Pattern Recognition #194 - Shroud, Hexproof and Ward
6 May 2021
6 May 2021
Hello everyone! This is Pattern Recognition, TappedOut.Net's longest running article series as written by myself, berryjon. I am something of an Old Fogey who has been around the block quite a few times where Magic is concerned, as as such, I use this series to talk about the various aspects of this game, be it deck design, card construction, mechanics chat, in-universe characters and history. Or whatever happens to cross my mind this week. Please, feel free to dissent in the comments below the article, add suggestions or just plain correct me! I am a Smart Ass, so I can take it.
And welcome back! This week, I'm going to talk about the little children of Protection From and how they were developed in the game. This is relevant as the most recent version of this was just released with Strixhaven, so it behooves me to discuss the history of sorts for this keyword and the underlying mechanics.
Shroud. Hexproof. And now Ward.
No, I'm not going to talk about Protection itself here. I've covered that subject in the past, and it's an article all by itself. Instead, I'm going to start with Shroud itself. First introduced in Legends with the card Spectral Cloak, this ability could have been called "Cloak", but wasn't. Something I am sad about, but have also gotten over. It was turned into a Keyword in Future Sight with Quagnoth, but was replaced in 2012 with Hexproof.
Shroud, simply put, reads "This permanent cannot be the target of spells of abilities." It can be an innate ability, such as with Autumn Willow, an activated ability to grant itself or another target the ability, like with Frost Raptor, or something granted to the attached permanent, like with the Commander regular, Lightning Greaves.
Shroud was and still is, global protection from spells and abilities. While it was a simple and clean mechanic that made sure that nothing could touch that affected permanent or player - thank you Ivory Mask - directly. You have to go around the Shroud ability to get to what is underneath, usually through global effects. Funny how that works.
However, Shroud's problems began pretty much right away, and it was kept because of this problem, not in spite of it. You see, Shroud protected whatever had it from its controller as well. So there was no way to add Auras (or Equipment later on) or simply cast protective instants or sorceries onto a Shrouded permanent or player. What you had was what you got.
This drawback was the reason this mechanic stayed around for as long as it did, as it was one of those legacy design decisions that helped kneecap Creatures as a serious and viable part of any deck. Sure, your opponent can't do anything to them, but that prevents you from doing things with them yourself to make them better.
But Wizards saw the writing on the wall. That non-interactivity was bad for the game, and while a card could be protected from the opponent, being protected from its owner / controller was not. It wasn't fair or fun to have cards that you couldn't do anything with, save passively. Or with abilities that were already on them.
Now this is not to say that Shroud didn't have its place. Helix Pinnacle was given Shroud not just because it was a Keyword at the time, but as it turns out, having Shroud on the enchantment would up preventing counter shenanigans where people might try to cheat the 100 required counters to win the game by cheating out extra counters over time.
But as you can guess from my previous comments, it was the inability of a player to target their own stuff that killed Shroud.
Replacing it officially with the Core 2012 Rules Update, Hexproof became the new default protective ability. This mechanic is written as "This Permanent can't be the target of spells or abilities your opponents control."
Herein lay the simplest and easiest solution the problem of Shroud. Just phrase the ability so that you, the card's controller, can still cast it!
Though the mechanic itself first showed up in Portal Three Kingdoms on both Taoist Hermit and Zuo Ci, the Mocking Sage, it lay dormant until Ravnica picked it up with Privileged Position. This card also had the Hybrid mana symbols, making it an experimental two-fer.
But once M12 rolled around, it was out in full force. Whereas Shroud tended to be Green and Blue in nature, with being tertiary, Hexproof has been predominantly for the past ten years as a reactive ability, like with Mizzium Skin, where it was treated as a different form of counterspell, on that not only worked against a single spell, but against further effects for the turn. was getting it as well as inherent abilities on their creatures, like with Dungrove Elder. On the other hand, was seeing the occasional Hexproof as a variant of Protection, as Wizards was trying to reduce that particular mechanic as well.
Look, let me borrow some words from the TolarianCommunityCollege here. How can be the colour of protection when and get Hexproof? Those two colours got this keyword far more often and far more commonly than did, and you wonder why suffers and those two rise?
Here's the thing. Slippery Bogle is a card so powerful that it defined a Modern Archetype. But if you gave a 1/1 for with "Protection from Instants and Sorceries your opponents control", the player base would have probably thrown a collective hissy fit.
In solving the problem of Shroud, Wizards inadvertently created a new one, and kept the same basic issue with Hexproof. You see, while Shroud was inherently neutral, as no one could directly touch the permanent in question, not even the controller, Hexproof allowed for boons but no busts in terms of what could hit the thing. Which meant that Hexproof kept the non-interactive part of Shroud, while making it strictly upside to have.
In fact, when Hexproof got keyworded, it was explicitly called "Super Shroud" for how good it was.
Naturally, Wizards couldn't just let this lay as it was, they had to tweak it. It took a few years, but in Dominaria we got Hexproof From. This ability was tweaked to make the Hexproof ability conditional, be in on a colour, such as with Knight of Malice, or more recently, Hexproof from Planeswalkers on Eradicator Valkyrie. Which means that The Royal Scions can't use their -8 on it, or any other Planeswalker-based removal.
This helped immensely as Hexproof was pretty binary, but by narrowing down what it did or did not affect, it left open a lot more breathing room to respond. Murder doesn't work? Well, you can still pacify something with Hexproof from Black or Hexproof from Instants. Both could work on one, but not on the other.
This is good design, but again, Wizards is moving away from colour hate for as long as you are dependent on your opponent to get the most value out of your cards - and conversely for them to lose value in the same exchange - isn't fun. It's something that I miss, but I can agree to in principle.
Which leaves us with the last version of this mechanic.
Originally envisioned as a version of the ability on Frost Titan, given the working description of Frost Armor, that being a case where you can freely target something, as long as you pay an extra cost. Now, this mechanic has been keyworded in Strixhaven, but has also existed on Diffusion Sliver and Bonecrusher Giant in their own ways. Essentially, Ward is a mechanic that taxes or punishes you for targeting something that isn't your own. Bronze Guardian for example, makes it such that it an all other artifacts you control require your opponent to pay an additional to target them.
Actually, no. That's not right at all.
The exact wording is that "Whenever this (permanent) becomes the target of a spell or ability an opponent controls, counter it unless that player pays (a cost)."
This isn't an additional cost. This doesn't affect the mana value of the spell. It counters the spell or ability in question. And you know what that means?
Abrupt Decay, Banefire, Bound / Determined, Combust, Demonfire, Exquisite Firecraft, Fry, Heated Debate (Which was printed in the same set! Ward got a hard counter in the same set of cards!), Overmaster, Rending Volley, Sphinx of the Final Word, Taigam, Ojutai Master, Tears of Valakut, Urza's Rage (Hey, this was in the Mystic Archive!), Vexing Shusher or Wreak Havoc.
All cards that can't be countered inherently or can make other things unable to be countered. Why yes, is sitting in the corner of the room, crying into their knees, why do you ask? It's not a lot, but there are ways to simply ignore Ward. I expect that, going forward in the game, there will be less cards that can't be countered, especially if they can target creatures or other permanents with Ward. And given that this is intended to be an Evergreen keyword, which means we'll be seeing it in every set from now until Wizards comes up with something better, it's probably more likely than not.
These three abilities (and Protection) are all intended to make it harder for your opponent to interact with your board state. Yes, this slows down the game, but when there are decks out there who simply grind out the opponent, countering and killing everything, and just letting the opponent deck themselves while they cycle their graveyard back into their deck in part or in whole? I've seen these decks. They don't win. They force their opponents to lose. Things that make hyper-interactive decks - NO! - Destructively Interactive Decks harder to play? I'm all for that.
Ward fits into Combo and Agro decks quite well, and well, Sedgemoor Witch is my favorite card from the set, and the Ward effect on it is just amazing. Ward is aimed squarely at Control decks.
And I don't mind that at all. Which means we can expect more control options in the future to help counterbalance the expanded anti-Control effect of Ward.
In what form will these take? I don't know. It probably won't be with spells or abilities that can't be countered though.
Thanks for joining me, and come back next week when I rummage through the massive pile of creatures in Magic to come up with the tribes of my developing set.
Until then please consider donating to my Pattern Recognition Patreon. Yeah, I have a job, but more income is always better. I still have plans to do a audio Pattern Recognition at some point, or perhaps a Twitch stream. And you can bribe your way to the front of the line to have your questions, comments and observations answered!