Hello and welcome to the POX primer. In this primer we will explore the different versions of Pox, give a little bit of history, and most importantly look at decklists and core card choices for each of the types of Pox. If you are already familiar with Pox decks, then feel free to skip the introduction parts of the primer.
The deck has always had, shall we say, a certain reputation for being the Mtg equivalent of something that might have been written by de Sade, and there always were its fair share of haters. A sarcastic "Fun deck, huh" was sometimes the response as the first Sinkhole did its work and the opponent realised that the game might go rather long. Nowadays, I find, completely anecdotally of course, that the deck has a bit of a mystique, often comprising of cards that simply don't see play anywhere else backed up by ubiquitous discards cards like Hymn to Tourach that are also used in many unloved strategies, and thus the reception for a Pox player is far more positive than it once was, at least until you beat them .
Let us briefly introduce the types of Pox decks.....
Traditional mono-b pox
This type of deck is based on attrition, with a focus on landkill, handkill and lock pieces. It wins via nibbling away over a number of turns, looking to ultimate planeswalkers. There are a couple of these that splash a tad for Red, but the vast majority are, and always have been mono-b.
This again is normally mono-b, but is characterised by the inclusion of cards like The Rack and Bloodghast. It wins more quickly than Traditional, is much cheaper to build in terms of finance, and has less focus on landkill and lock cards and is a cousin of Modern format's "8 rack". It is less common to see this type of deck than traditional strategies, and I won't go into it in as much detail as Traditional pox, but it does pop up from time to time.
GB Loam Pox and BW Pox
The former is a Life from the Loam deck, and I won't be discussing it here. I think it deserves a Primer of its own, although if people want to talk about it in the thread, then that is welcome too. The latter is a Lingering Souls deck with Mox diamond that runs Vindicate and can end up closer to Deadguy Ale. It is a bit antiquated, although one 2018 KMC build resurrected it, but I won't be discussing it beyond this section, although I am happy for any Pox discussion to include this. I think that to include other colours would make a huge primer even more unwieldy.
Untraditional Mono-B pox
In this section we can look at mono-B control strategies that normally get reported as "Pox" but are variants, sharing much with Traditional pox but having a substantial element away from the main established strategies, such as using more Delve creatures and milling oneself with War of the Spark's Ashiok, Dream Render, or putting in a Snow theme, running the Dark Depths and Thespian's Stage combo or even focusing more on the Leyline of the Void -Helm of Obedience combo more often seen in the sideboard of Traditional pox.
Let us get the ball rolling. First up, we need to establish a core. Now a quick look through the decklists here or elsewhere will produce the observation that Pox is one of the most diverse decks of any that are out there. Asking for its core is much more challenging than for most decks, but most Pox decks follow some basic rules.......
A golden rule is that you want a minimum sixteen to seventeen of these:. This is obtained with often as little as nine and as many as twelve basics, four Urborg, Tomb and then some black utility lands listed in the core box below. The Spawning Pool is the least common, removal of graveyard or creatures afforded by Cabal Pit et al. normally being preferable to a defensive beater.
Having obtained the black mana base, then you add four wasteland and proceed to take the count up to around 25 lands plus a Maze of Ith, seemingly ubiquitous as a one of. Lands that provide colourless utility include Blast Zone, Geier Reach Sanitarium, Sea Gate Wreckage, and of course, the Mishra's Factory. Only Mishra's Factory is picked in all versions, and the only one to make our core, although the numbers can vary. The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale and the aforementioned Maze I don't ever include as mana producers, although Urborg can interact favourably with them to help them make and they can be sacrificed to Smallpox.
Next we need discard- Hymn is ubiquitous as a "4 of", although students of the deck can point to a time when its use was reduced and less favoured than Thoughtseize. The exact level of 1cc discard varies, and often depends on what else you are running; three Thoughtseize is common- it is rarely a full set. Other one cc options exist and can be seen in the options section, some decks even run Surgical Extraction main deck.
A playset of Smallpox is the card that makes the deck Pox, and deck lists that drop it are dealt with in the last section of the primer- Untraditional Pox.
Dark Ritual is nearly ubiquitous- some few brave souls go without in what are presumably very fair/very Miracles-heavy metas. More common than completely dropping Ritual is the drop to three copies, although four copies is still modal. Note that Ritual can work well with Cursed Scroll, bringing it online early, as well as working well with the sometimes-used Phyrexian Totem to allow both mana development and discard on the first turn. I personally favour running Sanitarium and Sea gate wreckage precisely because it helps with dead Ritual late game draws. Ritual in the early game can sometimes allow you to get hellbent more quickly, meaning Lilly does less self-harm than it otherwise would when ticking upwards.
After that you will need some mass anti-critter measures. I have included some in the "core section" with the caveat that you can change the core anti-creature measures about a bit- there simply is no exact recognised package, they all vary but I included them below on the understanding that some are needed and the most common ones are below in our "core".
Planeswalkers are essential.Lilliana of the veil and Liliana, the last hope are normally present as a playset and a pair, respectively, whilst Ashiok, Dream Render has not yet had time to establish itself but looks promising.
It might be pushing it to include Nether Void, Nether Spirit and Cursed Scroll as core, if you take the decklist at particular points in time, but over a longer period of time both are nearly always there in low numbers. All are unique in terms of what they do, only Trinisphere come close to Nether Void, whilst Nether Spirit is only vaguely related to the more aggressiveBlood Ghast. Scroll is unmatched for killing players, walkers and creatures.
I have not included Sinkhole, Innocent Blood, or Liliana's Triumph as core, though they are often used plenty of lists exclude them. I personally favour a principle of "you can run Smallpox and some Sinkhole, or Smallpox and some Innocent Blood, but you cannot run all of Smallpox, Innocent Blood and Sinkhole as they are too situational". Other powerful sideboard options, like Ratchet Bomb or Dystopia simply don't quite get enough use to qualify as "core".
Finally, Bitterblossom and Chains of Mephistopheles are so good that these ostensibly sideboard cards for grindy blue matches are maindeckable, and often turn up in both the maindeck and sideboard. Chains also hits any land based draw you are running as well as Sylvan Library. Bitterblossom is useful at putting pressure on against blue decks, but also is decent at making blockers for 20/20 avatars. Don't leave home without them, especially Chains. If you have not got this expensive card my advice would be to get it, because it is vital.
2-4 Mishra's Factory
Next up we need to establish the more common choices for flexi-slots. Deep breath, because there are a lot.
I have summarised them in the box below this, but want to give an explanation as to their use, found beneath that.
Blast Zone- Moderately flexible but clunky removal, hard to stop a Back to Basics, impossible to stop Blood Moon, and won't beat Chalice, Moxen or other 0 cc stuff.
Sea Gate Wreckage Brilliant card, I find this gives gas against the blue decks and is amazingly synergistic with everything bar Chains. I personally will not play Pox without one, although please don't cut coloured mana sources for it.
Geier Reach Sanitarium I first saw this get use in the KMC lists. Excellent with Nether Spirit, good for searching for answers and smoothing the deck's live draws.
Innocent Blood It used to be a staple, but it is limited as it is dead against a lot of decks.
Sinkhole Another former staple, I am happy to play a couple of copies, more in the right meta. Wrenn and Six makes it harder to justify but cards like the lands above make it less risky.
Ashiok, Dream Render Awesome new addition, making waves. Note you can mill yourself and exile enemy lands. Ritual into this can be super if they are hoping to fetch, but it does a lot, including hurt people who Brainstorm to wish to protect their hands (think about it).
Beseech The Queen Tutor, especially great if you have a toolbox of singleton lands to fetch as it effectively doubles the count of them.
Crucible of Worlds Superb card, I always play it. Wastelock is famous, but recurring Factory blockers, Blast Zone and black utility lands to kill dudes or graveyard also gives this card a lot of use. I always include one.
Trinisphere Often seen, super against storm, and combines with Nether Void to make things cost 6, effectively. Hurts blue cantrip shells and Storm style decks, but only inconveniences Elves. can be a budget Nether Void replacement, although it does not quite match exactly in what it hurts.
The Abyss Good vs most of Show and Tell and fair decks like Maverick and Nic-Fit. Note Mother of Runes and True-Name Nemesis can beat it. A good option for the main or sideboard.
Toxic Deluge Alternative sweeper- I normally split one of these with Bontu's Last Reckoning, for me this tends to be main deck over Reckoning, but opinions may vary.
Ratchet bombMain deck or side deck flexible removal, but also slightly clunky.
Phyrexian Totem Super card, I use one often. Again I first saw this used in the KMC series lists. The reason it is good is that it can run over a planeswalker, and you can discard their hand to clear it from removal before animating. Turn one ritual into this into discard and a T2 walker is pretty strong.
Liliana's Triumph A card that has often replaced Innocent Blood and Diabolic Edict. At its best it offers more than both, but honestly I actually prefer to run none of them.
Tombstalker Used to race burn from the board, and in one unconventional deck at least, it is used main deck, fed by Ashiok, Dream Render self-milling. Dark ritual feeds this in two ways, like all Delve creatures, and it can come out early and win the race.
Engineered Plague Superb against Elves, Goblins, Maverick, DnT, Merfolk, Soldier Stompy, Infect and Pyromancer decks, ok vs Eldrazi too.
Helm of Obedience Combos with Leyline for the win from the board, I have a whole Untraditional Pox style deck running these main with Karn, Leyline etc. that I have a higher win rate with than Traditional Pox.
Pithing Needle Flexible. Sorcerous Spyglass also works here, of course,
Dystopia Brilliant and often forgotten card, I don't play without them in my board. Great vs D n T, Maverick and strong vs Elves in conjunction with other stuff, and very good vs a good many BUG/RUG, Food Chain, Aluren, Infect and Nic Fit decks. The fact it checks during each upkeep is significant against D n T and its EOT Aether Vial that puts a creature into play.
Creatures (main or side)
1-2 Gurmag Angler
The Tabernacle at Pendrell ValeSuper utility vs swarms, won't kill an indestructible, but does for a lot of decks with a little help. Note some anti-synergy with Bitterblossom and the prohibitive $$price$$.
Gurmag Angler Rarely seen, I personally do not like them.
Blood Ghast Used in Rack Pox, the odd Traditional Pox list runs these too, though I find them to be not as effective.
Nevrinyrral's disk board wipe that ignores our Planeswalkers.
Ob Nixilis, Reignited A wincon. I personally don't think we can support this, at least my style doesn't. Smallpox gets worse when protecting cards in hand. If you do not run Smallpox then I can get behind it.
Spinning Darkness This was better in the days we could play top- removal from the Top of the library when tapped out. Life was useful vs. many decks, and it made Innocent Blood better.
Night of Soul's Betrayal Superb card, 4cc is a lot though. I prefer Engineered Plague x2, but I run them in my Untraditional Smallpox-less Helm-Pox list. Note the anti-synergy with Bitterblossom.
Surgical extraction and Extirpate. A sort of hedge-your bets card. Very good vs Show and Tell or Depths/Lands decks, OK at best vs bin heavy strategies, good sometimes vs greedy manabases or at key times vs Snappy, it can also work against enemy Extractions at a push.
Inquisition of Kozilek A step up from duress, I don't like it in most metas.
Collective Brutality Flexibility personified, always useful, never spectacular.
Chalice of the Void All star of the format, but our curve says no. Pox needs a radical adjustment to be able to play this card, but it can be seen in some lists.
Phyrexian Obliterator Primarily this is anti-red tech, and for those games where you took 40 minutes to lose G1 and need some threats..
Gloom. Actually remarkably powerful vs D N T, Maverick and especially Miracles. All their removal and creatures bar Snappy are white, and all of our problem cards are permanents- Chains, Trinisphere, Nether Void, Planeswalkers, Factories etc. It can be backbreaking, and I am highlighting this one as I actually think it should get more consideration in Pox, even if Dystopia is wider ranging, this does a different job.
Dread of Night Used for D N T, Soldier stompy, Maverick. I actually am not a huge fan in Pox.
Damping Sphere It is theoretically fine vs Sol land 12 post decks, but its primary use is anti combo. 12 post also runs artifact mana, as does MUD.
Zuran orb Anti-burn and UR and RUG Delver, very good vs Burn as it negates Price of Progress. Also sometimes good for getting above 20 life vs Lands decks after the EOT 20/20 has swung, enabling Lilly or sorcery speed removal to kill a 20/20 every now and then.
Syphon life A bad card for my money, but against tempo strategies it is never dead
Contagion The ultimate "meh" card IMHO, neither this nor Force of despair impress me enough.
Underworld Dreams A budget alternative to Chains, sort of punishing the cantrip engine and any other draw engine.
Lost Legacy Good vs decks like Food Chain, Aluren and Show and Tell that rely on a specific card.
In no particular order......
Trinisphere, Nether Void are super when combined with a strong discard package and Leylines from the board. Don't forget that Storm runs goblins tokens as well as tendrils too, so if there are some weak cards Engineered Plague and Tabernacle are worth bringing in.
This type of deck is pretty rare, so rare that I almost included it in the last section, but as it is a good budget option (you could probably get away without Chains at least) and easy to play I gave it a small section of its own. Establishing a core is a pretty questionable thing to do when deck lists are so rare. The idea is to win more quickly via The Rack and Shrieking affliction, and sometimes to often some number of Bloodghast. A creature heavy sideboard is likely too- Tombstalker, Obliterator et al. The deck mimics 8-rack from Modern, but with better discard. The point is to win quickly, so basically more damage-based cards are included. The land count is often a tiny bit lower than regular Pox, and long game cards don't get included as much. This is probably the only Pox deck where you could justify an actual daddy Pox. The core is actually pretty small, reflecting the large degree of variation in the few lists.
0-4 Mishra's factory
1-2 Funeral Charm
1-2 Raven's Crime
0-4 Davriel, Roge shadowmage
2-4 Inquisition of Kozilek
0-2 Liliana, the last hope
0-4 Innocent Blood (or similar removal)
I have chosen only two lists, to reflect the paucity of lists following this strategy c.f. regular Pox.
Full disclosure, I am not hugely experienced in Rack Pox. I have played it a couple of times in five years, so what you are going to get from me is very much broad brushstrokes rather than minutiae. Rack Pox is more aggressive than its cousin, but the basics of the match-ups are similar to regular Pox, with some tweaks. firstly you can often race Burn, UR Delver etc.. especially with a bit of game two Zuran Orb-ing, and the Dragon Stompy/Stax match up is a bit better. The deck is also more consistent and mulligans less.
If the game goes long against most UW-x, Grxis, 4 c and similar opponents you are more likely to be toast as the deck is less grindy than regular Pox, but there is still a strong disruption engine for most of these decks and a clock that is hard for them to control. You basically get a bit weaker to fast Storm combo without cards like Trinisphere and Nether Void, Reanimator and Show and Tell are equally challenging as they are in regular Pox, but against the blue based decks you are only a little shy in terms of win rate. D n T, and especially Elves are harder when trying to do damage based on hand size. If that sounds like you lose more than you gain then I think you probably do, although budget Rack Pox is miles better than budget versions of Traditional Pox. You could, for example, try to play Rack Pox without Chains, and even though it is clear that ideally you would have them, the result is not horrible. Budget versions of Traditional Pox suffer more as many of the expensive cards are hard to replace and the game goes long so you will see your inferior replacements.
Infect and most of the other unlisted decks don't change much between the versions, Goblins is still hard, for example.
Another way is to increase the number of creatures- check out the Snow Themed deck in the deck lists. More creatures, more sweepers, no Smallpox but all the other usual suspects. Not quite "The Gate" deck- way too much control for that- but not quite a regular Pox either.
Most of the unusual Pox lists over the years that do well whilst deviating from the norm seem to be trying to win more quickly, turning draws into results and also restricting the ability of answer based decks to tap out without appropriate measures in hand, whilst increasing the threat density. With five minutes left against a lands or depths player there can normally only be one winner, but with a combo element the game takes a different complexion. You also get to put people off balance- I have won matches with Leyline/Helm main simply by dropping the Leyline against reanimator, traditionally the worst match-up game 1.
I enjoy a few free wins every now and then!
Next we have Depths-Pox. All the usual suspects are present, but we get to see a 20/20 on the Pox side of the table for once.
This was 2 from 26 players. Note the high land count, presence of Hexmage- both due to Depths of course, and slightly lower count in the usual suspects and increased Crucible count to back up the Depths. Again, I imagine this wins more quickly than regular version.
Finally my own little contribution. Helm Pox. Yes, main deck Leyline combo gives better game ones vs some of our nemesis decks, and can really tilt. I have been on this for a year. My last 20 player FNM I won with this beating Miracles, D n T, Death's Shadow and UR delver/arcanist, the previous two times I have played it I top 8'd with 20+ players in the room, losing once. My last comp REL with it was 2018, where I top 4 prize split from a just under 30 player event for a £90 prize. I have now added Karn, TGC which seems to have pushed it on results-wise- my first even post Karn was an event win 4-0 from 21 players.. Note the absence of Smallpox, which is not conducive to casting 4cc game ending spells, and that the Night of Soul's Betrayal sometimes gets swapped to The Abyss. Tabernacle is not as good without heavy mana restriction, and this only has Wasteland and recursion via Crucible, so it does not make it, although I run it if I ever run regular Pox.
I do feel Pox has a future - there are lots of enthusiasts and the deck can be personalised to suit different approaches and play styles. There is a brewers' paradise out there in mono-b alone, and its strength lies in the variety of lists that we see- not a homogenised lump, but a veritable haven of innovation. Finally, it is a home to a style of MTG yesteryear, and as such deserves respect. One day MTG may only be snazzy graphics, creatures and the like. But not here, not when we can control, brew, and grind, and even if we never see the look of horror on someones' face when they realise they have to do Pox maths, we still get to see the puzzled reaction to Chains, Tabernacle et al. Happy Poxing.