Polukranos, Unchained Was Made Just For Me

Brad Nelson is practically cackling at the thought of wielding Polukranos, Unchained! See how he wants to use the Zombie Hydra in Standard!

Polukranos, Unchained, illustrated by Chris Rahn

Polukranos, World Eater was my jam back in the day. Right out of the gates I was in love with the legendary Hydra, playing Gruul Monsters at Pro Tour Theros while everyone else was on Mono-Blue Devotion (don’t worry, I brought my Mistcutter Hydras!). After that event I continued to play “Poke-A-Nose” in Jund Monsters, Selesnya Devotion, and eventually Gruul Devotion at another Pro Tour. 

Polukranos, World Eater

Yeah, we go way back.

That’s why I was jumping for joy when I saw Wizards of the Coast (WotC) brought my big, scary Hydra back from the dead in Theros Beyond Death. It sure is nice when your favorite character has some heavy-duty plot armor. That one-way ticket to the afterlife quickly turned into a round trip, and now we get to see what Polukranos can do unchained! 

Polukranos, Unchained

I don’t even know where to begin with this card. Like, it’s pretty much perfect for me! 

  • Favorite color combination? Check
  • Best color combination in Magic? Check
  • Multi-purpose weapon? Check
  • Mana sink? Check
  • Ready for the attrition war? Check
  • It’s friggin’ huge? Check

What more do you need a card to do? Card’s great, send article. 

All right, fine, I should temper my expectations just a little bit. After all, Standard is a pretty messed-up format all things considered. Everything really does feel exceptionally powerful, explosive, and still somehow grindy. Polukranos, Unchained has a lot cut out for itself if it wants to rumble with the top dogs of the format. 

Nissa, Who Shakes the World Embercleave Cauldron Familiar

I guess we need to break this one down just a little bit. Polukranos, Unchained does not act like a normal creature thanks to its first two abilities. It enters the battlefield with some number of +1/+1 counters and takes what I like to call true damage. Whenever Polukranos is dealt damage from any source, the end result is always that it will lose that many +1/+1 counters. Damage doesn’t just fall off of Polukranos, Unchained during the cleanup phase like it does on most other creatures in the game. This is straight-up a negative ability, which format-defining cards usually don’t have, though there are a few exceptions out there.

Desecration Demon Rotting Regisaur

If you’re asking yourself why Polukranos, Unchained needs to have this “bad” ability attached to it, then I must direct you to its other abilities. First off we have the ability to fight on demand for the low, low cost of 1BG. It wouldn’t be Polukranos if it wasn’t killing opposing threats, am I right? While this ability is much different than the previous printing of the card, that doesn’t mean it’s going to be worse. 

Polukranos, World Eater acted as a finisher in the decks that played it back in the day. Thanks to Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx devoting to green, Polukranos would be capable of clearing an entire battlefield of opposing creatures. While effective when Nykthos was around, its ability was rather lackluster when the legendary land was not present. 

Polukranos, Unchained seems like it’s going to be more of a standalone threat, not worrying about you building a battlefield around it. A 6/6 for four mana is nothing to scoff at, even if it’s taking true damage. It just means an opponent is going to have to interact with it, as letting you untap with it either results in a ton of damage or card advantage thanks to its fight ability. 

Sadly, even if Polukranos, Unchained survives the fight, it will be forever weakened by its negative ability. 

That’s what makes this card so interesting to evaluate: you don’t want to just let your opponent untap on Turn 5 with Polukranos, Unchained on the battlefield, but sometimes it’s not like it’s going to take over the game. Chump blocking is somewhat effective as you’re lowering the base power and toughness of the threat. Even if they kill your creature, Polukranos should shrink some and they spent three precious mana in the developmental stage of the game. 

It feels like there’s rarely going to be a catastrophic situation in the early-game unless you’re just taking six damage each turn from an unchecked Polukranos. The card still dies to plenty of spot removal, gets bounced by Teferi, Time Raveler, chump blocked by Cauldron Familiar, and countered by Frilled Mystic. In all honesty, this card sounds below the playable grade for Standard so far. This is where its last ability comes in…

Escape – 4BG, Exile six other cards from your graveyard.


Polukranos enters the battlefield with six +1/+1 counters on it. It escapes with twelve +1/+1 counters on it instead.

To fully understand the true value of Polukranos, Unchained we have to dive into escape and get a grasp on just how good it is. 

Graveyard mechanics are just good, period. Well, I’m not saying every card with a graveyard mechanic on it is good. It’s more like a Standard format tends to revolve around a graveyard mechanic whenever one’s present, especially when graveyard interaction isn’t readily available. 

What’s interesting is that escape is the first one in a long time that doesn’t play well with itself, which is extremely fascinating. Take delirium for example; you always wanted to stretch the limits with that mechanic. I used this deck to win the Knoxvile Open in 2016, and it featured fourteen cards with delirium. The rest of the deck enabled these cards and they all worked together seamlessly. 

I don’t think the same can be said for escape, at least not right now, as less than half of the set has been previewed. A deck chock-full of escape cards would most likely cause it to become cannibalistic, as they’ll all fight for the same resources: cards in the graveyard. As I’ve previously mentioned, Polukranos, Unchained seems slightly weak for Standard without this ability and that’s probably true for every escape card. If I’m right, then it only adds to why you wouldn’t want to fill a deck with escape cards, since they will typically be underpowered relative to the other things going on in the format.

This leads me to believe the escape mechanic doesn’t need to be built around like previous graveyard abilities. You’ll want to be cognizant of its existence when designing decks, but that will most likely mean things like adding another Fabled Passage to your deck, and not trying to do things like fuse Guilds of Ravnica’s undergrowth with Theros Beyond Death’s escape. 

Escape really just feels like a “good stuff” mechanic to me. You cast the good cards, they slowly build up in your graveyard, and eventually your premium escape card eats them all up for some extra value. Clean and simple living is what that is. There’s just no need to force enablers into a deck when Magic naturally adds cards to the graveyard anyway. Not to say you’d never want enablers, just not bad ones. For example, compare Glowspore Shaman to Satyr Wayfinder

Glowspore Shaman Satyr Wayfinder

Glorespore Shaman is just not a great card. It tries really hard to be good, but it’s just not. On the other hand Satyr Wayfinder is a phenomenal Magic card. But even though these cards are similar, Satyr Wayfinder does one very important thing that Glowspore Shaman does not: put the land directly in hand. In the world of Standard, card advantage is king, which makes enablers that replace themselves highly sought after. If this card gets reprinted (fingers crossed!), I’d come around on my “no enablers necessary” stance. 

So now that we have an idea of what Polukranos, Unchained is, let’s give it some context in the previous and potentially projected metagame. On the surface it feels like it would be pretty good just casting it on Turn 4. It lines up well against Knight strategies, including their Rotting Regisaurs. Sometimes you might be on the wrong side of Embercleave, but at the same time Polukranos can really disrupt the Equipment when you have some extra mana available. 

The card seems like a fine investment against Jeskai Fires as well. Sure, Teferi, Time Raveler can do its thing to cost you a significant tempo loss, but that’s saying more about how good Teferi is and less about Polukranos. Besides that negative interaction, Polukranos trades with the strategy’s strongest threats, the Cavaliers. That said, it wouldn’t be enough on its own. 

Lastly, let’s take a look at Sacrifice strategies. While the Cat Oven combo will assuredly keep Polukranos from dealing damage to the opponent, its fight ability could prove to be very useful. A midrange strategy that supports Polukranos will have to break up the Sacrifice deck’s combos, but some of them happen to be creature-based. This is where I think the card will shine as long as you have the resources to also beat up on their noncreature permanents. Polukranos is especially great at fighting Gilded Goose, and I don’t see an issue with throwing one away after killing two unique three-drops. 

All-in-all, the card seems like it would hold its own against the format’s previous strategies, and one of Theros Beyond Deaths other themes is devotion which, in theory, it can also disrupt fairly well. I guess now we just need to try to find a home for the card.

I don’t think that’s in a defensively leaning midrange deck. Anything that’s trying to take the game into the later stages not only needs an engine for it like the Cat Oven combo, but also enough answers to handle opposing threats/engines. It just doesn’t feel like there’s going to be a lot of space for a midrange threat like Polukranos even though it would be great at escaping in such strategies. 

My gut says the best home for Polukranos, Unchained would be in a similar shell I used the card during our last go-around. 

It just feels like Polukranos, Unchained wants to present itself as a threat and not an answer, even though it has those capabilities. It’s a must-answer in some regard, and that allows for you to present another threat the very next turn. If you’re flooding out, it will help mow down problematic permanents. And when you’re flush with spells, it just starts attacking waiting to be interacted with. Yup, that’s where I want this card! 

The first place I’ll try the card is in a shell similar to what Chris Kvartek played at Mythic Championship VII. The deck’s already tight as is, but I’d dabble with the numbers some, most likely replacing one Hydra with another. Now I’m not sold just yet that Polukranos, Unchained is stronger than Questing Beast, but it very well could be. 

Murderous Rider Foulmire Knight

I especially like playing it alongside the instant-speed cards like Swift End and Profane Insight. Holding three mana up comes at a cost, as it often telegraphs what you have in hand. But thanks to Polukranos, a Swift End will be more difficult for an opponent to sniff out. It’ll also be nice to hold up interaction that can turn into the cycling of a Profane Insight when it’s not needed. 

Vivien, Arkbow Ranger

Polukranos also works very well with Vivien, Arkbow Ranger. Just like with Rotting Regisaur, this combo can take out almost any threat on the battlefield including Nissa, Who Shakes the World. I’m just going to assume these two cards are going to become great friends for the next couple months, and a combo I’ll be trying out myself when the set hits Magic Arena. 

It’s going to be difficult to know if Polukranos, Unchained is strong enough to impact Standard, but one thing I am confident about is that the price on it will eventually go up from what it’s currently at. That might be before or after rotation, but it will assuredly see play.

I’m going to make sure of that!