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Magic History: Theros

Magic Untapped takes a look back at the set Theros.

After 30 years of Magic: The Gathering, it's nice to look back at older sets to reminisce and see just how much the game has changed over the years.

In this video, we look back at Theros, the first set in its namesake block.

Check it out:

Video Transcript:

Taking inspirations from ancient greek history and mythology, Theros, the 62nd expansion for Magic: The Gathering, released on Sept. 27, 2013.  With it came 249 cards (including a dozen reprints), a new plane, and an “enchantments matter” theme.

The plane of Theros itself is one that is watched over by fifteen gods: Five major mono-colored ones and ten others who make up Magic’s two-colored pairs.  Of those, the five major ones are highlighted in the set Theros.

As for the set’s story, it was released digitally through a combination of a main storyline as well as a handful of short stories that highlight some of the characters and events that take place outside of the main story.

As for that main story, here is a summary for you…

This story begins beyond the Nessian Forest, in an area known as the Despair Lands.  A young woman named Lidia carries her son and is seeking salvation, believing that her son’s Eidolon (or soul) to be missing.  Unbeknownst to her, though, her son was born with the gift to hear Theros’ pantheon of gods speak and, as such, is coveted by Erebos, the god of the underworld.

The anguish of the youth being able to hear the chatter of the gods is not exactly a pleasurable experience for the youth and, as such, he comes off as mad and aloof to others.

Erebos sends Athreos, the god overseeing the passage from the land of the living to the land of the dead, to claim the boy.  Lidia’s sorrow and anguish, however, caused Karametra, the God of the Harvest, to act.

She sends aid to rescue the boy and Lidia, instead, is taken to the underworld.

Now alone in the Nessian Forest, the boy, whose name is Daxos, witnesses a dramatic battle in the sky above as two of Theros’ gods – Purpoheros , God of the Forge, and Heliod, God of the Sun – clash.  Heliod is armed with his heavenly spear and Purpheros with a blade of his own making that is capable of tearing a hole in the fabric of existence between the mortal world and Nyx, the world of the gods.

Suddenly, not far from Daxos, a young woman appears seemingly out of nowhere.  Strangely, the boy immediately feels like he can trust her.  The woman introduces herself as Elspeth.

The battle above continues.  There is an opening in Purpheros’ defenses and Heliod takes advantage, knocking the other god’s sword – one that would become known as Godsend – from his hands, but not before Purpheros dislodged a mighty hydra known as Polukranos from Nyx and into the mortal realm.

Purpheros now not the priority, Heliod calls upon the assistance of another of Theros’ gods, Nylea, God of the Hunt, to work together to contain the hydra as, if left wild, it would consume the whole of the mortal world.

As for Godsend, it lands on the ground near where Elspeth and Daxos stand.  Elspeth arms herself with it, but no sooner does she do so that the imposing visage of Heliod appear before her and the boy.

Despite the wonderous sword in her hand, Elspeth flees in fear.  Daxos, however, finds himself in awe of this personal audience with the God of the Sun and pledges his allegiance to him.

After the excitement calms down, Kurphix takes Purphoros away for punishment and warns the rest of the pantheon to never again threaten the mortal world or a great silence will be enacted, prohibiting the gods from interacting with the mortal world for an indeterminate period of time.

More than a decade later, Xenagos, a planeswalker native to Theros begins to plot against the gods.

He discovers through his own travels that the land’s gods have neither power nor presence outside of Theros and wants to expose them as frauds by ascending to the pantheon himself.  Hidden from the view of the gods, the satyr planeswalker holds a revel during which he kills a human woman in attendance.  Realizing that the sacrifice wasn’t enough, he has brought out from the shadows Kydele, the chosen prophet of the god Kruphix, whom had been sent to spy on Xenagos’ doings.

Instead of slaying the minor god, however, the satyr allows Kydele to escape and inform her superiors in hopes that her visions might cause so much chaos at the pantheon that a Silence is called.

Not long after, Elspeth returns to Theros having fled failing efforts in New Phyrexia.

Broken and unconfident from her failures there, she hopes that the gods somehow remember her from a decade or so earlier and will help her regain her footing.

She takes up work as a mercenary outside of the city of Akros defending a homestead from wild satyrs.  While there, she senses something isn’t quite right with the city.

Taking some time to investigate Akros’ underbelly, she meets a priest of Phenax.  The priest informs her that a Silence is coming and that she should seek out the God of the Sun.  While in her company, the priest takes notice of the sword she wields and conveys to his master that it is none other than the missing blade Godsend.  Phenax then relays this information to Thassa, God of the Sea, whom had assumed the blade lost.

Meanwhile, Xenagos continues his schemes by abducting Petros, a Nyx golem created in Purpheros’ image.  It’s a theft that Purpheros, whose mind is still broken from his punishment some ten years prior, doesn’t notice.

Shortly thereafter, Thassa arrives and greets Perpheros and inquires about his missing sword.  Realizing it wasn’t lost after all, the God of the Forge constructs a chimera construct to track it down.

Meanwhile, Nylea continues to track the escaped hydra, Polukranos.  As she hunts the beast down within the Nessian Forest, she finds multiple satyr rituals along the way.  She relays these sightings back to Heliod as something suspicious, but Heliod dismisses it as nothing more than Purphoros’ doing.

Sensing that it’s more than that, she pays Xenagos a visit.  The audience doesn’t last long and doesn’t go well.  The two quickly part, but not before Nylea gifts the planeswalker a small wound on his chest near his heart.  Little does she know that Xenagos has the golem, Petros, hard at work creating a hidden nyxborn minotaur army for him.

Elsewhere on Theros, Elspeth makes for Heliod’s temple.  Along the way, she stops at a statue of Heliod and begins to confess to it her survivor’s guilt.  That’s when she’s attacked by the chimera construct Purphoros created to seek out Godsend.  Elspeth is able to fend it off, then lays the blade down at Heliod’s altar.

A furious Heliod then appears before her demanding to know how she was able to hide the blade from him for so long.  Angrily, the God of the Sun transforms the blade into a mighty spear, then sends a smiting ray of light at Elspeth, but the planeswalker is easily able to defend against it.

Confused and intrigued, Heliod makes a deal with Elspeth.  He’ll return the now-modified Godsend to her if she agrees to take it to his main temple in Meletis where it can then be handed off to the plane’s divine protector.  The god then vanishes from Elspeth’s presence and appears in Meletis where he informs his champion, Daxos, that he should be expecting a visitor whom possesses a gift for him.

Meanwhile, back in Akros, King Anax is preparing for war.  All foreigners are expelled as the city prepares for battle against an army of minotaurs.  Elspeth takes up work to protect a young lady named Nikka, whose rebelliousness Elspeth is able to sooth.

These feelings of war, though, extend all the way to the pantheon as the gods’ own interpersonal drama sparks an escalation in conflict.

Heliod, for example, begins to evaporate the oceans as Thassa threatens to wipe out all of Meletis with a gigantic tidal wave.

In an effort to quell catastrophic events, Kruphix calls the Silence just as Daxos is riding out from Meletis to the Four Winds Plateau to meet with Elspeth.

And it’s at this moment, with the gods temporarily gone from Theros, that Polukranos arrives.

Daxos and Elspeth decide to work together against the beast, only partially decapitating the hydra’s many heads as to prevent them from growing back.  One by one, the heads are partially severed and, soon enough, the mighty hydra is felled.

After the feat, Elspeth decides to return to Meletis with Daxos and reside in Heliod’s temple, believing that she has earned the right to be the Sun God’s champion.

Back in Akros, King Anax is growing more and more frustrated as the rumored Minotaur attack never comes to fruition.  His wife, a secret elementalist and prophet named Cymede, works in the background in support of her husband.  She appears to Keranos, God of Storms, at his temple where she is granted a vision of a satyr behind an army of minotaurs.

Elsewhere on Theros, Xenagos succeeds in convincing the Ragebool minotaur leader (and a prophet of Mogis, God of Slaughter) to lead the saytr’s army to attack Akros.

Over the next few weeks, Daxos and Elspeth train together at Heliod’s temple in Meletis.  The weeks of silence from their patron god, however, becomes troubling for the pair and, so, when Medomai, a sphinx, pays them a visit, they seek his council.  Cryptically, the sphinx talks with them and, immediately after the conversation, Elspeth and Daxos learn that Akros has come under siege.

Leading a force of Meletian soldiers, Daxos and Elspeth ride towards Akros.  Once there, they find the city, indeed, under siege by an army of minotaurs whom had already broken through the city’s first ring of protection.

Moments later, Queen Cymede sends word to them that Xenagos has been taken prisoner by the Akroans, having been caught smuggling the decapitated heads of various nyxborn into the city, and that the satyr is demanding to speak with Elspeth.

During the audience of the two planeswalkers, the satyr reveals to Elseptha plan to wipe the minotaur army away (almost literally) by channeling the nearby Deydra River into the second ring of Akros’ walls where the majority of the minotaur forces are congregated.  Reluctantly, Espeth relays this plan to King Anax, who accepts the idea.

Meanwhile, in the sky, Mogis and Iroas, God of Victory, duel and Anax decides that he must duel the Rageblood himself.  The Akroan king takes Elspeth along as his second.

Shortly after, Xenagos’ plan is put into action.  While it does not go quite as expected, it does give Anax an advantage against the Rageblood.  Cymede and Daxos work to raise the river, but the process is laborious and the river doesn’t flood Akros’ second ring in time to prevent King Anax from harm.  In desperation, Cymede makes a deal with Keranos, whom covets the prophet.  The river begins to rage as Cymede vanishes and Elspeth retreats with the wounded king just in time for the flood waters to wash the minotaur threat away.

Late that night, near the Meletian camp, one of the greatest revels Theros had ever seen was held.

At Akros, Xenagos slips out of captivity and seeks out Elsepth’s tent as to steal Godsend for himself.  Once at her tent, he finds her asleep next to Daxos, the pair obviously having enjoyed a revel of sorts themselves.  What he doesn’t find, however, is Godsend.  It appears to be missing.

As a parting gift, he leaves Elspeth with a nightmare of an attacking Phyrexian Obliterator.  In her dream, she slays the beast, only to awaken to find that she has, in reality, slain her lover, Daxos.

As he bleeds out, he forgives her.

Elspeth and Nikka, whom is still in her charge, escape the camp as the nearby revel grows in intensity.  As the pair flee, violent spasms wrack the plane.  They turn around to witness Xenagos’ ascension into Nyx as Theros’ newest god.  In his wake, he leaves a void of night sky that only seems to spread with each passing day.

Seeking help from Heliod, Elspeth and Nikka return to Heliod’s shrine.  Through Nikka’s voice, the gods Heliod and Nylea threaten the planeswalker with death for murdering Daxos and in her inadvertently assisting Xenagos ascend to godhood.

Determined to prove her innocence to the gods and stop Xenagos, Elspeth sets off, leaving Nikka behind as to not endanger the young woman.

While venturing, she is hunted by nyxborn sent by Nylea.  Lucky for Elspeth, a handful of Theros-born leonin came to her rescue with aid from fellow planeswalker, Ajani.  The troop then head for Oreskos, a nearby leonin fortification.

There, a war council has convened as the leonine discuss whether or not to assist Theros’ human population as more and more nyxborn threaten the land.  In the end, the leonin split forces with King Brimaz and some of his forces, Elspeth and Ajani included, travel to the Nessian Forest to assist the humans and the others, those who wish not to assist, traveling to Nykthos to head off the increasing number of nyxborn invaders.

Once at the forest, Anthousa, the late Daxos’ foster sister, provides them with a boat so that they may reach the edge of the world and enter into Nyx.  Following the river to the Siren Sea and the ship’s graveyard that lay there, the crew encounters the legendary mariner, Callephe.  Despite the figure’s reputation, though, Ajani warns Elspeth not to trust the figure.  After all, what use would a merfolk have for a boat?

Despite this, Callephe joins the crew and the ship resumes its journey.  And it’s during this second leg of the journey that Ajani’s suspicious of Callephe only grow – especially after the Theros-bound mariner mentions Cosi, the trickster god of Zendikar.

Just as soon as the ship reaches their destination, the isle of Arixmethes, the leonin planeswalker’s suspicions prove valid as Callephe reveals herself to be Kiora, a planeswalker just as he and Elspeth.  She departs.

Shortly thereafter, Theros’ God of the Sea, Thassa, confronts Ajani and Elspeth.  To their surprise, she tells them that she does not believe that either of them are responsible for the peril the world now finds itself in.  She also warns them that they will need to complete an ordeal of the gods in order to access Nyx and offers up her own to them and sets them on their way before setting off herself to confront the Callephe imposter.

Soon, Elspeth and Ajani arrive at Kruphix’s temple.  It’s then they realize that their ship, the Monsoon, is a living vessel.  Kruphix allows it to enter into Nyx whereupon they find a duplicate of Nykthos.

There, Ajani pressures Elspeth to go to Thassa’s shrine and request from her the ordeal, but Elspeth, whom still mourns for Daxos, instead asks for an ordeal from the god of the underworld, Erebos.

The ordeal is a cruel one as her head is filled with visions of an ideal life for her in Alara’s Bant shard complete with a family growing around her – a vision that is difficult for Elspeth to reject in favor of reality.  Even more cruel, Erebos offers Elspeth a deal:  Her own life in exchange for returning Daxos to the mortal realm.

Her response…

“Because no one ever promised me a life without suffering,” she told Erebos.

And, with that, she was ripped from the ordeal and back to Nyx.

Xenagos was not difficult to find.  He had erected a moat of darkness around himself and was draining the power of the nyxborn to enhance his own.  Among the doomed nyxborn is the God of the Hunt, Nylea, whom they are able to rescue.  In turn, she forgives Elspeth for her role in all this and sets off for Heliod to ask him to not take his vengeance out on the planeswalker.

As Nylea departs, Elspeth confronts Xenagos.  In his presence, she notices a weakness on his chest near his heart – the very spot Nylea had wounded him back on Theros.  Without hesitation, she takes up Godsend and plunges it directly through the scar and into his heart.  The blow fells the satyr god and he finds himself banished from Nyx.

Despite Xenagos’ threat having ended, Elsepth and Ajani are warned to flee from Nyx before Heliod finds them.  The warning, though, came too late and the God of the Sun appears.  He rips the Godsend from Elspeth’s hands, in part angry that his “champion” knows more about what’s going on that he does and that he was already planning on killing her regardless of the events with Daxos and Xenagos.  Then, not a second later, the god runs her through with the weapon.  He then instructs Ajani to bring her mortally wounded body back to the mortal realm, lest she be gone forever.

Back in Theros, Elspeth dies.  And, upon her death, her deal with Erebos is completed.

Daxos emerges from the underworld and Nylea goes out in search of him.  What she finds is horrifying.  The young man who had been Daxos, a champion of Heliod, has, indeed, come back to the mortal realm, but not as he once was.  Instead, he has come back as a zombified Returned – a shade of his former self.

As for Ajani, after his dear friend is laid to rest, he takes up her cloak and travels Theros telling the tale of Heliod’s grand betrayal of his champion.

And that ends the tragedy of Elspeth and the story of Theros.

Of course, there is still much more to talk about when it comes to Theros as a Magic: The Gathering set.

The set, which was sold in 16-card booster packs, five intro packs, one event deck, and a fat pack, features top-down design based around the aspects of Greek myths: adventure, achievement, accomplishment, and the hero’s journey.  It’s something that is reflected in the set’s expansion symbol, which depicts a stylized temple and altar.  The set is, if nothing else, chock-full of references and homages to ancient Greek mythology.

<Maro DTW: “We’ve talked about doing Greek mythology, we think we can make Greek mythology work.” And I’ve always wanted to do Greek mythology…

The reason we shied away from it was that so much of what Richard had built into the game was kind of built on Greek mythology. That if you started listing just “What are the things from Greek mythology,” the vast, vast majority Magic has done. In fact a lot of them Magic continues to do on a regular basis.

And so we were kind of concerned that it just wouldn’t feel different enough….”>

Thanks to the success and reception of Innistrad, another top-down design, Wizards of the Coast was able to get past that idea.

<Maro DTW: “So we realized we could do Greek mythology. And so I wasn’t worried about that.”>

And, aside from the main set of Theros and its two follow-up sets, Born of the Gods and Journey to Nyx, the Theros block also featured something that was very ancient greek mythology inspired called “Hero’s Path”, which put players through an ordeal of sorts of their own.  It was a player event that spanned the entirety of the Theros block.  Players were able to participate in it during the block’s prerelease, Friday Night Magic release events, and Theros block Game Day events.

There are nine quests in all – three for each of the block’s sets – and for each one a player completes they receive a special double-faced card with a code for a Planeswalker Points achievement on one side and a Hero card on the other.  Hero cards weren’t normal Magic cards and, thus, couldn’t be used in traditional Magic play.  Instead, they were to be used in player’s ensuing quests as a means to help them along their way.

And, on the topic of special cards, Theros (as one might imagine) has a nice assortment of promotional cards.  First off, the prerelease promos – one for each color of Magic depending on which mono-colored prerelease pack a player chooses: Celestial Archon, Shipbreaker Kraken, Abhorrent Overlord, Ember Swallower, and Anthousa, Setessan Hero.

Other promos for Theros include:

Beyond the promos, Theros also features a number of notable cards worth mentioning, including the set’s five dual-colored Scry lands, each of which allow a player to Scry 1 as an enter the battlefield ability.  These cards were heavily played in Standard and still find space in Magic’s Pioneer, Commander, and Oathbreaker formats today.

Other cards of note include:

  • Legendary equipment cards Bident of Thassa and Whip of Erebos, both of which were key cards in Devotion strategy decks (more on Devotion in a moment);
  • Anger of the Gods, a boardwipe-type card that saw much play in Modern and is still considered a good sideboard card today in the right kinds of decks;
  • Ashen Rider, a popular inclusion in certain reanimator builds;
  • Destructive Revelry, which saw sideboard play in red/green aggro and midrange decks;
  • Fleecemane Lion, a very undercosted 3/3 with a notable ability that found a home in white-green aggro strategies of the time;
  • Gray Merchant of Asphodel.  Nicknamed “Gary,” the Grey Merchant can be a game finisher and is an auto-include in pretty much any black devotion deck;
  • Hero’s Downfall, which was the first instant-speed removal spell able to destroy Planeswalkers specifically.  It saw a lot of play in its time across a number of formats;
  • Master of the Waves, a merfolk tribal lord that is a very popular inclusion in merfolk-focused strategies;
  • Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx, a must-include in any Devotion strategy (again, more on Devotion in a bit);
  • Prophet of Kruphix, a card that saw little competitive play, but wound up becoming banned in Commander due to it allowing its controller the ability to untap all of their lands and creatures every turn – an advantage that a player can use to easily dominate a multiplayer game;
  • Swan Song, a very cheap-to-cast counterspell that sees play still in Modern, Legacy, Commander, and Oathbreaker.
  • Sylvan Caryatid, a two-mana ramp creature that protects itself due to it having the hexproof ability, and;
  • Thoughseize, a reprint of the powerful discard spell that was introduced in the set Lorwyn a few years earlier.  It’s a card that Wizards of the Coast was actually planning on reprinting in a different set altogether.

<Maro DTW “When we were making Modern Masters, one of the cards—we made a list of cards that we knew players wanted, that we wanted to put in Modern Masters. But one of the things that Erik did is Erik said, “Okay. We wanted to make sure that there’s a few cards that we can put into normal expansions that Modern might want.” And so we held off…

The reason Erik wanted Thoughtseize for this set was that we were messing around with enchantments, black has a weakness against enchantments, he wanted to make sure that black had a good tool, and that discard is one of black’s good tools against enchantments, because it can get them before they come into play.”>

Theros also featured 14 cycles.  And, while not all are worth a mention here, there are a few worth pointing out that are based around Theros’s gods, including:

Now, something called Devotion was mentioned a few times a little bit ago.  And you were promised that we’d get back to that.  So, let’s take a look at the set’s different mechanics and themes.

That Devotion thingy is a new mechanic themed around the gods of Theros.  It scales effects based upon the number of a specific mana symbol, or “pip,” appears in the mana costs of cards a player has in play.  The card Fanatic of Mogis, for example, has an enter-the-battlefield ability that counts the number of red mana symbols you have in the mana costs of cards you have in play, then deals damage equal to that amount to each opponent.  The various god cards in Theros also care about devotion as, with enough devotion, these legendary enchantments can become creatures.

Another ability is “monstrosity,” which is pretty on theme seeing as the plane is filled with a variety of monsters of epic proportions.  With this ability, a creature can grow itself larger and become “monstrous” by means of +1/+1 counters.  These abilities can only be used once per creature, though, as if a creature is already monstrous, it can’t be come more…umm…monstrous.  Monstrous-er?  I’m Ron Burgundy?  No idea.

There’s also “heroic,” which appears on a number of Theros’ human creatures.  Cards with heroic trigger an ability whenever its controller casts a spell targeting them.

Then there’s “bestow.”  It’s an ability that is found on a number of the set’s enchantment creatures.  With it, players can (rather than casting the creature traditionally) instead cast it as an aura enchantment enchanting a creature they have on the board.  As such, the bestowing enchantment creature grants whatever creature it’s enchanting with its own special ability and buff.  If the creature it enchants dies, the bestowing card simply becomes a creature on its own.

In fact, enchantments overall play a very large role in Theros as the set has an “enchantments matter” sub-theme.

<Maro DTW: “Brady had an idea, he said that a lot of Greek mythology has to do with dreaming and the subconscious and that he thought maybe there was something that we could mess around there with an enchantment theme…

He talked a lot about how if you read a lot of Greek mythology, the gods enter the people’s dreams and a lot of times omens came to people in their dreams, and just a lot of dreaming in Greek mythology.

And it is a different way of looking at it, a different way of designing. And so one of the things that I was looking at was I wanted to figure out how enchantments was one of my paints. It wasn’t the be-all, end-all of my design. My design wasn’t built around enchantments. It was built around having a certain feel.”>

And, in the end, how was that certain feel received?  Overall, quite well by both players and the folks at Wizards alike.

<Maro DTW: “And it has really taken a soft spot in my heart. Both Innistrad and Theros, really, I believe that a lot of good Magic can be done that’s not top-down, but recently we were experimenting more with top-down. I feel like Innistrad and Theros firmly, firmly put us on the map and said that this is something we’ve learned how to do and we can do well. That bodes well for future top-down design…

I had a blast making Theros. It was very fun. I’m very, very proud of it.”>

Well, what do you think of Theros?  Is it amongst your short list of preferred Magic: The Gathering sets?  Let us know your thoughts in the comment section.

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Thank you for watching.

Barry White

Barry White is a longtime Magic: The Gathering player, having started in 1994 shortly before the release of 'Fallen Empires.' After graduating from the University of Nevada, Reno, he went on to a 15-year journalism career as a writer, reporter, and videographer for three different ABC affiliate newsrooms.