(Evasive Action | Art by Brian Snoddy)
Fear and Intimidate: Poor Design or Untapped Potential?
Greetings sleuths, saboteurs, and skulkers! Welcome to the kickoff of Evasive Maneuvers, a series where we try to make data-driven decisions for evasive deck-building in Commander. In a multiplayer free-for-all with a cumulative 120 enemy life total, combat-based strategies can be inherently tricky to pull off in many Commander games. The vast majority of creatures simply don’t scale all that well to the life totals you’re up against, and only gets worse if your opponents have blockers. That’s where evasion comes in! We’ll be looking at evasion as how best to get creatures through using combat damage, and taking both critical and creative looks at some of the ways we can get through unimpeded.
We’re starting off with one of the oldest keywords for evasion out there: fear, and its eventual successor, intimidate! However, there is a crucial distinction: fear is not the same as intimidate. Well, at least for non-black creatures. A black creature with fear is roughly the same as having intimidate, but a Llanowar Elves with fear is not the same as a Llanowar Elves with intimidate. In this case, the dork with fear can only be blocked by black creatures while the dork with intimidate can only be blocked by fellow green creatures. Both can still be blocked by artifact creatures. This also means the more colors in your creature’s color identity, the less effective that creature is with intimidate.
Fear was re-branded to intimidate for two reasons. First, its name. Wizards of the Coast realized it was kind of counter-intuitive for your creature to have fear when it was supposed to be the creature invoking fear in the defending creature. Second, WotC wanted to expand the idea to other colors and not make it specific to black. To this day I often wonder where they got the idea… (*cough* Intimidation *cough*).
The Color of Fear
The inspiration for the first entry in this series begins with a personal anecdote. While tinkering with my Golgari Elf-ball deck, I kept running into the issue of having my pointy-ears simply chump-blocked by my opponents’ assorted dorks, Dinosaurs, and Detritovores. I decided to bite the bullet, diverting money from my beer and pizza night fund to get a Cover of Darkness. Yes, it’s not that expensive, but a grad student salary makes for budget-inclined, albeit creative, deck choices. I was ecstatic to have a two-mana enchantment that helped my Keebler friends sneak through, and on curve to boot. What more could you want?
Well for one, I wish I had that beer and pizza instead. While my friend’s Dinosaurs may have had trouble blocking my Llanowar entourage, the dorks and Detritovores had no problem trading. Every time I happened to get Cover of Darkness out, I seemed to always be against some Deathrite Shaman, a Thopter token, or even just a Blood Artist. This only got worse as the game went on and my opponents’ commanders hit the table. Even a Kess, Dissident Mage deck, which has no intentions of using her for anything less than re-casting spells, could pose a serious impediment to my game plan by virtue of having black in her cost. It got me thinking – are fear and intimidate really all that effective in EDH? If not, would the pizza shop accept a Cover of Darkness as payment for some slices and a foamer?
So how do we tell if fear/intimidate are worth running in EDH? Well, one way we can evaluate them is by its potential to be blocked. Unlike other formats, the players across from you have repeated access to potential blockers: their commanders. Since intimidate means your creature can only be blocked by creatures that share a color with it and/or are artifact creatures, we can look at the distribution of all commanders by color, assign their weight by their number of decks as scraped by EDHREC, then look at just how likely someone’s commander alone might complicate your intimidate strategy. Commanders also tend to be a good proxy of the colors of the creatures (for our concern, blockers) in the 99 – a deck led by a commander with black in its color identity tends to run black creatures (though, not always).
Here are the results:
So let’s say you have a white creature with intimidate. This means the likelihood (%) that just one of your opponents has a deck containing white or an artifact commander, and thus the potential to be blocked by someone’s commander alone is 43.91%. If you had a blue creature with intimidate, the likelihood you may be blocked by someone’s commander alone is 48.96%, etc. Now let’s say you had your Llanowar Elves out with the pizza/liquid bread-usurping Cover of Darkness, then the probability it can be blocked by someone’s commander alone would be found in the black category: 47.05%. Each probability takes into account both commanders with the color as well as artifact commanders, as some commanders will just incidentally be able to block you without even sharing a color – think of your mono-green deck running Bellowing Tanglewurm, only to be blocked by Breya, Etherium Shaper or Brudiclad, Telchor Engineer. As if Breya wasn’t strong enough, she still gets to hose Bellowing Tanglewurm without even sharing a color with it! Sheesh.
And no wonder my Elves were having a hard time if the likelihood of encountering a commander that’s an artifact creature or sporting black in its color identity is about 47%! Given the relatively recent abundance of five-color commanders printed (e.g. Jodah, Archmage Eternal, Sisay, Weatherlight Captain, Niv-Mizzet Reborn) and the allure or having access to multiple colors in Commander, this trend is likely to continue.
Now I know what you’re thinking: commanders aren’t exactly people’s first choice of blocker. Can’t argue with that. However, I do think when push comes to shove, people will occasionally throw their commander in harm’s way if it means saving their skin. Nevertheless, its the 99 that sure to be where we really run into trouble. When we look at the color distribution of the top 100 creatures (in the past 2 years), we see:
Wow, does green boast a large number of popular creatures! If you’re trying to run intimidate in a green creature package, you’re far more likely to be facing down an army of fellow green or green+X blockers. Sorry once again, Bellowing Tanglewurm. You tried….
Fear might continue to be semi-effective compared to a green-based intimidate strategy, though I’m still weary given nearly 20% of the most popular creatures are black.
Similar to the commanders, colorless creatures just don’t seem to be as prevalent in most decks. Even better, the two most popular offenders – Solemn Simulacrum and Burnished Hart – are actively looking to die, so they won’t likely stick around long!
So how do we get the most bang for our buck? We lean into the most effective ‘color’ for intimidate – none!
Players have long known Vela the Night-Clad’s strength in leading a deck chock full of artifact creatures and/or creatures with Devoid. Since these creatures are colorless, it means they can only be blocked by artifact creatures, which as we saw above, aren’t all that prevalent outside of dedicated artifact decks. While Vela is the obvious choice, let’s try and spice things up. Say, five-color colorless tribal?
Enter Morophon, the Boundless. Rather than going with artifacts (sorry, Myr), we’ll be prioritizing the other colorless tribe: Eldrazi. Morophon offers multiple advantages at the head of our deck: he allows us to run some of the Eldrazi that aren’t limited to blue-black, allows us to splash green and red for some more pump, draw, and damage effects, is an Eldrazi himself, acts as a cost-reducer, an anthem, and to top it all off, is colorless himself! With intimidate, who wouldn’t want a 6/6 unblockable anthem/cost-reducer?!
Vela, the Night-Clad is our obvious hidden commander, granting the rest of our deck (and commander!) nigh-unblockability. Hideous Visage helps for a blowout combat trick, while Executioner’s Hood, Gruesome Deformity, and Grisly Transformation grant some of our spaghetti friends their much-needed evasion for minimal mana investments.
Kindred Discovery, Bident of Thassa, Coastal Piracy have long been my tripartite in evasion decks to keep our grip full, and the newly-printed Reconnaissance Mission nearly had me in tears to have another effect join the ranks. Deepfathom Skulker is yet another draw-engine, and it also: happens to be evasive with intimidate, grants another creature unblockable, and is an Eldrazi!
We have a few creature tutors to help get Vela, the Night-Clad, such as Eladamri’s Call and Worldly Tutor, though more wouldn’t hurt. This also seems like a perfect deck for Scheming Symmetry, allowing us to grab our Vela, the Night-Clad or other haymakers, while not worrying about our opponents too much given the number of creatures we have with ingest. Sylvan Scrying and Expedition Map can shore up some mana-fixing as well as grab Eye of Ugin to get our ramp online. Note: given Morophon helps with the color pips and the deck is primarily colorless, feel free to go cheaper with the mana base or lean into colorless mana rocks. I made this as if I didn’t have dual lands but did have tenure. A boy can dream….
We have some great permanent removal in the form of Chaos Warp, Beast Within, and Generous Gift, which all have minimal pip requirements, while Vandalblast can help take out all those pesky Thopter tokens that might try to block us.
Feel free to season with larger canonical Eldrazi titans. As part of Evasive Maneuvers, I wanted to keep this low to the ground – I mean, do you really need your It that Betrays to also be unblockable? Plus, the Titans and other thicc Eldrazi get a lot of the spotlight. They’re the pappardelle of noodle-beings – why not give the little orzo and couscous some love too?
Five-color Colorless Intimidate
Nothing to Fear but Fear (and Intimidate) Itself…
Ultimately, we can see just how many resources we have to dedicate to do to get intimidate/fear to work well in Commander. It’s not surprising then that Mark Rosewater decided to list the keyword(s) as non-evergreen, as the mechanic results in either un-interactive combat steps or absolutely nothing for the mana investment, just by virtue of what colors the deck(s) across from you happens to be running. The efficacy of intimidate/fear are already determined before the game even starts:
But isn’t that part of the fun? Thanks to EDHREC, we can use and visualize data from a large number of commander decks to see what our chances are of being blocked outright, or getting in when we need to. As any Thieves’ Guild member will tell you, knowing how to deal a blow takes time, planning, and most of all – information. Why not use it to our advantage?
It’s also not to say intimidate/fear are bad, per se. It’s a decent strategy if you know your meta and are going wide. I for one think Academy Raider and Mogis’s Marauder should see more play. Academy Raider helps provide some looting, and from the graphs above, we might expect it to encounter other red blockers less frequently. Mogis’s Marauder provides haste in black! Any sort of mass-reanimation deck with a heavy black devotion (think Chainer, Dementia Master, Balthor the Defiled, etc.) can surprise folks out of nowhere with this sleeper. Shadowmage Infiltrator is also a classic card with an efficient cost, though I do find myself needing to grant it additional evasion more often than not. Many of the popular creatures with fear and intimidate aren’t likely using the keywords for evasive purposes, rather the keywords are just extra gravy thrown on an already effective card – think of Sepulchral Primordial and Avatar of Woe. Bellowing Tanglewurm, I’m a little less sold on…
What do you think? Are fear and intimidate effective in your meta? How often are you choosing the final option in Profane Command? Anyone running Smogsteed Rider + Shifting Sky naming anything but black as a wombo-combo? Would you trade a Cover of Darkness for a slice of margherita and a Fresh-Squeezed IPA™? Sound off in the comments below!
Until next time, stay sneaky (and safe!).