Last updated on October 25, 2022

Brutal Cathar - Illustration by Karl Kopinski

Brutal Cathar | Illustration by Karl Kopinski

Ward is one of Magic’s newest mechanics, evergreen from the moment it hit a card.

How does it work? Why do all the boomers you play with like it more than hexproof? What is Kappa Cannoneer and why is it showing up in Legacy and Vintage decks?

Let’s find out!

How Does Ward Work?

Sedgemoor Witch - Illustration by Igor Kieryluk

Sedgemoor Witch | Illustration by Igor Kieryluk

Ward is a keyword that counters a targeted spell or ability from an opponent it unless the ward cost is paid. That can be paying life, discarding a card, or (most commonly) paying a mana cost. The latter is usually 2 but ranges from 1 all the way to 10.

The History of Ward in MTG

Ward appeared in Strixhaven in 2021 on four cards: Owlin Shieldmage, Torrent Sculptor, Waterfall Aerialist, and, most significantly, Sedgemoor Witch. It’s now an evergreen mechanic that has appeared on a few cards in each set, including their associated Commander precons.

What is “Ward X”?

The X in “Ward X” is the cost that has to be paid to prevent the spell you’re casting from being countered. You can cast the spell without being able to pay this cost, but it’ll fizzle. Although paying mana is the most common and is the typical cost, there have been a number of innovations.

First there was the ward cost of paying three life, introduced on Owlin Shieldmage  and Sedgemoor Witch.

Westgate Regent

Then there was a discard tax for Westgate Regent in Forgotten Realms.

The conditional ward for The Tarrasque and Iymrith, Desert Doom.

Burly Breaker

There was also the variable ward costs for flip cards like Burly Breaker in Midnight Hunt.

Is “Ward – Sacrifice a creature” or “Ward – Mill 3 cards” that far off?

Who Pays the Ward Cost?

The caster of the spell that targets a permanent with ward has to pay the cost if they want the spell to resolve.

Do You Have to Pay for Ward?

You don’t have to pay the ward cost. But why wouldn’t you?

Well, if you cast something targeting a warded creature and then don’t pay the tax, it means a casting trigger happened and your spell ends up in the graveyard. These are two things you might want if you have an attacking Festival Crasher for the former and an escape or delve card you want to cast for the latter.

This is also important because your situation might change and your interest in and ability to pay the ward cost might shift after casting.

Does Ward Use the Stack?

Mirrorshell Crab - Illustration by Cristi Balanescu

Mirrorshell Crab | Illustration by Cristi Balanescu

Yes, ward uses the stack. That’s what makes it so interesting and why it seems to be largely replacing similar mechanics in this design space.

Let’s say I cast Bloodchief’s Thirst on your Sedgemoor Witch while I have only four life. The ward cost trigger lands on the stack. You can then lob Play with Fire at my face, which means I either don’t to pay the ward cost or I die.

A more common interaction is something like this: Let’s say I cast the Bloodchief’s Thirst at your Armguard Familiar with exactly three mana open and a Disruption Protocol in my hand. You can respond to that by casting Infernal Grasp at one of my creatures. I was all set to pay the ward cost, but now I have to choose. I can counter your kill spell, but that taps out the mana I need for the ward tax, which means your Familiar survives. Or, if I really have it out for that Familiar, I can pay the ward tax and let your Grasp resolve.

Maybe I just like blue decks too much, but that sounds like fun to me.

Ward vs. Hexproof vs. Shroud

Kappa Cannoneer - Illustration by Jesper Ejsing

Kappa Cannoneer | Illustration by Jesper Ejsing

It all started with shroud, an oppressive effect that prevents a card from being the target of spells or abilities by anyone, including the permanent’s controller. The idea showed up all the way back in Legends and gave us a shroud-creating enchantment, Spectral Cloak. Fallen Empires gave us creatures with a shroud ability that could be activated with mana, and that was followed by Autumn Willow, a Homelands chase card (I know, that sounds funny to me too) with a static shroud ability pre-keyworded as “cannot be the target of spells of effects.”

Magic replaced this with the slightly less stultifying hexproof, which is still just as obnoxious when you’re sitting across the table from it. Avabruck Caretaker, anyone? Maybe even more so since its controller can buff the hexproof creature while you impotently glare at it (and them).

Although both of these effects are commonly seen in Commander, especially with cards like Lightning Greaves and Mask of Avacyn, there’s something definitely feel-bad about facing down cards with these keywords. Players tend to roundly hate game elements or board states that give them no counterplay. Packing board wipes or sacrifice edicts or Arcane Lighthouse into Commander decks that otherwise wouldn’t want them just to be able to deal with Inkwell Leviathan is also not exactly what I would define as “fun.”

Ward opens up the possibility for more counterplay, even if the ward cost of 10 on The Tarrasque is basically insurmountable in most cases.

so you're telling me there's a chance meme

Dumb and Dumber

But even while the march of shroud and hexproof laid their waste across boomer Magic landscapes, something was afoot. Although ward as a keyword wouldn’t appear until 20 years later, the first experiment with this kind of effect was all the way back in Mirage.

Taxing effects were with Magic from the beginning, usually in the color hoser cards like Gloom. But an idea in Alpha’s suite of less-good alternatives to Counterspell was taxing as an element of counterspells with Power Sink, something that lives on in Mana Leak variants to this day. But Kaervek’s Torch was the first spell to pack what would become the formula for the unnamed, let’s call it “proto-ward,” mechanic for years to follow: “spells that target it cost 2 more to cast.”

This effect was introduced on a permanent in Planechase 2012 with Elderwood Scion, and the costing-two-more-to-cast formula generally appeared on one card per set (with plenty of exceptions) starting with Dragons of Tarkir’s Icefall Regent. A few hits you might recognize here are Ixalan’s Kopala, Warden of Waves, Ravnica Allegiance’s Sphinx of New Prahv, Core Set 2020’s Boreal Elemental, Ikoria‘s Jubilant Skybonder, and Throne of Eldraine’s Syr Elenora, the Discerning.

Theros: Beyond Death’s Callaphe, Beloved of the Sea shifted the cost to , and Core Set 2021’s Pursued Whale swole it up to . These taxes can also be paid in different ways, from life for a target with Ashenmoor Liege or damage with Bonecrusher Giant to gifting life to your opponent with Shield Mare.

Although this effect continues up to the newest set, Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty, with the new hotness Hinata, Dawn-Crowned (a great commander by the way), a different approach to this design space was needed to get to ward’s final form.

A more precise callback to Power Sink, “frost armor” is a pre-keyworded ward named after its first card appearance on Frost Titan. While proto ward increases the cost of a spell, this frost armor/ward counters the spell unless the cost is paid. Cards that just hard counter a spell that targets the creature, like Kira, Great Glass-Spinner, definitely exist but they’re much less common.

Ward creates an interesting set of stack interactions that allow for some really interesting gameplay moments. Given that shroud and hexproof put a damper on player interactions, frost armor/ward works better than proto ward as an alternative because it increases options and possible gameplay states.

Did Ward Replace Hexproof?

Chaplain of Alms | Illustration by Anastasia Ovchinnikova

Chaplain of Alms | Illustration by Anastasia Ovchinnikova

Not exactly — but it partially has. After everything I’ve gone over so far you’d think that ward replaced hexproof, right? But then we had Avabruck Caretaker making opponents scoop left and right in Crimson Vow drafts.

Aside from that egregious example it looks like hexproof is moving almost entirely to conditional or temporary effects. Think Snakeskin Veil. A good example is Walking Skyscraper in Neon Dynasty. Like Paradise Druid, its hexproof evaporates when it’s tapped. Or there’s Sungold Sentinel from Midnight Hunt. It’s got a hard-to-achieve activated ability to gain a really limited version of hexproof for one turn.

WotC suggests that “big creatures that are hard to interact with are positive additions to their environments.” They might have been thinking of the Caretaker when they said that, but I’m not sure anyone would agree in the case of that card.

What if a Spell or Ability that Can’t Be Countered Targets a Ward Creature?

The ward ability doesn’t apply to spells or abilities that can’t be countered. So nothing happens and no ward cost has to be paid.

That’s right – you get to just ignore ward.

Does Ward Work Against Planeswalker Abilities?

Ward does work against planeswalker abilities. Just like with shroud and hexproof, anything that targets the permanent with ward has to pay the tax or it’s countered.

Does Ward Stop Deathtouch?

No. Ward only taxes/counters targeted spells or abilities, but deathtouch doesn’t target anything. It’s a static ability of the creature with deathtouch, so it doesn’t do anything.

Gallery and List of Ward Cards

This list only includes cards that have the actual ward keyword, as well as cards that give ward to other cards or have conditional ward. All of these are from Strixhaven on.

Best Ward Cards

Kappa Cannoneer

Kappa Cannoneer

Kappa Cannoneer is only legal in Commander, Legacy, and Vintage and is making immediate waves. This card can theoretically drop on turn 1 in these formats. Island and then five 0-mana cost artifacts that tap for the improvise. In the right kind of blue affinity decks this card regularly comes down on turns 2 or 3, and ward 4 is basically hexproof at that stage of the game.

Cannoneer starts growing and hitting for big unblockable damage right away, assuming you can keep dropping artifacts. This is a powerful card since it easily slots into decks that already run most of the pieces it needs.

Hall of Storm Giants

Hall of Storm Giants

One or two Hall of Storm Giants’ is an inevitable finisher in Standard these days for control decks. “Man lands” have always been powerful ways to come back from sweepers or win as mostly creatureless decks, and this card may be the best of the bunch now that Faceless Haven is banned.

Its sheer size is part of the appeal, but the ward 3 isn’t insignificant. By the time the Hall’s player has enough mana to activate it your opponent likely has enough mana to target it while paying for the ward cost. But most opponents won’t have a deck that can comfortably keep five mana open to target a potential Hall activation with Infernal Grasp. There are expensive things that rot in the hand while waiting to avoid lethal from this land.

Mirrorshell Crab

Mirrorshell Crab

The big body protected by ward is nice here but Mirrorshell Crab’s value comes from its channel ability, which provides a Mana Leak/Stifle that can only be countered in Standard by an opposing Crab. Not as useful against control decks as the Hall but this is a big warded finisher on a counter so I can’t imagine this not finding its way as a one- or two-of in control decks going forward.

Brutal Cathar / Moonrage Brute

A key part of mono white builds, the backside ward to pay three life can be unpayable if the white weenies are sailing in for damage. Both Brutal Cathar and Skyclave Apparition are vulnerable to instant-speed removal once attackers are declared.

Popping one gives the defender a potential surprise blocker, but white aggro is looking to win before that even happens and tempting opponents to pay three life to get a creature back is the kind of deal white mages like to offer.

Patchwork Automaton

Patchwork Automaton

All the ward cards provide some value in Limited, but Patchwork Automaton can be backbreaking for slower opponents in the artifact synergy decks. Especially those with Oni-Cult Anvil.

We haven’t seen an aggressive artifact deck really work in Standard yet, but Kamigawa is still pretty new. With The Brothers’ War coming out later in the year which is sure to have a heavy artifact theme, this card has to be in the mix as a key player if that build ever comes together.

Sedgemoor Witch

Sedgemoor Witch

Sedgemoor Witch’s Young Pyromancer effect is a part of some “blood money” style black control decks filled with cheap creatures, cheap spells, planeswalkers, and wraths used in magecraft spellslinger builds. Those decks make a lot of small creatures, and the incidental damage can add up quick enough that paying three life for the ward cost can eventually get difficult.

The answer to the Witch is a wrath and there are plenty of wraths out there given the number of lots of small creature decks in Standard with white aggro and Wedding Invitation decks. This card hasn’t quite found its place in a top tier build.

Chaplain of Alms / Chapel Shieldgeist

Okay, look, I’m not saying Chaplain of Alms is a good card or that its deck is a good deck, but if you haven’t been wrecked by this on the Arena ladder, just wait. Ward 1 isn’t a lot. It literally can’t get any easier to target and still have ward. But.

Chaplain disturbs back for pretty cheap and both sides have ward, making it harder to manage with spot removal and even board wipes. If I really need to kill both sides of this and don’t have wraths, that’s two spells that cost sometimes twice as much as they should to deal with one card. And it’s so much the worse if there are other taxing effects like Thalia, Guardian of Thraben out.

This is when you ask, “why would I bother trying to kill it?”

Reaper’s Talisman is why. Both sides of Chaplain have first strike which means they wreck most defenders when you give them deathtouch. And the Talisman keeps racking up life drain the whole time. Throw in Triumphant Adventurer, a few more first strikers, maybe even Vorpal Sword, and it’s easy to pilot a deck that has no good answers to this strategy. A wrath, Prismari Command, the answers are there. This is a BO1-only phenomenon with the virtue of being one of those decks you can’t believe you just lost to, which is exactly the effect a janky meme pilot is looking for.

Wrap Up

Patchwork Automaton - Illustration by Donato Giancola

Patchwork Automaton | Illustration by Donato Giancola

Ward is still new enough that we’re still seeing Magic designers work through a lot of potential options. But since it’s scalable and can have stack interactions which hexproof and shroud can’t, I’d anticipate seeing a lot of different ideas show up in this design space. Ward X, anyone? Ward with sacrifices or mill. We haven’t seen a planeswalker with hexproof, but can that be far behind now that more removal spells also target planeswalkers?

A mechanic with a lot of creative levers to pull as a game designer or as a deckbuilder is a good mechanic. That’s why ward is such an exciting development. What’s your favorite ward card? Do you have any fun ward stories? Let me know in the comments down below. And you should definitely follow Draftsim on Twitter!

Happy deckbuilding, folks.

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