Devotion is back!
One of the central mechanics of the original Theros and a major dynamic of the Standard format at the time (as well as some Modern and Pioneer decks over the years), Devotion is both a powerful and somewhat odd mechanic. Devotion asks you to care about something that doesn't matter too much otherwise, the amount of mana symbols in your spells, and turns what would normally be considered a drawback into a benefit.
Cards like Underworld Dreams or Goblin Chainwhirler have extremely prohibitive manacosts that feel like drawbacks; you can only really play either in a fully mono-colored deck, or at least need to contort your mana base heavily to support them in a multicolored deck. Devotion turns this perceived drawback into a major benefit. If you've got Gray Merchant of Asphodel or Fanatic of Mogis in your deck, you're very happy that Underworld Dreams or Goblin Chainwhirler aren't easy to cast because they provide you with so much devotion from only one card.
As such, devotion requires us to reevaluate all of the current cards in the format if we are going to have a clear vision of what Standard is going to look like post-Theros: Beyond Death. We don't have enough of the card list yet to truly start brewing decks, but by figuring out what underappreciated current cards are likely to be important we will get a huge head start.
Tomik, Distinguished Advokist is a very nice little Magic card. Tomik had seen some play earlier on in the format, but the shadow-banning of basic Plains from the format has left him out in the dark. This is very likely to change with Theros: Beyond Death. Tomik is already ahead on rate as a 2/3 flier for two mana, despite the minor drawback of being legendary. Flying is huge in Standard with the ground often being gummed up and many planeswalkers to attack, and that third toughness is huge on a 2-drop. Tomik is also a very easy two pips for devotion.
The biggest draw to Tomik however is how well he shuts down Nissa, Who Shakes The World. Nissa has been one of the most powerful cards in Standard since her introduction and Tomik is a very clean, preemptive answer that is already very solid in non-Nissa matchups.
Each of the CCC legends from Throne of Eldraine are fairly obvious devotion plants, and while Linden, the Steadfast Queen is one of the least exciting on paper she synergies really well with the minor lifegain theme from Core Set 2020. Ajani, Strength of the Pride is a surprisingly powerful planeswalker, while Ajani's Pridemate proper snuck his way into War of the Spark. With the new Heliod also having life gain synergies as well, Linden starts to look much more appealing, and that's in addition to how appealing her three pips of devotion look.
While clearly overshadowed by the rare adventure cards like Brazen Borrower, Murderous Rider, and Bonecrusher Giant, Hypnotic Sprite is a reasonable Magic card. A two mana evasive creature with two pips isn't that far off something like Frostburn Weird, and the flexibility of Mesmeric Glare is a very nice option to have access too. If you want to get crazy for Blue devotion you could even play Leyline of Anticipation for two free pips that would allow you to play everything at instant speed and make the counterspell part of Hypnotic Sprite less telegraphed.
Hypnotic Sprite isn't an archetype defining card, but it certainly can help with the meat and potatos side of things.
Gadwick, the Wizened however, is an archetype defining card. Gadwick has already been seeing play in a number of places as people are starting to realize how powerful he really is. Even without the X in his cost, Gadwick isn't so bad. A 3/3 for three mana is very reasonable, as are the benefits of getting three pips and a nice aggressive tap ability.
But Gadwick does have the X in his cost, making him scale amazingly at every single point on the curve. Gadwick draws cards at an equal or better rate than Hydroid Krasis, doing so in a single color with better base stats. You don't need to be ramping for Gadwick to be good, as even just drawing two cards for five mana as a super Mulldrifter is phenomenal. If any sort of Blue devotion deck is going to be a thing, Gadwick is going to be front and center.
There's a line with any of the CC two-drops, which is "how much power level am I going to sacrifice for the benefit of my devotion?" Yarok's Fenlurker is a glorified Ravenous Rats, but if you're really looking to push your devotion hard and have use for a fodder 1/1 creature (like say for Plaguecrafter or other outlets) then Yarok's Fenlurker may fit the bill. The exile clause is good against graveyard decks and in the very late game the pump ability can come into play as a mana sink.
It would not be surprising to see Yarok's Fenlurker make some moves in Standard if Black devotion is in need.
Speaking of good outlets for fodder creatures, Ayara, First of Locthwain is actually a very solid Magic card. She needs to be worked around, but she plays amazing with cards like Caldron Familiar and Dreadhorde Invasion, providing extra life and a bit of a card draw engine as well. Three pips is great, and any sort of life gain is also welcome in Black decks that are often paying life for effects.
Ayara isn't as self-contained as Gadwick is, but there's a lot of power there if you're willing to put in the work.
As we are looking at enabler cards for devotion I tried to keep all of today's cards at four mana or less, but Bolas's Citadel must be discussed because of how absurd it is with the marquee Theros reprint Gray Merchant of Asphodel. Just playing a Gray Merchant of Asphodel off of the top of your library with Bolas's Citadel and nothing else in play ends up costing you zero life while also Lava Axeing your opponent. Once you start to throw in more devotion things can get very out of hand. Ayara also fits nicely into this scheme, helping to gain back some life with each Black creature you play.
Bolas's Citadel is a risky but extremely powerful endgame that has found some niche homes in Standard so far, but is about to break out in a major way once Theros: Beyond Death hits.
Ember Hauler may be unassuming, but like Goblin Legionnaire before it has a tournament pedigree. If you need a 2-drop in your Red deck you can certainly do worse than Ember Hauler, and the two pips certainly are something. Because Red decks are often decently spell-based, Red tends to be a somewhat weaker devotion color, but by making your removal spell into a permanent you can mitigate that. The ceiling isn't that high, but the floor isn't low either if you need a 2-drop.
Torbran, Thane of Red Fell on the other hand has a sky high ceiling.
We've seen Thane of Red Fell in a number of Red decks in both Pioneer and Standard, but his stock has to go up as his devotion pips start to mean something. Four toughness makes him fairly durable and he helps to solve the problems Red has with its removal sometimes being too limited in scope. Now your Lava Coil can actually kill a Rotting Regisaur! Torbran is definitely worth watching.
We've come a long way from Watchwolf being a playable Standard card (I played four in my first Pro Tour in 2006!), but when you add on some extras a 3/3 for only two mana starts to look like quite the bargain.
Barkhide Troll is a very nice beatdown threat that can slow down a bit to play well against removal, while also picking up any sort of +1/+1 counter synergy that may be floating around as well. Remember that proliferate is still a thing. Durability and base stats are great characteristics in general, but are especially good if you're looking to keep things in play for devotion purposes, and Green has historically been the best devotion color.
Green also gets one of the best CCC cards in Yorvo, Lord of Garenbrig. Again we see great base stats with excellent scaling potential on a durable and powerful body. Yorvo doesn't have the high ceiling of Gadwick or Torbran, but his floor is so high he will almost never be bad. That sounds like a great recipe for a devotion enabler to me.
Vivien, Arkbow Ranger has quietly become one of the best planeswalkers in both Standard and Pioneer.
Very overlooked on the initial printing of Core Set 2020, Vivien may not draw cards or turn everything in the world into an elk, but she is phenomenal at fortifying a battlefield, sizing up your creatures to overcome blockers, giving Green the removal it so desperately needs, all while being a fairly durable sticky threat. Her awkward mana cost has always felt like a burden, but now with devotion reentering the fold it feels more like a blessing. She also does wonderful with +1/+1 counter synergies.
As soon as the quad-hybrid creature cycle was previewed from Throne of Eldraine it felt very obvious that devotion was going to be returning as a mechanic. Boros Reckoner and friends were a big part of the past Theros Standard and while the cycle isn't nearly that pushed there are two very notable entries.
Deathless Knight has already seen a bit of play in the sideboard of Witch's Oven decks as a recursive threat, but starts to look quite interesting when devotion is added to the mix. Four pips is an astronomical amount, and while Deathless Knight isn't the most durable creature its recursive nature helps to make up for that. It doesn't jive super well with the Green cards we've looked at so far, but there's a bunch of incidental lifegain in the Black cards that starts to look very appealing. Deathless Knight is also good against planeswalkers and great against removal, an area where critical mass-based devotion decks can struggle. Deathless Knight also plays well with the self mill themes as well.
It looks innocent, but Deathless Knight is one to watch.
A 3/3 flying body that provides card selection/advantage and four pips of devotion? That sounds pretty nice actually! With a huge amount of new enchantments coming Arcanist's Owl is about to get a major upgrade, and that's to speak nothing of cards we already have like Glass Coffin and Conclave Tribunal. Arcanist's Owl looks like a top notch Limited card, but it could also be very good in Constructed if the right shell presents itself.
Our last card is the only planeswalker to make the list, as I wanted to try and avoid the most obvious and played examples (clearly Narset, Parter of Veils, Gideon Blackblade, Chandra, Fire Artisan, etc are all great), but is here because of how well they play with and against the major mechanic of Theros: Beyond Death - Escape.
It's not complicated; Ashiok provides two pips of devotion while nuking your opponent's graveyard every turn to turn off all graveyard synergies. However, Ashiok also goes one step further by helping you with your graveyard synergies. Ashiok exiles your opponent's graveyard regardless of who you target with the mill four cards ability, meaning you can target yourself to fill out your graveyard cards.
This may not be enough to get Ashiok into main decks, but they will likely be a very important sideboard card in new Standard.
Bring On The Brews!
With less than half the set previewed it feels better to start looking at what tools we're going to have at our disposal before we start throwing together decklists. Wizards of the Coast loves to plant enablers for future sets and mechanics, and figuring out those plants as soon as possible is an important part of the brewing process.
With another week of previews under our belt next week, we begin the brews!