Challenge the Stats – Xantcha, Sleeper Agent
(Xantcha, Sleeper Agent | Art by Mark Winters)
Hello, and welcome to Challenge the Stats, the series based off of the segment of the same name on the EDHRECast, where we challenge the inclusion rates of 10 cards on a commander’s page on EDHREC. We’ll highlight cards that we think are overplayed, underplayed, or sleeper picks (according to our data).
These suggestions are meant to accompany EDHREC’s data. However, inclusions made on account of flavor, budget, art, or anything important to you, as the deckbrewer, are always valid and are what keep our format unique.
Today, we're talking about Xantcha, Sleeper Agent, who can be built in many directions to support her ability. We can see this on her themes page: Discard, Group Slug, Chaos, Auras, and Forced Combat – what is going on here? All of these themes can support Xantcha. Most of them come in at under 50 decks, so what we're seeing from the cards on her page is a scattering of many themes within individual Xantcha decks. We have a lot of options to choose from, and it's important to focus and not try to do everything at once.
Let's distill all of the things we're seeing on Xantcha's page into a few components that she needs to function (beyond the obligatory ramp, draw, removal, etc.). Think of this like a "cafeteria tray" of building the deck: we have a spot for our veggies, our meat, and our potatoes. Oh, excuse me, a cafeteria was a place in the "before times" where large groups of people used to gather to eat and socialize.
1. Veggies – Xantcha needs to prevent her owner from dying. Okay, I know card draw and ramp are our typical "vegetables", but bear with me through this analogy. To use our deck to protect our life total, we can see players are using politics, group hug, pillow fort effects, lots of board wipes, or controlling combat with effects like Goad.
2. Meat – Xantcha needs to help incentivize people to activate her ability. This can be done with giving opponents mana, forcing them to tap their lands, or forcing them to discard cards.
3. Potatoes – Xantcha needs to stay alive. We can protect her with Auras, instants that bring her back when she dies, kill spells if she gets blocked, board wipes to keep her path clear, and more!
With so many choices in our cafeteria line, I'll try to challenge cards that will be relevant whether we pick the chicken or the fish. We're going to look at all 1,008 Xantcha decks at time of writing (you can see how often cards are played in those decks in parentheses).
1. Stormfist Crusader (19%)
At first glance, Stormfist Crusader seems to do what Xantcha wants. She gives our opponents cards and damages them in the process... hey, Xantcha does that, too! However, on closer inspection, Crusader is a trap in Xantcha decks. Regardless if we're playing group hug or group slug, Crusader gives us not enough slug and the wrong kind of hug. If we want to hug opponents, we want to do it with mana, not cards. This is why Blinkmoth Urn (7%), Heartstone (55%), and Mana Flare (15%) give Xantcha the warm fuzzies. Xantcha wants us to let her, and only her, give the whole table cards while draining one opponent. Crusader works against Xantcha and gives our opponents ammo without the politics or pain that Xantcha wants.
In a similar vein to Crusader, I also think that Humble Defector (21%), Magus of the Wheel (11%), and Wheel of Fortune (10%) shouldn't be played in Xantcha decks. We have access to the amazing draw spells black has to offer, so we don't have to rely on the mono-red draw staples that work against our commander.
2. Sower of Discord (35%)
There's a handful of Xantcha players that are leaning into the group slug, i.e. damaging all or many players at once. We can see this in the high representation of Sower of Discord (35%) and Bitter Feud (25%), and, to a lesser extent, Furnace of Rath (10%) and Dictate of the Twin Gods (12%). Part of the representation of Sower of Discord is likely the "precon effect": Sower came with Xantcha in the 2018 Lord Windgrace preconstructed deck, and it pairs decently with her to pack in some extra damage. The problem is that these cards don't synergize with Xantcha's ability: damage causes life loss, but life loss is not damage. If we're using Xantcha as a vehicle for our group slug deck, go ahead and play these, but if we're hoping to double up on Xantcha's life loss with these effects, we're out of luck. What we're looking for is Wound Reflection (17%) and Archfiend of Despair (22%). Lucky for us, one of those just got a reprint in Double Masters!
3. Mogis, God of Slaughter (13%)
Xantcha has a big weakness: sacrifice. If anyone has a sac outlet, we simply cannot give them Xantcha. Mogis is great for group slug, but a non-bo with Xantcha since he essentially gives all of our opponents a sac outlet. This ensures that we won't be able to keep Xantcha on the battlefield unless they say it's okay. We want Xantcha to eventually threaten her controller's life total, and we don't want them to be able to do anything about it.
4. Vow of Malice (37%) and Vow of Lightning (35%)
A lot of Xantcha players are looking to control combat, either with forced attack, like Fumiko, the Lowblood, or Goading, like Disrupt Decorum (39%). The Vow cycle was the first attempt at a really cool idea, but Wizards got a lot closer to playable cards when they made the Impetus cycle and Bloodthirsty Blade. The nice thing with the Vows was their flexibility, since they could help Xantcha rumble in combat or play it on an opponent's creature to incentivize them to head elsewhere.
The problem is that they don't force that creature to attack, and they might just make a big blocker for Xantcha to run into. If we want to help Xantcha rumble there are better ways to do that (see sleepers below), and, if we want to control combat, we should replace these with the aforementioned Goad cards. I'm guessing the Vows are leftovers from un-updated decks, but they were played so often with Xantcha when she first came out that they're still showing up in high numbers.
5. Supernatural Stamina (12%)
Cards like Undying Evil (14%), Supernatural Stamina, and Abnormal Endurance (8%) are great, efficient ways to both keep Xantcha alive and to reset her to another player when needed. Zendikar Rising gave us Malakir Rebirth to add to our arsenal as well. Are these underplayed because folks are worried they put her on our battlefield? Xantcha has a replacement effect which will always put her under an opponent's control when she enters. The only time she will come back to our battlefield is when the player that Xantcha has "infiltrated" dies. She needs to return to HQ to check-in, right?
It's time for an underplayed two-fer! If there were ever a commander that wanted Sanctum of Eternity (19%), it's our girl. Sanctum lets us reset Xantcha if we want her to infiltrate another player's board, or if she happens to be on our side of the board when the last player that had her suffered an untimely demise.
6. Bedlam (8%)
Whether our jam is pillow fort, forced combat, or group slug, Bedlam is here for us. If nothing can block, Xantcha can't die in combat. Let's not be worried that we can't block, either: we have ways to make sure that our opponents get hit much worse than us. Xantcha's MO is causing chaos, destabilizing governments, and sowing general discord, so Bedlam is a slam dunk.
7. Victory Chimes (30%)
I loved Victory Chimes in my Slimefoot, the Stowaway deck, and I love it even more in Xantcha. It takes a little mana planning, but if we can activate her on each turn, we've essentially netted four mana per turn cycle to sink into her ability. Am I going too far if I say it's almost a Thran Dynamo that costs one less and gives us one more mana per turn cycle. Or, we can make some deals and try to convince other players to gang up on the Xantcha controller with a little discount! Reducing her ability to two mana for a card is a competitive rate that can also make Chimes a sort of mini-Heartstone.
8. Thran Turbine (14%)
What if we could have a second Sol Ring in our 99? There's just a little catch: we can only use it to draw cards with Xantcha. Do we still play it? Thran Turbine means we get a two-mana discount on a Xantcha activation in our upkeep. If we have Heartstone, too, we have a DIY Phyrexian Arena. Heartstone might be the best card in our deck, so Thran Turbine combining well with our commander and the card we'll likely tutor up is a winner in my book.
"But Jevin," I hear you say, "Why don't I just play Phyrexian Arena since we're playing black?" Well, reader, because 1) we can play both, and 2) because we can get our opponent to say, "Wait, what is that card?"
9. Treacherous Link (4%)
Okay, this is my big multi-challenge for Auras in general. Since we can't attach Equipment to our commander when another player controls her, Auras are a nice alternative to buff and protect her. I love that players are already using Blessing of Leeches (9%). Many players are relying on flash or instants to protect her or remove threats so that they can hold up mana to activate her ability if they aren't needed. I completely agree with this line of play. However, I would like to challenge a few Auras that warrant consideration.
Minion's Return has flash, so we can always hold up mana for a Xantcha activation, but is also has the flexibility of stealing an opponent's creature if the opportunity presents itself. I also really like Fists of the Demigod because no one will want to block Xantcha if she will Wither their creatures. Because of how first strike and Wither work together, our opponents will have to stack 14 power worth of creatures against Xantcha to kill her with the fists on. Otherwise, they're on a 3-turn clock. Soul Channeling is great for repeated protection, as is Gift of Doom.
However, my favorite of these is a little uncommon from Urza's Legacy: Treacherous Link. Xantcha doesn't take any damage: her controller does! This deals extra pain to her controller every time Xantcha is blocked. Also, all of those damage-based board wipes we have, like Rolling Earthquake, hit Xantcha's controller twice and keep her alive! A lot of people are running Brash Taunter (60%) and Stuffy Doll (27%) with Xantcha, and this is another copy of these effects.
10. Dauthi Embrace (4%) and Dauthi Trapper (1%)
I see a lot of cards on Xantcha's page that are looking to help her survive combat, and I think Shadow is one of the best ways to do that. Just like Horsemanship, darn near close to nobody is running creatures with Shadow, so this might as well say unblockable, and we see Key to the City in 17% of Xantcha decks. We are also a deck that's looking to make deals and work with other players to take down an archenemy. Consider Shadow as an alternative way to help her stay alive and make deals in the process.
I couldn't help myself, folks.
11. Delirium (2%)
What's that in the sky? It's a Backlash, it's a Deflecting Palm, it's Delirium! Delirium is a pet card of mine, but it's especially good when we want to protect our commander in battle. If Xantcha is headed straight for a 10/10, and her owner is sitting there thinking, "Oh yeah, I'm going to get rid of this pesky sleeper agent," we have a nasty surprise for them. Delirium not only saves our commander or clears the way for her attack, but it smacks that player with the big creature in the face. It works great on defense, too! How often are you sitting across from an Eldrazi or a Voltron commander (anyone seen a Kathril, Aspect Warper lately?). We can feel snug as a bug with Delirium.
12. Tome of Legends (1%)
Xantcha is the type of commander that Tome of Legends was made for. Xantcha will be attacking every turn, and we will be doing our darndest to keep her alive. What do we get for our troubles? A powerhouse of a draw engine. Tome is to aggressive commanders what Idol of Oblivion is to token commanders. Okay, let me take a step back. We have access to some spicy card draw in black, so maybe this is more at home in a Boros deck and I need to calm down, but I think Xantcha wants us to think about adding this book to her shelf.
Now, for a decklist. Some of the best cards to pair with Xantcha can get a little pricey, and I want my deck to have a big mana package as a backup win condition, so there's a silly mix of budget and bling in this one.
Xantcha, your new friend (I promise)
What do you think of Xantcha and these challenges? Are there other cards you think should see more or less play in Xantcha decks, let us know in the comments below! You can find me on Twitter @jevin_mtg if you have any questions or comments.