25, Apr, 24

Controversial MTG Mechanic Could See Big Changes in the Future!

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Magic: the Gathering is no stranger to mechanics that divide the player base. While it may not be up there with Storm or Dredge quite yet, the Ward mechanic in MTG has garnered its fair share of controversy as of late. Initially devised as a ‘fixed’ version of Hexproof, players have nevertheless found bones to pick with it as it has grown in use.

In yesterday’s episode of Good Morning Magic, Principal Designer Gavin Verhey addressed these concerns. The video was titled ‘The Future of Ward,’ and discussed the mechanic’s history, use in design, and how it might change in the future. No matter where you stand on the Ward debate, it’s an interesting topic, to be sure. Make sure you have mana to pay the two because we’re diving right in.

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A History Of Ward

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Let’s start at the beginning. Magic has had a few mechanics that prevent creatures from being targeted by spells or abilities in the past. These were initially written out, as on Autumn Willow, but were later keyworded as Shroud in 2007’s Future Sight. The next iteration was Hexproof in 2011, a more flexible version that prevented your opponent from targeting a creature, but not you. This proved a little too powerful, particularly on cheap creatures like Slippery Bogle and was therefore used sparingly until a better design could be found.

Enter Ward. This mechanic made its Magic debut in 2021, in Strixhaven: School of Mages. It’s similar to its predecessors, in that it makes it harder to interact with a given creature. Unlike Shroud and Hexproof, however, the protection offered by Ward can be bypassed for a cost. For the most part, this cost is a certain amount of generic mana, but as early as Strixhaven Magic’s designers were messing around with alternative Ward costs too, such as paying three life.

Since its debut, Ward has become a keyword in the Magic design vocabulary. It has appeared in every set since, and in good numbers too, across all colors. Ward costs have also grown more interesting, with some cards requiring cards to be discarded or permanents to be sacrificed before targeting can take place. For a mechanic that is only four years old, Ward is already quite prolific and the design team has taken it in some interesting directions.

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The Ward Controversy In MTG

Sounds good so far, so what’s the problem? What’s the MTG Ward controversy we’ve been referring to so far? There are a couple of elements to this: the deceptively powerful nature of the mechanic, and the frequency with which it’s being used in new sets.

On the power front, Verhey notes in the video that the costs on Ward are easy to dismiss since they tend to be just one or two mana. In real games, however, paying an extra two mana can push a removal spell to take up your whole turn. This, naturally, makes cards with big Ward costs feel bad to play against. And this is doubly true in Commander, where sinking an entire turn into removing one threat can put you even further behind.

The other element of the controversy is the sheer quantity of cards with Ward out there. Even though many Ward cards are unplayable, having the mechanic appear so much has created player fatigue, which in turn has led to resentment. This issue was exacerbated by Murders at Karlov Manor. In this set, in addition to the normal cards with Ward, Disguise creatures with Ward 2 were plentiful as well. By Verhey’s own admission, “We’ve probably given (Ward) out a little too freely.”

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What’s Next For Ward?

Ward is a fascinating case study in the practical and psychological elements of Magic design. On the surface, it’s a much more enjoyable and interactive take on Hexproof. In practice, it functions this way a lot of the time, too. But due to over-exposure and a few notorious cards (looking at you Voja, Jaws of the Conclave), it has become mired in controversy.

So what’s next for the mechanic? Well, Verhey has some thoughts. While he stresses that he only speaks for himself, he has some interesting ideas about how Ward can adapt going forward. For starters, more attention will be paid to the Ward costs applied to each card. Ward one is a reasonable tempo cost for decks to pay. Ward two, on the other hand, is a big deal, especially in Standard. This cost will be reserved for cards on the pricier side, or those that “promote fun gameplay” in Commander.

Ward three and four are going to be rarer still. Both will only really exist on expensive cards, that is cards that cost six or more. Ward four, in Verhey’s words, will “almost never be used” in the future. After Kappa Cannoneer unexpectedly broke into Legacy, this is likely a good call. Non-mana Ward costs are in the clear, though, especially if most decks can pay them. Expect to see more of those on cards going forward, then.

Finishing up, Verhey adds “Ward is good for Magic, but we should probably be a bit more judicious about how it’s used going forward.” This sums things up neatly, in my mind. It’s a great mechanic and one that adds interesting layers to the game. We may just have seen a little too much of it for now.

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