Morph, Manifest, Disguise, Cloak: MTG's long history with face-down cards | Magic: The Gathering

Murders at Karlov Manor is the first major MTG release of 2024 and I, for one, am very excited. In addition to returning to the plane of Ravnica and many characters that I’ve come to love over the years, Murders is the featured Booster Draft format at the upcoming Pro Tour Chicago! Additionally, it looks to be highly impactful to Pioneer, which will make up the constructed portion of the Pro Tour.
No More Lies  Novice Inspector

Today, I’m going to dive deep into the disguise and cloak mechanics, and put them in the context of MTG’s long history with morph, manifest and face-down creatures. Morph played the biggest role in Onslaught block and Khans of Tarkir block, which both feature heavily in my Greatest MTG Limited Formats article.

If you’re a TCGplayer subscriber, I highly encourage you to click the link and check that one out. If you’re not a subscriber, just hang tight until the final week of February when all ChannelFireball content will become free for everyone!

Introducing Morph: Onslaught, Legions, and Scourge

Morph first appeared in Onslaught, Legions and Scourge. Let’s say that the mechanic proved to be… interesting.
To be sure, morph made for challenging gameplay, exciting moments and fun stories. The problem was that the original execution of morph involved a lot of guessing and a lot of painful blow-outs.

Skirk Commando  Zombie Cutthroat
A common pattern was that the opponent would attack their morph into your 2/2. If you blocked, you risked them unmorphing into something bigger that would beat your creature in combat. If you didn’t block, they could unmorph into something that punished you when it connected. Worst of all was Skirk Commando which would wind up killing your 2/2 regardless!

Morph's return in Khans of Tarkir

Abzan Guide

After a 12 year hiatus, morph returned in Khans of Tarkir. Despite being the same mechanic with the same set of rules, the execution was very different this time around.

Specifically, the morph creatures were designed so that if something could be turned face up and beat a 2/2 in combat, it would require you to spend at least five mana to do so. This meant that when you faced the common pattern of one morph attacking into another morph on turn four, you could safely block without worrying about Zombie Cutthroats or any other savage blowouts.

This was genius, and Khans of Tarkir went down in history as a legendarily fun Limited environment. Personally, I think it might be the absolute best! I haven’t yet been over the Murders card list with a fine-toothed comb, but I’d be surprised if they chose to break from this pattern in the new set.

Manifest debuts in Fate Reforged

Mastery of the Unseen

Fate Reforged brought manifest, which allowed you to put any card face down as a 2/2 creature. If it happened to be a noncreature card like a land, then a 2/2 is what you were stuck with. If it happened to be a creature, then you could turn it face up for its mana cost.
Manifest was pretty cool too. It helped solidify the identity (or non-identity) of a face-down card on the battlefield. In many cases, manifested creatures behaved like tokens. However, there were also some cool moments where you’d unexpectedly hit a creature and turn it face up for fun and profit!

Disguise: A new twist on Morph and Manifest

Culvert Ambusher

Disguise will now appear in Murders at Karlov Manor. It appears to be identical to morph except that the creature has an additional ward 2 while it’s face-down. This fits with the changing design principles and general power creep of MTG.

As time goes on, the game becomes more “friendly,” with reduced risk of bad things happening to your cards. With morph, it was easy to lose your three-mana investment to a simple Shock (Shock is reprinted in MKM, but will require three mana to kill a disguised creature). Additionally, if you had a powerful creature like Exalted Angel, you had to make a judgment call as to how you were going to deploy it. If you chose to play it face-down, you might lose your bomb to a simple removal spell.

As a competitive spike, I find strategic risks like this interesting and rewarding. However, it seems that a majority of players prefer to avoid these negative experiences. This is a possible contributing factor for the design decision of adding ward 2.

Additionally, MTG has a very real dynamic of power creep. New cards arrive in the context of a 30-years-deep card pool. To be exciting, they need to do exciting things and trend more and more powerful. Three mana for a 2/2 might have cut it back in 2002, but in 2024… I don’t think so. A modest level up with an additional ward 2 might simply be appropriate and necessary.

Speaking of power creep: in Onslaught Limited and Khans of Tarkir Limited, it was generally okay to make your first play on turn three by casting a morph. Those formats weren’t so blisteringly fast that you’d be left behind after taking turns one and two off. I don’t think we should have a similar expectation about Murders Limited. In modern-day Limited formats, you really need to start playing on turn two or else you’ll be in trouble when your opponent has a fast draw.

I predict that any creature costing one or two mana that can attack into a disguised creature on turn three will be a high pick.

Cloak: Manifest reimagined

Etrata, Deadly Fugitive

Finally we have cloak. Cloak is to disguise as manifest is to morph (there might be some technical differences. Nonetheless, we all get the idea).

Once again, we have a cool spin on face-down creatures. Is that cloaked card on the other side of the battlefield a harmless Swamp? Or might it be turned face up into something terrifying at the wrong moment? It doesn’t look like there’s a whole ton of cloaking in the set, which means it will probably be fun and special when it does come up. I’m looking forward to it!

Overall, I’m excited that face-down creatures are returning in Murders at Karlov Manor. Morph, as executed in Khans of Tarkir, was a really fun mechanic for Limited play.

I find it a bit inelegant that there’s no longer a uniform set of rules for what a face-down creature on the battlefield represents. Morph and disguise are technically compatible, but imagine playing a game where both mechanics are featured, and potentially both types of face-down cards are on the battlefield at the same time. It would be cumbersome to remember which ones are supposed to have ward and which are not.

That said, I accept that as MTG grows, the designers need to continuously change things and explore new spaces. If they’ve determined that disguise and cloak are going to make Murders at Karlov Manor as fun to play with as possible, then you can count me in!

Autor: Reid Duke

Magic: The Gathering Hall of Fame, Member of Team CFBUltimateGuard

Magic runs in the family for Reid. When Reid was five, his mom came home one day with two Magic starter packs for him and his brother Ian. They both hardly knew the rules but they muddled through as best they could with the rules inserts. 26 years later, Reid’s now one of Magic’s most successful and respected players in the world. Learn more about Reid.