Last updated on March 23, 2023

Ghired, Conclave Exile - Illustration by Yongjae Choi

Ghired, Conclave Exile | Illustration by Yongjae Choi

When I came back to playing Magic around the Innistrad and Return to Ravnica era, I met populate for the first time (along with other thousands of players). I even built a Rhys the Redeemed EDH deck.

I’m very fond of Selesnya () decks and mechanics and, despite loving convoke more, there’s a lot to like about populate. So, what is this mechanic? Today I’m going to take a look at its origin, rules, and the best populate cards.

Stick with me, and let’s dive in!

How Does Populate Work?

Selesnya Eulogist - Illustration by Tomasz Jedruszek

Selesnya Eulogist | Illustration by Tomasz Jedruszek

A spell with populate makes a copy of a token creature you control. Populate is often added in a spell’s effect or the ability of a creature you control, and it can’t be reacted to since it doesn’t target. The only real thing you can do is get rid of the best token your opponent controls when populate is on the stack to mitigate the worst of the effect.

Most spells with populate also make a token first to guarantee that the populate effect will be able to take place.

The History of Populate in MTG

Populate was chosen as the Selesnya mechanic for Return to Ravnica in 2012. Although reusing the convoke mechanic was considered, in the end R&D decided on all-new mechanics for the guilds. Populate made sense since Selesnya had a token theme in that set.

Lots of Selesnya cards made tokens when populate was introduced. In the same block, Dragon’s Maze had a few populate cards and some populate support. Later, Commander 2019 had a populate commander in Ghired, Conclave Exile, which gave WotC a new opportunity to print populate cards.

There are 19 cards in Magic with populate. There isn’t much design space in the mechanic, and it relies on a critical mass of token producers.

Does Populate Target a Creature?

Populate does not target a creature. The mechanic makes a copy of a token creature you control, and it does so without ever targeting the copied token.

Do Populate Tokens Have Summoning Sickness?

When you populate, the copy of the token creature enters the battlefield and has summoning sickness. On the bright side, the copy will still be able to attack or tap if the original token had haste.

What if the Populated Creature Has Counters (like +1/+1 ) on It?

You don’t copy any modifications the copied token currently has when you populate, and this includes counters, auras, equipment, etc.

Can You Populate a Legendary Creature?

You can populate a legendary creature token (assuming you have one), but you probably don’t want to. The legendary rule still applies to both the original and the copied token, meaning you’d need to sacrifice one of them if you copied it.

What Happens if You Populate a Copy?

A creature token that’s a copy of another creature (like the ones created via myriad or encore) is treated like a normal token for populate..

Does Populate Triggers ETBs?

Yes, creature tokens, including populated copies, enter the battlefield, so any cards that care about creatures/creature tokens entering the ‘field would trigger with populate.

What if You Have No Tokens to Populate?

If you have no creature tokens to copy, then populate would just fizzle. That’s why most cards that populate also create a token first.

Is Populate Good?

Populate’s power level is fine, but the designs could be pushed more. The mechanic sometimes creates a 1/1 that’s weak to common bounce effects in a Limited environment. It’s definitely powerful in decks with a high density of populate effects and cards that create bigger tokens.

Compared to certain “generic” mechanics like raid, populate is very restrictive where it’s good.

Populate Cards Ranked

#19. Wake the Reflections

Wake the Reflections

Making a copy of your best token usually isn’t worth a card. Some problems arise when you don’t have a single token to copy. Spells with populate that don’t create a token to populate are usually very bad because they can be do-nothing cards.

You won’t be able to cast Wake the Reflections, or you’ll copy a 1/1 a lot of the times. This card would be much better if it made a 1/1 and populated.

#18. Horncaller’s Chant

Horncaller's Chant

Horncaller's Chant creating two 4/4 tokens is good, but not in the 8-mana spot where you usually have game-breaking cards.

#17. Druid’s Deliverance

Druid's Deliverance

A fog effect with a populate tacked on is very limited. Druid's Deliverance can save you some damage and create a surprise blocker, but that’s only if you have a good token.

#16. Trostani’s Judgment

Trostani's Judgment

Trostani's Judgment is an expensive removal spell at sorcery speed. It’s good in Limited or if you have a token that’s a 2/2 or bigger.

#15. Eyes in the Skies

Eyes in the Skies

Four mana for two 1/1 fliers isn’t the end of the world, but Eyes in the Skies is still bad.

#14. Coursers’ Accord

Coursers' Accord

A rate like six mana for two 3/3s is acceptable in Limited, and Coursers' Accord is a good card there. It’s okay-ish at best if you have a bigger token, like a 4/4 or 5/5.

#13. Full Flowering

Full Flowering

Populate X times is very good, and the math is simple: three mana spent gives you a token, five mana gives you two tokens, and so on. Full Flowering is very good with a 2/2 or bigger token, and even better if you can populate 4/4 flying angels.

#12. Growing Ranks

Growing Ranks

In a deck that constantly produces tokens, populating every turn is nice. Just make sure you’re not using Growing Ranks to make 1/1s every turn.

#11. Determined Iteration

Determined Iteration

The upside on Determined Iteration is that it only costs two mana. The fact that you’ll sacrifice the token no matter what can lead this card to work better in sacrifice decks.

#10. Song of the Worldsoul

Song of the Worldsoul

Song of the Worldsoul gives you a kind of storm effect on populating. The only problem is that the populate effect goes on the stack first if you cast a spell that makes a token, so it’s better to cast this after you already have some tokens.

#9. Rootborn Defenses

Rootborn Defenses

Rootborn Defenses is a card that’s important in various aggro and midrange decks that want to protect their board from wrath effects. It was even played during its time in Standard.

#8. Sundering Growth

Sundering Growth

As Naturalize effects go, Sundering Growth is one of the most interesting ones because it gives you something more (a creature token) besides costing hybrid mana. But keep in mind that you can’t cast this card without a legal target.

#7. Wayfaring Temple

Wayfaring Temple

Cards like Scion of the Wild and Wayfaring Temple are mainstays in decks aiming to go wide, and Wayfaring Temple has the upside of being able to populate. These cards usually also benefit from having trample.

#6. Trostani, Selesnya’s Voice

Trostani, Selesnya's Voice

Besides the mana cost, Trostani, Selesnya's Voice blocks well, can give you lots of life, and populates on demand. Decks that only want to gain life can benefit from this card as well.

#5. Vitu-Ghazi Guildmage

Vitu-Ghazi Guildmage

Vitu-Ghazi Guildmage was one of the best uncommons in its Limited environment. A 2/2 for two is usually playable, and its abilities are mana sinks that EDH decks usually like to have.

You can either make a 3/3 token or populate at instant speed, so this works even if you don’t have tokens around.

#4. Selesnya Eulogist

Selesnya Eulogist

Selesnya Eulogist acts as a Scavenging Ooze, providing graveyard hate while doing something positive. A 3/3 for three is okay, and it works like Vitu-Ghazi Guildmage with some tokens around, populating for three mana.

#3. Scion of Vitu-Ghazi

Scion of Vitu-Ghazi

Scion of Vitu-Ghazi is a 4/4 that makes two 1/1 bird tokens with flying at its floor, which is already a good midrange card. But it’s all upside if you can populate a 3/3 token or better.

#2. Ghired’s Belligerence

Ghired's Belligerence

Red spells that distribute X damage are usually very good, and you’ll have a populate trigger each time a creature is dealt damage this way and killed later. Ghired's Belligerence can lead to awesome turns, killing the opponent’s board and growing your own.

#1. Ghired, Conclave Exile

Ghired, Conclave Exile

It’s expected that a rare 3-colored card will have a better effect than the others, and Ghired, Conclave Exile solves some problems with populate. A 2/5 that makes a 4/4 trample is a better card already since it gives you a good token to populate. Every time Ghired attacks, it populates, and the token enters the battlefield tapped and attacking.

Good cards to play with this are Voice of Resurgence and Armada Wurm.

Decklist: Selesnya Aggro

Vitu-Ghazi Guildmage - Illustration by Jason Chan

Vitu-Ghazi Guildmage | Illustration by Jason Chan

There was a Selesnya aggro deck that made good use of populate in the Return to Ravnica era. It was especially effective in block Constructed since the power level was lower than Standard. This is an adapted decklist that can be used as an aggro populate deck.

This deck creates tokens with Call of the Conclave and Advent of the Wurm. Rootborn Defenses is a nice card in the deck because it protects your creatures and creates another. It’s a good answer to Supreme Verdict, which the deck normally folds hard to. Selesnya Charm is another nice flexible card in the deck. Vitu-Ghazi Guildmage is in the list to be a populate-on-demand effect.

Some options for this deck include Trostani, Selesnya's Voice to gain some life, Sundering Growth as a Naturalize effect, and Wayfaring Temple.

Wrap Up

Growing Ranks - Illustration by Seb McKinnon

Growing Ranks | Illustration by Seb McKinnon

Populate is a good mechanic, but it’s so narrow in its application that it’s difficult to make it work. R&D won’t rule the mechanic out, but it’s hard to bring it back.

That said, tons of Commander decks can be built to maximize the potential of the mechanic, and there are ways to make big creatures. I, for one, want a Limited format that played like Return to Ravnica populating 3/3 Centaurs or 1/1 Birds for small advantages.

But what about you? Is there a cool combo between token producers and populate that you want to share? Let me know in the comments below or over on Draftsim’s Twitter.

Thanks for reading and I’ll see you in the next one!

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