There are a couple questions at the top of the mind of everyone who wants to learn to play Magic: The Gathering. The first is “what is happening?” The second is “can I do the thing that is happening?” Those questions might get worded differently for each individual, but the core of confusion and resolve has to be there for anyone who wants to approach this bizarre and often labyrinthine game. With that in mind, I think it is important to angle a set review toward those questions. Theros: Beyond Death, the new set of cards from Magic, should obviously be evaluated from the angle of what it does to all of the various bizarro formats and ways to play this game. But on a fundamental level, what you need to know right now is if it is approachable and if it allows for cool gameplay situations.
The answer to both is, in general, yes. Magic is about pretending to be a wizard who is summoning creatures and slinging spells at opponents, and while that framework is an easy sell to anyone, the blow-by-blow of how the game is played can often be a hard thing to get into. This is made even more difficult by the language used to describe the game actions: tapping and shuffling and constellation and heroic and escape.
Theros: Beyond Death alleviates some of this general Magic pain by being what the Magic designers call a “top-down” set. Top down simply means that the concept of the set was created first and that that concept drove the mechanical design of the cards, and in this case that top-down design is centered on the plane of Theros. Loosely based on Greek mythology, Theros is characterized by enchantments and creatures with mystical attachments, and much like those myths, the relationship between the world of the living and the dead is central to the function of everyone’s lives. Beyond Death is about the underworld of the plane (world) of Theros.
What this means for the moment-to-moment of play is that the set really rewards some highly synergistic strategies. Of the creatures you summon, the most effective ones will be “Enchantment Creatures,” a unique combination that only occurs on Theros and gives a mystical air to what happens during gameplay. These creatures often have additional benefits when something else happens; one might draw you a card every time another enchantment enters the battlefield, and another might get stronger for the same reason. Enchantments are the name of the game on Theros, and if you’re playing in a limited or constructed setting, you’re incentivized to lean on them.
The other synergistic strategy you’re encouraged to work with in the set is the new Escape mechanic. In Theros, like in Greek myth, the underworld is a physical place. It’s not simply a punishment or an eternal waiting room, but instead it is a nightmarish, void-like place that you live and suffer in. That is, until you escape. As a player, setting up an Escape simply means that you can cast a card from your graveyard (discard pile) by paying a resource cost and then exiling other cards from the graveyard. From a narrative or flavor perspective, these creatures are crawling their way out from the halls of the dead, annihilating other dead creatures in their path. They might be consuming them for fuel, even. Whatever the logic, they fly out from the world beneath the world to wreak havoc on the living. And it is good.
Beyond those two particular mechanical synergies, Beyond Death does all the things a good Magic set does. There’s a wide variety of cards and interactions that all seem to work in tandem with one another, and it doesn’t seem as if certain ways of playing the game are fundamentally broken in either a good or a bad way. This is a perfectly playable set of Magic cards that would be a good introduction to the game, although probably not as good as one of the Magic 20XX products that are intended to give players a baseline expectation of what the game is about. I think it might be easy to play with Beyond Death cards a few times before you got the hang of it, but that’s ok. Practice makes perfect, especially when you can come back from the dead.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman. He is the Editor at Large for Paste Games.