I love red magic. I really do. “Deal Three Damage” will always be the three most important words in the history of Magic the Gathering as far as I’m concerned.
But I tossed this, my deepest held conviction, aside and instead chose to try and break
Aminatou, the Fateshifter for the EDH tournament at the annual Carnage Con. I was going to run Stax,
Palinchron loops and flicker shenanigans. It was going to be great. Of course, running this strategy with a three-color mana base and less than a month of playtesting made it clear I was in over my head. This required a last minute retool and I decided to settle on mono blue to honor the OG
High Tide infinite mana combo and assigned
Sai, Master Thopterist to take the wheel. For brevity’s sake, I’ll dispense the deck list first and follow it up with some after action review, the lines of play I enjoyed and some thoughts on the conundrum of why Commander is such a tricky format to run as a competitive event.
Altar of the Brood
Cloud of Faeries
Field of Ruin
Maze of Ith
Muddle the Mixture
Sai, Master Thopterist
Sensei's Divining Top
Sleight of Hand
Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir
Temple of the False God
Thopter Spy Network
Words of Wind
First let’s give credit where it is due and note that I did take inspiration from Laboratory Maniacs on YouTube and their rendition of a
Kess, Dissident Mage brew that also included a
High Tide combo. Though I absolutely didn’t have the budget for what they were brewing. Also for a good resource on what stax is all about, be sure to check the primer on mtgsalvation.com.
That said, here are my pointers for this Sai Stax brew.
Lock down the board state: The basic premise of Stax is to take resources away from opponents with cards like
Tangle Wire. These are intended to slow the pace of the game, so the board state doesn’t get to out of hand too quickly. Cards like
Sai, Master Thopterist,
Teferi, Mage of Zhalfirand
Spellskitealso work to provide early blockers and manipulate an opponent’s ability to interact with your board state. All this helps to by you time to set up for your grand combo finale.
Protect the Combo: While the stax strategy serves as a bottle neck for your opponents it often puts a target on your back since you’re basically telling everyone they can’t play magic. They will be watching for your shenanigans, so you need to be ready. In blue this usually translates to a
Counterspellpackage. I ran a pretty basic budget list with
Muddle the Mixture,
Swan Song. While this list is not optimized it still does a good job. It even has a secondary win condition involving
Dramatic Reversalwith at least 4 mana available through mana rocks that produces infinite bird tokens.
Be Consistent: Basically, this is calling for a solid base of tutors to toolbox up combo pieces that will close out our game. The tutors I ran for this list are
Trophy Mageand in a roundabout way
The Combo: This deck’s prime directive is to make infinite mana and ruin everyone’s day in one turn. It's also important to note that the production of this mana provides consistent resources of “cast” and/or “enter the battlefield” (ETB) triggers. I brewed with these triggers in mind so even if I had nothing to do with all that mana, I could still win simply with what I had available in my board state. There are also multiple combos that are doing the same thing so even if half of my options get ruined, I still have a fighting chance.
So, let’s look at the combo package's nuances.
High Tide is basically the namesake of how this combo works by doubling the mana our islands produce. It's not alone however, since we also run mana boosted lands in
Temple of the False God and even
Thespian’s Stage if we really need it for that. We add to this boosting power through the use of our mana rocks as well with
Mana Vault and
Basalt Monolith being some our more abusable/fetchable options in this list. These set the stage for our other half of the combo package.
Palinchron is the big bad fatty of this combo team. All by itself with
High Tide and six
Island’s you can make all the blue mana you want.
Cloud of Faeries and
Peregrine Drake paired with
Deadeye Navigator do the same thing. This is further supported with the combo of
Dramatic Reversal imprinted on
Isochron Scepter with at least 3 mana available through our mana rocks.
Paradox Engine also serves to reinforce this plan.
What do I do with all this mana?
The primary win condition of this deck is
Laboratory Maniac. This can either be accomplished by dumping all your mana into
Prosperity OR by running infinite ETB triggers through your
Hazoret’s Monument. Should it be the case that you need to use
Prosperity to find your
Laboratory Maniac in order to cast it, the deck is chock full of cantrips and even has a draw machine build into
Sai, Master Thopterist for a nice and tidy “Good Game”.
Now, if you’re facing blue it will get tricky since you have to worry about someone trying to flash in their own
Laboratory Maniac threatening to beat you to the punch. Fortunately we have back up plans.
In the event
Laboratory Maniac gets the shaft we have equally relevant options to fall back on with
Aetherflux Reservoir and
Bontu’s Monument taking advantage of infinite cast triggers. These are also the next best options since they allow you to finish off the game on your turn. Next in our back up plan is
Altar of the Brood taking advantage of infinite ETB triggers to mill out all your opponent’s libraries forcing them to lose on their draw step.
We can also lean on
Iron Maiden to combo with
Prosperity and kill our opponents on their upkeep (which gets around an opponent’s
Laboratory Maniac but loses to infinite life decks.) The down side of these last two combo pieces in a vacuum is that you are counting on your opponents to lose on their turns which can matter a great deal so buyer beware. Finally, if for no other reason, we have
Mechanized Production for a hilarious flavor win.
After Action Review
This deck was far better than its pilot when it came to its tournament performance, which ended with a seat for me at the Finals table. Now I call it a Finals table, but the tournament was run as multiplayer with pods of four at each table. We had 16 people show up and only 2 rounds of actual games soplease take with a grain of salt.
In the first round the deck did pretty much what it was supposed to be doing. I was able to stall things out a bit. I copied a
Nekusar, the Mindrazer with my
Phyrexian Metamorph putting half the table on a vicious clock. Then I combo-ed off to make all the mana, which I used to
Capsize everything my opponents had outside of shrouded slivers. Then tutored
Prosperity to the top of my deck via
Soothsaying so I could use
Sai, Master Thopterist draw and cast it for all the cards, killing everyone with my Metamorph copy of Nekusar.
I felt SO dirty… and yet giddy all at once.
The second round was all my fault. I was too green with this deck and kept a bad hand. Misplayed and held a counter when I should have used it. Then after a ‘Vorinclex, Voice of Hunger’ hit the field I played
Winter Orb on my turn and the game ground to a halt. Life was grim. Then the
Animar, Soul of Elements player got his combos out of the weeds while the rest of us made him play it out over the course of the last 30 minutes of our game. It was a slow and hilarious death involving absurd amounts of trample.
In the end I was still very happy with the performance of my Sai Stax brew. It definitely has plenty of competitive pieces to take the game from out of nowhere, but I don’t feel it is so over powered to be considered a Tier 1 competitive EDH deck. Even so it’s easily upgradeable if you have the money to throw at it and definitely has the chops to hold its own in multiplayer and 1v1 settings.
A Competitive Conundrum
Competitive game play and EDH definitely have an oil and water relationship in the community. Even at this tournament I spoke with players who had traveled quite some distance, recounting how difficult it was to have an EDH tournament at their LGS. The problems were all too familiar to me. Drastic disparities between player skill and deck power levels quickly warped the meta or tanked interest in having tournaments at all. Pursuing the matter further on Twitter I found more of the same sentiments with the added note of poor player attitudes being an influencing factor as well. This seemed to manifest through experiences of players running into opponents who passed off souped up decks as “casual” for some gotcha-magic.
Whatever the reasons were explained as it usually came back to an uneven playing field with power levels all over the place. Addressing this power disparity in EDH is no simple task. If you ban too many cards you run the risk of losing too many players or making the format stale. Along a similar line it's equally difficult to sway EDH players to spring for something like Modern EDH outside of small or local meta settings. So how do you level the competitive EDH playing field without being too restrictive?
There are two options I feel could accomplish this task. The first would be a points system like we see in the Canadian Highlander format. It would certainly be a bit trickier due to the command zone being present, but I think it could be a good way to allow players access to their favorite cards without outright banning them because of their power level. Admittedly this would be a massive undertaking, but I think a points system would have merit in a competitive EDH setting.
The second, simpler option, would be allowing EDH players to use a 25-card sideboard. The big difference for something like an EDH tournament would be that sideboarding would take place at the beginning of a match with only knowledge of the opponent’s commander. I could see this getting very interesting in a multiplayer tournament setting. Even better is the fact that this approach would be a way for players to use more of their cards rather than telling them what they can’t use.
Maybe I’m crazy for floating these options but I think they’re worth considering. At the very least I think its important for all EDH players to strive for at least on competitive deck if only to sharpen their own skills in game.
As always you can share your thoughts with me about this and many other EDH debates on twitter.coms @JohnnySlivers.
I hope you enjoyed the brew and breakdown. Until next time, have a great day.