Last updated on September 27, 2022
Emrakul, the Aeons Torn | Illustration by Mark Tedin
Transmuting one object into another is a timeless staple of wizardry. Polymorph introduced the trope to Magic with the release of Mirage in 1996, allowing players to, in the spirit of the flavor text, give their rabbit opposable thumbs!
Cheating monsters into play from the graveyard and from your hand makes sense, but what if you could do it from the library? Of course something like that would need a lot of setup because you have to manipulate your library. Unless…
Polymorph is a sweet card whose unique design spawned a lot of cards with similar effects, many of which have even made splashes in Constructed Magic formats. Today I’ll give a brief overview of how polymorphs have evolved through the years while highlighting some of the cooler designs that came to be.
But first, some definitions!
Empty the Laboratory | Illustration by Tuan Duong Chu
Polymorph effects are named after the first card that featured such a design: Polymorph! The polymorph effect is one that lets you exchange a creature or an artifact for another by revealing cards from the top of your library until you find another card that shares that type. This effect is commonly abused in decks that feature token generators and very large monsters, transmuting the former into the latter.
Polymorph strategies are a time-tested way to cheat big monsters into play. Or to spin the roulette wheel to see what comes out for more adventurous players.
Blue was the original home of the polymorph mechanic where it’s mostly been sequestered until the last couple years when it was shifted to red. You can see a lot of variation in the early cards where the exact wording wasn’t set in stone given that some cards destroy, exile, or sacrifice the permanent that’s polymorphed.
Polymorph is the original design from Mirage. The range of giant monsters to cheat in was pretty tame by today’s standards. Sure, you could find Polar Kraken or Lord of the Pit or the then-new hotness Spirit of the Night, but that pales in comparison to the eldritch horrors of today.
The spell was later reprinted in Magic 2010, where it even snuck its way onto the Pro Tour!
Pretty much an exact copy of Polymorph, Shape Anew is for the refined folks who prefer cheating in large artifacts to large creatures. With newer printings of cards that make Treasures, this has gotten somewhat better over the last couple years. You used to rely on dinky spells like Master’s Call to be able to cheat in your Blightsteel Colossus.
The first legendary creature to feature this ability, Jalira, Master Polymorphist is one of two excellent options if you want to be doing polymorph things in Commander. Stipulating that it can’t put legendary creatures into play hampers Jalira in the power department, meaning that it has to settle for Inkwell Leviathan, Blightsteel Colossus, and company.
Destiny gives you a bit more utility as an instant, but it also does cool stuff like let you dodge board wipes. One of the marks against these is that cheating in one monster is usually enough to win you the game at higher levels so using them is mostly overkill.
One of the coolest things about Reweave is that it’s not only repeatable using the splice mechanic, it also lets you select for any kind of permanent. Where most of the polymorph effects in blue are limited to creatures and artifacts, this one lets you cheat in enchantments and planeswalkers too.
Polymorph effects have started showing up more and more in recent years, particularly in red. Red offers a much broader spectrum of polymorph effects and recent additions have gotten much stronger and sleeker, seeing a fair amount of competitive play.
While Polymorph was originally a blue design, Transmogrify’s printing all but solidifies the effect as red after 25 years. One of Wizard’s big design missions over the past five years has been to expand the color pie for some colors that were more one-dimensional, which has manifested itself as polymorph being a flavorfully red ability insofar that it’s risky and less calculated than a blue spell would suggest.
Either way, this card is pretty much exactly the same except it exiles instead of destroying. It’s a hallmark of how good the original design was that it holds up after all these years.
Lukka, Coppercoat Outcast is one of the most powerful examples of the polymorph effect. One of the points I’ve made over and over again is the inherent power of cards that are their own engine. Lukka helps you find fodder for your polymorph effects. It also has the ability to repeatedly polymorph along with the added benefit of always hitting on a creature that’s better, making the card truly absurd.
Lukka certainly warped a lot of the smaller formats it was a part of where its ability to find Agent of Treachery made for a couple miserable metas.
And here’s another example of a polymorph effect that found its way into Constructed formats! Indomitable Creativity is particularly strong for its modal abilities.
You can scale the number of things you find as well as the type of things you sacrifice, a modality that’s a hallmark of cards with strong competitive applications. Even better you can also hit your opponent’s problematic permanents while also doing your own thing.
Audacious Reshapers is another excellent design that really embodies what this effect is supposed to be when used fairly. Granted, oftentimes you just get Platinum Emperion if you want to fix the game in your favor, but in other decks you get to gamble to your heart’s desire.
A fun detail on the art of this card is the representation of Unhinged’s Uktabi Kong on the left, a fun nod to the theme of the card itself. Another application this card has is the ability to turn permanents you “borrowed” from other players into permanents of your own.
While the polymorph mechanic is firmly entrenched in red and blue, it still shows up on multicolored and colorless cards. Here are the best of those.
Much like Lukka, Atla Palani, Nest Tender lets you make a deck full of monsters while also providing the fodder for the engine. It’s a little disappointing that a multicolored commander that features the mechanic eschews blue, meaning you can’t get a fully dedicated polymorph Commander deck going, but having green and white lets you access better giant monsters.
Heirloom Blade allows for fewer shenanigans as far as cheating things into play, but it’s neat to see polymorph effects be applied towards tribal stratagems. While it doesn’t make your creatures invulnerable it is reassuring to know that there’s always another friend on the way.
The polymorph stick. It’s amusing to me that one of the better cards of the polymorph family is just a stick that repeatedly casts the spell. The biggest difference between Proteus Staff and others is that it doesn’t shuffle the cards after having revealed a giant stack of them, meaning that you can stack your deck if you find a way to activate it without any creatures in your deck, which makes for some amusing (read: game winning) combos.
Polymorph decks need two components for the namesake mechanic to work, besides the polymorph cards themselves: a token generator of some sort and a giant monster. Here are my favorite token generators!
A land that’s a creature, you’ll have to find a way to get Dryad Arbor out of your deck before casting a polymorph spell.
Daretti, Ingenious Iconoclast is a very efficient 3-mana planeswalker that happens to pump out artifact creature tokens, which makes it very compatible with all manner of polymorph spells.
Yet another land that makes a creature, although Khalni Garden comes into play tapped.
The biggest, baddest monster in all of Magic needs no introduction. Emrakul, the Aeons Torn. ‘Nuff said.
A huge artifact creature that’s very hard to kill. Like Emrakul, Blightsteel Colossus is hard to get into play from the graveyard thanks to a shuffle clause, which makes it much more well-suited for our beloved way of cheating on mana.
Paying life to draw cards, an unholy combination of two of Magic’s most powerful and desired effects. Griselbrand has become the premier threat to cheat into play along with the two that precede it.
Serra’s Emissary is a more recent addition to the giant monster arsenal. This one is a lot more defensive than the others and can protect you from other unfair strategies.
Possessed Portal is a personal favorite of mine. Not being a creature means it only works with a select number of the polymorph family, but boy does it grind games to a halt. It definitely gets points for being a card that many an opponent will pick up to read for the first time.
Indomitable Creativity | Illustration by Deruchenko Alexander
One of the more well-known polymorph strategies is actually a fairly strong Modern deck featuring Indomitable Creativity.
There are a few mass polymorph cards, all of which I’ve already mentioned. Here’s the full list of cards that let you polymorph multiple creatures at once:
And if you want to really go off the rails you can just shuffle everything into your deck to see what you get with these:
If you cast a polymorph targeting one of your creatures but fail to reveal another creature in the remainder of your deck, you have time to think about your mistake while you shuffle your library and proceed with the game. No refunds, sorry.
If you’ve gotten to the point in a long slog of a game where you’ve exhausted all the resources the big chonker department has to offer, then most polymorphs also let you target your opponents’ creatures. But there’s a noticeable risk to taking such gambles!
Reality Scramble | Illustration by Simon Dominic
Assembling ways to cheat large monsters into play is one of the basic ways to go beyond the scope of vanilla Magic. One of my favorite things about the polymorph package is the ability to incorporate into many different shells.
You can play a fairly innocuous control deck whose plan to finish the game is to hit ‘em with a grand slam by flipping a monster and killing them in one shot rather than by grinding them into the dust. The means by which it lets you make the giant monster also allows for a lot of subtlety to your strategy. Chances are your opponent won’t know what’s coming until you show them your Dwarven Mine.
What’s even more remarkable is how well-designed the original card was. Polymorph was sparsely played until the threats started becoming better and better, but any cheaper and it probably becomes flat-out broken. Still a question remains as to how much room there is to improve or tweak with a mechanic such as this.
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