Unlocking Legacy – Seeking Stax

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Wednesday, October 1st – Tezzeret the Seeker received a lot of hype for being a Blue, Legacy-playable Mythic rare that powers up one of the most controversial Legacy decks. Kevin has a brand new decklist and a new take on some old gems.

Shards of Alara is an incredibly exciting set for Legacy. Nowhere does a set with good multicolor cards find more fans than a format where we have access to every bit of mana fixing and every multicolored land ever printed. The Eventide mimics and the Shadowmoor/Eventide hybrid auras found lots of friends to go with earlier powerhouses like Doran the Siege Tower. Some of the charms are very exciting; we have an Instant speed Pyroclasm and a card drawing spell that also sometimes removes Counterbalance. And yet the most exciting card to me is Tezzeret the Seeker; I’ve had my eye on the Esper planeswalker since he was first officially spoiled. Tezzeret finally allows Legacy control players to leave the dream and manage to not have to push a creature into the red zone in order to win. Best of all, Tezzeret the Seeker revitalizes the deck that everyone loves (to hate), Stax.

What makes Tezzeret the Seeker a good win condition? It’s Blue. Blue bashing aside, many Blue decks are becoming significantly non-Blue and having more good Blue cards makes Force of Will good. Only one deck plays Red Elemental Blasts frequently, and that deck requires Imperial Recruiter! The Blue-based good stuff decks (like my Demigod deck from last month) start to run into problems because Wizards of the Coast has gotten good at making non-Blue cards. When you stretch your manabase to run the best cards in three or four colors, you end up with a bunch of Green cards, a bunch of Black cards, exactly four White cards and struggle to run enough Blue cards to support Force of Will. Who was it that said, “It’s a good thing Wizards made Tarmogoyf Green so we don’t accidentally pitch it to Force of Will”? Being Blue, especially since Tezzeret costs 5 mana, is a big help. Many combo-control decks over the years have wanted a win condition that can pitch to Force of Will or cast off the primary cost of mana. Psychatog and Brain Freeze both saw play in Vintage GAT over Quirion Dryad occasionally for that reason.

More importantly, Tezzeret is a Planeswalker, not a creature. Tez is immune to Swords to Plowshares, Nevinyrral’s Disk, and Pernicious Deed. The two biggest threats left are Tarmogoyf and Lightning Bolt. Luckily Tezzeret can come down and immediately fetch an Ensnaring Bridge, making Goyf more impotent than Bob before he put a new spring in his step. The problem with traditional control strategies were that they had to put the vast majority of their eggs into a single, creature based basket, or they had to invest a lot of effort into milling the opponent, whether their primitive tool was Millstone or Jace Beleren. Winning that way is simply far too slow. I think Tezzeret really changes things; now if you really want you no longer have to expose yourself to any removal; hide behind Ensnaring Bridge and/or Moat until you win. A lot of people have suggested slotting the Leyline of the Void/Helm of Obedience combo into Tezzeret decks just to never present a target for Swords to Plowshares. Even without that, if you have Tezzeret out, you can put a Grindstone into play and then put Painter’s Servants into play until they run out of removal.

Obviously, I’m incredibly nostalgic for my Stax deck with Time Vaults, so that’s the deck I want to build. Okay, not exactly; I’ve been working for a long time on Stax in between. Leading up to Grand Prix: Columbus I had developed and strongly advocated a Stax deck that ran Blue for Propaganda and Stasis. The biggest problem the deck had was against aggressive strategies; they could easily tap a few lands to Propaganda or Tangle Wire and continue to beat down with guys. This was especially a problem for Goblins since they could keep up with Smokestack easily, and it was doubly an issue because Smokestack is slow. Generally the deck has three mana on turn 3 and four mana on turn 4, which means Smokestack doesn’t even effect the board until turn 5. They say slow and steady wins the race, but slow and steady never faced Tarmogoyf plus Force of Will. In the old fable, the hare took a break to nap; in Legacy the hare casts a turn 1 Goblin Lackey and puts ten power on the table by turn 3. Even my best effort never got the Goblins matchup to more than 50/50 without severely contorting the maindeck.

Post-Columbus I continued to work on Stax and managed to dramatically improve the aggro matchup. That’s when I discovered a hidden gem from The Dark: Mana Vortex. Mana Vortex is basically a Smokestack that comes down a turn earlier and has an immediate effect on the game, meaning it is functionally two turns faster. Sure, they can only sacrifice lands, but that’s all you want them to sacrifice. Plus, Mana Vortex will never force you to sacrifice a Mox Diamond; if you have Mox Diamonds in play and they have lands, they have to keep sacrificing while you can cast spells. I built a UW Stax shell around this strategy, using Ghostly Prisons to complement the Propagandas and guarantee you always have that sort of effect. In that deck I was using Karn, Silver Golem. Karn was functionally immune to Swords to Plowshares because even though it would die right away, you could easily animate ten power worth of artifacts and attack. The downside was when you couldn’t do enough damage or even worse, the games where your opponent happened to have a Goblin Sharpshooter and a bunch of one and two power Goblins to block; they could trade their guys for your lock pieces and then untap and make more guys. The old Time Vault Stax decks had the ability to play Time Vault on turn 1, meaning they didn’t have zero turn 1 plays to make when they didn’t get to jump up to three mana. One of the best things I ever did in that list was to add Sphere of Resistance and Pithing Needle into the deck as potential turn 1 plays. Ramping to a 5 mana creature is too difficult with Resistors in play, but I really think have 8 turn 1 plays is a necessity. I remember remarking to a friend that all I needed printed to play Stax was a kill mechanism that was immune to Swords to Plowshares; it was literally the only card needed. And oops, here’s a Planeswalker; exactly the card you were looking for! But what’s this Green creature over here…?

The format has changed significantly since the Stax days of yore, mainly via the addition of Tarmogoyf. Back in the day you had all day and night to screw around casting spells before Threshold got around to doing more than pricking you with a pin; now they counter an artifact you play, sacrifice a fetchland and they’re already playing a 3/4 guy on turn 2. Tarmogoyf makes the Threshold matchup significantly more troublesome. Tarmogoyf is the Peter Petrelli of Legacy; he beats everybody but himself. If you have a weak starting hand, it’s not unreasonable for Tarmogoyf to kill you before you draw into more spells. While the Threshold matchups are still good for you, fighting against Tarmogoyf is still very difficult. Also, a single Propaganda is no longer enough; in the days before Threshold you could literally restrict Threshold’s ability to play spells profitably; by the time Werebear was dressed and ready for the prom you were ready to combo out. Today you have to play at least partially honestly.

I started with a core of build is 4 Chalice of the Void, 4 Trinisphere, 4 Crucible of Worlds, 4 Ancient Tomb, 4 Propaganda, 4 City of Traitors, 4 Mox Diamond. Most people agree with this core except for Crucible of Worlds, which I don’t understand. Crucible of Worlds in my opening hand does more to make me feel safe than almost anything else except. With the discovery of Mana Vortex, you have the option of playing up to 8 Smokestacks, and you really want a Crucible to help you maintain them. Crucible also gives you Wasteland lock and helps your mana out. A lot of hands have the potential to fall apart in the mana department if you don’t find an early Crucible of Worlds. Then I went looking for other Propaganda variants; I really want a card to help me stay mono-Blue. There are I think four reasonable options here. The first is The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale, and aside from having the most awkward name in the world, this card has a lot of potential. (Try reading “Four The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale” off a decklist; see how weird it sounds?) Aside from carrying an eighty dollar price tag, the card is easily replaceable. Oh yeah, and it’s both Legendary, which is unfortunate, and a land, which makes it Wastelandable. One of the keys in not losing to Goblins is not getting Wastelanded in the game. Pendrell Mists is a functional reprint of Tabernacle onto an enchantment. But Pendrell Mists never seemed good enough on its own to justify a four mana price tag; the whole point of switching to Mana Vortex was to get rid of four costing spells. Plus these two effects are pretty underwhelming on their own; if 1 Propaganda effect was not enough to stop Goblins or Thresh, 1 Tabernacle effect at half the value certainly isn’t. It’s possible there’s a deck based around eight Tabernacle effects, 4 Tezzeret and Winter Orbs (possibly in conjunction with Stasis), but I think the Propaganda-packing build is much more consistent.

From this slot you need a few things. It needs to have some relevance in the early game, especially against combo decks. After the removal of Stasis and Tangle Wire from previous incarnations of the deck, you lost a lot of power against decks that want to Tendrils you out. It isn’t urgent, but it would be nice to restrict TES and Threshold from playing spells while you clog the board. Part of this is also a need to restrict Pernicious Deed from coming down. The second thing this slot needs to do is synergize with Propaganda effects. It really is just as much a Propaganda deck as it is a Smokestack or Tezzeret the Seeker deck. I decided on Winter Orb. Winter Orb is basically one-sided in the deck because of the two-mana lands and Mox Diamond. Winter Orb also has a great synergy with Propaganda since they can no longer go “Pay 4, bash you for 8, untap, pay 4, bash you for 8, gg?” The goal is to find the card that best synergizes with the rest of the deck; every card must work together to draw a tighter net around your opponent. If you spend too many turns casting irrelevant spells, they’re going to make you suffer like a Robert Jordan fan.

It was in the search for another card to synergize with Propaganda that I came across the fourth option, a very interesting card: Dream Tides. Did you know that blue has a second Propaganda type effect and it stops Tarmogoyfs cold? Sure it doesn’t stop the first attack, but it has wonderful synergy with Propaganda and Winter Orb. Dream Tides is also a very compelling card to run in combination with Tabernacle type effects. Dream Tides also the amazing upside of helping to protect your Planeswalkers, but unfortunately it doesn’t stop Goblins from leaning on Aether Vial and putting a lethal attack onto the board. Still this card is incredibly exciting, and I think some number of it is correct between maindeck and sideboard.

But wait, Propagandas don’t protect Planeswalkers, and this is a Propaganda deck! I frown every time someone repeats that fact on a message board. A lot of people have said “Oh, well then don’t bother to even run Propaganda!” and then they die because their opponent played a turn 1 Aether Vial or a turn 2 Tarmogoyf. Propaganda or Ghostly Prison has been the center of most Legacy Stax decks (talking here about Flame Vault and Angel Stax here); it gives you a way to keep yourself busy without dying to creatures; Smokestack takes a few seconds to warm up and you’re not ready… Not to worry though, because the other solution was presented by Matthieu Durand, and it appears really clumsy but turns out to be an awesome answer. If Tezzeret the Seeker resolves, immediately fetch Ensnaring Bridge with it. The advantage of every card in the deck being a permanent is that you can quickly drop your hand size just by playing lands and lock pieces. If you really want to swing for lethal you can Smokestack with Tezzeret, sacrifice Smokestack and use Tezzeret’s ultimate ability to win the game. I just might activate Tezzeret twice; they say it’s better the second time; they say you get to do the weird stuff. Or you can just set up Trinisphere + Mana Vortex + Crucible of Worlds and deck them with Academy Ruins.

Time to shut up and show you a decklist:

2 Academy Ruins
4 Ancient Tomb
4 City of Traitors
3 Crystal Vein
1 Flooded Strand
1 Island
1 Polluted Delta
2 Seat of the Synod
2 Tundra
4 Wasteland
3 Tezzeret the Seeker
4 Chalice of the Void
4 Crucible of Worlds
1 Dream Tides
1 Ensnaring Bridge
2 Ghostly Prison
4 Mana Vortex
4 Mox Diamond
4 Propaganda
1 Smokestack
4 Trinisphere
4 Winter Orb

I believe Legacy Stax decks need to follow a few rules:

1) No non-permanents. You need every card you play to effect the board. There is nothing worse than needing the top of your deck to save you against a creature only to draw a worthless Intuition or Meditate. Plus when you use Mana Vortex or Smokestack you need to know that the top your deck is a permanent.
2) No creatures. They only turn on opposing removal.
3) You need 8 turn 1 drops and 8 turn 2 drops at least. Any hand without a turn 1 play is mulliganable now, which makes the deck more consistent and easy to play.

The singleton Dream Tides is one of the only cards I’m not sure of. Sometimes playing Tezzeret and fetching Ensnaring Bridge won’t be enough to keep it alive. It’s nice to have a way to somehow get their creatures to attack and then keep them locked down with Dream Tides to make sure they can’t attack the Planeswalker. It’s possible this slot could be the third Ghostly Prison or the first Pendrell Mists/The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale since they fulfill a similar role.

The deck plays incredibly straight-forward. The tradeoff for the inherent power of 2 mana lands and Moxen is that deck’s plays are fairly scripted. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that the pilot only makes one decision per game: whether to mulligan. Other than strategically holding back a Dream Tides or a Tezzeret the Seeker, there are few opportunities for you to outplay your opponent. On the other hand, most people do not know how to play against a Stax deck, and their inexperience will give you free wins. Plus just about every card in the deck is an incredible beating if it resolves against Threshold, and having game against the best deck in the format is a good place to be in.

You want to open a hand with a turn 1 play, a turn 2 play, and hopefully a turn 3 play. The goal is to shut your opponent off from killing you, then from playing spells, then you want to hurry up and win the game. Chalice of the Void almost always comes down with 1 counter since you get the most effective spells that way, and against decks like Dragon Stompy and Faerie Stompy you want to consider Chalice at 0. Chalice at 2 is also a strong play against Loam strategies and sometimes Tarmogoyfs. Other than that, your primary emphasis is establishing your manabase so that you can play any topdecks you draw. This is why I love Crucible because it makes it possible to play whatever you draw off the top.

Playing Mana Vortex is tricky; your goal is to not get it countered and lose a land. The same philosophy that applies to the Demigod of Revenge “When you play ~this~” trigger applies to the Mana Vortex trigger. Current policy indicates that if an opponent responds to Demigod of Revenge without indicating that they let the trigger resolve, they are in fact responding to the trigger. Which means if you play Demigod of Revenge and they immediately counter it, the trigger will resolve and put that Demigod into play. Similarly if you play Mana Vortex, your opponent might screw up and respond to the trigger by countering it, and now you don’t have to sacrifice a land. It’s important not to lie or misrepresent the game state here; if you make it seem like the trigger doesn’t exist, you’ve started stepping into “Cheating – Fraud” territory. But if you play Mana Vortex and ask for a response before immediately sacrificing a land, sometimes your opponent will make a mistake. If they play smart they will force you to sacrifice the land before countering the Mana Vortex.

It’s important to be very precise when you play your Planeswalkers. Most of the time when you play a Planeswalker, you want to use an ability right away. It’s important to make sure that there’s no question; you’re immediately playing one of the abilities without passing priority. It would really suck to lose Tezzeret because of a miscommunication or a minor mistake letting your opponent get in with a Fireblast or two burn spells to kill your Planeswalker with you unable to play any of its sorcery speed abilities. Also, significantly neither Pernicious Deed nor Nevinyyral’s Disk remove Planeswalkers since they specify the types of permanents they destroy; Engineered Explosives merely destroys nonlands and kill Tezzeret.

The list of every lock card I considered for the deck:

Storage Matrix
Chalice of the Void
Crucible of Worlds
Dream Tides
Ensnaring Bridge
Ghostly Prison
Mana Vortex
Tangle Wire
The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale
Pendrell Mists
Ghostly Prison
Dream Tides
Winter Orb
Sphere of Resistance
Thorn of Amethyst

Hopefully that list or discovering omissions to it will help you improve the deck, if there’s something I’ve missed.

If you’re not really abusing cards like Propaganda, Trinisphere, and Smokestack in your Tezzeret list, there’s no reason to run it in a Stax shell. In a lot of the Intuition fueled Tezzeret decks, they really want to use Force of Will and Moat instead of Propaganda and Chalice of the Void; I think those decks are really only using City of Traitors because that’s the hip new thing to do. Which is fine, I think there’s a lot of potential power in a UW Landstill type deck using Tezzeret instead of fussing around with a lot of the other cards. Moat is a really powerful card that see far less play in Legacy than it should. I think this list might be a reasonable starting point:

4 Flooded Strand
4 Island
4 Mishra’s Factory
1 Plains
1 Polluted Delta
3 Tundra
3 Wasteland
1 Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
1 Academy Ruins
1 Tropical Island
4 Brainstorm
4 Sensei’s Divining Top
2 Standstill
2 Intuition
4 Counterbalance
4 Force of Will
1 Life from the Loam
1 Crucible of Worlds
1 Grindstone
1 Painter’s Servant
1 Engineered Explosives
1 Nevinyrral’s Disk
4 Enlightened Tutor
3 Tezzeret the Seeker
2 Eternal Dragon
4 Swords to Plowshares

This list is loosely based off Zvi Mowshowitz Worlds deck with the Intuition engine added. Post board it sits 4 Leyline of the Void against decks like Ichorid or Life from the Loam recursion based decks and sideboards in one Helm of Obedience. From Zvi’s list you lose some slower control elements (Wrath of God, Counterspell) and gain a more flexible removal suite and better “Win the Game” potential.

Kevin Binswanger