Tribal Attractions: Hydras
With its strict, four-faction setting, Ixalan has been a very tribal block, and then Dominaria doubled down with some tribal focus of its own. Time for Kumagoro to have fun with Modern-legal concoctions for some less obvious tribes. In this installment: everyone's favorite polycephalous monstrosities.
Hydra is a modern creature type. It may seem a strange statement to make, since players still happen to remember Limited Edition Alpha's Rock Hydra, which already sported a very clunky version of what would go on to be known as "the Hydra mechanic."
The Hydras stayed red through all the Nineties, but they were still printed sparely. Only four other multi-headed specimens were released between Ice Age and Nemesis; taking after their progenitor, they're all various shades of bad. They were followed by a five-year hiatus during which Hydras have completely disappeared from the game. When they came back in Ravnica: City of Guilds, they had turned green, a color that, from that point on, they would never leave, with the only exception of the robotic Clockwork Hydra. In fact, out of the 32 Hydras first printed with the Modern border, 26 are straight up monogreen. Three of the remaining six are Gruul; one is Selesnya (Phytohydra, which is curiously the one that marked their comeback in Ravnica block); one, as mentioned, is colorless; one is Progenitus.
The odd thing about Hydra is that it's supposed to be green's iconic creature type, like Angel is for white, Demon is for black, Dragon is for red, and Sphinx is for blue. But there are much fewer of them than in most of the other cases (the largest of those tribes, Dragon, counts five times as many cards as Hydra does; the smallest, Sphinx, still has eight more members). And more importantly, it's the only one of the five types that lacks consistent evasion. Even trample is not that common, being a native keyword on just eight of them.
What's really common on Hydra cards is their signature mechanic. Not necessarily achieved by dumping mana while hardcasting them like their clumsy red ancestor would like you to do – only eleven Modern Hydras have X in their casting costs. What makes most of them stand apart is the use of some kind of counters, in an attempt to somewhat translate the flavor of them having many heads. It definitely makes Doubling Season their best friend – the new art for its Modern Masters reprint may have given that away; but for the sake of our deckbuilding effort, let's keep the curve escalation at bay by going with the next best thing: Hardened Scales.
As always, what follows was put together with the self-imposed restraint of going proper Tribal Wars, therefore including at least 20 creatures with the Hydra subtype out of 60 cards. To have a more competitive Hydra build in Modern, assuming it's something that's even possible, just don't put that many Hydras in there. But if you feel like actually playing such a tribal deck in a dedicated environment, be aware I myself host a free Tribal Wars tournament on MTGO every Saturday at 5 PM UTC. And on the third week of each month, the format is indeed Modern Tribal Wars (instead of Standard or Legacy).
|4Blooming Marsh||4Feral Hydra||4Abrupt Decay|
|8Forest||4Kalonian Hydra||4Hardened Scales|
|1Oran-Rief, the Vastwood||4Managorger Hydra||4Everflowing Chalice|
|2Overgrown Tomb||2Mistcutter Hydra|
|1Swamp||4Polukranos, World Eater|
|4Verdant Catacombs||2Primordial Hydra|
|4Woodland Cemetery||4Winding Constrictor|
The name would suggest a Gruul brew, but we're going Golgari instead. The reason is simple, and it's called Winding Constrictor, also known as Hardened Scales #5-8; or even more than that, since it also gives us reason to play Everflowing Chalice as our accelerator of choice. We could have doubled down on the theme with Corpsejack Menace, but that seemed overkill. Plus, by turn four, we want to be dropping scary Hydras, not yet another easily killable enabler. The non-Hydra part of the deck is then simply rounded out with the best Golgari removal available, which is also one of the best in the entire format: Abrupt Decay (a few Maelstrom Pulses should certainly go in the sideboard as well).
On with the Hydras. Feral Hydra starts up the curve as a prospective two-drop; it's not the flashiest creature in the deck, but it does solid grunt work and gets better later on after the enablers kicked in. You can use it to chump or unload surplus mana onto it, and it's not a bad topdeck either, which is saying something for the worst member of the team.
At CMC 3, Managorger Hydra is just excellent, a Taurean Mauler with the color and wording of Forgotten Ancient. And native trample, to boot. Even without any help from the enablers, it can get out of control fast.
Next on the curve, Polukranos, World Eater is the rock of the deck. In a world where most everybody else is somewhat scalable, Polukranos is a certainty, while still loving the boost of Scales and Constrictors for its monstrosity activation, which provide the deck with some extra removal capabilities.
Kalonian Hydra is the star of the deck. Even on its own, it's inevitability on legs. And if we consider that it basically functions as a lord for the rest of the Hydras, a single swing of an active Kalonian might well equal to an alpha strike. The opponent doesn't have much choice, it's either kill it or perish in its spires.
Primordial Hydra was arguably the best Hydra before Kalonian was printed. It has the advantage of not requiring an attack to grow, but it's slower than its pal. In order to swing for eight with Primordial, the way Kalonian does at its first combat phase, you need to have spent six mana on it, and it won't have trample yet. Of course, this is where the enablers lend a hand. Also, it could make sense to cast it for three and watch it grow. The option to use it as either an early threat or a late-game finisher makes it versatile, particularly in a Hardened Scales deck.
Finally, the hasty Mistcutter Hydra is the best top deck you can hope for; it's completely anti-blue, as it can neither be countered nor bounced nor controlled. The sideboard should promptly accommodate the rest of the playset. In circumstances where the protection is irrelevant, it's kept out of the Hydras top tier by the necessity to hardcast it for a bunch in order to make it scary; contrary to all the other creatures in the deck, it's not able to grow afterwards, so it's the one that takes advantage of the enablers the least.
The red Hydras aren't bad, with Ulasht, the Hate Seed and Apocalypse Hydra offering the promise of more removal and direct damage potential, if awfully mana-intensive. Savageborn Hydra is the hardest-hitting Hydra. None of them seems enough to justify a red splash, though, more so considering they'd actually require more than one simple splash to be fully exploited.
Among the other X-costing Hydras, Genesis Hydra comes with a strong card advantage, but at the end of the day, it's just vanilla. Hooded Hydra and Vastwood Hydra mimic Hangarback Walker and a modular creature, respectively; the former is even cheaper than its artifact counterpart, especially through the morph cost, but the tokens don't fly and the counters can't be grown over time.
As for the fixed-cost Hydras, Bristling Hydra is clearly a good card, but playing it outside an energy shell seems like a waste; Heroes' Bane is not bad, but it's yet another mana dump, and all in all, it's worse than Chameleon Colossus, even with the boost being permanent; Nessian Wilds Ravager, Oran-Rief Hydra and Hydra Broodmaster all have some nice aspects to them, but not enough to justify Primeval Titan mana.
Hydra trivia. Out of the 37 Hydras currently in existence, only six don't feature the word “hydra” in their name. They are the three legendary ones, Ulasht, the Hate Seed, Progenitus, and Polukranos, World Eater, plus three others from Theros block: Nessian Wilds Ravager, Scourge of Skola Vale, and Heroes' Bane. Now you know.
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