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MTG Defender Explained + Rules, Best Cards & Decks!

Defender is an evergreen Magic: The Gathering ability. A creature with defender can’t attack, it can only block. In this article, I look at what defender does in MTG with examples, the best defender cards in various colours, and cover a fabulous defender deck that allows your defender creatures attack!

MTG card Wall of Fire illustration. Image: Wizards of the Coast. Artist: Dan Dos Santos.

MTG Defender Rules

What does the MTG defender reminder text say?

This creature can’t attack.

See Magic: The Gathering Comprehensive Rules, 702.3. “Defender” for more information.

If a creature has defender, it can never attack. However, a defender creature can block as normal.

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Mechanics in the style of defender have been in the game since Alpha, when the Wall creature type was introduced. Originally, Walls were the only creatures that couldn’t attack. This was mentioned in their rules text.

However, the defender keyword was introduced when non-Wall creatures started having rules that prevented them from attacking. Defender became an official keyword in Champions of Kamigawa. Since then, almost all older cards that can’t attack have retroactively been given defender.

Since its introduction, defender has always been considered an evergreen keyword. You can expect it to appear in every set on at least a few creatures. It is most common in white as that is the most defensive colour, but all colours can have defender creatures.

Wall and Defender

Even though Walls no longer have rules preventing them from attacking, all Walls have defender. However, even though it causes them to have all creature types and technically count as walls, creatures with the changeling ability and Mistform Ultimus don’t have defender.

Because you can get cards that have defender without being Walls, the two are not synonymous. As such, cards that affect Walls don’t necessarily affect other defender creatures, and vice versa.

MTG Defender Examples

MTG card Wall of Runes. Image: Wizards of the Coast
MTG card Wall of Runes. Image: Wizards of the Coast.

For example, let’s say I control the defender creature Wall of Runes. Because it has defender, I can’t attack with it. This does mean, however, that it’ll always be available to be used as a blocker.

Defender vs First Strike

MTG cards Baneslayer Angel and Illusionary Wall. Image: Wizards of the Coast
MTG cards Baneslayer Angel and Illusionary Wall. Image: Wizards of the Coast.

First strike creatures have an advantage against creatures with defender. This is because they can destroy the other creature in combat without being dealt damage by it, circumventing the high power values seen in many defender creatures. The same is true for double strike.

Suppose I attack with Baneslayer Angel and my opponent blocks with Illusionary Wall. Normally my creature would be destroyed. However, Baneslayer Angel has first strike and can kill its blocker before it has a chance to deal any damage to it.

Defender + First Strike

MTG cards Blitz Leech and Wall of Spears. Image: Wizards of the Coast
MTG cards Blitz Leech and Wall of Spears. Image: Wizards of the Coast.

Giving your defender creature first strike can be powerful. This allows it to shoot down attackers before they have an opportunity to damage it, what an intimidating blocker!

For example, I attack with Blitz Leech. This time, my opponent blocks with Wall of Spears, which has first strike. As such, my attacker gets destroyed before it can deal its own damage and, thus, kill its blocker. 

Defender vs Flying

MTG cards Arcanist's Owl, Wall of Runes, Brimstone Trebuchet. Image: Wizards of the Coast
MTG cards Arcanist’s Owl, Wall of Runes, Brimstone Trebuchet. Image: Wizards of the Coast.

Unless it also has flying or reach, a creature with defender cannot block flying creatures. This is because defender simply prevents a creature from attacking. The keyword itself doesn’t inherently make a creature any better of a blocker. Imagine your defender being like a wall, flying creatures can just fly over it, unless it has some way of reaching them.

For instance, my opponent attacks me with Arcanist’s Owl, a flying creature. Because it doesn’t have flying, I can’t use my Wall of Runes to block. However, the defender creature Brimstone Trebuchet does have reach, so it use it to block Arcanist’s Owl instead.

Defender vs Trample

MTG cards Bookwurm and Wall of Runes. Image: Wizards of the Coast
MTG cards Bookwurm and Wall of Runes. Image: Wizards of the Coast.

How does defender work if the creature also has trample, though? It actually works exactly the same as usual because the defender ability doesn’t prevent a creature with trample dealing excess damage to the defending player.

Let’s say, for example, that my opponent attacks me with Bookwurm, a 7/B7 trample creature. I block it with Wall of Runes, a 0/4 defender creature. Because Bookwurm’s power is higher than 4, I take the excess 3 damage myself, and Wall of Runes is destroyed.

 

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Best MTG Defender Cards 

Arcades, the Strategist (Defender – Green/White/Blue Creature)

MTG card Arcades, the Strategist. Image: Wizards of the Coast
MTG card Arcades, the Strategist. Image: Wizards of the Coast.

If you want to pay Defender Tribal, Arcades, the Strategist is an excellent MTG defender commander. It has everything you need. Not only does it make all your defender cards cantrip when they enter the battlefield, but it is a card that lets your defenders attack! They even deal damage according to their toughness as well!

Arcades is also in Bant (white, blue, and green) the colours with the strongest defender cards overall. As such, it is the go to Defender Tribal Commander. And it’s a dragon! How cool is that?!

Sylvan Caryatid (Defender – Green Creature)

MTG card Sylvan Caryatid. Image: Wizards of the Coast
MTG card Sylvan Caryatid. Image: Wizards of the Coast.

Magic: The Gathering has a long history of them, but Sylvan Caryatid is a standout among mana dorks. In addition to tapping for any colour, Sylvan Caryatid also has hexproof. So, once you play it, no opponent is getting rid of this thing!

Similarly, Sylvan Caryatid only costs two mana. Although this might be more than Birds of Paradise, you’re paying for higher toughness and hexproof that’ll allow Sylvan Caryatid to be a decent blocker early game too.

Tree of Perdition (Defender – Black Creature)

MTG card Tree of Perdition. Image: Wizards of the Coast
MTG card Tree of Perdition. Image: Wizards of the Coast.

Now and again, you get defender creatures with incredibly high toughness. Tree of Perdition is one of those creatures, clocking in at a remarkable 13 toughness. Not only that, you can switch this toughness with your opponent’s life total at any time.

The implications of this are game-ending. In Commander, this is a 0/40 blocker and an opponent on 13 life, out of nowhere. If you can reduce Tree of Perdition’s starting toughness lower than 13, you can easily take out an opponent in only a single attack.

Thing in the Ice // Awoken Horror (Defender – Blue Creature)

MTG cards Thing in the Ice and Awoken Horror. Image: Wizards of the Coast
MTG cards Thing in the Ice and Awoken Horror. Image: Wizards of the Coast.

Like many defender creatures, Thing in the Ice is a cheap creature with a massive effect. For only two mana, you get a reasonably decent blocker. After you’ve cast four instants or sorceries, you get a 7/8 threat that’s suddenly the only creature on the field.

Thing in the Ice is one of the few defender creatures that doesn’t need external help to end the game. Transforming into Awoken Horror bounces all other creatures and leaves your opponent wide open. Even if it dies to removal, you basically got two mana counterspell out of it that protects your other creatures from being killed.

Dowsing Dagger // Lost Vale (Defender – Artifact/Land)

MTG cards Dowsing Dagger and Lost Vale. Image: Wizards of the Coast
MTG cards Dowsing Dagger and Lost Vale. Image: Wizards of the Coast.

Dowsing Dagger is a humble Equipment that gives a creature +2/+1 at the cost of giving your opponent a pair of very underwhelming 0/2 defender creatures. Even though they might have free blockers now, Dowsing Dagger has still got you covered.

If the equipped creature successfully deals damage to your opponent, Dowsing Dagger transforms.

It transforms into Lost Vale, which gives you the effect of Black Lotus every turn cycle! This is easily one of the best lands in the game, and if you equip Dowsing Dagger to an evasive creature, its easy to get out too.

Gelid Shackles (Defender – White Enchantment)

MTG card Gelid Shackles. Image: Wizards of the Coast
MTG card Gelid Shackles. Image: Wizards of the Coast

There are a lot of pacifism effects, but Gelid Shackles is among the cheapest. For only one mana, it prevents a creature from blocking and from activating its abilities. Pay a snow mana, and it also gives a creature defender until end of turn. This way it can’t attack or block.

Gelid Shackles is also a snow card, which gives it additional synergies. Its versatility is enhanced by its low cost as well, as you only need to spend mana on it when you need to. Put it on a creature with defender already and you’ve disabled it entirely.

MTG Defender Decks 

Defender is most common in white. So if you want defender cards, buy the appropriate theme boosters. For Strixhaven, the Lorehold theme booster is an excellent choice as the faction itself is white/red.

Arcades Defender Tribal – Commander

Arcades, the Strategist is the perfect defender commander, as I’ve mentioned already. With access to white, blue, and green, you can build a powerful EDH deck with it. Indeed, many have.

The strength of Defender Tribal is that many creatures have a really high toughness for a fairly low cost. However, they either can’t attack or have low power. Arcades lets your defender creatures attack and deal damage according to their toughness, which gets around these issues.

As such, the average game plan for Defender Tribal involves playing the best creatures of anyone on the board, mana for mana value. Furthermore, they’re easy to buff and there’s a lot of good cards that synergize with high toughness available in Bant (white + blue + green) colours too.

Similarly, Arcades draws you a card whenever a defender creatures enters the battlefield under your control. To exploit this, flicker the defender creatures to draw large amounts of cards.

Defender Tribal’s access to Bant colours also allows it to include many smaller packages in the 99. Ramp, control, and pillow fort are all possible with this playstyle.

Cards commonly played in Arcades Defender Tribal include:

How to play against Defender 

Kill the Defender Creatures in Combat

Although most defender creatures have very high toughness, they don’t have indestructible. As such, if they’re used to block a creature with power high enough, these defender creatures can be killed.

Similarly, use combat tricks. Buffing a creature’s power or giving it an ability like deathtouch is an excellent way to handle defender creatures. Equipment and auras are also a sure-fire way to help your creatures overpower your opponent’s defences. 

Use Removal on the Defender Creatures

As annoying as they are to play against, most defender creatures don’t have hexproof or protection. As such, they’re vulnerable to removal. So instead of using your burn to attack their opponent directly, kill their defender creatures with it instead.

Similarly, prepare your counterspells, killspells, and hand attacks. If your opponent is playing defender creatures, they’re likely playing white, a colour that struggles against control cards.

Stop the Opponent Blocking

There are certain red cards that can prevent creatures from blocking entirely. With these out on the field, your opponent’s defender creatures become useless as the still can’t attack. Blow Your House Down and Goblin Locksmith are examples of these cards.

Give Your Creatures Evasion

Although creatures with defender usually have high toughness, they don’t usually have reach. If possible, give your creatures evasion abilities like flying, menace or protection. This way, they can get around the defender creatures without being blocked.

A similar idea is to just attack with multiple creatures. Unless otherwise stated, each defender creature can only block one attacker. Defender doesn’t make creatures better blockers automatically.

As such, while your best creatures might not get through, you can wittle down your opponent’s life total by continually attacking with a mass of creatures. Unless they can play a wrath, you’ll eventually overwhelm them.

Focus On the Larger Strategy

Unless your opponent has a card that lets them attack, creatures with defender can’t win the game on their own. Instead, these creatures stall because of this. While doing so, your opponent is likely putting together a larger strategy, such as control or mill.

Even if you’ve lost the first game because your attackers couldn’t get past the defender creatures, there’s still hope. Remember what strategy your opponent used and sideboard appropriately. 

Decks that run multiple defender creatures are relatively slow. Because they take a while to get going, they’re often vulnerable in the early game, especially if they don’t have any other attackers. As such, focus on messing up their gameplan first and dealing with defender creatures second.

Defender FAQs 

Do Defender Creatures Deal Damage When Blocking?

If the defender creature has power above 0, it will deal damage when blocking. Defender creatures engage in combat normally. They just can’t attack. As such, they will deal damage when blocking. They wouldn’t be printed with power values higher than 0 otherwise.

Can I Choose to Disable Defender?

Defender is a static keyword ability, which means you cannot disable it. Whenever a defender creature deals damage, you automatically gain that much life. You don’t have a choice about it.

Do all Walls have Defender?

Older MTG Walls may have the text ‘Walls can’t attack’ but have no ‘defender’ keyword on them. The defender ability was added to them later in their Oracle text. You can check the card you have on the MTG Gatherer to be sure.

The only Walls which don’t have defender are changelings and Mistform Ultimus.

While it is possible according to the MTG rules for a Wall to be created without defender, as of the time of writing (August, 2021) none have been published.

A note: Defender MTG 

In summary, defender is an ability that prevents a creature from attacking. This doesn’t make defender creatures useless, though. Quite the opposite is true and many defender creatures have great utility or make great blockers.

As such, it’s no wonder many current decks use defender cards. Not only are they defensive, but they’re also dependable. Add some defenders to your deck today!

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