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Role Player

Game Changer

Didn’t expect to see me writing an article, did you? Can’t say I blame you, as that’s not really something I’m known to do. In general, my role in the Magic community is to sit back and fire commentary as others take stances on cards and strategies. This doesn’t mean I don’t have opinions, of course; it just means that I’m usually content to sit by and let others with more experience take on the role of teachers, analysts, and tacticians. It would take something really unusual, interesting, and game changing to fire me up enough to actually commit my thoughts to digital ink.

kytheon gideon

Well, Kytheon managed to pull this off. This Magic Origins mythic rare has the potential to be a format-spanning staple, which is fine and dandy, but that’s not why I’m inspired to write about it. No, great cards are printed all the time and nearly every Planeswalker will be analyzed by people far more experienced with the various formats than I am, so what makes Kytheon so special?

Kytheon is an interesting mix of aggressive creature and board-controlling Planeswalker. The very specific combination of stats, cost, and abilities gives me an opportunity to discuss a critical component of card evaluation that I feel most players must learn if they want to improve. If you find yourself struggling at your local prerelease or having trouble determining which cards are likely to find a home in Standard, then this discussion will hopefully give you a new tool for your toolbox.

What do you see?

It shouldn’t come as too much of a shock to you that there are words and numbers on the card. In fact, they’re a lot of the same words and numbers we’ve seen on other cards before, which is really helpful given there are over 13,000 cards. New players stop and read every single card, but as we grow as players, our brains do us a favor by accessing memories of existing cards and using them as templates to compare new cards by. This is really helpful when you need to process hundreds of new cards every three months, as otherwise you would go into every new format as a new player and never shake off the overwhelming feeling that most new players get when they realize just how big and complex the game is.

Beyond simply remembering rules interactions, your brain will actually take earlier cards and set your expectations for these new cards based on the old ones, with modifiers added afterwards based on the differences. One player might look at Kytheon and see this:

savannah lions zurgogoblin guide

But is that really what it says? If I ask another player what they see, I might get this instead:


What’s up with that? How is it that one person can see three different cards at about equal measure while another person sees a very different single card? If I ask a third person, what would they put forward?

gideon jura

Each of the cards above came to mind because someone, at some point, played a game with or against them, and said game introduced some experience with the card that they could remember. A Zoo or White Weenie player may ignore the Planeswalker potential entirely in favor of the 2/1 for W that has the ability to survive board wipes. Someone who played a great deal of Return to Ravnica block limited, however, may simply remember how a resolved indestructible creature was nearly impossible to stop with the removal available in that format. And of course, anyone who has ever lost control of their board to an active Gideon Jura is likely to feel a twitch in the corner of their eye at the sight of Gideon, Battle Forged.

For many players, the card evaluation stops here, as they’ve decided the card is awesome and that’s what they want to believe. This is where they talk to their friends about how great it’ll be to open one at the prerelease. This is where they decide it has to be a format all-star and rush out to preorder a play set. And this is where they start planning decks featuring their soon-to-be favorite card.

You, however, should not be done yet.

The What-If Machine

In each of the scenarios outlined above, Kytheon acts as a surrogate for a card that achieved great things. It’s important to remember, however, that Kytheon is not being printed in these historical formats, nor do we know what the current formats will be once the rest of Magic Origins comes into the picture. Whether you’re looking to prepare for a simple new format, such as Magic Origins sealed, or you want to predict if Kytheon has a role in Legacy or Commander, one thing remains the same: the actual words on Kytheon’s card and the conditions that must be met to include him in a deck.

While the ability to place Kytheon in the context of other cards is a helpful shortcut in the abstract, the next step is to then challenge each of these notions by viewing what Kytheon actually does when placed in these scenarios. I’m not going to go into depth on all of them, but I do feel that we can follow the process with one role to demonstrate what you should be considering when evaluating how a new card will impact a given format. Given it’s the most immediate and likely scenario to impact most players, let’s focus on the Savannah Lions role in the context of the Magic Origins standard.

If we value Kytheon highly because he is similar to Savannah Lions, then what decks would we want to run Savannah Lions in? The general idea of a deck running Savannah Lions is that you go all out for powerful early cards, sacrificing the mid-to-late game in order to capitalize on free damage while your opponent spends time developing resource advantages that will pay off in the later phases of the game. To that end, decks that want cards like Savannah Lions need to run a lot of them, as they can’t afford to not drop a powerful beater on turn 1. Are there any decks like that in standard?

At present, there are a few similar archetypes in standard that run such a game plan. Unfortunately for Kytheon, they all for the most part look like this:


foundry street denizenlightning berserker

Here we have four cards that all fulfill that familiar Savannah Lions role, so this seems like it’d be a great place for Kytheon to slot in and help diversify the deck against threats like an untimely Bile Blight. As a 2/1 for one, Kytheon presents an interesting challenge, however: that one mana is white.

Now, Kytheon does enable this otherwise Mono-Red or Atarka-Red deck to run longer on a board stall. Most variants of this archetype run 16-20 instants, so Kytheon’s activated indestructibility mana can be left open on an opponent’s turn with solid burn spells on standby should it not be needed. This ability adds resistance to spells like Anger of the Gods or other board wipes should the game go long. Kytheon also presents a card that has two power by default, which is easier to rely on than triggering Prowess or investing in a Lighting Berserker. And of course, at the rate this deck attacks, Kytheon is sure to eventually digivolve into Gideon, Battle-Forged, whose impact is large enough to apply pressure as the one drops gradually lose effectiveness.

On the other hand, as a white spell Kytheon compromises the effectiveness of Foundry Street Denizen and Lightning Berserker. Aggressive decks like this value consistency, so compromising the manabase threatens the deck’s ability to hit the ground running, which at the end of the day is all that it has. Without testing Kytheon specifically, we can look to another white card that wasn’t considered powerful enough to throw off this manabase:

soldier of the pantheon

It’s possible that Kytheon brings enough to the table to overcome these drawbacks, which is something you won’t be able to determine definitively without actually playtesting. As with all deck changes, you have to weigh what is gained by including the card against what is lost among the rest of the deck’s synergies and consistencies. As things stand, the new Legendary Creature / Planeswalker isn’t quite the sure thing that he would have been if you hadn’t taken time to really think through how he would actually play within that deck.

Beyond the Vacuum

The main take away from this article, then, is that a powerful card is only as powerful as its role within a deck. During preview season, individual cards get hyped that may never find homes. It doesn’t actually matter that you can’t predict the entirety of a new format based on its preview cards, as the early weeks will revolve around how the new cards slot into existing archetypes. Kytheon may ultimately find a home in decks that can recur him with Ojutai’s Command, decks that capitalize on token strategies to flip him as quickly as possible, or even decks that wipe the board and follow up with an animated Planeswalker Gideon swing like in the days of old. If you follow this process with each of these potential roles, you may find the one that works best for your play style.

If you can make a habit of tuning out the hype and evaluating each spotlight card to the level we looked at the Savannah Lions scenario, you will eventually get a sense for what cards are more likely to matter. This baseline evaluation will reward you greatly in limited Magic, where the formats are much smaller and easier to predict, and the reflexive analysis will free your attention to focus on the greater complexities of the early meta game following each release.

As for Kytheon? Yeah, he’s probably still really great. With the ability to slot into potential white weenie decks, potential Boros decks, potential control decks, and potential midrange tempo decks, Kytheon has a lot of threads to follow in Standard alone. Time and play testing will tell which roles he’s best suited for, but with so many options across so many formats I would be really surprised if he didn’t end up somewhere. If anything, he’s likely to wander into Commander, as he’s one of the few Planeswalkers capable of acting as your commander and actually winning through Commander damage.

What do you think about Kytheon? Overhyped zero or all around hero? Let me know in the comments here or on Twitter @SqueeGoblnNabob.

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One Comment

  1. June 24, 2015 at 6:45 pm | Permalink

    Great write up! I was honestly underwhelmed by Kytheon and was surprised to see so many people losing their minds over it on Tumblr, so this certainly puts it in perspective.

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