“Activate the third ability of Mist Dragon, hold priority, activate the second ability of Mist Dragon, hold priority, activate the first ability of Mist Dragon. Pass priority. Any responses? Resolve the stack, Mist Dragon gains flying, then loses flying, then phases out. Proceed to draw step?”
No, that paragraph has likely never been uttered in any competitive Magic format in the history of ever. It probably never will. In the As Soon As Stack format though, this happens every. Single. Turn. It has to, or Mist Dragon’s controller loses the game.
Invented by some very evil and possibly sadistic European judges, As Soon As Stack is the perfect format to show you just how little you know about Magic’s rules. At (or more accurately just before) GP Washington DC I was introduced to the format by Elliot Raff and Casey Brefka, and was instantly hooked to the point that the three of us spent multiple hours (and hundreds of dollars) at the LGS buying bulk rares to make our own stack.
So How Does It Work?
The concept behind ASA is simple: infinite life, infinite mana, shared library and graveyard. If you can do something, you have to do it as soon as you can. If a spell or ability can target multiple things, you have to do as much as possible. Any abilities have to be activated as soon as possible after the permanent comes under your control, but only once (and exactly once) per turn cycle. If you miss an ability, don’t play a spell when you could or break a game rule, you lose.
Turns proceed as normal, and creatures must attack and block if able. Spells that can target multiple things must target as many as possible, so things like Flames of the Firebrand have to have 3 targets (if there are three). If a card has modes, you can choose whichever you want but on all other cards you start from the bottom and work up. Take the aforementioned Mist Dragon, for example. It has three abilities, so you have to activate them from the bottom one up. Have a card in your hand with cycling? Since cycling is the bottom ability, you have to cycle it.
Graveyard order matters. Any spell that targets something in the graveyard targets the topmost legal target. Knowing things like holding priority, steps in casting a spell and the turn structure are all essential. If you’ve ever played one of those memory games where each player adds another thing to an ever-growing list of things to recite, it’s basically that…with Magic rules attached. Yeah, it’s that tangly. It’s also way, way more fun.
Who Would Enjoy It?
ASA is not for everyone; far from it. The majority of players, both casual and competitive, will find the format overwhelming at best, frustrating and annoying at worst. You’re relying on your opponent messing up to win, and although there are some things you can do to make that more likely it’s ultimately down to them. It’s also a very counter-intuitive format as the almost uniformly correct play is to avoid drawing cards, avoid having permanents and avoid having cards in your hand.
It’s also probably not great for potential L1 judges. No need to terrify them with how little they actually know so early in the process. The group I have found enjoying ASA the most is current judges, experienced L1s and up, and players who are what Mark Rosewater would call Melvins. Those are people who enjoy doing fun and funky things with the rules, like equipping Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker to Nicol Bolas.
Building Your ASA Stack
Much like building a cube, you want your stack to be a reflection of your own style. That said, there are a few things you probably want to make sure you include in there:
- Cards with activated abilities These should be the bread and butter of the stack. People will lose the game multiple times just forgetting to activate something. These need to be spread around the permanent types and should also include some that have timing restrictions on their activation. Not only do they prevent the game from being mostly played in the upkeep step, they also trip people up from time to time. We found that things like equipment were good additions, as well as artifacts like Fool’s Tome.
- Auras that grant abilities to the enchanted creature These are great fun. Putting them on an opponent’s creature will very often make them lose quickly. If you can find some that also give bonuses or have triggers when they enter the battlefield, even better. Dragon Mantle and Gaea’s Embrace fit very well here.
- Enchantments with weird effects These will often be the game-winners, or more accurately the game-losers. There have been a lot of these in Magic’s history, from Puca’s Mischief and Confusion in the Ranks to Colfenor’s Plans and Impatience. The more esoteric and involved the card is, the better: Cover of Winter is a personal favourite, for example. Ashling’s Prerogative will no doubt mess someone up.
- Creatures that do more than just attack Just having to turn your creatures sideways every turn gets really boring and not at all a challenge. Similarly, creatures that you have to tap in your upkeep every turn don’t add much complexity. Instead, try adding something like Tymaret, the Murder King or Northern Paladin. Wayward Angel and Repentant Vampire change when you have threshold. Anything that requires people to keep the whole board in mind is excellent.
- Creatures with restrictions There are a whole ton of things that fit here. Angel of Jubilation stops people sacrificing creatures or paying life to cast spells or activate abilities. Monstrous Hound cares about the lands people have. Manor Gargoyle…well, it’s just great here.
- Spells with targeting restrictions These serve a double purpose. First off, spells like Suffocating Blast and Rack and Ruin will often sit in people’s hands beyond when they should be casting them. That of course causes them to lose the game. Second, spells like Hull Breach and Dismantling Blow will often be the only way to remove some dangerous and game-ending threats from the board.
- Basic lands One thing about this format: it will stretch your brain like taffy. Having the simplest of cards as possible draws will enable you to give your mind a break from all the complex cards and interactions in the stack. They also allow us to include cards that interact with basic lands, whether they gain abilities or simply change as a result of controlling one.
- Graveyard effects More on this in the next section, but spells with flashback or with activated abilities that function in the graveyard are a lot of fun here. If you combine this suggestion with some of the earlier ones, you’ll be lead to cards like Ancient Grudge and Lava Dart as good inclusions.
Things To Avoid
In the week of extensive playtesting conducted by Elliot, Casey and myself (with copious help from other judges), we found a decent number of things that ended up just being mistakes in the stack. Cards that lead to repetitive game states are actually pretty boring and don’t challenge as much as you might think they would. Hammer of Bogardan ended up getting cut for that reason. As much as the upkeep ability can trip people up, the repeated ability to destroy creatures is a little monotonous. This lead us to the conclusion that graveyard effects like Hammer, Shard Phoenix and Life from the Loam were only good if the card in question couldn’t easily put itself in the graveyard.
Although cards that make people draw cards are often powerful as they give people more chances to mess up, drawing too many cards can just make the game unfun for the poor victim of such effects. This lead to us cutting Beck // Call, as the one game it got played ended with me drawing 11 cards on one turn and eventually messing up on one of them. Similarly you want to avoid things like Soul of the Harvest, Glimpse of Nature or Arcane Melee. Symmetrical Howling Mine effects or things like Mercadian Atlas (conditional card draw) are way better to use.
Repeatable sacrifice or discard effects, even if they are quirky, can make the game way too easy for the person lucky enough to control them. It takes everything out of your hand or off your board, making the game way too easy. Prognostic Sphinx, Curse of the Cabal and the like all got cut as a result.
Stacking The Odds
The first few times you play ASA, you’re going to lose very quickly. Don’t get discouraged by this; most games last only a few turns. It’s so very easy to fall into lazy habits or regular play habits like not doing anything in your upkeep, or not reading your opponent’s cards. I’ve found that once you throw a stack together it is a lot easier to keep up to date than a cube, and also perfect for killing twenty minutes between rounds, on a break at a GP, between Mario Kart races or while waiting for a flight. It takes up next to no space and can be played with anywhere from 2-4 people.
If you decide to throw a stack together, please do share some of your ideas and additions. One of the rules variations I want to try is playing with all hands face up. Hidden information is not really important in the format, and if everyone knows when someone has lost it makes things more fun. If you don’t feel like actively building an ASA stack, you can easily play with any random pile of cards: opened booster packs, a cube, whatever you want.
Thanks to Elliot, Guillaume Beuzelin and Casey Brefka for introducing me to the format and for their blessing in writing this article. Go play some ASA and until next time…Brew On!