Let's Talk About Stax in cEDH

Harvey McGuinness • June 22, 2023

Ethersworn Canonist by Izzy

What is Stax?

We've all had those games; the ones where every single turn is a grind, where you can't accomplish anything, when the player enforcing that grip on the table struggles to actually close out the game. Whether you revel in it or despise it is irrelevant, the strategy persists all the same - these are the stax-locked games.

Ask anyone familiar with cEDH lingo to give you an overview of the format, and chances are that their opening explanation will eventually lead to the umbrella breakdown of, turbo, midrange, and stax. While this article won't delve deeply into the first two categories, attempting to break down stax in a vacuum is a fool's errand, so it is important for us to open with an acknowledgement of its counterparts. Each of these three groups certainly feels different, primarily due to their usage of time.

Turbo is aggressive; a game of cEDH is a race, and turbo decks will burn through any resource at their disposal to outpace their opponents. Whether it is repeatedly sacrificing their Commander, blitzing away their own life total, or pitching card after card from their hand in the pursuit of mana, the plan is to and and win as fast as possible. Defensive interaction may be lower for these lists, as their mantra is that of win before your opponents can set up.

A classic turbo commander

Midrange drives along the center lane - adapting to the developments of the table and exploiting opportunities as they present themselves, midrange lists are flexible in their resource consumption but slower than their turbo counterparts. The midrange clock ticks a bit slower, but it's also much sturdier.

A classic midrange commander

Finally, we come to stax. If cEDH is a race, then the stax deck is the driver who attempts to sabotage the other cars before anyone can take off. You won't be outpacing the turbo list, and you likely won't be outvaluing the midrange list, so your goal is to stop your opponents from doing all that much to begin with. There are faster and slower lists within stax, some more disruptive and others more preventative, but the reason stax feels different from turbo and midrange isn't just that its clock is slower, but rather that it doesn't really get started until your opponents have stalled.

A classic stax commander

Stax: Density and Layering

This crux - the breaking point between winning and not losing - separates stax lists from the rest of the field not only in terms of overall strategy, but also in the individual roles of cards within a stax list. Let's take a look at a couple of examples.

First off, Collector Ouphe. Whether it is shutting off combos courtesy of Lion's Eye Diamond or simply early-game rocks, Collector Ouphe is a powerful stax effect. Like most stax pieces, however, Collector Ouphe functions within a specific range; that is, it is uniquely effective against non-green lists and artifact centric combos. The result of this disparity is that Collector Ouphe, despite being a key stax piece, is not relegated solely to stax lists in the same way that other archetype-specific cards (like Eidolon of Rhetoric) may be. You likely won't be seeing Ad Nauseam pop up in a deck that isn't built to abuse it, but you just might see Collector Ouphe regardless of the primary strategy.

When Collector Ouphe pops up in a stax list, however, things change substantially. Rather than being an incidental stax piece, Collector Ouphe becomes a primary step in the overall gameplan. This is because - just like with rituals effects in turbo lists - there is a real power to be had in effect density, so much so that deploying an umpteenth restriction on your opponents' gameplans can sufficiently allow you to move on with your secondary goal of actually winning the game. Whereas with rituals density leads to chains of explosivity, stax effect density leads to multi-layered constrictions, providing one safeguard after another.

A similar effect can be observed with Esper Sentinel, a ubiquitous card advantage effect found across all manner of White cEDH lists. While card draw is certainly incredibly important, Esper Sentinel's alternative effect - a cost increase placed upon the first noncreature spell each opponent casts each turn - gains an increase in value across stax, as the emphasis on disruption via stalled early game development becomes crucial to the overall stax plan. In short, paying the one becomes a much more appealing counter to effects such as Esper Sentinel in stax lists, as opposed to its base appeal in other strategies.

Synergy isn't a new phenomenon, and it's certainly not unique to stax, rather the key point to illustrate here is that some of the most ubiquitous cards across cEDH take on new lives as stax pieces once that becomes the core goal of the deck. Rhystic Study is always going to be good, but when it is backed up by a Trinisphere and an Esper Sentinel it will become a lock piece that behaves very differently than it would elsewhere.

Parity and the Timescale

With layering out of the way, we've come to the next key component of a stax deck - the problem of parity. Whereas each game action of a turbo or midrange list seldom directly advances the plans of any particular opponent, a missequencing of stax effects can and will hand your opponents the game. This is because most stax effects are symmetric, and it is up to the deck to navigate proper deployment so as to be as unaffected as possible.

An excellent example of this is Back to Basics. As written, the card impacts each player equivalently. The only way around this? Play basic lands, and a lot of them. Some lists can do this to great effect, like Shorikai, Genesis Engine or Grand Arbiter Augustin IV. Others, not so much. This isn't the problem, however. Rather, the trickiness comes into the issue of which decks you sit down to play against. Back to Basics against a pod of various four-color piles lists will be game warping, but if deployed against a pod consisting of Godo, Bandit Warlord, Blue Farm, and Codie, Vociferous Codex and you just might end up handing Godo the game.

Stax lists can insulate themselves from their effects, but there is no control when it comes to the distribution of the pods they play into. Sure, a Drannith Magistrate is about as safe a stax piece as they come, but land an ill-timed Teferi, Time Raveler and suddenly you are the only player capable of holding back the bevy of opponent win attempts which may be made as the game progresses.

The best stax lists get around this by being explosive and applying continual pressure along as many resource axis as possible, as is the case with Winota, Joiner of Forces. This highlights the conundrum presented by dual goals of stax development; yes, you want to lock the game as quickly as possible, but you also want the game to continue under that lock for as short a time as possible. Each turn that progresses after the locked has been enacted is an opportunity for an opponent to wriggle free, meaning each turn - regardless of your advances - is an opportunity for a loss. The tools with which most stax lists operate - disruptive countermagic, Rule of Law effects, etc., - are also those tools which lead to long games, something which not all stax lists are necessarily primed for in perpetuity. Couple this with the inequity in stax efficacy, and suddenly pilots may find themselves in positions where each turn - as incremental as they may be - is benefitting one opponent substantially more than the others.

Not Losing vs Actually Winning

Finally, we've come to the grand problem of stax lists: converting locks to wins. While this is a problem stax faces to vastly varying degrees across lists, it is nonetheless a common thread seen across the archetype.

Each archetype - turbo, midrange, and stax - can be viewed as operating under three primary stages. The first stage - set up - is the deployment of key early game pieces which enable gameplay. Mana dorks, rocks, etc. This is the ubiquitous foundation of cEDH which enables the second stage - strategy deployment (or, the midgame). This is when each deck deploys some of its hallmark threats; for stax, that is your Rule of Laws, Cursed Totems, etc. Last but not least, there comes the endgame, when each player has established a secure position (or at least attempted to) and is actively going for the win.

Now, each of these stages doesn't necessarily have to take a set number of turns. A breakneck turbo list can collapse the first and second stages into one explosive ritual turn, followed up by a win attempt shortly thereafter. Rather, these stages each represent common sequencing of strategy across archetypes. While turn one wins are possible, the majority of games will see a bevy of turn one mana sources instead.

The issue with stax is the difficulty of jumping from the second stage to the third. Turns may pass with little being done by any player - even the one piloting the stax list - while other cycles may pass where you have to be the one policing the player who got loose because the other two opponents can't interact - how could they? You've locked them out.

Many of the meta's current successful stax lists have seen this problem and taken a gradualist approach to it. That is, rather than attempting to piece together a combo win once each opponent has been locked out, they seek to win through tried-and-true combat damage strategies, as is the case with Jetmir, Nexus of Revels. While this runs well with the long games stax is known for, this gradualism is weak to the explosivity which comes with traditional combos. A player can take several turns to be brought down to one life, but it only takes one turn to win out of nowhere with an Underworld Breach.

Other stax lists have taken to splitting the difference and running both approaches, picking off players via combat if possible but nonetheless holding tight to a hopefully inevitable combo victory. Punching is effective, but so too are Witherbloom Apprentice and Chain of Smog. While this holds the potential to steal a win if conditions are right, picking both paths at once runs the risk of cutting efficiency, a dangerous slope to start down in the world of cEDH.

This isn't to say that stax lists can't win or that the archetype is somehow flawed - I'll be piloting my favourite deck, Grand Arbiter Augustin IV, at the Tavern of Souls 2k this weekend, but it is a recognition that - as opposed to simply asking how do I win - stax players must first ask themselves how do I not lose.

Wrap Up

Each archetype has its own unique strengths and weaknesses, paces of play, and - most importantly - cool cards and Commanders, but when it comes to stax there is a significant amount of exploration and thought that needs to be put into sequencing the deck against the rest of the field. Very rarely will a stax deck simply win the race of the pod, so timing your lock is important. A good stax player will find themselves policing the table from time to time, but such a strategy is often sustainable for an entire game. Good luck, and may all your locks turn into wins.

Harvey McGuinness is a student at Johns Hopkins University who has been playing Magic since the release of Return to Ravnica. After spending a few years in the Legacy arena bouncing between Miracles and other blue-white control shells, he now spends his time enjoying Magic through cEDH games and understanding the finance perspective.