The 5 Most Underrated ETB Midrange Creatures
Enters the battlefield is a Magic trigger that immediately catches our attention when we peruse the creatures of a new set. What better way to infuse value into a higher CMC critter than to add a juicy ETB clause? Let's see which ETB creatures have flown under the radar thus far.
An "enters the battlefield" trigger (or ETB) is an important and widely exploited design space, especially when used on creatures, allowing for a subtle but decisive form of card advantage, as basically your creature spell is casting a secondary spell. Also, compared to any other card type, a creature is the most easily abused; you can return it to your hand, blink it, recur it from the graveyard, and, in doing so, you recycle the trigger over and over again. It’s indeed the basis for a bunch of infinite combos that involve a wide range of ETB creatures, from Pestermite to Kitchen Finks.
Both create tokens, which would prove to be one of the main tricks in the ETB creatures’ repertoire, basically amounting to getting two or more creatures for the price of one. Of course, at the time of the (terrible) Legends design, the tokens were forced to die when their creator would leave the battlefield, but that would drastically change over the years. Several ETB creatures that generate tokens remain in the midrange area, though, to account for their impact on the board. And while there’s strong ETB creatures across the entire curve, from Thraben Inspector and Snapcaster Mage to Primeval Titan and beyond, CMC 4 and 5 feel more interesting to me, because it’s harder to balance what they do with a timing that’s neither too fast nor necessarily curve-topping. As a result, some of these, while powerful enough, haven’t received enough recognition. Let’s give one of them for each color a bit of a spotlight.
1. ETB in White
What’s NOT underrated: Angel of Finality, Angel of Sanctions, Archangel Avacyn, Cloudblazer, Flame-Kin Zealot, Karmic Guide, Loxodon Hierarch, Ranger of Eos, Restoration Angel, Reveillark, Siege Rhino, Sky Hussar, and, even if it’s not used much anymore, Obzedat, Ghost Council.
What is: Stonehorn Dignitary makes for a great potential lock out of the combat phase, but it’s strictly Johnny material; Thalia’s Lancers is a very powerful tutor (imagine fetching Kiki-Jiki to keep fetching more stuff), but too slow to make sense competitively outside of Commander; Stormfront Riders is a delightful, whimsical soft combo card that keeps abusing another ETB effect while generating tokens. If we want to go back to the original token-making ETBs, white is very well-equipped, with Cloudgoat Ranger being especially noteworthy and Angel of Invention being a solid, more recent addition. My choice here is Geist-Honored Monk, though. For the same cost, she has the same function as the Ranger and the Angel: to give you a large hitter plus a number of supporting dorks. Cloudgoat Ranger has the advantage of being evasive, but at the price of not letting you do much with the tokens and being easily boltable at any given time. Plus, if you lose one of the little guys, you lose the second ability altogether, unless you’re in a Kithkin tribal deck. On the other hand, the Angel comes with both vigilance and lifelink, which is always a big deal, but she’s similarly never very sturdy. In addition, you have to choose between either getting the big guy or the tokens, without the choice of having both. Our interpretive-dancing Monk feels more balanced: she hits the battlefield as a 3/3, assuming your board is empty, but has the potential of being much larger, even right away. And she can play offense/defense while her flying tokens ping the opponent; and you know what, two Spirit flyers? That’s a Lingering Souls that she’s casting. It’s unfortunate that, to my recollection, she never found any kind of home; if given a chance, she’d make for a substantial tactical presence.
2. ETB in Blue
What is: Blue midrange creatures have big shoes to fill, but on the underdog side, I like Dungeon Geists, which is a bigger flyer than Sower of Temptation, although its effect is uniquely defensive, and Faerie Mechanist, which offers some degree of evasion along with specialized card selection. But I’d go with Sphinx of Lost Truths, which did see some play back in its time, but is mostly forgotten now. It gives you a lot for 5 mana, and even more for 7 in late game, but I would always play it within a reanimator or Living Death build, to make its looting generate double value.
3. ETB in Black
What’s NOT underrated: Crypt Champion, Doomwake Giant, Gonti, Lord of Luxury, Gray Merchant of Asphodel, Hostage Taker, Murderous Redcap, Nekrataal, Obzedat, Ghost Council, Ravenous Chupacabra, Shriekmaw, Sidisi, Undead Vizier, and Siege Rhino.
What is: Sidisi sort of stole Disciple of Bolas’s thunder, but I still like her. I appreciate the way she overturns black’s typical "pay life to draw cards" deal. Her subpar body and the need for another creature on the board is what mainly damned her. I also like Entomber Exarch’s flexibility and used to include a copy of it in most of my Birthing Pod builds back in the day. Many black ETB creatures are kill-oriented, with Shadowborn Demon acting as the demanding, dark lord of that specific clique. I’m here to speak on behalf of Skinrender, though. I know that the printing of Ravenous Chupacabra looks like to spell a definitive retirement for the Phyrexian Zombie, in that the Chupacabra dispatches any enemy, not just those that are 3/3 or smaller. Nekrataal still has some relevance because of a body that’s better fit for combat, while Shriekmaw can turn itself into sorcery-speed Terror in a pinch (or maybe it’s more like the other way around: it’s a Terror that occasionally leaves a body behind). Still, none of these, including the Chupacabra, does what Skinrender does, which is kill indestructible creatures. In fact, the Chupacabra’s trigger, while non-conditional, is even unable to deal with regenerators. What about Skinrender? It doesn’t really care about those. And it’s more lethal than it looks against larger creatures, too. It can stop, say, a Primeval Titan, by reducing its power and toughness to Skinrender's level, making it a threatening blocker, even against more powerful creatures. Skinrender’s only real flaw is that it can’t be used as a mere attacker on an empty board (or a board where the only other creatures can’t be targeted), because the trigger is not optional.
4. ETB in Red
What is: Red is arguably the color with the fewest ETB effects on creatures, albeit the ones it gets are truly brilliant. I have fond memories of Flametongue Kavu, which I still think does a great job in a tempo race, but Goblin Dark-Dwellers feels just outstanding as a midrange threat with an enhanced Snapcaster deal. A 4/4 with menace is already a pain in the butt to handle, but as a bonus, you get to flashback something for free? Sign me up! The problem with these The Descent-inspired Gobbos is that midrange red is not widely recognized as a thing. I remember I used to have some degree of success with my Koth Big Red deck in Modern, back when Seething Song was still legal. But now even Temur Midrange has CMC 4 as a curve-topper (for Cryptic Command and Huntmaster of the Fells). CMC 5 is more and more perceived as being beyond midrange, and you would rather play Stormbreath Dragon in that slot, anyway. But I think there’s something to be said for Goblin Dark-Dwellers’ combination of pseudo-evasion and card advantage.
5. ETB in Green
What’s NOT underrated: Acidic Slime, Bristling Hydra, Cultivator of Blades, Deranged Hermit, Huntmaster of the Fells, Ishkanah, Grafwidow, Loxodon Hierarch, Masked Admirers, Mystic Snake, Obstinate Baloth, Siege Rhino, Thragtusk, and Verdurous Gearhulk.
What is: You can feel two patterns here with green’s often amazing ETB effects: lifegaining and token generation. In the former category, Arborback Stomper can’t exactly compete with Thragtusk (which, in the end, never fully eclipsed its little brother Obstinate Baloth either because, once again, CMC 4 is better than CMC 5). If it’s just a bunch of life you want, the Stomper certainly delivers and its body may not be removal-proof, but it’s more resilient and threatening as long as it lasts. As for the tokens, I still like Kozilek Predator better than Eyeless Watcher, and I think Patagia Viper is terrific in a Simic build, but Titania, Protector of Argoth is just too cool in the right deck. Her ETB effect means that she’s immediately bringing back that fetch land (or stripland) you had lying in the graveyard, effectively meaning she gives one of her five-mana cost back, but also that she’s two 5/3 bodies right away, and more to come (Crop Rotation and Harrow feel like a must in her builds, and maybe even something like Myriad Landscape). I just wish at least her original copy had a bigger butt, but I especially wish she was Modern-legal. In Legacy, she doesn’t have much room, although she occasionally shows up in successful creature-based rogue builds. In Commander, if you build her correctly, she’s a hoot.
So, what do you guys think? Is there a midrange creature with a cool ETB effect you wish to see played more, or you choose to play no matter what? Let me know your favorites in the comments!
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