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Un-Mander Showdown — Lazav vs Phoebe
As of two days ago, January 15th, Un-Mander is officially over. The Unstable season has ended, and silver-bordered cards are no longer legal in EDH. Some players are happy about this, some are sad, most probably don’t care one way or the other, but it is definitely over.
So why, you ask, am I writing an article about Phoebe, Head of S.N.E.A.K.? Well, because the entire point of this Un-Legal period was to have some big, senseless fun. Not everyone agrees with the way the Rules Committee handled the Unstable-Commander announcement, but I certainly agree with their goal: to encourage players to expand their comfort zones, so that they may discover cards they like that they didn’t initially expect to enjoy. Going forward, some playgroups will probably still allow the occasional Un-Mander deck under House Rules, so this article is a nod to those players, and a farewell to Unstable. Don’t worry, after this, we’ll be back to normal Commander Showdowns—most likely featuring some of those new Dinos from Rivals of Ixalan.
Let’s get right to it! Phoebe, Head of S.N.E.A.K. grabbed our attention by grabbing other creatures and stealing their abilities. In fact, she steals their entire text box, flavor text and all. This shapeshifting Spy didn’t just open up the vault door in her art, she opened up doors to all kinds of crazy interactions.
There’s another famous Dimir identity thief out there too: Lazav, Dimir Mastermind. Unlike Phoebe, who steals from the living, Lazav steals from the dead, adopting a new identity whenever a creature card goes to the graveyard from anywhere. While Phoebe can collect several abilities, Lazav only maintains one new face at a time. However, he also steals his victim’s power and toughness, and has natural hexproof, a definite plus. Both of these commanders are sneaky, underhanded, and bizarre, so let’s delve right into this identity-thieving Un-Mander Showdown!
A Man Has No Name
As usual, I’ll start with the commander we already know. Lazav, Dimir Mastermind is the third-most built Dimir commander, behind Phenax, God of Deception and Gisa and Geralf, with nearly 1,000 decks to his name. One glance at his EDHREC page shows you a whole lot about his strategy: mill.
From Traumatize to Trout-matize, (a.k.a. Fleet Swallower) Lazav is up to his ears in mill effects. This is hardly a surprise; he shapeshifts whenever creature card goes to the graveyard from anywhere, not just from the battlefield, so milling cards straight from opponents’ libraries is a quick way to cycle through lots of cards and find the best one to impersonate. He can also go through the formality of Hero’s Downfalling a creature, of course, but mill is generally much cheaper.
To that end, fantastic mill spells are littered across his entire page. Sitting at 64%, Mind Grind can fill up multiple graveyards in the blink of an eye. Lower down the list, Phenax, God of Deception shows up in 46% of decks, which combines beautifully with the deck’s #1 most-played card, Consuming Aberration.
However, I invite you to look more closely and carefully at Lazav’s EDHREC page. In the true spirit of Dimir, there’s something else happening beneath the surface.
Lazav has a high density of Clone effects littering his page. In fact, the original Clone itself shows up at 30%, even though it has a strictly better counterpart, Stunt Double. Beyond ubiquitous staples like Clever Impersonator and Phyrexian Metamorph, we see half a dozen others, such as Stolen Identity and Rite of Replication. As a matter of fact, if we look at the EDHREC pages for Clone, Stunt Double, and Clever Impersonator, we see that Lazav hovers between second- and third-most popular commander for Clone effects, usually behind Riku of Two Reflections. What’s the deal with all these clones?
The answer is pretty clever, but comes in two parts. First, Clones shore up a weakness in Lazav’s ability. He can only become a copy of a creature when it goes to the graveyard, which means he’ll almost never become a copy of someone else’s commander. When an opponent’s commander is destroyed and they place it back in the Command Zone, this is considered a replacement effect, so the card never even touches the graveyard. (This is why the new Elenda, the Dusk Rose is a bit awkward as a commander; she has to actually go to the graveyard for her ability to trigger.) Clones give Lazav access to other people’s commanders, a thing he can’t get on his own.
(Also note that since Lazav is already on the battlefield, if he becomes a copy of an Avenger of Zendikar or Eternal Witness, he won’t trigger their enters-the-battlefield effects. This is another usefulness for Clone effects in Lazav, since they can copy creatures with abilities he can’t access by himself.)
Second, Lazav, Dimir Mastermind’s ability allows him to become a copy of any creature that goes to the graveyard—but he retains certain characteristics. He keeps hexproof, he keeps his ability to shapeshift into another creature if it hits the graveyard, and he also keeps his name.
This name game makes Clones extra-useful. If your opponent plays an awesome creature like Gisela, Blade of Goldnight, you can copy that legendary creature with your Evil Twin. If and when you manage to kill the original Gisela, Lazav will become a copy of it, but won’t be named ‘Gisela,’ which means he won’t trip the Legendary Rule. In other words, with a little finagling, Lazav cooperates with Clones to let you have two copies of a legendary creature.
(Note that this interaction only works in this order; if you Clone a Lazav after he’s become a copy of the Gisela, your clone will copy Lazav exactly as he is at that moment, including the name “Lazav,” which means the Legendary Rule will force you to get rid of one of them.)
Take it to the Grave
Alright, enough chatter, let’s take a peek at the average Lazav deck and see what other secrets he’s hiding.
Average Lazav Deck
I don’t know about the rest of you, but Lazav impresses me. His deck has all the trappings of a typical mill deck, but somehow, it isn’t one. He certainly can go for the kill with Fraying Sanity + Traumatize, but he can also just punch you. Remember, he has natural hexproof, which makes him very difficult to deal with. If he becomes a copy of a powerful creature—say, an Avacyn, Angel of Hope—he’s incredibly difficult to remove, and his legion of clones becomes all the more potent.
Briefly compare Lazav to the #1 Dimir commander, Phenax, God of Deception (which could be another Commander Showdown in its own right). Take a look at the card Animate Dead. On Lazav’s page, this necromantic enchantment shows up in 33% of decks. On Phenax’s page, it’s only in 17%. Alternatively, look at Sepulchral Primordial. Phenax only runs this card 32% of the time, while Lazav runs it in almost half of his decks, so much that it sits among his Signature Cards.
Lazav’s relationship with graveyards is important, but flexible. Milling his opponents out is an option, but I’m not even convinced that it’s the top priority. Rather, he can use the graveyard as a resource. To Lazav, casting Mind Grind for 5 is like casting Stroke of Genius for 20, because it gives you a ton of access to cards you can play for cheap with your Spelltwines and Diluvian Primordials.
The takeaway? Don’t let this shadowy figure trick you into thinking his only strategy is to attack your library. He can attack your life total too, and the best part is that he’ll usually do so with copies of your own favorite cards.
Let’s move onto Phoebe, Head of S.N.E.A.K.. For three mana, Phoebe provides you a 2/3 that can’t be blocked by creatures with flavor text—but that’s not really her most interesting ability. That honor goes to her second effect, where she can pay four mana to steal another creature’s text box.
Of all the legendary creatures from Unstable, this one feels to me like it has the most potential to see a genuine black-bordered counterpart. Apart from the reference to flavor text (which black-bordered cards don’t usually acknowledge) and the campy vagueness of the word ‘steals’, this actually feels like a realistic Dimir card. It’s not hard to imagine a black-bordered commander that says, “2UB: Target creature loses all abilities. This creature gains those abilities. (This effect doesn’t end at end of turn.)” Sort of like a fusion between Turn to Frog and Quicksilver Elemental.
Phoebe’s ability opens up so many doors it’s frankly dizzying. Do you steal everyone’s abilities to lock down the board? Do you use them to make a huge Voltron-esque fighter? Is she a combo engine? This is fairly uncharted territory, so what’s the most optimal build?
For my money, Phoebe doesn’t lend herself well to a Voltron strategy. She can’t be blocked by creatures with flavor text, so when you do shoplift a bunch of abilities, you leave behind a bunch of flavor-text-less creatures that can block her. She also only steals text boxes, which doesn’t improve her own power and toughness, another significant hurdle. Even if she gets her hands on double strike or infect, her power is so low that using her for combat will be gruelingly slow.
Control hits a little closer to the mark. Her ability is potent, and shuts down whatever your opponents try to do. Etali, Primal Storm breathing down your neck? Now it’s a vanilla 6/6. Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite buffing up a token army? Steal her ability and wipe out their army instead. Like Merieke Ri Berit, Phoebe can cause your opponents to stall and stutter, and discourage them from casting creatures any at all. Back it up with some juicy counterspells like Rewind and Spell Swindle, so you can counter your opponents’ spells and still have mana leftover to activate Phoebe’s ability.
Key to the Vault
A control strategy still has weak points. Like Lazav, creatures with enters-the-battlefield abilities won’t do much for Phoebe, and can get in under her field of dominance. Plus, Phoebe’s use of the word “permanently” is a little misleading. “Permanently” in this case means that if the creature leaves the field, Phoebe keeps its ability, and if Phoebe leaves the battlefield, the creature doesn’t regain its ability. If that creature is flickered, or dies but returns to the battlefield somehow, it will regain its abilities. Similarly, if Phoebe herself gets flickered, she loses all those abilities she’s gathered. “Permanently” only counts while she’s a permanent; it doesn’t mean she’ll keep them in all zones for the rest of the game. If your opponents disrupt your commander, they can undo quite a lot of the work you’ve put in.
Plus, if your opponents aren’t playing any creatures at all, there’s not a whole lot for Phoebe to actually do. It’s obviously fantastic news if your opponents aren’t playing creatures, but you still need a way to actually win the game.
Therefore, I suggest a build that looks somewhat like the following:
If you tuned in for my Grusilda vs The Mimeoplasm Showdown, you may recognize some of these combos. Cinderhaze Wretch + Tree of Perdition makes a repeat appearance here, as does Pili-Pala + Palladium Myr. These are potent combos that I had Grusilda combine from the graveyard, but Phoebe can lift them directly from the battlefield. When she has both activated abilities of the Wretch and the Tree, she can repeatedly tap and untap to wreck your opponents’ hands and reduce their life totals to 1. When she has the text of both the Pili and the Myr, she can tap and untap to create infinite mana. It may not be completely original, but when you have the opportunity to put the abilities of two distinct creatures onto one card, combo seems like the best way to take advantage of it.
Remember, Phoebe doesn’t just steal activated abilities, like the above combos. She steals other things too, such as characteristic-defining abilities like Consuming Aberration. If you use Phoebe to steal the Aberration’s text box, the Aberration will become a 0/0 and die, but Phoebe herself will grow to enormous proportions. This is one of the few ways I think Phoebe can secure the game with combat damage. Give her the Aberration’s power-setting ability, add in the protective abilities of Invisible Stalker or Insidious Mist, and you’re in business.
As you can see, I’m also rather fond of Clones in this deck. Like Lazav, I think Phoebe makes good use of copied creatures. By making a copy of their commander, then stealing their commander’s text box, you can effectively get two copies of their legendary creature, leaving theirs neutered.
However, this has to be one of my favorite interactions in the deck: March of the Machines.
It’s silly and kinda mean, but it’s perfect. By animating artifacts, (that is, turning them into creatures) you can give yourself even more targets for Phoebe’s ability. An opponent have a Gilded Lotus? Now it’s just a vanilla 5/5. That four-color deck relying on a Chromatic Lantern to fix its mana base? Well, now it’s just a 3/3 with no abilities, and their mana-fixing is scuppered. With Phoebe, this enchantment is practically a build-your-own Memnarch (which, come to think of it, also probably belongs in a deck as controlling as this one).
P.S., if you steal the mana ability of a mana rock, you can combine it with one of any of the self-untapping creatures in the deck. When Phoebe puts on the text of Horseshoe Crab + Gilded Lotus, you have yet another way to produce infinite mana. You’d better make sure you have a place to put all that mana! (I personally recommend Walking Ballista.)
Phoebe is just as weird and dangerous as she looks. If she’s the silver-bordered commander that caught your eye, be aware that her strategy is, to put it bluntly, kind of evil. Phoebe combines the control elements of a Merieke Ri Berit deck with the combo elements of Mairsil, the Pretender. At least, that’s the road I took with her. Your mileage may vary, and I’d be very curious to see what other spicy brews people come up with for this bizarre vault-breaking commander.
Cards to Consider
By no means do I think I’ve cracked the code on Phoebe’s most optimal build, but I think this is a good place to start. I’ve added a few other notes for each commander below. These are cards that I think could get overlooked, but deserve extra attention.
- Darksteel Plate: Lazav has natural hexproof, so all he needs is indestructible and he’s almost irremovable.
- Talisman of Dominance: This might seem like a silly recommendation to some of you, but this mana rock only appears in 25% of Lazav decks, and it should be much higher than that. This and Dimir Signet enable a turn-three Lazav drop, which is pretty fantastic.
- Necromancy: If Lazav decks are running Animate Dead, they should be running this too, plain and simple.
- Windfall: I see Whispering Madness in Lazav’s list, but not Windfall. I know Whispering Madness is repeatable, but the effect is good no matter how many times you can do it. Wheels fill up graveyards surprisingly fast, and the draw triggers they enable with Sphinx’s Tutelage are great value. (If you really want to be nasty, think of how good they are with Notion Thief.)
- Spelltwine: It’s absolutely criminal that this only shows up in 16% of Lazav decks. Playing spells from graveyards is clearly good enough for Lazav to be running Wrexial, the Risen Deep, but Wrexial is slow and sometimes won’t even land a hit before it dies. Getting an immediate one-shot spell from someone’s graveyard is just superb, and it gives a Lazav deck some extra reach beyond merely reanimating creatures.
- Arcane Lighthouse: Is an Asceticism standing in the way of Phoebe and your opponent’s Vorinclex, Voice of Hunger? Here’s a sneaky way to gain access to even the most untouchable creatures.
- Willbreaker: As long as you’re planning on stealing from creatures, you could also just… steal the actual creature too. It won’t have any abilities, but it will be yours.
- Rainbow Efreet: A bizarre creature, but one whose ability Phoebe can make tremendous use out of. Even if she gains hexproof and indestructible, Phoebe can be taken out with Cyclonic Rift or Merciless Eviction. Phasing her out can protect her from those effects, plus it won’t make her lose any of her collected abilities.
- Vedalken Orrery: I recommended this card in my X vs Sen Triplets Showdown too, so I feel a little guilty putting it here again. I don’t think this is a slam-dunk card in every deck, but I do like it in decks that have commanders with activated abilities. Holding up mana to either cast a spell or activate Phoebe is just good sense.
- Sakashima the Impostor: I actually recommend this for both commanders, though it is a little on the pricey side. Simply put, this is a Clone that gets around the Legend Rule because she keeps her own name. With Sakashima, you could potentially get three copies of an opponent’s legendary creature.
Unstable may be gone, but if you and your group enjoy playing with these cards, then by all means you should continue to allow them under House Rules. (Frankly, that’s what most of us had expected to do before the Un-nouncement in the first place.) Unstable reminds us that it’s okay to be a little silly and wacky sometimes. Exploring the less serious styles of play gives some of us a chance to let our hair down a little. I know I’m personally extremely impressed with Wizards of the Coast’s work in Unstable, so if nothing else, I’m happy to have had the chance to discuss all these silver-bordered commanders and how they relate to black-bordered Magic. Now we bid adieu to the official silver-bordered season. Goodbye, Un-legal season. You were weird.
In the meantime, I hope the above comparison with these two Dimir shapeshifters has been at least somewhat enlightening. Lazav is a graveyard fiend, but like a true trickster, he can flip-flop back and forth between a dedicated mill strategy or merely using the graveyard as a resource with which to punch his opponents in the face. Phoebe, on the other hand, offers a bizarre version of control that tops itself off with some scarily powerful combos if she’s left to her own devices. Both are cunning and tricky, and silver-bordered or not, they’re quintessentially Dimir.
So, which of these commanders would you choose to build? Better yet, which commanders would you like to see in a future Commander Showdown? (Don’t worry, we’re for sure returning to normal black-bordered Commander Showdowns from now on!)
- Kumena, Tyrant of Orazca vs Sygg, River Guide: How does the new Merfolk tribal commander compare to the old?
- Zacama, Primal Calamity vs Gishath, Sun’s Avatar: Which is the bigger, badder Dino?
- Mairsil, the Pretender vs Experiment Kraj: In case this article didn’t have enough activated ability combos for you.
- Tetzimoc, Primal Death vs Mathas, Fiend Seeker: Marking creatures for death never felt so fun.
Cast your votes!
Til next time!