Stifle Sucks In cEDH
Stifle | Illustrated by Eric Fortune
Welcome back, readers! This week I wanted to hit a little closer to my home turf to show how committed I am to equal opportunity article writing, so we're going after a blue Legacy classic: Stifle!
Stifle Sucks In cEDH
Stifle is a card that I think many savvy players understand and accept is below the bar at this point. I have actually seen a steady decline of Stifle's presence in this format in the years I've been playing, but sometimes, people that are newer to cEDH and/or are attracted to the unique effect of Stifle will make posts like this one asking about it, so, naturally, an article breaking down when Stifle is at its best and when you should pass on it seems appropriate. You all even get a bit of a double feature because many of the same arguments that I'm going to make here also apply to Trickbind, Tale's End, and all the other one-off similar effects.
Why It Looks Like It Doesn't Suck
Stifle is an aspirational card that, on initial read, has you fantasizing about all the corner cases where you can blow unsuspecting opponents out and crush them all by pulling a single, pivotal piece out of the house of cards by stopping a single triggered or activated ability. Additionally, the card has found quite a bit of success in Legacy since its printing in Scourge, almost 20 years ago as of this writing. Stifle founded entire archetypes around powering out Phyrexian Dreadnought while sidestepping the downside of the trigger when it enters. It also found a home with more longevity as a part of a mana denial strategy alongside other Legacy powerhouses like Daze and Wasteland.
Undeniably, the card has enough success in Legacy, the 60-card format most similar to cEDH in power level, to be worth taking a look. For that reason, I don't fault brewers for giving the card a try in their decks, especially with the addition of Dockside Extortionist in 2019 and again with the addition of Thassa's Oracle in 2020, which has swiftly taken over as one of the most common ways games are won in cEDH.
Stifle, being able to counter the trigger once Thassa's Oracle is in play but after the opponent has exiled their library, lures you in with the appeal of snatching the victory away from your opponent and leaving them helpless with no library. If you can just get it to line up, it would be an incredible moment that leaves you the hero of the table and leaves your opponent in shambles for foolishly attempting to win the game when you have blue mana up.
Why Stifle Sucks
The problem with that whole plan? The context around it. It is rare that Thassa's Oracle is attempted as a win alongside its risky partners in crime, Demonic Consultation or Tainted Pact, without interaction being accounted for. The two most common paths to a Thassa's Oracle win involve Ad Nauseam drawing a large quantity of cards or Underworld Breach with Brain Freeze also giving the prospective winner a large number of cards to work with. As a result, the focus when it comes to including interaction typically looks to answer those kinds of cards. If you can use a Swan Song to stop the Underworld Breach or Ad Nauseam before any of it gets started, you would much rather do that than let all of that happen to try to stop just the Stifle trigger.
In decks today, it's not uncommon for Silence effects to be how combo turns begin, which Stifle does nothing to answer. It's also not uncommon for the prospective winner to be able to just attempt the Thassa's Oracle win again with Snap or Chain of Vapor. Stifle again does little to help stem the bleeding when the winner has excess resources to work with and is easy to cover when attempting wins in any of these ways. On top of all of these measures, it's also relatively easy to interact with.
Many of the commonly played Negate effects, including even Mental Misstep, can interact favorably with Stifle assuming the prospective winner has access to a large amount of their deck. This is where a card like Trickbind begins to look potentially appealing. After all, if one of the issues is that Stifle is easy to interact with, surely a Split second starts to fix that problem? Not for two mana, it doesn't! The same issues we just covered still apply. Even Negate does more to stop Thassa's Oracle win attempts at the same rate on the front end, against Underworld Breach and Ad Nauseam, and back end against Demonic Consultation or Tainted Pact, and it sees little to no play in cEDH.
Addressing one of the issues but costing double the mana is certainly not the direction for narrow interaction in cEDH, which makes Trickbind even worse than Stifle in cEDH. Tale's End get a little more attractive by being able to counter commanders, which gives it a lot more guaranteed targets in the average pod, but once again, two mana is a lot to pay for an otherwise narrow counter.
What about Dockside Extortionist? Stifle being good against Dockside Extortionist is actually the best argument for the card in my opinion. Stopping the Dockside Extortionist trigger gives it some range not available to the Negate effects of the format mentioned above. Again, though, that's only one specific card of 98-99 played, and it's not involved as an essential piece of a high-investment win attempt like Ad Nauseam and Underworld Breach.
Realistically, to you Stifle players out there, the times you happen to draw it and an opponent also happens to need Dockside to win, the card has a meaningful impact on the game. Still, in that case, compare it to Spell Snare, a counterspell played rarely if at all in cEDH today because it's so narrow. Spell Snare stops Thassa's Oracle, Underworld Breach, and Dockside Extortionist while having additional flexibility and does not see play. Stifle is worse than Spell Snare in cEDH, but it does something unique, so players focus more on Stifle.
The Scenarios Where It Doesn't Suck
So if the card sucks, why was it good for so long in Legacy? The answer has to do with cohesive support. In the case of Phyrexian Dreadnought, which does not see high-level success in Legacy consistently in 2023, Stifle enabled an "unfair" combo to play a large attacker ahead of schedule as its primary function. All the cute plays against fetchlands, Storm triggers, and the like were secondary usages when flooded on Stifles missing their Dreadnoughts.
In the case of Delver, Stifle was there primarily to strangle the opponents' mana and continue the early game mana development as is recognized as the identity of present-day Delver decks. Even there, however, it is the weakest element of the bunch. Wasteland and Daze are the more potent aspects of the mana denial package, and Stifle is at its best when players don't expect it and play around it. Consequently, Stifle frequently comes in waves in Legacy Delver decks. When people stop playing around it, Stifle sees a resurgence for a time, people start playing around it, Delver decks stop playing it (but keep the advantage of people playing around it when it's not even in the deck), people realize it's not played anymore and stop playing around it, and the cycle repeats.
Here again, all the cute interactions that people tell stories about is secondary to a cohesive, primary function that gives it the power it was known for in Legacy. None of these scenarios exist in cEDH: Phyrexian Dreadnought is not powerful in cEDH, hitting one player's fetchlands is not good in cEDH, and ultimately it is mostly there to try and fulfill a fantasy of using niche cards to blow opponents out in scenarios that are not even guaranteed to work against a prospective win attempt.
It Definitely Sucks Though
Many times, I believe there is a caveat for decks that are less colorful and may not have any other options. In Stifle's case, I think even that doesn't hold true. Mono-blue decks should not play this. Two-color decks should certainly not play this; yes, even Krark/Sakashima. The card is too narrow, and if you're not already maxed out on even the worst counterspells for one mana you shouldn't give it a look.
These days, there are too many other options that are more effective than Stifle, Trickbind, Nimble Obstructionist, and all the other similar one-off effects similar to Stifle. Feel free to give me all the one-in-a-million examples you have of players that could have played around Stifle running face first into it because they got sloppy, the card still sucks! We have come a long way in playables since Scourge, and the only part of the card that I can get behind at this point is its flavor text.
Thanks for reading!