EDH Boogeyman – Stax

Magic is supposed to be fun. But every so often we bump into a deck that makes us question whether or not that’s true. Today we are going to talk about a type of deck that has developed quite a reputation around casual tables: Stax.

Stax is a dirty word in many playgroups as its very nature kicks sand in the face of the founding principles of EDH as a format. It isn’t fun, it isn’t interactive, it isn’t creative, it makes games slow to a crawl and everyone hates it.

But is that true?

Does Stax deserve the reputation it has? The open loathing? The cantankerous butthurtness?!

No!

Some people say that Stax has no place at a casual table, that it is too oppressive to be fun and it should be left to wear its hockey mask out in the woods near the summer camp where it can only hurt people who are unlucky enough to get too close to it. Are they right?

No.

Stax is a perfectly viable control strategy that focuses on the denial of resources rather than the countering of spells or the removal of creatures and permanents and if built properly it can lead to some very interesting games! The key is how you approach it. This isn’t a conversation about rule 0. If you want to read about rule 0, Ryan has a great article right here on facetofacegames.com. Playing Stax is about building it properly and playing it right. It’s about walking just far enough down the primrose path that the games are still great and your playgroup doesn’t band together to toss you into the lake of the dead.

So, you wanna build a Stax deck?

Welcome to Scumbag Island, where people are fed up with being turned inside out by infinite combos or being filleted into quivering sushi by an unending swarm of slivers or goblins or myr tokens. The game needs to slow down! It needs some order! Some damn civility!

But counterspells are so last season.

What kind of self-respecting slimeball wants to counter one thing when they can stop everyone from doing anything? This is where Stax comes in, it allows you to control the flow of a game by throwing up roadblocks that make it harder for them to play the game. These can include creatures or effects like Aura of Silence or Thalia, Guardian of Thraben that make stuff cost more, many things like Magus of the Tabernacle or Aura Flux that create a taxing effect on stuff your opponents have already played, thereby limiting what they can play as the game goes along. It can go all the way down to playing resource denial cards like Static Orb or Back to Basics to cut off access to those hard-earned resources.
The key to being an effective Stax builder and pilot is commitment.

Nothing will get you beat up, driven to the edge of town and abandoned in a ditch with no shoes like an unfocused Stax deck. Commit! 100%. Pick what aspect of the game that you want to interact with and go after it. Make their Force of Wills cost 25! Make them tap their lands so hard and so often they strike oil! No mercy!

This isn’t to be a jerk or suck the fun out of the game, it’s because sometimes people will build a suboptimal deck so that it fits in with their group meta. This doesn’t work with Stax. You can’t pick a few pieces and expect it to do anything but prove all the haters right. Go all-in on the taxes if that’s the route you are taking. If you have degenerated to the point that you want to deny people their mana, then do that. Half measures are the worst thing you can include in a deck like this. Everyone is going to hate it regardless, just lean into it. Don’t be chicken. If you have a deck that is focused and has a purpose, the people who you play against will appreciate it and it will give them an axis along which they can interact with your deck. That doesn’t mean you have to leave an uncovered, six-foot thermal exhaust port on the side of your deck, it just means that when the deck has a clear and defined strategy people know what they are playing against. Plus, when you build your deck right and don’t just fill it up with random stuff it leaves you space to do the most important thing a Stax deck has to do to be legit: break parity and win the game.

Stopping your opponents from doing their thing isn’t enough. You can’t just create a situation where the game isn’t going anywhere and then just sit there, grinning like an idiot while your friends pull their teeth out, trying to kill you so the game can finish. Rage-scoops aren’t the goal here. You want real wins.

For that, you need a compact win condition and a way to find it. That means tutors, protection, recursion, and all that other nasty stuff. On Commander Cookout we try to avoid tutors as they typically lead to decks playing the same every time but if you are going to play Stax, you need that stability and consistency. You need to be able to demonstrate to your group that you aren’t just effing with them for kicks and can win the game through all the bullcrap. Pick your combo, make sure you can play it in spite of your deck and don’t make it some kinda durtley, 6 card mess.

Drill, fill, bill, kill.

Just like a visit to the dentist, without the killing part. Keep it simple.
All that might sound horrific. You don’t want to put your pals through all that! How can Stax be not a total horror show if by its nature you have to not cut corners when building it?

It is all in what you are Stax-ing.

My personal Stax deck is fairly underpowered and focuses on forcing parity on my opponents. It stops opponents from searching libraries for extra lands (Ashiok, Dream Render) and turns their artifact ramp off with cards like Collector Ouphe and Karn, the Great Creator. Then finishes off games by beating ass with an unopposed Parhelion II or by Painter’s Grindstone-ing people into dust. The point is: the deck puts the breaks on my opponent’s ability to accelerate while powering out big threats of my own. My opponents are still playing Magic, they are interacting with the game and thus we are all having fun. I picked an axis and I attacked it, I have a clear path to victory and a focused plan on how to get there.

If I wanted to ratchet up the power level, I would focus on denying my opponents access to their resources in addition to slowing down their acquisition. This is where the Static and Winter Orbs would come into play. If I wanted to be a real buzzkill, I could really amp up the scumbaggery and play Armageddon or another mass land destruction effect, but because I want to keep the deck as an interesting maze for my opponents to find their way through, I haven’t constructed the deck to outright deny my opponents the ability to interact with me I have just made it difficult.

My deck is not the be-all and end-all of Stax decks, but it is an example of a type of deck that has widely been shunned that has been accepted in a wider playgroup. It isn’t that bad to play against and rarely does it achieve a total lock of the table. It has happened but it’s rare. What I am trying to impress here is that if you are going to play Stax, play freakin Stax. Don’t apologize for it but don’t be a jerk about it! All decks have a place in our format and there is no reason to be afraid to try something just because you are worried people won’t like it. Just remember that there are people who won’t want to play against it and that is okay too.

So, your jerk bag friend built a Stax deck…

Step one: kick them out of your playgroup.
Step two: delete them on all social media.
Step three: pretend you don’t know them when you pass them on the street and talk smack about them to everyone.

OR

Take a breath. Relax. Realize they aren’t a monster and they aren’t trying to ruin your fun OR steal your money. Playing against Stax isn’t as awful as the internet memes would have you believe. It has a reputation as this awful pair of cement shoes that takes down every game it’s in, but it’s unwarranted.

The way EDH has evolved, it needs Stax to keep it honest.

In a world where Urza and Meren set up insane value engines that are very difficult to disrupt, the game needs a deck that can choke the life out of those blazing fast decks and show them that reality is a harsh and unyielding mistress. Sometimes the rest of us just happen to get caught in the wake.

Don’t be caught unprepared!

Playing against a Stax deck can actually be rewarding and super-duper fun if you approach it the right way and you have the right stuff in your deck, the good news is that you probably have the stuff there already!

If you look at a typical Stax deck you’re going to find that most of the common pieces are artifacts or enchantments and you have answers for those in your decks…right? Grip? Force of Vigor? Generous Gift? Naturalize?! Every deck should have a few ways to deal with problematic artifacts and enchantments and for that reason, every deck should be able to deal with Stax and remember: you’re going to have one or two new friends to help you out when things get really tough! So don’t give in to despair and don’t quit!

But let’s not be too hasty. A Stax player in the right circumstances can be very handy for us. If you have the right cards in hand the oppressive environment a Stax deck creates can be an ideal environment to sit in the weeds and bide your time so that you can bushwhack some poor sucker and steal a win you had no business getting. It is all in how you approach things!

Stax doesn’t ruin games, it only changes them into something else and how we react to that something else is what is going to decide whether we have fun playing the game we love or give in to fear and allow the Boogeyman to have power in our lives. Are you going to let that long-nosed, white-faced, blue-haired, short-legged jerk control you?

Hell no!

Be brave! Don’t let a big reputation take away your chance to sink your teeth into a new way to play the game. Whether you’re driving the Stax train or are tied to the tracks, it can still be interesting and it’s lots of fun to try new things and as the game evolves we have to accept that we can’t keep dodging Stax and decks like it forever. We have to let go of hate and fear and embrace change! Don’t shun the Stax player. Embrace them. Invite them into your circle and be glad for their presence, because as long as they’re at the table playing with you, they aren’t out in the parking lot stealing the rims off your car! And if you are curious about playing Stax, don’t worry about what people will think and approach it the same way you should approach everything in your life: with focus and creativity and whilst not being a jerk about it.

Play what you like! Be honest with your playgroup and yourself and more than any of that: have fun, and always Stax responsibly.

See you next time!

To Ban or Not to Ban?

EDH is supposed to be fun.

But we all know there are times when a card breaks into the format and it just sucks all the mirth out of the room. The joy evaporates from our lives and what has been an excellent game becomes a regret we will relive in our dreams as we try to sleep that night.

“WHY?!” we will ask ourselves, “why would they play that card?!”

Usually the answer is simple: it’s a powerful card that fits into their strategy and it allowed them to win (or at least not lose) the game.  But sometimes that rationalization just doesn’t cut it. Sometimes the fact those cards exist in that other player’s deck is just too much to bare! The thought of it happening again causes physical distress and night terrors. Markets crash, children cry and dinosaurs retake the Earth, all because they play that one card!

What is a rational, clear-thinking, fun-focused individual meant to do in these situations?

Ban the card!

It’s just too strong. Degenerate even! How could people ever think that kind of thing is fun?  They are obviously delusional and we must help these poor saps by showing them what real fun in a casual format is and take the offending cards away. They’ll thank us for it eventually and just think of all of the fun it will save and how much salt it will prevent.

All aboard the ban-train! Destination: Awesome Town.

We all know that that isn’t how things are dealt with in real life. Sometimes cards just wreck us and that is part of the game, but what about those cards that are too strong?  The ones that appear often and destabilize games to a too-significant degree.  We all have a list of cards that come to mind when we think about ones that just need to be removed from casual EDH and I will present mine to you here; all of these cards have been subjects of debate at tables I have sat at and in forums I am a part of so I present them to you here and someone who loves casual EDH and wants the format to stay healthy. But I don’t think any of these cards need to suffer under the ban-hammer…no matter what anyone else thinks.

#7: Timetwister

Let’s just start off with a bang and get this one out of the way. [Card]Timetwister[/Card] is the only card in the illustrious Power Nine that is still allowed in our format.  It is a massive combo enabler, it recycles the graveyard and it is one of the greatest draw spells you’re going to find anywhere in the game.  None of that is why it finds its way onto this list though. It is on here because it costs more than your first car and it opens the door to the “pay to win” argument.  Playing cards like [Card]Timetwister[/Card] feels great for the person doing it and it might be cool to some other people at the table who have never seen one in real life, but it is unattainable for most Magic players and that can lead to people getting bitter.

Why shouldn’t it be banned? Several reasons. All obvious.

Firstly, there is the actual cost of the card. The fact that it is prohibitively expensive makes the card only a marginal worry and not a threat anyone needs to ever actually worry about.  Secondly, it is FAR more likely you will run across cards that do the basically the exact same thing, like [Card]Memory Jar[/Card] which is another monster of a card that has terrorized other formats for a generation. But EDH is a different beast, symmetrical draw effects can just as easily blow up in your face as save you when three other people are getting them. For all the myth and mystique surrounding [Card]Timetwister[/Card], it is the deck that is built around the card that wins the game. Seven cards in an opponent’s hand is terrifyingly powerful but remember that you and two of your new best friends in the world now have a fresh hand full of answers to stop Johnny from winning the game.

The power of the card is astounding, but the financial cost and the symmetrical nature of its effect make it something to be played with caution but it certainly isn’t worth a ban.

Also, if it was worth a ban, there certainly wouldn’t ban a newer, clunkier, uglier little brother version of the same card…that you can play twice!

#6: Sol Ring 

Hear me out!  

[Card]Sol Ring[/Card] is the tenth card on the Power Nine. It is probably the most powerful mana accelerant in the game. You pay one, you get two and there is no downside. If played on turn one, your turn two becomes your turn four and it becomes very difficult for everyone else to catch up. It doesn’t mean the game is over by any stretch, but a turn one [Card]Sol Ring[/Card] with another mana rock can be back-breaking. It’s also crushing to moral and many-a-win can be attributed to an early Sol Ring.  In many cases there is just no coming back from it. The card is just too powerful to exist and it shouldn’t be in the format because it can just blow games apart before they even get going.

But should it be banned? Of course not.

In the early days the cost of [Card]Sol Ring[/Card] started to spike but the arrival of Commander Decks saw the sweet, sweet reprint EDH players the world over had been calling out for.  Granted, the new one has significantly worse art on it but heck, it still gives you two mana for one mana, right? So who cares about art. The reason [Card]Sol Ring[/Card] shouldn’t be removed from the format is because we all have one.

We all have ten.

They are easy to get, they are reprinted every year and there is no real reason to not run one in your deck.  Sure that sucks but that is the nature of Power Ten cards being legal in your format. Are you salty your opponent dropped one on turn one because it ended up wrecking you or are you irritated you didn’t do it to them?  Be honest with yourself and your friends. Sol Ring is synonymous with our format and there is really nothing we can do about it, so just keep up with your group and play the card.

#5: Insurrection 

This is more a catch-all for cards that translate to “pay some amount of mana, win the game.”  [Card]Insurrection[/Card], [Card]Craterhoof Behemoth[/Card] and [Card]Expropriate[/Card] are all examples of this but there are more that show up in your nightmares and wake you up in a cold sweat with memories of games you had in the bag only to have someone drop one of these things and just accidentally win the game. They don’t technically win the game on their own, but they can all take an established (if unimpressive) board and then cave everyone’s domes in by resolving one card. “Oops I win” shouldn’t be words we hear very often, but these cards not only allow for it, but encourage it.  Insurrection is the poster child of this category. On CCO we have often said that no red card has won more games than it has, and if you think back to the times you’ve seen it played, you will see what we are talking about.

Single cards that cost lots of mana and just win you the game.  Should they be banned?

No. They are anticlimactic to be sure, but they aren’t bannable. These cards typically require significant setup even if that set up isn’t happening on one person’s board.  Craterhoof requires you to have a whole bunch of creatures, [Card]Insurrection[/Card] requires there to be lots of big creatures and [Card]Expropriate[/Card] requires your opponents to make terrible decisions; the point is that these cards all require the game state to hit some form of critical mass that they then take advantage of. It super sucks to be on the receiving end of a “surprise” Hoof or (much worse) a top-decked [Card]Insurrection[/Card], but to say that they should be excluded entirely flies in the face of the format. Cards that do ridiculous stuff are the reason people started playing EDH in the first place and if playing the cards that the format was built on is wrong, do we really want to be right?

#4: Aetherflux Reservoir 

A strange choice at first, but give me a chance to explain.

This card, in all but very certain cases is the ultimate rattlesnake card.  Reservoir is one of those cards that any deck that likes to gain life will include because not only does it contribute to what the deck cares about doing, but it gives the deck a way to take advantage of all that life gained to kill giant creatures or (much more likely) to destroy the players who control those creatures.  It turns every game into a race for second as no one wants to mess with the Reservoir player because they could just be blasted out of the game at any moment. If you try to take them below fifty, you die. If you try to attack them in an attempt to win, you die. If you try to get your combo online and go off, you die.  If there is no answer (aka: Grip) at the table, there isn’t a whole lot an individual player can do without getting knocked out of the game.  Options in many cases are severely limited, if the Grip isn’t there to kill the Reservoir, then someone has to kill the Reservoir player with the activation on the stack.  It is one thing to play a spell into a control player’s game plan to draw out a counterspell, but it is an entirely different matter to throw yourself on a landmine so that an opponent can win the game.

All that said, I would personally love to see this card removed from the format but I know that that is an over reaction.  

Life gain totally sucks in most cases and building a deck based around it is easily thrown off its game by simply attacking or doing damage in another way.  At your average casual table getting above, and staying above, fifty life is easier said than done as many decks will just be attacking to keep the game moving along and seeing one player’s health pool deepening like that is just too tempting for value attacks with creatures like [Card]Ohran Viper[/Card] or if a player has a [Card]Coastal Piracy[/Card] in play.  Life gain decks typically telegraph their intentions and thus leave themselves open to getting spanked without pants.  An [Card]Essence Warden[/Card] or some other lifelink creature is a sorry blocker for a motivated giant dude or kickass value creature.  Cards like [Card]Aetherflux Reservoir[/Card] are very powerful and can warp games around them to be sure, but they also telegraph their intentions and beg other players to slap the face off whoever plays them.

#3: Teferi’s Protection 

Much like Aetherflux Reservoir, Tef’s Protection is a card that doesn’t necessarily win games by utilising an obscure resource but it does create a super-secret-ninja-rattlesnake situation where a player trying to win or progress the game just gets wrecked or a twenty minute storm combo turn just fails out of nowhere.  It is a very powerful card that just feels like the ultimate “nope.” It destroys the best laid plans of the whole table and gives you a chance to untap and go for the win after an opponent has blown their load assuming that they had victory in hand.

Anyone who has had this card played against them knows the salt it can create.  It is the ultimate counter spell. It doesn’t even leave the person who played it open to attacks from other players!  It can be infuriating, but that doesn’t mean that the card is ban-worthy. Let’s be honest with each other, if you are going to combo kill the whole table and one player dunks on you, you sort of deserve it and if you are winning by attacking or through something repeatable (like one of my favorite cards) it just means you win a few minutes later.  Cards like this can be very frustrating as they can steal a victory from a player and sometimes prolong games to an unnecessary degree but it’s really just the best fog-effect you will ever see.  Has anyone ever complained about Fog being too powerful?

Probably.  But for the sake of argument, let’s just say that that that isn’t true and accept Tef’s Protection as something that we just have to accept in our format.

#2: Cyclonic Rift 

We have talked about cards that win by accident and cards that just plain stop a player from winning but now we move on to a different type of beast. Rift is an instant speed card that will have one of two effects on the average game:

1 – On the caster’s next turn they will take advantage of the blank boards to win the game immediately.

2 – The caster will not be dead due to casting Rift and the game will continue for several more hours due to having to restart post-Rift.

Cyclonic Rift is a card that has been hotly debated because it really is too good given its versatility and the fact that it’s an instant, which means it can be used at the end of an opponent’s turn to set up a madd blowout.  The arguments for the banning of Rift are mostly sound, but I think that a format like EDH needs a boogyman like Rift to keep it honest. Legacy has Force, Standard had Oko and EDH has Rift.  It is there to keep certain kinds of decks in check and while it is certainly abusable and can result in games coming down to someone casting it at the right time and then winning on the spot it is also something that is fairly easy to come back from if you get a next turn.

It is also a prime example of how to get around all the cards that have appeared on this list so far: don’t play them.  

If these sorts of spells are things that you don’t want to see in your meta or around you kitchen table, talk to your playgroup and then be the change you want to see.  It probably won’t mean your friends will stop playing these cards, but it is very hard to maintain that moral high-ground if you’re running all the cards you get angry about.  Rift is a great card, maybe too good, but it has its place and we all just have to accept that.

#1: Mass Land Destruction

Let me start this entry by admitting something: I play these cards.  I love [Card]Ruination[/Card]. I use [Card]Decree of Annihilation[/Card] as a win condition in more than one deck. I think [Card]Obliterate[/Card] is a totally awesome card!  Call me a scumbag if you want, but I think that cards like this serve a purpose and have a place in EDH so long as people know they are in your deck and are prepared and (more importantly) they are played with a purpose.  Nothing will get you tied to the train tracks faster than a value [Card]Armageddon[/Card]. Nothing will get your share of the pizza flushed down the toilet with more conviction than a [Card]Catastrophe[/Card] played for laughs.

If you are going to be “that human” who plays the land destroying cards, you have to play them with purpose and sparingly.  If your meta is full of token decks, [Card]Jokulhaups[/Card] isn’t the answer.  These are cards that are reserved for very specific circumstances and decks of a certain power level, but that certainly doesn’t mean they need to see a ban. [Card]Worldfire[/Card] got the boot and it might set a precedent for other cards in this entry to be removed from the format as well.

Blowing up lands sucks.  It sucks for everyone. It can make games drag and it never feels good to go from turn fourteen back to turn one and it should never be done without careful consideration about how your friends are going to feel after the spell resolves and how you are going to feel after you are left abandoned in a ditch somewhere with no shoes on after they tar and feather you.

The main idea I have been trying to put forward in the list is that there are some cards in the format that are very strong, maybe too strong, as well as cards that do things that are…unpleasant.  Maybe they even make us mad and tilt us directly off our chairs and into another dimension, a dimension of rage, hurt and salt. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t belong. Rule Zero exists for a reason and you should always keep that in mind when you are sitting down to play, especially with new people.  Sometimes it can be fun to see the looks on people’s faces when you absolutely ruin their plans, but it can be less fun when those same people decide they don’t want to play with you anymore.

Remember: there are no evil cards. Only bad friends!

See you next time and thanks for reading!