Sai on the Stax

John Humphreys • November 29, 2018

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 Palinchron/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.

The Deck

1x Aetherflux Reservoir
1x Altar of the Brood
1x Ashnod's Altar
1x Basalt Monolith
1x Brainstorm
1x Bontu's Monument
1x Capsize
1x Cloud of Faeries
1x Coldsteel Heart
1x Consecrated Sphinx
1x Coral Atoll
1x Counterspell
1x Cyclonic Rift
1x Deadeye Navigator
1x Dispel
1x Dramatic Reversal
1x Equilibrium
1x Expedition Map
1x Fabricate
1x Fellwar Stone
1x Field of Ruin
1x Gilded Lotus
1x Hazoret's Monument
1x High Tide
1x Hurkyl's Recall
1x Impulse
1x Iron Maiden
25x Island
1x Isochron Scepter
1x Laboratory Maniac
1x Lotus Petal
1x Mana Vault
1x Maze of Ith
1x Mechanized Production
1x Mental Misstep
1x Merchant Scroll
1x Muddle the Mixture
1x Mystic Remora
1x Mystical Tutor
1x Opt
1x Palinchron
1x Panharmonicon
1x Paradox Engine
1x Peregrine Drake
1x Phyrexian Metamorph
1x Pithing Needle
1x Ponder
1x Preordain
1x Prosperity
1x Reliquary Tower
1x Remand
1x Rhystic Study
1x Sai, Master Thopterist
1x Sensei's Divining Top
1x Skullclamp
1x Sleight of Hand
1x Smokestack
1x Sol Ring
1x Soldevi Excavations
1x Solemn Simulacrum
1x Soothsaying
1x Spellskite
1x Static Orb
1x Swan Song
1x Tangle Wire
1x Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir
1x Telling Time
1x Temple of the False God
1x Thaumatic Compass
1x Thespian's Stage
1x Thopter Spy Network
1x Trinket Mage
1x Trophy Mage
1x Winter Orb
1x Words of Wind
1x Worn Powerstone

The Gist
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

That said, here are my pointers for this Sai Stax brew.

  1. Lock down the board state: The basic premise of Stax is to take resources away from opponents with cards like Winter Orb, Static Orb and 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 Zhalfir and Spellskite also 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.

  2. 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 Counterspell package. I ran a pretty basic budget list with Counterspell, Dispel, Mental Misstep, Muddle the Mixture, Remand and Swan Song. While this list is not optimized it still does a good job. It even has a secondary win condition involving Swan Song, Phyrexian Metamorph, Isochron Scepter and Dramatic Reversal with at least 4 mana available through mana rocks that produces infinite bird tokens.

  3. 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 Mystical Tutor, Fabricate, Merchant Scroll, Trinket Mage, Trophy Mage and in a roundabout way Soothsaying.

  4. 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.

Mana Boosters

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 Coral Atoll, Soldevi Excavations, 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 Sol Ring, 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.

Mana Loopers

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 Equilibrium or 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.

Plan B

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.