The Kitchen Table #330 – A Pox on Both Your Houses

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Friday, March 26th – Hello folks, and welcome back to the column for all your casual needs. Today I want to write a full article about one deck, Pox. During the past ten years, I’ve been playing various versions of Pox in a variety of formats, including tournaments and such. I’ve clocked in hundreds of tournament games with Pox, as well as countless casual games.

Hello folks, and welcome back to the column for all your casual needs. Today I want to write a full article about one deck, Pox. During the past ten years, I’ve been playing various versions of Pox in a variety of formats, including tournaments and such. I’ve clocked in hundreds of tournament games with Pox, as well as countless casual games.

There is no question that I have a love affair with Pox. I’ve written up Pox decks, or mentioned them, in my articles on many occasions. However, I have never written a primer for the Pox deck.

Now, understand that I am a casual player, and this is a casual column. I am not advocating Pox as the Next Big Thing in Legacy or Vintage. What I do want to do is introduce you to Pox, and then the various strategies and cards that go with it, so that you can build the best Pox deck you can, for casual or whatever.

Up front, understand that Pox is not multiplayer-friendly. I thought it might be at first, because it affects everybody. However, a Pox deck spends its entire time trying to manipulate the opponent into the worst possible Pox, whereas the resources to do this with the entire table are lacking. Also, many of the cards that make Pox go either target just one person or are card disadvantage in multiplayer.

Due to the self-limiting nature of the deck, I will be focusing on Pox at home in duels, not in groups.

Why is Pox such a great card? Well, it’s hits four things — life, land, hand, and creatures — and thus resembles a Balance, only weaker in several areas. Balance is one of the most powerful sorceries ever printed, so obviously Pox is going to get some power from resembling it.

Pox is very build-around-able because it only takes one third. One of the things every Pox article tells you is that the ideal place to be for a Pox is at 3x for your four resources. The most devastating is 3x+1. For example, if I have out three Swamps (3x), and you have out four lands (3x+1), then when I Pox you lose two and me just one. The same is true of life, creatures, and hand.

What you want to do is maximize your Pox by staying at 3x as much as possible, and then strike when your opponent has 1, 4, and 7 of their resources. Then you’ll have a maximized Pox. When you Pox when your opponent has 1 creatures, 4 lands, and 4 cards in hand, it’s a beautiful thing.

The next thing to note when building your Pox deck is that you are attacking hand, land, and creatures simultaneously. Therefore, it makes sense to continue this assault with the other cards in your deck. Typically, Pox decks look for additional ways to discard, kill creatures and destroy lands, and then supplement the Pox. There are also some game-playing principles for the Pox player to consider, so I will take a look at each of these deck building considerations in order.

Pox Adjunct — Discard

In any format where Pox is legal, you will likely want quick discard in order to disrupt your opponent. The presence of powerful counters, discard, and aggro creatures mean that quick discard can proactively solve a lot of issues.

The obvious place to start here is Duress. It costs one Black mana, it strips a good card from their hand most of the time, and it allows you to see their hand and plan the next few turns. Due to the presence of very strong counters, Duress becomes a way of stripping them out, or pulling out a counter of its own, which is just as fine.

There are other adjuncts to the Duress strategy. Cards like Thoughtseize, Cabal Therapy, and others have value as well. Cabal Therapy may not be flashback-able in some Pox decks, see Pox — Creatures below. It may not need to be after you’ve Duressed, though. Cabal Therapy can take out anything you saw and didn’t like from the Duress, and then you’ve gotten value from it already. Where I don’t like it as much is pre-Duress when you don’t know what they drew in their opening hand, making it a crapshoot.

Thoughtseize is good though; I’ve played it. It takes you to a 3x life total, so that’s not bad pre-Pox. It can also take a Kird Ape or other aggro creature, in addition to doing the same damage Duress can do. That’s usually worth the price of admission right there.

After the pinpoint removal of these sorts of cards, you slide into the next obvious discard — Hymn to Tourach. I’m telling you right now that I would never run a Pox deck without these – that would have to be a weird metagame. Hymns are amazing, tearing randomly through hands to deliver your card advantage and destruction. You can hit anything in the hand, and we’ve all seen an early Hymn destroy a deck’s plans.

After that, there really ain’t a lot of other cards that sell me. Mind Twist might be nice, but for two mana, Hymn is better, and for three mana, I’d rather Pox. I think Duress + Hymn and perhaps an adjunct of two-four Thoughtseize, Cabal Therapy or other card is a fine discard suite.

Pox Adjunct — Creature Removal

Of all of the adjunct strategies for Poxes, this is the one with the widest variance. Over the course of Magic’s history, there are only a handful of amazing discard and/or land destruction cards for Black decks, but there are a ton of removal options, and I want to talk about several right now. Since you are going to be lacking a lot of mana due to Poxes, you cannot afford the expensive stuff often. Thus, your strategy falls into several options.

Targeted removal is great, but bad in several situations. You hate dedicated creature removal in matches with few creatures or Black creatures. Stuff like Terror does have a weakness, after all. The first style is to play the cheapest removal you can, no matter the weakness. For example, Ghastly Demise can be played for one Black mana, and kill any non-Black creature you can target as long as you have a stocked graveyard (you will). It can easily take out stuff from Wild Nacatl to Jackal Pup. Where it struggles is against Black creatures, creatures played in the first few turns before you have a thick graveyard, and pro-Black creatures (which get played, but often not in as high amounts as Pro Red critters, thank goodness).

Another option is to rock an Edict that forces a sacrifice. My most recent incarnations of Pox have been running Innocent Blood, which forces me to sacrifice too, but costs just one Black mana. If you run creatures vulnerable to this, then rock a two mana Edict instead. Chainer’s Edict can be flashbacked, but you rarely use it, and the instant-ness of Diabolic Edict had some added value so whichever you choose. The Edicts can kill anything in the early game, and they clean out untargetables and are not dead against a Black deck. However, they are not exact, and always kill the worst creature your opponent controls, and that’s not that great.

The third option is to run the alternate casting cost removal spells that can do more, but require extra resources. Early Pox decks ran Spinning Darkness. You could remove a few Black cards from your graveyard and then deal three to any non-Black creature (and gain three life). It still cannot be used against Black creatures, but Pox players would run an artifact creature to deal damage to (and survive) in order to gain life against a deck with Black creatures or creature light. See more in Pox — Creatures, below.

Contagion was also played successfully in Pox decks, requiring you to exile a Black card in hand and lose a life, but it placed two -2/-1 counters on creatures. These could kill two x/1 creatures, or nuke two Bears, by permanently turning them into 0/1s. This has serious value in an environment with many aggressive creatures running around uncorked.

While discussing creature removal, remember Smother which kills Tarmogoyfs, Black creatures, still doesn’t work on Pro Black dudes and misses bigger creatures.

Whether you play cheap targeted removal, alternate cost removal, or Edicts, you will find that you want more removal against creature heavy decks and less against light ones. You never have the right amount in your deck for some reason. Therefore, no decklist will ever have the perfect amount of dedicated creature removal. I typically play four extra critter removal cards, but you can go in many directions.

Pox Adjunct — Land Destruction

In Black, LD cards are much less frequent, with only a handful ever being made. The best spell to remove land, by cost, is going to be Sinkhole. If you don’t have a playset, then you probably aren’t going to buy them. Despite being a common, it has a huge price tag on it financially. If you do have them, they make great cards to add to any Pox deck.

Other spells can be nice as well. Icequake, Rain of Tears, Choking Sands all provide more land destruction. If you want to add versatility, you could stuff like Befoul for extra creature or land removal, or Fulminator Mage, but I don’t know anyone who does that.

I have seen Pox decks splash White for four Vindicates, however. You run the Black/White duels, a few fetches perhaps, and then drop Vindicate on lands, creatures, artifacts and enchantments (and Planeswalkers) with equal aplomb. There is a lot of value in doing this as well. This is another expensive addition with both dual lands and Vindicates.

After spells, your other land destruction options are the lands, like Wasteland. Four Wastelands is quite common in Pox decks, despite the need for as much Black mana as possible. In any format where Strip Mine is legal (and probably restricted) that makes a great addition as well. There’s nothing wrong with 1 Strip Mine, 4 Wasteland, and 4 Sinkhole in your deck as supplemental land destruction.

Pox — Creatures

The important thing to realize about Pox is that it kills creatures controlled by yourself just as easily as it does your opponent. Therefore, there are two different views on creatures in Pox.

The first view embraces a handful of real creatures in order to attack, block, keep back aggressive creatures, and be winning conditions late. Some early Pox decks rocked four Steel Golem in the deck. You could drop them for cheap, they were immune to Pro Black stuff, they could gain you three life off a Spinning Darkness, and you were not afraid to see them die to removal or a Pox. In the modern day, I’d suspect that Grid Monitor would be better, because the size of aggro creatures has jumped to where three mana for a 3/4 is not as good an investment.

Pox creatures are often used as a winning condition once you have cleared the path, board and hand. A creature a lot of people extol is Tombstalker. This flying beastie can get dropped for a reduced mana cost due to its delve ability. You can play it, and then swing for one or three turns to finish off a player with little gas left in the tank. There are other bigger creatures played as well to finish off a player, such as the mana-guzzling Nantuko Shade. Not my cup of tea, but some swear by it.

The other view of creatures is that they need to be able to dodge a Pox. The most played are lands that turn into creatures, namely Mishra’s Factory and/or Mutavault. Even though these can interfere with the ability to play Pox and other very Black spells, they can hit each turn, and yet dodge sorcery removal and your own Poxes.

With the advent of the creature lands from Worldwake, I checked to see if any were Black/x and made me happy with Pox potential. Creeping Tar Pit is too expensive for just one more power in the creature, ditto Lavaclaw Reaches in the mana department. Neither sold me. Other lands like Dread Statuary, Blinkmoth Nexus, and Spawning Pool either aren’t powerful enough or guzzle too much mana.

I have seen players rock Phyrexian Totems and Guardian Idols, in order to get more creatures that are not creatures into their decks. We’ll talk more about artifact mana in Pox — Mana later, but it is quite valuable.

One creature deserves special notice, because I personally love it in my Pox decks. Nether Spirit. This 2/2 creature can do anything. I love discarding it to a Pox and then playing it on my next upkeep. It can block all day long and you just keep bringing it back out. It can attack for two after you control the board. If it dies to a Pox, you can just bring it back. You can sac it to flashback Cabal Therapy. I love it! Now, you can’t have any other creature in the graveyard with your Nether Spirit, or it will not come back. You also cannot have too many other Nether Spirits. If you play four, you sometimes draw on when you are trying to rock another, and now you have a dead card. Thus, I just play two. If I draw one, great, and if not, that’s okay too.

Pox — Mana

Now that you have a good handle on the Pox deck, let’s talk. The first thing we need to do is talk about Fetch lands. As you know, everyone plays fetches these days, and that’s amazingly good for a Pox deck. The more fetches they break on you, the fewer lands they are likely to draw from their deck, which makes your land destruction more powerful. There are decks that are running 8 or 10 real lands and the rest fetches. They play a real land and crack two fetches. Now they are down 5 of their 22 lands you have used just two LD cards and a Pox. They play a Fetch and crack it. You Wasteland the dual land they got. Now they are down 7 and you still have extra lands and mana. This is a very good thing. So understand that it is easier to mana hose someone with their more fragile manabase. A deck with three colors and 12 fetches is begging for your Pox deck to teach them the error of their ways.

You want to Pox as soon as you can, and that means three Black mana. On the other hand, we’ve talked about the value of Wasteland, Strip Mine, Mutavault and Mishra’s Factory. This is the tension of the Pox deck —Black mana. There are several ways to ease it a bit.

With your Poxing, sacking Wastelands, and losing man-lands to removal, you need to know that you will go through many more lands than a normal deck, so having something like 26-28 is not a bad idea. I would also recommend two or three Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth. They make all of your special lands tap for Black mana too. I would not run too many Urborgs because you need to play every land you draw.

Artifact mana is not a bad idea because it is immune to Poxing. I’ve seen Pox decks win that ran cards as bad as Charcoal Diamond. Phyrexian Totem, Mox Jet, Charcoal Diamond, Chrome Mox — run whatever you need/have. Some decks really like this. I’ve played around with it and had hot and cold results, so your mileage may vary on this stuff.

Another question you need to answer is whether or not to play Dark Ritual. The explosive first turn plays with Duress + Sinkhole or Thoughtseize + Hymn are not to be underestimated, but the lack of permanent mana development and card loss are not good either. Some players love Dark Ritual and say they are essentials while others leave them out. I’ve played both, and personally, I prefer them in, but I get what the dissidents are saying.

Pox — Winning Conditions

After creatures, there are many cards you can play as a way of winning the game. The most commonly played, I believe, is The Rack. With all of the discard lovin’ you are droppin’, there should be an ample opportunity for severe Rackin’.

The Rack will change the way people play, forcing more cards into their hand, winning a top deck battle, and allowing you to win without ever attacking with a creature. Some modern Pox decks have moved away from The Rack into other options, but I still see many using it (as do I).

Another one I love and swear by is Cursed Scroll. It’s good as creature removal, and better as player removal. It wins topdeck wars, and allows you to keep control of the board once you have it against aggro decks. It’s colorless removal against pro Black critters. It often scares people on the board more than The Rack and Mishra’s Factory.

After that, there are a few other choices, like variations of The Rack, or things like Telim-Tor’s Darts (that’s old school).

Pox — Other Permanents

Once you notice that Pox only impacts lands and critters, you know that running other permanents makes a lot of sense. Every time you run Pox, you have to be prepared for getting into a topdeck mode where all you are doing is topdecking against your foe. This happens regularly, but not too often. You need to be prepared to win it, so I have run the admittedly expensive Liliana Vess, which says game over once you get to topdeck. I can tutor topdeck, you can’t. I can force you to discard every turn, keeping you under The Rack.

Crucible of Worlds is a great play in the deck too, and it allows you to replay Wastelands and creature lands that died. I have played with them before, but usually found them to be overkill or dead, so I pulled them, but some still use them, and I respect that.

Nether Void is a brilliant way to shut down your foe once you have established control of the board. You can keep beating with man lands, a Nether Spirit, and dealing damage with The Rack and Cursed Scroll. Meanwhile, your opponent can’t cast anything under the Void and the LD you played earlier. This isn’t a deck that wants the cheaper stuff like Sphere of Resistance. (See below in Pox — Other Stuff for more info.) This one works though.

Bitterblossom is a card that has started making appearances in a few Pox decks, but many have issues with them. What do you expect your life to be at after Poxes and things like Thoughtseize? Now, let’s add Bitterblossom. On the other hand, the success it has had outside of Pox has led some to try it out and say that it’s good here too. I have my doubts, though. I have to admit that I have not tested them.

Gustha’s Scepter comes out of left field, I know. However, it shines in the mirror match and against hand removal. Hide a few cards under it, Pox, and then get them back as needed. Hide cards from discard. This is very old school.

Pox — Other Poxes

One of the weird things about Pox is that down through the ages there have been other Pox-like cards made, such as Death Cloud, that don’t really work in a lot of decks. But in a deck already built around Pox

I tried out Death Cloud and never got it to work. Perhaps you will. However, what I do like is Smallpox. It does everything you want it two kill —Creature, Land and Hand — in two mana. It also does all of those things to you, but you have built around it, your opponent has not. I actually played two Smallpox in my most recent build of Pox.

PoxThe Sideboard

There are several things a Pox player needs to understand. Your deck needs help against creatures, and it needs help against true control. Thus, I recommend two different sideboard cards for these occasions.

Damnation is money against creatures. Even if all you get is two creatures, that is worth it in order to establish yourself and get ready. I think pushing out a set of Damnations from the board is highly valuable in giving you a fighting chance versus intensive aggro decks.

Phyrexian Negator is money against control decks with few or no creatures. Dark Ritualing a Negator successfully can cause players to whimper. However, with the advent of Tarmogoyf, more decks are prepared to face an early beater of significant size, and so I don’t think it is as good as it used to be. In fact, it may just be better to splash Tarmogoyf against control altogether, with Green duals in the deck and then you can slide into Tarmogoyf in the ‘board.

After that, there are a variety of places to go, from Dystopia to Pithing Needle to Ravenous Trap to Chalice of the Void. This will be largely metagame dependant, and frankly, is a consideration for tournaments, not casual play.

Pox — Other Stuff

After all of that, there are cards and strategies that various players will try out, and sometimes works (sometimes not).

Along with Nether Void and the land destruction, some will try a mana denial strategy with Sphere of Resistance, Rishadan Port, Tangle Wire, and such. I am not a fan of these ideas because your deck is already doing a lot of stuff, and to try and branch out even more doesn’t make sense. I’ve tried Ports, and it’s just too many lands that don’t make Black mana. Nether Void works, but Sphere of Resistance is just not enough (and hurts you too.) Nether Void in this deck is an Armageddon — it causes you to take a slightly dominating position into a strongly dominating one. Sphere of Resistance is not.

Pox is a great card, and you can build a Pox deck in a variety of different ways and still stay true to the strategy. I hope you enjoyed a look at today’s card and a variety of ways of building Pox decks for the masses.

Until later…

Abe Sargent