Last updated on October 18, 2022
Regeneration | Illustration by Jeremy Jarvis
MTG Arena, while not perfect, has a lot going for it at the moment. Right now, though, you’ve only got a handful of options when it comes to formats on the client, which a lot of players are more than disappointed with. There are currently only Standard and Historic card pools, going back a measly two and (almost) a half years to Ixalan in September of 2017.
It does look like Historic (and potentially Pioneer) are going to be getting more love this year, however, with more anthologies and remastered card sets to be added. So, we think it’s high time we talked about an old mechanic that Arena hasn’t had a chance to experience just yet: regeneration.
To make a long story short if you’re not familiar with it, regeneration is an ability that protects your creatures from the sweet release of death. As the name suggests, creatures with regeneration don’t die when dealt lethal damage and are instead regenerated. Meaning, they have all damaged removed from them and get tapped and removed from combat (if they’re in it).
However, it’s been a long time since a card with this ability was released and this mechanic has been somewhat replaced with the indestructible static ability to act as an almost substitute, for some very valid reasons.
MTG Regeneration: How Does it Work?
Lethal Sting | Illustration by Randy Vargas
The main reason regeneration was left to gather dust is the complexity it brought to the game. It sounds simple enough, but the mechanic itself was wide open to misinterpretations. The original definition for the ability reads: “The next time that creature would be destroyed this turn, it isn’t. Instead tap it, remove all damage from it, and remove it from combat.” This may seem clear as day, but not all is as it seems.
Before we dive in to the good stuff, we’ve got a treat for the visual and audio learners in the group. Here’s a quick, concise video explaining all the stuff you need to know about what regeneration is and what it can and can’t do:
All right, now for those of you who prefer to learn by reading, the first thing you need to keep in mind is that a regenerated creature doesn’t get a chance to die, and so it never leaves the battlefield. This means it doesn’t apply any ETB (enter the battlefield) effects. It also means that regeneration can be used for tokens as well.
Since they don’t leave the battlefield, they don’t get to disappear into nothingness and can safely be kept from harms way. This also means that counters, enchantments, equipment, etc. aren’t removed from a regenerated creature—token or otherwise—because the creature remains alive and well.
The next thing to know is that regeneration isn’t revival; it needs to be cast before the creature is destroyed. It can’t bring them back from the realm of the dead, only protect them from venturing there in the first place.
The term “regeneration shield” was introduced to better clarify the ability because of the confusion. When a spell or ability grants regeneration to a creature, it gains a regeneration shield which lasts until the end of the turn and activates when the creature is about to be destroyed.
If a creature that has a regeneration shield faces a creature with deathtouch, both creatures deal combat damage. As the damage is dealt, however, the creature with regeneration is tapped, taken out of combat, and has all damage removed from it, thus bringing it back to full health.
You can’t regenerate a destroyed creature because it’s already dead and gone so there’s nothing to regenerate. This means that you have to grant regeneration before lethal is dealt. Regeneration functions as a “replacement effect”, meaning that the effect waits for one conditional event to replace with another. In this case, it would replace “destroy” with “tap, remove from combat, and remove all damage”. If the creature is already destroyed, this event has already passed and can’t be replaced, so nothing would happen.
Another thing to notice would be the “tap the creature” part of the ability, which was almost definitely—though this is totally just my opinion—added to nerf the ability a bit since a tough, buffed-up creature with vigilance and regeneration could both attack and defend without relent.
Mad Auntie | Illustration by Wayne Reynolds
All of this might have you thinking that regeneration is an invincible ability that has the power to break the game, but it does have its restrictions. You can’t regenerate sacrificed creatures, since sacrificed creatures aren’t actually being destroyed. Instead, they’re literally being moved from the battlefield directly to the graveyard do not pass Go, do not collect $200.
So, if you thought about exploiting sacrifice mechanics the moment you saw regeneration, sorry to disappoint you. Also, any enchantments or spells that reduce a creature’s toughness to 0 through negative counters don’t trigger regeneration since this also isn’t destroying them, just putting them into the graveyard just like sacrificing.
Some other quick examples of things that won’t trigger regeneration shield protection are exiling and effects that move the creature from the battlefield to another zone, like back to its owner’s hand.
You’ve got an Undercity Troll on the battlefield while your opponent has Typhoid Rats. During your combat phase, your Troll attacks and gets blocked by the Rats. Since your opponent’s creature has deathtouch, your creature will die when Typhoid Rats deals it even a measly 1 damage. So, you activate your creature’s regeneration ability before any damage is dealt, between the declare blockers and the combat damage steps of the combat phase.
After both creature’s damage is dealt, Typhoid Rats dies and Undercity Troll’s regeneration shield activates. It becomes tapped, back at full health. Your opponent really wants to remove your Troll, so they then cast Shock targeting your Troll.
Although the regeneration shield is no longer present on your creature, it can be regenerated a second time if you have a spell and the mana. And, lucky you, in this scenario you do! You cast the ability’s namesake, Regenerate, before Shock resolves which puts your spell on top of the stack, giving your Troll a second regeneration shield.
After your spell resolves, your opponent’s spell resolves and deals your Troll lethal damage which is then removed as it regenerates again. At this point, you realize that regenerate is a bit of an annoying mechanic since you can pretty much keep your creatures alive indefinitely provided the proper spells and mana, unless your opponent drops a regeneration-preventing nuke like Death Pits of Rath.
It gets even more complicated under the old rules with damage going on the stack.
Also of note, if your opponent had cast Shock after they declared blockers but before the combat damage step, your Troll would be removed from combat and no damage would be dealt, leaving their Rats unscathed. This all brings us to the question: is regeneration common, or broken?
The Alpha and the Omega
Relentless Dead | Illustration by Ryan Yee
Regeneration is one of the first abilities ever used in Limited Edition (First Edition), the first MTG card set ever released back in 1993. So, it has every right to be one of the strongest abilities. Although the very first cards that used the mechanic—Death Ward, its counterpart Disintegrate, and of course Regeneration —were fairly simple, the ability came to be considered one of the most convoluted mechanics in the game at the time.
As Aaron Forsythe stated in an article on the Ninth Edition set back in 2005: “The truth is that the mechanic is so complicated and wonky that we would never greenlight it today, but it has been grandfathered into the fabric of the game, and it does fill a nice niche”. This is slightly in contrast to mana burn, which ended up being completely nixed.
After a while, regeneration moved over to make room for simpler mechanics. Among some of the first is Reassembling Skeleton, producing what comes down to the exact same effect as Drudge Skeletons with much less hassle.
Eventually, the ability saw its last use in Oath of the Gatewatch in 2016, with Birthing Hulk being the last to bear its name. All of this means that it’s impossible as of now to try it out for a spin in MTG Arena.
Before it saw its last feature, though, there were some wicked cards that carried the regenerate mantle. Some of them have been used to frustrate opponents to no end. Especially Thrun, the Last Troll.
Thrun is a hell of a card. It can’t be countered, can’t be the target of spells or abilities (effectively rendering it hexproof), has a ridiculously cheap regeneration cost, a decently intense threat as a 4/4, and costs a measly four mana. You have just about no options to deal with this guy, other than a dedicated blocker like Wall of Mist or a hexproof-remover like Glaring Spotlight.
Quick note: While hexproof-removing spells can affect Thrun, the Last Troll, this isn’t universal to all older cards with “can’t be the target of spells or abilities your opponents control”. Its ability is not automatically equivalent to hexproof (and so wouldn’t be affected by anything that affects hexproof), though some older cards with this rule text—Thrun among them—have been updated with hexproof specifically. See the difference in Oracle text on Gatherer between Thrun, the Last Troll and Canopy Cover, which was not changed. This comment thread on reddit explains the why of it a bit.
There are also some less annoying but equally useful creatures with regeneration, such as River Boa. There are even some lands like Yavimaya Hollow. In fact, regeneration became so widespread at one point that some cards had a “can’t be regenerated” clause to prevent it from taking over the game. Remember Death Pits of Rath? Great example. There’s also Terror, whose art really carries its name.
The Best Regenerators
Aside from the examples I gave earlier, there are some astounding cards that you should definitely try if you’re looking to build a regeneration-themed deck. Let’s take a look at some of them and very quickly touch on why you should consider each:
A 2-drop that can be buffed up to 4/4 with the ability to regenerate will definitely cause some headache for your opponent.
Although it can’t regenerate itself, you can think of Loxodon as a critical lifesaver. Its ability to regenerate all your creatures might change the game when you’re facing a board wipe.
Debt of Loyalty
In my opinion, this is one of the best regeneration cards in the game since it allows you to steal an enemy creature at the death’s door. Since you can also use it on your creatures if you end up in a pinch, it’s useful all around.
If you like Goblin-themed decks, Mad Auntie is a good addition. It also provides a slight power boost with its +1/+1 bonus in addition to the ability to regenerate a fellow Goblin. Pair it with Pemmin’s Aura in a Dimir deck and enough mana and you’re practically unstoppable.
The Shield is Down
Rakshasa Deathdealer | Illustration by John Severin Brassel
Although it’s more common to see indestructible over regeneration mechanics in current Magic, it’s definitely a fun ability to play with. Convoluted? Maybe, but it allows for more varied plays instead of just an indestructible creature bashing away.
Regeneration has been out of the game for quite a while, and anything similar that comes along in new sets would be a great door to some unique gameplay. What do you think? Should (maybe a simpler version) of regeneration be brought back, or is this just a relic of the past that seems better than it was? Let us know your thoughts in the comments down below!
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“which is also why sacrificing creatures doesn’t trigger “whenever a creature dies” effects” is incorrect/
Thanks for pointing that out – oversight on our part. Fixed!
I like regeneration more than indestructible. To me, indestructible is more confusing. If something is indestructible, why is it removable at all? It is also boring because it is so hard to get rid of. If indestructible replaced regeneration, cards like Terror should kill indestructible.
In my opinion, the best regeneration card is Zombie Master.
Finding this article really late, but…. Ran into an issue I couldn’t find an answer to online. If you play a creature with Morph face down, that creature gets destroyed, and you regenerate it using an instant… does it regenerate face down, or does it regenerate face up? After a brief debate we settled on regenerating face-down… preserving the state it was in when it was regenerated. Was that the right call?
Yes I think that’s right. It doesn’t leave play or anything so no reason to reveal it.
Appreciate the input!
Revive and Regenerate. Ok so I don’t agree that the creature should get to keep it’s counters. In order for a creature to be regenerated or revived it has to die, otherwise it wouldn’t need to be regenerated or revived, but it clearly dies, thereby loosing counters however when it’s revived it will come back with artifacts and equipment with it.
So the reasoning is it’s coming back fresh all the counters it gains is because it’s alive in the field, but it keeps equipment and artifacts when it comes back.
So, it removes damage delt. In the case of infect or wither, damage is dealt as -1/-1 counters but IS damage delt. Would regeneration remove the counters placed during this combat/damage instance?