For my 25th article I wanted to do something a little bit different and although this article focuses on Vintage (and 5C Stax in particular) there is a lot here that is applicable to all Magic players for any format. I believe you’ll enjoy this piece regardless of your interest in Vintage.
Until recently I had little exposure to 5 Color Stax in Vintage. I became aware of the deck because a guy named Nick Detwiler kept showing up in Top 8s at Blue Bell and other local Vintage tournaments and then made back-to-back finals at tournaments at the Philly Convention Center in May and June of this year. Even though I had only played against 5C Stax three times since I began playing Vintage again I figured it would be worthwhile to start testing with and against the deck. The more I’ve tested using Nick’s version the more respect I have for both the deck and its pilot despite the fact that he is always wearing the pinstripes of a particularly ridiculous and obnoxious baseball team. Despite the uncomfortable feeling of playing Vintage without Force of Will or even Duress or Thoughtseize 5C Stax is a deck that is undeniably powerful. It has a balance of mana action and lock pieces that has been tested and honed to near-perfection. This list is able to absorb the push of an opponent that over-extends and punish an opponent who hangs back.
Stephen Menendian took a look at 5C Stax with the intent of updating the list for the new Banned and Restricted list. As a result of his analysis Stephen cut Sundering Titan Bazaar of Baghdad Powder Keg and Barbarian Ring while adding additional tutors Balance and another rainbow land. Prior to this article getting posted I had spoken to Nick about developing a primer for 5C Stax as the deck is rising in popularity and general interest in the deck has increased. I sought out Nick because my familiarity with the deck is limited to recent play-testing and I felt certain that he would be able to offer some insights that I lacked. I hope that you the reader recognize this article not as laziness on my part but rather as a reflection of my desire to make sure the information I provide is accurate.
Nick and his team undoubtedly have changes of their own in mind for 5C Stax changes that we’ll see at Vintage Champs. Nick was understandably reluctant to share developments made by his team until after that tournament is in the books. However the primer I asked for had grown into an interesting and very personal look at not only 5C Stax but also Nick’s growth as a player. Rather than edit it back down into a simple primer about the deck I thought it would be more interesting to present to you what Nick sent me with a few editorial comments. Standard warnings for this type of thing apply i.e. the views and opinions of Mr. Detwiler may not reflect those of The Long & Winding Road etc. That said grab a soda make some popcorn buckle up and enjoy.
I – Prison Theory
– N.Y.S.E. Stax -
Stax is a prison deck that seeks to establish some form of lock albeit a soft lock that grants its pilot enough time to win or a hard lock that is eventually immune to disruption and relies on inevitability to win the game.
For years now Mana Drain has been the most dominant and seemingly unstoppable of Vintage’s Five Pillars. While Rituals Shops Bazaars and Aggro strategies (henceforth the Null Rod pillar) have all waxed and waned in popularity Mana Drain remains a constant. It will undoubtedly remain so. Mana Drain strategies have a fundamental weakness. Playing Drain requires building a board as a Drain pilot must be able to cast their Drains. Additionally the Vault/Key combo may be the most broken two card combo ever but it requires time to set up mana to cast no disruption and mana to activate.
These requirements may seem small. They’re not. Drain pilots grant you windows of opportunity in which you can seize control of the board the pace of the game and potentially the match. If you are playing Workshops you must seize these opportunities.
II – Menendian’s Gauntlet
– The Return of the Champ -
As Vintage players worked towards the best list incorporating Vault/Key my teammate Raffaele Forino and I worked towards the best way to stop them. The basics had always been there: 4 Wasteland 1 Strip Mine 3 Smokestack 3 Tangle Wire 1 Gorilla Shaman. Quite clearly it was not enough not the right configuration. If we were going to be successful the deck would have to be streamlined.
The last tournament before major changes was TravisConII – a tournament in which our team had varying results. While I eventually split the finals with Arik Pogrebinsky James Hangley missed the Top 8 on breakers and Raf had a tough day overall going 2-4.
My TravisConII list:
- 1 Black Lotus
- 3 Chalice of the Void
- 3 Crucible of Worlds
- 1 Mana Crypt
- 1 Mana Vault
- 1 Memory Jar
- 1 Mox Emerald
- 1 Mox Jet
- 1 Mox Pearl
- 1 Mox Ruby
- 1 Mox Sapphire
- 3 Smokestack
- 1 Sol Ring
- 4 Sphere of Resistance
- 3 Tangle Wire
- 1 Trinisphere
- 1 Ancestral Recall
- 1 Crop Rotation
- 1 Vampiric Tutor
- 1 Balance
- 1 Demonic Tutor
- 1 Imperial Seal
- 1 Tinker
My sideboard was a mess – a theme that would continue for months. But more importantly the maindeck was not properly configured for the metagame that would eventually flesh itself out. The deck would have to become a sledgehammer with a singular purpose: a death sentence for Tezzeret. Raffaele Forino is in my opinion one of the best Stax minds in the country if not the world. He and I discussed the deck and changes that we thought should be made. Put more succinctly Raf carried the bulk of the weight as we worked towards our new list.
Balance Imperial Seal Chalice of the Voids and Memory Jar all left the main. Imperial Seal was too slow. At sorcery speed and a full turn it did not hammer the opponent immediately. Stax can ill afford to give its opponents time. Out went Seal. Chalice of the Void was wonderful in a metagame that featured combo but was poor on the draw. It is a fine sideboard option as it maintains its usefulness against combo opponents and is devastating on the play against the various Mana Drain strategies even though the restriction of Brainstorm did make it worse. On the play truly devastating things were possible i.e. a Chalice on two against a blue pilot (enjoy your Mana Drains now) – even a Chalice on 0 which denied your opponent his Moxen while you had already played yours. Memory Jar was realized for what it was – a “win more” card. It left as well.
Finally and most controversially Balance. Blue pilots were typically running around 14-16 lands to my 19. As Wasteland and Strip Mine were both land parity cards they did not help my Balance serve as land destruction. Balance also did not help control my opponents Moxen which was precisely what I needed. The printing of Inkwell Leviathan meant that Tezzeret pilots could now wantonly Tinker in the face of my Goblin Welder without fear – and they did. The only match in which Balance’s ability to nail creatures shined was against aggro –yet aggro decks were on the wane because Inkwell was too devastating. They could not handle an un-targetable trampling three-turn clock (additionally aggro strategies had yet to craft a list that would control the Vault/Key combo long enough for them to do the requisite 20 points of damage). Lastly as I was running 5CStax not a variant that sought to abuse cards like Bazaar of Baghdad I often had quite a few cards in hand. Balance was not Mind Twist for me at least.
In the right context Balance is one of the most broken cards in Vintage a card that creates the antithesis of what its name supposedly declares it to be. It is possible to create a 5CStax list that thoroughly abuses the card. In order to do so you must sacrifice certain advantages that you have. A list that seeks to thoroughly abuse Balance would probably look to take advantage of its interaction with Bazaar of Baghdad. Crucible of Worlds would also be more important than usual – it would make the land destruction more devastating for your opponent and ensure that you could recover. I believe that a list that seeks to abuse Balance in this manner is much more susceptible to both Drains and Force of Will. In lieu of creating a list that would increase the devastating effect of one card we sought to create a list that continuously hammered the opponent with threats until they crumbled. Balance was the card that I had the toughest time relegating to the sideboard. It was my security blanket. The time did come though and it was sent to the sideboard – where it shined when used properly.
In came the fourth Smokestack and the fourth Tangle Wire. Two Powder Kegs a truly awesome card that is versatile against opposing Moxen the Vault/Key combo creatures and myriad other things came in. A second Gorilla Shaman came in to help control my opponent’s artifact mana. Karn made his return to the maindeck as he served as an incredible offensive and defensive weapon.
Finally with the dearth of creatures in the format the decision was made to switch Sphere of Resistance for Thorn of Amethyst. Thorn’s pleasant interaction with our Welders and Shamans allowed our creatures to hit a turn earlier – granting us freedom to cast a turn one sphere effect without fearing an inability to cast our turn two Welder. We essentially bought ourselves a full turn with the change. The importance of this change should not be underestimated.
The list became:
Ted Williams was renowned for his approach at the plate. He often said that one should “look fastball adjust to everything else”. Our list was prepared for just that – it was built to ruin Tezzeret the most prominent powerful deck in the metagame. Our sideboard would help us combat the various other strategies that existed in the metagame. While Williams was a member of the Red Sox and thus an enemy to Yankee fans across the world his words rang true. They could not be ignored.
Our list was in the spirit of Roland Chang’s 2005 Vintage World Championship deck. It was a control strategy that had an explosive finish. Roland had brought Stax a Midwesterner’s deck to New York. The Champ is responsible for the success that much of the New York Stax Exchange has enjoyed – as he tutored Raf and Raf tutored me. I am amongst the class of the second generation of students. The Stax Exchange features a variety of members and amongst them are my two padawan Alex Capobianco and Peter Ingram. I look forward to seeing what the younger members of the Stax Exchange the third generation accomplish. Pete and Alex I expect much of you. And I know you’ll succeed.
It was time to work on drawing Roland out of his retirement to bring ‘Sensei’ back to his rightful place in the community – as the uncontested master of 5CStax. Raf and Vinnie Forino had both kept in touch with Roland during his retirement. Raf pushed Roland to make a comeback and he kept Roland apprised of what our play-test group was playing. Eventually we sparked Roland’s interest. We were invited to take a trip to Brooklyn to test. Raf and I had completed our changes to the deck by this time. Raf was unable to make the trip and so I went with fellow N.Y.S.E. teammate James Hangley and my good friend Aaron Rubinstein.
I have to admit there was a certain degree of trepidation that I felt as I sat down to play my first game against Roland. I felt as though I was an imposter – across from me sat a World Champion the greatest 5CStax player of all time. What mark could I hope to make?
We played a few games and I don’t remember the net results of the mirror testing though I do remember winning a few. As the night progressed we ran T.P.S. variants and Painter against Stax. We were preparing to leave and an offhand comment was made. Roland looked at me - “Why don’t you want to play the best deck in the format?”
I thought it was a typical question at first but I was surprised where it led. “I’d rather play a deck that beats it” I replied. I was then unaware of what had been said on T.M.D. by Vintage’s voice Steve Menendian. While discussing Aggro Workshop and MUD variants Menendian had declared 5CStax “dead… obsolete.”
“I have a good match-up against Tezzeret.” I wanted to prove that I was right that I could compete against the Vault/Key combo and win.
We had been preparing to leave but both Roland and I wanted to prove our point. We sat down and played a quick match. I took two of three. Two weeks after our testing session Raf and Roland met. Raf took five of six from Roland who ran Tezzeret.
And yet the gauntlet had been cast. Vintage’s most prominent player one of its best had declared 5CStax dead. Raf and I now had a purpose – to show that 5CStax was not ever dead to return 5CStax to prominence in the community.
III – A Taste of Success
– Forino’s Never Split –
The holidays came and went and with the New Year came new tournaments. The first up was Blue Bell on January 3rd. I was looking forward to the event as were the other members of the Stax Exchange. Our list was close to its final form though I hadn’t been able to cut the Balance from the main yet. I continued to live in a state of irrational fear of playing without it.
The deck ran exceptionally well on the day tearing through Tezzeret. Many of the Tezzeret pilots seemed shocked at their loss – as though their deck had no bad matchups save potentially the mirror.
It was time to educate them.
I made top 8. Before the semifinals Raf pulled me off to the side. I had broken one of the cardinal rules at TravisConII – I had split in the finals. At the time I didn’t have a Sapphire and I was able to get one by splitting. I now had no proxies. “No excuses this time.” He was right I came to win. And Forino’s never split.
Thankfully I didn’t know what my semifinals opponent was playing. Ever since my round two loss to Arik Pogrebinsky at TravisConII BUG Fish had been on my mind. I didn’t want to see it as Trygon Predator scared the hell out of me. I led off game one with a Lotus Demonic Tutor two Moxen Barbarian Ring Welder and 3Sphere. I took the game in short order as he was light on lands and my draws punished him further. Game two I had a Welder on board with Crop Rotation and Vampiric Tutor in hand. I felt a blowout coming on with Sundering Titan locking out all his lands. A misplay on my part made the game infinitely closer than it needed to be but I managed to get there.
And then I got wrecked by John Jones in the semi-finals. [I fondly remember when John Jones played real decks instead of Lich’s Mirror… - Matt.] Game one ended pretty quickly game two ended faster still. His Control Slaver variant was nothing I had tested against and made quick work of me with well timed counters on his part and mediocre play on mine. I had been running under the impression that he was running Elves – and as such I had geared myself up for it. When he dropped a Delta on turn one of game one I was thrown off my game. Part of me didn’t recover.
I was glad to have Top 4’d but the tournament hadn’t ended like it was supposed to. I left with a bad taste in my mouth.
IV – The Coldest Winter
– Adversus Solem Ne Loquitor –
The cold of winter crept in and my performances were equally frigid. 4-2 at the next Blue Bell with a round two loss to Dredge. 3-3 at the one after that. Finally I hit rock bottom at Princeton going 0-2 drop at Simon’s tournament. I wondered what had changed. After much discussion between both Raf Forino Vinnie Forino and myself (along with side discussions with the rest of my teammates) two important points were brought to my attention.
First my 60 were as strong as my board was weak. I had been losing game two’s and game three’s far more often than anyone should. While Raf had consistently run many of the same sideboard cards with minor changes here and there my sideboard was liable to change markedly an hour before round one. There is something to be learned in every loss and the most important loss I think I’ve ever had in Vintage came at Simon’s Princeton Vintage tournament. I had cut my Dredge hate from the sideboard. I ran into Nick Coss playing Dredge round two.
I learned to respect my opponents not just while playing but while choosing what to play. I would no longer be careless like I had been in Princeton like I had been for all those months.
If I was going to return to form I was going to have to test like mad. I had to play boarded games. And I had to keep the faith in my board. I had to believe that it was going to get me where I wanted to go. Gone were the days when I switched important cards out an hour before the tournament began.
Second I realized that I had been playing with The Fear. The Fear of certain decks certain opponents. It was a combination of a dearth of testing on my part brand names and a lack of faith in my own ability. If I was going to get better I had to move past this.
Rich Shay was at TravisConII and missed Top 8 on breakers. I remembered how glad I was at the time. I had just watched him thoroughly dismantle a friend in round four. Who was I to believe that I could beat him no matter what the match-up? Here was one of the best players in Vintage. Who was I?
When you sit across from a brand name player and you feel The Fear you believe that something truly awful is about to happen. You immediately consider the improbable; worst case scenarios. You’re already on tilt. You may not even see the lines of play that you would see if it was anyone but that player sitting across from you. Things that you would normally take for granted go out the window. You’re driving yourself to defeat.
Practice excessive practice is all you can do to get past this. If you’ve tested against their decks you know what they’re likely to do. Additionally one of the best things you can possibly do is play their deck during your testing session. The tri-state area players have probably never seen me run anything but Workshops. Yet if you tested with me you would see me running Drains all the time more so than Shops in our testing sessions. I need to know the feel of a deck how it draws tutors plays. I need to understand my opponent’s deck as well as he does.
You must have quality play-test partners. If you do not you are wasting your time and theirs. If you intend on testing against the field what benefit do you hope to gain by playing against a player who doesn’t fundamentally understand the nature of a given deck? Anything quantifiable? We have one of the best combo players several good Drain pilots an awesome aggro player and a couple of awesome Shop players in our test group. Without them our results would have reflected our efforts – failure.
Finally I discovered just how much I needed to believe however irrationally that I was always going to win. The match-up the opponent; nothing mattered. If I sat down believing that I was about to play a tough match-up I would over-think. I would lose. I needed to blunt my intellectualism and play angry. The win was mine; you were just standing in my way.
It’s different for everyone but I couldn’t play any other way. I needed to be intense to be as focused as possible to allow nothing extraneous to enter my mind. If I played any other way I played loose lost the killer instinct and lost.
The months went on and I got angry.
V – Excelsior
– Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here –
I had started a new job in March and my work hours changed. I went from working day shifts 7-3’s to midnights 10-6’s. It was more money and I had bills that needed to be paid.
I wasn’t willing to sacrifice going to Saturday tournaments which meant that I would have to go to these events without sleep until I was comfortable requesting time off. I didn’t know how this would manifest itself. Would my play suffer noticeably? Given my spate of recent performances did it matter?
My first tournament under the new conditions would be the Philadelphia Open III. If you’ve never been to a Nick Coss tournament you’re missing out. [I can’t second this strongly enough – Matt] The staffing is always great there’s ample space and the events run on time.
Sometimes your round one match is an indicator as to how your whole day will go. That day my round one opponent was Steve Silverman playing Dredge. With a mull to four on his part (which did not involve Bazaar) and some quick Karn beats on my part I took game one. Since I had learned my sideboard lessons I was packing a full set of Leyline of the Void’s in addition to other hate cards. I took the match. I then took tough matches against Oath round two and three and Painter round four. I drew with Eric Markowicz playing Goyf-Tezz round five. I played out round six for a teammate but it proved irrelevant. I won anyways. I met my round six opponent again in the quarterfinals. It went to three games but I took him down. I saw Tezzeret in the semifinals and I played a 12 minute match that could not have been more one sided. It was on to the finals for me.
I waited for the other match to finish up. Paul Mastriano was running Remora Tezzeret against Dredge. You will never see this written again; I hoped for the Dredge match. I don’t think anyone could fault me. When I saw Paul rip a Gifts Ungiven the turn before he was dead I knew his match was over.
A good 25 minutes had passed since I’d finished and the fatigue had started to set in as I had been up for close to 30 hours by this point. I had started mentally equivocating as well. “No matter what happens you should be happy” I thought. “If you lose it’s okay; he’s the current World Champ.” I thought about how even if I lost I’d take home an Emerald. I didn’t realize what I was doing at the time; I thought I’d play as tight as I had all day. I was getting ready to lose the match before I even sat down.
Our match was quick and I didn’t put up much resistance. He took a fast two games from me and my day was over. My first loss of the tournament came in the finals. I suppose there are worse places for your first loss but I would have much preferred walking out without a loss on the day.
I had been exceptionally motivated all day long. I played the kind of intense matches I had to play in order to win. I wasn’t afraid of Paul I think I was just happy that I had broken my slump and had gotten this far. I wasn’t looking to run him into the ground. This was unacceptable.
There was one match in Vintage that I wanted; a rematch with Paul Mastriano. With the right result. I did not know when if ever I would get it. Fortune favored me. [Fortes fortuna adiuvat? – Matt]
My run had started. I had gone 7-1-1 in Philly. I went to Blue Bell later that month and was 5-0-1 before losing a match that would leave most swearing that Jeremy Beaver had a deal running with the man downstairs. [I concur with this as I had the same feeling after my match against him in the finals of that tournament… – Matt] No matter. I 4-0’d the side event and won a Bazaar.
Then came the Dan Herd Memorial Tournament. I lost a tough round one though I played tight and wasn’t terribly upset. As a 5CStax player you must accept that sometimes your lack of hand sculpting and draw will ruin you. Just as if you were running Drains you must accept that sometimes your opponents will “draw busted” to a greater degree than you do. There is nothing that can be done about this. If you sought to change this you would sacrifice one of the fundamental advantages that you had – incredible pressure usually between turns 2 and 4 in order to play a strategy that inherently favors the blue player. You cannot and will not win this way.
I resolved to stick to my guns play angry play tight. I was put in some truly ridiculous board states over the course of the tournament. One opponent had the winning Fact or Fiction on the table and I had to Jedi mind trick him into taking the pile that I could handle. Another opponent had me on 1 life with three creatures on the board to my solitary Welder. I had Energy Flux resolved against me all day. I kept winning rounds. James Hangley my teammate won as well. At 4-0-2 he was guaranteed a top 8 berth.
When I won round 6 I stood at 5-1 third place. Paul top 8’d as well. I knew that this was my chance. I wanted my rematch.
I played Eric Markowicz in the semifinals. He was running Tezz. I drew a brutally good hand against Tezzeret in game one featuring multiple Stacks Thorns and a Crucible. Sundering Titan the final lock piece played his role as an Armageddon on legs. Anyone who confuses Titan as something other than what he is – your finisher does not understand the deck. Game two featured a light mana draw on his part and significant hate for his curve lands and spells. The match was over in short order.
Jimmy had won his match as well and now two of three New York Stax Exchange members who had gone to the event were in the top 4. Next up was Conor Moran playing Dredge. I dropped game one but I did not feel The Fear. I was packing significant hate in the board. Game two saw two turn 0 Leylines and a turn 1 Pithing Needle. It was too much. Game three saw two turn 0 Leylines and a turn one Relic of Progenitus followed by a turn two Trinisphere.
Good morning good afternoon good night.
Paul was finishing up and things did not look good for Jimmy. When Jimmy went down I had one more thing driving me to beat Paul as he had denied us an all-New York Stax Exchange finals. With our third teammate mistakenly dropping from the tournament this also cost us the team event as we had led Meandeck prior to that round.
We shuffled up. My opening 7 6 and 5 were all equally awful. My 4 was weak but had potential. Paul kept his 7 playing an Underground Sea. The Strip Mine in my hand hit his Sea and he Mystical Tutored in response for Ancestral Recall. When he told me the Sea was his only land I didn’t believe him.
And so we played draw go for a while. He hit his first land before I did and his Ancestral put him up an absurd amount in card advantage. In the end it proved too much as one well timed Force of Will ended my game one.
I was furious. Paul had now taken five straight games from me in our three matches. None of them had been close. I know that this format more than any other is “swingy”. But nobody should dominate me like that for five straight games. All playful banter stopped as I went to my board and then shuffled up for game two.
My deck rewarded me in game two giving me a very solid opener. I had Paul under a Wire Thorn and Strip Lock by turn four. He scooped when it was hopeless.
Now it came down to one game. Anything was possible. I actually don’t remember much of the game. I remember feeling that my opening seven was strong enough to go the distance. I remember drawing the Vampiric Tutor which found Tinker on the end of his turn.
“Do you have the Force of Will Mr. Mastriano?” I couldn’t help but stare. “Because if you do you’re a better man than I.”
Titan hit and one turn later the game was over. If it had been anything but Titan I would have given him time to recover. We cannot ever give them time.
VI – A Trial by Fire
–“This is John Galt speaking…” –
I had come through on a big stage against the one of the best in the world the current World Champion. I believed that I was capable of taking down a giant now. After all I just had.
I had tested enough to know the percentages to play without The Fear. I had worked on a sideboard and not only kept my faith in it but saw it work as hard as my main 60.
I had learned my lessons.
I had some very nice compliments paid to me and while I appreciated them I did not (and do not) seek them. I was on a run and I was playing a deck that was perfectly tuned for the metagame. I do not consider myself God’s gift to Vintage.
I have been quiet about everything until now for several reasons. Any tournament reports from me would bring attention to myself and the deck. I wanted neither. I don’t know how I’m considered in the Vintage community and I don’t care to discover that collective perception. The opinions of my friends and teammates matter to me far more than however I’m viewed on TMD.
Our list was a team effort. I have been more successful recently than my other teammates but I do not for an instant want anyone to labor under the misimpression that I alone am responsible for this deck. I could not succeed without my team. I will not succeed without my team.
I have broken the omerta because 5CStax is now one of the most popular decks in Vintage and it seems as though the world is intent on creating the worst list possible for Shop players. Drain and Combo pilots across the country look to lecture you the Shop players on what and how to play. Disregard them. Find your fellow Shop players band together test and learn the deck. Let the Drain and Combo players tell all their friends about how poorly conceived poorly built your deck is. As you leave them in the loser’s bracket.
They look to lecture me as well. But I know better.
Shop players we are a community unto ourselves. We are not prevalent but we are present. Work with each other test discuss theory listen learn.
VII – Exeunt Prospero
- Ad Astera Per Aspera –
There is always more to be said there are always more points to be enumerated. I am going to bide my time until after the major events of the summer. If there’s interest in the N.Y.S.E. approach to 5CStax I’ll grant Matt a little more of my time.
Prospero on TMD
I hope you found this guest article as interesting and informative as I did. Vintage Champs is going to be exciting this year…
Voltron00x on Xbox Live and SCG forums