Last updated on January 25, 2023
Priest of Fell Rites | Illustration by Pauline Voss
All the way back in Magic’s first set there was Animate Dead. Reanimating a card from a graveyard is card neutral, even if it’s often very powerful. Another card in Alpha, Nether Shadow, spontaneously raised itself from the dead when certain conditions were met. If you could build a deck to meet those conditions a lot (easier said than done) then you’d get a card on the table for free, which is a kind of card advantage.
But what if you as a player had a bit more agency in that scenario? That’s the kind of question great game design always asks, which leads us to unearth the unearth mechanic. A mechanic mostly unused until The Warhammer 40k Commander precons and The Brothers’ War dug it up, unearth has proved a popular solution to the problem of graveyard recursion.
Ready to learn more about it? Let’s, um, dig in!
What Is Unearth in MTG?
Fatestitcher | Illustration by E. M. Gist
Unearth is a keyword ability on creatures that returns it to the battlefield, gives it haste, and then exiles it at the end of the turn (or if it would die before the end of the turn). You can only unearth at sorcery speed.
Unearth was first seen in Shards of Alara in Grixis () colors, which then expanded to include white when it showed up again in Modern Horizons 2 and green with The Brothers’ War.
There are 53 cards with unearth in total. A lot of the unearth cards from The Brothers’ War are colorless artifacts, but I’ve sorted them into colors based on their Commander color identity from the unearth pips. Let’s dig ’em up!
Best White Unearth Cards
All of these are from The Brothers’ War.
Some odd ducks in these waters.
In the world of baked goods, there’s vanilla extract and double fold vanilla extract with twice as much vanilla. It makes for delicious ice cream. I’m sure Kathari Screecher screams for it.
Fatestitcher gets a lot of utility out of being cheaper to cast if it’s milled. Untappers are always useful whether straight up in decks with commanders like Reveka, Wizard Savant, Stitcher Geralf, or Merieke Ri Berit as commanders, or as special case in Prime Speaker Vannifar decks for Fatestitcher.
The art on Undead Leotau is pretty gnarly and makes the eight year old inside you who believed in monsters under the bed go, “nope!” The deckbuilder in you looks at the stats and ability and says the same thing.
Grixis Slavedriver isn’t good enough for a 6-drop.
#18. Rotting Rats
Meh. But fyi, Rotting Rats is a zombie, which matters to some of you.
I want Ashnod’s Harvester to be good, but I think it’s not.
Terror Ballista may be the most underwhelming rare in The Brothers’ War.
I kind of hate Tomb Blade? If your opponent has a big board, they sac a token. If they have one fatty, they take one more damage.
Viscera Dragger is a zombie with cycling if you’re looking at Hour of Eternity-style decks. The unearth allows you to sneak in an ETB and then a zombie death trigger for Wilhelt, the Rotcleaver, Undead Augur, and a buffet of other zombie deck cards.
So maybe Archfiend of Sorrows will have the last laugh?
Extractor Demon seems wicked in a Syr Konrad, the Grim deck, mostly to keep milling yourself. And you’re probably already running Altar of Dementia in a Sidisi, Brood Tyrant deck, and this is one more way to pop off with that.
#5. Skorpekh Lord
Skorpekh Lord will just sit in the graveyard and promise death in a go-wide artifacts deck. How often will you see that death? Once in, say, 40k games?
A few key cards amongst the red chaff.
Is there something about Heavyweight Demolisher I’m missing? Why play this?
#8. Hell’s Thunder
Hell’s Thunder. One card. Two turns. Eight mana. Eight damage.
Hellspark Elemental: One card. Two turns. Four mana. Six damage. Maybe!
#6. Mishra’s Juggernaut
It lurked in the graveyards of The Brothers’ War Limited to Lightning Axe the face of foes with creatureless boards. I don’t usually want that in Commander, and Mishra’s Juggernaut has one pip too many to play in soon-to-be Graaz, Unstoppable Juggernaut tribal.
#4. Artificer’s Dragon
Artificer’s Dragon seems cool but for, say, eight mana(?!) you can unearth this and give your team of robots a +3 tramples-less. Not so much.
Trade it to a Timmy/Tammy in your life who likes big dragon art.
A Prodigal Sorcerer isn’t quite the thing these days, but if you think about being able to spend two and ping a target for one damage from the graveyard, well that could be good.
Scrapwork Mutt and Bitter Reunion are upgrades to Thrill of Possibility-types of cards in decks that card about artifacts or enchantments or haste. That’s not great in EDH, but ya boy Jan Jansen, Chaos Crafter likes this just fine, thanks.
#1. Phyrexian Dragon Engine
Sure, Phyrexian Dragon Engine is bonkers in a Mishra, Lost to Phyrexia deck where it waits in the graveyard for the melding magic to happen. But this is better than Ox of Agonas even in other decks as EDH games speed up.
This color didn’t unearth until The Brothers’ War, and both of these are decent!
We keep waiting for green artifacts to hit critical mass. Mask of the Jadecrafter belongs in that deck when it does.
Simian Simulacrum is a great rate for a deck that likes +1/+1 counters.
Two great cards (along with a bit of chaff).
These cards are just getting worse, aren’t they? Sorry. I’m a completionist. The art on Etherium Abomination is kinda boss, though, eh?
Fire-Field Ogre: why? Discuss.
It feels like the text box on Sedraxis Specter should actually say, “whenever Sedraxis Specter deals damage to a Magic boomer, that player discards a card and begins telling a story about the first time they played against Hypnotic Specter in the 90s.”
Kathari Bomber seems not terrible in Lyzolda, the Blood Witch decks and it’s a shaman. It could work if you’ve got some kind of Harmonic Prodigy deck with, I dunno, maybe Sek’Kuar, Deathkeeper as commander?
Sedris, the Traitor King is the unearth tribal commander!
Sedris’ most common build seems to be abusing the unearth mechanic by running cards that prevent the exile trigger at the end of a card’s unearthed turn from resolving. There are three ways this happens most often (note that sacrificing or bouncing won’t help stop the exile clause).
The first is to use cards like Discontinuity, Sundial of the Infinite, or Obeka, Brute Chronologist to end the turn before the beginning of the next end step when the trigger would resolve. Then the cardboard stays on the table until it dies when it goes back into the graveyard to be unearthed again.
The second is with phasing effects like Teferi’s Veil.
If a creature returned to the battlefield by the unearth ability would leave it for any reason, it’s exiled instead—unless the spell or ability that’s causing the creature to leave the battlefield is actually trying to exile it. In that case, the spell or ability succeeds at exiling the creature. If the spell or ability later returns the creature card to the battlefield (as Ephemerate might, for example), the creature card will return as a new object with no relation to its previous existence. The unearth effect will no longer apply to it.Archfiend of Sorrows Gatherer Rulings
Boom goes the dynamite.
Priest of Fell Rites‘ thing is reanimating Phyrexians and Eldrazi all over Historic as early as turn 3. Its unearth cost is less efficient than Unburial Rites, but it nicely shrugs off the Negate or Spell Pierce your opponent was holding up.
And if an opponent is holding up instant-speed removal like Infernal Grasp, that doesn’t stop the unearthed creature from tapping to do its reanimation effect because you have priority after the unearth resolves to tap your hasty Priest.
Colorless unearth was recently added to the mix, and one of these is boom-tastic.
Reconstructed Thopter is filler.
Best Unearth Payoffs
Unearth cards aren’t easily abused. The unearth casting cost tends to be costed knowing that these are “free” cards (just like flashback) and gets in the way of really slimy things you might do. Still, there are a few places these cards fit nicely.
There are a few cards that expand the horizon of unearth to other cards. Added to a few already on this list there’s Fallaji Antiquarian in Alchemy as well as Ghost Ark, Meticulous Excavation, Mishra, Tamer of Mak Fawa, and Solemn Doomguide.
The potential to create a more holistic deck out of abusing unearth triggers in there. Each of the cards on this list gets better the more realistic that deck becomes.
Whether it’s zombie tribal, Syr Konrad, the Grim, dredge, delve, escape, or other things that want to fill the graveyard, these cards have a lot of utility. They’re exiled at the end of the turn, but you get a leaving-the-graveyard trigger, an ETB trigger, and a leaves-play trigger. Each of those effects can be relevant if you’re running a deck that likes self-mill.
Desperate Anti-Counterspell Commander Metas
Although you can only unearth at sorcery speed, it isn’t a sorcery. Like disturb or embalm or any of those sorts of effects, you can only counter it with Stifle effects. There are only so many of those. So if you’re in a Commander playgroup with lots and lots of blue permission, these cards can help you get something on the board, at least for a turn.
Is that enough? Probably not. But these are your friends if you absolutely need to land a creature for a trigger or a combo.
Is Unearth Good?
Unearth is probably just strictly worse than its closest cousins embalm, eternalize, and disturb because it usually only gives you back your creature temporarily. But it’s more useful than other graveyard effects like persist and undying in a self-mill build because those effects trigger on creature death, while unearth works as long as the card is in the graveyard.
Does Unearth Count as Casting a Spell?
Is Unearth a Sorcery?
Unearth isn’t a spell, so it’s also not a sorcery. But it can only be done at sorcery speed. This means you can’t unearth on an opponent’s turn, even if you’ve ticked up your Teferi, Time Raveler.
Is Unearth an Activated Ability?
The activated ability of unearthing only functions while the card is in the graveyard, but that wouldn’t stop you from running Zirda, the Dawnwaker as a companion if that somehow made sense for a deck.
Does Unearth Prevent “Dies” Effects?
Nope. Sorry. If an unearthed creature were to die, it would be exiled. So you can sacrifice it but it would immediately be exiled and not hit the graveyard a second time. It would also be exiled if you were to try to bounce it.
What if an Unearthed Creature Dies?
Exile! Hey, on the bright side, that helps you activate Dreadlight Monstrosity!
No takers on that?
Unburying the Lede
Hell’s Thunder | Illustration by Karl Kopinski
Magic has run through quite a few activated abilities that allow you to pop creatures in some form out of the graveyard onto the battlefield. How those creatures work after that and how much it might cost to get there are knobs Wizards keeps fiddling with.
Given unearth’s recent popularity I imagine we’ll see it again. Recent powerful unearth cards like Priest of Fell Rites and Cityscape Leveler demonstrate that its weakness is its strength. Powerful effects can be put on unearth cards since they’re eventually exiled. There’s a lot of interesting stuff in these cards, and I imagine even more cool stuff in this space in the future.
What do you think about the unearth cards? Do you agree with my rankings? Which one is your favorite, or your most hated? Let me know in the comments below or over on Draftsim’s Twitter.
That’s all I have for you today. Stay safe, stay healthy, and wash your hands!Follow Draftsim for awesome articles and set updates: