Exclusive Preview: Growing Ranks

Don’t miss Patrick Chapin’s exclusive Return to Ravnica spoiler, Growing Ranks!

How much would you pay to make a 1/1 flier every turn? What about a 3/3 Beast? What if this token maker had absolutely no activation cost?

Return to Ravnica features the return of five of the Ravnica guilds (Azorius, Izzet, Rakdos, Golgari, and Selesnya), with the other five coming in Gatecrash. Each of the guilds has its own mechanic. As you might have guessed, today’s preview card takes Selesnya’s and pushes it to the extreme.

Populate – Put a token onto the battlefield that is a copy of a creature token you control.

Mechanics as customizable as populate are always tricky to evaluate at first. After all, how much is it worth to make a copy of a token? Well, if it’s a 1/1 flier, that is worth about a card (depending on the context). If it’s a 3/3 creature, we are starting to talk about a card and a couple mana. Of course, if we don’t have any tokens, populate isn’t worth much…

Already, Wizards has previewed a number of populate cards. Some are sorceries or instants that create an effect (such as make a 1/1 Bird token) followed by the populate ability. Some are sweet creatures capable of populating every turn under the right circumstance; but unfortunately, they somewhat vulnerable to mass removal (the bane of most token decks).

What if there was a card that let you populate repeatedly but without the vulnerability to sweepers? Without further ado…

That’s right! Not only do we have access to populate every turn for no cost, it can go in white or green decks. This means far more options with how best to build around it.

Would we play with a four-mana enchantment that draws a card every turn? Are you kidding? That is an insane rate. Populate has the potential to give an even greater output than drawing a card; however, you do have to work for it.

There is the hidden cost that Growing Ranks only gives what you already have (which you need less than what you don’t already have). However, what it excels at is making every token maker lethal.

Anyone that has played a token-based strategy is familiar with the struggle of having to battle through countless sweepers. After all, if you only play out one token maker, you aren’t always going to be able to present a fast enough clock. The moment you play out another, however, the sweepers punish you (which can sometimes feel damned if you, damned if you don’t).

Growing Ranks throws a wrench in all that, though. Now, every token maker is a sort of Bitterblossom without the life payment. Turn 2 Intangible Virtue, turn 3 Lingering Souls, turn 4 Growing Ranks. Now you don’t need to commit more to the board—your Growing Ranks will quickly overwhelm your opponent. If they sweep the board, just flashback the Lingering Souls and let them start populating again.

The rotation of Hero of Bladehold has left a vacancy at the four-spot in W/B tokens to go alongside Sorin, Lord of Innistrad. It is probably best in moderation, but Growing Ranks provides a staying power that is unlike anything it used to be capable of.

Part of the beauty of Growing Ranks, however, is its flexibility. The hybrid mana cost means we can actually also use it in non-white decks, if we are so inclined. For instance, Garruk Relentless, Garruk, Primal Hunter, Mayor of Avabruck, Huntmaster of the Fells, and Thragtusk all add up to provide token making of a bigger, more dangerous variety. What kind of a new green token deck could use cards like this and Growing Ranks? I’m not sure, but that is a lot of Wolves…

Growing Ranks can actually go even bigger than this. For instance, how many Crucible Hellion copies do you need before you got your four mana’s worth? What about Entreat the Angels? Is there some kind of a Lingering Souls / Entreat the Angels deck that only needs to make one Angel to let things start getting out of hand?

One of my favorite combos with Growing Ranks is to pair it with Demonic Rising. I’m not sure if this is a B/W/U deck or a B/G deck, but the prospect of turn 4 Growing Ranks, turn 5 Demonic Rising is just sick. Now, any creature you play threatens to give you a Demon for free (with populate still on stack, so you end up getting two immediately). Then, if your opponent doesn’t stop you, you will get another every turn. If they do manage to sweep your board, every additional creature threatens to spiral things out of control again. Perhaps Sorin, Lord of Innistrad is an ideal way to ensure we get the crucial first creature.

Another possibility is to use Demonic Uprising with Garruk Relentless. This is a pretty reliable way to make sure we can always get the first creature, plus it makes a great combo with populate anyway. Bloodline Keeper is another possibility, though it can be a little tricky to juggle token making with the desire to have a single creature in play for a turn to trigger the Uprising.

If we set aside the Uprising, we could just use Bloodline Keeper and Skirsdag High Priest for a nice black token making theme (which could go with green, white, or both). It is pretty awesome how many different ways there are to take advantage of Growing Ranks. This is definitely a sweet place for a hybrid card.

One of the most abusable cards to combine with populate is Return to Ravnica’s new Grove of the Guardian. Grove of the Guardian is a colorless land that you can sacrifice and spend five mana while tapping two creatures to summon an 8/8 token with vigilance. Obviously, this is a very exciting option for anyone not satisfied with their Lingering Souls tokens as a clock, but the prospect of making an 8/8 vigilance token every turn is verging on nutty.

If we are going to discuss epic tokens to copy, we would be remiss if we overlook Cackling Counterpart. Cackling Counterpart may be able to copy any creature we control, but that copy is still a token. Now we can copy anything we want over and over! I wonder what would happen if you Cackling Counterparted your Wayfaring Elemental…

Another possible way to repeatedly copy anything you like is to combine Growing Ranks with Seance. Seance making a token copy of a dead creature every turn isn’t always easy to abuse since the creatures can’t attack right away. However, with Growing Ranks we can actually copy the copies over and over (and the copies don’t die at the end of the turn).

Not every Growing Ranks combo has to be so over-the-top, though. Combining Growing Ranks with Moorland Haunt makes for an extremely reliable and deadly Bitterblossom effect. Normally, the limiting factor with Moorland Haunt is the mana or the number of dead creatures. Growing Ranks takes care of both. After all, you don’t actually have to be a dedicated token deck to take advantage of it. All you need is to be able to reliably get even a single token out there.

We haven’t even touched on Talrand, Doomed Traveler, Captain of the Watch, Midnight Haunting, Pack Rat, Parallel Lives, Talrand’s Invocation, Geist-Honored Monk, or Trading Post yet! Without question, Growing Ranks is a fascinating puzzle that will have deckbuilders putting together new decks and new breeds of decks to capitalize on it. The work involved in arranging to always have a token is not trivial, but unprepared opponents are going to be overrun by tokens in no time flat.

With less than 100 cards from Return to Ravnica known, there are still quite a number of token cards from the new set that have yet to be revealed. Which will combine best with Growing Ranks? The card is obviously destined for greatness in casual circles (and will dominate more than a few Commander games, as well as be outrageously fun). Does it have what it takes to cross over to tournament Magic? We certainly have a lot of options to explore…

Patrick Chapin
"The Innovator"