Last updated on December 28, 2022
Regal Leosaur | Illustration by Ilse Gort
Mutate is one of the coolest and most fun mechanics I’ve played with in all of Magic. It’s definitely on my list of favorites. Being able to combine creatures like a mad scientist and creature unstable combinations that do too much for one permanent is as creative as it is powerful.
But mutate isn’t exactly the pinnacle of simplicity when it comes to newer keywords. There’s a lot of confusion regarding targeting, what happens to merged creatures, and plenty of other interactions. So today I’m coming to you with a large swath of info on everything about the keyword.
Let’s get to it!
How Does Mutate Work?
Necropanther | Illustration by Jason A. Engle
Mutate works by merging two creatures into one, with the power and toughness being equal to that of the top creature. That top creature has all abilities of the creatures underneath it, plus its own abilities. This means you can continuously mutate creatures to create more powerful creatures with stacking abilities.
This mechanic is very flavorful since you’re quite literally mutating creatures into various unholy combinations that even the gods hide from. There are also unique interactions with cards during mutations that give you bonus effects every time a permanent mutates, which can get out of control very quickly.
History of Mutate in MTG
Mutate is a keyword that was introduced in Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths and somewhat resembles auras or the bestow mechanic from Theros.
But mutate was first mentioned in Unsanctioned on Surgeon ~General~ Commander, which was a funny foreshadowing of the upcoming mechanic. The mechanic was last used in the Commander 2020 precons which released alongside Ikoria.
We’ve yet to see the mechanic on any newly minted cards, confirming it isn’t an evergreen mechanic. But here’s hoping we get some new mutators soon!
What is a Merged Permanent?
Merged permanents are cards that have been put together via the mutate mechanic and are placed on top of one another. Merged creatures have all the abilities of every creature in the pile as well as the combat stats and creature type of the topmost creature.
Creatures that are merged count as one creature and can include tokens. If a merged creature’s top card is a token, then it’s a token creature. On the flipside, a mutated creature is a non-token permanent if the top card is a non-token permanent regardless of if a token is in the pile.
Can You Mutate Multiple Times?
Yes, you can mutate multiple times on the same permanent. This is actually incentivized through many different cards with interactions like Nethroi, Apex of Death and Necropanther.
When you mutate onto an already-mutated creature you just have to choose which creature goes on top. You can choose either the new one you’re adding or the one that’s already on top. You’re sort of putting all your eggs in one basket with this strategy so hopefully you have some counterspells or protection up from a simple Doom Blade.
How Many Times Can You Mutate?
You can mutate as many times as you want, assuming you have the mana to pay the activation costs and the permanents to mutate onto. But make sure you’re not setting yourself up for failure when a removal spell comes down on your monstrosity.
Does Mutate Target?
Yes, the mutate ability targets a “non-human creature you own.” This means that giving creatures either shroud or the human creature type stops them from being legal targets for the activation. It also triggers the abilities of cards that look at targeting effects, like Cowardice, which could spell the end for any strategies you may have with your mutations.
Does Mutate Change Power and Toughness?
Parcelbeast | Illustration by Milivoj Ceran
Mutate doesn’t stack the power and toughness of all mutated creatures. When you merge two cards with the mutate ability you chose which creature is on top; either the one already on top or the one mutating onto it. The merged permanent then has both the creature type and power and toughness of the card on top. The only thing that carries across all creatures are the abilities of all the mutated permanents in the pile.
What Happens When You Return a Mutated Creature to Your Hand?
Mutated creatures are treated as a single entity so if a mutated creature you control is bounced to your hand, all the cards in the pile go into your hand separately all at once. But if your mutated creature is flickered and returned to the battlefield then all of your mutations come back as their own creature rather than as the pseudo-aura they once were.
This makes bounce spells incredibly worse for mutations compared to bouncing a creature with a bunch of auras where they normally just all go away. In this instance you’re just reset in terms of time and mana spent; you don’t lose anything to the graveyard.
Is Mutate an Activated Ability or an Alternate Casting Cost?
Mutate isn’t actually an activated ability, but it is an alternate casting cost. The key difference here is there’s no colon between the mana cost and what it does, just the word “mutate” and then the cost.
This is a good way to identify whether something is an ability or not. No colon, no activation. Since it isn’t an activated ability it can’t be Stifled. But it can be subject to Counterspell.
Does Mutate Bypass the Commander Tax?
Since mutate is an alternate casting cost and not an ability that can just be activated from the command zone, it’s still subject to the commander tax. While this makes the cost increasingly worse as the game goes on, it still seems like a reasonable expectation and would be a bit too strong and consistent if it was always so cheap to get a better version of your commander out turn after turn.
Can Mutate Be Countered?
Glowstone Recluse | Illustration by Yeong Hao Han
Yes, mutate can be countered. Mutate is an alternate casting cost which means you’re still casting the spell, not activating an ability from your hand. All of the conventional counter spells like Force of Will, Counterspell, and Remand work.
But countering isn’t always the most efficient way to remove mutated creatures because of the nature of the mechanic. Allowing your opponent to mutate first and then using a kill spell is always at least a 2-for-1, maybe more.
What if the Mutate Target is Destroyed?
While you may think that destroying the target of the mutating creature would cause the spell to fizzle, the creature whose mutation you’re activating just goes onto the battlefield as a normal creature instead. According to the Comprehensive Rules 702.139b while a mutation is resolving:
… if its target is illegal, it ceases to be a mutating creature spell and continues resolving as a creature spell.WotC
So while killing the target of the mutation could save you from some hexproof–indestructible combination madness, you’d probably be better off waiting for the mutation to resolve and getting a 2-for-1 trade instead.
Is a Mutated Creature Still Legendary?
A mutated creature has the characteristics of whatever is on top of the pile. If a legendary creature is on top then the creature is legendary and affects other creatures via the legends rule.
If a legendary creature is somewhere under that top card then it isn’t a legendary creature and isn’t projecting its legendary status to other cards. That means if you have a Nethroi, Apex of Death somewhere in the pile but not on top, you can cast another one as its own creature without conflict.
Does Mutating a Creature Untap It?
You’re not creating a new creature when you mutate something onto a creature, just merging two together. The creature stays tapped if it’s already tapped from attacking or activating an ability and won’t untap when the new creature is put on top of the merged pile. All of the qualities that aren’t explicitly overwritten stay the same.
Does Mutate Work with Shroud?
Mutate is an alternate casting cost that requires a target to cast, which means that a creature with shroud can’t be a legal target.
Does Flash Apply to Mutate?
When it comes to flash in MTG, we’re talking about both Flash and the flash keyword on cards.
Unfortunately Flash places a creature on the battlefield so you can’t cast it for its mutate cost. It just comes in as a normal creature.
If a card that has mutate also has flash, like Pouncing Shoreshark, you can flash it in for its mutate cost since it’s an alternate casting cost rather than an activated ability.
Does Mutate Trigger Heroic?
Heroic is a keyword ability that was introduced in Theros. The ability triggered whenever the creature was targeted by a spell you controlled. This means that it works perfectly with mutate. Heroic is an incredible ability to have on your creature, especially if your deck revolves around triggering mutate since heroic goes off as well.
How Does Undying Work with Mutate?
Undying is a keyword that brings dead creatures back to the battlefield with a +1/+1 counter if they died without one. When a mutated creature with undying dies, all the creatures in the pile come back separately and they all get +1/+1 counters.
Can Changelings Mutate?
Changelings are creatures that have all possible creature types at once. Unfortunately mutate requires a non-human creature, which means that no changeling creature can ever be the target of a mutate spell.
Can You Sacrifice One Card from a Merged Creature?
Vulpikeet | Illustration by Leesha Hannigan
Merged creatures from a mutation are counted as a single creature not as multiple creatures in a pile (even though that’s what they physically are). You can’t sacrifice the pieces of the merged creature under the top card, only the entire mutated creature.
Does a Mutated Commander Still Count as a Commander?
Commander is where mutate gets even trickier so it’s doubly important to be well researched and understand the mechanic. If your commander is mutated into a pile then the merged creature does commander damage and counts as your commander regardless of its location in the pile.
All in all this is a pretty simple way to look at a complicated interaction. To make it short and sweet: if your commander is in a mutated pile, that pile is your commander.
What if a Creature’s Name Changes and it Refers to Itself?
Some cards, like Bristling Boar, refer to themselves in their oracle text. While it may be your first thought that those abilities wouldn’t work if the creature’s name changes because of a mutation, it actually does.
When a card refers to itself by name it’s really just saying “me” or “this exact card,” not cards with that name. The Comprehensive Rules also say:
… text that refers to the object it’s on by name means just that particular object and not any other objects with that name.WotC
How Do You Mutate in MTG Arena?
Mutating on an online client like MTG Arena can be daunting if you’re not already used to the platform. If that sounds like you, then you’re in luck. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to successfully mutate one card onto another on MTG Arena:
1. Cast the card and then select the mutate casting cost in the UI that pops up.
2. Click on a non-human creature you own to target it with the mutate creature.
3. Click on the appropriate button depending on which creature you want to be on top. Remember, this determines a lot about what the final creature is including power and toughness, the name, and the creature type.
Is Mutate Actually Good?
Mutate is a mechanic that’s as good as you make it. If you build around a good mutating commander that interacts well with all parts of your deck, then you’re set. But if you just throw it in with no additional support, it’s just some creature that stacks onto a token or something.
Mutate is a mechanic with potential and a mechanic that demands attention. It won’t be good just thrown in as is; it grows in power based on how you build around it and work for it.
List of Mutate Cards
- Auspicious Starrix
- Boneyard Lurker
- Brokkos, Apex of Forever
- Cavern Whisperer
- Chittering Harvester
- Dirge Bat
- Dreamtail Heron
- Essence Symbiote
- Everquill Phoenix
- Glowstone Recluse
- Huntmaster Liger
- Illuna, Apex of Wishes
- Insatiable Hemophage
- Lore Drakkis
- Majestic Auricorn
- Migratory Greathorn
- Mysterious Egg
- Nethroi, Apex of Death
- Otrimi, the Ever-Playful
- Pollywog Symbiote
- Pouncing Shoreshark
- Regal Leosaur
- Sawtusk Demolisher
- Sea-Dasher Octopus
- Snapdax, Apex of the Hunt
- Souvenir Snatcher
- Trumpeting Gnarr
- Vadrok, Apex of Thunder
- Zagoth Mamba
The Best Mutate Cards
Nethroi, Apex of Death
Nethroi, Apex of Death is an incredibly potent commander than works well in any sort of Abzan () aristocrats or graveyard deck. Being able to pull something back like Sun Titan or Protean Hulk to combo off and overrun opponents is pretty easy with such strong and accessible graveyard recursion in the command zone.
Parcelbeast offers great value, and a 2/4 with card advantage abilities for is a great deal. Throwing this on some early creature and charging forward always yields good results, especially with the extra lands.
Necropanther is sort of a mini Nethroi, Apex of Death, and its ability is just Sun Titan on a stick. Note the specific wording of the oracle text here; this ability triggers whenever the creature mutates which means you could repeatedly bring creatures back from the grave. Lots of combo potential here.
Decklist: Nethroi Mutate in Commander
Nethroi, Apex of Death | Illustration by Slawomir Maniak
Syr Konrad, the Grim
Toski, Bearer of Secrets
Back for More
Mythos of Nethroi
Swords to Plowshares
Altar of Dementia
Golgari Rot Farm
Temple of Malady
This deck has a lot of interactions and combos to help you generate advantage. Most games you’ll just be mutating Nethroi with a full graveyard and popping off. There are tons of useful creatures in your graveyard to reanimate with your commander’s ability. You just need to know which ones to grab.
Acidic Slime is a generally great pick. It has low power so it doesn’t take up too much room but has a wide range of targets to destroy. Old Rutstein helps keep your graveyard fresh with targets while generating Treasure tokens and sacrifice fodder for cards like Altar of Dementia. Reclamation Sage is a classic that helps destroy pesky enchantments and artifacts similar to the previously mentioned Nethroi, Apex of Death.
Your main win condition (other than straight value beatdown) is repeatedly reanimating large creatures faster than your opponents can win or defend themselves. Most of your mutate creatures also do things whenever they’re mutated on, so you get extra value from continuously playing cards.
Archipelagore | Illustration by Svetlin Velinov
There it is, everything you could possibly want to know about the mutate keyword. What do you think so far? Do you think it’s worth bringing back, or dare I say making the mechanic evergreen? I think mutate is a little too complex for most players.
But that’s just me. What do you think? Let us know in our official Draftsim Discord or tweet at us!
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