In just the last few years Magic has printed a large number of cards that allow you to steal and play your opponent's cards. There are some tremendous advantages to this theme! Whether you're a player on a budget or just love the experience of total deck building freedom, pilfering may be a good theme for your next Commander deck.
But First A Little Magic History
Stealing your opponent's permanents, or stealing and playing your opponent's cards, is buried deep in Magic's DNA and has been part of the game since way back when. How way back?
Literally Alpha Edition
These cards are iconic and part of Magic's history. There are other iconic and spicy examples like Helm of Obedience, Spelljack, Geth, Lord of the Vault and Commandeer. Red deserves a special mention for the tremendous variety of Disharmony effects printed.
So You Can Steal Things, Big Deal
Using other people's cards is very fun. It's so fun I've written about it here. However, Act of Treason is a very different type of theft than we will be discussing here. If Act of Treason is cheating on a test by peeking at your neighbor's test, Praetor's Grasp is hacking into a corporate server to commit industrial espionage. Both are theft but one is a much bigger deal. Praetor's takes away an opponent's threat, answer, combo piece, or favorite card but it's a one-off effect. So how can we steal the maximum amount of value from our opponents? First off, what we take needs to be ours forever with no strings attached. None of this "until end of turn".
All About Xanathar
Your favorite Beholder and mine, Xanathar takes theft up to 11. Initially, when I saw this card I thought it would be a gimmick, cute but not really that effective. I was wrong. Xanathar is the perfect card for Commander and a great card to talk about for this theme. Having played against it in paper and online in Brawl I've seen so many different build variations that I am truly impressed.
While there are many other similar effects, Xanathar seems to be the best of the bunch all told. Let's talk about basic deck composition and ideas for Xanathar and Xanathar-like decks.
Swamps AND Islands for The Budget King
Wow a revolutionary idea, right? I joke but at the same time, it's criminal how decent a deck Xanathar is with just Islands and Swamps. When I say just Islands and Swamps, I don't mean the degenerate level. But if you want a highly playable Commander deck at the table for the *least* amount of time, money, and effort? Full-on degenerate Xanathar, 50 Island, 49 Swamp. Remember you are not playing one deck, you're playing up to four! Talk about variety.
What if they kill Xanathar? Replay in two turns. What if they kill Xanathar *again*? See you in two turns. I'm not advocating for you to play this commander at pauper level with only Basic Lands, however, it's an exercise to see just how little this deck truly needs to operate.
There are few true staple cards for Xanathar. Strionic Resonator and Lithoform Engine both come to mind. They're not required, but the deck is certainly a lot more fun with them than without. I think it's a huge budget advantage unique to these types of commanders. You can play a "complete deck" without investing significantly in many new cards or needing duplicates of cards you already own but don't wish to purchase again. In terms of bang for your buck you can fill these decks in with mana rocks and maybe a couple of inexpensive protection spells for your Xanathar and then bring it to play.
A King And A Diplomat
Who are you going to attack? The players committing things to the board or the guy playing Islands and Swamps and maybe a mana rock before passing? "Do nothing" decks have a tendency to sneak under the radar a fair amount of the time. Once Xanathar hits the table, choose the player who is most obviously in the lead to draw the least amount of hate. Or, alternatively, ask the table who needs help? Maybe someone wants to draw a land and you can help them dig to the draw they need! As mentioned before this card has demonstrated a contortionist-level of flexibility in multiplayer that is virtually unparalleled. It's impossible NOT to have a potential play or a potential out if Xanathar is doing his thing and remember to play the table! While you won't always know your opponent's deck, they do and sometimes they can tell you the card you need to hit to stop another player.
A Multiplayer Boss, A 1v1 God
In the early and mid-game it's generally the right move to use every single card you can from your opponents. Decks these days tend to have either very tight builds that struggle if just a few key cards are missing or are a little more flexible and feature many functionally similar copies of effects. This means that when you play their deck your version will be just as strong and have just as much access to their deck synergies. However, the most brutal thing you can do with Xanathar late game is to strand a player by leaving an unplayable card, often a land, on top of their deck. Yes, late-game Xanathar turns every opponent's land into a potential Time Walk effect. Talk about god mode!
Is This Deck Casual Or Competitive? It's Both And Neither
The power level of Xanathar-style decks is inherently elastic. Are opponents playing the most powerful and expensive cards possible? So are you. Do opponents have casual, low-powered decks? So do you! This is the best part about theft decks in my opinion. It's also a test for your Commander group as your deck becomes as powerful, fun, or oppressive as your group's build environment. Just like there's always room for Jell-O, there should always be room for a Xanathar deck at the table.
And What About The Inevitable Mirror Match?
Here is where Magic theory goes sideways. I'm pretty sure the Xanathar deck with lots of Islands and Swamps will have an easier time fighting the Xanathar deck with live cards because your opponent can't steal what you don't have. If that isn't an example of "live by the sword, die by the sword" I don't know what is. I've never gotten to experience this match first or second hand so if you have an account please let me know in the comments!
The Fuzzy Math of Steal Effects
Follow me here because this is my own personal Magic math theory. If you use one of your cards to stop one card from your opponent that's a one-for-one trade. If you use only one card and take out two it's a two for one. But when you steal it's a three for one or better. Why? First, if you have a threat that does not belong to you, it needs to be dealt with. If you take away that threat from an opponent now they are down a threat and then down their own answer to remove it. Their deck does not get back a threat or an answer when they do this, at least typically, so that's the fuzzy math making it a virtual three for one. Of course to make it even fuzzier, if you did this with just mana and your commander it's a virtual three for zero. The short of it is that stealing is extremely efficient. Steal early, steal often.
Any Other Criminals Out There?
Yes! Mind Flayer, The Shadow is at the top of my list for new cards to try for this theme either as a commander on its own or as an addition to Xanathar. While you do give up blue for protection, Mind Flayer is a bit hard to remove as it starts out as an Enchantment. A double activation of its trigger would give you six potential cards to play, but the restrictions of permanent spells only, the inability to play lands, and no top-of-deck shenanigans, make me think this will end up being just a less fun Xanathar. It remains to be seen!
Streets of New Capenna Is Coming!
I'm assuming that theft will be taken to a whole new level in Streets and am looking forward to some interesting new mechanics for playing cards that are not mine! What's the biggest Magic "heist" you've ever pulled off?