Almost Coptering Out: Searching for a Home

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The start of every spoiler season brings the promise of a shakeup in Modern. Whether it's Jund players speculating on Bloodbraid Elf (again), a new mechanic showing promise, or a single powerful-looking card, the Modern community always goes berserk trying to fit new cards into the format. And within a week of release most of that chatter has died off when it turns out that Wizards' Standard design philosophy doesn't mesh with Modern's efficiency. Occasionally though, something slips through. Something worth examining more closely.


If you're living under a rock or are better at ignoring Standard then I am, you may not know that Smuggler's Copter is a good card. The only Standard event of appreciable size so far featured 32 Copters out of 32 possible in the Top 8. It's an amazing card, despite the format's youth. This has led many to speculate that it's Modern-playable as well. Some have even tried it. From what I've seen, it has been disappointing. This is not a knock on the card, because the potential is there. It hasn't found its home yet. Copter will never be format-defining as it (might) be in Standard, but it could be a good role player.


What is Smuggler's Copter?

smugglers-copterAs I always do, let's begin by examining the card in question in a vacuum. While Copter may look like an artifact creature with an odd border, and a very good creature at that, it actually isn't. It's a new card type called a vehicle. As the name implies, you (sort of) place creatures into it and they make it go (that sounded better in my head). To do that you crew the vehicle, tapping creatures with power equal to or greater than the crew number. In other words, when you cast Smuggler's Copter you are casting a two-mana artifact that says Crew 1. Unplayable.

Until you shove a one-power creature in there to pilot the thing, that is. Suddenly, you have a 3/3 flier that lets you loot whenever you attack or block. That is a card worth looking at. Cheap fliers are very good. 3/3's for two are good. And it's a colorless artifact. Together, those stats indicate that we have a very potent card on our hands (and that Wizards may be underestimating the new mechanic. Again). Add in the option to loot and this card looks insane.

What deck can run this? It has to have creatures, and they need to be worse than a 3/3 flying looter. If not, why would you stick them in the Copter? Therefore it needs to be reasonably aggressive. Not necessarily an aggro deck, but the slower the deck, the bigger the creatures that can be run and therefore the less need for the Copter. Graveyard synergy would be a plus, but it isn't necessary. Any deck can benefit from looting, whether by mitigating land flood or screw, or enhancing the chances of seeing their best cards. On the surface, it looks like Smuggler's Copter fits everywhere.

The Obvious Starting Point

Most of the buzz and discussion, especially initially, was about Copter in Affinity. It's an artifact, it's a creature. Made sense.

OrnithopterExcept it really doesn't. Affinity is a pile of enablers for some incredibly powerful cards, chiefly Arcbound Ravager and Cranial Plating. A creature wearing a Plating is much better than one in a helicopter...somehow? (I don't think we're supposed to look too closely at the "reality" of such things, to be honest.) Feeding useless artifacts to Ravager is also quite good. Copter doesn't really contribute to that game plan.

The second problem is crewing. A 3/3 is better than an 0/1 or 0/2, but neither Signal Pest not Ornithopter can crew it without help. Realistically the only creature that you want to crew Copter with is Memnite and occasionally Ravager. Those aren't great odds of getting airborne.

The other problem is that Copter doesn't really help Affinity by improving a strength or reducing a weakness. It's just as vulnerable to artifact destruction as the rest of the deck and is shut down by Stony Silence. Affinity almost never wins long games and dumps its hand quickly, so improving draws into the late game is pretty irrelevant. This is not the home you're looking for.

More Than Theory

This is not just theory on my part. I may not be an Affinity player personally, but I regularly play against a number of them. They all agreed that Copter added nothing to Affinity's best draws, but they also noted that (depending on what you take out) it also doesn't really hurt you. It's an artifact, it attacks, it feeds Plating and Ravager. Not great, but also not bad.

One player did try it out and he confirmed that it's very meh in Affinity. When he crewed the thing it was pretty good, but given the choice between crewing and doing anything else with a creature he never crewed. The opportunities to do so were few, and the times when it wasn't better to just attack with that creature and Signal Pest or Plating were fewer. It's not bad when the ground stalls and all you have is Memnite, but it's not good enough to become a staple.

Remember the brewing rules:

  • If you're making a new deck, it has to be better than an existing deck or be actually unique.
  • If you're adding new cards to a deck, they must actually improve it.

As far as Affinity is concerned, Smuggler's Copter just doesn't cut it. It doesn't do anything that Affinity can take advantage of, or that it doesn't already do.

Finding a Home

If you want to play Smuggler's Copter in Modern, and given its early performance in Standard I imagine many do, we need to find the right home. Two avenues jump out at me. The first involves improving your creatures. This would effectively turn Copter into a piece of equipment. The second is as an enabler for graveyard synergy and madness, intending to leverage the looting ability.

Take to the Skies

If we use Copter as a creature buff, it makes no sense to try it in synergy deck. There's just nothing to cut from those decks. Merfolk and Elves need their namesake creatures to function and don't have much room for anything extraneous. The fact that Copter has no synergy in such decks is devastating. Yes, a 3/3 flier is better than Llanowar Elves in a race, but it doesn't benefit from Elvish Archdruid or Ezuri, Renegade Leader, or buff Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx. It is also a blank for Chord of Calling and Collected Company. They just don't need the lift.

Elvish ArchdruidFrankly, we're looking for a Standard-style deck, and the first one to come to mind is Eldrazi. Its creatures are individually good but don't synergize to build an overwhelming board advantage, just like most Standard decks. The problem there is that the creatures that have power are all better than Copter. I doubt that looting is better than just attacking with your Thought-Knot Seer, and it's definitely not better than Reality Smasher. While it's technically better than an Eldrazi Spawn, you weren't planning on attacking with them in the first place (unless it's for the win). I don't think it fits.

When I think of a deck that needs to improve its creatures, I think of Death and Taxes. As good as the disruptive creatures are, they're just not very impressive as beatsticks. In the past I've tried to include Honor of the Pure, Glorious Anthem, and equipment to fix this problem and it never quite worked. The anthem buff just wasn't enough to power through a stalled ground and they were fairly irrelevant where evasion creatures were concerned. DnT also has situationally dead cards that you'd be happy to loot away, namely extra Thalia's and Aether Vials.

Is this deck good? No clue, I just made it up and haven't tested it yet. That said, allowing Thalia to do something positive on a stalled board doesn't seem bad. There are a lot of fair decks that struggle against fliers and adding more to the deck isn't the worst way to get more wins.

Past attempts to make equipment like the Swords of X and Y work in DnT haven't been too effective thanks to Abrupt Decay and the steep cost of equipping. They're just not that efficient against removal-heavy decks, which is where DnT really needs them. Copter is better because there is no mana cost to crew. You're no less vulnerable to creature removal than before, but now you have mana available to do something else on your turn. That alone makes vehicles attractive.

To the 'Yard

In terms of enabling graveyard strategies, Copter probably isn't worth it. Dredge has better options and combo decks don't have the creatures. However, we might get somewhere by using Copter to set up delve spells or Snapcaster Mage. Thought Scour is almost certainly better though.

Young PyromancerHonestly, my initial thoughts regarding Copter didn't center around DnT, but rather tokens. BW Tokens and Young Pyromancer decks both make creatures that are worse than Copter and have a lot of dead draws that they'd like to loot away. Tokens has a lot of synergy elements that don't gel with Copter, but Pyromancer decks do want to dig for cards, utilize evasion, and stock their graveyards.

Pyromancer decks frequently don't care how small their tokens are, intending to run the opponent over with numbers. In that sense Copter is superfluous. However, Pyromancer decks need to keep their spells flowing and would really like a good looter. Some decks have previously run Jace, Vryn's Prodigy in that role, though he's never really excelled. He flips very quickly and I personally was never impressed with Jace, Telepath Unbound. Of course, thinking along those lines leads naturally to Grixis Delver. Since we have an expert on this site, I'll leave it to him for a judgment of worth (Ryan, thoughts?). Grixis Midrange/Control uses looters more often but they're not likely to want to crew a Copter.

To the Value

I think it's far more likely that a deck that wants an aggressive looter wants a looter that attacks, not one that enables the graveyard. Such a deck wants to smooth its draws, find specific cards, and attack. Yes, I know this screams Delver but I'm actually thinking of Jeskai and UR rather than Grixis. The Grixis decks need a large volume of cards in their graveyard and aren't picky, meaning Thought Scour will always be better there. The other Delver builds like having spells in hand and Snapcaster fodder more than random cards in the graveyard and are less likely to play Scour.

Jeskai in particular seems like a good candidate. It needs a boost more than other Delver shells and can utilize value looting the most. Jeskai's problem has usually been that it occupied a weird space in the metagame. It isn't as focused and stable as UR Delver, while it lacks the power of Grixis's delve creatures or Temur's Tarmogoyf. The main reasons to go with Jeskai are Geist of Saint Traft, Restoration Angel, and Path to Exile. Path is fine, but Resto has the problem of being a four-drop and Geist is very situational. Against control and combo he's excellent but creature decks just laugh. Giving the ghost a ride makes him less worthless against creatures, and also lets you cycle extra copies while digging for the lands to play Resto. You can also get use from Delver of Secrets when he stubbornly refuses to embrace his insectile destiny.

Is this deck better than Grixis Delver? Don't know. In goldfishing I did like the additional reach and consistency Copter granted. I don't know if this is a good Delver list, but it is a good Copter home.

To the Crash

If Smuggler's Copter isn't going to pan out in Affinity, it may yet pan out in Modern. It is a powerful card that could fit anywhere, even if we haven't found that place yet. I will definitely be trying out the DnT list soon, so stay tuned. There's an equal chance that I'll crash and explode as lap the field.

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David Ernenwein

David has been playing Magic since Odyssey block. A dedicated Spike, he's been grinding tournaments for over a decade, including a Pro Tour appearance. A Modern specialist who dabbles in Legacy, his writing is focused on metagame analysis and deck evolution.

View More By David Ernenwein

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15 thoughts on “Almost Coptering Out: Searching for a Home

  1. I’m starting to consider the idea of at least testing Copter in mono-W D&T, but 4 seems like too many. I think that a typical D&T shell has a couple of spots it really doesn’t have much to do with, and Copter is probably a bit better than some of the alternatives.

  2. Two mana 3/3s are good in modern? Watchwolf… kalonian tusker… even serra avenger… lightning bolt is stil there. Modern is way way too fast to play a 2cmc spell that does nothing on its own and requires you to give up a blocker to do anything at all. Its natural synergy is lingering souls – curves properly, crews easily, and you could loot away copies of souls for value. Except now you provide a value target for bolt where previously there probably wasnt one.

    Outside of tokens and unflipped delvers there arent really 1/1s for optimum crewing. Lavamancer wants to be untapped to burn, delver shouldnt be small for long, etc. Hierarch and birds sadly cant crew and ramp decks can probably play a sword anyways.

    I do like the dnt idea and esp blade splicer crewing it on curve. I just still doubt that a 3 toughnes do-nothing two drop cuts it – even if it dodges liliana of the veil like a boss.

  3. I’ve been toying with the idea of this in D&T as well. I do think you’re pretty much canning Reality Smasher and possibly also Thought-Knot Seer if you do so, as the optimal use of this is with Leonin Arbiter and Tidehollow Sculler. My experience has been that the latter plays poorly alongside the big Eldrazi as it causes conflicted land drops on turns one and two as you can’t play out for a turn two TKS and Sculler at the same time…you’re either dropping a white/black source or your dropping as many Eldrazi Temples as possible.

    That said, you can roll into Sculler, then Copter, then loot and hit with a card that is otherwise unusable for combat most of the time. This is also true of Leonin Arbiter. You can even keep Displacer and Strangler in the mix…possibly even the Temples and TKS as well. Loot is good for a deck that can’t generate card advantage otherwise (unless you want to run Bob), and it’s nice to have all those sideline Scullers, Arbiters, and Thalias have another use.

  4. For the copter to work, I belive 3 criterias should be filled:
    – the deck should have a good ammount of creatures.
    – those creatures should be creatures that you don’t want to risk in combat (mostly because they have bad combat stats)
    – those creatures should be strong enough that your opponent is actually willing to spend removal on them (otherwise they will just aim all of them at the copter).

    The only decks that I see filling those criterias are the non-eldrazi death and taxes and hatebears. Those decks are filled with utility creatures with relevant abilities but not so relevant combat stats, such as leonin arbiter, thalia, voice of resurgence, tidehollow sculler, Qasali Pridemage, Blade Splicer… You can even ride mutavaults safe from blockers,

    Some people suggested token strategies, but I don’t see it being good there, because one of the point of tokens is blanking spot removal, and the copter would turn on them, quite counter intuitive IMO.

    1. Exactly. Attacking with Thalia is frequently bad but you always need her, and this looks like the best way around that problem.

      Tokens is a bad home. There’s the reason you mention but also because it would replace better cards for the deck. Tokens would much rather play Intangible Virtue and Honor of the Pure.

  5. What about maybe non creature combo decks like knightfall? Gives you a way to dig for your retreat and an opportunity to let spell queller attack for 3 while not risking itself in combat. And removal would then have to choose between queller and copter.

  6. What about using Copter in Faeries? Sure, you already fly and usually play during the opponent’s turn, but it could work like a sword… but faster. Maybe even in a version without bitterblossom…

    1. The question I would ask is why are you playing Faeries without Bitterblossom? I’m under the impression that it’s the lynchpin of the deck. I could see replacing a sword, but I don’t think that it’s actually better in the deck.

  7. I’ve been brewing a modern list that I feel uses Copter to its full potential, and I’d love some input! Currently shaking up the sideboard every time I sit down for games, so I don’t want anyone to think it’s anywhere near done.

    3x Vedalken Engineer
    3x Chief Engineer
    4x Etherium Sculptor
    4x Glint-Nest Crane
    4x Grand Architect
    4x Lupine Prototype
    4x Myr Superion
    4x Phyrexian Metamorph

    3x Aether Spellbomb
    4x Smuggler’s Copter
    1x Sword of Light and Shadow

    14x Island
    3x Darksteel Citadel
    1x Ghost Quarter
    2x Sea Gate Wreckage
    1x Inventors’ Fair
    1x Westvale Abbey

    Sideboard (15)

    1x Mindlock Orb
    1x Witchbane Orb
    1x Chalice of the Void
    1x Grafdigger’s Cage
    2x Hibernation
    3x Hurkyl’s Recall
    1x Vedalken Shackles
    2x Relic of Progenitus
    2x Spellskite
    1x Pithing Needle

    1. It’s a very interesting list, but I’m not quite sure what you’re doing or how you do it. I’d need more information before I could comment or make suggestions

      1. Sure. It’s a fish deck, so it goes wide. The main components of the deck are the mana accelerators (both Engineers, Grand Architect, Etherium Sculptor) which let you cast your Lupine Prototype and Myr Superion en masse.

        I recently finished a game where I led off with turn two Glint-Nest Crane into T3 Chief Engineer, tap both creatures for Etherium Sculptor, tap Sculptor for a Myr Superion, which taps for another Superion, which taps for Copter. A pretty overwhelming force for Infect to disrupt. The deck has no plays turn one unfortunately, but can make up for it with its sheer efficiency later on.

        The Copters play a vital role in the deck. First – if you have dead Myr Superion(s) in hand which you cannot cheat into play, we are free to loot them away into other goodies. The deck operates on a measly 22 lands, so when you have either land flood or screw, it helps to sift through your chaff.

        A key part of the deck’s playability is catering to Lupine Prototype: that is to say we shouldn’t be playing many targeted removal, any counterspells, more than one CMC4+ spell, or anything that might be dead in our hand to leave Lupines inactive. With Copter, we can curve out and empty our hand for Lupine more frequently, which is especially important if we’ve drawn more lands than there are turns in the game, or sideboard options which are unplayable.

        Also, once we apply pressure and start topdeck our weaker cards (like Vedalken Engineer) Copter helps us to cash them in for better options. The miser’s Westvale Abbey helps us crew them in a grindy situation. The wombo combo is our Sword of Light and Shadow, which makes it so that any cards we loot away can be redeemed later on.

        I’m currently working on a splash so that my sideboard can look like this:

        1x Chalice of the Void
        1x Grafdigger’s Cage
        1x Pithing Needle
        2x Relic of Progenitus
        1x Witchbane Orb
        2x Spellskite
        2x Feed the Clan
        2x Natural State
        1x Unravel the Aether
        2x Echoing Truth

        White is also an option that comes to mind as it provides access to Ethersworn Canonist, Timely Reinforcements, Worship, Rest in Peace, etc.

        The deck started out as a budget challenge, but I’ve been having plenty of fun jamming it, and as a result have decided to go outside of the initial $70 range in building it.

  8. I testéd copter in BW tokens deck : it Just marvelous Just for 3 in place off spectral procession : 4 bitter + 4 raise the alarm+ 4 lingering.
    Even if not bufféd by intangible vertue, it give a creaturé with good power and the loot that misses at this deck and a 4/3 lifelink with sorin

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