It's good to be back. It's been a long while since I last wrote (five months already? Time sure flies!), but the good news is there will be weekly articles from me once again for the foreseeable future. To celebrate my return from doing nothing, I thought I'd take this opportunity to bring The Art of Doing Nothing into November 2016.
Smuggler's Copter is my kind of card. Aggression, evasion and card filtering – what's not to love? Further, the card promotes some of the more interesting play patterns I've encountered in my time playing Magic. Most of these patterns center around the simple fact that it is much harder to interact with an artifact then it is with a creature. Harnessed Lightning, Grasp of Darkness, Murder, Stasis Snare: all of these are frequently played cards that can easily deal with a crewed Smuggler's Copter but find themselves woefully ill-suited to answer one that has yet to leave the launch pad. This limitation of the common removal spells is easily exploitable and cedes a lot of power to the player wielding the Smuggler's Copter.
Ask yourself what the hardest questions a Smuggler's Copter pilot will encounter in a typical game are. Half credit if you said the choice of what to discard, full credit if you answered the choice of whether or not to crew. Extra marks if you clarified that it's not the choice between attacking and blocking with Copter that is difficult, but the decision to crew it at all. The reality of this Standard format is that Smuggler's Copter is so far and away better than every other card that its in-game value is difficult to overstate. Risking Smuggler's Copter by crewing it in the face of a potential removal spell is often a mistake, yet it happens all the time.
So, when should we keep Smuggler's Copter home? In an average game, where both players kept six- or seven-card hands, within the first five turns of the game, Smuggler's Copter should never attack into open Harnessed Lightning, Grasp of Darkness, or Stasis Snare mana unless the Smuggler's Copter player has a great defense plan — something along the lines of Spell Queller or Selfless Spirit. Like all things in Magic, this isn't a hard-and-fast rule, but if you treat it like one you will be right more often then you are wrong. It's all about the power level differential between Smuggler's Copter and the rest of your board. If they leave mana up to deal with a Smuggler's Copter attack you decline to make, they are left in the unenviable position of either wasting critical early game mana or spending their removal spell on a lower-priority target. Both are great for you, which should come as no surprise to a disciple of the Art of doing nothing.
Defensively, it is more likely correct to risk your Smuggler's Copter. Whenever a scenario comes up in which you are considering utilizing your Smuggler's Copter defensively, one of two things is happening. Either your opponent is offering a trade that you desire or they are dead set on removing Smuggler's Copter before blocks. In both cases, a defensive Smuggler's Copter move means you are okay with losing Smuggler's Copter. In the trade scenario, this means your opponent is the aggressor in the matchup and you do what you have to do – that's fine. The interesting case is when your opponent represents a removal spell. This play pattern is not at all like choosing to attack with Smuggler's Copter, despite appearances. The upside to playing around a removal spell while on defense is much lower – you don't get to waste their mana! If you decline to crew, they can just utilize their mana at sorcery speed in their second main phase. Thus, it is correct to try to block in the face of a removal spell much more often than it is to attack.
But Jadine, you say, surely you are biasing your argument. After all, you played U/W Flash in your last major tournament and intend to play it again at the next one — surely what you are saying can't hold true for the aggressive Vehicles strategies. Well, yes and no. Yes, Vehicles decks are more likely than U/W Flash to want to just turn Smuggler's Copter sideways and cross their fingers, but no, that does not mean that what I am saying does not apply to those decks. In fact, I would say that the difference is much more marginal than it appears at first brush. Aggressive strategies in Magic tend to have a much flatter power level curve throughout their deck. The fact that aggro lives and dies by its ability to have an aggressive start each and every game requires a huge amount of redundancy, and thus its cards are all worth about the same. This logic would support the idea that Vehicles is fine risking their Smuggler's Copters, but the truth is that Vehicles functions as a traditional aggro deck only some of the time. Not only is Smuggler's Copter the deck's best card, it also enables all its artifact synergies. It is often the lynchpin of a Vehicles draw.
Turn one Thraben Inspector. Turn two attack for one, cast Smuggler's Copter. Turn three attack for one again with the Thraben Inspector. Wait, what? In the abstract, this sounds like an egregious misuse of resources, but plays like these are exactly what I'm recommending. Too often in spots like these, players just jam Smuggler's Copter into open mana for no reason other than that's what Smuggler's Copter does: attack. But on the draw in the U/W Flash mirror staring down two untapped Prairie Streams and a Plains, attacking with Smuggler's Copter is a travesty of a decision. Congratulations, you just lost the game on the spot to a Stasis Snare. But if we aren't ever supposed to attack with Smuggler's Copter, why are we even playing it?
Ever heard of threat of activation? This concept is the benefit that even an unscrewed Smuggler's Copter provides. In the previous hypothetical, what does our Stasis Snare-wielding opponent get to do with their three untapped lands – Stasis Snare our Thraben Inspector? If their lucky, we cast a second main-phase Selfless Spirit they can tag or have a Spell Queller they can just flash in at end step. If they aren't lucky and just decide to let that mana burn, they will find themselves in essentially the exact same situation next turn. Sure, on four they could just slam Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, but once they are tapped out, Smuggler's Copter will be effective at pressuring that (or any other) Planeswalker while strengthening our draw via looting. The threat of a Smuggler's Copter attack puts an opponent in is so pronounced that I have awarded multiple Smuggler's Copter MVP awards for games in which they were never even crewed.
But understanding that a lot of the power of Smuggler's Copter is in its ability to dominate games it never becomes a creature in means that you can't rely on Smuggler's Copter to fix your draw. I often see players (I'm guilty of this myself) keep atrocious hands solely because they contain Smuggler's Copter and a creature to crew it and figure they will just loot their way into a functional draw. Keeps like these force you to animate Smuggler's Copter when you really shouldn't and deny you the ability to effectively wield its immense threat of activation power. On seven- and most six-card hands, you should never keep a loose one on the back of Smuggler's Copter.
That's not to say that you should completely write off the looting text on Smuggler's Copter. Obviously, that text is quite important. Most of the time though, what it does is enable you to craft your draw into matching up as well as possible with the draw that your opponent holds. It is a powerful tool for sculpting hands and maneuvering through challenging games and a miserable tool for allowing you to play Magic with a hand that otherwise could not. Just think of the world's most famous smuggler: Han Solo. Han's prowess lies with his Guile and charm, not with his Brawn. Truly, a Smuggler's Copter is an elegant weapon for a more civilized age.
Finally, let's quickly discuss something I'd like to refer to as "The Second Smuggler's Copter Problem." Smuggler's Copter would be one of the all-time best legendary permanents if it were legendary due to its inherent ability to get rid of excess copies, but it's not. When do we want to hold on to a second copy of Copter? Sometimes it's obvious that you want a second Smuggler's Copter, most often because flying is a critical keyword in the current game state. The rest of the time, this decision is very tricky. Often for me, this decision comes down to how much longer I expect the game to go. If there are only a few more turns to play, I tend to believe that leveraging threat of activation on a single Smuggler's Copter is sufficient as managing my opponent's mana will matter a lot in a short game. In a longer game where wasting mana is no longer relevant, having a second copy guarantees continued access to Smuggler Copter's game-warping maneuverability.
Thanks for reading,