Stax has been an important part of the Vintage metagame since its introduction in early 2003. Back then, the card choices were pretty easy due to the limited amount of broken stuff. Sphere of Resistance, Smokestack, Tangle Wire and Meditate were indeed the only lock components available before Mirrodin for an artifact Prison deck (Winter Orb does not fit in Stax’s game plan). Now, we have plenty of new tools in the form of Chalice of the Void, Thirst for Knowledge, Trinisphere and Crucible of Worlds. Nevertheless, card slots are not expendable and choices have to be made in order to have the most finely tuned build according to your metagame. This article will provide general guidelines for answering most of the questions you should ask yourself if you want to take Stax at a Vintage tournament.
“Should I use an old school Red/Blue build or should I take a more recent five colors one?”
“Is Sundering Titan still the powerhouse It used to be? Is Karn really outdated?”
“Do I really need 4 Crucible of Worlds?”
… and some others …
Volcanic Island Vs. City Of Brass: The Mana Base
Stax has long been played with a standard dual lands based U/R mana base. My teammate Kevin Cron, one of the few Stax gurus, introduced a 5 color Stax build inspired by the success of the 5 color Workshop Aggro decks derived from the original Mono Brown builds splashing Red for Goblin Welder and Blue for Power and Thirst for Knowledge.
The 5 color build has been designed for a particular metagame (GenCon), with Workshop Aggro in mind. Lots of players seem to forgot this when seeing 5 color decklists and tend to denigrate these builds, advocating their inferiority compared to the U/R builds. A first turn Juggernaut has always been painful for Stax, because it often results in a game lost without a Tangle Wire and Smokestack opening – and even this is generally too slow. The 5C Stax build runs Balance to fight the Juggernaut, and virtually has access to three copies thanks to Vampiric Tutor and Demonic Tutor. Balance is also a strong weapon in the Control matchup because Stax tend to be really low on lands and to empty its hand in a couple of turns, maximizing the impact of Balance. Balance has actually won me more games in Stax than in 4CC (or Keeper). Vampiric Tutor and Demonic Tutor also find Strip Mine or Tolarian Academy if needed (actually, Strip Mine is probably the most common Tutor target). The 5 color build also have access to better utility, mostly sideboard cards, such as Swords to Plowshares, Seal of Cleansing or Mind Twist.
Nevertheless, the 5c mana base has some drawbacks. This mana base uses Cities of Brass and Gemstone Mines over the standard Volcanic Islands and assorted fetchlands and basic lands. A repetitive use of the City of Brass could somewhat be problematic against fast Aggro decks like Food Chain Goblins and Aggro Madness, where you often achieve your hard lock really low on life, sometimes just one. And without a Crucible of Worlds on the board, the loss of depleted Gemstone Mines will be problematic in the war of resources attrition that are the Control matchups and the mirror match, which is relevant post sideboarding. You also give up on the (minor) synergy between fetchlands and Crucible of Worlds.
I will cover the U/RÂ mana base first. Before Crucible of Worlds, using 28 mana sources was the best call for Stax. Now, the deck can run smoothly with 27 only without the need of running second class artifact acceleration such as Lotus Petal and Grim Monolith. This adds consistency to the deck through a more efficient use of the mana sources. Here is the mana base I used in November in a sanctioned Mox tournamentÂ :
U/R mana base – Paris tournament, November 2004
4 Mishra’s Workshop
4 Volcanic Island
2 Polluted Delta
2 Shivan Reef
1 Tolarian Academy
1 Strip Mine
1 Mox Pearl
1 Mox Emerald
1 Mox Jet
1 Mox Ruby
1 Mox Sapphire
1 Black Lotus
1 Sol Ring
1 Mana Crypt
1 Mana Vault
23 slots were obvious, and the four remaining slots (above in italics) are filled with 2 Polluted Deltas and 2 Shivan Reefs. The other considerations for these land slots were Ancient Tomb and a couple of basic lands. Ancient Tomb was quickly eliminated. Even if the maindeck is dense on artifacts, making Ancient Tomb a strong call, the sideboard is usually filled with Blue and Red spells, making necessary to keep a high colored mana sources post board, especially with four lands that can’t be used for casting non artifact spells (and Mishra’s Workshop is often a terrible draw post board, in the mirror for example, which to me is a sign of a well-balanced cad). Post board, I often want up to 10 mana sources that produce Blue and Red (not counting the Black Lotus), especially in the mirror where you can sideboard up to 4 Rack and Ruins and some Blue Elemental Blasts and where you want to cast your Goblin Welders as soon as possible, even by turn 1. TheÂ mana base shown above features 9 sources for each color, a number I don’t want to go below, and has shown its limits multiple times in the tournament post sideboard.
The 2/2 split between Shivan Reefs and Polluted Deltas was used in order to abuse Crucible of Worlds recursion with the fetchlands while keeping a high number of real mana sources with the Apocalypse painland, which is key in the mirror match. The other possibility was to use 3 fetchlands and a basic land, for resiliency to Wasteland. That resiliency to Wasteland is much needed in the mirror match, a matchup I had not taken much into account while designing the build I ran at the aforementioned tournament (and I unfortunately got kicked off the tournament after a mirror match). The first build Steven Menendian and myself posted on StarCityGames.com featured a basic Island, in order to cast the Meditates and the Power cards under our sideboarded Blood Moons. Nowadays, I would only use a basic land to fight Wasteland recursion through Crucible of Worlds, because the impact of Blood Moon has dramatically been lessened with the increased use of basic lands.
The choice of that basic land is not so obvious. The first idea is to use a basic Island, in order to reliably cast the Blue draw spells and dig into more mana sources. I don’t think this is an automatic conclusion. In a metagame with a lot of Workshop Aggro decks and mirror matches, having a reliable access to Red mana to cast Goblin Welders and Rack and Ruin (and possibly Lava Dart and Fire) is far more important, and in that metagame I would probably maindeck a basic Mountain. Indeed, you want to be able to cast the Rack and Ruins and the Welders the turn you draw them. The basic Island is actually far less important than the basic Mountain. In the Control and Aggro matchups, you want to cast lock components first in order to stall your opponent’s tempo, then start casting Meditates and Thirst for Knowledge to refill your hand. This means you have time to draw multiple Volcanic Islands or Polluted Deltas if your first land has been Wasted. Furthermore, in these matchups, your opponent will also often aim at the Mishra’s Workshops first, protecting the duals. A long-time French Stax player, Loic Caron, has experimented a mana base featuring a basic Island and a basic Mountain with great success too, using 28 mana sources, no Mana Vault, 2 Polluted Deltas and 2 Wooded Foothills. With this mana base, his build has a strong superiority in the mirror thanks to these reliable sources to cast both Rack and Ruin and Blue Elemental Blast.
The City of Brass-based mana base (5C-Stax) that Kevin Cron introduced at GenCon ’04 was a direct reaction to the 5C Workshop Aggro lists that were popularized by Team ShortBus early 2004 and the rise of Sundering Titan at the same time. The Gemstone Mines, which had already been tried by some MeanDeckers in Stax by the past, were finally fully functional due to Crucible of Worlds. The 5C mana base allows many things for Stax. The most important ones were:
- A better matchup against Workshop Aggro thanks to Balance.
- A better access to Strip Mine thanks to Demonic Tutor and Vampiric Tutor.
- An immunity to Sundering Titan, as well as the ability to use it for land destruction.
- Some new sideboard hosers, such as Artifact Mutation and Choke.
Tweaking the mana base is quite a bit easier than for the U/R one. Indeed, the basic land question is not really relevant in this situation. Considering you can use Onslaught fetchlands, running a single Mountain or Island is far too random to be useful. Hence, the mana base will focus on City of Brass and Gemstone Mine. Glimmervoid is also an option, but considering you’ll often be forced to go “Land, go” in some matchups (in the mirror, for example), Glimmervoid’s drawback will often make you take unwanted mulligans. I would not recommend using Glimmervoid (and if you do, don’t use more than one since double Glimmervoid opening hands are terrible).
Because it runs Balance and more fast lock enablers (Demonic Tutor and Vampiric Tutor), the 5C build tends to be more aggressive and needs more fast mana than the classic UR build. Lotus Petal is a fine inclusion, since it produces all colors. The inherent card disadvantage is sometimes annoying, but this build tends to lock faster than the U/R build due to a better access to the Crucible lock with Strip Mine, so you should always be able to play around. Grim Monolith is another fine first turn three-mana spell enablers, and perfectly fits into your first turn Trinisphere or Crucible of Worlds plan. My teammate Kevin Cron felt he wanted one more additional 5 color mana producers. The most obvious choice was Mox Diamond, but even with the full set of Crucible of Worlds, the drawback is too heavy. His choice went towards the indestructible Darksteel Ingot. The casting cost is quite high in Stax but considering everything costs three under Trinisphere, Darksteel Ingot is often a Mox Diamond with no drawback. The indestructible aspect is often useful, since the Ingot provides a Gorilla Shaman– and Rack and Ruin– proof colored mana source.
5C mana base – Cron’s test build, October 2004
4 Mishra’s Workshop
4 City of Brass
3 Gemstone Mine
1 Tolarian Academy
1 Strip Mine
1 Mox Pearl
1 Mox Emerald
1 Mox Jet
1 Mox Ruby
1 Mox Sapphire
1 Black Lotus
1 Sol Ring
1 Mana Crypt
1 Grim Monolith
1 Lotus Petal
1 Darksteel Ingot
Trinisphere And Friends : The Lock Components
Most of the lock components are obvious 4-ofs, that is Trinisphere, Tangle Wire and Smokestack. Crucible of Worlds, Sphere of Resistance, Chalice of the Void are the other possibilities.
Crucible of Worlds is the last addition to the deck, and probably the card that makes Stax good again. It made Stax far more consistent by allowing the Mishra’s Workshop recursion when facing Wastelands, while also lowering its mana curve. The synergy with Wasteland and Strip Mine also has a devastating impact in many matchups. Nevertheless, I don’t consider Crucible of Worlds as an automatic 4-of in Stax. Let’s just consider the Toadislaver matchup. Once in testing, my opponent dropped a first turn Trinisphere out of a Mishra’s Workshop, followed by a turn 2 Crucible of Worlds and Wasteland. By turn 6, I had 5 Islands and a Darksteel Citadel on the board and won that game because he failed to draw a Smokestack or an Intuition. Crucible of Worlds was pretty strong a couple of months ago when the metagame had not yet adapted to it. Now basic lands are everywhere, and without the restricted Strip Mine, Crucible of Worlds is often useless as an offensive weapon. It still retains its inherent defensive power by allowing to recur your Wasted lands, but that’s not exactly what Stax aims at doing, since you don’t really want to find yourself in a defensive situation. Especially when Stax’s hardest matchups – Drain Slaver variants and Dragon – do not even run Wastelands. Crucible of Words as a 3-of or even a 2-of is a real possibility depending on the expected metagame. Intuition and the Black tutors tend to make Crucible of Worlds stronger though.
Sphere of Resistance was used before Trinisphere, and Trinisphere made it quite obsolete. Nevertheless, Sphere of Resistance has its merits, especially since Rack and Ruin still costs three under Trinisphere. In a metagame with a lot of Combo decks, Sphere of Resistance is a fine inclusion, as a sideboard card or even a maindeck one. Sideboarding 4 Sphere of Resistance is actually a serious metagame call and should be considered in some metagames. Nevertheless, Chalice of the Void is probably more versatile, as it’s now once again a real game breaker. For example, MeanDeck Oath has little to no solution to a resolved Chalice of the Void for two (the deck was designed without Chalice in mind), and Chalice of the Void for one is a strong play against Drain Slaver or Doomsday. In Paris, I was maindecking three Chalices (with the fourth one in the sideboard) because I was expecting a lot of MeanDeck Oath and a couple of Dragon. I faced three Oath and Chalice of the Void won me two games in these matchups, especially since the usual bounce of choice is Echoing Truth. Few decks are actually prepared to face Chalice of the Void now, which makes it even stronger. Running 3 or 4 Chalice maindeck is a good call once again, as it shuts down a lot of decks on its own while being a proactive answer to many hate cards (Artifact Mutation probably being the most important one). Stax’s mana curve is also perfectly suited for a Chalice of the Void for 2. Even game 1 when you are on the play, a blind Chalice for 0 or for 2 is almost always a strong play.
The 5-color build can’t really maindeck Chalice of the Void because it usually needs 4 Crucible of Worlds (to negate the Gemstone Mines drawback) and because of the use of Balance and the black tutors.
This is probably the set up I would use in a general field. Crucible of Worlds and Chalice of the Void are used as 3-ofs only in the U/R build for the reasons mentioned above. A fourth Chalice of the Void in the sideboard is strong in a metagame with a lot of Combo decks (along with Spheres of Resistance), while the fourth Crucible of Worlds would rule the Stax mirror and the 4CC matchup. From my own experience, Stax mirrors are often dictated by Crucible of Worlds. Ramping to three non-Workshop mana to cast Rack and Ruin is crucial, and Crucible helps a lot. It also helps to keep a Blue mana source on the board for Blue Elemental Blast. And finally, it provides food for Smokestack every turn. Usually, the winner in this matchup is the one who kept his Crucible of Worlds on the board. In a Combo-ish metagame (blame the Dutch!), a Crucible of Worlds could probably be cut for Sphere of Resistance. Even as a one-of, it’s still worth it, at least as a Tinker target in complement of Trinisphere. I’d run a lone Sphere of Resistance over a fourth Chalice of the Void in such a metagame, for tempo issues.
Meditate Vs. Thirst For Knowledge: The Draw Engine
Card draw is theÂ first reason to splash Blue. Ancestral Recall and Tinker are quite obvious inclusions, but then some questions are remaining. Meditate or Thirst for Knowledge? Timetwister, Memory Jar or Wheel of Fortune? What else?
The “Meditate vs. Thirst for Knowledge” question has been debated for ages on TheManaDrain.com, and there is no real answer in my opinion. Once again, it’s usually most a metagame call. Meditate was used in the original builds, and most of the Stax players automatically switched to Thirst for Knowledge when Mirrodin got released. I don’t think this change is automatic, as both cards have inherent advantages.
Meditate is obviously a bigger skill tester than Thirst for Knowledge, since skipping a turn in a format as brutal as Type One could be problematic without a well balanced lock on the board. If you are playing against Control, you obviously don’t want to cast your draw spells in early game, since the tempo loss allows the opponent to ramp up to the critical Rack and Ruin or Mana Drain level. This means the early game will be spent casting lock components. If this plan succeeds, thenÂ Meditate is obviously better than Thirst for Knowledge, since Meditate’s drawback often becomes an advantage. If this plan fails, then Stax is in a bad shape and Meditate will dig four cards for new threats, while Thirst for Knowledge will only give two. Mirror matches tend to go in extremely late game where players have multiple Tangle Wires and Smokestacks on the board, and there the Meditate builds have a strong advantage over the Thirst for Knowledge builds. A first turn Meditate is actually quite a strong play post board in the mirror, because it allows you to dig faster into Rack and Ruins and Goblin Welders. That first turn play is also strong against Fish, for example. The best thing they could do during that additional turn is to drop a Null Rod, and with four more cards in hand (and probably either a Mishra’s Workshop, a Wasteland or a Crucible of Worlds), you don’t really care that much.
Thirst for Knowledge is better if you are expecting a lot of Combo decks or combo-based Control decks such as Oath or Drain Slaver, because you don’t really want to give them an additional turn with a soft lock on the board. If you Meditate against TPS, they can cast Hurkyl’s Recall or Rebuild end of turn (or during their upkeep), giving them two turns to set up their kill with no Trinispheres to disrupt them. Against Oath, even if you have a Tangle Wire on the board, they can just drop a land, a Mox, and cast Oath of Druids. Against Drain Slaver, giving them hasted Welders is bad. If the decks you are expecting at your tournament have strategic superiority over Stax (for example Psychatog, Oath, Drain Slaver, Dragon, since these decks only need to resolve one spell to win the game), then Thirst for Knowledge is the primary draw spell you should use.
Draw7s are an important part in Stax’s draw engine. I had always considered Windfall as the weakest link of the original Stax builds and it’s now clearly outdated. Timetwister, Wheel of Fortune and Memory Jar are the remaining options in this category. The use of Timetwister is quite counter-intuitive because of the bad synergy with Goblin Welder and Crucible of Worlds. Nevertheless, I would not consider Timetwister as a straight bad card in Stax. The graveyard recursion aspect of the Timetwister is pretty interesting in many matchups, namely Dragon and Madness (clearing the graveyard of Squees, Worldgorger Dragons and Anger), but also against Drain Slaver (their Welder activations are far more deadly than yours) or against decks packing Accumulated Knowledge. The list I used in Paris features Timetwister because I was expecting a lot of Dragons, MeanDeck Oath and Toadislaver in the upper bracket, with a couple of Italian Madness. If your metagame is rather low on Squees and Accumulated Knowledge, then focusing on the intrinsic synergies of the deck is better than running more Draw7s and thus Timetwister should not be included. Wheel of Fortune is close to Timetwister, without the graveyard recursion aspects. It’s quite strong in a metagame with a lot of non Workshop Aggro decks but often backfires against a lot of decks, usually those with strategic superiority over Stax. You definitely don’t want to give a full new hand of 7 to decks like Drain Slaver or Dragon while allowing them to dump Mindslavers and Worldgorger Dragons in their graveyard.
Memory Jar has long been considered as a staple in Mishra’s Workshop decks. Back in 2002, Tools and Tubbies splashed Blue for the power of Tinker getting Memory Jar. Indeed, the synergy between Jar and Goblin Welder is pretty strong, somewhat game winning. Nevertheless, I don’t really like Memory Jar anymore in Workshop Prison. Trinisphere and Crucible of Worlds have allowed Stax to significantly lower its mana curve, and Memory Jar is quite expensive. Hardcasting Memory Jar without Mishra’s Workshop is pretty hard, and making the deck more reliant on a single non basic land in a field full of Wastelands is not what I want to do. Tinker still exists, but most of the time I will just Tinker for Karn, Silver Golem, since winning is better than drawing anyway. Another card that weakens Memory Jar is Trinisphere. Before Trinisphere, you could activate Memory Jar and dump all your Moxen on the board, then actually cast lock components. Now,