Last updated on September 22, 2023

Incubator token - Illustration by Johann Bodin

Incubator token | Illustration by Johann Bodin

Ready or not, March of the Machine introduces the MTG community to the first transforming double-faced token. And I am very ready!

Incubate and Incubator tokens bring a whole new angle to the game. Was this ready for release, or should Wizards have let it cook some more?

Here’s your primer on arguably the most complex token design in Magic’s history!

How Does Incubate Work?

Elesh Norn - Illustration by Magali Villeneuve

Elesh Norn | Illustration by Magali Villeneuve

Each time you trigger incubate, you create an Incubator token and add a number of +1/+1 counters to it equal to the “incubate X” formula on the card.

Some cards are specific, like Merciless Repurposing and its “incubate 3.” Sometimes it’s variable, like the “incubate X” on Chrome Host Seedshark. And sometimes a card asks you to incubate X multiple times, like Glissa, Herald of Predation, which has the text “incubate 2 twice.”

Incubate is a keyword action on many different types of cards, from creatures to instants. On permanents, incubate can be an ETB, a triggered ability, or both like on Essence of Orthodoxy.

Once you have your Incubator token, then what?

The +1/+1 counters don’t do anything at first because the artifact isn’t a creature. It’s like an incubating egg ready to pop (or pip).

You can then transform the artifact at any time for two generic mana, turning it into a “Token Artifact Creature – Phyrexian,” a 0/0 that also retains those +1/+1 counters.

The History of Incubate in MTG

Incubate began in March of the Machine in 2023, appearing on 30 cards with an additional 3 in March of the Machine Commander. This is a new mechanic clearly related to the defeated Phyrexians, so it will likely only appear rarely from here out.

What Is Incubate N?

When you cast a spell that incubates, it incubates N, which is the number of +1/+1 counters that you place on the Incubator token. Most often, that’s a specific number like 1, 2 or 3. Sometimes it’s a variable X.

What Are Incubator Tokens?

Incubator tokens are transforming double-faced tokens created by the incubate action. They enter the battlefield with N +1/+1 counters on them, corresponding to the “incubate N” rules text. You can pay two mana to transform them, flipping them into a Phyrexian artifact creature that retains the +1/+1 counters.

How Do You Transform Incubator Tokens?

You pay two mana to transform these tokens. It can happen at instant speed.

How Many +1/+1 Counters Does Incubate Put on the Incubator Token?

Each card with incubate specifies the number of +1/+1 counters via the formula on the card of “incubate N.”

Investigate vs. Incubate

These are very different kinds of tokens in most ways. What’s similar about them is that they cost two mana to use. A Clue can be sacrificed to draw a card for two mana. An Incubator token can be flipped into a creature for two mana. As Ari Lax put it, “it’s a Clue that turns into a big thing.”

Gallery and List of Incubate Cards

Best Incubate Cards

There are a lot of these that seem good. All are probably great for Limited, but I think some will see play across formats including Standard and Commander. There are a few excellent ones that don’t make my list below because, you know, I have to stop somewhere.

Special shoutout to Norn's Inquisitor, which could have been close to the new Thraben Inspector if the knights deck were an aggro deck, which it looks like it won’t be.

And one more shout to Progenitor Exarch and Glissa, Herald of Predation. If an incubate deck is a reality, the ability to flip the tokens without paying the mana is going to be big game. I’m unconvinced that such a deck will be a thing. But if so, take a look at those two cards.

#6. Sunfall


For Standard, if battles are good and if Surge of Salvation mutes Invoke Despair enough to put planeswalkers back on the menu, Farewell, which exiles neither, loses a bit of its luster, maybe? If the artifact synergies matter, this seems to slot nicely into the Mindsplice Apparatus/White Sun's Twilight decks. This is the same idea: try to manage a one-sided wrath.

For Commander, this feels like a wrath you might want to pack in your Selesnya tokens deck for emergencies because it drops a bunch of flippable tokens on its way out.

#5. Bloated Processor

Bloated Processor

Bloated Processor is Value Town. A sac ability that can activate at instant speed that doesn’t require tapping means I kind of want this as my 3-drop in a sac deck over either Ayara, for example, both of which have to tap for the sac (Ayara, First of Locthwain and Ayara, Widow of the Realm). There are over 400 across all time, with half of those in the last four sets going back to Dominaria United, so there’s a deck to be built here.

This isn’t as explosive as Nantuko Husk was in its days atop Standard, but these counters stick around and recur later. I know black across formats has a glut of powerful 3-drops, but this a contender.

#4. Chrome Host Seedshark

Chrome Host Seedshark

Chrome Host Seedshark is a difficult card to evaluate. Going to Ari Lax again: “Resolving Shark Typhoon is an experience. And this is not quite resolving Shark Typhoon for three mana, but it’s close.” CovertGoBlue’s response to that kind of thinking is, “Some of y’all are weird. This doesn’t say ‘draw a card’ anywhere on it.”

So this is a slow version of a resolved Typhoon? That sounds kind of good? It might be the thing to enable Malcator, Purity Overseer decks to finally compete because that’s the only way to use this with small spells: trigger the artifactfall.

Otherwise you have to use this with big spells to make the token flip costs more worth it. Delve and convoke spells seem right. Temporal Trespass anyone? This seems like a nice thing to have on the battlefield when you drop a Teferi, Hero of Dominaria, tick up, and then use that untapped two mana to pay the cost and flip the token in defense if needed.

#3. Excise the Imperfect

Excise the Imperfect

Excise the Imperfect is at instant speed for three mana and exiles any nonland permanent without leaving an enchantment around that can be bounced or destroyed. The only competition we really have is Anguished Unmaking, an EDH staple.

This is one color only, which is a boon, and leaving a token in some cases is a better deal than the life loss. You don’t really want to answer Sheoldred, the Apocalypse[/card with this, but against a big token or a voltron commander, this is perfect.

In EDH, I’d play it over Generous Gift in most cases where the double pips don’t scare me off.

#2. Brimaz, Blight of Oreskos

Brimaz, Blight of Oreskos

Brimaz, Blight of Oreskos is kinda nuts. Its own precon deck is pretty decent, but if you want to focus it on artifacts alone, I’d argue that it elevates the mostly nonexistent Orzhov artifacts deck in EDH to a real possibility.

#1. Elesh Norn / The Argent Etchings

Elesh Norn is the easiest to flip of all the double-sided praetors. By the time it drops on curve, you’ll have the creatures and mana to transform it for bonkers gains. If you hold off and drop Elesh Norn/[card] on turn five while holding up [card]Surge of Salvation, you short circuit the black edicts and demand the opponent has a wrath.

As a commander or in a Commander deck, this will be lower impact but still fun to play.

Wrap Up

Sunder the Gateway - Illustration by Titus Lunter

Sunder the Gateway | Illustration by Titus Lunter

This seems like a great, flexible mechanic, to me. I’d rank Incubator tokens under Treasures and Clues, I think, but above Food, Blood, and Powerstones.

I’m intrigued by using these for artifact fall synergies. A hint as to their power in that space is that there’s not a single card in March of the Machine with artifact fall, despite half a dozen in recent sets. That makes brewing around these in Standard a little tough, but many of these are just powerful enough outright to see play. And I think most of these cards will find their way into EDH decks.

Which incubate cards do you think are the best? What builds would you put them into? Let me know in the comments below or over on the Draftsim Discord.

Thanks for reading, and stay safe!

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