Friday, November 21, 2008

The Evolution of Protection

When Alpha first hit store shelves the concept of mana/spell color was brought paramount and reinforced with a number of cards. In the common slot White mages were given the Circles of Protection to fend off damage from spell/creatures/effects originating from a specific color. For the mere cost of 1w you could plunk down a reusable enchantment which could nullify the damage from a single source of the appropriate color.

The Circles quickly fell into two groups, with white, green, and blue seen are worthless. CoP red and black were viewed as useful, but situational. These cards had the down side of only working on once specific color, so you had to draw into the correct color circle to be useful against your current opponent. Since this was long before the concept of sideboards, this often meant you had dead cards in your deck if your opponent was not in certain colors. Equally problematic was the drawing of multiple copies on the same spell, as there was no added benefit from a second copy in play. These cards quickly gained a reputation of being not only situational, but less then useful. This reputation coupled with the commonality of the cards, made these doggedly disliked. I can clearly remember opening packs, and you were all but guaranteed to get at least one circle of protection in any given pack, and you were never happy to see them.

The Circles of Protection were not without there merits. They did fill a critical role in White’s early color pie, and even spawned a deck concept from CoP:Black's interaction with another staple card of the time Pestilence. With these two enchantments in play, you could deal out damage to creatures and your opponents, while negating that damage to your self. A minor loop hole, or lack of rules understanding, allowed for any amount of Pestilence damage, which was announced together, to be prevented by a single activation of the CoP. Protection from Black or cheap regenerating creatures would keep Pestilence in play despite large amounts of creature damage. The notoriously cheap Dark Ritual powered out black mana for the activation of Pestilence in sweeping strikes. With the 6th edition rules revision it became clear that CoP would need to be activated once for each single mana activation of Pestilence, for ever crippling this once powerful casual construct. The Circles of Protection were so fundamental infact, that they inspired several variations of the years like CoP: Artifact, Art, and Shadow.

The Circles of Protection remained common in every core set through Seventh Edition, plus were printed in the then concepted “stand alone sets” of Ice Age and Tempest. The earliest attempt to improve on this important concept was Legend’s Greater Realm of Preservation. With the same casting cost, and an increased activation to 1w, GRoP prevented damage from the already identified only two colors that really mattered: red and black. It was also printed at the uncommon level, to give the feel of a more refined work of magic. This version suffered from the general unpopularity of the CoP cycle, despite the fact that it addressed the key weakness of the concept, and was still viewed as to situation, and expensive to activate for general play consideration. It was reprinted in Fifth Edition in an attempt to fix the protection concept, but was viewed as a worthless uncommon by many since the common CoP’s were also printed in this set.

The Urza Block brought us an interesting twist to the concept, with the Runes of Protection. These spells were functionally the same as the CoP’s, but with the addition of cycling, and the minor inconvenience of requiring white mana to activate. This is clearly a superior spell in my mind. The addition of cycling very successfully addresses the issue of drawing this card when not needed. The white activation cost is a very minor issue, since most decks running this card would be using white mana to activate anyway. The commonality, and situational nature was too much for this new variant to overcome, and it fell to the wayside.

Magic’s first attempt at a universal protection spell was Mirage’s Prismatic Circle. While this spell allowed for the selection of a single relevant color represented a vast improvement over the CoP’s, it proved to be to much a mana demand to prove useful in the long run. Opponents could just wait until the cumulative upkeep had removed the obstacle, and alpha strike when ready. This card proved to be an over-costed failure in almost every regard, but was a step in the right direction for the protection concept. If nothing else the art is very cool.

The release of Mercadian Masks in 1999 brought with it a huge evolution to the protection spell concept with the addition of Story Circle. This new variant brought three relevant changes to the protection line up. First it’s casting cost was increased to ww1 to balance some of the other changes. Next it was printed at the uncommon level, address the already over printed problem with the CoP’s. Last, and arguable most importantly, the Story Circle was not color specific, instead allowing the user to choose the effected color as it comes into play. Story Circle borrowed the concept of white mana activation from the Runes cycle, reinforcing that it was a minor change to the cost, and provided balance to the now far more versatile spell. Story Circle became an almost immediate favorite since it addressed and resolved the issues from the prior protection spells.

The release of 8th edition in 2003 brought several sweeping changes to the concept, including the introduction of the Core set concept. With this the CoP’s were printed for the first time as uncommons, and the wildly popular Story Circle was elevated to Rare. In the end, the CoP’s were still seen as too situational, and continued to lose favor to their more versatile cousin. By the time Ninth Edition was released, Wizards had opted to discontinue the virtually useless white, blue, and green CoP’s, but continue to print the more useful Red and Black CoP’s at the uncommon level, while continuing to make Story Circle available as a rare. Tenth (Xth) Edition spelled the Doom of the CoP’s as the last two survivors were pulled in favor the rare Story Circle, which had proven itself to be superior in function and popularity through the last two core sets.

Rhystic Circle was an interesting twist on the protection spell, creating a tug of war situation. It was virtually useless at the casual table were you were almost sure to be out tugged by multiple opponents. The Sphere cycle from Odyssey went the opposite direction, requiring a large casting cost but not activation and a fixed reduction of damage. The Spheres were printed at uncommon, but still suffered from situational limits of being color specific. These ended up being removal targets before an opponent’s alpha strike. Another variation on this theme was Righteous Aura from Mercadian Masques which essentially cost one man to activate, and reduced any single source of damage to 2 damage.

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