Last updated on September 20, 2023
Circle of Protection: Red (Ninth Edition) | Illustration by Christopher Rush
Magic is all about coming together for mirth and merriment. It’s only natural that we should find ourselves forming circles when we do, circles that protect us from daily troubles and worries. We form a “Circle of Protection,” if you will.
Look, I didn’t name these. I don’t think whoever came up with the idea back in the ‘90s was thinking about the poor soul that would have to write about them, let alone choose to read about them. So. Many. Colons. But that’s beyond our scope.
Gather round once again, friends, and let’s tell the tale of an ancient, initially incomplete cycle of cards.
Circle of Protection: Artifacts (Fifth Dawn) | Illustration by Terese Nielsen
Circles of Protection are white enchantments with an activated ability that grants you a form of evasion from a specific characteristic, often color. Every Circle of Protection is a 2-drop that costs .
Each card is named “Circle of Protection: Characteristic,” and each ability reads, “cost: The next time a characteristic source of your choice would deal damage to you this turn, prevent that damage.” It’s an activated ability, so it can be used at instant speed. You choose the source as the ability resolves.
Four of the first five Circles first appeared in Alpha. Some rushed manufacturing meant that Circle of Protection: Black had to wait until Beta for its first printing. The main color Circles of Protection haven’t returned since Tempest, although they have non-tournament legal printings in 30th Anniversary Edition. Circle of Protection: Artifacts was last printed in Fifth Dawn.
Unlike the other Circles, this one has you choose the characteristic (artist) when it enters the battlefield. It also lets you return it to hand, which is neat. It’s silver-bordered, so not all tables will be friendly to this.
Shadow is a little-used mechanic that’s unlikely to return much in the future. I say this, but the plane of The Lux Foundation Library for Universes Beyond: Doctor Who drops shadow counters as part of its chaos ability.
Circle of Protection: Shadow’s utility is otherwise fading.
In many ways, this should be better. There are plenty of artifacts that are out there looking to squish you, like Blightsteel Colossus. Surely Circle of Protection: Artifacts could be better? Unfortunately it costs twice as much to activate.
It’s easy to break your brain figuring out which of these enchantments is the best, especially when their mana cost and activation cost are all the same. The only thing that changes is the color of the damage source from which you’re protecting yourself.
By process of elimination, Circle of Protection: Blue comes last among colors.
Circle of Protection: White has a specific home that we’ll get to later, so that makes it really tempting to rank it higher. Still, dealing more damage is less white’s thing than protecting and healing.
One thing about protecting yourself from green is that you can let a big attacker come through and simply prevent the damage that it would deal to you. That’s how Circle of Protection: Green earns its keep.
Another consideration when trying to compare color-coded protective spells is the mechanics that it can counter. Toxic and infect fizzle if the damage is prevented, and Circle of Protection: Black is perfect for getting that job done.
Let me tell you from personal employment experience: fire extinguisher powder gets everywhere. It can also be white (don’t ask).
Circle of Protection: Red is there for all the red damage sources you could imagine. Instants, sorceries, ETBs, activated abilities, combat damage. If you can pay for insurance, you can prevent the damage.
Gotcha! We’ve got more cards to talk about. Circles are infinite, after all. I may have been assigned to look up “Circles of Protection,” but Magic has a few other Circles that offer a form of protection. Sometimes stretching the definition of “protection” quite a bit.
Story Circle has you chose a color when it enters the battlefield, and its activated ability gives you the same protection as the other cards here. It costs rather than to activate and a total of three to cast, but it’s in the right realm. Prismatic Circle is virtually the same card but has a cumulative upkeep, while Rhystic Circle gives everyone circle power. Circle of Solace has you select a creature type rather than a color.
Circle of Flame is like an electric fence around your perimeter. That’s a form of protection, right? Circle of Despair gives you damage prevention, but it asks that you sacrifice a creature as part of its activation cost. Circle of Affliction lets you trade one life with the opponent who dealt you damage, but we’re starting to get away from the “protection” theme. Unless we count the intimidation factor, of course.
The consensus seems to be that these have had their day but are now passé. Color protection can miss if your opponent doesn’t have the color that matches your enchantment, and we like more consistent options.
All Circles of Protection are enchantments, so an enchantress deck that dabbles in white can use them. I can’t help feeling that Sythis, Harvest's Hand can make better use of its deck slots. These enchantments are also the right mana value to fit with Zur the Enchanter.
Apparently you can do “Circle of Protection Tribal” in Modern? I found this deck that uses four of each except Shadow and Art while digging around online. Its main win-condition seems to be built around Azor's Elocutors, whether through combat or amassing filibuster counters. You should be able to draw multiple Circles of Protection to avoid most damage sources.
One of the best things you can do with any form of evasion is to nullify your opponents’ blockers. Eight-and-a-Half-Tails gives you cheap ways to paint your opponents white. Its other activated ability protects your permanents, but you should pack a Circle of Protection: White for yourself. Distorting Lens lets you paint permanents the color of your choice, which helps get around how limited the Circles of Protection are.
All the main set Circles of Protection except Circle of Protection: Artifacts have been printed at common, so you can use them in your Pauper decks. You could also build a meme deck focused on the circles in most of their art. Or you could stick some of the Ninth Edition ones in a deck that cares about attractive characters, if these ones quench your thirst. I’m reaching, I know.
Lotta words to mean “nearly anything.” It can be the combat damage from that deathtoucher you let through. It can be the damage from an activated ability like a pinger. It can be a burn spell, a redirected or copied spell… sources are everywhere.
Yes. These enchantments don’t tap and aren’t limited to being activated once per turn. In theory, you could choose the same damage source by activating multiple Circles of Protection or just one of them more than once. You can also pay for protection one activation at a time or in bulk.
Say you pay two mana to activate your Circle of Protection: Red twice, choosing Markov Blademaster as the source. When it tries to deal first strike damage, its controller gets to choose which of your activations applies. Then comes the second combat damage step, during which the second activation will do its job.
You could also wait for the first combat damage step to resolve before paying for that second activation.
No. The protection lasts either until it prevents damage or until the end of the current turn. It doesn’t carry over into another turn.
So much better! Two different Circles of Protection let you cover more sources, and there can even be some contingencies as a result. If you have Circle of Protection: Red and Circle of Protection: Artifacts, you can avoid a Combustible Gearhulk’s ETB or combat damage more easily.
You can pay to activate your multiple Circles of Protection one at a time or all at once. If you have multiple Circles of Protection that are aimed at the same source, that source’s controller gets to pick which damage prevention effect is used. The other is left floating for another opportunity or the end of the turn.
Circles of Protection: Art | Illustration by Jim Pavelec
And just like that, our tour of Circles of Protection comes to an end. They’re all white, I guess.
But really, circles of protection are an interesting part of Magic’s history. They’re part of the first sets every released. They’re part of one of the first printing errors. They reflect early Magic’s obsession with color-focused protection, something that still pops up but is often crowded out by more flavorful mechanics. Wouldn’t you rather play with swords?
Now, if you please, make sure to step over the circular line of salt on your way out. Many thanks!
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