Last updated on February 13, 2024
Fury | Illustration by Raoul Vitale
Incarnations. The embodiment of a (usually) single-word feeling or emotion in a single creature, usually affecting the board with a powerful ETB or static ability. They’re very evocative of whatever they’re representing and are packed with flavor, and many of the oldest are still played.
We’ve had three full cycles of incarnations in Magic so far, plus a few bonus ones along the way, so let’s take a look and figure out what the best of the best are!
What Are Incarnation Creatures in MTG?
Subtlety | Illustration by Anastasia Ovchinnikova
With one particular exception, incarnations in Magic are the living embodiments of an emotion or characteristic represented by creatures that also seem like forces of nature. They generally have impactful abilities, whether passive or as an enter the battlefield ability, with an effect on how the rest of the game plays out.
They’re all super flavorful, and many are still popular and heavily played to this day. You might well have seen one or two of these creatures in the past and not realized that they’re usually part of a cycle, with one in each color. We’ve had three full cycles so far, with some more infamous than others and some that are way more powerful.
#18. Personal Incarnation
Personal Incarnation is the oddball of the group. When it was originally printed, all the way back in Alpha, it didn’t have the incarnation type. It’s since been errata’d to have the creature type, because it’s in the name!
The only incarnation not to have a single-word name, this one is unfortunately not very good, which fits with a lot of the creatures from that time in Magic. It does help you survive damage, and it was probably annoying back in the day, but the downside of losing your life when it dies is just too much.
The first of the “real” incarnations, Filth (what a fantastic name, let’s be honest) isn’t even too bad of a card. As one of the original Apocalypse cycle which care about being in your graveyard, giving all your creatures swampwalk for (essentially) free isn’t bad at all. Black is pretty highly played in Commander, and the addition of an Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth can make all your creatures unblockable. The only reason it’s this far down on the list is because the rest of the cards we’re looking at are also pretty cool!
Hostility could've been really sweet. It’s part of the Lorwyn cycle which all cost CCC and has an ability that prevents damage, and a red payoff sounds like it must have a fantastic ability. Unfortunately, its ability isn’t quite there for a number of reasons. For starters, it prevents the damage that your spells do to your opponent, even if it then gives you 3/1s in return.
Hey, at least the Elemental Shamans have haste, though. Right?
Genesis is an incarnation from the original cycle that has seen a reprint in Modern Horizons 1, but unfortunately it’s still not good enough for Modern. It’s still pretty cool, if a little underwhelming. Getting creatures back from your graveyard is nothing to be sniffed at, but needing Genesis in your ‘yard and still having to pay mana to get it back isn’t great. Honestly, this could just put something back to your hand for or even for free and it wouldn’t have been broken in modern-day Magic.
Protection is one of the most potentially broken mechanics in Magic, which is why it wasn’t printed on cards for a number of years. Glory is a good example of a card with protection that’s just waiting to be broken. There’s nothing stopping you from sinking 15 mana into this and giving your creatures protection from all colors. 15 mana is a lot to ask, but the flexibility allows you to take opponents out without them noticing. Nowhere near the top 10 of this list, but it can still see a good amount of play in the right deck that can get it into the graveyard consistently.
Valor is one of the Judgment cycle, which gives your creatures an ability while in the graveyard. Easily the least exciting of the cycle, giving your team first strike isn’t something to turn your nose up at. Getting it in your yard may be a bit of an issue in white, but it’s not impossible.
One good way to use this is to put it in a deck where you can easily give your creatures deathtouch. First strike and deathtouch is one nasty combination!
Guile has a super interesting ability in a counterspell-focused deck. Abilities like this are amazing, you’re likely never to see it on another card. And if you ever play it against someone you don’t know, you just know they’re going to ask to read the card and be blown away too. It’s also pretty balanced, if you can find a table that’s okay with you playing counters!
One of my favorite parts of Dread is that it comes with the keyword fear, which is lined up so perfectly. The ability is also pretty cool. With a No Mercy effect tacked onto the 6/6 body, you’re not invulnerable but you become so much more difficult to kill through combat damage.
You know what’s going to make your burn opponent mad? Gaining life when they want to deal damage to you. That’s exactly what Purity does. Not only that, a hilarious way to break this is to pair it with a card that should normally deal damage to you, but this makes you gain the life instead!
Note that this doesn’t count combat damage, so it’s a little narrow in that way. Still, it’s a sweet ability that’s sometimes a headache to play against.
Brawn is the first of the cards you’re likely to regularly see at a Commander table. For starters, it’s pretty easy to get into your graveyard in green decks, and giving your big green beefers trample for free can be a fantastic advantage for some decks. Not the most powerful card ever, but a useful effect that rarely costs you very much to include.
Now we’re getting into the good stuff. Vigor makes your creatures effectively unstoppable in combat, and you can do some pretty silly things with red damage-based board wipes like Blasphemous Act (although it doesn’t prevent the damage to itself). You’re likely to become the target when you play this, but it’s totally worth it.
If you think giving your creatures trample is good, then flying is even better. Wonder is exactly the card you’re looking for if you want that! Like the rest of this cycle, getting it into your graveyard is free in the right deck, and once it’s there your creatures are likely to be unopposed. EZ.
While Anger doesn’t give your creatures evasion, giving them haste instead is better for some decks because it can allow you to combo off in a single turn. Of course, you can always just use Anger to get in quicker and surprise them with a huge attack out of nowhere, but that’s not as fun as comboing, right?
No surprises that the top five all come from a particular cycle of incarnations from Modern Horizons 2. Of all these, Subtlety is easily the lowest, and the only one that could have missed the top 5. At the end of the day, free spells are rarely bad, and if you can get the non-evoked value here you’re really laughing.
Sometimes you just need to deal with your opponent's graveyard to stop them going off, and when you’re in that pinch, Endurance is what you need. On top of that, a 3/4 flash blocker for 3 mana is surprisingly useful. It’s rarely going to win you the game, but it can certainly stop your opponent from winning!
The top card in the deck that may or may not be known as “scam” in Modern, Grief is a scary card to get out on turn 1, especially if you can combo the sacrifice trigger with a Feign Death, Ephemerate, or similar. This is a Pro-tour winning card and arguably should take the top spot. It’s a tight battle up here though!
Swords to Plowshares is a powerful card, but a free version of it that can also come with a body is even better. Solitude is arguably the best removal spell in Modern, and it deals with pretty much any creature you need it to. It may not be super interesting to everyone, but it’s efficient and powerful.
Heading off the list is none other than Fury. Single-handedly pushing out 1 toughness creatures from Modern (well, maybe Wrenn and Six has some say on that too), format warping is a phrase that some would happily use for this card. If nothing else, it’s controversial as well as powerful and has only gotten more popular since it has first been printed. Some have this in the firing line for a ban at some point, but maybe it’ll just be power crept instead!
Best Incarnation Creature Payoffs
There’s no real theme running through the incarnations in Magic, but there are some strong themes in some of the cycles which we can find some good payoffs for.
The MH2 cycle have recently found some synergy with Up the Beanstalk. Drawing cards with your free spells is all kinds of silly, and it’s a good way to make up for the card disadvantage of having to exile a card from your hand to cast them for free. The value this uncommon lends to some of these decks is unparalleled.
For the cycle from Judgment which want to go into your graveyard, a card like Entomb is a good way to get them there. If you want multiples in your graveyard, you could always go for something like Buried Alive.
Filth | Illustration by Thomas M. Baxa
All incarnations don’t have a set theme to them, but there are so many of these cards that are either iconic in themselves or come from super well-known cycles. Almost any Magic player recognizes at least one card on this list, and everyone has to love the ability on one of these monsters.
If you could create an incarnation to fit with one of the existing cycles, what would it do? Or could you see some kind of “incarnation matters” commander? I always love to see speculation on this, so make sure you stick your thoughts in the comments below or over on Draftsim’s Discord.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this journey through this unusual creature type, and I’ll see you next time!Follow Draftsim for awesome articles and set updates: