Last updated on June 6, 2023
Endling | Illustration by Livia Prima
Some creatures die easier than others. But creatures with the undying keyword come back stronger after death. This is a simple keyword that saw play in Standard and is now a staple of Modern.
Undying leverages recursive threats to grind out your opponent and make their 1-for-1 removal spells useless. A riff on its predecessor, persist, undying takes a different approach to make your creatures stronger when they recur and makes it even harder to deal with them profitably.
Ready to learn everything there is to know about this mechanic? Let’s get started!
How Does Undying Work?
Treacherous Pit-Dweller | Illustrationj by Svetlin Velinov
Undying is a triggered ability that goes off when a creature with undying goes to the graveyard from the battlefield. If that creature didn’t have any +1/+1 counters on it, it returns to the battlefield under its owner’s control with a +1/+1 counter on it.
So when an undying creature dies you return it with a +1/+1 counter if it doesn’t already have any. This ability uses an intervening if clause, which states that it only triggers if the creature fits the requirements when the ability wants to trigger and when it goes to resolve. This will be important later, but basically it prevents undying from triggering if the creature had a +1/+1 counter on it at the time of death.
But what happens if you remove the +1/+1 counter and then the creature dies again? Well, in that case the creature doesn’t have a +1/+1 counter on it at the time of death, so it undies again. If you can see how that might lead to some interesting loops then you’re looking into the future!
The History of Undying in MTG
A keyword first found in Dark Ascension, undying reappeared in Avacyn Restored and later in Modern Horizons. Undying doesn’t have the expansive history of other mechanics since it’s only been printed on 21 cards in Magic’s history, but many of the cards continue to see play today.
Does the Undying Creature go to the Graveyard?
Undying creatures do go to the graveyard. The undying ability triggers when the undying creature goes to the graveyard.
It’s best to visualize the creature dying, going to the graveyard, and then you check if it has a +1/+1 counter on it at the time of death. If it didn’t, it wakes up from the graveyard and returns to the battlefield, stronger than before.
Does Undying Go on the Stack?
Yes, undying is a triggered ability, and triggered abilities use the stack.
Can You Respond to Undying?
You can respond to undying. Since it’s a triggered ability, both players must pass priority once the ability goes onto the stack before the undying trigger resolves and the creature returns to the battlefield.
Is Undying a Replacement Effect?
No, undying is not a replacement effect. It’s a triggered ability.
Triggers are worded as, “when X happens, then Y goes on the stack” while replacement abilities read, “if X would occur, do Y instead.” Undying requires the action of going to the graveyard to happen before it triggers.
Can Tokens Come Back with Undying?
No, tokens can’t use undying to come back. Tokens still go to the graveyard when they leave the battlefield just like other creatures, but they have a special state-based effect where they’re removed from the game when players go to regain priority.
This works so that dying triggers still happen but no spells, abilities, or recursive effects can target or interact with tokens once they leave the battlefield. So while a token with undying still triggers undying, it won’t be in the graveyard to return to the battlefield when the trigger goes onto the stack to resolve.
Does Undying Work with Sacrificing Creatures?
Yes, undying works with sacrificing creatures. The ability doesn’t care about how the creature died, just that it’s dead and doesn’t have any +1/+1 counters on it. Many decks leverage this fact to sacrifice undying creatures for value since they return better off than they were before.
Undying vs. Persist
Undying and persist are very similar, and the former clearly took inspiration from the latter. With undying, if the creature doesn’t have any +1/+1 counters it returns to the battlefield with one. With persist, if the creature doesn’t have any -1/-1 counters it returns to the battlefield with one. Undying makes the creature stronger when it rises from the grave while persist makes it weaker.
Undying and persist are both triggered abilities that leverage the graveyard and trigger when a creature with the respective ability dies. Both abilities found their way into combo decks that have seen play in Modern, and they both feature on long-time staples that contribute to the keyword’s awareness in the Magic community.
What if a Creature Has Both Undying and Persist?
When two triggers happen at the same time, the player controlling those triggers chooses the order they go on the stack. Whichever ability you choose first resolves last when it comes to undying and persist. If you stack the abilities so that persist resolves first, the creature enters the battlefield with a -1/-1 counter. If you stack it in the reverse, it enters with a +1/+1 counter.
If you repeat this process with a creature that has a +1/+1 counter, you can choose to have persist resolve first to bring the creature back a second time with a -1/-1 counter. This can continue until the creature is removed from the graveyard with the triggers on the stack, or until the you decide to end the process by selecting the same trigger to resolve twice back-to-back.
Is Undying the Same as Regenerating?
Undying is not the same as regenerating. When a creature regenerates it’s tapped, removed from combat, and gets a regeneration shield that “pops” if that creature takes lethal damage. Undying requires the creature to die and then it re-enter the battlefield per the card’s instructions.
Does Undying Cause Summoning Sickness?
Yes, a creature that enters the battlefield after undying is a new game object. To attack, a game object must be on the battlefield under its controller’s possession during the untap step. Undying creatures without haste have summoning sickness when they come back from the graveyard just like any other creature would.
Do Effects Like Rest in Peace Stop Undying?
Yes, effects like Rest in Peace and Leyline of the Void replace the action of a creature going to the graveyard. The replacement effect states that if a card would go to the graveyard, exile it instead. Since the creature never reaches the graveyard, or more commonly known as dies, the Undying ability never triggers.
How Does The Ozolith Work with Undying?
This might get a little technical. The Ozolith says that whenever a creature you control with counters on it leaves the battlefield, put those counters on Ozolith. So when a creature dies, it goes to the graveyard and both undying and Ozolith try to trigger. When multiple triggers want to happen at the same time, you use the last known information to make sure they get the right details. In this case, what the status of the creature was regarding the counters on it.
So what happens if a creature with undying and a +1/+1 counter dies with Ozolith out?
First, the creature tells the game it needs to die via state-based actions. Once state-based actions are successfully checked, the card moves to the graveyard. Then Ozolith and undying check to see if they should go onto the stack. Ozolith sees there was a counter of some type on the creature leaving the battlefield, so it announces a desire to trigger. Undying, on the other hand, sees that the creature has a +1/+1 counter and doesn’t trigger since the creature doesn’t meet its restrictions.
But if the creature had a -1/-1 counter on it instead, both abilities would trigger. It wouldn’t matter which order you stack them since they’re both using the last known information. The creature would re-enter the battlefield with a +1/+1 counter and Ozolith would get its -1/-1 counter.
Gallery and List of Undying Cards
- Butcher Ghoul
- Demonlord of Ashmouth
- Evernight Shade
- Flayer of the Hatebound
- Garbage Elemental (B)
- Geralf's Messenger
- Geralf's Mindcrusher
- Hound of Griselbrand
- Mikaeus, the Unhallowed
- Nearheath Stalker
- Pyreheart Wolf
- Relentless Skaabs
- Sightless Ghoul
- Stormbound Geist
- Strangleroot Geist
- Treacherous Pit-Dweller
- Vengeful Vampire
- Young Wolf
Best Undying Cards
Mikaeus, the Unhallowed
Mikaeus, the Unhallowed grows your other non-human creatures while also giving them all undying. This can make wraths effects useless along with putting a huge clock on your opponent. It’s especially good against Humans since Mikaeus destroys any Human that deals damage to you.
Flayer of the Hatebound
Flayer of the Hatebound deals damage equal to its power to any target when it enters the battlefield from your graveyard. This means that your 5/3 creature also gets to Lava Axe any target after undeath.
What’s more, this ability triggers any time a creature you control enters the battlefield from your graveyard, and it uses that creature’s power for the damage. This means that reanimator strategies can use Flayer to deal huge chunks of damage to players while executing their main gameplan. In more corner case scenarios, cards like Return to the Ranks or Rally the Ancestors can lead to instant kills with Flayer.
Geralf's Messenger causes a target opponent to lose two life when it enters the battlefield. It deals four damage between entering the first time and from the graveyard since it has undying.
But what if you could get it to keep recurring by removing the +1/+1 counter before it died? Well, then you could easily kill any number of players. This value card that can one-shot players with a little help historically has the most consistent play of any of the undying creatures, especially in aggressive decks like Rakdos () during Innistrad-Mirrodin Standard.
Decklist: Undying Yawgmoth in Modern
Strangleroot Geist | Illustration by Jason Chan
Modern Yawgmoth uses the deck’s namesake card, Yawgmoth, Thran Physician, and the several undying creatures to loop drawing cards, draining your opponent of life, and clearing the path for lethal by shrinking opposing creatures. While most undying creatures have a hard time finding a place in higher powered formats (even with the release of Modern Horizons 2), Yawgmoth continues to shine as a top tier deck with staples like Young Wolf and Strangleroot Geist.
Geralf's Messenger | Illustration by Kev Walker
Undying is a mechanic that feels fleshed out about as well as anyone could hope for such a simple ability. It works well, it’s easily understood, and it has enough power to see Modern play as a synergy element. I’ve enjoyed using undying creatures since they were first printed, but I haven’t had any strong desire to see Wizards explore that design space anymore.
Undying is a good mechanic that lacks the punch to become a staple in design. I’d be interested to see what could change to create more decision-based gameplay if we were to revisit it in the future, but I’ll just enjoy the 21 cards we have and move on to newer mechanics as it sits.
Let me know what your favorite undying creatures are and where you’ve played with them. Were you like me and played DKA draft all the way through Modern, or did you learn about the undying creatures later in their time in Magic? Pop your answers in the comments down below or find us over on the official Draftsim Discord.
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