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I Say Thee Neigh: The Case for Horsemanship in Commander

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One of my favorite things about Commander is access to almost every Magic card ever printed. Our card pool runs the gamut from staples like Sol Ring, Demonic Tutor, and Counterspell to some far more... forgettable cards and mechanics. Today I'd like to focus on one of those obscure mechanics, and one I wish would make a comeback: Horsemanship.

Yes, I'm serious.

I discovered Horsemanship while helping a friend sort a massive trove of cards they'd purchased for next to nothing when a comic shop went out of business. I was new to Magic at the time. I was already familiar with evergreen mechanics like lifelink, deathtouch and trample, but what was this horse stuff all about? It's about AWESOMENESS, that's what.

Horsemanship originated in the Portal Three Kingdoms expansion, a set designed with the Asian market in mind. It drew heavily from real life history; many of the legendary creatures were living, breathing historical figures, in stark contrast to the bulk of Magic characters. I regret to inform you that Ajani was never a real person. Cat person. Person cat? Anyway.

As many of these bygone warriors used horses in battle, it makes sense that Magic would reflect that in the game. This was long before vehicles and even equipment were part of the game, so a keyword mechanic was the logical way to go for the time. Horsemanship is simple enough to understand. Creatures with horsemanship can only be blocked by other creatures with horsemanship.

This was intriguing to me, much more so when I discovered this fine gentleman:

Sun Quan, Lord of Wu

So hold on. You're telling me there's a beefy legendary with Horsemanship who also grants all your other creatures Horsemanship... and he's Blue?

SIGN. ME. UP.

Blue has always been my favorite color in Magic. I was drawn to its control and manipulation qualities, but I also have an insatiable and mighty need to go to combat. I love combat, y'all. So here was a guy who let me play Mono-Blue Aggro in Commander. I couldn't build the deck fast enough.


A few notes before I get into the deck itself:

  • I built this deck in 2017 and upgraded it several times up until just before the release of Dominaria. A short time after that I went through a career change and was forced to sell off my Magic collection, so I've only just now revisited the list and made some minor changes. I look forward to resurrecting my beloved HORSEYMAN!! deck soon.
  • When I initially put the deck together, I do so in no small part because I get a child-like joy of shouting HORSEYMAN!! in a whimsical voice whenever I reference Sun Quan. I am many things, but a grown-up is not one of them.
  • I didn't think this deck would turn out to be particularly powerful, but it ended up with a fairly impressive win rate. With additional upgrades I imagine it could get even more nasty.

Saddle Up, Lock & Load

As Commander decks go, this one plays in a pretty straightforward way. We want to cast creatures that provide us value when they deal combat damage--drawing cards and stealing things primarily--and then get Sun Quan into the mix as quickly as possible. The odds of facing an opponent who's also running creatures with horsemanship are quite negligible in my experience, so 999 times out of a thousand your creatures will be getting through for damage with ease.

We want to maximize this strategy with a little Voltron action. The swords (Fire and Ice, Body and Mind, Feast and Famine), Quietus Spike and Blade of Selves provide potent upgrades, particularly when they're equipped on Sun Quan. It's rare that Commander players can use commander damage as a viable primary strategy but Horseyman opens that up for us in a big way.

Now, even though our creatures will almost certainly be unblockable with Sun Quan in play, our opponents can always have things that throw a wrench into our plans. That's why we have multiple ways to find Cyclonic Rift--Spellseeker, Mystical Tutor and the highly underrated Merchant Scroll. When things get hairy, overload that sucker and stomp your way to victory.

And Now a Brief Word from the Author

I run Cyclonic Rift. I'm fine with Cyclonic Rift. I do not expect Cyclonic Rift to be banned. I do not think Cyclonic Rift should be banned. This is my official position on Cyclonic Rift and I will not discuss it further here or elsewhere.

This Has Been a Brief Word from the Author, Now Back to the Article

Kira, Great Glass-Spinner
Of course, we're in Mono-Blue so there's no shortage of counters and card draw. We've also got Caged Sun to both anthem our creatures and provide us with more mana, Rhystic Study to draw us cards and annoy our friends, and As Foretold and Omniscience to lock down the late game with free spells aplenty.

Kira, Great Glass-Spinner is a particularly spicy card in this deck, making it much harder to bounce, kill, exile or otherwise bother our horsey-mounted friends. I've relished many a time when an opponent tried to nuke one of my creatures during combat only for me to point at Kira and watch their shoulders slump in defeat. I don't imagine many Commander players have Borrowing the East Wind in their decks--I bet most of you had never heard of it before now--so having Kira's shield around all your creatures can really set you up for success. (Also, as a massive fan of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, it tickles me to no end that this deck has Kira, Great Glass-Spinner and Cephalid Constable... Major Kira and Constable Odo together again!)

Get the Horses from the Bacc

I wasn't joking at the top of this piece--I want Horsemanship to make a triumphant return. Mechanics like this one are just the kind of silly fun that Commander is all about. I mean, picture it--Consecrated Sphinx and Jin-Gitaxias, Core Augur and Aethertide Whale all riding their horses like it's a spaghetti Western from the 1960s. It's delightful.

To be more specific, I'd love an artifact or land that grants Horsemanship to creatures the same way Sun Quan does, so other colors can get in on the act. Failing tha,t I'd settle for a boatload more creatures with Horsemanship and spells that either take advantage of the mechanic or provide an answer to it.

I want that not just because I find the whole concept of Horsemanship to be whimsical and amusing, but also because I feel as though combat has been systematically devalued in Commander. Many of the most powerful recent commanders want nothing to do with combat. Many Commander players want nothing to do with combat. I think that's a shame. Combat is the most fundamental way to do things in Magic. It's the easiest concept for new and/or young players to understand, but it feels like it's fallen out of favor in Commander. I would never suggest that players should or shouldn't play a certain way--if you like combos, play combos! If you like Aristocrats or Mill, go to town. If you like Stax and Mass Land Destruction, have all the fun you want so long as you stay as far away from me as possible.

I would suggest, though, that with Commander now inarguably Magic's most popular format, the time is right to give players new reasons to go to combat. As this format continues to grow both in its player base and its card pool, players need to have as much incentive as possible to play any and every style of deck there is. (Not you, Mass Land Destruction, at least not at my table.)

Horsemanship fits the bill. It's pure Magic. It's fun, it's straightforward and it rewards players for going ever so slightly off the beaten path. I would be giddy to see this underappreciated mechanic make a triumphant return.

Yee. Haw.

Dave is a Commander player currently residing in Reno, NV. When he's not badly misplaying his decks, he works as a personal trainer. You can bother him on Twitter @daviekumd and check out his Twitch "channel" at twitch.tv/mooks311 .

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