X+1 Heads Are Better Than X

Posted in Savor The Flavor on July 1, 2009

By Doug Beyer

Senior creative designer on Magic's creative team and lover of writing and worldbuilding. Doug blogs about Magic flavor and story at http://dougbeyermtg.tumblr.com/

If you're like me, you enjoy the monsters.

I don't just mean attacking with creatures. That's excellent, of course, but it's just a subset of the gratification I'm talking about. I mean I enjoy them. They are welcome in my immediate vicinity. I find their company agreeable.

So if you're like me, the first time you saw your English lit textbook in high school, you flipped to the table of contents, saw that it had a chapter on Greek myths, got excited that you'd be covering stories of improbable mythical beasts in class, drew pictures of eminently Heracles-slayable monsters in the margins of your class notes, grumbled disappointedly when the teacher just skipped over the Greek myths chapter, and then read that chapter anyway while watching your beat-up old copy of Clash of the Titans on VHS, recorded off of TV. Yes.

If you're like me, you also goobed over the monsters way more than the Greek heroes or even the transmogrifying, busy-gettin' Olympians. Harry Hamlin was a gallant and manly Perseus and all, but mostly I wanted to hear about was the Kraken, and Medusa, and the giant scorpion—the whole stop-motion menagerie. I devoured legends of the Minotaur, of harpies and centaurs, and of the Phoenix and the Cyclops as imagination nourishment. I created grand doodles of these beasts fighting tiny warriors whose 80s bangs and chin-dimples bore suspicious resemblance to my own.

So if you're like me, you should be excited today. Today I talk about Magic 2010, and one beastie in particular: the one that reigned unbeatable in my notebook-paper scribblings, the one whose polycephaly gave rise to its fearsome reputation. YES—today we talk about a hydra. In fact, some folks in R&D have taken to calling it The Hydra.

The reason is resonance. We've been talking a lot about resonance on the site lately, which is when appealing fantasy flavor takes the driver's seat in card design. So before I unveil the card, I want to do an experiment. Let's put this card's top-down hydra-flavor to the test. Think back to your literature classes, your Mysteries of the Unknown Time-Life book series, or your viewings of Jason and the Argonauts, and answer me this question:

How does a hydra work?

What is its schtick? What is it about a hydra that makes it a hydra? What color should it be, and what should its mechanics do? Prepare your answer, then click here to see if this matches your Vorthosian intuitions.

If you're like me, you're thinking: NOW THAT IS A HYDRA. A few things are going on with the flavor here.

  • It's green. Although the original Rock Hydra was red, we've had more green hydras in recent years. Hydras are ferocious beasts that are suffused with the spirit of growth—which is pretty solidly green. In Magic, Hydras also tend to have Xs in their mana costs and be constructed of masses of +1/+1 counters, which goes hand-in-hand with the color of mana ramping and hugeifying creature modifications. For this to be a proper, classic hydra, we believed it needed to be green.
  • Its heads are represented by +1/+1 counters. This has been a feature of most of Magic's Hydras. Back in Alpha, Rock Hydra even busted out a delightful little parenthetical—it says "(heads)," which I find too endearing for words—in case you were confused about what was going on with all those plus-ones. These days it's par for the Hydra-designing course—and for good reason. The more heads, the stronger and more vicious the hydra. The more heads you chop off, the weaker the hydra gets. Tying the hydra's variable headedness with its variable counterness—and its variable counterness with its variable mana cost—is a classic design move that is still dead-on today.
  • Rock Hydra
  • Whenever it would take damage, it loses heads instead. This hasn't been consistent among historical hydras. When you hack away at Protean Hydra, you are explicitly chopping off its heads. Its heads are its strength, and it suffers as it loses them.
  • When you chop off a head, two grow back. Ho-lee crap. This is the Holy Grail of hydra flavor, and a serious piece of rules text technology besides. Other Hydras (Hydrae) have had head-regrowing abilities (Rock Hydra, Balduvian Hydra, Molten Hydra, and Feral Hydra) to put counters back on, but Protean Hydra has done what has always, to my mind, been the flavor of hydras: that they grow back their heads automatically after you hurt them, and they grow back two heads for every head you chop off
  • .
Balduvian Hydra
Feral Hydra

It's this runaway-head situation that is the dreadful, hero-testing part of facing a hydra. You're a mighty warrior with enchanted steel, and you whack and whack, on the theory that a sequence of nonlethal strikes will eventually result in your victory—but you just aren't making any (forgive me) headway. All you end up with is an even scarier hydra than you started with.

Someone should post a sign outside the hydra's lair: "PLEASE DO NOT PING THE HYDRA."

Dead-on flavor? Check.

Also, a pretty freaking awesome card. Checkity check.

Protean Hydra in Action

Before you go filling your pool with hydra-summoning mana, there are some things you should know.

In most cases, non-lethal damage simply gets "tacked on." If you're having a hard time figuring out the head-count (and it can be a head-scratcher), Protean Hydra's abilities work like this. Say you have a 4/4 Protean Hydra. Your opponent, in a horrendous lapse of judgment, Lightning Bolts it. Instead of taking 3 points of damage, the Hydra loses three +1/+1 counters, becoming a 1/1—and the game sets up delayed triggered abilities to go off at the end of the turn (your turn or your opponent's, doesn't matter—they'll trigger at the end of any turn in which Protean Hydra has had counters removed). Now the end step rolls around. When those delayed triggers resolve, assuming Protean Hydra is still around, the game counts how many +1/+1 counters the Hydra has lost and puts on twice as many. In our Lightning Bolt example, the Hydra lost three +1/+1 counters, and so the game puts on twice that many—six. It becomes a 7/7. That's a lotta heads—thanks for the Bolt, mister! Heads-up play, etc ....

If the Hydra doesn't die and nothing weird is going on, at the end of every turn, the Hydra gains in size what it lost in "damage." It takes 3 damage? It ends up +3/+3 bigger. It takes 8 damage? It ends up 8 counters bigger (again, assuming it survives). Different sources of damage will set up different numbers of delayed triggers, but as long as they don't add up to a dead Hydra, they will all count. Our 4/4 Hydra gets pinged for 1 damage by a Prodigal Pyromancer, and then eats a two-point Consume Spirit in the same turn? Multiple triggers at the end of the turn, resulting in, again, a 7/7 Hydra. Heady stuff.

Prodigal Pyromancer
Honden of Infinite Rage

You can, of course, damage your own Hydra as you like. Scorch it with your own Prodigal Pyromancer or Honden of Infinite Rage, or infect it with just enough Pestilence so it'll grow and flourish. Let Aether Flash beat up your X=3 Hydra, and you'll get a 5/5 Hydra out of the deal. Use Doubling Season to turbo-inject your head production engine. My favorite might be Fatal Attraction—your Hydra will start taking blasts of 4 delicious damage every turn! With hydras, as with gardening, judicious pruning ensures the health of the organism.

Doubling Season
Fatal Attraction

Lethal damage still kills it. Note that if someone manages to chop off all of Protean Hydra's heads at one go, or all in one turn, it loses all of its +1/+1 counters and dies before it grows new heads at the end of the turn. So with enough little damage spells, or a valiant enough triple-block, or a big enough Fireball (which, we might say, cauterizes those neck-wounds just like Heracles ultimately did), Protean Hydra will go down. Death magic (Terror, Executioner's Capsule, etc.) or other toughness-ignoring magic is, of course, the surest way to deal with this beast. But take it from me—Protean Hydra has a talent for catching people with their pants down. Your opponents will usually bring damage-based methods—like their own creatures, or fire, or a big club like ol' Heracles—to off your monsters. And then they will face Protean Hydra, and they will be sad. Protect your Hydra from targeted abilities with stuff like Lightning Greaves, Sword of Light and Shadow, or Plaxcaster Frogling, and you'll lock out just about all your opponent's mortal options—and your foes will totally sad up the place.

Lightning Greaves
Plaxcaster Frogling

Protean Hydra is hard to beat in combat. Chump-blocking Protean Hydra is really bad. When Protean Hydra is on the attack, throwing little speed-bumps in front of it is the definition of counterproductive. Those of you who've crashed in with Spiritmonger remember that feeling—but it gets even better with Protean Hydra, because the blocker's power matters. If your opponent chumps your 6/6 Hydra with a 3/2, the Hydra ends up 9/9.

Also, attacking into Protean Hydra is really bad. If your opponent throws a ragtag band of fighters at you, you can have Protean Hydra pick the fight it'll just barely win, and block for maximum head-growth. All this means that Protean Hydra tends to do what it wants, as your opponent with be loathe to let it get any bigger. If it wants to attack, your opponent is likely to let it through. If it's playing defense, your opponent is likely to hold back. Use that to your advantage—force your opponents to attack into it with Suicidal Charge or Bullwhip (or an M10 card that costs ). Force damage onto it with Lure or Tower Above effects, or damage redirection like Shining Shoal (or another M10 card for ). Use Arena or other "let's all fight" effects to ensure that your Hydra gets a good head-prune now and again.

Suicidal Charge
Shining Shoal

Protean Hydra + non-counter-based toughness = damage immunity. This is where it gets a little abstract—and very powerful. When Protean Hydra takes damage, its middle ability does two things: it prevents that damage, then it removes that many +1/+1 counters. If the Hydra takes more damage than it has +1/+1 counters, it prevents all that damage, and then removes as many +1/+1 counters as it can—namely, all of them. However, if the Hydra still has toughness from a source other than +1/+1 counters—i.e. if its base toughness is greater than 0/0—then your Hydra won't die. (Remember Phantom Centaur and the other Judgment Phantoms? Same idea.)

Treetop Bracers

Say you put Treetop Bracers onto your 4/4 Protean Hydra. It gets +1/+1 (and the Bracers' evasion ability), making it a 1/1 with four +1/+1 counters—5/5 total. Your opponent, again not so much with the smarts, Fireballs your Hydra for 5. First, all that damage is prevented. Then the Hydra tries to lose five +1/+1 counters, but only manages to lose the four it has. Now it's a 1/1 (a 0/0 plus Treetop Bracers's +1/+1) with no counters and no damage on it, so it lives. The end step ability triggers, and it grows some serious heads—in this case eight of them, because it lost four counters. Note that when toughness-pumping effects (other than more +1/+1 counters) are involved, it only grows back twice the number of +1/+1 counters it lost, not the total amount of damage inflicted on it. If your Bracers-enhanced Hydra gets Fireballed for a million damage, it'll still only lose, and regain twice over, the number of heads it had.

Equipment, Auras, toughness-pumping lords or global enchantments, even good old Giant Growth—all of them turn your Hydra into a damage-ignoring, head-sprouting machine. My favorite Aura here might be Uncontrollable Anger—either you can force your opponent's creature to attack into your Hydra, or you can give your Hydra a surprise +2/+2, giving it damage immunity at a crucial time. Johnnytastic!

Any type of losing +1/+1 counters works, not just damage. Damage is, of course, the usual way for Protean Hydra to lose heads, but usual is boring! Move counters off of your Hydra with cards like Simic Guildmage (or Fate Transfer, if you've set things up so that won't kill it), and your Protean Hydra will pick those heads back up at the end of turn, ready to do it some more next turn. Put -1/-1 counters on your Hydra, which will "annihilate" with one of its +1/+1 counters, which counts as losing a head—and it'll get twice those heads back again. Torture, Chainbreaker, or Soul Snuffers will tear down other creatures, but they'll just pump up your Hydra. Wither creatures have just as much to fear as regular-damage creatures—the Hydra doesn't care.

Fate Transfer

Your hydra-summoning days have just begun. Seriously, I saw it written right there in your day planner, blocked out for the next several months—"SUMMON THE HYDRA." Enjoy. I'm sure you'll defeat your share of overconfident little hero-wannabes with tricky Hydra combos, or just the brute power of a good head-head-head-head-on collision.

FAQ Entry for Protean Hydra

For reference, here's the entry for Protean Hydra, straight from the upcoming M10 FAQ.

Protean Hydra

Creature -- Hydra
Protean Hydra enters the battlefield with X +1/+1 counters on it.
If damage would be dealt to Protean Hydra, prevent that damage and remove that many +1/+1 counters from it.
Whenever a +1/+1 counter is removed from Protean Hydra, put two +1/+1 counters on it at the beginning of the next end step.

* All damage that would be dealt to Protean Hydra is prevented, even if it doesn't have that many +1/+1 counters on it. This is true even if Protean Hydra has no +1/+1 counters on it at all (and is able to remain on the battlefield because some other effect is boosting its toughness). If the amount of damage that would be dealt to Protean Hydra is greater than the number of +1/+1 counters on it, all the +1/+1 counters on Protean Hydra are removed from it.
* If unpreventable damage is dealt to Protean Hydra, the Hydra's second ability will try to prevent it and fail (meaning that damage has its normal results), and it will also remove that many +1/+1 counters from Protean Hydra.
* Protean Hydra's last ability triggers whenever a +1/+1 counter is removed from it for any reason, not just when a +1/+1 counter is removed by its second ability.
* If multiple +1/+1 counters are removed from Protean Hydra at once, its last ability will trigger that many times.
* If a -1/-1 counter is put on Protean Hydra while it has +1/+1 counters on it, that -1/-1 counter and a +1/+1 counter will be removed from it as a state-based action. This will cause Protean Hydra's last ability to trigger.
* If any +1/+1 counters are removed from Protean Hydra during the end step, its last ability will trigger and set up a delayed triggered ability that will trigger at the beginning of the next end step (which is near the end of the following turn).

The Purifying Fire Blog Tour

News item! The Purifying Fire, the next planeswalker novel, which features Chandra Nalaar, releases July 7! Laura Resnick, author of The Purifying Fire, will be going on a blog tour next week. You can catch her making virtual appearances on the web sites below. Learn more about the next planeswalker novel and its author next week—check it out!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009
SciFiChick (Angela)

Wednesday, July 8, 2009
SciFiGuy (Doug Knipe)

Thursday, July 9, 2009
Fantasy Café (Kristen)

Letter of the Week

Dear Doug Beyer,
Regarding your article "Odd Job":

I have some comments about your article today. Unfortunately all my comments are NASA secrets, so I won't be able to share them.

The End.

Heh. Point taken. I know some people like hearing tantalizing secrets dangled in front of them, as last week's article did. But it's not everyone's cup of Mountain Dew. Most of the time I try to stick to NDA-friendly, fully-public content, but sometimes I want to tell a story that hits on the edge between present and future, between informative and spoilery—requiring some selective vagueness. Did I tease or flaunt when I meant merely to tantalize? My bad, James. And good luck on your NASA career.

Anyway, tune in next week, when I have several more enticing M10 secrets to reveal! Wait, I'm doing it again ....

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