Un-Mander Showdown — X vs Sen Triplets
X Gon' Give it to Ya
Un-mander is here for only a few more weeks, but before the format goes back to normal, we need to have at least one more silver-bordered Showdown. Unstable gave us a commander that easily wins the Most-Difficult-Card-To-Search-By-Name award: X. This sneaky Inspector Gadget spoof infiltrates an opponent's hand and plays their cards as your own. There's currently one other legendary creature that plays cards from opponents' hands, one that hails from the all-multicolored set Alara Reborn.
As usual, I'd like to start with the commander we already know. Sen Triplets is a meek 3/3 for five mana, but what it lacks in stats it makes up for in ability. On each of your upkeeps, you choose an opponent and render them unable to cast spells or activate abilities during your turn. What's more, you reveal their hand and can play their cards—including lands.
The Triplets saw a resurgence after January 2016, when the Rules Committee changed Rule 4. Once upon a time, creating mana of a color outside of your commander's color identity created colorless mana instead. With the release of colorless-specific cards like Kozilek, the Great Distortion, the Rules Committee acknowledged that Rule 4 could be exploited to make colorless mana, which wasn't particularly fun or flavorful. It was a minor loophole, but loopholes in general are kind of lousy, so the rule was changed to allow players to create any color of mana, regardless of color identity.
This was great news for Sen Triplets. With the help of Chromatic Lantern and friends, they gained the ability to cast not only white, blue, and black spells, but red and green as well. It's not uncommon for Triplets players to immediately tutor out their Chromatic Lantern or their Celestial Dawn, both of which let them play spells of any color and quickly start rifling through other players' hands. Fellwar Stone also puts in a lot of work.
To no one's surprise, Sen Triplets decks are quite controlling. Peeking at their EDHREC page, we see a bevy of beautiful counterspells among the highest-ranked cards. Counterspell sits high at 66% of Triplets decks, and Disallow and Render Silent show up with a respectable 36% and 33%, respectively.
On top of that, Sen Triplets decks run the full gamut of efficient Orzhov removal spells. Taking a look at just their Instants section, we find Anguished Unmaking, Utter End, and Path to Exile, all at over 35% popularity, not to mention Swords to Plowshares at 53% in the Top Cards section.
This might seem silly to point out; Esper decks practically always run these removal spells, so what makes them any more significant in a Triplets deck? In my opinion, these spells are more important to the Triplets than any other Esper commander because of the way the Triplets plan on winning: with other people's stuff. Other Esper decks use good removal, but they still build toward their own strategy. Oloro, Ageless Ascetic gains so much life that Sanguine Bond drains his enemies. Sharuum the Hegemon whips out a combo or buries her opponents in metal. Zur the Enchanter goes Voltron if he's feeling nice, locks down enemies if he's feeling mean, and Doomsdays for the win if he's feeling nasty.
The Triplets don't necessarily have such a dedicated a strategy. Like Gonti, Lord of Luxury, their plan is to play with whatever they scrounge from their opponents. It's therefore extra-important to get rid of everything they didn't manage to steal. By stripping an opponent's hand of his or her best cards and exiling or countering the rest, they secure an enormous amount of card advantage that is very tough to overcome.
Counterspells are also crucial because the Triplets are so fragile. They're not exactly cheap to cast, their stats aren't particularly combative, and their metal skin makes them easy for any color to dismantle. Add in the fact that you don't get the benefit of their ability until a full round of the table has passed, and you're looking at a strategy with lots of opportunities to be disrupted. The Triplets are fragile, but that only makes them more intent on staying alive, and therefore colder, crueler, and more controlling. There's certainly a good payoff if they survive, but you must come prepared.
Speaking of payoff, I think it's about time we took a peek at the average Triplets decklist and discover what other threats they're hiding in the 99. What dark dangers lurk behind those three sets of cold, impassive eyes? Let's find out.
Average Sen Triplets DeckView on Archidekt
For me, the immediate standout is Magister Sphinx. As a revivable, blinkable, attacking Sorin Markov, this creature is exceptionally dangerous when it hits the field. I also happen to love Memnarch, which can take control of whatever permanents you didn't manage to steal directly from someone's hand.
Another set of favorites: Aura of Silence and Grand Arbiter Augustin IV make it much more difficult for your opponent to cast their spells, but easier for you to cast yours. Since those spells are artificially more expensive for your opponents, they'll end up stranded in their hands, where you can pluck them for cheap later. Effects like this are just plain beautiful, and really epitomize the Triplets' main strength over X. The additional color provides a lot more access to both removal and control. X, as we'll see soon, is a bit whimsical, but the Triplets are regimented and unyielding.
Curiously, my eye is drawn to the Jace, the Mind Sculptor in the average decklist. That is not a cheap card. EDHREC data usually biases toward budget. This is why Swords to Plowshares is always at a higher percentage than Path to Exile on any given commander's page; Swords is cheaper, so more players can afford it, and it therefore shows up at higher percentages. Jace's presence in the average decklist is, to my mind, an oddity. In fact, I think there's something very strange happening with this entire average decklist.
Check out all those artifacts. Sharuum the Hegemon, Ethersworn Canonist, Sphinx of the Steel Wind... call me crazy, but I'm not personally convinced that these cards are the best fit for a Sen Triplets deck.
In my opinion, these cards are holdovers from years past. Since they appeared in the same block as the Triplets, and the Triplets are incidentally an artifact creature, players biased toward artifact synergies. We see this same effect happening today with Tishana, Voice of Thunder, whose page is littered with Ixalan Merfolk even though her actual card has nothing to do with Merfolk (apart from the fact that she happens to be one). If released in a vacuum, players might not have built her with an eye toward Merfolk Tribal. I think the same is true for Sen Triplets. If they'd been released in some other product, I'm not convinced players would have jumped to artifact synergies.
This also explains the Jace. Since he was released shortly after the Alara block, he snuck his way into Triplets decks by dint of proximity. That said, unlike the artifact synergies, I do think he's quite good for a deck as controlling as the Triplets... though not good enough to justify that price tag.
I speculate that, sans artifacts, the Triplets would be more focused on Bribery and Hostage Taker effects, full to the brim with thievery. In fact, Blatant Thievery and Expropriate seem like great choices too, as additional ways to capture anything you didn't manage to steal. I'm genuinely surprised that Mindslaver isn't a more popular card in this deck, not just because it's a flavor win, but also because it can lock down an opponent when paired with Academy Ruins, which is a powerful way for a control deck to secure victory in a long game.
Sen Triplets is more open-ended than its other Esper brethren. While its EDHREC page features many artifacts, that is by no means the most powerful or most interesting Triplet strategy. If you build the Triplets, I personally advocate that you shy away from artifacts and commit wholeheartedly to a life of crime, stealing other players' spells, creatures, lands, and even their turns.
The X Boyfriend
Speaking of theft, we have another commander to discuss, the silver-bordered X. Like Sen Triplets, this bizarre creature plays cards from other player's hands, but has a very Unstable way of doing so: by placing himself directly into the hand he wants to steal from.
Apart from the wacky way this messes with typical Magic rules (since players aren't supposed to have someone else's cards in their hand) this deviates from the Triplets' effect in four major ways:
- Most obviously, X is Dimir while the Triplets are Esper, so X will lose access to some control and removal spells.
- X won't be on the battlefield, which makes it potentially less susceptible to removal.
- You only pick one opponent at a time. While the Triplets can choose a new player every turn, X stays put until he's moved. You can use his middle ability to hop from one hand to another, but it will cost a bit more mana. (Don't ask me how X can tap itself while in someone's hand, but apparently that's a thing.)
- You can activate X's ability at any time. Triplets can only steal cards during their own turn, but X can activate its ability to play cards at instant speed, even if those cards are supposed to be played at sorcery speed. (This is similar to the way that Memory Plunder can cast a sorcery at instant speed. However, according to Maro, you can only steal lands during your own turn.)
X also gives every card in your opponent's hand a flat cost of 5. This is both a blessing and a curse; an opponent's Iona, Shield of Emeria costs just five mana... but so does their Sylvan Library. You also can't Overload any spells from an opponent's hand, because that's an alternate cost, so Vandalblast and Cyclonic Rift become tricky. Lands are also much, much harder for X to steal than for Sen Triplets. It does mean that X doesn't have to worry about colored mana costs though, which is a plus.
To my mind, that means an X deck should be loaded to the brim with mana acceleration. The usual handful of Dimir Signet, Talisman of Dominance, and Commander's Sphere aren't enough. I'm talking Thran Dynamo and Gilded Lotus. Burnished Hart and Hedron Archive. If you have the Cabal Coffers + Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth combo, this is a great place for it. Going overboard with mana acceleration can cause some decks to stall out, but in this deck, an abundance of mana actually increases the number of cards in 'your' hand, by letting you cast more cards from someone else's.
It's also important to keep your opponents' hands full. Since Sen Triplets can pick a new opponent every turn, they don't mind it so much when one player runs out of cards. They can just choose someone else the next turn. Since X takes a little more mana to switch from one player to another, I think it's beneficial to keep him in one person's hand as long as possible. I therefore recommend...
...a little bit of Hug. Dictate of Kruphix, Temple Bell, just a few cards here and there that keep everyone's tank full. Ply your favorite opponent with card advantage, then activate X during their draw step before they get a chance to cast the cards themselves. You'll have to watch out for other opponents, of course, since they'll also get additional cards, but I'm pretty confident that these effects will help you more by keeping X's home well-stocked. Be careful of Windfall effects, though, as those will unceremoniously evict your commander.
A few forgotten Hug cards could make a good showing here, too. Intellectual Offering can fill up both your hand and the hand you've infiltrated. I like Curse of Verbosity a lot too, as it can also keep hands full. Dimir isn't usually known for playing Horn of Greed, but this seems like a good place for it, since it'll guarantee your opponents' lands aren't dead draws for your commander. (Remember: it's not a 'may' ability.) We're running a silver-bordered commander, so what better excuse to play unusual cards?
I should also note that X cannot activate its abilities from your own hand. As awesome as it would be to bounce this guy back to your own hand and cast a bunch of cheap Emrakul, the Promised Ends, that's sadly not how it works. Additionally, cards like Heartstone and Training Grounds won't affect X's ability either. Those cost-reducing cards only affect creatures presently on the battlefield, not in other zones (similar to the way that Panharmonicon doesn't trigger Inalla, Archmage Ritualist's ability an additional time while she's in the Command Zone).
The X Man
Bearing all this in mind, I threw together a potential decklist for X. Check it out:
The X FactorView on Archidekt
There's a lot going on here, but I'll point out some of my absolute favorites.
First up is Arcane Laboratory. Like Rule of Law and Eidolon of Rhetoric, this enchantment stops everyone from playing a lot of spells. That should keep their hands nice and full for you to steal cards. Laboratory does affect X's ability too, since his ability casts spells, but if you have enough mana, you can get around the restriction by activating his ability once on each player's turn. If you manage to assemble a few mana rocks and an Unwinding Clock, that's just golden.
Second, I love bounce effects in this deck. Love, love, love them. Mystic Confluence and Baral's Expertise can return creatures to their owner's hands, where they're ripe for the picking. Be careful with Evacuation effects, though, since that would return any creature you've stolen back to its owner's hand. Sure, you can play it again, but it's better to just bounce an opponent's stuff instead of everyone's. I need hardly mention how obnoxiously good Cyclonic Rift is in this (or any) deck. Bounce effects are extremely versatile for both commanders. They can be a removal spell, a well-timed Fog, or a Mind Control when you cast the bounced creature next turn.
The last bit I'll point out are the counterspells. Like the Triplets, I think controlling the board is a nice style for X, but he needs some extra help ensuring the spells he doesn't steal are dealt with. Black offers some helpful removal spells, but you really can't beat a good old-fashioned counterspell. Rewind and Spell Swindle are extra fun, as they both refund mana so you can activate your commander's ability afterward.
Overall, X is up to some really goofy yet nasty stuff. From Bribery to Mind's Dilation, this deck's main goal is to turn your opponents' decks against themselves. Plus, they can hardly complain that what you're doing is overpowered, because your deck is only as powerful as their best cards. Though there are a lot of bounce effects and counterspells in this deck, it feels a lot more fast-and-loose than Sen Triplets, which have harsher forms of control and removal. This deck is literally only as good as the things it steals, so it's bound to be different every time you play it, which is perfect for the theme of Unstable.
Cards to Consider
There are some other good standouts I'd like to recommend for both of these commanders. I already mentioned that I think Sen Triplets should ditch the metal and commit more heavily to a thievery strategy. Here are some other possibilities for such a strategy, plus a few gems in the X deck that deserve some extra attention.
- Paradox Haze: This might be putting the cart before the horse, but I like the idea of choosing two opponents with Triplets. If nothing else, this is a build-your-own Grand Abolisher, since it stops people from playing spells during your turn.
- Paradox Engine: Speaking of Paradoxes, the Engine is bonkers. We all know this already, but I especially like it here. With enough mana rocks, every spell you cast from an opponent's hand frees up more mana to cast even more of their spells. Which reminds me: play lots of mana rocks. Just like X, an overabundance of mana acceleration is nothing but gas, because your commander supplies you with natural card advantage.
- Worst Fears: Like I said, steal everything, including their turns. This might sound like hyperbole, but this card has won lots of games for me in other decks. Stealing an opponent's entire turn doesn't just ruin their strategy, it takes their late-game powerhouses and aims them either at themselves or another opponent, laying waste to the other player and leaving the controlled player out of ammo in the aftermath.
- Jace's Archivist: Unlike X, which would get tossed away if discarded, the Triplets can fill other players' hands up with Windfall effects just beautifully. Refuel those hands so you can steal, steal, steal.
- Reflector Mage: For the life of me, I do not understand why this card doesn't even appear on Sen Triplets' EDHREC page. Bounce an awesome creature, render your opponent unable to cast it on their next turn, then cast it yourself. Bounce effects are seriously beautiful in these decks and absolutely deserve more attention.
- Bonus recommendation: Exotic Orchard. I usually only recommend five cards per commander, but I must register my absolute shock that Orchard only appears in 37% of Triplets decks. It should be in 100% of them. It gives you mana of your opponents' colors, so you can cast their spells! Don't overlook this land!
- Unsubstantiate: I recommend bounce effects for both commanders, especially effects like these, which can 'counter' a spell or put a valuable creature back in your commander's reach. Venser, Shaper Savant is another excellent example.
- Curfew: I'm not done talking about bounce effects yet. They're seriously so good in these decks. Aether Gale looks slow, but it's selective, letting you keep your own stolen permanents. Words of Wind lets you exchange putting a card into your hand with putting a card into each opponent's hand... which are your hands too. That might be an overly optimistic way to look at it, but I do think these effects belong, because they stall and obstruct your opponents while simultaneously giving you access to a bunch of other steal-able cards.
- Memory Lapse: We discussed bounce-or-counterspells, and just-bounce spells, now here are some just-counterspells. Memory Lapse stops someone from playing a big spell, then resets it to the top of their deck so you can steal it next turn. Arcane Denial is another great choice, countering a spell but refilling the caster's hand with more potential targets. Don't forget Hinder, which can place a countered spell on the bottom or top of its owner's library.
- Vedalken Orrery: Jimmy and Josh give this card a lot of praise on the Command Zone podcast, but I'm especially fond of it in this deck (and of course Leyline of Anticipation). Holding up mana to cast either your own spell or activate X's ability at instant speed gives you a wide range of possible responses to any game action.
- As Foretold: A lot of folks like this card, although I've always been lukewarm on it. In this deck, though, I think it's excellent. This deck is controlling, so you're likely to play a long game, and you'll want to keep mana free for your commander's ability. As Foretold lets you cast free spells on each turn, too, not just your own, so you can use it to cast all those bounce and counterspells I keep harping on about. Plus, those spells are usually pretty cheap, so the enchantment doesn't need to stick around for a very long time to start putting in work. All in all, I'm very impressed with this card in this deck.
A Thief with a Heart of Gold... or Silver
Not to sound like a cheesy after-school special, but comparing these two commanders honestly does teach us quite a few lessons. Despite X's silver border, it and Sen Triplets have quite a lot in common, so much so that I think it's worth taking a very critical look at the typical recommendations for a Sen Triplets deck. This comparison reminds us that it's okay to deviate from the norm and forge your own path with your commander. The road more traveled might not be the place where they truly get to shine. (Then again, artifacts are quite shiny.)
So, which commander would you build? The silver-bordered spy, or the silver-skinned Sen? Would you rather control the board from the battlefield, choosing new opponents every turn, or commit to one hand at a time with an agent hidden behind enemy lines? Does the added white for the Triplets give it the extra push you need to lock down the board, or does X's hide-and-go-seek strategy make him more appealing by avoiding all those removal spells? Let me know your thoughts below!
Oh, and let me know what future Commander Showdowns you'd like to see:
- Phoebe, Head of S.N.E.A.K. vs Lazav, Dimir Mastermind: By the time I write my next article, the Unstable Season will be over, but it could still be fun to have an Un-Showdown between these two identity-shifting Dimir agents.
- The upcoming Tetzimoc vs Mathas, Fiend Seeker: Which commander is better at marking their enemies for death?
- Mairsil, the Pretender vs Experiment Kraj: The ultimate activated-ability matchup.
- Marath, Will of the Wild vs Ghave, Guru of Spores: counters, creature tokens, and combos, oh my!
Cast your votes... and your opponents' spells!
Til next time!