Evasive Maneuvers — Unblockable

(Covert Operative | Art by Kev Walker)

Unblockable, Untouchable, Unparalleled

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.

We saved the best for last. We’ve arrived at the pinnacle. The Rogue’s Passage. The crème de la crème of evasion: unblockable.

Maybe you consistently think to yourself: ‘wow, math really is for blockers.’ Or maybe you didn’t enjoy the last 15 installments where there was always some hoop to jump through or some condition where you might be blocked. Heck, maybe you’re in that weird meta where every black deck runs Dauthi Embrace, so you can never quite count on your Looter il-Kor getting through. (If so, please let me know where y’all play, or send me a vEDH invite, as that sounds like my kinda meta!)

If any of the above is the case, unblockable is the go-to for you. No fuss, no muss. Just pay mana, and like an early ought’s movie about two men in Wine Country, turn that puppy Sideways.

Happy Hour Drinking GIF by 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment


Is someone (unblock)able to explain this keyword?

Weirdly, unblockable has a bit of a varied history. Some older cards, like Covert Operative, Cephalid Pathmage, or Protective Bubble, have ‘unblockable’ while more recent variants, like Triton Shorestalker, Aqueous Form, or Cloak of Mists, all say the creature ‘can’t be blocked’, instead. On a few occasions, Mark Rosewater stated that Wizards of the Coast Research & Development never keyworded ‘unblockable’ mainly because there were just too many variations throughout the history of Magic: the Gathering:

“We use unblockable in too many different ways for us to be able to keyword it. Keywording something means we had to line up the rules text.” (2014)

“We explored [keywording unblockable], but there are too many variants we use regularly for the effect for keywording to work.” (2020)

With that in mind, I’ll be referring to the mechanic as ‘unblockable’ for brevity’s sake. Without further ado, let’s look at a particular subset of cards (147) that have, grant, or acquire straight-up unblockability. I’m excluding specific cards here like Dwarven Nomad, as we discussed them previously on ‘tunneling.’ The color breakdown is as follows:

Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of unblockable cards are blue-inclusive.

As is tradition, we want ask: just how effective is unblockable? Out of all the keywords we’ve looked at so far, this is by far the easiest one to evaluate: unblockable is effective. No caveats. Job’s a good’un.

Rather than evaluate its efficacy, let’s instead look at how much unblockability costs. In essence, how much do we have to pay Marchesa’s Smuggler to use that secret passageway? As a thought experiment, let’s look at the cards that make any one (or more) creature(s) you control unblockable. For the sake of this, let’s consider straight unblockability and exclude any conditional evasion, no matter how effective it likely is (e.g., Departed Deckhand).

When we tally up the casting cost of all spells/permanents, and the associated activated ability in the case of permanents (as you need to be able to cast a card to activate its ability!), we see the mean total cost is 4, the median is 4, and the mode is 3. Generally speaking, the going rate to make any creature unblockable tends to hover around 4 mana: think Rogue’s Passage, Deepfathom Skulker, Protective Bubble, or Tricks of the Trade.

But don’t fret — there’s actually a slough of smuggling options to sneak your way through:

Again, in this case, we are only looking at straight unblockability to any creature, not unblockability to a Merfolk (e.g., Merfolk Sovereign) or small creature (e.g., Access Tunnel).

I think it’s safe to say the price of unblockability, at least in terms of being tacked onto a creature, is not as steep as it once was. Covert Operative, Tidal Kraken, and Cephalid Pathmage may well have been some of my favorite cards growing up, but they’ve been replaced by efficient creatures like Triton Shorestalker, Slither Blade, or the all-star who looks like that guy from The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Invisible Stalker.

The influx of cheaper, unblockable creatures has spawned what I think are two major paths to any ‘unblockable’ strategy: Going ‘wide’ with your Triton Shorestalker et al. (“Death by a Thousand Cuts”), or going ‘tall’ to make sure one big threat gets through for certain (“Death by… One Big Cut”).


Death By a Thousand Cuts

Let’s start with the go-wide approach. It doesn’t take more than a few searches on the site to see the appeal of unblockability, and which commanders their paired with. Remembering their blue-centric design, it’s no surprise that small unblockable creatures are found in spades alongside Yuriko, the Tiger’s Shadow, Edric, Spymaster of Trest, or Anowon, the Ruin Thief.

Something as simple as Slither Blade can find itself in a 950 decks for Edric, 1,375 decks for Anowon, and a staggering 3,235 decks for Yuriko. And it makes a great deal of sense — an efficient 1/1 for 1 mana that doesn’t require any additional setup to be evasive can start triggering combat damage procs. Sure, the creature hits for 1 damage, but the resulting trigger from Yuriko, the Tiger’s Shadow (if it’s converted into a Ninja or Ninjutsu-ed) can dome each of your opponent’s for much more, and give you a card to boot. With Edric, Spymaster of Trest, you’re drawing a card, or even more when paired with Toski, Bearer of Secrets, Reconnaissance Mission, Coastal Piracy, Bident of Thassa, or Ohran Frostfang. With Anowon, the Ruin Thief, you get tribal buffs and payoffs, as well as damage triggers and possible card draw.


Death By… One Big Cut

While the appeal of small, cheaply-costed unblockable creatures is easy to appreciate, what about unblockability when going ‘tall’? What if you want to make your One Punch Man unblockable? Rogue’s Passage, Whispersilk Cloak, Aqueous Form, Cloak of Mists, as well as a slough of one-off spells, like Artful Dodge, all grant unblockability to any one creature of your heart’s desire.

Whether through efficient one-off spells or an Aura that’s sure to stick around, these options can help ensure your beefcake (e.g., Arixmethes, Slumbering Isle), saboteur (e.g., Cephalid Constable), or win condition (e.g., Phage the Untouchable) will get through. If you have a commander that 1) seeks combat and 2) needs evasion, it’s always worth considering just throwing a Rogue’s Passage or even Key to the City in the mix.


Challenging the Ssssstatssssss

Okay, for our decklist, there are many options to choose from, particularly from our ‘Death by a Thousand Cuts’ contingent above. The thing is, we already know how effective little unblockable creatures are with Yuriko, the Tiger’s Shadow, or Edric, Spymaster of Trest. Frankly, I don’t see any list we conjure up being stronger than what those two can do with unblockable creatures.

Instead, I’m more intrigued by the latter option. How might we approach a deck that emphasizes unblockability, but mainly for one bigger creature to get through, rather than a bunch of little ones? How do we do so in a way that emphasizes unblockable, rather than the suite of cards that tend to grant other forms of evasion, and just tossing in a Rogue’s Passage to call it a day?

The recent reprinting of one particular card in the new Commander 2021 Quantum Quandrix Preconstructed deck caught my eye: Kaseto, Orochi Archmage.

Kaseto, Orochi Archmage is known primarily for helming Snake tribal lists (snek.dek). Don’t believe me? Check out his page, where 224 of the 300 Kaseto decks, or 75%, run Snake tribal. Another 48 (16%) run an Infect/Poison-themed deck, which still retain enough Snakes, like Sabertooth Cobra or Blight Mamba, to make Indiana Jones queasy.

18 Surprising Facts You've Never Heard About 'Indiana Jones'

While it makes thematic sense to run Snake tribal, and gives you even more opportunity to stretch your “s”s like the very Professor himself, Kaseto, Orochi Archmage doesn’t actually need Snakes to make creatures unblockable — it just grants a gravy boost of +2/+2 for those scaly skin-shedders. Until recently, I had always assumed it only applied to Snakes. Seeing him reprinted was a good reminder to not necessarily base a commander’s potential on what everyone else is doing with it. Sometimes, its good to challenge some stats(sssss)!


Paying for Edric’s Sins

Finally, Kaseto, Orochi Archmage not only can use his activated ability the turn he comes down (which can lead to some surprising plays), but can also apply the ability to any creature, not just our own! This means we can actually hold up mana to not only protect ourselves, or for instant-speed removal, but actually use it for political purposes to broker deals and make other people’s creatures unblockable as they swing at other players. The new Sly Instigator, alongside Psychic Impetus, Predatory Impetus, Bloodthirsty Blade, Coveted Peacock and Dissipation Field, can keep our opponents’ creatures looking elsewhere (or force them to), at which point we can then make unblockable with Kaseto, Orochi Archmage.

With all the card advantage, land ramp, and generic power that Simic has been associated with as of late, an unblockable deck that emphasizes some impactful creatures with important combat damage triggers, accompanied by a sub-theme of politics, seems right for the time. You know, like how Edric, Spymaster of Trest was ‘intended’ to be designed as an ‘effect for the whole table’ but earned the reputation of a selfish demagogue chaining extra turn spells.

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Our finishers come in the form of larger ‘saboteurs’ that have powerful combat damage procs like the new Dazzling Sphinx. What I like about this is how cards like Grunn, the Lonely King, Hydra Omnivore, Sphinx Ambassador, or anything with Inquisitor’s Flail have the potential to do some heavy damage or trigger neat effects when granted unblockability. It may not be as lean as your typical unblockable decks, but there’s still potential to pack a punch.

While the list isn’t as nearly powerful as it could be, I think that’s just fine, given the ceiling for unblockable is in a good place with commanders like Yuriko, the Tiger’s Shadow and Edric, Spymaster of Trest. If anything, I hope this might infuse a slight breath of fresh air into unblockable’s potential outside of the aforementioned archetypes above.


Conclusion

What about you? Do you enjoy unblockable as a mechanic, or find it un-interactive for combat? Do you get gleefully giddy when you cast Sewers of Estark or Trailblazer and your opponent scratches their head as they lose a chunk of life (or better, the game)? Have you lost to Thassa, God of the Sea‘s activated ability as much as I have? 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).