elcome to Heroic Week! For us Limited players, heroic represents a pretty specific entity. Namely, eighteen cards from Theros, all featuring the heroic mechanic. We are going to take this week to explore heroic as a mechanic and how it affects not only the actual games of Magic we play in Theros, but also how it affects the draft portion of the Limited experience.
Agent of the Fates | Art by Matt Stewart
Heroism on a Grand Scale
I have to admit, when I first read the rules text for heroic, I was skeptical. I generally prefer solid, reliable plays in Limited, and the prospect of playing creatures that nearly demanded I target them with spells had me raising an eyebrow. Would the reward be there? How much risk was I really taking on by committing to a heroic strategy?
My first concern was getting destroyed by a two-for-one, one of the worst possible outcomes for a Limited player. Being on the wrong end of a two-for-one in Limited is often analogous to losing the game. Why would I want to risk that by playing creatures whose mission on the battlefield was to be targeted by one of my spells?
The first question that had to be answered was how likely was this to happen in this format? I looked to the removal in the set. After a quick browse followed by a deep dive, I determined that the removal in the format wasn't very impressive. This made sense to me, as heroic was a sweet new mechanic and putting it in a set with a bunch of cheap, instant-speed removal wouldn't have made much sense. I felt better about my chances of getting some heroic triggers going—and even having my creature survive to give me the benefit.
At this point, I took note of a few of the finer points about heroic. The first thing I noticed was that the creature must be targeted by a spell that I cast. This meant that activating abilities that were already on the battlefield wouldn't get the job done. I had to actually cast spells from my hand to make it happen. The second thing was that I only had to target my creature with one of these spells—the spell didn't have to resolve in order for me to get the benefit.
This put future heroic cards into two camps. The first camp was made up of heroic creatures that provided a benefit even if they were killed in response to the spell targeting them. The second camp consisted of creatures that needed to stay on the battlefield in order to get value from the triggered heroic ability.
Let's take a look at some examples from these camps.
All of these heroic creatures give you something simply for targeting them with a spell. Drawing a card, putting +1/+1 counters on all of your creatures, making a 1/1 Soldier token, and other abilities are all desirable effects even if our hero were to fall before the targeted spell resolved.
These creatures generally receive some number of +1/+1 counters as a result of the heroic trigger, and this means they need to be on the battlefield still to realize the benefit of said counters. These creatures also seemed well suited to an aggressive strategy where I could maximize damage by using combat tricks and Auras to make my early heroic creatures huge.
While it's important to note the difference between the two camps, it's also important to note that we would vastly prefer to keep the creature in all cases. While a few of the abilities are worth a card (Agent of the Fates, Triton Fortune Hunter) most of them are not. Still, they are mostly close and the power level of these heroic creatures seemed evident early on.
The next challenge was figuring out where the heroic creatures fit into the Limited landscape, and furthermore how they would best be used in it. Would there be heroic-based aggressive decks in the format? Would the +1/+1-counter heroic creatures be the more powerful options or would the fancier effects end up being more useful? How often should we expect to trigger heroic creature during the course of a game? Once? Twice? More?
After determining that these creatures were desirable and getting excited to play them, I wanted to know how often I could expect to trigger a heroic creature during a game of Magic. I was concerned. I did an initial look at some common numbers for Limited.
Your Limited deck should contain exactly forty cards. (No, not forty-one. Forty. We can get into that in another column.) Usually, seventeen of those cards are lands, although sometimes it's correct to run eighteen, or even sixteen. Let's use seventeen as the baseline here. That leaves twenty-three slots for your spells. Limited decks often have from around fourteen to eighteen creatures in them. Let's say ours has sixteen. This leaves us with seven slots for our non-creature spells.
That's right, seven total slots for any sorceries, instants, artifacts, enchantments, or Planeswalkers (if you are that lucky). The first order of business is removal, of course. Let's say we picked up four playable removal spells in this draft. Now we are down to three slots for combat tricks and Auras. Even if we prioritize them, it's hard to imagine a deck with more than six or seven combat tricks that isn't filled with only heroic creatures.
You can see my concern. I figured that getting one heroic trigger in a game was about as much as I could realistically expect. Sure, you can use your removal on your own creature (and I have in Theros) but that comes up infrequently. I was kind of bummed about this. I had visions of huge tricked-out heroic creatures entering the red zone at early stages of the game. Something had to give, and it did.
There are three primary saviors when it comes to making heroic decks a real thing in Theros. The first is bestow. The second is a cycle of combat tricks that target not one, but two creatures at the same time. And the third is a slew of inexpensive Auras that trigger heroic while either replacing themselves or providing a spell-like effect.
Hopeful Eidolon | Art by Min Yum
Bestow is the bridge that takes heroic from interesting to awesome. Remember how we only had room for three or four combat tricks in our average deck from above? Bestow allows us to take four or five of the creature slots and turn them into potential heroic triggers. This is a game-changer, as we can now consistently pack six to ten heroic enablers in our deck.
This cycle of combat tricks that target two creatures is also important, as they allow you to maximize heroic triggers with fewer card slots used. While their individual power level varies, they all share the ability to trigger two heroic creatures at once.
The "cantrip Auras"—the two-mana Auras that you draw a card from when you resolve them—plus the cycle of Ordeals all make excellent heroic enablers. I particularly like the cantrip Auras for this purpose.
I tend to prefer these cantrip Auras to the Ordeals, as they ask a lot less of you than the Ordeals do. Sure, it's easy to imagine a scenario where you cast your one- or two-drop and slam an Ordeal on it and start going to town. The more difficult situations come up when you are behind in the damage race and the Ordeal does nothing at all. Remember, you must be able to attack in order for the Ordeal to do anything.
The cantrip Auras trigger heroic and can marginally affect the creature itself, but more importantly, they draw you a card in situations where you are behind, giving you the chance to draw your way out of a bad situation. Dragon Mantle seems to be the most powerful one, but they are all good in a dedicated heroic deck.
I want to point out two other cards that don't fit the above molds perfectly, but do fit the heroic deck perfectly.
We have all worked out that bestow is a powerful mechanic by now, I think. I wanted to point out these two cards as the two cheapest-to-bestow creatures in the set. They are able to dramatically swing the game if used on a heroic creature on turn four. The lifegain from Hopeful Eidolon can be crucial in a race situation. The sheer size afforded by a bestowed Leafcrown Dryad means that the game doesn't go very long if the creature is left unchecked.
How to be a Hero
We have established that the reward is worth the risk, and that there are enough heroic enablers in the set to make them worth running. Now what? Is there such thing as a heroic deck that wants as many heroic creatures and enablers as possible or are they better fitting into other strategies and gaining incidental value?
After playing it multiple times, I am convinced that the heroic deck is the real deal. I'll happily pack as many heroic creatures of almost any type and I'll push the limits of enablers as well. I want to trigger my heroic creatures early and often. Heroic seems to be primarily a white-themed mechanic, and the three best heroic decks I have seen all were based on white.
White-blue, red-white, and green-white have all been potent and successful for me (and against me). They all play out a little differently, but the premise on each is the same: play heroic creatures and trigger them often. Precombat cantrip Auras can keep the cards flowing and keep your creatures ahead of the curve, while instant-speed combat tricks can be blowouts in combat scenarios where your opponent decides to block. Late game, bestow creatures offer a nearly foolproof way to create a dominating threat, while keeping your mana curve relatively low.
I have seen people try a strategy where they play an early heroic creature and attempt to trigger its ability every turn of the game, regardless of the board state. These players will use instant-speed combat tricks during the main phase just to get a +1/+1 counter on their creature and then keep the attacks flowing. I haven't determined if this is a viable plan, yet, but it has produced some of the most aggressive starts possible in Theros that I have seen. My guess is that it's probably not the best approach overall, but it may be matchup-dependent.
Wingsteed Rider | Art by Cynthia Sheppard
Be a Hero
I've been pleased with how heroic has played out in Theros. My initial worries have been assuaged, and I have found heroic to be not only a fun mechanic, but a powerful one as well.
I'd recommend you try out the deck in your next Theros draft if the cards and colors are flowing.
Next week, we'll have Part 2 of last week's article. Until then!
Marshall Sutcliffe hosts the Limited Resources podcast, does Pro Tour and Grand Prix video coverage, writes articles, and produces strategy videos. Marshall came back to Magic after discovering Limited following a long hiatus from the game, but he enjoys all forms of the game. He lives in Seattle, WA.