Commander: How to Find a Casual Middle Ground for Stax
If you've played Magic the Gathering and EDH/Commander long enough, you've probably run into some of the taboo cards or abilities that are usually frowned upon at the more casual tables. What these all have in common is that they keep players from using their cards and/or resources to play the game. Effects that make you pay extra mana, keeping you from casting spells, keeping you from using your resources, stealing away time, etc. These are a part of the game though. Some players have a strict prohibition against them, while others fling them around without a care. Usually the games I've experienced are closer to the former.
Isn't there a middle ground for these cards though? They are useful effects and can keep you protected and get you ahead. Likewise, they can keep you from much of anything, which is the major problem for you or someone you're playing against. Today I'm going to explore different kinds of “stax” and what I consider a happy middle ground where you can use some of these effects from generally good to less so.
Contract from Below - Douglas Shuler
The Social Contract involved with casual commander games often involves many unspoken understandings, including the “everyone gets to play their stuff” rule. This refers to cards and abilities that stop players from doing something or anything going unused. Largely frowned upon, you hopefully won't see many of these kinds of dedicated strategies where you play, as this unspoken rule seems well understood in advance by the majority of players.
In my time playing I've realized these cards can be very useful, and there is a line you can ride that usually doesn't make people salty about your own deck and its strategy. This careful balancing act is what gives the leeway to use these effects, and as the years have gone on we've gotten less hard stax effects and more soft stax effects, making this even more viable.
Of course, how this is used is largely dependent on your playgroup or LGS. I'm going to speak from my own experience and I hope your take away from this article lets you lean against the guardrail of the Social Contract with a smirk.
Pay for Play
The easiest and most recognized effect we can use here is the tax effect, or making our opponents pay more mana for doing something or giving the choice to pay to prevent something from happening. The first bit has cards like Propaganda and Ghostly Prison, Aura of Silence and God-Pharaoh's Statue. These cards make our opponents use extra resources as a static effect, usually mana but it can be things like creatures or life, to get to do something. A more recent example might be the Ward keyword.
The second kind is a tax that happens when something triggers in the course of the game. Smothering Tithe, Esper Sentinel, Rhystic Study, etc., all only work if something happens defined by the card and when the opponent doesn't pay to prevent the effect. Something that both these and the before mentioned taxing effects have in common are that they give opponents a choice and doesn't force a condition on the game itself that is insurmountable. Usually.
Another kind of stax is limiting the window opponents have to react to what you're doing. Grand Abolisher, Dragonlord Dromoka, Conqueror's Flail and Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir limit your opponents to casting their spells on turns other than yours (or in the case of Teferi, outside of their own). These kinds of effects all tend to be the same-ish, so there is less chance of them stacking together to create a terrible experience for all players outside of anything they are already accomplishing.
There are other cards with an even narrower scope, like Marisi, Breaker of the Coil and Basandra, Battle Seraph, both of which only affect the game during the combat phase instead of an entire turn. Angelic Arbiter likewise has an interesting effect that forces a choice of casting spells or attacking, but doing one means you can't to the other.
Something else that works well are “enters tapped” or “doesn't untap” effects. Blind Obedience, Urabrask the Hidden, Lavinia of the Tenth, and Thalia and the Gitrog Monster can turn off certain aspects of the board temporarily to gain an advantage now, giving the user a window to affect their own strategy.
There is still another road we can go if that is too strong for your group, and that's with selective denial, we're going to leave mass land destruction out of this conversation. We're trying to play at the casual table after all. What we're looking for here are specific pieces of denial, tailored perhaps to the metas you play in.
Lavinia, Azorius Renegade is a card that fits this role. It doesn't punish anything except the most greedy plays, like Force of Will or Deflecting Swat when played for free. It also keeps players honest with their mana base in part.
Archon of Valor's Reach allows you to select a type of card to keep any player from casting. While this can feel like a hard lock on specific strategies like Enchantress, this card is usually a fine addition to save your board from board wipes or to keep the storm player from going off until the Archon is dealt with. It also balances itself by affecting you as well.
There are other cards like Sigarda, Heron's Grace or Tamiyo, Collector of Tales that help you over hampering your opponents, making their edict effects and spells null and void. This is especially good when you're counting on a specific creature or group of specific creatures to help you win the game.
A specific card I want to mention is Drannith Magistrate. This card rides right along the fence of acceptable to the unspoken understanding and you should ask your playgroup about using it. Many decks revolve around their commanders these days and using this card might be seen as simply rude. However, I like to think of it as enforcing plan B. While I don't use this card myself, it is clearly an effective piece of denial against commanders and cast from exile or other zones abilities.
Lastly, effects like Torpor Orb or Hushbringer negate many powerful effects. These types of cards in particular tend to ride the line, and should be discussed with your playgroup(s).
Edicts and Etiquette
These kinds of cards are similar to the card Smokestack, where the name Stax comes from. They force a player to sacrifice or destroy permanents usually of their choice but sometimes not. Largely centered in Black cards like Grave Pact, Archfiend of Depravity, or Phyrexian Obliterator, we also have Karmic Justice in White, Rishadan Cutpurse in Blue, Crack the Earth in Red and Druid of Purification in Green.
Many of these kinds of cards nowadays wait for something to happen to the controller of the card or the card itself to bring some punishment down upon the offender, much like Karmic Justice mentioned above. With these kinds of effects, these cards can also be put into my next category.
The last effect I want to go over is what are referred to as “rattlesnake” effects. If you notice above, many of the cards we've been talking about (and so many I didn't cover) fall into the colors Green, White, and Blue. The rattlesnake cards in this section largely fall into the colors Black and Red with some sprinkled in White, Green and Blue. These tend to give the most flexibility to other players by giving them choice and have less impact on a game's resources. Usually. A subset of these cards are “punisher” type effects that, even when the player is given a choice, they're both bad ones and more directly affect resource use.
What the rattlesnake cards do is give your opponents a choice, usually a “leave me alone or you get hurt somehow” choice. Let's start with the classic card No Mercy. If someone hits you with a creature, their creature dies. This effect is good in the early game before lethal damage can be presented to our faces, and later it can be used to politic around the table. If someone needs a creature to die, let them attack you for some nice triggers if you want.
There are plenty of other cards in the category too. Lightmine Field, Caltrops, Emberwilde Captain, Teysa, Envoy of Ghosts, Sarkhan the Masterless, Michiko Konda, Truth Seeker, Dread etc. The list goes on for a while. While these cards lack a more static effect on the game, they make up for it in player choice and politicking.
Punisher style cards offer the choice of two bad options, like Mogis God of Slaughter, Braids Arisen Nightmare, Painful Quandary and even the aforementioned Angelic Arbiter. While most players can deal with cards like these, having a few on the board starts making things more difficult for opponents. Then there are cards like Zo-Zu the Punisher and Ob Nixilis, Unshackled that give a choice not directly stated but by pressure put on opponents to risk the pain for their rewards.
Unpacking the Stax
Alright, with all that listed out how are they able to be used without becoming oppressive?
People can play their cards as the unspoken rule, but for how much and when can be something you try and control. Trying to avoid shutting off an entire deck in a friendly game of casual commander is something to aim for if you want to use these effects in that kind of setting. Of course, sometimes you shut off or seriously impede certain decks but this should be an outlier most of the time.
To avoid this, don't put too many effects into a deck, either of one kind or of many. A single Emberwilde Captain coupled with a Dread will be a great deterrent to attacks against you. Likewise, an Esper Sentinel and Lavinia, Azorius Renegade can make decisions for your opponents a little harder. In my experience I find running about six to eight, depending on the deck and the cards' strength, does the job. Mixing and matching these effects gives you the protections you need without completely shutting people out of the game and lets people rise to the challenge.
Cards we want to avoid at all costs are cards that turn off a specific basic chunk of the game. These cards are hard stax pieces, like Armageddon (lands), Jin-Gitaxias, Core Augur (hands), Hall of Gemstone (two or more mana colors), Iona, Shield of Emeria (spells of a specific color) Stasis (untap step) and Blood Moon (color fixing from nonbasics) all jump the fence and land squarely in the realm of shutting off decks either entirely or in part, keeping people from playing the game almost at all on their own once online depending on the meta. Remember, we're aiming for the “everyone gets to play their stuff” unspoken rule here, and these cards stop interaction by a wide swathe of cards with themselves by themselves.
Do You Pay The 1?
This is a brief summary of my thoughts on stax pieces without the nuisance you'd need for specific scenarios. A few softer cards in a deck is fine, and politics or your own removal should take care of some of the pieces. They also allow the game to continue the vast majority of the time, and the game that gets played is always better than the one that doesn't in my opinion.
As I go to tend to my own decks, I do have a question for you my fellow planeswalkers. There was a card ability I didn't mention specifically: Goad. Where would you put this kind of ability? It takes away player agency but doesn't take away from the game per se. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below, and happy brewing!