Defenders aren’t the most beloved or celebrated tribe in Magic, it’s true. Dedicated defender decks, headed up by Arcades, the Strategist, sent into attack with High Alert or Assault Formation, are often found in Commander circles, but as a whole, defenders don’t get a whole lot of love.
It stands to reason – they (generally) can’t attack, they don’t win games on their own and they’re utility cards that often don’t offer a lot in the way of power. Today, we’re turning the spotlight on this oft-overlooked group of cards. It’s time to have a look at the best and most famous (or perhaps infamous) defenders from throughout Magic’s history. Here we go!
An unassuming card, Sylvan Caryatid was the go-to mana dork during its time in Standard, and still sees fringe play in decks with particularly greedy mana bases that really need their acceleration to survive. Having hexproof makes it a lot more resilient than mana dorks like Birds of Paradise or Noble Hierarch, but costing two mana rather than one is obviously a pretty steep downside.
Nonetheless, Sylvan Caryatid has put in a shift or two over the years, and has found a home in a couple of different Pioneer decks – particularly those with Bring to Light and Niv-Mizzet Reborn, given the color requirements involved with jamming a five-color five-drop. Given how many powerful mana dorks there are, it’s quite an achievement to hold your own in a contested field like that. Even if Sylvan Caryatid isn’t dominating any formats these days, the fact that it’s in the conversation is something in and of itself.
Any card that pays you off for doing something your deck wants to do anyway is always going to be worth a second look. Young Pyromancer, Arclight Phoenix – these cards slot into instant-and-sorcery-based decks as they pay dividends for playing those decks’ natural game, offering an ongoing advantage while you fire off cantrips and burn spells.
Thing in the Ice, tragically, never quite got there. People tried – oh, how people tried. I spent months trying to make it work in a Blood Moon deck in Modern. Rather than provide incremental advantage like Young Pyromancer and its 1/1 tokens, the idea was that Thing in the Ice could block and block and block, then flip, bounce everything and kill ’em – usually in two hits after our Bolts and their fetchlands and shocklands.
There were some brief periods where Thing in the Ice did some work, in some fringe Modern strategies (I don’t think it ever made it in Standard, but I’m very ready to be corrected there if I’m wrong about that), but even if it never quite made it, it’s still a super sweet card, and maybe has a home in a future Pioneer deck or something like that.
This card is on the list for all the wrong reasons. It’s not a notable or iconic card for any good reason – it’s because it was the center of a sizeable controversy after the release of Masters 25. When it was first printed in Innistrad, it was already pretty much just a bulk mythic – it had a weird but cool ability, and largely wasn’t particularly playable. After Masters 25, however, this card became infamous.
Masters 25 was supposed to be a collection of Magic’s most iconic cards from its entire history (Reserved List notwithstanding). There were some huge reprints in it – Imperial Recruiter, Rishadan Port, even Jace, the Mind Sculptor! To give you more context, other mythics in this set included Chalice of the Void, Vendilion Clique and Armageddon. And then, along with all those big-ticket mythics, there was… Tree of Redemption.
I mean, even if it had to be from Innistrad, it could have been Liliana of the Veil, Snapcaster Mage or Parallel Lives (which is a $70 card, EDH truly is a silly place). It could have even been Past in Flames, a $3 mythic, because at least that’s an iconic Storm card! Instead, however, it was Tree of Redemption, which wasn’t powerful, iconic or particularly well-like – I mean, it’s a fine card, sure, whatever, but it shouldn’t be a mythic in a collection of Magic’s iconic cards.
As a result, Tree of Redemption is, even today, the butt of snark and ire when talking about reprints – Magic players have long memories after being spurned with something like this. Funnily enough, this reprint ended up making it quite an iconic card, although for all the wrong reasons. Still, no such thing as bad publicity, eh?
Perhaps it doesn’t look like much but Wall of Roots does work. Its ability means it costs an effective one mana, it blocks extremely well and is perfect fodder for sacrifice abilities once it gets past its use-by date. This card was, believe it or not, a crucially important part of some old creature decks – particularly in Modern.
Most notably, Wall of Roots was at its best in old Birthing Pod decks, and still sees some play in the format whenever there’s a deck that’s in the market for a defensive mana dork that can provide immediate but ultimately short-term value. Usually, Wall of Roots enables something unfair, as is the case with a lot of mana dorks, but this card is special in that it effectively has haste, as you can activate it as soon as it comes down.
Today, there’s a Pod-like deck floating about in Modern that played Eldritch Evolution and Chord of Calling along with a toolbox creature suite while comboing off with undying creatures, Hapatra, Vizier of Poisons, and Yawgmoth, Thran Physician (kids these days with their Grists and their Scurry Oaks – back in my day, we activated Pod to fetch Kitchen Finks and Melira, uphill, both ways). This deck plays Wall of Roots, as you’d expect – you can play it and use the mana to help pay for Eldritch Evolution, go and fetch a three-drop and then… I dunno, do something with +1/+1 and -1/-1 counters, I think? It’s hard to tell, I’m sure there’s a combo in there somewhere.
There is no shortage of two-mana 0/4 defenders, but the absolute best of the bunch and, in my view, the best defenders ever printed are the functionally identical Wall of Omens and Wall of Blossoms, in white and green respectively. I love these cards. They’re about the fairest cards ever printed, perfect for a slow, defensive, value-oriented deck that plays this sort of card on turn two to do a whole lot of nothing.
Against aggro, these Walls will save you five or six life usually, at a minimum, and if they ever use a removal or burn spell to kill or finish them off, you’re still up thanks to their enter-the-battlefield trigger! Sure, they’re not flashy, exciting or game-winning, but what they do they do exceptionally well – and, best of all, they’re always ready to be blinked by something like Restoration Angel or Thassa, Deep-Dwelling.
There’s something very pleasing about having humble defenders like these be amongst the best-in-class (and, from my perspective, the actual best, although I know that’s subjective). So often the spotlight shines on big, flashy mythics or huge game-winning finishers – it’s nice to give the number one spot on a list like this to a fair, balanced, workhorse card like Wall of Omens or Wall of Blossoms.