Last updated on May 31, 2022
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.
Ready to learn more about it? Let’s dive right 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. There are still no green pips on any of these cards and the white is only printed on multicolored cards, which makes thematic sense.
There are 26 cards with unearth in total. Let’s dig them up and see if there’s any life left in this mechanic. Most of my comments on these cards is directed toward Commander.
Best Blue Unearth Cards
#4. Brackwater Elemental
Brackwater Elemental doesn’t quite synergize with any elementals deck and these kinds of effects are just about the only bad sacrifice triggers in the game.
#3. Kathari Screecher
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.
Kathari Screecher? Not so delicious in its double vanilla state.
#2. Kederekt Leviathan
Get rekt! Kederekt Leviathan returns everything, even your stuff, which is either better or worse than an overloaded Cyclonic Rift depending on what your deck is doing. Less elegant in its effect than other giant blue monsters that bounce the table like Scourge of Fleets or Slinn Voda, the Rising Deep, but being able to self-mill this and look around the table menacingly is a potential course of politics for fun and profit.
All these unearth cards are weak to graveyard hate since they can only be cast from the graveyard at sorcery speed, but there are a lot worse things to mill. And you probably (definitely, maybe) want this in your Runo Stromkirk deck.
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 Reveka, Wizard Savant, Stitcher Geralf, or Merieke Ri Berit as commanders or, for Fatestitcher, as a special case in Prime Speaker Vannifar decks. This card has a lot of potential since it can unearth with haste on a later turn for that crucial untap.
Best Black Unearth Cards
#10. Undead Leotau
The art 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 Unead Leotau‘s stats and ability and says the same thing.
#9. Dregscape Zombie
This little dude can be unearthed on the cheap. You might want that in a Wilhelt, the Rotcleaver deck if you’re hungry for triggers, especially if you’re using a lot of self mill. But there are so many good zombie 2-drops and it’s hard to imagine Dregscape Zombie making the cut.
#8. Grixis Slavedriver
#7. Archfiend of Sorrows
Archfiend of Sorrows is pretty expensive and underwhelming for a wrath ETB, even if you’re playing a Kaalia of the Vast deck. If you’re doing Liliana’s Contract things then you’re already doing enough Bubbling Muck things to cast just about anything in your deck. Maybe this would work there? But even then there are better things to do with the mana.
#6. First-Sphere Gargantua
#5. Viscera Dragger
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.
Is this good enough for a cycling deck in Commander? Hard to say given that the best cycling Commander is Gavi, Nest Warden in Jeskai () colors. If they ever print a decent commander for black cyclers with a place to put your Archfiend of Ifnir and Scion of Darkness, this probably goes in that deck.
#4. Rotting Rats
I mean, yeah, you’re going to put Rotting Rats in the discard Commander decks you bring to punish the table for whatever they did to you last week (Tergrid, God of Fright players). Self-mill is also decent in zombie tribal, right?
#3. Extractor Demon
Extractor Demon and a few other unearth cards can be used in dredge decks, but that hardly seems the best use of those broken dredge cards. It seems wicked in a Syr Konrad, the Grim deck, mostly to keep milling yourself.
#2. Dregscape Sliver
#1. Corpse Connoisseur
Best Red Unearth Cards
#3. Hell’s Thunder | Hellspark Elemental
Hell’s Thunder: Eight mana. Eight damage… maybe. But I’m not feeling it.
Hellspark Elemental: Four mana. Six damage. Maybe.
#2. Scourge Devil
#1. Vithian Stinger
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, Vithian Stinger could be good. You know you’d like that ability lying around if you’re running a self-mill version of Rakdos, Lord of Riots.
Best Multicolor Unearth Cards
#8. Shambling Remains
Not being able to block is always worse than you think it’ll be when you look at the mana values on Shambling Remains.
#7. Etherium Abomination
These cards are just getting worse, aren’t they? Sorry. I’m a completionist.
But Etherium Abomination‘s art is kinda boss, isn’t it?
#6. Fire-Field Ogre
Fire-Field Ogre. Why?
#5. Sedraxis Specter
It feels like the text box on this card 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.”
#4. Kathari Bomber
Kathari Bomber seems not terrible in Lyzolda, the Blood Witch decks if you decide to pull Lyzolda out of the 99 in your better aristocrats decks and build an underpowered version of the archetype. It’s a shaman if you’ve got some kind of Harmonic Prodigy deck with, I dunno, maybe Sek’Kuar, Deathkeeper as your commander?
#2. Sedris, the Traitor King
Sedris, the Traitor King is the unearth tribal commander!
Sedris’ most common build seems to be to abuse the unearth mechanic by running cards preventing the exile trigger from resolving at the end of a card’s unearthed turn. There are three ways this happens (sacrificing or bouncing won’t help stop the exile clause).
The first is to use cards like Discontinuity, Sundial of the Infinite, and 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, where it goes back into the graveyard to be unearthed again.
The second is with phasing effects like Teferi’s Veil.
The third, and perhaps easiest to do, is with flicker effects. As the ruling states:
If a creature returned to the battlefield with unearth would leave the battlefield 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, it succeeds at exiling it. If it later returns the creature card to the battlefield (as Oblivion Ring or Flickerwisp might, for example), the creature card will return to the battlefield as a new object with no relation to its previous existence. The unearth effect will no longer apply to it.WotC
#1. Priest of Fell Rites
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 holds 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.
You know you want this in most Orzhov () Commander decks, and it looks like quite a lot of folks are buffing up their Sefris of the Hidden Ways precon decks with this Priest.
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’s a reason Organ Hoarder was busted in Midnight Hunt Draft. You take three cards. One goes into your hand and the other two in the graveyard. But with enough disturb and flashback cards in your deck you could potentially put two castable cards in the graveyard, which feels like drawing three cards! Sure, the casting costs for those abilities is higher, but the cards are now playable instead of lurking in your library.
The same is true for unearth cards. 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. And 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 if you absolutely need to land a creature for a trigger or a combo, these are your friends.
Is Unearth Good?
Vithian Stinger | Illustration by Dave Kendall
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?
For a creature to die it has to be put into the graveyard, but since unearth effects send it to exile instead then the act of dying never happens. Confusing, I know, but that’s Magic for ya.
What if an Unearthed Creature Dies?
Exile! Hey, on the bright side, that helps you activate Dreadlight Monstrosity!
No takers on that?
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.
It would be a mistake to assume that the newest mechanic in this space, disturb, is the last word on the issue. I’d imagine we’ll see unearth again. Powerful effects can be put on unearth cards since they’ll eventually be exiled. Few existing unearth cards hit that power level, but there’s some intriguing utility in the 26 cards we have for Commander brewers. I imagine more arrivals in this space in the years to come.
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 down 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: