One of the joys of the world of Magic: The Gathering is the way that it interprets classic stories and mythology into its own lore.
Innistrad was a plane full of classic horror monsters like werewolves and vampires, and then, when it got invaded by Eldrazi titan Emrakul in the Eldritch Moon expansion, it became a world full of tentacle-covered monstrosities. Introduced last year, Eldraine was a setting that took classic fairy tale characters and Arthurian legends of chivalrous knights and made them into cards. It was fascinating to see how the designers created new versions of our favourite stories. The interpretation of the Gingerbread Man in Throne of Eldraine was incredible, with Gingerbrute being both edible and having an ability that meant you could only catch him if your creatures had the Haste keyword.
Theros: Beyond Death is Magic: The Gathering’s latest set, and delves into classic Greek mythology. This isn’t our first go on the Cretan Bull; the original Theros set was released back in 2013, and contained a vast array of homages to classic Greek heroes and villains. However, while it was nice seeing references to the tragic wax-winged Icarus, warmongering deity Ares and the multi-headed Hydra, there were a few key characters who were missing.
With us heading back to the world of heroes, gods and monsters, one hero who is finally getting his due is Achilles: the nigh-invulnerable warrior whose only weak point is his heel. I guess he skipped the calf section of leg day or something.
Representing a god in a trading card game isn’t too hard to do: you make them (almost) immortal, give them immense power and you’re good to go. Just look at Purphoros, God of the Forge; he’s a giant indestructible being with a huge hammer that deals out monstrous damage - surely a nod to Hephaestus, blacksmith for the Olympian pantheon and Zeus’ son.
It’s far more interesting to see how you represent a character like Achilles; not because he is incredibly strong, but because he has a very specific weak point. Unlike in some other games, you can’t specifically target a character’s heel in MTG, so how do you represent his weakness in a way that feels true to the legend?
Theros: Beyond Death’s homage to Achilles is Haktos the Unscarred. Haktos has 6 power, 1 toughness and has to attack every turn if able - a fitting reference to Achilles’ endless bloodlust and “the accursed rage that brought great suffering to the Achaeans” in Homer’s epic poem The Iliad. Haktos’ inability to defend means you could easily just block him with a little goblin or something, and he’d be done. Well, it would mean that, were it not for the other bit of text on the card:
“As Haktos enters the battlefield, choose 2, 3 or 4 at random. Haktos has protection from each converted mana cost other than the chosen number.”
If you’re not familiar with the ‘protection’ keyword in Magic: The Gathering, let me fill you in. Protection means the card can’t be targeted by specific effects or attacks. Usually, protection comes in the form of a colour, like protection from Blue; in which case, no Blue spells or creatures can interact with the card. Converted mana costs are how much mana a card requires in total; so, if it costs 2 Green and 2 Black mana, then it has a CMC of 4. Protection from converted mana costs except 2, 3 or 4 means that Haktos is nearly invulnerable. Which essentially means Haktos is so good at fighting that you have to be very lucky to even be able to stop him hitting you.
Haktos has a single weak point that is decided whenever he enters the battlefield. This means you can never know how to build a Magic: The Gathering deck that can beat him because there are no guarantees as to what will work. It’s an excellent bit of design, but it also keeps him fair and the game balanced. This is because he has to attack, so you can’t simply plonk him on defence and never get hit. Sure, he’s annoying, but nearly every deck will have a few cards that will be his, ahem, Achilles’ Heel.
It’s things like this that show just how much care and attention the designers over at Wizards of the Coast put into representing the stories that we’ve all grown up hearing. This is especially fun when it comes to mythology because it’s full of flawed but extraordinarily powerful characters.
It’s one of the things that makes settings such as Theros, Eldraine and Amonkhet - MTG’s world inspired by ancient Egypt, including mummification, the undead and Egyptian gods - such compelling planes. Whether they be among the pantheon of gods and heroes, or they’re part of the rogue’s gallery, it’s always interesting to see how legends are represented, especially when they aren’t all-powerful.
The ability to represent complex characters with just a few lines of text and some artwork is one that is sorely underrated in MTG, but it’s one that Wizards of the Coast consistently does with a huge amount of style. It makes each set an absolute delight for fans of the source material, and in this case, that means that anyone into Greek mythology could find themselves succumbing to the MTG bug. These gateways make for great opportunities to share a game we love with people who might not know about it.
Haktos the Unscarred is probably my favourite example, but Theros remains a wonderful tribute to everything relating to Greek mythology. Whether you’re here to read about the various gods, discover new takes on classic monsters like the Minotaur or just want to find out about your favourite Greek heroes, Theros: Beyond Death is a great chance to explore the weird world of ancient Greek beliefs.