Last updated on May 31, 2022
Fear (Alpha) | Illustration by Mark Poole
If you’ll allow me to be nostalgic for a second, I have a little story to tell you. I remember when my sister first showed me Magic. This was maybe 17 or 18 years ago. Please drop an F in the comments because that made me feel old.
I remember my sister having a huge collection of cards with a good amount of them being from the Weatherlight saga. Eventually one of her friends gifted me a good pile of jank because I was a kid and loved the game and he was cool. One card that really stuck with me was the Sixth Edition print of Fear. The image of a tiny little rabbit absolutely terrifying every monster in its path was the funniest thing my kid self could ever imagine.
Fast forward some years and I started actually playing Magic and not just looking at the nice art on the cards. I played a Rakdos deck a lot. A few years later I started going to the only LGS around and started building my own decks. Black was one of my favorite colors and to this day I’m pretty sure it has to do with two things: Phyrexians and Fear, both the card itself and the ability that spawned from it.
But what is the “fear” mechanic? Let’s take a look at its use, history, and eventual fate.
Ashiok’s Forerunner | Illustration by Johannes Voss
A creature with fear can only be blocked by black or artifact creatures. That’s about it. Only creatures with black in their casting cost or that are otherwise stated as being black, like creatures affected by Rise From the Grave, and creatures that have the “artifact” supertype can block a creature with fear.
It’s what’s known as an evasion keyword ability. I dare say fear is one of the simplest abilities in Magic.
A necessary clarification here is that “color” and “color identity” aren’t the same. A card like Kenrith, the Returned King has black in its color identity but it isn’t a black creature. So Kenrith wouldn’t be able to block a creature with fear.
Avatar of Woe | Illustration by rk post
First things first. When did fear first appear in Magic?
The ability itself has been around since the very start. Fear was printed in Alpha back in 1993 and is the card that eventually granted the keyword to the ability. The ability started showing up on a lot of black creatures like Frightcrawler and Rathi Intimidator after that original enchantment. Fear also showed up on several other spells that granted the ability to one or more creatures. It mainly appeared on black cards with a few exceptions like Hooded Kavu.
From then on fear was printed in way too many sets to list. Just to give you an idea of the scope, the mechanic shows up on cards from at least 44 different products if you include things like Duel Decks and Commander precons. And a lot of the time it shows up on pretty unimportant cards like Fen Stalker.
Dirge of Dread | Illustration by Seb McKinnon
To paraphrase Mark Rosewater’s take on this, fear had a real issue with its name among other things. Magic is a game that makes heavy use of words and the way those words are interpreted. Having a creature “gain fear” doesn’t sound like it’d make a creature terrifying and scary but rather that you were making it scared. If you said about yourself that you were gaining fear it’d mean that you were the one feeling fear, not the one inspiring it.
It was also mentioned by MaRo himself that WotC wanted to expand the mechanic into other colors. Even though fear is printed in colors other than black they felt that it was too restrictive. To do away with both of these issues, intimidate was born. This mechanic works almost the same as fear except that the creature can’t be blocked except by “artifact creatures and/or creatures that share a color with it.”
What Did Fear Eventually Turn Into?
Face of Fear | Illustration by Thomas M. Baxa
The creation of intimidate fixed the language-related issue. It works better since it means that the creature with intimidate is intimidating other creatures. It also worked out the color restriction. I personally prefer fear in that aspect since it implied that black-aligned creatures were either accustomed to dealing with fear-inspiring monsters or they were those very monsters themselves.
I think intimidate takes that flavor away. I know more bizarre things have happened in Magic games (a certain something about Emrakul and 15 squirrels comes to mind) but the mental image of Gatstaf Howler being intimidating enough to scare Frightcrawler out of blocking while Prosperous Innkeeper has absolutely no issue standing in its way feels weird to say the least. I know this is a dumb thing to complain about when talking about a mechanic but keep in mind that the word used (and how flavorful it was) was enough to remove the mechanic entirely.
Intimidate was also eventually removed in favor of menace which I think made a lot more sense flavor-wise. It also appeals to a trope I love seeing in fantasy which is strength and courage in numbers.
So fear was essentially replaced with intimidate. Both mechanics worked similarly but the latter allowed for a greater expansion into other colors.
Basically any creature that’s black or an artifact can block a creature with fear. A black creature is one that has black in its mana cost and doesn’t have the “devoid” ability like Wasteland Strangler and other “colored” Eldrazi. These cards count as colorless and aren’t black or artifacts, so they don’t meet the criteria you need for them to block fear.
One way to get a creature that’s not black or an artifact to block a creature with fear is using something like Distorting Lens to change a creature’s color to black. You can also do this with artifact creatures using Argent Mutation and similar cards.
Can Colorless Creatures Block Creatures with Fear?
No, colorless creatures can’t block creatures with fear. Unless, of course, they’re colorless artifact creatures.
Can Creatures with Protection from Black Block Fear?
Shadowmage Infiltrator | Illustration by Tomasz Jedruszek
Considering fear is an ability that mostly shows up on black creatures, you wouldn’t need to do a lot of mental gymnastics to get here. But protection from black means that black creatures or spells can’t deal damage, enchant or equip, block, or target the protected creature. Fear does none of those things. It simply states that a creature that isn’t black or an artifact can’t block, so your protected creature is still prevented from blocking as long as it isn’t black or an artifact.
So fear was replaced by intimidate which was replaced by menace. Is menace the best out of the three or did it downgrade the ability? I personally like menace as a mechanic a lot. I think it works within Magic’s flavor and can even tell a lot about the creature depicted in a card.
I’ve already said that I feel like intimidate is less flavorful. Allowing fear to be mainly for black-aligned creatures was more fun and it played into this idea that only creatures that are fear-inspiring can block fear creatures. Intimidate might be more useful but I don’t enjoy it as much as someone who puts a lot of weight on flavor.
I think menace is the best of the three. It can establish the character as particularly powerful, cunning, extremely dexterous, or menacing when it’s used on a legendary creature. A card like Greven, Predator Captain shows a character that’s particularly threatening and would force opponents to work together to defeat their common enemy while Mathas, Fiend Seeker depicts a more cunning and dexterous character and menace still gives it the evasion it needs to bring that flavor into the card.
I’m sorry for the little rant about flavor there, but I really do think Magic cards can be an excellent medium to carry the game’s characters, stories, and lore. Menace can do a lot for a character’s identity if it’s used right. Which is the same reason I’m not that much of a fan of intimidate.
Even though the ability has been rendered obsolete for new sets, a lot of cards with fear still see plenty of play in formats like Commander. Although
most some of them don’t see it exclusively thanks to fear. Let’s see some of the best out there, in no particular order.
Shizo, Death’s Storehouse
This land lets you give your commander fear. If you’re not playing against a black or artifacts deck (which is sadly very possible), Shizo, Death’s Storehouse makes getting those 21 points of commander damage in way easier. Anything that adds evasion to your commander is always a good inclusion in any EDH deck anyway.
Pretty much the same idea that applied for Shizo applies to Cover of Darkness. This enchantment has the additional advantage that it’ll also give fear to pretty much all of your creatures if you’re playing a tribal deck. And it has a mana value of only two so it’s really cheap to play.
I mentioned that the strength of some of these cards doesn’t lie in fear itself. They just happened to have fear along with some really useful abilities. Dread is one of those cards. It’s a must-have in pillow fort decks since it’s an easy way to stop your opponents from attacking you directly. I actually play one myself in my monarch deck. The fact that it can land six direct damage to any opponent who isn’t playing black/artifact creatures is a great bonus.
You’re not gonna include Avatar of Woe in your deck because it’s a 6/5 with fear, even though that’s a great bonus. You’re going to include the Avatar because you can play repeating removal for two mana. It’s really easy to get ten creature cards into the graveyards in a Commander match so you’re gonna play this for more often than not.
Guiltfeeder is a card that benefits from any and all forms of evasion. Mill isn’t a strategy that sees a lot of play in Commander for a variety of reasons. It’s way harder to mill 100 cards than 60 and a lot of mill cards force you to target opponents instead of “all opponents” so you’re sure to be at a disadvantage.
Guiltfeeder works to close that gap. Maybe you can’t mill your opponent’s entire deck, but you can use something like Traumatize and then attack with Guiltfeeder. Fear grants it some solid evasion to ensure it hits and your opponent is most likely done for if you hit them for something between 40 and 50.
Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself
Profane Command | Illustration by Wayne England
I think fear was a great way to introduce more evasive abilities besides flying. It worked particularly well on older cards and fit black’s themes and aesthetics really well. I also agree with MaRo that the name didn’t work as well as intimidate or menace did. I’m glad menace is what we have now; it works really well both mechanically and thematically and it’s a great successor to fear. I think it was, and still is, a fun ability.
As some fun trivia, the Spanish translation for both the Fear card and ability is “inspirar temor,” which translates back as “inspire fear.” This is one of the few instances where I think the translation makes more sense and works better than the original.
What do you think? Were you even around to play Magic with fear before the mechanic disappeared? Do you think it’s a good ability? What’s your favorite out of fear, intimidate, and menace? Feel free to comment down below and let us know what you think! And don’t forget to check out our blog for more articles like this one.
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