Evasive Maneuvers - Flanking

(Cavalry Master | Art by Thomas M. Baxa)

Saddling Up

Welcome to another installment of Evasive Maneuvers, where we examine keywords and strategies that help get our creatures through during combat.

Continuing on our examination of parasitic evasive keywords (i.e. keywords that are based on the opponents' creatures not having the same keyword), today we will be taking a look at none other than Flanking. Originally appearing in Mirage, Flanking states that if the attacking creature with Flanking is blocked by a creature (or creatures) without Flanking, the blocking creature(s) gets -1/-1 until end of turn.

Simple enough, but there are some additional things to keep in mind: if the defending creature is a 1/1 without Flanking, then Flanking can actually remove the defending creature prior to damage. Notably, this is done in the Declare Blockers step, which means that the defending creature will deal no damage to the attacking creature with Flanking, even if it has first strike! The problem? The attacking creature is still considered blocked.

The good news? Trample damage can carry over. Additionally, multiple instance of Flanking can stack, meaning that if we have a creature with Flanking, Flanking, then the defending creature will get two triggers of -1/-1 for a total of -2/-2. Flanking also negates indestructible, since it's shrinking the creature rather than dealing damage to it. While Flanking isn't as evasive as some of our previous keywords, it not only acts as a deterrent (which, in effect, means you're getting through — hence, evasion), but it also acts as a potential means of removal.

There are only 33 cards that have or grant Flanking that are legal in Commander (I'm excluding Barbed Foliage, as it negates Flanking instead of granting it). Sitting at a 7 on the storm scale means we are unlikely to see it in any Standard set unless favorable conditions arise, though I have my fingers crossed for future products. The color distribution is as follows:

Color N cards
White 18
Blue 1
Black 4
Red 7
Green 1
Colorless 1
Total 32


Notably, the majority of cards are Knights (81.8%). We'll get back to this shortly.

As for commanders that have Flanking, well, there're only three: Telim'Tor, Sidar Jabari and Sidar Kondo of Jamuraa. When we look at the number of deck lists that they lead, it comes out to 767, 762 of which are various Sidar Kondo of Jamuraa decks, and 4 of which are Sidar Jabari. That's right, there's only one decklist for Telim'Tor. Whoever you are out there, you're my hero.

Flankly Speaking...

I'm willing to go out on a limb and say that people aren't running Sidar Kondo of Jamuraa for his Flanking ability. Likely, they're using him for his colors or the fact that he grants meek creatures a form of evasion. This, paired with the fact that there's only five deck lists for the O.G. legendary creatures with Flanking, raises the question: is Flanking any good?

The short answer, no. It's not. As someone who purchased the Time Spiral intro deck Hope's Crusaders, I can safely say that I have Knight of the Holy Nimbus, Benalish Cavalry, and Zhalfirin Commander tucked away in a bulk box, having not seen the light of play since before I could grow facial hair. Even Pentarch Paladin, despite looking like a more benevolent (yet no less awesome) War from Darksiders, is collecting as much dust as the mask he's wearing in the art.

Okay, so Flanking might be one of the poorer keywords we'll be looking at in Evasive Maneuvers, but it still deserves attention. Furthermore, if we do lean into a Flanking deck, it means that the likelihood that we'll encounter another creature with Flanking will be practically none.

One way we can evaluate Flanking is to see its potential to take out enemy threats, or at least survive an encounter with them. Since Flanking cares about shrinking the blocking creature, we want to look at the power and toughness of our enemies' creatures. Using popularity as a metric, we'll be looking at the top commanders, as well as the top 100 creatures, to see their central tendencies in power and toughness. Here are the results:

I'm reporting the mean here despite the fact that we can't have a creature with 2.90 power; it's more to show some of the potential skewing and distribution. I think median and mode are more informative here. This looks to be that popular commanders, generally speaking, have a power of ~3, a toughness of ~4, whereas the top 100 creatures have a power of ~2 and a toughness that varies between 1 and 3.

Now, let's compare that to our general power and toughness for creatures with Flanking:So, looks like our flankers are essentially Bears (2/2) in terms of their power and toughness. Given what we see in Table 1, we might be able to handle most of the popular creatures, but might run into more trouble with commanders. Anything with power or toughness 3 means that we can potentially trade with the blocking creature, but anything greater will put us in real trouble.

I want to caution that looking at measures of central tendencies, while informative, can also lead us astray. First: aggregating the distribution of powers and toughnesses masks the real-world impact that you will encounter. The average popular creature might be a 2/2, but when you do encounter that 4/4, you're in for a world of hurt. Secondly: Commander is a — if not the — format that enables all of us to jam pet cards, big creatures, and strategies that we might not be able to do as easily in other formats. You spent three mana to cast a Suq'Ata Lancer, while your opponent spent only two more mana than you did (in green, mind you) to cast an Elder Gargaroth, which has three times your power/toughness, and draws them a card/gains them life/creates a Beast token/makes dinner/does their taxes for them (etc.). Splashing Flanking into your average deck isn't likely to be so effective, so we best put our tactical tuques on to really outmaneuver our opponents.

Let's look at the actual distribution of the top 100 creatures as sorted by their toughness. Since our flankers are typically 2/2, we want to see just how often we can actually pose a difficult dilemma for our opponent, assuming that they have one of the top 100 creatures out as an untapped potential blocker. The distribution is as follows:

The colors correspond not only to toughness values, but our ideal scenario (green = good, red = bad). This means that roughly 25% of the popular creatures (X/1) will outright die to us if they are declared as a blocker to one of our flankers. A cumulative ~50% of popular creatures will die to our flanker (X/2 or less), and we trade with ~7-13% of popular creatures (X/3). Once creatures have toughness 4 or greater, we get into the 'red zone', where we're a lot less likely chance of making Flanking worthwhile. Cumulatively, we lose to ~40% of popular creatures, but trade or win ~60% of those fights. Not too shabby! But let's try and see if we can up those odds ever so slightly.

This'll be a Knight to Remember

Since the majority of cards with Flanking are Knights and in Mardu colors, Syr Gwyn, Hero of Ashvale seems an obvious contender for our commander. While Syr Gwyn, Hero of Ashvale has become the de facto Knight commander and synergizes with Equipment, such a build requires a lot of set-up and mana before we get any pay off. I'm willing to sacrifice our three black knights with Flanking (Cadaverous Knight, Fallen Askari, and even Skulking Knight) in order to lean more into our theme. Yes, I'm a bit saddened that we can't run Skulking Knight, especially when it's a Zombie riding what looks like an armored Thestral. But I think we will do much better with Adriana, Captain of the Guard:

While a hefty 5 CMC commander in Boros isn't doing us any favors, neither is running a Flanking tribal deck. I'm not sure two wrongs make a right here, but at the least we can put together a flavorful deck that will certainly turn some heads when you say "I'm running a Flanking tribal deck."

For one, Adriana, Captain of the Guard happens to be a Knight in the right colors for our Flanking Knight tribal shell. Secondly, she grants our flankers melee, which means the more opponents we attack (a maximum of 3, assuming a 4-player free-for-all), the bigger our flankers get. This is crucial, as it allows us to scale-up with bigger creatures and increase our chances of either removing or trading with more creatures, and all around deter our opponent's from blocking.

We're running just about every single equestrian flanker we can get our hands on, from Benalish Cavalry to Knight of Valor. Cavalry Master is particularly good, as he allows us to gain multiple instances of Flanking!

We'll also include some of the better Knights that synergize with a general Knight tribal strategy. Kinsbaile Cavalier helps to give our knights some much needed punch, while Knight Exemplar helps to protect our other Knights. Márton Stromgald happens to be a Knight, and gives our creatures a boost on both offense and defense. Accorder Paladin and Hero of Oxid Ridge help to give a power boost on attack, while Inspiring Veteran provides a much needed static +1/+1 to help our flankers move up a weight-division. With all our pump effects paired with Flanking, looks like our Suq'ata Lancer may not be so afraid to take on that Elder Gargaroth after all:


Every Knight Needs a Banner

Ok, so this isn't a full Equipment deck, but I think some are worth including. Let's try and find some other Equipment that actually synergizes with Flanking rather than just overrides it, like a generic Sword of X + Y.

Jabari's Banner, while not an Equipment, is just the banner our Knights need. It not only grants one of our non-flankers Flanking, but can stack with a creature that already has Flanking, helping to deter or shrink even bigger creatures into more manageable opponents.

Grappling Hook is probably one of my all-time favorite Equipments. For those who also love provoke, and the fact that numerous humanoid creatures with provoke printed in Legions included a hook in the art (think Goblin Grappler, Lowland Tracker, and Swooping Talon), this card is on the money. The fact it gives double strike is gravy as far as I'm concerned. I love this card in my own Equipment deck as it gives me an effective means of repeatedly taking out threats. The card gets even better with Flanking, as we can provoke one of our opponent's creatures into blocking us, then immediately 'get flanked on.' The idea of grappling someone, only to run behind them on horse-back is textbook tactical. I always feel like Scorpion when I grapple a pesky creature my way:

We'll also be running Nemesis Mask. This is a classic Lure effect (which we will get to in the future, don't worry), which when paired with Flanking, means we can keep go-wide strategies at bay. If you're encountering a Selesnya tokens deck, a pesky Krenko, Mob Boss deck, or even just some utility creatures in an aristocrats package like Zulaport Cutthroat, Blood Artist, or Viscera Seer, Nemesis Mask + Flanking ensures we can keep those boards clear, similar to attacking with a Silumgar, the Drifting Death.

I also like emphasizing some first strike and double strike effects with Flanking, as we can give the opponent's blockers -1/-1 (or more!), then strike first. This helps to have smaller creatures punch above their weight class, which is what Evasive Maneuvers is all about! Zhalfirin Knight and Burning Shield Askari already have the ability to gain first strike on their own, but cards like Hanweir Lancer can also help, while Silverblade Paladin, Kinsbaile Cavalier and True Conviction will help our flankers in combat as well as closing out games with double strike. Embercleave is an absolute haymaker of an Equipment, coming out of nowhere, granting a power boost, double strike, and synergizing with our brigade of charging Knights. Notably, it also gives trample, which is great when paired with Flanking, as it allows us to get in more damage after shrinking our enemy's toughness.

Take the Rear Flank!

Remember, Flanking by design is more of a deterrent than strict "I get through and there's nothing you can do about it," so we want to maximize the difficult decisions our opponents are faced with.

Alternatively, and preferably, we make those decisions for them. Flanking takes careful planning, so we want to make sure we have our Invasion Plans set. This allows us to decide who blocks and allows us to maximize Flanking in a similar manner to provoke. This, paired with the number of power-boosting effects we have such as melee, Shared Animosity, our dear friend Telim'Tor, etc., we can increase our chances of removing larger threats with our flankers. Response//Resurgence is a card I've often only ever considered for its latter side, but we can actually use the Response half in a pinch in this kind of deck. Since we are on horseback, we can Ride Down any enemy who stands in our way.

Reform the Line!

Extra combat spells are some of the best finishers within Boros' stables. They come out of nowhere, and can alter a game dramatically for roughly 4-7 mana, assuming we have our brigade at the ready. They synergize even better in this kind of deck, as our triggers like Flanking, Battle Cry, Melee, and even Telim'Tor, Márton Stromgald, and Shared Animosity last until end of turn. This means that our creatures continue to grow in power and toughness with each combat step. Our opponents may have grumbled at taking 10 damage from our first combat step, but weren't counting on us doing it again with even more power this time.

Putting it all together, here's a list that just may have me dust off my Flanking friends, and ambush our enemies under hoof.

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So how'd we do? Did we outmaneuver our opponent with enough hooves and geometry to win the battle? Maybe. Personally, I'm a bit worried at the thought of having to report to our Zhalfirin Commander: "We flanked 'em alright — we just lost." But there is a Telim'Tor player out there who likely puts up a heck-of-a fight. For that, I have tremendous respect for the Sisyphean efforts people put into their decks, and trying to capitalize on all forms of evasion and underappreciated creatures, which is what Evasive Maneuvers is all about.

Until next time, I hope you outflank your enemies. And remember: if Pentarch Paladin can wear a mask, so can we.

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).