Rant of Valakut: Interactivity and the Hexproof Problem

One of the worst feelings in a game of Magic is facing a creature you just can’t answer. Whether it’s too big for your burn spells or it keeps coming back from the graveyard, the frustration of knowing that there is no way you can possibly beat a card is incredibly demoralizing. This is particularly accute when dealing with hexproof creatures.

Even before the introduction of hexproof as a keyword in the M12 core set, there have been a myriad of creatures that cannot be targetted by opponents, ranging all the way from small 1/1s to massive 8/8 monsters. From elf to spirit, defender to flyer, hexproof creatures have come in all shapes and sizes. It is this variety that I find remarkable and, moreover, that regardless of a creature’s other abilities the creature is always significantly improved by having hexproof. The same cannot be said for most keywords: a creature with first strike in’t very good if its power is too low, while a creature with vigilance and low toughness is too fragile to be useful. Hexproof, much like flying, is one of the few abilities that can go on any creature and be good. In fact, in many cases it is hexproof that makes the difference between a creature being playable and it being useless.

Take Gladecover Scout, for instance. A 1/1 creature for 1 mana is typically a very forgettable card. Even with flying, creatures of this size are rarely worthy of note. That said, hexproof provides the Scout with a level of protection most creatures lack. By being untargetable by opponents, the Scout is immune to most forms of removal; this can be a particularly sore spot for players stuck staring at a hand full of Fatal Pushes and Paths to Exile. A creature like Gladecover Scout becomes one of the best possible targets for auras and equipment, because it is very unlikely to be destroyed. The deck “Bogles” takes this strategy to the extreme, enchanting small hexproof creatures with a multitude of auras until they are unstoppable. All the while, the player sitting across the table is only able to watch as the hexproof creatures grow and grow.

Seeing how good a small creature with hexproof can be, it’s no surprise that a card like Invisible Stalker would also have gained such notoriety. Much like a decked out Gladecover Scout in the Bogles deck, the Stalker found itself equipped with all manner of items during the original Innistrad block. By being untargetable it was already a nuisance, but the Invisible Stalker was also unblockable, meaning that even if a player wanted to use a combat trick to block it and buff their own creature, they couldn’t. Barring something like a mass removal spell, the Invisible Stalker would stick aroud until the end of the game.

Granted, any form of evasion can be frustrating, be it an Invisible Stalker, a Slither Blade, or even a creature with flying. In Limited formats, like Draft or Sealed, games are often won with a flying creature attacking for the last few points of damage. So often in these scenarios the losing player will end the game feeling frustrated at their inability to draw an answer to the threat. Most of the time these players have a removal spell like Murder or Ambuscade that could get them back in the game if they could just draw it. These are fine against most problematic creatures, like a buffed up Slither Blade, but when that threat also has hexproof it makes matters that much more frustrating for the player looking for that answer. The options available to stop an evasive, untargetable creature are very limited at the best of times, and in a Limited game the odds of even having such an answer are rather remote.

While mercifully not evasive, massive hexproof threats like Scaled Behemoth are a whole other headache. Able to block and destroy pretty much any attacker that comes its way, threats like this end up being giant brick walls in most scenarios. They don’t usually end up attacking, but when they eventually do it often is part of a game-winning swing. Unless blocked by multiple creatures, it is highly unlikely that a Scaled Behemoth, or any similar hexproof creature, will be removed from play. A big part of this is simply the size of the creature; even an Axebane Stag is enough to stop an opponent in their tracks, but unlike the Stag, the Scaled Behemoth is safe from spells like Unsummon and Doom Blade.

By contrast, Conifer Strider from Dragons of Tarkir is neither evasive nor an impenetrable barrier. Its moderate mana cost of 4 mana means that it is also unlikely to be the target of a multitude of auras, or if it is at least the opponent will have some time to prepare a defense. With all that said, the Strider might be my favourite hexproof creature of all time (even if it really should have been a treefolk!). It is such a simple design, and yet, its high power and low toughness makes it fairly unique among hexproof creatures, and it is this disparity that makes it so fascinating.

While it is not the most powerful creature ever printed, the fact that Conifer Strider has a clear weakness in its low toughness, it usually makes for an intriguing and interactive game. The protection provided by hexproof tempered by its fragility in combat, and yet its high power means that it remains a dangerous threat. Without any blockers to stop it, the Strider would end the game in only a few turns, and meanwhile it is able to trade with most attackers when used defensively.

A low toughness creature, like your typical Cobblebrute, is quite often a bit of a liability, since it can be removed with most cheap removal spells, like Shock or Splendid Agony, but as we have already seen, being hexproof counters that drawback perfectly. Of course, Cobblebrutes and Conifer Striders alike will die to any run of the mill Grizzly Bear, but the presence of a Conifer Strider on the battlefield turns games into a series of difficult questions for both players: What are you willing to sacrifice to remove an opposing Conifer Strider? Is it worth blocking with your Conifer Strider to reduce the amount of damage you’ll be taking overall? These sorts of questions just don’t come up in games with Invisible Stalkers and Scaled Behemoths; those creatures don’t make for interesting board states and are, by and large, very uninteractive cards.

Granted, I will certainly not fault anyone for wanting to play with powerful cards and wanting to win, but facing a seemingly unbeatable card time and again does not inspire people to keep playing against you. If a player feels like every time they play they encounter a card they can’t stop, then they are more than likely going to get frustrated with the game and stop playing. This can be particularly detrimental for small gaming groups and casual communities who can’t afford to lose a player, but it is never good regardless of how large your group is.

This is where using cards with inherent drawbacks can prove to be a good option. Not only will the opponent feel like they have a chance at winning, but it will also force the player using the weaker card to think more carefully about their actions. Winning a game becomes more than just slamming down a powerful “I win” card, and more about careful decisions and good gameplay. You may find that your games are more dynamic and fun as a result, and your opponents will almost certainly have a better time. In a casual gaming environment, that is often far more important than winning every single game.

Obviously, there is a time and a place for playing these suboptimal cards, and I wouldn’t expect a player at a competitive tournament to try using a card like Conifer Strider. When playing around the kitchen table, though? That is another matter entirely!

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