Last updated on October 11, 2023
Exava, Rakdos Blood Witch | Illustration by Aleksi Briclot
It’s that time again: Let’s remember some old mechanics! Magic is full of dusty stuff that belongs to some distant set or block but hasn’t really made a comeback. Unleash is no exception, although I’d argue it’s been revamped and improved upon with ability counters and oil counters. Lots of those types of creatures have ways to cash in their counters for an effect, while unleash creatures usually just get a +1/+1 counter and that’s that.
We’re going to dig into this aggressive mechanic to see where it works, where it fails, and what you might want to do with the cards that unleash has left behind.
Let’s kick up some dust, both in our collections and on the battlefield!
Dead Reveler | Illustration by David Palumbo
Unleash is a keyword ability on creatures in MTG. The reminder text contains two static abilities, which read, “You may have this creature enter the battlefield with a +1/+1 counter on it. It can’t block as long as it has a +1/+1 counter on it.” Since these are both static abilities, a creature with unleash can’t block no matter how it got the +1/+1 counter. Yes, that means your opponents can disrupt your plans by giving counters to your creatures even if you chose not to unleash them.
Unleash was, er, “unleashed” upon us in Return to Ravnica and was last used in Dragon’s Maze. It’s a relic of the 3-expansion Return to Ravnica block, appearing in Gatecrash as well. A few unleash cards were also printed in Guild Kit: Rakdos and Iconic Masters, but the mechanic has otherwise only appeared on Garbage Elemental from Unstable.
All unleash cards are in Rakdos colors, whether black, red, or dual-color, and the mechanic is tied to the Cult of Rakdos on the plane of Ravnica. There are 14 unleash cards in the game, including Garbage Elemental.
Art matters always gets me smiling, and “art menace” is just too silly not to like. Thank you, Garbage Elemental. You ain’t all trash.
This kind of horror doesn’t scare me all that much. Spawn of Rix Maadi might be better when you use Mardu Roughrider alongside it to make it unblockable. Feel like I’m reaching here, though. I’d rather make my 10+ power commander, a toxic creature, or a double strike creature unblockable, you know?
As a zombie, Dead Reveler is probably most useful in a Narfi, Betrayer King Pauper EDH deck. With Narfi’s lord ability and the Reveler’s counter, that’s a 4/5 zombie for 3. Not bad! And besides, there are zombies with decayed, so it’s not like a zombie that can’t block is a unicorn.
Well, it’s a flier. Rakdos Drake is one of those unleash creatures that feel like you have to unleash it to get decent value from it, and I don’t like being forced into one side of what’s supposed to be a choice.
Pretty much the only things giving Gore-House Chainwalker the edge over Dead Reveler and Rakdos Drake are the type line and the mana value. It’s cheaper, and its human and warrior types give it just a few more homes than a mono-typed zombie or drake.
Grim Roustabout regenerates itself for the same price as its mana value. That can make for a relentless, annoying chump blocker, especially in multiples. If you’re going for flavor, you might consider this for your Skeleton Ship deck.
The issue with Hellhole Flailer is that Fling is right there, costs less mana, and hits any target rather than just a creature. Part of me wonders if it’s got potential with Kalain, Reclusive Painter, but I think that’s an over-complicated play for too little of a bang, even if you Fling it directly rather than use its ability.
My main thoughts on Carnival Hellsteed are memories of pulling a bunch of them in $5 bulk rare packs. It has first strike and haste, so you can have a 6/5 attack the turn it comes down for 6 mana. And if it survives combat, proceed to sac and Fling for a bigger punch. For the jank players among you, this is a horse for your Princess Twilight Sparkle deck.
Chaos Imps gives you more temptation to unleash it: It has trample as long as it has a +1/+1 counter. It’s an imp for your Rakdos, the Showstopper or Raphael, Fiendish Savior deck, although it’s probably one you’ll swap out for something more powerful or mana-efficient.
A 1-mana creature like Rakdos Cackler is always going to be useful, especially with flexible mana costs. It counts as a devil for the decks that care about that, and a 1-mana 2/2 is a good early play, even if it can’t block. That matters less when you plan on sacrificing the creature later anyway.
As an assassin, you’re more likely to pair Thrill-Kill Assassin with Ramses, Assassin Lord than you are to focus on unleash with it. Deathtouch is one of those abilities that can be intimidating depending on whether you’re attacking or blocking with it, but an unleashed Thrill-Kill Assassin only goes one way. Of course, if you’re running it with other assassins, you’ve got other deathtouchers to block with, right?
Exava, Rakdos Blood Witch could be your unleash commander if you wanted it to be, but I’m more likely to run it in my Kalain, Reclusive Painter deck. Use four Treasure to cast Exava, unleash it, and that’s an 8/8 with first strike and haste. It’s also a haste enabler for your other unleashed creatures and anything with +1/+1 counters, so there’s a little more utility there.
The first unleash payoffs that come to mind are cards like Exava, Rakdos Blood Witch that care about or boost your creatures that have counters on them. Exava is a haste enabler, while Marchesa, the Black Rose can make your unleashed creatures virtually immortal.
Counter doublers like Hardened Scales also double the counters that an unleash creature has when it enters the battlefield. If you’re going to forego the ability to block, you may as well double down on it. And I guess proliferation “synergizes” with unleash’s counters, although it feels like a square peg/round hole situation.
Rakdos isn’t the best combination for +1/+1 counter movers. Black ones like Thief of Blood tend to steal counters for themselves, while red ones tend to be modular artifact creatures. But something like Reyhan, Last of the Abzan can help move the counters from your dying creatures to boost your remaining board.
If you’re leaning into , enchantments like Madcap Skills that grants menace and combat tricks that grant buffs or other abilities can help your unleash creatures punch through unblocked or survive until another combat. It’s less a payoff than something that pairs well, like wine and a little cheese.
One way to turn the “can’t block” clause of unleash into a positive is by going full chaos mode with Blim, Comedic Genius. Make ‘em someone else’s problem!
Apart from a Modern deck that focuses on unleash, I could see building a Jund () deck that relies on Death's Presence and sacrifice payoffs like Blood Aspirant and Mortician Beetle. Green also gives you Hardened Scales effects, which also double the counters that an unleash creature has when it ETBs. If you’re going to make bigger creatures that can’t block, why not make ‘em real big before you Fling them at your opponent? Death’s Presence redistributes the Flinged (Flung?) power in the form of more counters. That sounds like a Ziatora, the Incinerator deck, maybe? Not necessarily the most efficient, but a fun way to use those unleash cards you’ve got kicking around.
Thrill-Kill Assassin | Illustration by Tyler Jacobson
And that’s the roundup on unleash! It’s neat, looking back, that Return to Ravnica gave us a Rakdos Guild that had a +1/+1 counters theme. Almost everybody was doing counters at least a little: Common Bond and Corpsejack Menace as some non-Rakdos cards from RTR that play with counters, too.
I’m glad that ability counters and oil counters tend to come with ways to spend them, though. It makes for more dynamic gameplay, with more versatility and more options for how you deploy your creatures. But what do you think about unleash? Do you want to see it come back? What do you think its impact or lessons were for Magic’s design? Let me know in the comments below or over on Draftsim’s Discord.
And comment below which songs you think of when you see unleash in Magic! All submissions for Eye of the Tiger by Survivor shall be auto-deleted with extreme prejudice.Follow Draftsim for awesome articles and set updates: