The chief designer of MTG, Mark Rosewater, recently posted on his blog about the game mechanic he finds most problematic.
Rosewater wrote: “Hexproof is the most problematic evergreen mechanic”.
Evergreen mechanics are mechanics designed to appear in every set, for example: Flying, Trample, and Deathtouch.
But what is it about Hexproof that makes it so problematic? If the mechanic is so problematic then why is it Evergreen? And what steps are being taken by Wizards of the Coast to address the issues with it?
A History of Hexproof
Cards with Hexproof were first printed in Magic 2012 which, contrary to what its name would imply, was released in July of 2011. Many cards which functionally had Hexproof, such as Taoist Hermit from Portal Three Kingdoms, had existed for years, however, Magic 2012 was the first set to officially keyword the mechanic.
Cards with Hexproof cannot be the target of spells or abilities that opponents control. In other words, a creature with Hexproof like Gladecover Scout cannot be destroyed by effects like Murder because it is unable to be targeted. Board wipe effects like Wrath of God can still destroy Hexproof creatures as they do not target, as can combat damage.
Hexproof was an attempt to rework an earlier controversial mechanic known as Shroud. Shroud was similar to Hexproof, except no effects could target a card with Shroud whether those effects were owned by the card’s controller or an opponent. This caused confusion because many players did not understand that Shroud prevented them from targeting their own cards.
To quote an article from Mark Rosewater on why Hexproof replaced Shroud: “We created this mechanic [Hexproof] because we found players were having problems with shroud. They understood that their opponents couldn’t target their creatures but didn’t get that they couldn’t either. The intuitive belief seemed to be that your abilities only help you and not hurt you. We saw enough players doing this during various phases of testing that we decided to change shroud into a keyword that acted the way players thought shroud worked.”
This change was controversial at the time and still remains contentious among some members of the MTG community. One Tumblr User even told Rosewater that they felt: “replacing shroud with hexproof was amongst the three or five most long-term-damaging things that WotC has ever done to Magic”.
But what is it that makes Hexproof so problematic?
Is Hexproof Harmful?
Many players’ issue with Hexproof is that it is a non-interactive mechanic. There is an entire deck archetype known as “Bogles” focussed on taking a creature with Hexproof, loading them up with powerful Equipment and Auras, and beating the opponent down with them. This strategy relies on the fact that the opponent will not be able to target the Hexproof creature with removal effects, meaning they will be unable to stop the attacks. Bogles decks have had some competitive success in the past. A player running a Bogles variant known as “Selesnya Auras” even finished in second place at the most recent pro tour.
The non-interactive gameplay which Bogles decks provide can lead to gameplay experiences where the opponent feels frustrated and locked out of the game. Some decks have great difficulty answering a Hexproof attacker covered in layers and layers of Ethereal Armor and All That Glitters.
In the past, Rosewater has defended Hexproof, rather than making games non-interactive, he has argued that they simply incentivize a different kind of gameplay.
In 2014, Rosewater wrote: “Hexproof forces creature interaction. I feel it’s only non-interactive when it’s combined with evasion.”
Rosewater’s argument in 2014 was that Hexproof by itself is fine, and the mechanic only becomes an issue when it is put on cards like Invisible Stalker that cannot be dealt with in creature combat.
The view at Wizards of the Coast seems to have shifted since 2014. In a 2021 article Jules Robin and Andrew Brown, two of Magic’s designers, discuss some of the issues with Hexproof: “Magic is at its most fun when there’s back-and-forth interaction, and players given a creature that can’t be removed at all have too much incentive to make sure that blocking doesn’t work either. So even innocuous-looking hexproof cards tend to cause problems.”
This same article served as an introduction for a new mechanic designed to fix the issues with Hexproof.
Warding off Problems
Ward was introduced in April of 2021 in the set Strixhaven: School of Mages. Cards with Ward can be targeted by spells and abilities controlled by the opponent, but those effects are immediately countered unless a cost is paid. This cost can simply be mana, like on the card Leonin Lightbringer, or it can be something more abstract like being forced to pay life or being forced to discard, as is the case on Phyrexian Fleshgorger and Westgate Regent respectively.
Ward attempts to solve the problems caused by Shroud and Hexproof. Like its two predecessors, Ward provides cards with protection to keep them from being destroyed. This means that high cost cards like Ovika, Enigma Goliath, and Tyrranax Rex will have more of a chance of impacting the game, and are less likely to be killed before they can do anything. Unlike Shroud and Hexproof, however, Ward keeps games interactive as cards with Ward can ultimately still be targeted and removed. Ward attempts a balancing act, offering valuable protection to important creatures, whilst also not keeping them so safe that interacting with them becomes frustrating.
Ward has not completely supplanted Hexproof, however. In the article introducing the mechanic, Robin, and Brown go over why they believe Hexproof still has a place in the game.
They write: “Moving forward, we are not taking hexproof out of Magic. There are a lot of cards where hexproof has more merit than ward. A common case being on combat tricks like Ranger’s Guile and Snakeskin Veil, and sometimes those big creatures that are hard to interact with are positive additions to their environments (looking at you, Carnage Tyrant). At the end of the day, we’ve added another tool in the toolbox and will try to use it when it best suits a card.”
While Hexproof is, by the admission of Magic’s chief designer, a problematic mechanic It still has a role to fulfill. In the future, we may see more cards with Ward appearing, while Hexproof gets scaled back to appear only on combat tricks and high cost creatures. Ultimately all of this goes to show that just because a mechanic can be problematic, doesn’t mean it is not a necessary part of the game.
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