Evasive Maneuvers — Horsemanship

(Riding the Dilu Horse | Art by Hong Yan)

Back in the Saddle Again

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

And just when you thought you couldn’t get enough evaluation of equestrian-based evasion and its efficacy in EDH, we’ve gone and done it again. There’ll be no dismounting from our previous installment of Flanking; we’re charging ahead with the other horse-centered evasive mechanic: Horsemanship.

Horsemanship works just like flying: it states that creatures with Horsemanship cannot be blocked except by creatures with Horsemanship. Creatures with Horsemanship can still block creatures without Horsemanship, but can only be blocked parasitically.

Horsemanship was introduced in Portal Three Kingdoms (1999), and notably, is exclusively found in that set. In fact, it consistently ranks an 8-9 on the Storm Scale, which means we’re waiting on a “minor miracle” before we ever expect to see it again. With the recent introduction of keyword counters in Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths, I, for one, would love a Horsemanship counter, or even a 'Vehicle'-style mount that grants the creature Horsemanship, but I digress.

Let’s start with the distribution of cards that either have or grant Horsemanship:

With only 30 some cards, chances are they don’t show up all that much in your average EDH game. In fact, even if we were to sum all decks on EDHREC running a creature with Horsemanship without any overlap, the total is n = 2,473 decks, or 0.59% of decks. I think it's safe to assume that this is even an over-representation of reality, as a deck with any Horsemanship creature is likely running other creatures in its color identity with Horsemanship as well. Either way, the number of decks with Horsemanship creatures are quite slim, statistically speaking.

For commanders, it's even smaller with only 250 decks on EDHREC helmed by a commander with Horsemanship, or 0.06%. Therefore, if we run Horsemanship, the likelihood that we will encounter another blocker is essentially zilch.

Compare this to our previous stats regarding flying, which found that the likelihood of encountering a commander with flying or reach was around 23.91%, and some ~20% of the top 100 creatures have flying or reach. Since Horsemanship works just like flying but is less common, does this mean that it’s strictly better? Are we more likely to get through? What gives, and why do we not see more Horsemanship? Is this why Trip Wire sees play in zero decks?

Yes, it is more reliable. However, it has much less synergies and payoffs than flying does, and comes with a cost...

Portal 3K, and the Y2K Barrier

Horsemanship is effective, alright, it’s just darn expensive. Given the set-specific nature of Portal Three Kingdoms being designed as a product for beginners, all Horsemanship cards were printed in 1999. This means that they are, by definition, of a different generation. A different century.

The age of Horsemanship cards, paired with their specific product release and aforementioned Storm Scale ranking, means that there are limited copies that exist. As a result, they fetch quite a pretty penny, and you likely need a stable income if you want a chance at breaking in these cards (#horsehumor):

  • The average (mean) cost of a creature with Horsemanship is $20.44. The median is $9.46.
  • The average (mean) cost of a legendary creature with Horsemanship will run you $34.95. The median is $28.83.

In fact, I was curious as to whether price had something to do with their low representation on EDHREC. Plotting the Market Price ($) by the Number of Decks each card sees on EDHREC, here's the results:

Dots connected by lines are cards that show variation in Market Price due to a reprint. You'll notice that no card that cares about Horsemanship breaks the 500-deck barrier other than the cards that have seen reprints . In fact, they don't even break 100 decks. Only four cards that care about Horsemanship have seen reprints, and all are above the 500 deck threshold.

Here's some musings on why:

(2,767 decks)

This Earthquake variant boasts the highest deck representation of cards that care about Horsemanship. Remembering the popularity of creatures with flying in our format means a traditional Earthquake may do some hefty damage to life totals, but won't hit that Atraxa, Praetor's Voice, Jodah, Archmage Eternal, Korvold, Fae-Cursed King, Kaalia of the Vast (etc.) that are causing you trouble. This, paired with the minimal prevalence of Horsemanship creatures in EDH (<1%) means that this subterranean seismic calamity miraculously affects all manner of winged creatures, and yet is somehow impervious to cloven cavalry. With a reprint in From the Vault: Annihilation (2014), this card saw a significant drop in price from its original $60 printing to roughly $12. The recent reprinting of it in Double Masters (2020) has bottomed the card even more to just over $1, which means we are likely to see it much more.

(591 decks)

Our second-most-popular Horsemanship card is none other than Cao Cao, Lord of Wei's trusted general who lost an eye to an arrow in a battle against his adversary, Lu Bu, Master at Arms. Reprinted as a Judge Promo in 2012, it brought the price down to almost half ($55.07) of his original printing ($93.03), but still will set you back considerably. A four-mana 3/2 with (statistically) guaranteed evasion is not bad, but it's his activated ability that makes him so good, and, I'd wager, popular. He can sacrifice himself at 'Portal Speed' to bring back any black card to your hand. Maybe you want that Phyrexian Obliterator back in your hand, or maybe that Bolas's Citadel that got removed, or, heaven forbid, that Living Death you already cast to do it again. Given the popularity of black in Commander means he even returns some 15 of the top 20 commanders from your graveyard to your hand.

(581 decks)

On the heels of Xiahou Dun rides Lu Xun, who saw a notable reprint in the amazingly named deck "Evasive Maneuvers" from Commander 2013. He saw an additional reprint in the first Commander Anthology (2017), and each of these have helped to drive his price way down to within gumball range. While I'm happy to see that he is seeing play, I think he should see more. In fact, I have increasingly found myself swapping in Lu Xun, Scholar General for Shadowmage Infiltrator, as I find Lu Xun, Scholar General just more reliable. Outside of Wizard tribal synergies, I think Shadowmage Infiltrator sees far too much play at 3,029 decks compared to Lu Xun's 581 decks.

As I stated previously, I find Fear/intimidate to be difficult to rely on. Consider that some 47% of commander decks scraped by EDHREC contain black in their color identity, and the fact that the artifacts theme page boasts nearly 17,000 decks. Now compare that to the fact that 0.06% of commanders have Horsemanship and still less than 1% (0.59%) of decks contain creatures with Horsemanship, and ask yourself is saving that one mana really worth it? I know for me, I will happily pay one more mana and deal with the color-fixing of UU for 'guaranteed' evasion on the same 1/3 body. If that wasn't enough, Lu Xun doesn't even need to deal combat damage to draw a card, unlike his Shadowmage counterpart, which can add some unique versatility in a pinger-themed deck.

(535 decks)

Not only is this one of my favorite cards with Horsemanship, but I think it's also one of the best. Six CMC is about the going rate for making your board nigh-unblockable — think of Deepchannel Mentor, Serpent of Yawning Depths, or my previous gushing for Archetype of Imagination. Seeing a notable reprint in From the Vault: Legends (2011), it helped bring the price down to about half ($13.73) of his original printing ($28.83). If you have a deck that runs blue and needs evasion, I think Sun Quan, Lord of Wu is definitely worth consideration.

A Dilu-ttante approach

Okay, I'm going to level with you: trying to make a deck based around only some ~30 creatures that all were printed more than 20 years ago is a tall order, financially speaking. Heck, even if you wanted to jam a five-color deck full of every creature with Horsemanship ever printed, you're looking at ~$572.20 just for your creature package. Splash the additional two sorceries that grant Horsemanship, Riding Red Hare and Riding the Dilu Horse, you’re looking at ~$657.53 for less than 1/3 of your total deck.

I'm still grumbling about the pricetag on Cover of Darkness, so I just can't bring myself to advocate building a Horsemanship deck with those prices. It's not to say that you shouldn't 'splash 'em if you got 'em' — I, for one, respect anyone who decided to spend their money on a Riding the Dilu Horse to make their creature practically unblockable. But for the sake of this series, let's actually think about if we can make Horsemanship work on a tighter budget.

In fact, let's see if we can make an entire deck that still centers around Horsemanship that costs as much or less than a Riding the Dilu Horse, which runs just shy of $100 for an English copy.

Most Horsemanship commanders, (e.g. Lady Zhurong, Warrior Queen) are conducive to Voltron strategies by virtue of their evasiveness. When looking at the Themes page for each of the Horsemanship commanders, we see some 60 of the 250 lists (24%) are some sort of Voltron variant. As I see it, there aren't many options for making a Horsemanship-themed deck on a budget that's not just using Horsemanship for a Voltron strategy. In fact, there is only one option when leaning into the only non-sorcery card that grants Horsemanship to our other creatures: Sun Quan, Lord of Wu.

Prancing with Power

Sun Quan, Lord of Wu is our best option, as his reprint in From the Vault brings him within price range and provides a repeatable access to granting our entire board evasion from the command zone. Before Tetsuko Umezawa, Fugitive, mono-blue aggro decks were a bit harder to come by. Sun Quan, Lord of Wu, though higher in CMC than his roguish counterpart, doesn't come with the power/toughness restriction. Having access to 'guaranteed' evasion for six mana for your entire board is just clean and simple, and it allows us to add in more of a 'top-end' of creatures (something my own Tetsuko Umezawa, Fugitive deck struggled with).

Speaking of top end, I'm loving what Master of Predicaments and Sphinx Ambassador can provide here. While their flying will help in a pinch, I feel much more confident in their evasion by having them on horseback once our commander hits. There is just a certain Je ne sais quoi quality to having your Sphinxes riding horses. Jodah's Avenger is a pet inclusion: having double strike in mono-blue has always made me smile, especially with combat damage triggers, like being Soulbound with Tandem Lookout. I'm including Fireshrieker for the same reason here, as well as other impactful Equipment that can help a mono-blue deck close out a game, like Scytheclaw and Quietus Spike.

But I kept rhymin' and stepped right in the next...

I'd also be remiss to include double strike and evasion without my favorite all-time mechanic: Cipher. Hands of Binding can help keep problematic creatures tethered down, Last Thoughts can provide some incidental draw, and Hidden Strings allows us to either tap down opponents' permanents, or untap our own lands and mana rocks as a form of mana ramp for our second main phase. Finally, Stolen Identity is probably my all-time favorite card, allowing us to copy mana rocks, Equipment, or creatures, depending on what's juiciest.

The key to playing with Cipher is timing: casting a Hidden Strings in your main phase allows you to tap/untap two permanents, then the spell can be Ciphered onto a creature you control before combat. This means that if you have an evasive creature (say, a creature with Horsemanship) or an open opponent (say, from tapping down said opponent's only blocker(s) with that Hidden Strings you just cast), you'll be getting to copy the spell on damage to get another two permanents to tap or untap. Since the spell is copied on combat damage, it means double strike will double the trigger, allowing us to cast two copies.

Notably, Cipher will remain encoded on a permanent so long as it was a creature at the time of encoding. Guardian Idol can actually be a good Cipher target, as we get to reap the benefits of the Cipher encoding during our combat, but don't have to worry about it dying to creature removal or board wipes after our turn. If you haven't yet Ciphered a Stolen Identity onto a Creeping Tar Pit, you don't know what you're missing.

Galloping to Glory

Reconnaissance Mission, Coastal Piracy, and Bident of Thassa will make another debut, as well as a slew of creatures that draw on combat damage, such as Marchesa's Infiltrator, Thieving Otter, and Sea-Dasher Octopus. As Sun Quan, Lord of Wu's actual historic general, we'll of course be including Lu Xun, Scholar General as well.

I've been enjoying Lazotep Plating as a means of board protection in mono-blue, but counter magic wouldn't hurt, either. Teferi's Veil is a fantastic card in combat-driven decks in blue, as it allows your creatures to phase until your next turn, forcing your opponents to deal with your board at instant speed or not at all. Monastery Siege acts as either card advantage or protection, depending on when we see it.

Thanks to the recent reprinting of Pongify in Double Masters, we can include it alongside Rapid Hybridization, Reality Shift, and Curse of the Swine to remove troublesome creatures. Arm with Aether always seems like a potential blow out in decks that utilize evasion or pingers, so I'm willing to give it a whirl here. Aetherize and Wash Out are our notable sweepers, though one could always swap in Inundate, or you know, Cyclonic Rift if budget allows.

We round the deck out with a humble mana base and some standard artifact ramp, and here's what we get:

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Clocking in at $99.05 at the time of writing, we are right on par with our Riding the Dilu Horse challenge. We've managed to build a 100-card deck for around $100, while granting Horsemanship to all of our creatures, not just one. There are, of course, many ways to improve the deck, but for a budget challenge, I think this is a starting point.

What do you guys think? Do you encounter Horsemanship frequently (or at all)? For you veterans, was it an 'achievement unlocked' when you got your copy of Riding the Dilu Horse? Sound off in the comments below! And as always, I wish you the very best in ensuring your opponents find themselves Trampled Under Hoof.

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).

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