Evasive Maneuvers – Flying

(Archetype of Imagination | Art by Robbie Trevino)

Following the Path of Winged Victory

Welcome to Evasive Maneuvers, a series where we try to make data-driven decisions for evasive deckbuilding in Commander.

A little over 2,000 years ago, one of the most beautiful marble statues to ever grace this earth was carved, and situated in a temple complex on the Greek island of Samothrace. Known as Winged Victory of Samothrace, or Nike of Samothrace (Νίκη της Σαμοθράκης), it depicts Nike, goddess of victory (Roman: Victoria), triumphantly descending from the heavens. The sculpture is so evocative, it has influenced countless replicas all over the world, and even influenced the naming of one of the biggest athletic companies, Nike.

Nike of Samothrace, on display at the end of the Daru Staircase at the Louvre in Paris, France. Retrieved from Ancient World Magazine.

And no wonder! While it certainly doesn’t hurt to have the literal embodiment of victory, speed, and strength on your side, having access to the skies puts it over the top. Think of how many advantages are accrued and battles are won by air support, having a bird’s eye view, and not just the higher ground, but the highest ‘ground.’

Following in Nike’s flight path, this week we’re going to take a look at one of the most common forms of evasion: flying.

Last time we looked at fear and intimidate, which are forms of conditional evasion. Similarly, flying is evasive but under certain restrictions: creatures with flying cannot be blocked except by creatures with flying or reach. We’ll be diving (as in aerial dive, not a watery dive!) into a similar process to evaluate the efficacy of flying in EDH.


Flying: Aerially Advantageous or Soar Loser?

Once again, I think it’s a good idea to cover our bases to look at the potential commanders that can block your flying creatures. If you didn’t read the first installment, I’m basing this on the idea that people will throw their commander in harms way if it means saving their skin or even taking out one of your threats. Have you ever found yourself sitting across from an Atraxa, Praetor’s Voice player and thinking, “So if I swing into you with my flyer, you get to block, kill my creature, and gain four life? And since she has vigilance, there’s no reason for you to not also attack and gain four life on your turn? Ugh.” If so, then you know full well that having a creature with flying can feel great — sky high, even! — but occasionally crash and burn just by virtue of the commanders your opponents have. For example, Kess, Dissident Mage proves quite a thorn, as I always seem to forget she has flying. I guess I’ve got to hand it to her. After all she is… floating?

By looking at the weighted proportion of decks with a commander with flying and/or reach, as scraped by EDHREC, we see the likelihood sits at 23.91%. This means, assuming a typical four-player free-for-all, only one player — if any — is likely to have a commander with flying or reach. Let’s hope it’s just us.

Let’s expand and look at some data on what we might expect to find in the 99, starting with tribes. When we look at tribes that happen to emphasize or incidentally have flying and/or reach, we see:

Tribe N Decks (%)
Dragons 5,400 (1.39)
Angels 2,160 (0.56)
Spirits 942 (0.24)
Demons 788 (0.20)
Sphinxes 623 (0.16)
Faeries 508 (0.13
Birds 477 (0.12)
Spiders 392 (0.10)
Griffins 43 (0.01)
Specters 42 (0.01)
Drakes 5 (< 0.01)
Total 11,380 (2.93)

 

Dragons boast the highest popularity, not only for flying-specific tribes but for all tribes, coming in at a whopping 5,400 decks. Funnily enough, their wee cousins, the Drakes, are the least popular flying tribe at 5 decks. Even when all these tribes are pooled, their overall prevalence in decks scraped by EDHREC is 2.93%

What about flying as a theme rather than being locked into a tribe? At the time of writing, there are 1,184 decks in the flying theme, or 0.31% of the overall decks scraped by EDHREC.

Ok, so since only some ~3.24% of decks have a flying/reach tribe or dedicated flying theme, that means we can run flying without having to worry, right? Jobs a good’un.

Well, not so fast. Statistically speaking, yes, you aren’t likely to encounter a deck dedicated to flying/reach, whether it be tribal, or a deck built around avid fans of hypoxia without sharing similar wing structures. However, many powerful cards, commanders, and effects incidentally have or grant flying. Talrand, Sky Summoner – the second-most popular mono blue commander (1,243 decks) and also included in a staggering 11,731 total decks – doesn’t have flying, isn’t the de facto Drake commander, and isn’t listed as one of the top commanders under the Flying Theme. And yet, whether it’s Counterspell or cantrip tribal, Talrand, Sky Summoner decks often net an aerial army of Drake tokens.

This extends beyond our favorite (or detested) Drake-loving Merfolk, and suggests that many decks are incidentally likely to have creatures with flying or reach stapled to them. Think of how many decks run popular creatures like these flying friends:

Sure enough, when we look at the prevalence (%) of popular commanders and creatures with flying and/or reach as scraped by EDHREC we see:

Past Week Past Month Past 2 Years
Commanders 19.05% 28.57% 47.62%
Top 100 Creatures 20.00% 20.00% 21.00%

 

As we can see, it might not be good enough to jam a deck full of flyers expecting to always get through unimpeded. If we are going to count on flying as a form of evasion, it’s best to be absolutely sure that we get the most for running flyers. Thankfully, a few options exist:

Ok, so Moat is one of the options, but will set you back a hefty portion of your rent/mortgage payment, or less than 20% of your monthly rent in San Francisco. Even if I happened to find a magical $650 dollar bill on the ground that came with the stipulation that it must be spent in its entirety on cardboard, you can bet Moat isn’t at the top of my list. Magus of the Moat on the other hand is much more budget-friendly, coming it at < 0.1% of your San Francisco monthly rent.

While Moat and Magus of the Moat don’t necessarily help your flyers, they shut down your opponents and reward you for going all-in on your flying theme. They do however synergize significantly with the often overlooked Archetype of Imagination, which will set you back only a few gumballs from the gumball machine. Here’s my thinking on why this card is incredible in a flying deck.


Archetype of Imagination: Magic’s Winged Victory

Where better to search for Magic’s equivalent of the Greek goddess of victory than in Greek-inspired plane of Theros? The Archetypes cycle from Born of the Gods are great in that they grant your team powerful keywords while incidentally affecting your opponent’s boards. However, I’d posit that many of the Archetypes are included in decks because of what they grant your creatures, not what they strip of your opponent’s.

I think Archetype of Imagination is the exception. Sure, I guess you can slot Archetype of Aggression against your buddy’s Stonebrow, Krosan Hero deck, but aside from reflecting on why you feel the need to sideboard against a shirtless, cape-wearing, axe-wielding, half-equid Hagrid, you likely just want a way to give your creatures trample that happens to be on a star-studded, enchantment-body. In fact, when we look at the possible ways in which each Archetype’s secondary clause matches up to the number of creatures it could possible affect, we see:

Name Keyword N commander-legal creatures printed
Archetype of Aggression Trample ~640
Archetype of Courage First Strike ~380
Archetype of Endurance Hexproof ~100
Archetype of Finality Deathtouch ~180
Archetype of Imagination Flying > 2000

 

This suggest that, compared to its other Archetype counterparts, Archetype of Imagination has a much higher potential to impact your opponents’ creatures in addition to granting your creatures flying. It’s probably why I’m never sad to see an Archetype of Imagination, while running Bower Passage always felt too variable in my old Dragon deck — either my opponent’s didn’t have flyers and I wished it was a Dragon, or they did have flyers, and still wished it was just another Dragon. Not to mention, Archetype of Imagination is run in less decks (7,062) than its green counterpart Archetype of Endurance (8,102), and is the cheapest of the bunch! I love me some hexproof — don’t get me wrong — but I love even more what Archetype of Imagination can do due to its versatility and impact.

Speaking of versatility, I think Archetype of Imagination does well in decks that are all-in on flying, and in decks without any flying sub-theme. I ran it in my Rat Colony deck to great effect, effectively making my furry friends unblockable (plus, the idea of flying rats was just too ridiculous to pass up), while making my opponent’s Dragons get their wings clipped was just gravy. On the other hand, in a deck chalk-full of flyers, Archetype of Imagination helps to ensure that you won’t run into blockers outside of the occasional Spiders or Multani, Yavimaya’s Avatar.

Yes, granting your flying creatures more flying is redundant, but the second clause helps make up for that redundancy, and you still have a flying body to get in for damage. The fact Archetype of Imagination sees play in only 15% of Alela, Artful Provocateur decks astounds me, as it produces a Faerie and grounds your opponent’s flyers. It’s a two-player swing!


Building Nike in EDH

Our best chance to capitalize on flying is to lean into it. Emphasizing our evasion with multiple flyers on board will help mitigate our chances of being hampered by a commander, as well as by their 99. We’ll be running enough flyers to make Baby Bash wish he built this deck.

I was honestly in the process of building Alela, Artful Provocateur as the commander for this strategy; she rewards you for playing flyers, is in great colors for flyers and anthems, and gives you more flyers with each anthem you cast. It seemed the obvious choice and a slam-dunk. Until…

Wizards gave us the Azorius flyer commander we have been waiting for. I will completely confess: I slept on this commander. I dismissed it. I was all excited until I read the last line of text and got a sour Zedruu the Greathearted taste in my mouth (no offense, Kudu-lovers). But my mind has since changed. She’s in the ideal colors for flyers, and Wizards doesn’t show any signs of stopping their support, like the recent Watcher of the Spheres, Jubilant Skybonder, or even just some of great cards from the last core set, like Sephara, Sky’s Blade and Empyrean Eagle.

Her last ability is not as chaotic as I first thought. Because you get to choose which permanents are exchanged, it puts you in the driver’s seat — er, cockpit. Did the Storm player get out their Thousand-Year Storm? Let’s move that right along. Did the “it’s not that Narset, Enlightened Master deck” player just put a Temporal Mastery on top of their library? Thanks to the way Inniaz is worded, we can actually get around hexproof and shroud, so let’s keep ‘er moving and see how they feel playing against their own Narset. Oh, and opponent to the left? You can have one of these little Bird tokens, or even this Grasp of Fate, since we already got value out of it.

Even more spicy would be granting a Nine Lives to the player to your left. It’s a bit too Zedruu for my taste, but might just be worth it to try, alongside other notable pieces like Steel Golem or Rust Elemental if you wanted to lean into Inniaz’s triggered ability. The trigger also happens on declaring three or more attackers, not on dealing combat damage. This means we can start the Merry-Go-Round without even having to worry about blockers!

Finally, Inniaz’s pump ability rewards us for going wide, and allows us to convert mana into damage when needed. Training Grounds helps to reduce Inniaz’s pump effect to merely one white or blue, and also synergizes with some of our other creatures like Faerie Formation, Skycat Sovereign, and Spectral Sailor. Enlightened Tutor and the recently reprinted Idyllic Tutor help to grab Training Grounds or one of our other myriad of impactful enchantments.

Even better — they can both grab Archetype of Imagination. Azorius isn’t known for its ability to tutor up creatures, so yet another point for Archetype of Imagination in this kind of deck! Even if we do end up facing an army of Dragons, Demons, or Drakes, we have a tutorable means of hampering them. With Gravitational Shift, Archetype of Imagination makes it so all of our opponent’s creatures get -2/-0 regardless of whether they once had wings. With Island Sanctuary, Archetype of Imagination makes it so we can skip our initial draw to negate any crack-back outside of Islandwalk. With Magus of the Moat, Archetype of Imagination makes it so our opponents can’t attack whatsoever.

Archetype of Imagination also helps to mitigate possible issues we face with Inniaz’s last ability. We can give one of our smaller flyers to the player to our left without even worrying about it blocking us, as it will no longer have flying. With Archetype of Imagination out, we effectively get to disrupt our opponent’s board states, while simultaneously mitigating our losses by clipping the wings of our worst flyer before gifting it to our neighbor. Nothing like giving someone an eagle only to have it turn into an emu!

Putting it all together, here’s a list that just might put Nike on our side:

Buy this decklist from Card Kingdom
Buy this decklist from TCGplayer

Unfortunately, there is one major, glaring drawback to this deck, and sadly not anything even in the deck. It’s COVID-19. As someone who has played a paper Lazav, Dimir Mastermind deck in a virtual playgroup, I can say right now this deck will be a nightmare in the current state of things. Anyone who has tried to resolve an Aminatou, the Fateshifter ultimate in the last few months knows exactly what I’m talking about. I can see this being better on digital platforms like Cockatrice or MTGO, but for those playing in paper, I fear this ability might be come rather tricky and may just have to wait out the viral storm. Nevertheless, I think this is a sweet commander who capitalizes on flying in a neat way, and by virtue of colors gives us the tools to ‘dive and do a barrel roll’ around our opponents’ blockers and board states.

What do you think? How often are blockers a non-issue for your flying squadron in your meta? For those running Spider tribal: do you smile when you go against a Dragon deck? Sound off in the comments below!

Until next time, stay safe, and may Nike guide you to victory!

Trent has been playing Magic since the early 2000s, when instead of exercising in a summer sports camp, he was trying to resolve a Krosan Skyscraper on the sidewalk (it always ate a removal). He saved up his allowance to buy an Akroma Angel of Wrath on eBay, only to find out it was a fraudulent post, forever dashing his hopes of ever getting a big creature to stick. He’s since “grown up” and, when he’s not working on his dissertation in Archaeology, spends too much time thinking how to put Cipher in every one of his decks and digging for obscure cards (see photo).