So the last time I wrote an article about porting a Vintage deck to Standard, I got quite a lot of positive feedback. With all of that, it inspired me to write this article on another potentially viable port: Stax.
For anyone who has been living underneath a rock, Stax (and its associated variants) has been one of the most prevalent archetypes in Vintage since the rise and fall of Gro-A-Tog. Fueled by Mishra’s Workshop, it drops powerful prison elements such as Trinisphere and Crucible of Worlds. The basic objective is to incapacitate an opponent from ever casting spells again.
In case you weren’t paying scrupulous attention (like you ought to – naughty reader!), those aforementioned lock components are actually legal in Standard. While the infrastructure that uses these cards is not available in Type Two (e.g. Workshop and Wasteland), Standard actually contains a wealth of disruptive artifacts and prison cards disbursed throughout the past two cycles and even in 8th Edition. Here’s a peak at what’s available:
Chalice of the Void, Culling Scales, Damping Matrix, Defense Grid, Disrupting Scepter, Engineered Explosives, Ensnaring Bridge, Eon Hub, Imi Statue, Mindslaver, Orb of Dreams, Possessed Portal, Quicksilver Fountain, Trinisphere, Uba Mask, Vedalken Shackles, Silent Arbiter, Icy Manipulator, Relic Barrier, Ghostly Prison, Sundering Titan and Hokori, Dust Drinker.
The last two listed have already seen play in T&N and WW decks everywhere. (I’ve left off Crucible since it has no prison value without Wasteland or Strip Mine.) Some of those are extremely narrow (Imi Statue), but nonetheless do something prison-like.
Conclusion number one: Perhaps Wizards is trying to produce a viable prison deck in Standard, and it should be investigated. Orb of Dreams and Hokori in the same set seem to indicate some sort of a message, if I do say so myself.
While many of those cards are playable, the deck doesn’t exactly build itself. I decided the best strategy would be to start by picking a single, potent lock piece and build around it. Sundering Titan and Hokori were clearly the place to begin, since they had both proven themselves as contenders in the Standard metagame.
I quickly dismissed Sundering Titan as a starting point for a Stax deck. That would lead down a road that would probably come closer to modern Tooth and Nail, Proteus Staff, Through the Breach/Trash for Treasure and Reanimator decks. That doesn’t really capture the essence of Stax, and although the Titan could certainly be used, I didn’t want to start my deckbuilding strategy by overfocusing on HiVal’s Most Hated Card Art of All Time.
So at first, I tested the obvious combination of Hokori and Orb of Dreams, reminiscent of the old Kismet/Winter Orb lock. However, I soon learned that this was nowhere close in viability. While the original Winter Orb could be turned off when tapped, Hokori remained active regardless of his board angle. That was fairly inconsequential, as the real problem was Orb of Dreams. Unlike Kismet, Orb of Dreams is symmetrical. Any deck relying on Hokori wanted to be drop lands steadily in order to shore up mana deficiencies cause by the Dust Drinker. With a Dream Orb out, it was impossible for you to really get ahead in mana development.
With that idea scrapped, I looked towards other ideas. I had started by looking at Hokori, so I continued down that development path. Crystal Shard immediately popped up as a possible idea: Play Hokori, bounce him at the end of your opponent’s turn or whenever you need to protect him. Furthermore, Crystal Shard had an affect similar to Sphere of Resistance: Opponents needed one to two extra mana available whenever playing creatures, or otherwise you would just bounce their creature. With Hokori in play, paying the one extra mana to counter Shard activations meant they would be sacrificing an entire turn’s worth of development. The effect was powerful.
This proved to be a good plan – a small portion of the time. It was fabulous against aggro. The problem was that it just wasn’t good enough against everything. It looked awesome on paper – protect him, bounce stuff, mana denial, board control, yada yada yada. But I couldn’t get it to execute. Opponents would just play around it, steal Hokori with Shackles every turn (forcing me to either bounce it, removing him from play, or otherwise get killed by my own dude), or just forego playing creatures all together and focusing on hitting me with cheap burn, discard, draw, or bounce. While Crystal Shard seemed to be amazing in theory, it was less than stellar in reality.
What I learned, though, was that cards needed to be more robust. Crystal Shard was disappointing because it didn’t really meet the needs of the deck: denying an opponent the opportunity to use his or her mana resources. Ultimately, it was Hokori who was doing the denial, the Shard could be ignored. Thankfully, my playtesting experience was not done in vain since it gave me a new direction to take the deck.
Conclusion Number Two: Cards needed to be good locking mechanisms on their own in order to make the cut.
Scrapping the Hokori plan for the time being (simply to explore other options), I decided to try putting together a deck that had the closest analogue to its Vintage cousin. So I started by blindly building a deck with the following cards:
4 Culling Scales (Closest analogue for Smokestack)
4 Icy Manipulator (Closest analogue for Tangle Wire)
4 Vedalken Engineer (Closest analogue for Mishra’s Workshop)
That’s right – I just made a 40-card deck; simply to see if I could build a lock. I played it against a bunch of random WW decks, Sligh decks, MUC decks, MBC, T&N, whatever I could find.
A side note: the 40-card deck is a great exercise for building certain types of decks, because not only does it force you to build the most cohesive core possible, with less “filler”; but it also lets you test out your idea in an isolated fashion. It doesn’t always work, but it sometimes helps establish whether or not the “right set of cards” will actually make your deck work. It also forces you to rely less on individual interactions between “spare” cards and focus on the aim and purpose of the deck.
The first glaring problem, which I predicted would be an issue but wanted to confirm, was that Culling Scales and Chalice of the Void do not play nice together. Unless an opponent had a Chrome Mox on the table, Chalice was the first to get Culled away. The Chalices had proved to be more valuable than the Scales, so I dismissed the Scales entirely. That would be a big improvement, but I knew it needed more.
The deck needed more acceleration. It needed to be able to drop its lock pieces consistently and quickly. In particular, Icy Manipulator was difficult to initially use – it required five mana just to get one tap out of that; a lot more tempo busting than the “Workshop for Tangle Wire” experience you get in Vintage. Without Mishra’s Workshop, it would be difficult to get a quick lock on an opponent…
…Until Betrayers of Kamigawa. You see, one tiny little creature changed everything: Teardrop Kami. I know, I know, you think I’m crazy. So does everybody else. But when you combine him with Vedalken Engineer, you can get some pretty insane results. Kamis are not totally useless without Engineers, either. They can be used to tap Birds of Paradise or Vine Trellis for a turn, or simply delay an attacker. I took out the Culling Scales for Teardrop Kamis in my 40-card test deck, and here was a not-uncommon opening:
Turn 1: Island; Teardrop Kami
Turn 2: Island; Vedalken Engineer
Turn 3: Island; Tap lands for Trinisphere, Tap Engineer, sac Kami to untap Engineer and tap again for Icy Manipulator.
Turn 4: Island; Icy Manipulator; tap Engineer to activate both Manipulators during your opponent’s upkeep.
Now that was prison. In order to play even a one-mana spell, opponents would need five mana sources. Alternatively, I could easily power out sizable Chalices early on; with the ability to generate six mana by turn 3, it wasn’t hard to put out Chalices for 1 and 2 or even a Chalice for 3. And unlike Crystal Shard, Icys were definitive; meaning they could be used to tap down creatures or lands unconditionally. (I should note that in a 60-card deck, blazing fast hands like this are not nearly as common. Nonetheless, the Kami/Engineer combo is still worthwhile.)
True, they could eventually draw into enough land, but if we could add a few more stranglehold pieces, we could keep them from ever getting there. I needed to find more prison elements to supplement my initial base, especially since at some point we were going to need to play with actual 60-card decks.
There were four other resource-denial cards available worth looking at: Possessed Portal, Quicksilver Fountain, Mindslaver and Uba Mask. Mindslaver would be fabulous, but its effect wasn’t permanent, so I put it aside. It might be good as an addition to the locking systems, but not part of the core.
Possessed Portal was the critical effect I needed: prevent an opponent from drawing into a disenchant effect, and force permanents to start disappearing. Even though Possessed Portal was Chains of Mephistopheles and Smokestack rolled into one, at eight mana it wasn’t going to hit play early enough to prevent an opponent from developing without some major accelaration and then a way to keep it going (since unlike Smokestack, you can’t just play out more permanents to get ahead). In theory, a pair of Myr Servitors or Myr Retrievers could be used to keep the effect going indefinitely. With Talismans and Krark-Clan Ironworks, it shouldn’t be too hard to build up the mana necessary to get it into play and keep it going, possibly under protection of a Welding Jar.
Temporarily ignoring my second conclusion, I went back to the following 40-card test deck to see if it was even remotely feasible:
4 Possessed Portal
4 Myr Retriever
4 Myr Servitor
4 Vedalken Engineer
4 Krark-Clan Ironworks
4 Talisman of Progress
Here’s what happened every now and then:
Turn 1: Island; Servitor #1
Turn 2: Island; Engineer
Turn 3: Talisman, Servitor #2
Turn 4: Island; tap all but Engineer for KCI, sack Talisman, one Servitor, and KCI for 6 mana, tap Engineer for Portal.
Not every hand worked out that way, but it was pretty good nonetheless. It seemed somewhat promising, so I started looking at 60 card builds, but it soon turned sour. Brief playtesting results indicated that even when I could get an early lock using other cards, the Voodoo Gate just wasn’t wieldy. Even with Krark-Clan Ironworks, Engineers, and Talismans, I couldn’t reliably build the mana necessary to play it often enough to make it matter. I tried removing the Myr recursion for Seething Song and Desperate Ritual, but it just wasn’t worth it.
In order to get the deck to work, I had to basically pull out all of the other lock components and go for a combo-like finish, setting up a KCI to power out the Portal with the proper Myr configuration. Basically, I had gone from a bad Stax deck into an even worse KCI deck.
Conclusion Number Three: measured consistency (using multiple lock parts) was better than setting up for an all-or-nothing play (Possessed Portal), even if the all-or-nothing play was a much more powerful effect.
So as disappointed as I was, I dropped the Possessed Portal plan, although if anyone figures out how to make it work, I would love to hear their suggestions. Getting Possessed Portal into play along with Trinisphere, Icy Manipulator, and Chalice at 2 basically means you win if you have more permanents and cards in hand then they do, and if you can find some way to keep sacrifice fodder for the Portal a la Servitors or Retrievers or whatever, then you win.
The process did lead me to experiment with the idea of keeping KCI in the deck for a bit, but in the end, the Talismans proved to be the mana generation effect I wanted. KCI, at four mana, costs more than most of the prison spells I wanted to cast. Less notable, I experimented with Silver Myr instead (which could be untapped by the Kami’s ability), but the Myr’s summoning sickness was extremely irritating, so I kept the Talismans.
Moving on down the list, I looked at Quicksilver Fountain. It wouldn’t bother our deck that much, but could color screw opponents, especially ones with few lands. Sligh decks, for example, might have only two lands in play. That means that during each of their turns, either one or both of their lands be Islands. WW in particular had heavy color requirements, as their Samurais of the Pale Curtain, Glorious Anthems, Auriok Champions and Leonin Skyhunters all required two White mana. In conjunction with Icy Manipulator, colorscrewing an opponent was quite easy.
But, as I suspected, playtesting would reveal it didn’t matter. Against T&N and other control decks with a lot of mana, the Fountain was easy to work around. Against MUC, it was worthless. Against aggro and aggro control decks (which tended to have less land in play) Trinisphere did almost everything that the Quicksilver could do. Leonin Skyhunter was uncastable regardless of color when I had Trinisphere and Icy in play, since WW tended not to get more than three land in play before I could establish a lock. Sligh didn’t care since Trinisphere doomed them. At best, the Fountain was a decent sideboard card for adding redundancy to the deck, albeit bad redundancy. I suspect that Quicksilver Fountain might actually be a good sideboard card for decks running Aether Vial/Chisei, Heart of Oceans – especially against WW and Sligh; but not in this deck.
My hopes were left in Uba Mask. If players draw cards under Uba Mask but cannot play them that turn, then they disappear forever. (A side benefit is that it makes it much harder for them to cast spells during your turn.) With a lock in play, it could force opponents to go into topdeck mode, since they would not be able to accumulate resources in their hands. It would also have powerful synergy with Ensnaring Bridge, as once your hand runs out, the Mask will never replenish it.
Experimentation led me to my first problem: I couldn’t actually win. With Ensnaring Bridge in play, I couldn’t attack with my stolen creatures, Engineers or Kamis (a tenable win condition when you have your opponent locked up for the next forty turns), and Uba Mask would prevent decking. Most of my opponents would previously scoop when they saw they were locked, but not when I had the Mask and Bridge in play. I wasn’t expecting that, and I actually had to draw a couple of times against different people. The only option was to include some other way to deal damage; or run Darksteel Reactor. The Reactor seemed like the most plausible method, so I included a couple of copies, but then I would just get hit by Cranial Extraction. It was also did nothing else for the deck; it added no lockdown or utility at all.
Mark Gottlieb once suggested the use of Vedalken Mastermind with Uba Mask; which would prevent an opponent from ever seeing his or her cards again. After they draw, bounce the Mask; making the RFG-cards inaccessible. I tried that, but the lock costs five mana each turn – mana you can’t use to tap down their lands with Icy Manipulator or use to cast more lock components. Every deck also runs some sort of cheap removal or bounce, so it wasn’t hard for opponents to draw into an instant that broke up the lock, whether it was Naturalize for the Mask or Magma Jet for the Mastermind. It worked often enough that it was okay, but not often enough to compete.
On its own, Uba Mask was not particularly exciting. By the end of testing, it was clear: Uba Mask had a similar problem as Crystal Shard – by itself, it did very little to control the game state. Yes, it was disruptive, particularly against control – but it did little to further the deck’s aims and intentions against most decks. I honestly do think that the power of the Mask could be harnessed to make a viable deck – Burning Bridges would find the Ensnaring Bridge/Uba Mask combo really solid – but that wasn’t where I wanted to take the deck I’m currently discussing.
(My fourth conclusion was rather interesting: sometimes, when you build a deck, you discover a much better one waiting in the wings. While I’m not interested in Burning Bridges right now, perhaps I’ll go back and look into working on that later.)
Now that I had a firm idea of what I was looking for, I decided to revisit Hokori. His effect was just too powerful to dismiss, and I wasn’t able to find anything else that showed as much promise. With a refined strategy and a better understanding of what I needed to do, I merged the artifact lock spells with Hokori to create a new deck. While that may be obvious to you, it wasn’t necessarily obvious to me – probably because I was still trying to get a grip on why the “separated plans” didn’t work. After some tinkering and added creature control (in the form of Vedalken Shackles), this is what I came up with:
4 Teardrop Kami
4 Vedalken Engineer
4 Hokori, Dust Drinker
4 Chalice of the Void
4 Icy Manipulator
4 Vedalken Shackles
4 Thirst for Knowledge
4 Talisman of Progress
4 Tendo Ice Bridge
4 Defense Grid
4 Spiketail Hatchling
4 Engineered Explosives
3 Silent Arbiter
I’m not really 100% sure about the sideboard. I know I want the Defense Grids against Mono-Blue Control, but I don’t know that the rest is so easy to determine. Silent Arbiter could very well be Ghostly Prison, but the Arbiter is often easier to cast due to the fact that Engineers still untap under a Hokori. I also think that the Spiketail Hatchlings might want to be Lightning Greaves, since burning out Engineers or Dust Drinkers can sometimes really throw you in a hole. I learned about the Hatchlings from playing against T2 Phish; they ultimately force opponents to pay one more mana. I think that effect is great in Phish, but I’m not sure the ability is so great in Stax. I generally side out Chalices for them when I play against control decks, but it depends on the matchup. Ideas and opinions are welcome in the forums if you’ve got something you think would be good to share.
Engineered Explosives seemed a better fit in the sideboard than Echoing Truth, since it’s easy to boost with Ice Bridges (which aren’t bad, since we run so many artifacts). Culling Scales, although dismissed earlier, may have a slot in the sideboard as well, but I don’t know that we can get around its interaction with Chalices. Perhaps they would be best against quick aggro decks, as it would be hard for many aggro decks to race multiple Culling Scales. Most importantly, both the Explosives and the Scales deal with opposing Aether Vials, a huge problem for this deck. Explosives will most often be set at one so they don’t generally interfere with the rest of the deck, but setting them at two can be painful: you’ll kill your own Engineers and Talismans, which let you operate underneath Hokori. Using them to kill Moxen isn’t great either, since you’ll blow out your Chalices. Perhaps, though, it would be best to use both in the board; dropping the Hatchlings for Scales. I’m not sure what the right call is here, so let me know.
Reverting back to discussion about the maindeck selection, the most important aspect of the deck is the emphasis on resource denial. You can take their creatures, you can deny them spells at certain casting cost slots, but most importantly, Hokori and Trinisphere together provide the disruption density necessary to make the deck work. Getting both in play made it difficult for opponents to work around the Winter Orb effect, which many decks can do since they run Chrome Mox. (Running it in our deck isn’t feasible since we only have 12 colored spells.)
The virtues of Thirst for Knowledge have been extolled many times before, but I will do so here again anyway. Thirst for Knowledge is exceptional in this deck – you will often have unnecessary Chalices or Trinispheres in your hand and thus it gives you an opportunity to replace them with better cards.
Onto the matchups – first we’ll address aggro, then aggro-control, then combo, and then finally control. Aggro decks (including anything running Aether Vial) are harder. Control decks are where you tend to shine – they require their mana much more than other decks do, so you should be able to defeat them.
I should note something interesting – with my “final” list, I decided that for my “matchups” section of this article, I would back up my findings differently than usual – so I headed up to the Neutral Ground for a day to try and play against total strangers, in an effort to provide more objective information. The results were somewhat surprising, but also not. (You’ll see what I mean.) I did not get the chance to play an exhaustive battery of tests against each deck, but I sought out all different kinds of decks and have a brief (although certainly not conclusive) list of matchups and their summaries of how I felt the matches played out.
Enough talk – onwards:
Sligh & WW
Slightly less than even to favorable, depending on their build.
If the opposing deck is really fast, it might beat you soundly. Trinisphere is a great card to slow them down (and shut off Shining Shoal), but it does little against Aether Vial. Chalice of the Void at 1 and 2 hurt them quite a lot (unless, of course, they have Aether Vial), and Shackles, is, well, Shackles. Your worst threat is (clearly) Aether Vial, everything else you can deal with. Arbiters (or Ghostly Prison) will help, but prepare for them to bring in Terashi’s Grasp and Shatter, Detonate, or Echoing Ruin. Scales would probably be better in this matchup than Chalice.
As usual, Troll Ascetic is a huge problem. They also often have maindeck artifact removal in the form of Viridian Zealot and (sometimes) Glissa Sunseeker. After sideboarding, they can bring in even more removal, ranging from Oxidize to Naturalize to Viridian Shaman. I even got hit by Creeping Mold a couple of times. They also have plenty of ways to generate extra mana. Silent Arbiter is your friend – with him and Vedalken Shackles, you can basically shut off an attack phase that doesn’t involve a charging troll. He can also block the Ascetic unless it’s equipped. Protecting the Arbiter, however, will be much harder. The builds that play Blasting Station, though, will probably be unbeatable.
Slightly less than even to favorable
Aether Vial is again the card to watch out for, but they hate Shackles. They loathe it. You should be able to address all non-Vial elements of this deck with relative ease – Icy Manipulators will dominate the board, a Chalice at 2 should hurt them heavily, and Trinisphere prevents all sorts of Horobi-Whisper-splicing-onto-free-Sickening-Shoal nonsense. Unlike the other aggro decks, mono-Black will have a hard time dealing with Shackles other than Lightning Greaves and ugly targets (Dross Harvester, etc); but unlike most Shackles decks you’ve also got Icy Manipulator if need be; making them unlikely to want to play these creatures in the first place. Damping Matrix is possible hate, so be prepared. (If it becomes a popular sideboard option, you will need Terashi’s Grasp in the board.) Again, Scales > Chalice here.
Even to favorable.
For the most part, they don’t like your deck. Chalice plays a crucial role in shutting down the Glacial Rays and Magma Jets, Echoing Ruins, Shatters, Shocks and other annoyances. It will be hard for their LD to really get online repeatedly. Smart Ponza players will aim their burn at your Engineers rather than your Hokoris, so be careful. Ultimately, they may be unable to get their threats online and address your Shackles in time to prevent you from disrupting them first. This matchup honestly surprised me, but after boarding, the incoming artifact destruction made it much more fair for them.
Without Aether Vial, you are more likely to be able to contain them. Death Cloud is too expensive to be effective and Persecute will hit little in your hand. Again, Shackles is awesome as usual. If they have Damping Matrix though, you better watch out for it.
Trinisphere is clearly the most important lock here. Their deck is well prepared for Hokori, but it’s not thrilled with being underneath a Trinisphere. A Chalice for 2 will probably hurt them a lot, but don’t count them out because of it. Kira, Great Glass-Spinner is somewhat troublesome due to the fact that it’s essentially immune to Shackles and Manipulator alone, but you can use both to steal her; making it much harder for them hit your creatures. Floodbringer is annoying, but does little to prevent your Engineers from doing their thing while Hokori is in play. Beware of Spiketail Hatchling.
Ornithopter sucks when you’ve got a Trinisphere in play. It’s also not good when you steal their own creatures. Icy Manipulator prevents lots of shenanigans in the first place. It’s not hard to see why this matchup is good – ninjitsu is very tempo-backpedaling ability; they can’t afford to have to play multiple spells to accomplish their goals.
Even to favorable
It all depends on how fast they can get themselves set up. Most of the time, you will be able to lock them up before they can keep on trucking. Unlike BeaconC, they are less likely to pack loads of artifact hate. If they do get set up, though, you lose: Kiki and Viridian Shaman spell bad news for you.
Even to favorable
Tooth and Nail just absolutely hates Hokori, and Icy Manipulator is good at tapping down Urzatrons and Cloudposts. They are probably going to be prepared for Hokori, too; so play carefully. You will need to contain them as soon as possible; once they build a manabase then you’ve got issues. The reason this matchup isn’t lopsided is that they can easily deal with your numerous artifacts. If you’re smart about it, you can win, but mistakes will cost you.
While I don’t expect this deck to be out in full force, it probably will be out there. The versions that use Kiki-Jiki are generally slower; those don’t tend to goldfish faster and you are more likely to win. Basically, for the most part, they can ignore you. Chalice for 1 will help shut off Lifespark Spellbomb, and Vedalken Shackles will break up the combo by stealing the animated Forbidden Orchard; but they should be able to go off early enough and/or find the right cards to stop you from interfering. The matchup will be all about how their deck is built.
Even to favorable
From the little that I’ve played against this deck, it is much too slow to be effective against you, primarily because you can often just steal their Viridian Joiner. You won’t have too much difficulty shutting down the rest of their deck at that point. The real problem comes when they start siding in all of the Green hate – if they have it, they can stop you.
Even to favorable
Game one is bound to be hard, but after you get Defense Grids down, they are going to have a much harder time dealing with your Trinispheres and Icy Manipulator.
Even to favorable
Wow, do these decks hate Chalice of the Void. Furthermore, these U/R decks are really mana hungry – all of those activations and splicing take up a lot of resources. The mana denial elements of Hokori and Trinisphere are obviously your key to victory; but be aware that they will have numerous ways to break out of your lock if you’re not careful. You will need to practice the matchup and learn what they are capable of doing.
Even to slightly less than favorable
MBC’s biggest problem is that it cannot get around Trinisphere – Sickening Shoal cannot really be utilized well when both Hokori and Trinisphere are on the table. Icy Manipulator also helps keep their lands tapped down. Chalice for 2 shuts off a lot of their utility spells, and Persecute is most likely to miss against you. MBC is particularly rough if you haven’t played against it, but after a number of matches I found that I was reliably keeping them contained long enough to kill them with Hokori, Kamis and Engineers; or occasionally, stolen Akubas and Solemns.
Unfavorable to slightly less than even
Between the efficient mana generation and arsenal of efficient removal, B/G can often just plow you over. (No pun intended.) While Trinisphere and Hokori are obviously both good, it’s less likely that you will be able to keep both on the table than against other decks. And of course, Troll Ascetic is a pain.
After this battery of matchups, I reached my fifth and most important conclusion: this deck, in honesty, is awful. The attempt at translating the deck from T1 just doesn’t work, and for good reason.
Let’s assume we’re talking about Extended, where Mishra’s Workshop doesn’t even apply. Look at the components not available in Standard:
Sphere of Resistance
Crucible of Worlds / Wasteland
Sphere of Resistance, Welder, Smokestack, and Tangle Wire are also cumulative effects, we have little of that power available. Trinisphere, Orb of Dreams, Hokori, and Uba Mask don’t provide cumulative effects at all. A second copy doesn’t help the first.
Out of all of those cards, I would argue that Tangle Wire and Smokestack are the most important: they always effect the board state, and they address an opponent’s cards on more than a one-to-one basis. Icy Manipulator, as great as it is, cannot tap down more than one permanent at a time. It’s fine for when you use it in conjunction with Hokori, but Tangle Wire affects a much larger number of permanents.
On top of that, 3-Sphere and Dust Drinker are completely symmetrical. Tangle Wire and Smokestack, however, are not. Using proper knowledge of timing rules and the stack, players using these cards can make it inherently unbalanced against their opponents. And don’t even get me started about Goblin Welder’s role in Vintage Stax and Extended Machine decks.
But none of those are the reasons why Type Two Stax doesn’t win. It doesn’t win because prison is about resource denial; and we are not really denying, we are delaying. Trinisphere and Hokori do not eliminate resources, they merely disable resources. Once the 3-Sphere or Dust Drinker is dealt with, the whole problem disappears. Smokestack is essentially guaranteed to eliminate multiple resources from your opponent, including lands – Culling Scales cannot do that. Opponents have too many outs – without an ability that eats away at lands, you can’t win. Possessed Portal is the only “prison” card in Standard that can do that, and its cost is just too prohibitive.
Yes, CritterStax might win a few matches. I would say it won most of my initial tests. And yes, it might be able to be tuned to make it better. In the end, though, it just doesn’t have the caliber necessary to survive – the deck just feels too underpowered to play it in a serious competitive venue. (If you play Stax for fun, then you are one really sick and twisted fellow. Go stand in the other line with the Stasis players.)
I’m sure someone will post in the forums something stating otherwise, but there is too much artifact hate and not enough affordable prison effects to make it work. If Possessed Portal cost only six mana, then there would be something to talk about – but there’s no other way to reliably get ahead in the permanent count. It takes too much effort: you need a Trinisphere, an Icy Manipulator, and a Hokori in play all at once. Yes, you will sometimes be able to get it down – but most of the time, not fast enough.
I may be wrong, but I just don’t see the numbers leaning in the deck’s direction. It might be a preconceived perception of a low-powered deck, since years of playing Vintage and Legacy Stax may taint my opinion of what it means to be viable. Ultimately, it will probably remain a mystery as to whether or not a pure-prison archetype will ever be competitive in Type Two; but I honestly think it will be something radically different than this. I’m sure I’ll keep playing Stax for a while, tweaking and tuning until I think it’s a decent FNM deck, but I don’t think I would take it to Regionals.
Sometimes, you build a deck, and it works. Sometimes, it doesn’t. This time, it didn’t work out – but that’s okay. At least I can still look at Burning Bridges.
P.S.: Mad props to Chad Ellis, just because I’m a fan. And congrats to Aten for an Invitational slot well-deserved. And BDM, love the NG. Great gaming, man, great gaming.