In the family of long-lasting keywords, Protection has a tumultuous relationship with Magic. If Trample and Flying are our favorite siblings and Scry is our adorable younger cousin, then Protection is our uncle who is fun to have around, but he has a bad habit of making strangers uncomfortable at parties. In this article I will explain the basics, as well as the finer details, so that you can play with Protection and know how to handle any edge case the game throws at you.
Protection has been a part of magic since the very beginning, but it was phased out of core sets in Sixth Edition for fear that it was too complex for new players. It was brought back into core sets for Ninth Edition, and it remained for several years. It was then removed from all Magic sets, starting with Magic Origins, due to the same concerns. Finally, after re-entering players’ consciousness in Modern Horizons, protection was re-introduced to the Standard environment in Core Set 2020. The keyword is a useful tool and nothing seems to adequately replace it, which I believe is why Magic’s design team keeps bringing it back. When it works intuitively it’s a simple and powerful mechanic, but when it gets complicated it can require a very precise understanding of Magic’s rules. That’s what I’m here for! Let’s get into it.
Protection shows up mostly on creature cards, but any permanent or player can have protection. The reminder text for protection gives us a pretty good overview: “This [permanent or player] can’t be blocked, targeted, dealt damage, or enchanted by anything [with the stated quality].” That’s a good summary, but it doesn’t actually encompass everything that protection does, so here’s a list of protection’s effects:
- An attacking creature with protection from [quality] can’t be blocked by creatures with the stated quality.
- A permanent or player with protection from [quality] can’t be targeted by spells with the stated quality or targeted by abilities from sources with the stated quality.
- If a permanent or player with protection from [quality] would be dealt damage by a source with the stated quality, that damage is prevented.
- A permanent or player that has protection from [quality] can’t have a permanent with the stated quality attached to it, which means:
- Auras with the stated quality can’t enchant it.
- Equipment with the stated quality can’t be equipped to it.
- Fortifications with the stated quality can’t fortify it.
The “stated quality” is usually a color, but it can be any characteristic of a card or any information about a card. Some cards have protection from certain creature types (Baneslayer Angel), protection from a card type (Emrakul, the Promised End), or even protection from certain converted mana costs (Mistmeadow Skulk). Runed Halo gives us protection from whatever card we name! Progenitus (and his baby brother Hexdrinker) have protection from everything, which feels like cheating if you ask me, but I guess it’s okay because there are still plenty of ways around it.
True-Name Nemesis is a special case, because it has protection from a chosen player. Given the normal rules of protection, this would not do much, because players can’t deal damage, block, or target. However, the rules clarify that this wording creates a special kind of protection which applies to all objects controlled by the chosen player.
If an attacking creature has protection, then creatures it has protection from can’t block it. For example, if we are attacking with Nacatl Savage (which has protection from Artifacts), our opponent can’t block it with their Jousting Dummy because Jousting Dummy is an Artifact. If our opponent blocks with a Grizzly Bears, then we use Liquimetal Coating to turn the Bears into an Artifact, our creature will still be blocked by the Bears because that block was declared before the Bears became an artifact. That’s all there is to it!
If a player or permanent has protection, we can’t target it with anything it has protection from. For example, if we want to kill our opponent’s Animar, Soul of Elements, we can’t use a Doom Blade or a Shriekmaw because Animar has protection from black. What we can do, however, is cast Damnation to kill it. Damnation is a black spell, but since it doesn’t have targets it will destroy Animar along with the rest of the creatures on the battlefield. Settle the Wreckage will work for the same reason (assuming your opponent doesn’t have protection from white).
Targeting works differently than blocking does; if a spell (or ability) has a target, the rules check whether or not that target is “legal” when the spell is cast and then again when the spell resolves. If a target is no longer legal, the spell will no longer effect that target. For example, if an opponent casts Fatal Push targeting our Goblin Piledriver, that spell will go onto the stack successfully because our Piledriver is a legal target. If we then use Blind Seer to turn that Fatal Push blue, the Push will fail to resolve because Goblin Piledriver has protection from blue and is therefore no longer a valid target.
Abilities are handled very similarly, but an ability by itself does not have the qualities that protection looks for. Instead, when an ability is put onto the stack and when it resolves, the rules check that ability’s source to determine whether the target is valid. For example, if our opponent gets an Oblivion Ring onto the battlefield and targets our Nacatl Savage with it, we can use Liquimetal Coating to turn Oblivion Ring into an artifact, which will cause that ability to fail when it tries to resolve.
This is the aspect of protection that people understand the least, in my experience. I think this is mostly because the reminder text for protection says a player or permanent “can’t be damaged by” anything it has protection from. That makes it sound like damage is never assigned to a creature that is protected, when in reality it’s slightly different.
The damage clause of the protection rules is as follows:
702.16e Any damage that would be dealt by sources that have the stated quality to a permanent or player with protection is prevented.
The difference here is that damage sources still assign their damage to a protected creature like normal, and the damage is then prevented. This makes trample work counter-intuitively; most players assume that a creature with trample can’t assign lethal damage to a blocker with protection, and that they won’t take any combat damage from that trampling attacker. In reality, the trampling creature will assign its damage as normal to the blocker and the defending player, then damage will be dealt to the player and protection will prevent damage to the protected creature.
The nature of this rule creates another surprising situation as well; since the damage is assigned as normal and then prevented, effects like Skullcrack or Bonecrusher Giant‘s Stomp can stop that prevention! Let’s say we’re attacking with a Grizzly Bears and our opponent blocks with a Beloved Chaplain. If we Skullcrack our opponent before combat damage is dealt, our Bears will kill their Chaplain because the damage can’t be prevented! If it feels like a dirty trick, that’s because it is one.
This one is almost as straightforward as blocking: if an Aura, Equipment, or Fortification (Darksteel Garrison is the only one that exists) is attached to a permanent or player that gains protection from one or more qualities the attached permanent has, it stops being attached as a state-based action. This rule also prevents attaching these to something that is protected from them, but that’s usually unnecessary since Auras and Equipments target the permanent or player they become attached to, so protection already prevents that from happening.
Cool it, Clyde
Emrakul, the Promised End causes a bit of confusion because her protection from Instants can give players the wrong idea. Players think that Emrakul’s protection means that the spell can’t be countered, because counterspells are Instants that have a target. However, protection is an ability that only permanents and players can have, so Emrakul, the Promised End does not have protection from Instants until the spell resolves. That means she can be countered.
Some players also think that protection from instants grants protection from anything Instant-speed, including permanents with Flash and activated abilities, but it only actually protects against spells with the card type “Instant.”
Dear readers, we’ve reached the point in our program where it’s time for me, Bob, to tell you about some dumb stuff nobody should actually do in a game of Magic. This time around, I want to talk about the Enchantments Absolute Grace and Absolute Law. These two cards grant all creatures on the battlefield protection from black and from red, respectively. Normally this just throws a wrench into our opponents’ strategy, if they’re playing the protected color. For example if we have Absolute Grace and our opponent is playing mono-black, then they can’t target creatures with spells, they can’t block our creatures, and we will prevent all damage dealt to creatures by black sources. Furthermore, if our opponent has a black Aura attached to any creature, that Aura will fall off and go to the graveyard as soon as Absolute Grace enters the battlefield.
We can take this one step further with the card Darkest Hour, which will ensure that no creatures can interact with one another in any way. If all creatures are black, and all creatures have protection from black, then the player with the most lethal army has a big advantage because no one can block. If we add a Pariah or Pariah’s Shield to one of our creatures, we effectively prevent all combat damage that would be dealt to us!
We can turn the stupidity up another notch with Painter’s Servant. If we control Absolute Law and we play Painter’s Servant naming red, the game gets… weird. Since all creatures have protection from red, and all cards are red, that means creatures can’t be blocked, targeted, enchanted, or equipped, and all damage to them is prevented. This protects our creatures, of course, but it also means our opponents can’t target or enchant their own creatures with anything! If our deck is filled with things that effect “all creatures,” and our creatures are powerful but fragile, we can use this situation to our advantage!
…I will admit, this is not a foolproof strategy and it will likely cause more chaos and confusion than success, but that’s part of the fun! If our opponents didn’t understand protection before, they certainly will after a game where this pair hits the battlefield.
Protection from Further Silliness
That’s it for protection! I hope you’ve learned something, and I also hope you got some ideas for how to use it to your advantage. If you have any more questions, please reach out in the comments or ask us on Twitter. Thanks for reading, and tune in next time when I use Mirror Entity to give my Hungry Lynx and Hammerfist Giant all creature types, then safely activate Hammerfist Giant because my creatures are all cats and rats!