Theros Beyond Death Set Review - Black

(Erebos, Bleak-Hearted | Art by Chase Stone)

In Brightest Day, In Blackest Night

Theros Beyond Death is almost here, and I'm excited to be returning to the plane where it appears everything and everyone is an enchantment! While black is typically not a color associated with enchantments, we've got a great mix of staple effects and build-around cards in our color to really ignite some brewing. Let's not waste time, and make our way to the realm of the Underworld.


Erebos, Bleak-Hearted

Theros Beyond Death has us returning to the underworld to revisit the Therosian God of death, Erebos. Erebos, God of the Dead was already a popular card in Commander, appearing in over 7,700 decks and helming over 300, so how does his new version stack up?

Our new Erebos still draws us cards at the cost of two life, but our transactions differ. Rather than a flat mana payment, we only need to pay life to draw cards. We just need our creatures to die first. Erebos, Bleak-Hearted can facilitate that with his own ability (which also lets us snipe utility creatures if need be) but it does require creatures. This isn't a difficult threshold to meet, but it is something to consider. Also of note, unlike Midnight Reaper, Erebos's life payment is optional.

Erebos, Bleak-Hearted will likely end up about as popular as his first iteration. With nearly 6,000 decks on EDHREC categorized as belonging to the Aristocrat theme, Erebos already has plenty of pre-established homes rather than needing to carve out his own niche.


Aphemia, the Cacophony

There is always one legend per set who piques my interest as an oddball choice. I immediately think, "There's no way this can work." Then I get stuck during the entirety of preview season thinking about how it could work. I still firmly believe Aphemia, the Cacophony is destined for success in Constructed rather than Commander, but there's still some stuff to think about.

At worst, we've seen legends such as Zurgo Bellstriker, Hope of Ghirapur, and Isamaru, Hound of Konda see some play (around 400 decks combined), and I think Aphemia has more build-around potential than any of them. She's an evasive beater for two mana, which gives her a lot of resiliency to being swept up in early board wipes, and she can create blockers. The biggest hurdle is that her actual ability is so limited, both in power and longevity. Exiling cards from your graveyard, especially when limited to a given type, gives us a finite amount of resources to use. Usually we want to put ourselves ahead with the payoff, but I'm not sure a single Zombie token a turn is that impactful.

The one saving grace for Aphemia is that black is not a good recursion color for enchantments. Rather than looking at the ability as an opportunity cost of what we're losing out on by exiling it, I think it's better to view the ability as what we're gaining from a resource we were never going to use again. Honestly, I need to evaluate more cards this way, and hopefully someone out there will eventually prove me wrong on Aphemia. If you're looking for ideas, the new Hateful Eidolon gives us a nudge in a specific different direction: harmful Auras a la Dead Weight.

Demon of Loathing

Our first Theme Booster exclusive rare is... a tad lackluster. While the Demon will almost certainly be able to trigger its ability, I don't think the effect is strong enough to justify this over other beaters in the color. Don't get me wrong, a 7/7 trampling flyer is nothing to scoff at on base stats alone, but we usually want something more from our seven-mana bombs. These expensive cards should be game-winning or incredibly powerful, and I don't think Demon of Loathing quite does that. For the same mana cost we have access to Archfiend of Spite, Overseer of the Damned, Butcher of Malakir, Lord of the Void and many other options. And that's just mono-black creatures with flying.

Eat to Extinction

Eat to Extinction is this rotation's version of Vraska's Contempt, and I will say I'm always happy to see more options for planeswalker removal. Contempt currently sees play in 2,741 decks, which is decent, but I think Eat to Extinction can eventually overtake it. While gaining life via Contempt can be important if you've built around it, "Surveil 1" is typically a more commonly useful ability for black EDH decks. Additionally, Eat to Extinction costs only a single black pip to make ruining a planeswalker's day even easier. This is solid removal if you're looking for this type of effect, and I think it's one of the better versions we've received.

Erebos's Intervention

While I like the Intervention cycle for its theme, I think this one is one of the worst of the cycle. While I usually am a fan of modal cards, I'm not a fan when there's not a clear winner on the card. Both effects at instant speed are fine, and having access to both on the same card is nice. However, I don't think either effect by themselves are great. Grave hate already sees less play than it should in terms of dedicated deck slots. When you're competing against high-powered options like Rest in Peace, Leyline of the Void, Relic of Progenitus, or even Soul-Guide Lantern in the same set, there's a high bar to clear to even get added.

On the removal side, targeted -X/-X effects just aren't that great in our format. Battle of the Bridge sees play in 402 decks and Death Wind sees play in 191. Even a more popular version like Death Grasp is only in 1,275 decks. Profane Command is by far the most played variant of this effect at 3,075 decks, but the -X/-X effect is only one of four options that the command gives us. Not only that, but we get two of the effects for one cost.

I like both effects, but even together I don't think either side does enough to stand out among a very competitive field. Sadly, I think Erebos' Intervention is destined to be focused more towards Constructed.

Gravebreaker Lamia

My thoughts around Gravebreaker Lamia can be summarized simply:

"How much do I value a five-mana Entomb?

3,454 decks are already running Corpse Connoisseur who has a weaker ETB and stat line than the Lamia. While we can get several uses out of Connoisseur, I think I like our new Snake friend more as it's more versatile. Being able to grab any card is just that good. Almost 12,000 decks run Entomb!

Cost reductions for spells can be strong. However, unless you're able to consistently take advantage of the discount, and often multiple times in a turn, it's likely better for you to be running another mana rock. This ability is a very nice bonus on top of the ETB, but it's not the reason you should be running it.

Muldrotha, The Gravetide will likely get the most use out of this as she's enabled by it in so many ways; Entomb effects are good, multiple cost reductions are good, and being dual-typed is good. Any deck that's already running Entomb will at least consider this card. According to EDHREC, the commanders (by percentage) that most often run Entomb are: Xiahou Dun, the One-Eyed, Chainer, Dementia Master, Mairsil the Pretender, Karador, Ghost Chieftain, and Lazav, the Multifarious.

Nightmare Shepherd

Nightmare Shepherd is arguably my favorite black card in the entire set. It does something new while also feeling like we've had the effect all along. In a loose way, it's a mixture of both Panharmonicon (~17,000 decks) and Teysa Karlov (included in ~1,900 decks and leading ~1,800) with some substantial costs. If we're willing to exile a creature card that we control (not own!) when it dies, we get to make a 1/1 Nightmare copy of it. While the Nightmare typing is not that relevant outside of Chainer, Dementia Master, it's a great flavor addition. Oh, how far Soul Separator has come!

While I can see this card appearing in a multitude of black decks, I think it will shine most in decks that care about replaying their commander over and over. Gonti, Lord of Luxury has been making a fortune off this play style since their release, and I'm sure there's already been orders placed for this exact purpose. Elenda, the Dusk Rose is another commander that immediately comes to mind. There's always been heated discussion around her ability and the command zone, and Nightmare Shepherd finally lets us live the dream of getting her death trigger and returning her to the zone.

For those who are combo inclined, Nightmare Shepherd, Ashnod's Altar, and Eternal Scourge can give us access to infinite colorless mana and death triggers.

Treacherous Blessing

Drawing three cards for three mana is a great rate no matter what, and the cost of a life per spell isn't that punishing initially. This isn't Painful Truths, but I'm curious to know how strong this will end up being. It's not meant for every single deck, but it will have a few homes. Shattergang Brothers, Korvold, Fae-Cursed King, and Daxos, the Returned will really enjoy having access to draw attached to a permanent. Also, any enchantment-based deck that's able to run Cloudstone Curio will also love it; Cloudstone doesn't target!

Unfortunately, it's illusion-esque ability really caps its power ceiling for other legends. Vaevictis Asmadi, the Dire would love this card, but the fact that it blanks Vaevictis' ability is a hard sell for me.

The viability of this card will be very build dependent, and I think that's the type of design I enjoy seeing from new cards. This is my sleeper pick of the set; there will be more places to run this than you think!

Tymaret Calls the Dead

While I'm normally a big fan of Sagas and trying to make them work in EDH, I'm personally not a huge fan of Tymaret Calls the Dead. For three mana, we get two turns of milling ourselves for three cards, the chance to make a Zombie token twice at the cost of an enchantment or creature card in our yard, and an inverted The Scarab God trigger as the final chapter. That's actually a lot of impact for three mana, but I'm still not a fan. Honestly, if the capstone ability was a life-drain effect instead, I would probably have a much higher opinion of the card. Even Sidisi, Undead Vizier, who enjoys self-mill and Zombies, will likely struggle to find a place to run this noncreature card in her deck when she usually prefers to keep it stocked with creature cards.

I could see a Zombie-focused Daxos, the Returned be willing to run this, and I could also see our previously-discussed Alphemia, the Cacophony run this as it plays directly into her strategy. This will see some play, but like most Sagas, it will be reliant on a deck that can take advantage of every single chapter.

Underworld Sentinel

Our second of the black Theme Booster exclusives has a lot more upside than our first. If we stopped reading the card halfway through, we would think it's terrible. Exiling our yard every time it attacks? And it's not a 'may' ability? That's pretty terrible. Luckily the Sentinel's second ability gives it a very high ceiling with an appropriate risk attached to it. Slowly exiling our graveyard to bring back a legion from the underworld? If done at the right moment, that could win some games outright. However, as mentioned, there are risks. The Sentinel's return trigger is a 'dies' trigger so exile effects are to be feared, even more than usual. Not only would we lose our Sentinel, but we would lose each trigger it has been guarding.

"Greatness at any cost."

One of the unique things about Sentinel is that it exiles creatures from the graveyard of whoever is controlling it. In other words, if we can throw it around the table with Assault Suit, for instance, it can become a very interesting game of 'who can blow up the Sentinel Pinata?' (While the card is ambiguous about this specific interaction, the mechanical intent of the ability is that the controller gets every creature when it dies, per Ethan Fleischer. This will likely be clarified in an official capacity when the Theros Beyond Death release notes drop.)

Woe Strider

Free sacrifice outlet! Free sacrifice outlet!

It's not often that we get free sac outlets printed in Standard, so it's good to have another option. I believe the last "free" sac outlet we got was Yahenni, Undying Partisan (sorry Razaketh, paying life isn't free.) Yahenni is currently played in over 10,000 decks which is an incredible number, and I think Woe Strider compares favorably to one of our favorite Aetherborn.

Both Yahenni and the Strider have very similar stat lines and share the same mana costs. However, Woe Strider wins out in a vacuum because it also comes with a 0/1 Goat for sac fodder! There's no nitpicking over pips, either. Woe Strider's ability allows us to Scry 1, while Yahenni gives themself indestructible. This gives Yahenni more durability overall, but don't discount Scry 1. Being able to potentially dig into your deck in the face of an imminent threat is situationally very powerful. While Yahenni can protect themself with their ability, Woe Strider also has a way to give itself more longevity. While it's not the same as staying on board indefinitely, we can recast the Strider out of the graveyard with its Escape cost. Not only does it allow us to access a sac outlet directly from the graveyard, but it also buffs the Strider into a very sizable threat.

While its more redundancy for the decks that want these effects, I think Woe Strider is easily one of the more exciting black cards in the set.


Tymaret, Chosen from Death

Normally I would say that Tymaret, Chosen from Death was destined to make it into many decks, but I have my doubts when you see that Withered Wretch is only in 1,000(!) decks on EDHREC. While the Wretch still beats him out in terms of pure grave hate, Tymaret offers more utility with his growing toughness and situational life gain. I think he's a solid choice for decks that want a little bit of grave hate, a beefy blocker, or more enchantment creatures. I've seen discussion that he's a decent utility piece for Kethis, the Hidden Hand as another legend, so he that that home as well. What do you think is the best fit for him?

Drag to the Underworld

For spot removal that can only hit creatures, I think this is one of the better spells we've gotten in some time. Murder is still run in over 8,000 decks on EDHREC's database, and this is often a strictly better Murder. In terms of budget conversation, it does need to compete with Murderous Cut, but I think it has enough merit to be considered.

One of my favorite upsides of this card is that the cost reduction helps it get around tax effects. If your opponent has a Vyrn Wingmare or more punishing taxes on the board, this spell can still only cost {B}{B} if our Devotion is high enough.


Mindwrack Harpy

This is one of the more head-scratching commons that have come out in some time. For a while, I would read the text, look at the cost, and think to myself, "It's not really that good." My opinions over this little Harpy have waxed and waned, and that's a good sign.

There are real opportunity costs here, but it's a solid card. A 3/2 flyer for four mana is decent enough, but we don't really care about that necessarily. What we do care about is that it's global mill every single turn, even the turn it comes down! I feel these effects typically only mill or one two a turn, but hitting everyone for three cards in the yard seems very utilitarian. There are probably a few decks out there that will absolutely adore this card. Lazav, the Dimir Mastermind, Syr Konrad, the Grim, and Geth, Lord of the Vault decks probably love this effect. Personally, I'm considering its inclusion in my Chainer, Nightmare Adept theft deck.

Omen of the Dead

I'm sure we've seen instant-speed Raise Dead effects before, but I find Omen of the Dead very interesting solely for being an enchantment. Flashing this into a Doomwake Giant is enough to make me consider it for a black-based enchantment deck. However, I think it's best home is going to be in Yarok, the Desecrated. Doubling the effect is just that solid; normally I wouldn't think this effect by itself is worth it, but being able to sacrifice itself to Scry 2 is just enough utility to put it over the top.

Underworld Dreams

What are your favorite black cards from Theros Beyond Death? What decks are you planning to throw these new cards in? Are you planning to build any of the legends? Let us know in the comments, and thanks for taking time to read the review!

Mason is an EDH player from Georgia, who is a self-proclaimed Johnny and Vorthos. His MTG career started with a casual lifegain deck with only a single win-condition. When not consuming MTG, he spends his time being a full-time student, an avid sports fan, and a dabbling musician. Mason can be found on twitter @K_Mason64

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