Evasive Maneuvers — Stalking

(Stalking Tiger | Art by Colin MacNeil and Kang Yu)

There Can Only Be One (Blocker)!

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

Similar to last installment where we looked at ‘tunneling’ (evasion for creatures with power 2 or less), this week we’ll be at another evasive mechanic with no official keywording and relatively little support: “Stalking.” Originating from Stalking Tiger, “Stalking” simply states that the creature cannot be blocked by more than one creature. We see that in 2016, Magic: The Gathering R&D head Mark Rosewater (MaRo) stated that it’s likely to not gain keyword status do to its infrequency:

Never heard of it? I’m not surprised, and to be perfectly honest, neither had I! As we’ll see, there ain’t a whole lot of cards with the mechanic, but we’ll try and do due diligence anyways, so without further a do, let’s do this!


On the Prowl

As of writing (2/21/2021) there are only 20 cards that have or grant “Stalking.” However, n = 8 of those 20 cards have been printed since that quote from MaRo’s blog above (2016), with cards like Sunder Shaman (Ravnica Allegiance, 2019), to Wolfrider’s Saddle (Core Set 2020, 2019), to the recent Hungering Hydra (Commander 2020 precons, 2020). Overall, we’ve seen increase in 66.67% of “Stalking” cards since 2016.

Don’t get me wrong, that isn’t a lot to work with, but it is notable that “Stalking” has a 6-card deeper pool than Skulk (n = 14 cards), which acheived keyword status and now sits pretty squarely at a 7 on the Storm Scale. If we gave Skulk a shot (and try we did!), then we ought to do the same for “Stalking.”

Let’s start with the color breakdown of Commander-legal cards that have or grant “Stalking”:

Predominately in green followed by red, it’s no surprise that the Gruul clans — known for their decentralized leadership and settling disputes via single combat — would emphasize a mechanic that requires challengers to face one-on-one. There’s a reason Borborygmos (aka Borby-G) was (still is?) the Gruul guild-leader for so long. I mean, just look at Alpha Authority and tell me you’ll be fine him facing alone while your friends watch. The guy eats Protean Hulks for breakfast.

In fact, as of 2017, MaRo stated that “Stalking” was one of green’s ‘primary’ mechanics and was predominately designed for 3/3 creatures or larger. Given the steady influx of cards since 2016 mentioned above, the trend it seems may well continue into the future.


Taking Stalk of What We Have

In true Evasive Maneuvers fashion, we have to ask: just how effective is “Stalking”?

Well, at first glance, not very. So long as your opponent has any one creature capable of blocking, then you have the potential to be blocked. While it’s difficult (and likely trite) to try and simulate just how many creatures are on the battlefield at any given time, we can for certain say that every Commander deck, even ‘creature-less’ ones, have access at least to one potential blocker: their commander. That means every deck has at least one countermeasure to “Stalking” which isn’t a great start.

“Stalking” prevents the defending player from double-blocking, or otherwise dogpiling their five Goblin tokens to take down your Sunder Shaman, which is a plus. But in terms of straight evasion, outside of deterring your opponents only eligible blocker being a Jori En, Ruin Diver they’d rather hold on to, we have to get a bit more clever.

“Stalking” it turns out can go hand-in-hand with one of my favorite all time mechanics: menace. For full clarification, let’s define our terms based on the official rules book to see how it works.

Menace states:

702.110b A creature with menace can’t be blocked except by two or more creatures. (See rule 509,
“Declare Blockers Step.”)

Let’s jump to that 509 rule just to clarify:

509.1b The defending player checks each creature they control to see whether it’s affected by any
restrictions (effects that say a creature can’t block, or that it can’t block unless some condition
is met). If any restrictions are being disobeyed, the declaration of blockers is illegal.
A restriction may be created by an evasion ability (a static ability an attacking creature has
that restricts what can block it). If an attacking creature gains or loses an evasion ability after a
legal block has been declared, it doesn’t affect that block. Different evasion abilities are
cumulative

In other words, when our Sunder Shaman gains menace, either through an effect like being Equipped with Chitinous Cloak or there being a Gruul War Chant, the defending player is put into a scenario where they cannot declare more than one blocker (due to “Stalking”) and cannot block unless they do so with two or more creatures (due to the menace). The effects are additive (i.e. they ‘stack’), which ultimately results in the defending player not able to declare blockers at all, and Sunder Shaman is effectively unblockable.

The same goes the other way — Greven, Predator Captain Equipped with Vorrac Battlehorns results in the same scenario, where Greven’s nascent menace gets augmented by acquiring “Stalking” to become effectively unblockable. It makes me happy to see them showing up in over 50% of Greven decks (444 decks), likely due (in part) to Josh Lee Kwai’s explanation of its inclusion in his own Greven, Predator Captain deck.

Okay, normally I’m not big on trying to make an evasive mechanic or keyword work by just adding more keywords. It shouldn’t be a surprise that a creature with flying becomes more evasive and harder to block when it also has Shadow (and menace, and Intimidate, etc.). However, given we are looking at a mechanic that: 1) hasn’t even achieved keyword status and 2) only has 20 cards to its name, I don’t feel so bad trying to ‘borrow’ from other keywords a bit. I unapologetically included Yuan Shao, the Indecisive in the menace article, and don’t feel terrible coming from the other direction here.

All this goes to say that “Stalking” can be surprisingly effective when paired with menace effects. On it’s own, it acts as a minor deterrent, but Alpha Authority with Gruul War Chant means we’ve made our own Gruul version of a not-so-Invisible Stalker.


What a Load of Bull

Okay, so we kind of need to lean into green if we want to build around this mechanic, and splashing red certainly wouldn’t hurt in upping our card pool. There are three four legendary creature options for stalking, but considering one is mono-white (Huang Zhong, Shu General), and the other is north of $100 and mono-red (Yuan Shao, the Indecisive), we are already down to two. Technically, Mirri, Weatherlight Duelist grants a pseudo-“Stalking” effect on attack, which shouldn’t be overlooked. I know I’d be in trouble not mentioning her, as our very own Matt Morgan would point me to his Mother Mirri list, which you can see in action on Twitch.TV/EDHRECAST. But since I don’t want to step on any kitty toes, that means there’s just one option left. As it turns out, he happens to be Gruul, and costs less than a gumball ($0.25): Tahngarth, First Mate

The newest iteration of this sky-faring bipedal bovid sits dead last out of all the commanders from the Commander 2019 precons (see below). Turns out, spikey-shouldered edgelords who aren’t even biological progeny and don’t care for paying actual mana for things is just what’s popular these days, but I digress. I for one was excited to see Jake Boss piloting a Tahngarth, First Mate deck in episode #09 of Extra Turns, as well as some notable content creators featuring some neat brews for him.

Tahngarth works kind of like Assault Suit in that so long as he’s tapped, you can pass him around, hot-potato style, to your opponents when they start swinging at each other. The good thing is the trigger is a ‘may’ ability, meaning we don’t have to send him into combat if we don’t want to (say, if an opponent has a sacrifice outlet). In an ideal, magical Christmas-land scenario:

  • Player 3 would have no creatures, and you (as Player 4) swing at them with Tahngarth, which they can’t block. You pass the turn to Player 1.
  • Player 1 then swings at least at Player 3, and you pass along Tahngarth, hitting Player 3 once again. They pass to Player 2.
  • Finally, Player 2 swings at least at Player 3, and once again, you give them Tahngarth.

Player 3 now just took 15 commander damage in one pass of the table, and if he were pumped by another 2 power, they’d be dead to commander damage. Remember, commander damage is tied to the card, not necessarily who is in control of it, so all of Tahngarth, First Mate‘s damage stacks!

Interestingly, even if Player 1 and Player 2 decide to hit you instead, you can still have Tangarth join them to have Tahngarth hit yourself, if you’re feeling sadistic. Take that, K’rrik, Son of Yawgmoth — you’re not the only nihilist in town.

Image result for minotaur gif role models


Fight or… Fight Reflex

The first hurdle is getting people to attack, which, many times, they don’t want to do. Many a game progresses to a point where players play out threats or develop the board with creatures, but don’t use them for combat purposes or are hesitant to send them into the red for fear of crack back. While I don’t think we need to put every forced-combat card in the deck (e.g. Warmonger Hellkite, Avatar of Slaughter), there are some worth highlighting.

Fumiko, the Lowblood and Goblin Spymaster help get a rumble started without costing too much mana. Rite of the Raging Storm may not force your opponents to attack one another, but it sure encourages it. I’ve found when given a free 5/1, most players will swing away to get the game going (me included), which gives us more opportunities for donating Tahngarth, First Mate.

We can also lean into a bit of some of the Goad cards like Disrupt Decorum, Shiny Impetus, and my favorite: Grenzo, Havoc Raiser. Grenzo is particularly good here with our evasion package, as we can start to continuously Goad opponent’s creatures for Tahngarth, or begin pillaging libraries if we are down on cards. Geode Rager is a card that some swear by and others dismiss, but I think it’s worth at least an experimentation here.

As for Bloodthirsty Blade, I’m ecstatic to see it seeing play in almost 4,000 decks. I’ve had much fun with this card even outside of forced combat decks, and have started including it more and more instead of standard creature removal. Sometimes, pointing that Ghalta, Primal Hunger at someone else is just a bit better than outright killing it, and leads to some fun games. For those of you who played World of Warcraft: Legion as a Shadow Priest, you know exactly what I mean when I say this thing is like Xal’atath, Blade of the Black Empire.


Mess With the Bull, You Get the Horns

So we’ve got a rumble started, but how do we get through with our commander or other “Stalkers” (eek).

Imposing Visage is a fun one that happens to work quite nicely with “Stalking.” We’ll include some other notable menace-granters (e.g. Madcap Skills, Chitinous Cloak, Frenzied Rage) to help Tahngarth, or one of our other “Stalkers” get through. Resolving a Wolfrider’s Saddle with a Pyreheart Wolf makes your Wolf token not only unblockable, but it’s a flavor win if I’ve ever seen one.

Tahngarth, First Mate can still accrue advantages for us as well if he’s temporarily joined with our opponents’ forces, but only so long as we carefully scrutinize the way those support cards are worded.

For example: Sixth Sense is a card we see in almost 20% of Tahngarth decks, but is somewhat of a non-bo, as the card gives the trigger to Tahngarth who will be under an opponent’s control. This means if we lend Tahngarth, First Mate who we enchanted with Sixth Sense to an opponent, and he gets in for damage, that opponent who temporarily controls Tahngarth will actually draw the card, not us, even though we are the owner of Sixth Sense.

Contrast this with Keen Sense which simply states “whenever enchanted creatures deals damage to an opponent, you may a card.” Even though the opponent is in control of Tahngarth, we still own the Keen Sense, and since Keen Sense didn’t give the triggered ability directly to Tahngarth, we get to reap the benefits. If you’ve never put this thing on an opponent’s Glint-Horn Buccaneer or Syr Konrad, the Grim, you don’t know what you’re missing.

One with Nature for instance lets us get a basic land out every time Tahngarth connects, Mask of Memory gives us some card advantage and selection when he connects, and casting Hunter’s Insight on Tahngarth just before an opponent moves to combat and we lend him out means we have the potential to draw a burst of cards.

Most of these cards are decent to enchant or Equip one of our other “Stalkers” (e.g. Sunder Shaman, Outland Colossus) as well in case Tahngarth, First Mate gets shut down or removed too many times.

Finally, we’ll include a suite of these effects to help our whole board get through, not just Tahngarth or one of the other “Stalkers.” Familiar Ground or Yuan Shao, the Indecisive paired with Goblin War Drums, Frontier Warmonger, Gruul War Chant or Pyreheart Wolf means all of our creatures become unblockable.

Top the list off with some fun haymakers like Embercleave and we get ourselves a stewstockstalk going:

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Okay, yes, I included Yuan Shao, the Indecisive but he’s just too good to pass up both mechanically and thematically. Obviously you could splash your Sword of X and Y and really do some work, but I opted to keep this a bit more budget-inclined outside of Yuan Shao.


Conclusion

“Stalking” may not be the evasion everyone is familiar with, nor the one people prioritize, but it can still lead to some interesting scenarios. And maybe, just maybe, it’s the evasion we need. Wizards of the Coast R&D does seem to be leaning a bit more heavily into agency-based evasion, or keywords and mechanics that create difficulty in blocking decisions, but still retain a sense of agency. The keywording and increased support for menace I think is somewhat emblematic of the direction some members of R&D are pushing, so as to avoid games where Tormented Souls just swing recklessly past one another and combat becomes more of a race and less about strategy.

But what do you think? Where do you stand in terms of evasion? Do you run any “Stalkers” in your decks? Did you also dismiss Tahngarth, First Mate as too weird or quirky? Sound off in the comments below!

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).