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By: Kumagoro42, Gianluca Aicardi
Jul 26 2014 1:08pm
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I love this game. I love writing about it. Compiling lists about it. Evaluating it. Sometimes, I even play it. I'm an Accidental Player.

 Dendrology, from the Ancient Greek word dendron, "tree", is the science and study of wooded plants. In the Magic: The Gathering universe, this translates into two different creature types that have existed since the game's very beginning: Plant and Treefolk. The latter is simply a staple of all fantasy RPGs and settings, dating back to Tolkien's creation of the Ents, the giant walking and talking trees. On the other hand, the Plant type has evolved in interesting, sometimes bizarre fashions, after starting as just "what the green walls are made of" (actually, it was retconned into that in 2007 when the Plant type was added to all those old Walls, but let's assume the principles behind The Grand Creature Type Update were already in Richard Garfield's mind 14+ years earlier).

 Now, following the lead of Adam the Mentat's excellent History of Saprolings, and to properly celebrate Vegetation Week, I compiled my own very History of Plant and Treefolk in Magic, proceeding set by set, with attention to both the evolution of the Plant and Treefolk types over time, and the best members of both tribes for constructed purposes. Ready? Go! ... No. 1: The Larch.

Chapter 1: THE ROOTS

  

  

 August 1993: Limited First Edition Alpha comes out and with it the "first" of everything, including both our vegetable friends. Wall of Brambles was just a Wall back then, but its Plant nature was already evident. As far as these early Walls went, it made for one of the best, able to withstand all non-evasive attackers and kill the smaller ones, thanks to its thorns. And Ironroot Treefolk might have been an unremarkable, rightly forgotten common vanilla creature, but has the merit to introduce the idea that the Treefolk's bodies are toughness-oriented (because, you know, they're very resilient... like trees). Unfortunately, neither of these two original ancestors has ever been released online. Not that they would have a chance to be played today, of course, but historical and nostalgia factors would ask for them to be available in collections.

 About half a year later, between December 1993 and March 1994, the first two expansion sets joined the pool. Arabian Nights gave the Plant the Singing Tree (which I'm not sure is actually part of One Thousand and One Nights but certainly sounds like Arabian folklore). Beautifully illustrated by Rob Alexander, a clear departure from the simple, child-like tree Jesper Myrfors had drawn for Ironroot Treefolk, Singing Tree is a rare with a cool ability, although it would clearly feel overcosted by today's parameters. It's on record as being the first actual non-Wall Plant, though, something that won't happen again until Visions.

 Antiquities notably introduced Argoth, the island on Dominaria where Titania ruled and the goddess and incarnation of Dominaria, Gaea, was worshiped, her sanctuary protected by special Argothian Treefolk called Gaea's Avengers. Urza and Mishra fought their fiercest battle there, annihilating the forest entirely. The coastal, sentient forest Yavimaya is what remains of it. The actual cards for the Treefolk of Argoth have both an artifact theme, designed to make them good within Antiquities, but pretty much useless elsewhere.

 Fun fact: did you know that the Ironroot Treefolk are the only treefolk that reproduce sexually rather than through seeds? That's something you don't want to witness.


Chapter 2: FIRST SPROUTS

    

  

 After Legends ignored all vegetation (not deeming it very legend-worthy, I guess, which is a notion that would be disproved in later years), The Dark gave us the first two horror vegetables. Carnivorous Plant was a solid defender at the time, but you'd still have better things to cast for 4 mana, like, I don't know, things that could actually attack. And Wormwood Treefolk was sort of a pathetic attempt to give Ironroot Treefolk some evasion. It's sort of notable as the first Treefolk not to have toughness higher than power, and the first with an off-color activation, and a link to black.

 Fallen Empires was again deprived of all plants & trees, and of all the specimens from Ice Age, Homelands and Alliances, only Tinder Wall was truly remarkable, being used to this day for its excellent fast ramp properties, which makes it the oldest Plant or Wall still in use (at least in Legacy Tribal Wars). Online we miss the Wall of Brambles variant Wall of Pine Needles, too, as well as the sort of pointless anti-flyer tech Whip Vines (if the Vines need to survive combat in order to keep the flyer trapped, can't they just keep blocking it? Unless you want to attack past it with your own flyer the very next turn, in which case why is the opponent even attacking into your wall?).

 Wall of Kelp is interesting, though, as both the first non-green Plant, and one able to create tokens, that would be later redefined as "Plant Wall tokens named Kelp". Great flavor, too, as kelp is a type of seaweed.


Chapter 3: A MIRAGE AND A TEMPEST

   

   

 In the two years between October 1996 and June 1998, the Mirage and Tempest blocks came out, and the group of vegetable within it is bookended by two of the best Plants ever printed, which are also two of the best Walls ever printed, and in more than one player's opinion, two of the best green cards ever printed: I'm talking of Wall of Roots and Wall of Blossoms, both of which don't really need further comment (most notably, they were both part of the glorious RecSur deck with which Brian Selden conquered the 1998 World Championship).

 None of the others are nearly close to their importance, not to mention playability. Lichentrope's only element of interest is being the first (although established only retroactively) intersection between the Plant and Fungus tribes. The first Portal set also came out during this period (the same month as Weatherlight), and had a new Plant and a new Treefolk, both of which have never been released on Magic Online. Gotta say, Plant Elemental's Harvest Wurm/Fallow Wurm deal is pretty solid.


Chapter 4: URZA'S FLORA

   

  

 Urza's Saga added 6 new Treefolk, which was then the greatest boost in population for the tribe. However, none of these feel particularly noteworthy, despite the attempts at giving them different abilities. Treefolk Seedlings is the first occurrence of the link between a Treefolk's stats and the number of forests in play, a concept that would be put to better use much later. The rare Weatherseed Treefolk is the closest to be actually good, thanks to trample (an ability Treefolk rarely get), and the near-immortality. Yavimaya Scion's art by DiTerlizzi is the one those tongue-in-cheek illustrations of a mechanic that aren't really allowed anymore.


Chapter 5: MERCADIAN BRANCHES

  

 Masques block only had two Plants. Vine Trellis has been overshadowed by better mana-producing Walls over the years (and already back then, thanks to Wall of Roots), but it's still solid, although the main issue with it is that, unlike with Wall of Roots, you can't exploit both the mana and the defensive capability at the same time. Mossdog is remembered mostly to be the first Plant version of another living creature, in this case a Hound. This kind of thing always feels a bit weird. I mean, Swamp Thing is vegetation that took the shape and memories of a man, but he would be considered an Elemental in Magic, not a Human Plant.


Chapter 6: THE FIRST GREEN INVASION

    

   

 With 8 specimens between Plant and Treefolk in the same block, Invasion is the first, true triumph of greenery. Lots of first times here: Treefolk Healer is the first Treefolk with a white activation; Mirrorwood Treefolk is the first one with a repeatable red activation (i.e. you're not just setting it on fire like with (Timber Walls); Ebony Treefolk is the first multicolored one, as is Jungle Barrier for the Plants (which, in truth, is probably the only really playable one among all of these). Utopia Tree hasn't been played as much as one would have expected, because of the same issue as Vine Trellis, but it's the Plant's Birds of Paradise, and not a Wall/defender. If it were a 1-drop, it would be surely much more popular. Magnigoth Treefolk is merely the first mention on a card of the namesake, giant kind of treefolk, that's said to be so tall that they can "swat dragons out of the sky like flies" (you wouldn't tell by looking at that card), as they did with Rith, the Awakener.

 And then of course, we've got the first Treefolk legends, both very strong, and both linked to Saprolings, as Adam mentioned in his article. I prefer Nemata over Verdeloth, for the repeatable effect, but both are good high-end creatures, albeit more fit for Commander duty than for any other format, at least by today's standards.


Chapter 7: THE DARK AGE

 

 After the burst of growth from Invasion, our green friends spent several consecutive years in the shadows. Odyssey block, Onslaught block, Mirrodin block and Kamigawa block all lacked any verdure, some by design (the artifact world of Mirrodin didn't feel suitable), other looking like missed opportunities (given the tribal nature of Onslaught, which had so many Elves; and couldn't there be spirit trees in Kamigawa?).

 The only new Treefolk that appeared during all this time was Shoe Tree in the parody set Unhinged, which feature a great, clearly MaRo-written pun in the flavor text. I wonder if somebody ever really took off their shoes in order to play this card.


Chapter 8: RAVNICA: CITY OF WEEDS

    

   

 Delving deep into the Modern era, Ravnica didn't feature any Treefolk but a record number of Plants, featuring Golgari mechanic dredge as well as Simic mechanic graft, although neither at the top of their respective games. More interesting are the crosses between the Plant and the Hydra tribes, at least conceptually, and those with the Golgari-sanctioned Zombie tribe, particularly Vulturous Zombie, which is a longtime favorite of mine; if it only cost one mana less, it would be considered a powerhouse (remember that it's not actually boltable). Plus, its flavor is so crazy that you can't help but love it. So, Golgari deals in dead matter and their recycling, therefore it makes sense for a plant to be involved in this process. But just think about it: being reborn after dying is what a plant usually does as part of its normal life cycle; that doesn't make it a "zombie". So this is actually a reanimated humanoid corpse that became a plant somehow. And what could have possibly lead the designers to the idea that such a being would be able to fly? A zombie who's a plant that flies is so, so over-the-top. Is it a dead, reanimated, vegetable angel? And how does the growing actually work? Does it consume other dead things? (There's sort of a mechanical failure, then, because a nonpermanent ending to the graveyard isn't technically "a thing", but that's what makes Vulturous Zombie kind of powerful on the battlefield, so I'm fine with it).

 Last, Vinelasher Kudzu is also notable for being a proto-landfall creature, and not a bad one at that.


Chapter 9: MEMORIES OF GREEN

    

 Both Coldsnap, for being the long lost third set in the retconned Ice Age block, and Time Spiral block, for its very nature, have a looking-back feel. You can see it reflected on the placenames of some of these Treefolk, like Scarwood or Heartwood. They are all potentially interesting, but just one step removed from being actually good. Sheltering Ancient should be more playable than it actually is, and Deadwood Treefolk is nice enough for Commander. Heartwood Storyteller is probably the most notable here, seen mostly in Commander as well, but a strong, and fast enough Standstill-like card-drawing engine overall.


Chapter 10: THE SYLVAN REVOLUTION – PART 1

    

   

 And then, it came Lorwyn. The Lorwyn/Shadowmoor double feature from the 2007-2008 season marks the first time we met a non-Dominaria Treefolk. It also marks an unprecedented boost in population, one of the largest Magic ever experienced for any tribe: an incredible number of 34 new Treefolk cards were printed between the 4 sets, more than doubling the total amount of the tribe, that only had 25 members at that point (and that even includes the non-legal Shoe Tree).

 The "light state" of the Lorwyn plane, depicted in the Lorwyn and Morningtide sets, already had 26 Treefolk cards (including 3 noncreature Tribal spells), so more than the number of Treefolk in existence by that point, making it the major green tribe of the block. The Treefolk of Lorwyn are also the first ones coming from a plane that's not Dominaria, and they're the most Tolkien-esque in their appearance and characteristics (very ancient wise guys who protect communities, including Kithkin/Hobbits, like in the case of Guardian of Cloverdell).

 It would be oppressive to feature them all (you can look at them here), so I'll just mention the more relevant. Starting with the five ones that have made the backbone of every Treefolk tribal deck ever built since; in order of ascending spots in the curve: Treefolk Harbinger to regulate access to the library and establish a very early board presence; Bosk Banneret to accelerate; Leaf-Crowned Elder to exploit the most powerful instance of the kinship mechanic, resulting in mad card advantage; Dauntless Dourbark, as a trampling finisher that can grow to a huge size; and Timber Protector as the top-end lord that essentially makes all your permanents indestructible, allowing the Dourbark to push damage through unscathed. The deck is strong, and is made stronger by one other, great lord, the legendary Doran, who's one of the highest body/cost ratio ever printed, and pushes you in colors that help structure your deck. Plus, Doran's lord ability is more creatively expressed than most, playing into the long-established Treefolk's preference for high toughness: with Doran on the battlefield, even Treefolk Harbinger and Bosk Banneret make their presence felt.

 Honorable mentions to Unstoppable Ash, that also plays into Doran's battleplan by boosting toughness even further, and could ideally champion a Harbinger to repeat its ETB effect in case of demise; and Seedguide Ash, whose death trigger is relevant in Commander, both as a ramper and mana fixer (those are Forest cards, not basic forests).

 The mini-block also features the first examples of monocolored Treefolk in colors that aren't green, namely white and black, Doran's own colors. White has 3 cards (of the 5 existing white Treefolk), black has 4 (out of 9 black Treefolk printed to this day). None of these off-color monocolored Treefolk is particularly powerful, with Indomitable Ancients designed to be huge next to an active Doran, and Thorntooth Witch able to provide some degree of removal to Treefolk tribal.

 

 As for the corollary cards, we got the three Tribal Treefolk spells and the Treefolk tribal land Murmuring Bosk, also in Doran's colors and especially noteworthy for being fetchable as a forest. Of the spells, Reach of Branches is mostly cute, but has some casual applications; Rootgrapple is overcosted, and Lignify is also a casual staple, as the first only real way for monogreen to deal with creatures, albeit in a way that allows for a comeback, and still leaves a blocker on the other side of the board. Still, being an aura makes it fetchable in more and more interesting ways, and it shuts down static abilities in a way that cards like Pacifism don't.

   


Chapter 11: THE SYLVAN REVOLUTION – PART 2

    

 When Lorwyn shifts to the dark world of Shadowmoor due to the Great Aurora, its Treefolk appear darker too, but are still plentiful. The second part of the Lorwyn-Shadowmoor cycle adds 8 new ones, with a few very notable members. Woodfall Primus is both the Treefolk that had the highest CMC at the time, and the largest creature with persist; all in all, one of the great green nonpermanent destroyers along with Terastodon and Sylvan Primordial, both of which he outdates. The Sapling of Colfenor is, in the story, the "daughter" of the late, most ancient and wise Treefolk in Lorwyn, and sort of the heroine who plays a big role in stopping the destructive war between Oona and Maralen. As a card, she probably struggles to find room at CMC 5, both in Treefolk decks and other builds, but being indestructible and with the potential for card-drawing makes her interesting to say the least. The remaining two are brilliant utility creatures: Tilling Treefolk works great with Astral Slide and cyling lands, for instance, or Seismic Assault and in general any strategy that causes lands to end up in the graveyard and/or creatures to be flickered. And Wickerbough Elder is the Treefolk's own Harmonic Sliver, of course coming in Treefolk size. The balanced casting cost, good final body and common rarity make it see a lot of play across a variety of formats.

 Shadowmoor also features a single Plant, Creakwood Ghoul, although it's nothing more than filler.


Chapter 12: DROUGHT AND REBIRTH

  

 After the Lorwyn-Shadowmoor's dendrofeast, Treefolk went dormant for a few years, and even Plant only occasionally showed up in the next few blocks. Alara had Mosstodon, part of the "power 5 matters" cycle, which is only notable for being Elephant-shaped, probably the most preposterous tribal combination Plants ever got. And one would think a wildland plane like Zendikar was filled with vegetation, but there's only one actual Plant card, and isn't very exciting. The block features Plant tokens, though, most notably in land form as Khalni Garden, and in the stealth "lord of the plants", Avenger of Zendikar, both from Worldwake.

 

 Right after that, Magic 2011 brought Wall of Vines, which is a decent defender, as a strictly better version of Wall of Wood. The next year, the return to Mirrodin hindered any further development in the vegetable world, until Magic 2012 gave us the first Treefolk since Eventide, which was also one of the best ones ever printed, Dungrove Elder. Three simple concepts: make it cheap, make it big, especially in monogreen decks, and make it resilient yet boostable via hexproof.

 


Chapter 13: UNDERGROWTH

   

 Strangely enough, we had to wait until the classical horror setting of Innistrad before getting another non-Dominaria Treefolk after the Lorwyn-Shadowmoor ones (well, at least considering we ignore where Dungrove Elder comes from). We actually get a fair share of new Treefolk hailing from Sorin's homeplane, with Ghoultree being the most notable for the record high casting cost that can become a record low if your graveyard is chock-full of creatures, and to be the first and only Zombie Treefolk. Lumberknot is also loosely based on the morbid mechanic, while its Flowering version is more interested in soulbond. Yew Spirit, the first and only Spirit Treefolk, is just a strictly worse Chameleon Colossus.

 The Innistrad world of scary vegetation also features two peculiar Plants. Grave Bramble is hardly playable, but it has to be mentioned because it's Magic's homage to Plants vs. Zombies. And Tree of Redemption, which is useful enough when you need to keep aggro in check, is the only mythic rare card in this whole article (From the Vault reprints of Doran and Wall of Blossoms excluded).

 


Chapter 14: BACK TO THE CITY OF VERDURE

   

 

 And speaking of Plants AND Zombies, Return to Ravnica proved that the Golgari guild is still very much interested in both of them, this time for scavenge purposes, with the hasty Dreg Mangler and the cheap Slitherhead as the best examples (they also mixed Plants and Skeletons, but the results aren't as good). We got a new Plant Hound, which is always a funny concept to contemplate, and a specialized defender in Gatecreeper Vine, mostly only useful in Maze's End decks, or in block constructed.


Chapter 15: GREEK SEEDS

  

 The Greek-flavored plane of Theros hosts both Plants and Treefolk, although the former, a reworked, infinitely more resilient take on Utopia Tree (albeit with no potential for attack) is definitely the one that needs to be mentioned here. Wall of Roots remains the superior 2-drop ramper, but the Caryatid is surely nice, especially if you got her in the cooler promo version.

 Two curious differences that are often overlooked: Carven Caryatid is the Spirit that inhabits the tree, not the tree itself; while Sylvan Caryatid is a sentient plant. Similarly, Wall of Roots is made of living plant matter, whereas Overgrown Battlement is a stone wall that can produce mana because of the proximity/affinity with green-charged vegetation. In both cases, the art may be deceiving.

 


Chapter 16: STILL GROWING

   

 

 And here we are, at the end of the voyage. Magic 2015 just brought back both Plant and Treefolk in style, giving us the highlight of the third Hydra mix (now with 100% more attack capabilities!), the cascading Genesis Hydra, specially designed by Plants vs. Zombies creator George Fan. Also, the pseudo-immortal/shenanigan enabling Phytotitan, plus a twin Treefolk from the Kalonia forest in the plane of Shandalar, that represents the tribe's own version of cards like Broodmate Dragon or Armada Wurm (hint: it's not as good).

 We can only hope for more and more explorations of the greenest of tribes (in each sense: Elves live in the forests; Plants and Treefolk ARE the forests!). But we don't have to worry, as both look like the resilient types, spanning all the 21 years of Magic history with only one or two occasional dry spells, contrasted by a big blooming for Treefolk in Lorwyn-Shadowmoor, whose extreme level so far remains unmatched. We'll see what the future of gardening warfare holds.

3 Comments

Great Job! by Adam_the_Mentat at Sun, 07/27/2014 - 14:12
Adam_the_Mentat's picture
5

Great Job bud, our pieces really do compliment each other.

Phytotitan is such a kickbutt by doc_brietz at Mon, 07/28/2014 - 10:57
doc_brietz's picture

Phytotitan is such a kickbutt card. I really love me some treefolk. Weatherseed is one of my favorites, as is good ole Avenger of Zen. Having played Genisis Hydra in limited, he is going to be straight nuts in EDH. The Hexproof ones are also gold in Tribal and EDH.

BTW, Have you covered cats yet? The rest of the internet is full of them and we are lacking.

I've never considered Cat. by Kumagoro42 at Mon, 07/28/2014 - 20:53
Kumagoro42's picture

I've never considered Cat. Gotta say, I don't really love them in their Magic version. But given time, everything can be done.