Last month, Play Design announced that they’d been gradually increasing the power of Standard, with Throne of Eldraine “in range for our new normal as far as marquee set strength is concerned. It’s on the high end of that range, but within it.” The past year has featured a whole slew of Constructed game-changers, from Arclight Phoenix to Arcum’s Astrolabe, Teferi, Time Raveler to Gilded Goose, and a quarter of Standard bannings. We’ve also seen this new power dynamic in Limited, through removal like Jaya’s Greeting, Bake into a Pie, and Savage Smash and unusually powerful commons like Ill-Gotten Inheritance, Unexplained Vision, and Callous Dismissal.

Theros Beyond Death certainly looks to continue this trend based on yesterday’s spoilers, with Thirst for Meaning and Mire’s Grasp being common despite being shockingly potent card draw and removal. Red alone received four incredibly scary looking Constructed cards yesterday: Storm Herald, Purphoros Bronze-Blooded, Ox of Agonas, and the new potential Yawgmoth’s Will: Underworld Breach.

So, what does this all mean for Magic?


Play Design said they were aiming for a power level akin to Theros/Return to Ravnica’s, but I imagine they were discussing Standard, not Limited. Frankly, the past year of Limited has been higher powered in terms of both removal and threats than what we saw back then. Sure, Lightning Strike has remained uncommon for the past several years, but we didn’t have removal as good as Ob Nixilis’s Cruelty or Hypothesizzle back in 2013; and while there were powerful common creatures like Nessian Asp and Wingsteed Rider, they wouldn’t at all be out of place in contemporary sets.

Frankly, I don’t expect Limited to change all that much with Theros Beyond Death. Throne of Eldraine demonstrated that Play Design can create a high-powered Limited environment with powerful removal, potent creatures, and more than ten archetypes despite the format having a strong monocolor focus and several fairly thin archetypes. While it’s a bit surprising seeing two monocolor-focused Limited environments in a row—heavy monocolor was only a theme in Throne of Eldraine and Shadowmoor/Eventide, and Theros was really the only other time monocolor was a focus—I’m confident they’ll feel very different.

The big challenge for higher-powered Limited formats is that synergy can be washed out by generically powerful cards. There’s risk incurred in going tall on Wingsteed Rider or trying to keep Flux Channeler alive for a critical turn; plentiful, powerful removal makes it all the riskier to try. Assembling a fragile engine like Sharktocrab plus Bolrac-Clan Crusher is less enticing when Unexplained Vision (a card only mildly worse than the rare Precognitive Perception) makes acquiring massive card advantage facile.

That said, I much prefer higher-powered formats with more powerful synergy to formats like Ixalan (where the power level was so low that repetitive tribal synergy was the best option) or Amonkhet/Kaladesh (where removal was so bad that aggro could invalidate most of the cool options).


It was certainly worrying reading that Throne of Eldraine was on the higher end of acceptable power level despite Oko, Thief of Crowns and Once Upon a Time being substantially stronger than were intended. Those cards following in the wake of Field of the Dead and Veil of Summer is further cause for concern that more Standard bannings may be necessary, since Play Design likely had no time to adjust Theros based on recent data.

The reprinting of Field of Ruin suggests that Wizards will be including more safety valves even if they threaten to invalidate cool new cards like Eldraine’s castles. On the other hand, Kunoros, Hound of Athreos suggests more maindeckable counterplay for less interactive strategies—a likely boon for best-of-one, but an issue for more niche strategies (we saw enchantments, artifacts, and creatures suffer for the past six months under the yoke of Teferi, Time Raveler and then Oko, Thief of Crowns).

There’s also the looming questions of what paper and digital Constructed Magic will look like in 2020, since they may be increasingly focusing on diverging and expanding audiences. Will Theros focus more on Commander players than previous sets have, and if so, how? What effects will it have on Pioneer, a format that seems to be both settling down in terms of bans and gearing up for several Players Tours in early 2020.

We’ve seen a slew of powerful red cards spoiled yesterday (a color which gained several high profile card advantage tools this past year, all of which remain Standard legal)—will Theros continue red and green’s toolbox expansion? Will we see a pivot point so that people can finally stop criticizing white and recognize how much it’s been gaining? Will it be powerful enough to shake up Standard without being so powerful as to spawn yet another single set monster, as Throne of Eldraine has done effectively (and shockingly in the wake of the stunningly powerful War of the Spark). Only time will tell.

As a parting thought, Theros Beyond Death spoiler season is coming at the perfect time. It follows the first big spoiler lull since the spring. This is a thoroughly welcome change from the nonstop hype from War of the Spark to Throne of Eldraine. 2020 promises to be a year with even more releases than ever before, topping 2019’s record; hopefully it’ll avoid the issues of summer 2019 and 2016, where similar products released almost concurrently and with overlapping spoiler seasons. It’s exciting thinking about all the cool stuff and thoughtful improvements coming down the pipeline. Here’s looking forward to them in the year to come.

And, as always, thanks for reading.

Zachary Barash is a New York City-based game designer and the commissioner of Team Draft League. He designs for Kingdom Death: Monster, has a Game Design MFA from the NYU Game Center, and does freelance game design. When the stars align, he streams Magic (but the stars align way less often than he’d like).

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