The Power of Theft

Posted in Serious Fun on March 18, 2008

By The Ferrett

"I've been caught stealing once, when I was five.
I enjoy stealing. It's just as simple as that."
–Jane's Addiction

A while back, I discussed the strength of the Mono-Black archetype in multiplayer, whose surfeit of removal and lifegain made it darn near impossible to win with creatures. And today, it's time to discuss another of the heavy-hitting archetypes of multiplayer—a deck that also makes it hard to win with creatures:

Big Stealy.

That's right! Why beat people at their own game when you can beat people with their own game? Taking everyone's creatures (or artifacts, or enchantments) is a tried and tested way of winning in multiplayer! So I'll be discussing the best ways to create a theft deck.

And guess what? If you hate hate hate it when people steal your cards, as many do, then there's no better way to beat a deck than to understand it. So I'll be giving you pointers on the best ways to subvert the plans of Big Stealy.

Why Big Stealy Works

AcquireWhen you're playing a normal deck, you have access to only your best creatures. If your red-black deck's best guy is a Dragon and someone trumps you by laying down an Akroma, Angel of Wrath, which has protection from your deck, then chances are you're pretty much toast.

Likewise, we've all had the situation where you were playing a white-red deck and couldn't deal with that 6/6 guy with fear. You couldn't block him, and you couldn't find your removal in time, so you died.

But when your deck's designed to steal people's stuff, you automatically have access to the best creatures at the whole table! It's a form of jujutsu; the more powerful your opponents' decks are, the more powerful you become. Big Stealy scales to almost any environment, instantly and without difficulty.

Furthermore, Big Stealy often neuters your opponents' plans incidentally. By removing a copy of that player's Blazing Archon, they're now less likely to draw into that Blazing Archon to protect themselves! And that's probably putting a kink in their plans.

The Big Stealy strategy isn't generally a good approach in duels, where you're often spending five mana to get a three-mana guy. The mana curve is just too brutally efficient in duels to trade up. But in multiplayer, where people almost always play with a top end of six-, seven-, or even nine-mana creatures, a Persuasion effect starts to look like a pretty good deal.

The Cards You Want

I'll show you some sample decks in a bit, but these are the most critical cards to have in Big Stealy. If a Big Stealy deck features none of these, it's going to have a much harder uphill climb.


This is the core of any good Big Stealy deck—because unlike almost all of the other theft cards, this one doesn't depend on anything being in play.

See, the problem with Big Stealy is that often, it's looking around the table and going, "Wow, there's nothing I want to take." What fun is it to steal someone's Kird Ape or Aven Riftwatcher with your Control Magic? And so you're sitting there, waiting for someone to give you a nice present.

For a mere five mana, Bribery fetches the best creature out of someone's deck. Better yet, if you're not sure what that player is up to, you can—and should—look through their whole deck. You're not just asking, "What is the most powerful creature they have for me to slap down on the board?" but also, "What creature would hurt them the most if I removed it?"

Pay particular note to whether they have any bounce or removal / recursion. If they do, chances are good you may have just spent five mana to tutor up their best creature for them. It's sometimes (though rarely) correct to take a less powerful creature because you suspect they'll just bounce it to their hand, and you don't want them having their Quicksilver Dragon.

Also, pick your targets. In general, you want to pick decks that look like they have fat, juicy guys to take—the red Goblin deck will have nothing for you. That black-green The Rock-style deck, however.... Mmm. That's good pickins!

Vedalken Shackles

Vedalken Shackles
Other steal effects generally work only once, which leaves you at a loss; if you yoink someone's Spiritmonger with a Take Possession and then someone else whips out a Countryside Crusher that you covet more, you're up the creek.

But Vedalken Shackles will allow you to steal the best creature on the board. Oh, there is that upper limit, of course—you can't steal a creature with greater power than you have Islands—but generally speaking, you won't need to steal anything with more than six or seven power, and getting to six or seven mana with Big Stealy isn't generally a problem.

But remember the best part of Vedalken Shackles: you don't have to use it. In fact, the best play for Shackles is often to release some now-obsoleted, inferior creature during your upkeep, then wait. Don't take that Countryside Crusher right away! Maybe someone will play something better in the meantime! Maybe someone will cast Wrath of God and follow it up with a guy that you can steal! Maybe someone was planning to pop the Crusher before that player's next upkeep anyway, and he's hoping for a two-for-one by killing it in response to you trying to steal it!

If you're still worried about being attacked by a large Crusher, then steal it before your opponent's attack phase. (Remember, you want to steal things that aren't tapped.) But remember this adage of Magic:

Whenever possible, leave everything until the last possible moment.

Leave your options wide open, and the flexibility of Vedalken Shackles will serve you well.


While every good Big Stealy deck has a dash of the enchantment-stealing effects, beginning with Control Magic and moving on up the chart, sometimes the idea of having your dude taken from you by a simple Naturalize is a bit much. You want something more permanent (or as permanent as things get in a removal-filled multiplayer environment).

Enter Clone!

Again, in duels, Clone was never that popular because you were almost invariably trading down, spending four mana to get a soon-to-be-dead Grim Lavamancer or a Stinkweed Imp. But in multiplayer, particularly in the late game, Clones will almost always become something much bigger than four mana—or if not, they mutate effortlessly to become the best defensive dude on the board.

Also, while a bit pricey, four mana is not a bad price for "Destroy a legendary creature." (Clone comes into play as an exact copy of that creature, the legend rule is enforced, both die.)

Reins of Power

Reins of Power
This is my secret tech. Big Stealy often has a problem with facing large hordes of creatures, since you're generally stealing one or two big threats at a time. But thanks to this obscure Stronghold card, you can steal someone's whole army for a turn! Now they're just as vulnerable as you are... And probably just as dead.

Reins of Power also comes in handy for screwing up someone's combat math something fierce. Picture this:

"I attack you!"

"Good. I'll Reins of Power with Fred over here, who has many large creatures I'm not unhappy to see dead. I believe I'll block your biggest guys with his biggest guys. When the smoke clears, oh hey! I guess all your big scary men are gone, and now I can start attacking in earnest."

A nasty, nasty little card. I call it "The Spanish Inquisition," since nobody ever sees it coming.

Early Defense

As we'll discuss in just a bit, Big Stealy decks often have no beginning game whatsoever, just sitting back until they get big mana for the heist. That can be an extreme liability, since you can sometimes get pounded before you begin.

As a result, you might want to try going with some low-cost spells to absorb some damage until you can get your fully operational battlestation online. Drift of Phantasms is a fantastic call for this in a deck that has Vedalken Shackles, since you can always transmute it away if you draw it late. Likewise, Fog Bank is an old-school defensive dude that that stop most threats dead in their tracks. But having something is generally better than nothing.

Sample Decks

The best example I have here is Josh's much-hated Big Stealy deck, which has an extremely good win record at our table:

Josh's Big Stealy

Download Arena Decklist

(The Reins of Power? He got that tech from me. And, I may add, he has never drawn them in game. I think this is only fitting.)

In any case, this is a solid deck, with an addition that two few Big Stealy decks have: A reset button. The addition of Oblivion Stone has pulled him out of a few games he wouldn't have otherwise won—as Josh himself says, "If I can't have it, no one can."

Legacy's Allure is also a classic card that's very worthy—like Clone, you get the card permanently (though I have my own perma-steal favorite, which I'll get to with my deck). And Memnarch is a kill-on-sight card, forcing us to blow our removal on one of his cards so that we have less removal for his stolen cards.

Someone will, of course, be aghast that I didn't say that Blatant Thievery was "key" to Big Stealy. Truth is, it's not. It's a very powerful effect, don't get me wrong—if you have them, play them!—but at eight mana, it's not a card you want four of in your deck, and quite often it'll steal a lot and then fall prey to mass removal. It's a solid card, but I think having only one or two in a given deck is about right.

Let's take a look at my much sloppier deck, which doesn't have four Vedalken Shackles thanks to me not having them—but this one also has a surprisingly good win record in multiplayer, including one almost-won game where I threw the victory to the stands because I didn't realize you couldn't play Flickering Ward as an instant.

This isn't one of my "tuned" decks, where I've acquired four of everything it needs, but that hasn't handicapped it much.

Ferrett's Big Stealy

Download Arena Decklist

Now, honestly, this is just a happy Christmas deck I threw together to celebrate my receiving a Gifts Given from Wizards for Christmas. (Aren't they nice?) And I haven't drawn Gifts Given, so I guess in a sense I'm still waiting to unwrap my gift.

Gifts GivenThis deck has some of my favorite cards, though. Don't let the one-of of Dominate fool you—there's only one because all of my copies are in my other decks! This surprise combat-ruiner can yank folks away, forever, at instant speed, making it key to the deck. It's my number one Mystical Tutor target in the late game, though I hate to let people know I have it.

And Helm of Possession has won me the day against at least one opponent, because milling his deck for twelve allowed me to triumph. Yeah, I got a guy. Who cares? He was dead from lack of drawing.

Oh, and Misdirection? I wanted to build a deck that had no Counterspells, so I could legitimately say, "If you want to do it, I can't stop you." (Which led to me forgetting entirely about the Time Stop, which I later drew and then did not play, lest I not be a man of my word.) But Misdirection is often better than a straight-up Counterspell, allowing you to hurt someone else a lot more than a simple countered spell would. That fifteen-damage Fireball can whip 'round a corner to annihilate that guy with the annoying bounce spells instead.

(If you don't have Misdirection, try Willbender—almost nobody sees it coming despite the fact that it was in Time Spiral!)

But let's take a look at the differences here. Unlike Josh's deck, which is much more focused on stealing—aside from Memnarch, there's hardly a threat to be found in his deck—the emphasis here is more on outright threats, with only twelve cards devoted to taking stuff and a lot of cards devoted to old-school card drawing and ugly legendary critters I had lying around.

That surfeit of threats is a source of debate among Big Stealy players. In actuality, there are not one, but four variants on Big Stealy decks:

  1. All copies, next to no threats (like Josh's)
  2. A lot of copies, a few threats (like mine)
  3. Kill-and-reanimate decks (like Adam's, which I'll get to shortly)
  4. Dedicated Shapeshifter decks

So. Do you go with no threats and rely on the world to provide you with dudes? Or do you throw in a handful of threats like Meloku the Clouded Mirror to win on your own? Or do you try something like Adam's deck, which is very distinctly the deck of a new player who's still building his collection, but should still give you an idea of what the "Kill, Steal, and Reanimate" archetype looks like:

Kill 'Em and Steal 'Em

Download Arena Decklist

A lot of one-ofs, and certainly cards we've been trying to argue him out of (come on, dude, Do or Die? Dash Hopes?), but the concept here is pretty clear: In return for giving up consistent counterspell support, you instead load your deck with black removal and/or discard, then pluck the best guys out of opponents' graveyards with spells like Necromancy and Animate Dead.

The problem you run into is the same as a lot of Big Stealy decks—a reliance on enchantments. That's actually not that big a drawback at many tables, since most people aren't packing twelve Disenchant effects, but it does mean that sometimes your entire plan falls to a Krosan Grip. However, the ability to be more active in destroying things that bother you is often a trade-up, depending on the group.

Also, to paraphrase Christopher Walken: Needs more Shriekmaw.

I'm not going to go into the Shapeshifter tribe, since they're often not a Big Stealy deck proper, but rather a mishmash of dudes who become other dudes. But they can pose the same problems to a deck that a Big Stealy deck does—namely, you don't have exclusive rights on The Best Guy on the Table. Having to face the worst guys on the board twice can give anyone a headache! Still, you should know it exists, however, and to watch out for Mirror Entity.

McGruff Weighs In!

So how do you stop crime in your local area? Well, here are a few tips:

Attack Early and Often.

As noted, a Big Stealy deck is at its most vulnerable in the early game, before it can get the mana to trade up on guys. If you see Islands, attack, and attack relentlessly! If you can get him to the point where he's forced to blow a Control Magic on some three-mana dude just to stay alive, then you're halfway to winning.

Also, you may be tempted to let up when he's low on life. Do not do it. The Big Stealy deck is incredibly resilient, and can rebound from seemingly impossible situations. Don't turn your attention elsewhere once it's "handled." When you've got Big Stealy on the ropes, pound him flat into the canvas.

Yes, I know that means pounding him through the ropes. That is how serious I am.

Play Flash Creatures.

With the exception of notable spells like Vedalken Shackles and Dominate, most of the stealy spells come during his main phase. Bring in a behemoth at the end of the turn and then attack with it before he can take it away from you!

Play with Sacrifice Effects, Preferably With A Hurtin'.

I've been waiting for this:

"I'll play Treachery on that Taurean Mauler with 15 +1/+1 counters."

"Okay. In response, I'll Fling it."


Sacrifice effects won't protect you from a Bribery, or stop him from beating you over the head with your neighbor's best dude, but they will stop him from stealing your guys. Cards like Altar of Dementia, Goblin Bombardment / Blasting Station, Spawning Pit, or even Tooth and Claw can cause the best effects to fizzle (and hopefully give you more guys to do stuff with later).

Play with Bounce.

Reusable bounce, in the form of something like Crystal Shard or Waterfront Bouncer or Cowardice, get real fun.

Play with Global Enchantment Removal.

Tempest of Lightwhat? When someone's only safe because he has three Control Magic effects on the table, an end-of-turn enchantment killer (or even, heck, a main phase Tranquility) can lead to his doom.

Play with Lots of Removal, Period.

It's hard for Big Stealy to win when everyone's spending two mana for a Terror to destroy the guy he just spent five mana to Bribe. Large amounts of destruction may not always work if someone has creatures that bring their own protection (see also: Angel of Wrath of God, Akroma), but generally a lot of targeted destruction will help to open the gates so that others can smash through. Which leads me to....

Play with Lots of Friends.

Really, it's not too hard to make Big Stealy a target. "Hey, he's taking your guys!" is usually enough of an incentive. And being ganged up on before he's ready is Big Stealy's worst nightmare.

Play with No Friends.

An important rules tip: when the owner of a creature loses the game, that creature is removed from the game instantly. No ifs, ands, or buts. So quite often, it's in your best interests to kill the guy who Big Stealy has actually stolen stuff from. Kill the player who owns the stuff, and often Big Stealy's completely pantsed.

As an added bonus, that player is often easier to kill than Big Stealy is himself... for obvious reasons.

Play Combo.

Big Stealy relies on creatures FTW. If you have no creatures, well, what can he do? A combo deck sans critters can often put a dent in a Counterspell-light Big Stealy deck.

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