Welcome to the Stax primer. Here we will look at Stax strategies in Legacy, starting with answering the question "what is a Stax deck" and pointing out the similarities with other strategies which are not Stax decks.
What is Stax- a history lesson
First up, Stax does not refer to the Smokestack card on the title page, but it has become synonymous with the strategy. For those interested, Stax originally came from the acronym "$T4KS", shorthand for the "four thousand dollar solution". Originally the deck was mono-w, and spawned a variety of deck names depending on the variant, for example "Armageddon Stax". That was over a decade ago, and the name has morphed into something else- the name given to prison decks that operate recursive locks and in particular attack the opponents' mana base.
Today Stax to most people just means a prison deck with recursive locks and probably including some number of Smokestacks. Decks that operate an aggressive set of creatures and a few lockout pieces are more accurately described as "stompy", although they are sometimes reported as "Stax". So if you see "Angel Stax", it is probably "Angel Stompy ". Other strategies, of course, use a lot of the same lockout pieces, which can lead to confusion in naming. MUD, for example is the deck that runs many of the same cards as Stax, but it can generate vast amounts of mana and drop 7 mana artifacts from nowhere whilst combo-ing, something Stax does not do. What is in a name? That which we call a rose and all that, but we will be concentrating on Stax rather than Soldier Stompy, Angel Stompy 12 Post, Eldrazi aggro or MUD.
Well, this is a great question. Firstly, there is a new guy in town, a massive upgrade on all non blue decks.
Mycosynth Lattice. Incidentally, anyone looking to pop artifacts like Lotus Petal or Lion's Eye Diamond on their way to storm or whatever combo is not going to be happy if you can drop this early along with another hate piece.
Of course, he goes in practically any deck with sol lands, so it is reasonable to ask "why play Stax over X sol land deck?". Well, partly this is down to taste- Stax runs long, a disadvantage in terms of draws and the ability to scout, but also more of a game. On a more practical level Stax has many more lock pieces than other sol land decks decks, leading to games where opponents get to literally play 0-2 spells. If the opponents cannot cast anything, they cannot win, at least most of the time- this is Legacy after all. Many decks get "free wins" and this one gets more than its fair share.
Another point is the the London mulligan has benefited the deck tremendously, giving a much needed boost, and a bigger boost than that afforded to Burn, Miracles et al.. Move over blue decks, consistency has to be shared around a bit more now.
Finally, Stax represents old school MTG. In the days when the stack mattered, and Planeswalkers did not exist, creatures were mediocrem, and not everything was about turning creatures sideways every sodding game, Stax and other Prison strategies were seen as a reasonable way to play. Nowadays MTG is more about Johnny Newbie getting to cast his or her monsters and nobody is able to say "no" effectively- counters are expensive and landkill neutered, but Stax takes us back to the old days, and most people playing Legacy will appreciate the fuller range of styles afforded by Legacy. When everything is broken, nothing is.
Cost Increasing cards:
The core is exactly as above- the anti creature measures being limited to Ensnaring Bridge, most likely with 3 main and one for the Karn board, Ratchet Bomband The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale as above, normally 1-2 copies over the 75 plus.....
The Tangle Wire hurts mana and creatures and works asymmetrically, because you control the order of the triggers you can fade, and then tap on your turn, and because you have lots of things to tap, not least the Tangle Wire itself, you end up tapping 6 permanents over 3 turns (including the Tangle Wire 3 times) to the enemy ten permanents over 4. This then is a flexible card, locking up mana and/or creatures.
Note also that Smokestack also has two triggers- you can sac first or put a counter on, and in your opponents upkeep your stuff will resolve first, meaning you can Port them after they have sacrificed stuff. Always remember that you control the triggers when you have both Smokestack and Tangle wire- they should sacrifice first, and then tap, not the other way round as they are controlled by you and you stack the order of the triggers. Also remember that you can sacrifice Tangle wires on 0 to Smokestack, and if needed, Smokestack to itself.
One other land is also core for mono B, as a 1-2 copies rather than 3-4 as above. This gains life and tutors, which is a lot of flexibility, and can be replayed from the bin for repeated card advantage and tutoring. Shame it is Legendary but hey-ho. It is of course....
Other than that you are a Karn TGC deck. Wins happen via several ways such as Wastleand/Ghost Quarter-crucible ("Wastelock") and Smokestack reducing enemy permanents to zero and locking them out under a smokestack forever set to one (and fed by God's Eye, gate to the Reiki or similar or Drownyard Temple) and a mana-increaser to make playing 1cc spells impossible. This normally produces a concession. A second method is Karn/Lattice- which also normally produces a concession if creatures are under control. A third method is man land, token or Lodestone Golem damage, Remember that Karn can animate artifacts too, making some 3/3 Tangle wire etc. to smash face.
A Karn TCG main package means the usual sideboard suspects- I would expect Zuran Orb, Mycosynth Lattice Spellskite, graveyard hate Tormod's crypt being preferred over better cards like Grafdiggers' Cage that interact badly with Chalice on one. Also in the board I would expect to find redundant copies of Crucible, Smokestack, etc.
Karakas in the board is good for Legendary creatures, Maze of Ith is good for anything short of True Name or Emmy (you can't afford the 6 permanents normally). You can go to extra Tabernacles, of course. After that Drownyard is a good way of feeding a Smokestack without a Crucible, and the two lands listed with death triggers make 1/1 colorless spirits that can block almost anything on the ground, or 2/2 Zombies that block anything the spirits can without protect pro from Black. This interaction is good as it allows feeding of Smokestack with a land replayed via Crucible whilst building a small army or a repeated blocker. Radiant Fountain can allow for extra life, and when recast via Crucible can repeatedly gain life in the right situation, but like other colourless lands probably is not worth it. Other cards listed for the Karn wish board- Duplicant, Null Broach, Meekstone come with little endorsement from me, but they have been seen in odd lists.
Gemstone Caverns is just an acceleration card for Trinisphere versions, whilst I always endorse host Quarter and Ballista as a search target. Thought-knot is another way of disrupting whilst making a decent blocker.
Here is Charlie in the Mox's list- note it runs the Sphere of Resistance over the Trinisphere, and thus does not run Serum Powder
Here is my list as of 2019. I have done two twenty plus player events in paper MTG with this list post Karn TGC, coming 2nd and 3rd. Again it is a Sphere of resistance build with no Serum Powders, note the Drownyard temple which does not cause City of Traitors to trigger if you activate its ability. I am tempted to add in a second Tabernacle over the Smokestack in the board.
Mono W has been less prevalent, primarily for the reason that it has been less consistent than the brown version with the extra offered for the inclusion of additional colour being more than offset by the extra mulliagans.
Now, of course, we have Karn and the London mulligan, so that really changes mono W.
White offers some notable main deck core options on top of the brown Stax core cards listed earlier. Firstly.....
The former help control decks like Dredge.
White also has some powerful anti creature options to power into for Show and Tell, Elves etc. One that would always make the 75 is
White also offers a range of sideboard options. I guess all of them would be called "flexi-slots", so we will deal with them there.
2-3 Flagstones of Trokair
3-4 Mox Diamond
2-4 Karn, The Great Creator
1-2 Ravages of War
First up- how does mono W compare?
Simply put Mono-W is a less reliable deck than mono-Brown. It has a better defense against small and large creatures, and it is has pinpoint removal plus mass land destruction, and, in the right build, Supression Field taxing. Generally what is available to mono-B is also available to white. For example. whereas mono-Brown has just Bridge, Maze, Tangle Wire and Tabernacle, White has all that and adds flexible removal, Ghostly Prison etc. It is a more expensive deck in terms of casting costs, more vulnerable to Gaddock Teeg but it has better sideboard slots and thus games such as Storm decks can be much easier, meaning you can tune it to a particular meta more easily.
Mono-brown is for me the better deck, but Post London it is much closer than it was.
Full disclosure- I own both mono -W and Mono-Brown Stax, the former in foil apart from the Reserved List cards. This fact is not me boasting it is actually rather relevant as it tells you that I am unlikely to be taking mono-W Stax to an REL comp event. In the past five years I have played the deck in many iterations and the more like mono-Brown the deck looks the better it is in terms of consistency, and probably, results. When I have done well with mono-W tends to be when the meta is very unfair- Storm, Show and Tell etc or when it is very fair- that is because the deck can be tuned towards beating either-or but dealing with both is often a challenge, and requires a lot of 2-1/1-2 matches to go your way. With Karn we get more flexibility as per mono B, and that is what mono W desperately needed, meaning that the card is probably a bigger upgrade for mono W than mono Brown. The gap has never been as close between the two decks in terms of performance, and whilst for many people a long, prison deck means fewer meals and more time in the seat, both decks offer quicker lockouts than ever, even if Dragon Stompy or other Karn decks are more popular.
The list of flexibles below assumes a Karn GTC build and all the Stax core and mono W core cards that are listed above. If you want to build Moat/Humility stax then some of the cards will transfer across, but not all and you will need a bit more white. The list is NOT exhaustive. Note Trading Post can make 0/1 Goats that can become 1/1s with Humility! I expect one Humility main as core, but have put another as flexible in the sideboard.
Geier Reach Sanitarium
2-3 Mishras' factory
1-2 Maze of Ith [/card]
Here is my own take with Karn GTC package. There are two slots I alter according to field, namely Cast Out main and Humility in the board. The cards that have taken their place are Magus of the Tabernacle, Rule of Law and Elspeth, Knight Errant.
The match ups do change from mono B, but are similar.... The key differences are as follows
- - White has Ghostly Prison/Geddon, making the D N T, Maverick and Dredge matches very different, perhaps generally easier, and this is also true of especially the Dragon Stompy match (although it is still not favoured).
- 'Geddon on its own is a great card against control decks enabling them to be pulled back, although they have to counter less as cards like Ghostly Prison do little against them and thus the matches are slightly harder if anything.
- Humility makes the deck better at riding Show and Tells and is a great card vs Elves, Goblins, two challenging matches, as well as D n T (although watch out for equipment), Maverick etc.
- Leyline in the board makes the hands much better against discard, and Burn, which becomes very favourable.
- The deck has more situational cards with high ceilings and low floors- one reason Geier Reach Sanitarium is a favourite of mine.
- Walking Ballista is much better/more needed in mono W Stax as a kill card as the game is less likely to be ended by Karn into lattice due to the lower Bridge count and Ghostly Prison not protecting Karn, TGC.
Mono Green Stax is a relative of a deck once called Trini-Choke or Viridi Stax. The idea was that Trinisphere plus main deck Choke was a bit of a powerhouse in a blue dominated field. Green offers a number of grindy creatures into a Chalice/Trinisphere core. Obviously if the number of blue cards dropped Choke became worse. Over the years a lot of takes on Green stax lists have happened- I have played some myself, from ones with unusual cards like Freyalise' winds and Static Orb and, of course, the Chalice/Trinisphere package to more conventional ones. The attraction of green is threefold.
Firstly it offers a mid-range package of creatures if the lock does not work. This might include Tireless Tracker, for example, or Rumunap Excavator over or in addition to Crucible of words.
Secondly it offers a creature that recurs Wastelands and makes 5/3s...... Sylvan Library.
I don't really think it is possible to put a core/flexi-slot together for this deck as they are rarer than mono W even, whilst a match-up guide would be futile. If you play the deck yourself and wish to contribute to the primer, PM me.
I do think that in future we will see more of this type of deck as creatures get better at locking people out, meaning less need to gamble on maindeck Choke or whatever. The next Titania could be lurking in a commander product near you.