Pattern Recognition #122 - Morph

Features Opinion Pattern Recognition


5 September 2019


Hello everyone, and welcome back to Pattern Recognition, TappedOut.Net's longest running article series. Written by myself, berryjon, I aim to bring to my reading audience each week a different look into some aspect of Magic: The Gathering - be it an individual card, a mechanic, a theme, or even just general history. I am something of an Old Fogey and Smart Ass, so please take what I say with a grain of salt. I enjoy a good discussion on the relevant subject matter!

So, today is going to be the last of my reviews of the four Commander Mechanics from this year, and I've saved Morph for last partly because I already did it. But, that was two-ish years ago, so perhaps time, experience and a couple more cards with the mechanic will make for a better article.

On the flavour, Morph started out back in the Onslaught Block as part of the Riptide Project, or rather, as an unintended consequence of it. You see, while the Riptide project was working on the creatures they were examining, part of their containment procedures involved utilizing the nature of the creatures to determine their limits. Essentially, and this was a pretty neat way to incorporate some of the tribal aspects of the two blocks - Odyssey and Onslaught - The Riptide project utilized a Creature's subtype on its card to help contain it.

And a couple of their projects were the Mistform, like the Mistform Ultimus, which could be any creature, and Slivers.

Now, if anyone knows anything about Slivers, it is that you do not want many of them in one place as they tend to grow in power geometrically with the number of Slivers around. And so, when one of them got close enough to the Mistform Ultimus to learn how to copy other creature types, well, containment was broken. The Slivers could 'morph' themselves into something without type, and when you're depending on creature types for your holding pens, this kinda breaks interactions.

So the Slivers escaped, the Riptide project burned down (well, as much burning as could be done underwater) and the Morph mechanic escaped into the wilds of Otaria and from there, spread out to the whole of Dominaria.

However, Morph is also from Tarkir. Here, the flavour is a bit more abstract, given the other variations that I will be talking about later in this article. But here, the idea of the "Morph" is that it is one of the legacy magics of the deceased Dragons, a way to remove all context from something, much as Ugin, the Ineffable can sorta do thanks to being outside of the relevant block.

I will get to the others later. So please don't worry.

But now, onto Commander 2019. With the face Commander of Kadena, Slinking Sorcerer, Morph has a dedicated Commander that isn't Animar, Soul of Elements. Being a Commander in already gives me pause because they're the three strongest colours in the format, but the focus on Morph, along with the new cards to support the mechanic, actually makes this a very solid mechanic that we can depend on in the future.

Let me explain here. When you cast a creature with Morph, you have the option to pay rather than the actual casting cost of the creature. If you do, you put it into play face down, where it is a 2/2 nameless, typeless, ability-less creature. At any time, you may pay the creature's Morph cost to flip the creature over (from face down to face up).

It's very simple in design, but the execution has a lot going for it. First is the matter of timing. And I raise this point first because it's the single most important aspect of the whole mechanic.

Flipping a Morph does not use the Stack. It is a Special Action that simply happens. You can't counter it. You can't react to it. You pay the cost, flip over your Morph and that's that. No arguments about it.

This ability to bypass the Stack allows it to do things like being able to flip over Willbender in response to Sudden Spoiling when the latter has Split Second is not something that can be denied.

This is Morphs first and arguable most powerful ability. That is, the capacity for creatures with Morph to have a Response / Resurgence to an effect cannot be understated. In fact, I can even try to overstate it!

You see, a lot of Morph creatures have an ability that reads "When this card is turned face up, do this thing." While this may seem like your typical Enters the Battlefield ability, it is, in fact, quite not. These are creatures that have an ability, sure, but in a way, they are simultaneously a creature on the battlefield as a 2/2 for and a spell in your hand that you've already cast, but haven't paid for yet.

Morph creatures that are on the battlefield are the threat of more spells (or rather, spell-like abilities) that can be 'cast' faster than cards with Flash! The above example of Willbender is one of the more powerful effects, but I have gotten good usage out of Fortune Thief and its static effect, used Brine Elemental to punish a player for tapping out on someone else's turn, and beyond.

What I mean to say is that I like Morph as a mechanic, and I enjoy using it. It creates a degree of known unknowns that is hard to replicate given the design of the game.

But there is an aspect to this surprise flipping that I would like to address. You see, while I have focused a bit on the spell-like abilities of the Morphs, these are still - with three exceptions of Zoetic Cavern, Whetstone , Lumithread Field and Gift of Doom - creatures. And for the vast majority of these creatures, their power and toughness are less than the 2/2 of the Morph itself!

Fortune Thief is a 0/1. A 0/1! After all, you were flipping a Morph for the ability, right?

Not any more! Even in the Odyssey Block, there were creatures that were Morphs that were meant and designed to be 'trap' cards. No, not the Yu-Gi-Oh thing, or the mechanic from Zendikar. Rather, these were cards that were meant to be thrown into combat, and the defender - or attacker! - would have no idea what they were, if they were grand bluffs or something more sinister.

The largest of all these was the mighty, and still largest creature that isn't a token, Krosan Cloudscraper. Well, that isn't an Eldrazi like Emrakul, the Aeons Torn or Green's general love with big creatures like Impervious Greatwurm or Worldspine Wurm.

But more to that, there were cards that not only became effectively bigger, but also presented inherent combat tricks to the whole process! Ainok Tracker for example, goes from a vanilla 2/2 to being a 3/3 with First Strike. Defender of the Order casts Shield Wall for the same converted cost. Foothill Guide has Protection from Goblins of all things (thanks to being in a Tribal block). Icefeather Aven bounces a creature... the effects are boundless in application when you step back and think about what happens when you can create "Enters the Battlefield" effects that can occur when the creature is already in play!

Now, not all is well with Morphs. I mean, yeah, sure, they are cheap creatures with interesting effects, but back when the mechanic was first starting out, the regualr cost for the Morph creature could be a little ... excessive. Look at Scornful Egotist for example. You can either cast it as a Morph for , then turn it face up for or you could hard-cast this 1/1 with no other abilities for ... ? Seriously? I mean, yeah, I've talked about alternate casting costs in the past to show why cars with such costs tend to be a bit overpriced in order to encourage the alternate cost, but this is kinda ridiculous!

And then you get cards like Treespring Lorian, whose casting and Morph costs are the same! The costs are all over the place, and it's so hard to gage the value you get when you flip a Morph over when compared to the cost of just casting them outright for the static ability they may have.

But that's enough of that. Let's go back to where I promised you guys that I would also talk about the two variations on Morph, both coming out of the Khans of Tarkir Block. The first is Manifest from the set Fate Reforged. In this, we see the 'prototype' of Morph in action with the slightly less-developed draconic magics. In this, you're not casting a creature face down onto the battlefield, rather you are taking a chance on the top card of your library.

You see, Manifest takes the top card of your library - or in some cases like Reality Shift - someone else's library and turns it into a 2/2 creature. Now, what's the difference you might be asking?

Well, if the card is a creature already, you can flip it over by paying its Morph cost like it was a Morph regularly. Or, if it doesn't have the Morph ability, you can pay its actual casting cost to flip the creature over. You don't get any fancy Entering the Battlefield effects though.

However, if the Manifest isn't a Creature? If it's a basic land, or a Planeswalker or anything else that isn't a Creature, then you're out of luck! You can't flip over a Manifest card in those cases unless you have some other method of doing so, such as flickering the card. Of course, the game really doesn't like Instants and Sorceries on the battlefield, and they go into the graveyard if you do somehow manage to turn one face up after it has been manifested.

This mechanic allows you to put more creatures into play, converting non-creatures into 2/2's at the expense of not being able to use those non-creatures properly or without jumping through some annoying hoops.

The other variation is Megamorph. From Dragons of Tarkir, this represents the might that comes from the Dragons being able to properly develop their magical technique, empowering those creatures who are first Morphed. In mechanical terms, this means that when a creature with Megamorph is turned face up, you put a +1/+1 counter on it. My personal favourite in this regard is Gudul Lurker, a staple of my then-Standard Aggro deck.

In terms of the mechanical difference, there is none between Morph and Megamorph and Manifest. The speed to flip over the card is the same, the way to pay is the same (aside from the small difference of what the cards are when they are face down) and one just makes the creature bigger when it is flipped over. They are all the same mechanic under it all, a way to make Camouflage and Illusionary Mask work in more simple and concrete terms.

But underneath even that, I think Morph is a mechanic of deception. By introducing 'known unknowns' into the game - that being when a person plays a Morph, you can have an educated guess about what it might be by their mana base, and can plan around the idea that there is something there that needs to be dealt with sooner or later - you can make 'known' plans around an 'unknown' on the battlefield.

Morph is a solid mechanic. It's not perfect by any means, but it is a reliable one that can perform a wide variety of functions in the game, something that I think makes it a good idea. But this also isn't a mechanic that can be the centerpiece of a set or block, rather it best serves as a supplement. Morphs/Manifests are, relatively speaking, fairly fragile creatures and as the game progresses, there become more and more options to deal with them. In addition, you still have to hold mana up to Morph creatures in the first place, so that's a wash except in control decks.

Its inclusion as a Commander Mechanic is something I liked as well, given the options available for Morphs and how they act. The available creatures and the new options out of that deck have certainly helped reinforce the idea that Morphs and the like are a viable strategy in Commander - thought I wouldn't exactly call them 'Tier 1'.

I like, and I want to see more in the future. Please, Wizards? Can you make this happen?

Join me next week when I summarize my first two weeks of this year's Slow Grow Tournament. I go in directions I'm not normally comfortable with, but hey, it's a learning thing, right?

Until then, please consider donating to my Pattern Recognition Patreon. Yeah, I have a job, but more income is always better. I still have plans to do a audio Pattern Recognition at some point, or perhaps a Twitch stream. And you can bribe your way to the front of the line to have your questions, comments and observations answered!

This article is a follow-up to Pattern Recognition 121 - Flashback The next article in this series is Pattern Recognition #123 - Slow Grow Vol 2, Part 1

The5lacker says... #1

Something to note, if you would turn a manifested Instant or Sorcery face up, it DOES NOT GO TO THE GRAVEYARD. Instead it is revealed to be a non-permanent, and placed back face down as if nothing happened.

September 5, 2019 8:05 p.m.

Skoodly says... #2

Small typo, think you meant to say Lumithread Field rather than Lumifield Thread

September 7, 2019 7:38 p.m.

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