Another green topic? Yes. Although, actually they were red at first.
The hydra of greek mythology was about growth. When it lost a head, two more sprung up. While that was exactly what the early versions went for, this proved quite difficult from design point of view, so they are more about +1/+1 counters and often scaling up when the game goes long.
Hydras are the iconic rare creatures for green, but as of this writing, there’s only 36 of them, of which 25 are mono-green and five more are partly green. For comparison, there are 143 angels, 42 sphinxes, 98 demons and 173 dragons. Hydras aren’t quite there yet on numbers, because they are a fairly recent addition to these iconics. Sphinxes have a similar problem and demons were on a hiatus from mid-90s to early 2000s.
Hydras are rares unless otherwise noted. This is partly because pretty much all X-spells are now rares. No common ones thusfar, but a few uncommons and of course some mythic rares.
The first hydra was in Alpha and survived until Revised after which it was removed from the Core Sets. [scryfall]Rock Hydra[/scryfall] was one of those cards that had a lot of promise for us when we didn’t really get that we won’t have endless mana. What a letdown when our 14 lands in our 40 card decks (which was the number the original rulebook recommended) couldn’t support it. As usual, the Alpha cards worked very hard to be very close to what you would expect from what they represented. Things have changed quite a bit since then.
Ice Age (1995) had the first attempt to fix it’s predecessor. It was less powerful, so perhaps someone somewhere in R&D had decided that it’s predecessor was too strong, but that was often the way with creatures in those days. Since they were both legal, this didn’t make any sort of splash. You’ll also note that counters that weren’t symmetrical were okay back then.
It took three years to get our next example in 1998’s Stronghold. [scryfall]Spitting Hydra[/scryfall] had a very different take on the hydra flavor. The counters are still there, but they don’t feel at all the same as the first two. The flexibility did make it quite strong and it was reprinted in Tempest Remastered (well, not really printed, because it was only online set, but you know what I mean).
Our next hydra was printed next year (1999) in Urza’s Legacy. [scryfall]Molten Hydra[/scryfall] has aspects from [scryfall]Spitting Hydra[/scryfall] and the originals in a weird combination. Again, it has flexibility, but is also quite slow and expensive to use.
Next year (Nemesis 2000) we get this new take on this pinging hydra. There is still some flexibility, but this time the window where to use it seems too small for it to matter. The body is pretty useless as well, but I could see a use for this in some weird situation. For some reason this was the first hydra uncommon. It’s also the last monored hydra and the last hydra for quite some time.
Fans of hydras (if there was such a thing) had to wait six more years for their next fix. [scryfall]Clockwork Hydra[/scryfall] is again of the pinging kind, but has restrictions on that. It’s also a part of the Clockwork-family which has 10 cards, all of which (with the exception of [scryfall]Clockwork Gnomes[/scryfall]) work similarly, although the early ones used +1/+0 counters. This was reprinted in a duel deck product as part of Tezzeret’s deck.
Ravnica (2007) went back to the straight growth theme. With [scryfall]Phytohydra[/scryfall], it’s quite straightforward compared to earlier attempts and is in some ways a precedent for certain later hydras. It might also be noteworthy that apparently Selesnya used to grow these. It’s not the last Plant Hydra we’ll see on this list either.
Ulasht went back to the pinging and can apparently break itself apart. It doesn’t grow, but can be quite big from the offset. It was from Guildpact (2008) and part of the Gruul.
Dissension’s (2008) [scryfall]Sprouting Phytohydra[/scryfall] wasn’t the last Plant Hydra either. It has a new take on the hydra again, although Ulasht was able to break itself down into Saprolings for some reason, this one produces copies of itself. Seems like another huge bend for the hydra flavor.
Shards of Alara (2008) brought what we think of as hydras nowadays. There had been nine in the 14 years of Magic history and there have been 26 after it in the last nine years, so they started to get into speed here. [scryfall]Feral Hydra[/scryfall] is somewhat reminiscent of the original [scryfall]Rock Hydra[/scryfall], but much more straight-forward and still captures the essence quite nicely, even if the immortality part is missing.
Conflux (2009) was the first set to have two hydras and both of them are mythic rares. First, we have the iconic [scryfall]Progenitus[/scryfall], which is a source of many judge questions, which often have the same answer (“Do you think that’s a thing? If so, than it’s part of everything.”). It has the most complicated casting cost in all of Magic. It has been reprinted a few times: in the Original Modern Masters, in From the Vault: Legends and most recently as the promo for playing in a Grand Prix for 2017.
[scryfall]Apocalypse Hydra[/scryfall] is pretty much the same as red hydras ten years earlier and the green hydras, but it has the potential to become huge much earlier in the game than most.
Magic 2010 (2009) went back to the original myth, but didn’t try to make it too complicated. [scryfall]Protean Hydra[/scryfall] is definitely cleaner version with less complication in it, although you still do have to remember the trigger. Still, it’s easy to grok due to it’s link to the Hercules myth. It was also reprinted in the next Core Set.
Rise of the Eldrazi’s (2010) [scryfall]Khalni Hydra[/scryfall] again forgets the core of being a hydra, because the growth element is not there. This sees fringe play in Modern as the top end of some elf-based decks.
[scryfall]Phyrexian Hydra[/scryfall] from Mirrodin Besieged (2011) is a strange one, but perhaps there is an element of a flavor win, because it’s such a strong subversion of the trope and what does Phyrexia do? It corrupts things.
The multiplayer environment of Commander (2011) brought in this new space to explore in being able to damage all players. You know, the hydra has plenty of heads to attack into different directions with. That space has since been explored quite a bit, but outside of hydras. It was also reprinted in Conspiracy, another multiplayer environment.
Magic 2012’s (2011) (and Magic 2013 as well) [scryfall]Primordial Hydra[/scryfall] takes the growth aspect to a whole new level. Doubling each turn will mean this will be completely out of control in just a few turns. Of course, back in those days [scryfall]Doom Blade[/scryfall]s were plentiful.
The last red hydra (for now) came in Dragon’s Maze (2013) in the form of [scryfall]Savageborn Hydra[/scryfall]. It has lost the pinging ability, which is fine, but now deals plenty more damage and grows with mana. WotC is still exploring the same space, but finding different ways to use it. It was reprinted in Iconic Masters.
Magic 2014 (2013) brings two new hydras. [scryfall]Vastwood Hydra[/scryfall] has some new flavor. Is this supposed to mean the creatures in the forest will eat it? That’s what I get out of this, as the theme of Vastwood seems to be the constant cycle of life and death. [scryfall]Kalonian Hydra[/scryfall] is a mythic that moves away from the X, but still uses +1/+1 counters. It follows the example of [scryfall]Primordial Hydra[/scryfall] for the doubling, something MaRo has expressed always being excited for.
Theros (2013), being a world based on Greek mythology (or inspired by), has plenty of hydras to go around. All in all six in the three sets.
[scryfall]Polukranos, World Eater[/scryfall] (a mythic) actually came out in a duel deck first. Both Polukranos and [scryfall]Mistcutter Hydra[/scryfall] were staples in Standard, although the latter was (obviously) relegated to sideboard roles. Polukranos takes a new look at the +1/+1 counters and growth, which was used later with [scryfall]Domesticated Hydra[/scryfall]. The Mistcutter is more of a traditional hydra, but has those few lines of text that made it an excellent foil to control decks in the world of [scryfall]Azorius Charm[/scryfall] and [scryfall]Detention Sphere[/scryfall].
Polukranos is my choice for the commander, if there is ever enough of hydras for such a tribal deck.
Born of the Gods’ (2014) hydras didn’t make quite the same impact. In fact, their impact was pretty nonexistant outside of limited. They are no longer X spells, but do grow. At least some of the time. I personally like the Ravager due it’s political nature in Commander, but otherwise these aren’t very good. Since these were the days of prerelease promos that were preset for each color, Ravager was chosen for this particular set.
Journey into Nyx (2014) wasn’t much better. It has two hydras, but neither made much of splash. They are still staying away from the X in the casting cost, but they still do similar things with XX in Broodmaster’s Monstrosity cost and there might as well be X (and in other templating there has been) as part of Bane’s activated abilities effect. Broodmaster was also reprinted in a Clash Pack, a short-lived product for new players. Bane, on the other hand, made it into Iconic Masters, but was downgraded into an uncommon.
One of the gimmicks for Magic 2015 (2014) was that R&D invited certain well-known people to help design cards. This one is by George Fan, the creator of Plants vs. Zombies. So, it’s a Plant Hydra and quite reminiscent of some of the plants in the game. It has a very powerful casting trigger, which made it an excellent ramp target in the world of [scryfall]Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx[/scryfall] alongside Polukranos. It saw a lot of play, especially because the trigger is a cast trigger and thus countering the hydra doesn’t help there. I like how the X in the casting cost is used here after staying away from those cards for a while. This was later reprinted in Iconic Masters.
[scryfall]Hooded Hydra[/scryfall] from Khans of Tarkir (2014) is strong and interesting, but also never really made it. It saw some sideboard play (and I’ve been able to blow out opponents with it), but not much. Cheating it into play with Manifest always seemed especially satisfying, if not necessarily that good.
Commander 2014 (2014) had [scryfall]Lifeblood Hydra[/scryfall], which has gained a lot of popularity in a format with plenty of sweepers. It was also reprinted in Commander Anthology.
Magic Origins (2015) had this little gem. [scryfall]Managorger Hydra[/scryfall] saw some play in a short lived +1/+1 based deck in Standard. The deck did well in one GP, but it became an immediate favorite among certain more casual players and saw a lot more play in FNMs everywhere. This was partly because the deck was only two colored and thus much easier to obtain in that specific environment where four colors were pretty much the norm.
[scryfall]Oran-Rief Hydra[/scryfall] was yet another hydra in Zendikar, this time from Battle for Zendikar (2015). This is different from most in that it’s big on it’s own and can then grow fast, although not as fast as certain others. It made it into a Duel Deck (Nissa vs. Ob Nixilis) and Archenemy: Nicol Bolas.
[scryfall]Ulvenwald Hydra[/scryfall] is one of those rare hydras that were mythic rares. It takes a different approach. It does grow, but quite differently. It did see some Standard play, as a sort of Plan B in certain versions of the [scryfall]Aetherworks Marvel[/scryfall] decks and some others as well, as it can have a lot of flexibility with the lands it can find. It’s from Shadows Over Innistrad (2016), but somehow I don’t feel hydras sit well in that world. On the other hand, it is a mythic, so you don’t see them very often.
[scryfall]Domesticated Hydra[/scryfall] from Conspiracy 2 returns to the theme of counters. It’s basically the smaller brother of Polukranos, who doesn’t ever quite reach the majesty of it’s brother. It’s only an uncommon as well.
Kaladesh’s (2016) [scryfall]Bristling Hydra[/scryfall] is a very strong and flexible card, which has seen a lot of play in energy decks in Standard. It’s potential for growth is immense and it can also keep out of reach of removal, so it is a popular choice especially against control decks. It has lost some of it’s luster after the early 2018 bannings, but still sees a lot of play.
Amonkhet (2017) had this Hydra, which basically could have been any big green creature type. Or any color for that matter and I don’t think anyone would have batted an eye, so it doesn’t really feel like a hydra. It has seen minimal amount of play in Standard in my part of the world, but not much beyond that.
Hour of Devastation (2017) again brought a hydra that doesn’t really fit the mold. This one does get bigger, but only a couple of steps. It also has Vigilance, which hasn’t been a hydra ability ever before. There was some discussion of it’s potential, but it hasn’t seen any play, because [scryfall]Bristling Hydra[/scryfall] has been so dominant in this slot on the curve. It would have had to compete with other, quite strong red four-drops as well.
Green was looking for an iconic creature for a while and it seemed to find one in hydras, but now it seems that hydras are missing an identity. They used to represent the growth in green, but now it seems that all green creatures grow and the hydras don’t stand out anymore in the same way as Angels, Dragons, Sphinxes and Demons. Either green needs to find another iconic creature or the design needs to shift to let these creatures shine.