Welcome to Manifest Week! Manifest is one of the most crazy and interesting mechanics we've seen in a while. When you take a minute to think about it, it's primarily a Limited mechanic. There are a few cards that will likely see Constructed play, but all of the manifest cards have seen play in Limited by now. Some in heavy rotation, others less so.
We'll go over a few notable manifest cards that I have selected a bit later, but for now I'd like to think about manifest from a bigger-picture perspective.
The first thing that you learn after playing it for a while, is that once on the board, a manifest creature is not as important as a morph creature. They are functionally the same on the battlefield, but we know that the morph can turn up to be a creature (even if we don't know which one it is exactly). The manifest, on the other hand, could be a harmless land or spell that can't be turned face up.
Looking a bit closer, an average Limited deck in this format will have about eighteen lands and around fifteen creatures. That leaves approximately seven slots for instants, sorceries, artifacts, etc.
This means that we have around a 37% chance of the manifest card actually being a creature. As we said before, the chance of a morph being a creature is 100%, so a morph creature gets priority when it comes to using removal or blocking. We can even whittle down the 37% number further if we consider that cards like Take Up Arms, Hordeling Outburst, and many of the manifest cards act as creatures when we play them, but in fact aren't actually creatures capable of being turned face up from manifest mode.
In some decks, the number could be closer to around 30%. Sometimes the manifest cards feel even scarier than their morph counterparts, since they could be any big bomb or morph creature, but if you are faced with a decision to kill a morph or a manifest creature, the numbers say to kill the morph.
But that's not the end of that story. The fact that any creature can be lurking as a face-down manifest creature makes life kind of scary when you are playing against one. There are some crazy interactions possible, in fact.
You do have to get a little lucky to have the following cards as face-down manifest creatures, but it does happen.
For example: our old friend Master of Pearls. Because giving your whole team +2/+2 at uncounterable, faster-than-instant-speed for five mana wasn't quite good enough, now we get to do it for the low, low price of just two mana! I haven't actually done this myself, but I have seen it happen and it didn't seem all too fair, if I'm honest.
This one isn't quite the blowout that Master of Pearls can be, but boy is it hard to play around. If you've played much Khans of Tarkir Limited, you already know how powerful Ruthless Ripper can be. This is kind of like that, except even harder to detect. The best part about this combo is that your opponent will often not figure out what you have under there until it's too late.
Your opponent attacks with a morph or big creature, you block with your manifest. Your opponent unmorphs, feeling pretty great, since you only have the one black mana available…and once you tap it your opponent knows he or she is losing the creature (and probably a turn's worth of mana) in the process. It's great.
Kheru Spellsnatcher is kind of a double whammy because it's a rare, so they never see it coming, and also because it's such a game-ender if you get to "steal" a key spell for just four mana. This one I have personally pulled off, and it feels fantastic. They just never see it coming. The normal game plan with Kheru Spellsnatcher is to get the board state either at parity or where you are ahead, and then just leave up the six mana forever.
With manifest, you can be much more proactive about firing off the Spellsnatcher as a midgame tempo play. It's very difficult to recover for your opponent as you have effectively gotten both mana and card advantage at the same time. Also, the 3/3 body is more relevant in the middle part of the game than it typically is in the later sections of the game.
I'll admit we are going a bit deep here, but why not, it has to happen sometime right? So you find yourself with a manifested Hooded Hydra and two spare green mana. Next you find yourself with a 5/5 Snake Hydra ready to wreak havoc on your opponent.
It's nothing too elaborate, but the idea of flipping up a 5/5 for two mana is appealing in a more direct, beefy way.
Besides severely undercosted face-up payments, there are other interactions that pop up only because of manifest.
My friend Woodrow (who we got some Sultai impressions from for Sultai Week) was playing in a Limited PPTQ last weekend while I was away covering Pro Tour Fate Reforged. While playing in the PPTQ he had cast Formless Nurturing to make a manifest with a +1/+1 counter on it, and had also cast a face-down morph.
His opponent had a manifest creature with two +1/+1 counters on it from Fierce Invocation. Woodrow passed the turn with just two mana available. His opponent untapped and played Grim Contest, trying to decide what to fight his 4/4 manifest creature up against. Deciding that Woodrow's 3/3 manifest was a big enough concern, he targeted it.
Woodrow paid two mana and turned this face up:
Ouch! This kind of crazy interaction just isn't possible without manifest.
Let's take a gander at some of the manifest cards from Fate Reforged and see how they have played out so far in the format.
I've been asked a few times already which of these is the best iteration of this cycle of "forms." They are pretty close in my mind, but I like Lightform a bit better. The upside on Cloudform is higher; if you get one of your bigger, better creatures under the enchantment, you will be firmly in the driver's seat for that game. But the upside on Lightform is pretty darned high as well, and its base form is usually better than that of Cloudform.
You can't go wrong with either of these, though, and I'd be happy to have either in my deck.
I've trained myself to respect cards like Sultai Emissary. They never look very good at first blush, but creatures that replace themselves usually pull their weight in Limited. Sultai Emissary is no exception; in fact it can be downright exceptional. This environment doesn't have a huge sacrifice or "when this dies" subtheme like we have seen in the past, but it does have a graveyard subtheme in the form of delve.
Also, sometimes you just need to block a huge dinosaur on the ground twice while your evasive threat gets the job done. They even made it a Warrior, as if we needed more incentive to play the card. Sultai Emissary overperforms every time I play it.
The best way to think of Write into Being is to think of it as a morph with upside and a color requirement. Normally, morphs are colorless, but since we have to play blue mana for this card, we get the upside of putting a card on the top or bottom of our library. (That may remind you of scry, which this is virtually doing.)
Our chances of finding a creature to manifest are much higher since we get to look at two cards instead of one. If your deck is in the market for a morph and can make blue mana, Write into Being is probably a better option. I also appreciate that it allows me to develop my board while smoothing out my draw and putting a card in my graveyard for delve.
Mastery of the Unseen is the type of card that typically gets overrated. It's so dominant in the board states where you are at parity with your opponent that it can shade how you feel about it when you are behind, or developing your board. Remember, the turn you cast it, it does nothing. You are six mana into the thing before you get your first 2/2 manifest creature, and a full ten mana in when you get your second. Not exactly efficient.
But here's the weird thing about Mastery of the Unseen: It's amazing. The card is just that good. What sets it apart from other similar cards from the past?
It's the lifegain clause you see written first in the text box. An unending supply of manifest creatures is great, provided you have the time to hit your land drops and not be dead. The lifegain from Mastery of the Unseen is what allows you to live long enough to capitalize on the manifest creatures. Once you start turning morphs or manifests face up and gaining 4, 5, 8 life per turn, the game quickly slips away from even the best decks.
At some point, your opponent has to stop attacking you, and then you get to decide if you want to continue to add to your board or to start turning creatures face up.
Another nice bonus for this card is that it absolutely annihilates slow, grindy, control decks. They can have all the walls and one-for-one removal they want; you only need one card to defeat them. They are simply too slow to overwhelm Mastery of the Unseen. So, instead, you overwhelm them.
Manifest has been a cool mechanic to play with. It's tricky, rarely overpowered, and can create great stories. I'm curious to see if and where they take this mechanic next.
Until next week!