I recently penned a column that was a spotlight on the new discover mechanic in The Lost Caverns of Ixalan. Today I'd like to follow it up with a deep dive on the new descend keyword. Nearly every set has new keywords and mechanics, but "LCI" feels like it's really making waves. Discover is putting a term to something we've been doing for decades in Magic: The Gathering - putting permanents into our graveyards.
Most new keywords are relatively simple. Lifelink is lifelink. Deathtouch is deathtouch. WIth descend, we're being treated to a slightly more complicated interpretation of a "keyword". The biggest thing to remember is that to descend is to put a permanent card into your graveyard from anywhere. It can't be a token - it has to be a card. It doesn't have to stay there, but it does have to at least momentarily go into the graveyard. It can come from anywhere - your hand, the battlefield, your library, or even from exile if you can figure out a way to do that.
Wizards of the Coast is taking this new term and using it in three fairly distinct ways.
Descend as an Event
The first way that descend is being used in The Lost Caverns of Ixalan is as a triggered event. Any card that reads "if you descended this turn" is using descend as an event. Most of these have end step triggers, so at the beginning of your end step a creature might do something special if you put a permanent card into your graveyard that turn.
There are twelve cards with descend event triggers. A number of these are creatures with fairly minor end step descend triggers. Broodrage Mycoid is a Black Fungus that will make a 1/1 Black Fungus creature token that can't block. Child of the Volcano, Deep Goblin Skulltaker, and Stalactite Stalker are creatures that will get +1/+1 counters if you descended on your turn. Enterprising Scallywag is a Red Goblin Pirate that will have you create a treasure, and Ruin-Lurker Bat is a White Bat that will have you scry 1. You get the idea.
There are a few that are worth a closer look.
While only a sorcery, Molten Collapse is a two-mana Rakdos () removal spell with two modes. You can either destroy target creature or planeswalker or you can destroy target noncreature, nonland permanent with mana value one or less. If you've descended this turn you get to do both. It'll feel great to hit someone's commander and their Sol Ring if they had an explosive start and are poised to run away with the game.
There are two legendary creatures with descend triggers and the first is a two-mana 2/2 Goblin Warlock who is also in Red and Black. He's got deathtouch and he has a cute party trick. At the beginning of your end step if you descended this turn, each opponent may discard, sacrifice a permanent, or take 3 damage from Zoyowa Lava-Tongue. Three damage doesn't amount to a lot in Commander, but he'll make for a fun option in Red and Black for low or mid-powered games.
The third card I want to show you is The Mycotyrant. This Elder Fungus is in Golgari () colors, has trample, and has power and toughness equal to the number of fungi and saprolings you control. His descend trigger is pretty strong. You'll create X 1/1 Black Fungus creature tokens equal to the number of times you descended this turn. Those creatures can't block.
Some of the smaller creatures with "if you descended this turn" might prove to be very good in Limited formats, but my focus is usually on commander and my bias is going to show up in the cards I choose to put in the spotlight.
There are seventeen cards with descend and a number, and that number always seems to be a multiple of four. Ixalan is a world dominated by four creature types - Merfolk, Vampires, Dinosaurs and Pirates, so maybe this is a nod to that. A card with a descend 4 or descend 8 ability will only have that ability if there are that many permanent cards in your graveyard.
Some of these descend triggers are cast triggers, but many are enter the battlefield triggers. Most of them just give a creature a keyword or buff if you have enough cards in your graveyard. Much like with discover, descend is a really flexible tool that can be used in a wide range of ways by the card designers at Wizards of the Coast to create unique and interesting new cards.
There are a few cards with descend 4 or 8 that are worth giving an extra look.
My first example ties descend 8 to a cast trigger. When you cast this sorcery, if you've got eight or more permanent cards in your graveyard you'll copy it twice. All it does is return a permanent spell from your graveyard to your hand. For two Green mana, that's not bad, but if you're copying it twice you are getting a lot of value. You could pull an entire combo package back out of the bin so you can make a second attempt to win the game. If you're concerned about the fact that it only grabs permanent cards, just make sure you're running Eternal Witness or Timeless Witness and you'll have a shot at getting back that key instant or sorcery.
Coati Scavenger may not be the equal of Eternal Witness or Timeless Witness, but it costs a measly three mana and it will get a permanent back to your hand. Apparently I've got recursion on my mind today, but it's hard to deny that these types of cards can help you in any game that goes long enough - even if you're not on a combo deck and you're just bringing back some really solid permanents.
There are two Black Horror creatures with card draw that are worth mentioning. The lesser of the two is Stinging Cave-Crawler, an Insect Horror with deathtouch. It's only got 1 power, so there's a good chance it won't get blocked, and it can draw you a card (at the cost of 1 life) when it attacks. The other, shown above, is Starving Revenant. This 4/4 Spirit Horror will have you surveil 2 when it enters the battlefield, but for each card put back on top of your library, you'll draw and lose 3 life. Starving Revenant's descend trigger is descend 8. Whenever you draw, if there are eight or more permanent cards in your graveyard, target opponent will lose 1 life and you'll gain 1 life.
Commander is still one of the most popular formats in Magic: The Gathering, so it's worth taking a quick look at the three legendary creatures printed in The Lost Caverns of Ixalan that have descend on them.
Akawalli, the Seething Tower is a 3/3 Golgari () legendary Fungus. If you've got four permanent cards in your graveyard, it will be a 5/5 with Trample. If you've got eight or more, it will be a 7/7 with trample and it can't be blocked by more than one creature. That's fine for casual play, but I don't see this card having a very high ceiling in Commander. You'll probably want to play a voltron strategy but unless you're a serious mycophile, there are better choices available in those colors.
One of the biggest surprises in this set is probably The Ancient One. This legendary Spirit God is an 8/8 for two in Dimir () colors. It can't attack or block unless you have eight or more permanent cards in your graveyard. It has a four mana activated ability that will let you draw, discard and have target player mill cards equal to the discarded player's mana value. Two mana legendary creatures with interesting abilities beg the question of whether it can find a place in cEDH. I don't know the answer but I'm sure every effort will be made to break this spicy new card wide open.
The last legendary I've got for you is also in Dimir colors. Uchbenbak, the Great Mistake is a 6/4 Skeleton Horror with vigilance and menace. Its descend 8 ability simply lets you cast him out of your graveyard for one more mana. He'll get a finality counter, which means if he would die he'd be exiled instead. Vigilance and menace are good keywords and this could be a solid new option for Dimir commander decks. Saving on your commander tax is good, but there's nothing uniquely spicy about this card that makes me think it will find its way into high powered EDH.
The last way that descend is being used is for what Wizards is calling "fathomless descent". If a card has fathomless descent on it, there will be an explanation for what it means for that card. There are only six cards with fathomless descent, but it seems to be shorthand for the number of cards in your graveyard.
Squirming Emergence is a sorcery that will return to the battlefield target nonland permanent card in your graveyard with mana value less than or equal to the number of permanent cards in your graveyard. Chupacabra Echo is a 3/2 Beast Horror Spirit with an enter the battlefield trigger that will give target creature an opponent controls -X/-X where X is the number of permanent cards in your graveyard.
The best card of the group might be Terror Tide, a sorcery that gives all creatures -X/-X, where again... X is equal to the number of permanent cards in your graveyard. A scalable Toxic Deluge for four mana isn't bad at all, and any deck in Black that loads up its own graveyard is going to want to run this.
Last, but not least, there is a pretty spicy flip card with descend to look at.
Matzalantli, the Great Door // The Core is a legendary artifact that lets you draw and discard, but you can pay four mana to flip it if you have four or more permanent types amongst cards in your graveyard. If you flip it, you'll get The Core, a legendary land that taps for X mana of any one color where X is the number of permanent cards in your graveyard. This is a niche card but it could be a real powerhouse in certain graveyard decks.
I skipped over a Blue aura that gives enchanted creature or vehicle -X/-0, and a Black Spirit with power and toughness of X and X+1. For the most part these fathomless descent cards aren't anything new. I do have to wonder what Wizards will do if they ever reprint cards like Splinterfright, Revenant, or the many Lhurgoyfs that care about cards in the graveyard. Those cards already say what they do. Will WoTC decide to tack "fathomless descent" onto the text box for consistency, or will they let it go as a one time experiment?
I'm not sure fathomless descent was really worth the extra ink to add two words to a bunch of cards, but Magic is nothing if not constantly changing. Once upon a time we had little tombstone icons on Odyssey block cards to help us remember that they had abilities that functioned out of the graveyard. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, you see my point.
Wizards tries out lots of things and not all of them become part of our game.
My guess is that they wanted to emphasize that cards with descend care about permanent cards in the graveyard. By tagging them with a special word, it draws more attention and increases the chance that we'll play it correctly and not wrongly include instants and sorcery cards when we're counting.
It felt like I saw a lot of skeletons and horrors when going through this set, but I think it just happened that a bunch of them had descend and a few ended up being ones I wanted to spotlight. I do think Commander players with horror decks like Captain N'ghathrod and Umbris, Fear Manifest will find something to pick up in The Lost Caverns of Ixalan. It's always fun to think we're inching closer to having a viable skeleton deck in the format.
That's all I've got for today. If you enjoyed this column, check out my weekly "Commanderruminations" columns. They come out every Monday morning here on coolstuffinc.com. Thanks for reading!