or Fiction. It's more like Skullscorch. And I hate Skullscorch.
Well, that's enough about the mechanics. On with the cards already!
On with the cards
I'll begin with the cards that show the most obvious promise beyond Standard. Most of these cards probably won't be Legacy or Vintage superstars, but at the very least they could pack a punch in casual play. In no particular order, the cards that look to be relevant in Born of the Gods are...
Because it's a reprint of a Lorwyn card, we already know that Springleaf Drum is good. Out of 165 cards, Born of the Gods has at least one good one. Should play nicely with the "inspired" mechanic too, so there's that.
Spirit of the Labyrinth
This card caught the attention of the Legacy community as soon as it was revealed. Spirit of the Labyrinth could see play in aggro-control decks alongside other efficient creatures with abilities that interfere with other decks. Card-drawing has always been very popular, and this shuts it down almost entirely, while simultaneously serving as an attacker. Spirit of the Labyrinth completely wrecks Brainstorm. It isn't very effective against some sources of card advantage, but at the very least it's a 3/1 creature.
Everyone has been comparing this card to Dark Confidant (or Bob, if you prefer), and of course that comparison makes Pain Seer seem pretty weak. Forget about the point that Dark Confidant's ability is mandatory each upkeep, whereas Pain Seer's ability can be avoided by not tapping it: such an exchange is so unfavorable that it makes Pain Seer look terrible, especially since its meager toughness means that it risks dying if it attacks, and if it dies in combat, its ability isn't doing anything. Throw in the fact that summoning sickness means this thing probably has to wait a turn before it can start procuring cards, and Pain Seer is starting to look uncomfortably like an unplayable Bob-wannabe. But even though Pain Seer probably won't amount to much, there is a chance. It's a slim chance, and involves Pain Seer's combo potential. Dark Confidant can only procure one card each time its controller has an upkeep. Pain Seer, in combination with other cards, could be used multiple times in a single turn. This probably isn't powerful enough to make Pain Seer noteworthy. Much of the appeal of Dark Confidant is that it is so good on its own, providing card advantage without requiring anything else to back it up. Pain Seer can't do that, and everyone knows it. Still, I hope this card does find a niche somewhere. I like it.
Even though I like the “bestow” mechanic, it is plagued by exorbitant mana costs, and that is, to an extent, understandable. These cards can be used as auras, and then, even if the creature they enchant dies, they can remain on the battlefield as creatures. That's a powerful advantage, one that isn't really offset by the fact that both creature removal and enchantment removal can kill these creatures. Unfortunately, the mana costs are high enough that in almost every case, I'm convinced these cards will fail to stand the test of time, that they'll be too inefficient to be relevant beyond Standard. Chromanticore takes a different approach, going all in on color requirement instead of total mana. It requires all five colors of mana, but for that five mana, one gets a 4/4 with an impressive list of abilities. And the additional mana to bestow Chromanticore onto another creature isn't that severe. Seven mana is usually a bit much for an aura, but an aura that gives a creature +4/+4, vigilance, flying, lifelink, first strike, and trample, while also sticking around as a creature itself if the enchanted creature dies, is well worth seven. That's all on top of the fact that Chromanticore can be cast as a creature for five mana, if necessary. But usually, you'll want to bestow it. This might be my favorite five-color creature since Sliver Queen. However, setting the color requirement this high is not to be underestimated as a barrier. Most decks can't play this thing, no matter how good it is. And cheating Chromanticore into play isn't really a sensible thing to do because that precludes bestowing it onto something and there are better creatures for such combos anyway. I don't know where Chromanticore will show up, if anywhere, but I'll be looking for it.
Brimaz, King of Oreskos
This monster has drawn a lot of attention, and rightfully so. I don't know where Brimaz will turn up, but I expect to see it somewhere. Three mana is pretty good for a vigilant 3/4 creature, and its token-generating abilities look pretty good too.
I'd consider it as a sideboard card in a pure Burn deck, siding it in against most other aggro decks. Actually, this could be good in other red aggro decks too. I'm thinking of it coming down early to kill a blocker and let something like Goblin Guide through. There is a ton of depth for red direct damage spells, and if Searing Blood is competing against everything else from Magic's history, it might not make the cut, but it looks like it stands a chance, especially considering how many important creatures it kills.
Drown in Sorrow
This is a strict upgrade to Infest, which has proven itself. While Drown in Sorrow isn't broken, it's a perfectly good sideboard card. Infest has been a popular card in Modern and has turned up in sideboards in Legacy decks. Drown in Sorrow will supplant it.
Within this set, the obvious synergy for Kiora's Follower is the “inspired” mechanic. But Kiora's follower can untap any permanent that you can target. This is great utility for only two mana. Unless the color requirement makes it too inconvenient, this card will be relevant.
Unlike Drown in Sorrow, this one targets. But the effect is pretty strong. I've used Echoing Decay in the past and wouldn't hesitate to replace it with Bile Blight.
Red-heavy aggro decks have traditionally used direct damage spells to burn away opposing creatures and then attacked with their own creatures. Satyr Firedancer presents an opportunity to make those instants and sorceries work overtime. The only things holding Satyr Firedancer back are the tempo loss associated with playing a 1/1 for two mana and its general fragility. But the effect is still powerful enough that I'd consider this to be a promising card.
Those are the cards the ten cards I'm watching out for the most. Some of them are fairly mundane: I'm sure that Bile Blight will see some play along the same lines that Echoing Decay did. Some are long shots: Pain Seer is either going to need some combo to be discovered that breaks it in order for it not to fall by the wayside. Born of the Gods does have some other cards that might end up being fun and powerful, but they're either so marginal as to barely warrant mentioning or such long shots that mentioning them as having potential is almost silly...
These are strict upgrades over the original Invasion taplands, which have already received other strict upgrades in the past anyway, but more options could be good, I guess. On the spectrum of all the different downgrades from the original dual lands, the Theros temples rank somewhere around “mediocre.” It's not that these lands are bad, it's that other options are better. Other options are sometimes a lot of money on the secondary market, because the demand for mana-fixing is so high, but nevertheless, those other cards still exist and are still better. For now, I'm not going to pinpoint exactly how I'd rank the various substitutes for the original duals, but I'll note that manabases are dull and everyone knows it: no one in the world is holding Coastal Tower, Boreal Shelf, Wanderwine Hub, Glacial Fortress, Sejiri Refuge, Celestial Colonnade, Seachrome Coast, or Azorius Guildgate and looking longingly at the brand new Temple of Enlightenment.
Kiora, the Crashing Wave
The new planeswalker has gotten some hype. Maybe there is some blue/green deck out there with a desperate need for these abilities, but I can't think of one offhand. People will try to use Kiora, both in casual play and in tournaments, but that doesn't mean she'll perform well. Her starting loyalty is low enough that she has no way to avoid Lightning Bolt and little opportunity to use her -1. Her +1 is lackluster, so repeatedly using that to build up to her ultimate isn't very appealing. Planeswalkers are tricky to evaluate, but I'm calling this one middling at best.
The monocolored Theros gods each required five devotion to a single color. These ones require seven devotion to two different colors, which is potentially a bit easier to achieve, depending on a lot of deckbuilding considerations. The gods themselves, in these cases, each give two devotion, so only five more is needed from other sources. Also, I just snuck the phrase “the gods themselves” into an article. I feel very fulfilled. Anyway, gods aren't the most practical cards, but they are quite powerful, which seems fitting, thematically. Ephara and Karametra are both rather bland. Xenagos has been compared to Fires of Yavimaya, which is just silly: Fires of Yavimaya costs three mana. Phenax, God of the Best Colors is my favorite of the bunch, and I'd love to see that ability in action with the right setup, although for my five mana, I could play more effective cards. For playability, Mogis seems to tower over the other gods, a 7/5 indestructible creature for four mana that also has a strong ability. As long as the devotion requirement is met, that's a whole lot of power.
These creatures each give all of your own creatures an ability and make it so none of your opponents' creatures get that ability. White gets first strike, blue gets flying, black gets deathtouch, red gets trample, and green gets hexproof. In all-out creature battles, these effects are obviously very strong. For this very pronounced effect, the archetypes come with consierable mana costs for their size. This poses a dilemma. Which is better, a small archetype or a big one? I'm not sure how the archetypes will fare, but I do find them interesting. They look fun for multiplayer, in particular. Ultimately, the archetypes are too situational. For example, the blue one, Archetype of Imagination, would be amazing against an opponent that played a bunch of flying creatures and planned to win the game with aerial superiority, but would be a 3/2 for six mana against a deck that doesn't care about flying. And that's a problem.
As removal spells go, Gild is a bizarre one. Other than needing to be able to target, the effect is about as dramatic as one could want for a single-target spell to get rid of an opposing creature. On the other than, it does cost four mana. The gold token has the most potential in a multicolored deck, but that's exactly the sort of deck that probably wouldn't want a four-mana removal spell, so there's some tension in the priorities for this thing and I'm not sure what kind of deck it might end up being played in. If nothing else, the amusing flavor of this card will draw some casual players to it. There are some other cards in this set that seem like they're just around to have removal spells that can deal with opposing gods. That is especially the case for the reprint of Revoke Existence. But Gild is easily the most interesting of the bunch.
The “Fated” spells
These are generally powerful, but expensive, instants that, if cast on one's own turn, provide a bonus “scry 2” effect. In many cases, it is advantageous to have these effects on an opponent's turn instead, so the bonus is forfeited. Annoying, but “scry 2” isn't such a big deal anyway. It's the triple color requirements that hurt these most. The red one is probably not powerful enough, while the black and white ones are too expensive to be really appealing. I could see the blue one and the green one being useful, though.
Even though I'm a fan of the “bestow” mechanic, it occurs to me that I'm very unimpressed when it appears all by itself. I wouldn't use these things in any constructed deck. They suck and they make me sad.
In addition to the gods, some other cards in this set use the “devotion” mechanic. Most of them are inferior versions of cards that already exist. I don't mean strictly inferior, but in practice, it's more reliable to use other cards. For example, Mana Leak is much more reliable than Thassa's Rebuff. The black cards are the most promising here, with Sanguimancy being another iteration of the black's longstanding “still not as good as Necropotence” tradition and Marshmist Titan being very efficient in the right deck.
Most of the time, it's a sorcery-speed Evacuation for a one-mana discount. Worth it? Kind of. Instant speed is pretty good for this sort of effect, and I'd be inclined to choose Evacuation over this card. Things potentially look a lot better if you can actually make use of the exceptions. I dare you to make an octopuses tribal deck.
These are way more interesting than the boring old Nyxborn. Well, there's also Nyxborn Eidolon, but forget that. Eidolon of Countless Battles is the rare here, and of course also the powerhouse of the bunch. Flitterstep Eidolon is sort of an upgraded Metathran Soldier, which isn't saying much, but is acceptable. Everflame Eidolon is probably viable too.
Well, it's a customizable mana-rock. As mana rocks go, it's actually a pretty good one. While I generally only use broken artifact mana and this is too fair for my taste, it's respectable, I suppose.
Yeah, I'm perplexed. The ability is bizarre enough that I don't know how to rate this thing, other than knowing that there are better investments of five mana. That your opponent has warning of the ability before it's ever used only makes this even less appealing. I'll pass.
Whims of the Fates
The overly expensive red “annoy your friends” card that Wizards of the Coast has to make a new iteration of every once in a while. These spells are never practical and always make everyone else in the room hate your guts. Maybe you're thinking, “Hey, that's my thing. This card is for me.” No, idiot, this isn't even the best card for annoying people. Scrambleverse: more annoying. Goblin Game: more annoying. Grip of Chaos: more annoying. There are too many of these stupid things already. Stop.
Plea for Guidance
Enlightened Tutor costs one mana. My plea is that I never have to play this expensive piece of crap.
The “heroic” creatures
This mechanic is heavily constrained by the requirement that you must cast a spell targeting the creature to get anything. While you might be doing that anyway in a deck with combat trick instants or with auras, most of these creatures just aren't that impressive. I'm not bothering with any of these creatures, although I could see cases to be made for Meletis Astronomer (only in a ridiculously enchantment-heavy deck), Setessan Oathsworn (because the ability is just that good), Hero of Iroas (make a creature efficient enough, give it a good ability, and then throw in a “heroic” ability on top of that, and the hero starts to look powerful), and Ashiok's Adept (the ability is decent in principle, but I can't envision the sort of deck that would actually make it worthwhile). The others are forgettable.
If you're swinging freely with a seven-mana creature, aren't you winning anyway? Other white creatures costing seven mana include Angel of Serenity, Chancellor of the Annex, Eternal Dragon, Serra Avatar, and Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite. I doubt Silent Sentinel measures up.
Mediocre. Well, maybe that's too harsh. There's some potential for cards in this set. Pillar of War is pretty efficient in an aura-heavy deck. Reap What Is Sown seems playable. Ephara's Enlightenment provides nice utility and synergizes with many of the other cards in Born of the Gods. Noble Quarry, although a bit expensive, acts as a Taunting Elf that can be Lure instead, which is convenient (or would be if not for the mana cost). It would be hilarious when combined with Vortex Elemental. And some of the “inspired” creatures could turn out to be pretty strong.
Well, those are my initial impressions of Born of the Gods. On the whole, I'm not really impressed. The set is rich in flavor and has some really neat concepts, but most of the cards ask too much for too little. While I don't want sets to only offer cards that do everything better than cards from previous sets, this one errs a bit too far on the side of caution. It could still be fun and I hope you had fun at your prerelease if you went to one. But from what I've seen, I don't think this set (or the next one, if the current trend continues for the rest of this block), will make much of a splash in the long run, and I'm hoping the next block takes a dicier approach.