Last updated on April 2, 2024

Opposition Agent - Illustration by Scott Murphy

Opposition Agent | Illustration by Scott Murphy

Magic’s greatest strength lies in its diversity of strategies. Many consider poor competitive formats those with few options, where one or two decks dominate the meta. You can play aggressive decks, themed decks built around different creature types, or pretty much anything else! You even have decks like Oops, All Spells that buck typical deckbuilding strategies.

Commander players love the format for its diversity of strategies and power levels. You can play pretty much anything in this social format. But if you’re tired of having friends, there’s a forbidden archetype, one most Commander players consider too edgy for their casual format: Stax!

Let’s uncover the best stax pieces for Commander and beyond!

What Are Stax Effects in MTG?

Torpor Orb - Illustration by Svetlin Velinov

Torpor Orb | Illustration by Svetlin Velinov

Stax cards impede your opponent’s development through various means, such as sacrificing permanents, taxing them, making cards enter tapped, and simply having the text “players/opponents cannot do X.”

The term comes from Smokestack, a key card of the original stax list. Playing stax is all about resource denial; while the original strategy focused on mana denial, the term has grown to encompass any effect that slows your opponent’s development.

Stax decks often leverage symmetrical cards like Winter Orb and Blood Moon that hamper your opponent while leaving the stax player, who built their deck around these effects, unscathed. Some stax effects are asymmetrical, like Opposition Agent.

A common criticism of stax is that the archetype is “uninteractive.” While some prominent stax pieces lead to non-games, especially when accelerated, I find them to be highly interactive. Cards like Thalia, Guardian of Thraben, Torpor Orb, and Archon of Emeria interact with opposing game plans. They just do so on a very different axis than typical interactive spells like Counterspell and Swords to Plowshares

#41. Void Winnower

Void Winnower

Void Winnower’s high mana value makes it a very restrictive card—you rarely see it apart from commanders like Kinnan, Bonder Prodigy that accelerate you into it. This Eldrazi‘s stax effect is quite compelling; restricting the spells your opponents can cast and the creatures they block with is unique.

#40. Tangle Wire

Tangle Wire

Though Tangle Wire was a prominent stax card in the days of yore, it feels way too slow these days. Make sure you stack your fading triggers so the counter gets removed before you need to tap permanents!

#39. Lavinia, Azorius Renegade

Lavinia, Azorius Renegade

Lavinia, Azorius Renegade sits in a strange place. For Commander, it gets stronger the higher the power level gets since you’re more likely to encounter free spells like Force of Will and non-land mana acceleration.

#38. Ashiok, Dream Render

Ashiok, Dream Render

Preventing your opponents from searching might seem like a niche way to hit cards like Demonic Tutor, but it hits many other effects, like fetch lands and ramp spells. Ashiok, Dream Render shuts those cards down while serving as graveyard interaction and a self-mill enabler, making this planeswalker one of the best Dimir cards overall.

#37. Price of Glory

Price of Glory

Price of Glory is perfect for any player tired of seeing your opponent hold up two Islands. Not every deck can leverage the harsh, symmetrical effect that this red enchantment offers. I wouldn’t dream of playing it in anything with blue.

#36. Drana and Linvala

Drana and Linvala

Drana and Linvala disrupts many combos, including some that use flicker effects with Dockside Extortionist and all flavors of Walking Ballista and Devoted Druid combos. Green decks relying on mana dorks hate this. You can get similar effects from Linvala, Keeper of Silence and Cursed Totem.

#35. Aether Barrier

Aether Barrier

Aether Barrier taxes any deck trying to deploy fleets of creatures. Be wary of playing this against faster combo decks; you also need a nearly creatureless win condition to justify this blue enchantment.

#34. Aura of Silence

Aura of Silence

Taxation effects have a distinct weakness: they get weaker the longer the game goes on. Your opponents will have fewer cards to play and more mana to spend. Aura of Silence balances this by acting as taxation early and a removal spell later.

#33. Smoke

Smoke

Smoke works best against tokens and other aggressive, go-wide strategies. And it’s Magic as Richard Garfield intended since this was first printed in Alpha.

#32. Grafdigger’s Cage

Grafdigger's Cage

Grafdigger's Cage is among the best graveyard hate cards in Commander and beyond, but it works well as a stax piece to prevent library shenanigans.

#31. Yasharn, Implacable Earth

Yasharn, Implacable Earth

Modern Magic has no shortage of artifact tokens that sacrifice themselves; from Clues to Treasure to Junk, Wizards loves exploring this design space. Having a card like Yasharn, Implacable Earth that interacts with all these busted sacrifice effects is fantastic, especially with such a good body and Divination attached.

#30. Ethersworn Canonist

Ethersworn Canonist

Ethersworn Canonist slots nicely into many stax decks; lots of artifacts are stax pieces, so it takes little effort to make this human cleric an asymmetrical effect.

#29. Spelltithe Enforcer

Spelltithe Enforcer

Spelltithe Enforcer has been slow in my experience, but it’s effective when it lands. Few decks can wiggle away from this wizard’s oppressive power.

#28. Smokestack

Smokestack

The namesake! The classic! Smokestack works best alongside cards like Bitterblossom and Grist, the Hunger Tide that provide a stream of sacrifice fodder. This is another card to watch the triggers with; you need to stack them so you sacrifice your permanents, then add a counter. Don’t be afraid to sacrifice Smokestack to its own ability if it becomes a liability! 

#27. Thalia, Heretic Cathar

Thalia, Heretic Cathar

Aggressive decks leverage Thalia, Heretic Cathar best. Slowing your opponents’ mana development while tapping potential blockers slows the game to an aggressive deck’s favor.

#26. Grand Abolisher + Kutzil, Malamet Exemplar + Myrel, Shield of Argive

Preventing your opponents from casting spells on your turn might be more of a defensive measure than a true stax effect, but it’s quite valuable in the right matchups. Grand Abolisher is the most mana-efficient option, but Kutzil, Malamet Exemplar and Myrel, Shield of Argive provide creature-centric decks additional benefits for more mana. These are fantastic against blue commanders of all power levels.

#25. Grand Arbiter Augustin IV

Grand Arbiter Augustin IV

Grand Arbiter Augustin IV consistently ranks among the saltiest commanders you can bring to a pod. The combination of a tax effect and surprisingly powerful ramp for a non-green card makes a nasty Azorius commander.

#24. Ghostly Prison

Ghostly Prison

There are a host of other Ghostly Prison effects, including other enchantments like Sphere of Safety and creatures like Archangel of Tithes. All are universally good against aggressive decks, making them perfect for any strategy looking to extend the game. 

#23. Leonin Arbiter + Aven Mindcensor

Leonin Arbiter Aven Mindcensor

Stopping players from searching their library has many uses. Leonin Arbiter provides a very cheap, symmetrical version of the effect; Aven Mindcensor is more expensive but frees up your tutors and fetch lands to work. Playing your anti-search effect in response to a spell or activated ability tends to be stronger than playing it at sorcery speed.

#22. Torpor Orb + Hushbringer

Torpor Orb Hushbringer

Each Magic set brings new creatures with busted ETB abilities, so Torpor Orb and similar effects are valuable. Giving creatures like Hushbringer and Doorkeeper Thrull this ability can be useful for decks locating silver bullets with Chord of Calling or Finale of Devastation.

#21. Gaddock Teeg

Gaddock Teeg

Gaddock Teeg provides a narrow but useful service. It’s useless against creature-centric decks but does a lot against various spellslinger strategies in Commander. Most wraths cost 4 or more mana, so it could be a defensive measure against them if you squint.

#20. Soulless Jailer

Soulless Jailer

Soulless Jailer has some interesting text. Preventing players from casting spells from the graveyard isn’t unique, but not many effects stop them from casting spells from exile. Impulse draws and other cast-from-exile strategies gain support each set, so this looks like a potent stax piece that shuts down entire decks.

#19. Elesh Norn, Mother of Machines

Elesh Norn, Mother of Machines

Elesh Norn, Mother of Machines works better than most Torpor Orb effects because it’s asymmetrical and provides a ridiculous amount of extra value as a Panharmonicon with an overstated body. You lose out on mana efficiency with this motherly Phyrexian but gain so much.

#18. Thorn of Amythest + Sphere of Resistance

Thorn of Amethyst Sphere of Resistance

Thorn of Amethyst and Sphere of Resistance fulfill similar roles as heavy taxation effects. Creature-based decks can get a lot from Thorn of Amethyst, but any deck capable of cheating these out and counteracting them with mana acceleration or a similar perk can wreck their opponent’s plans.

#17. Rule of Law + Eidolon of Rhetoric

Rule of Law Eidolon of Rhetoric

Nothing stops a Storm deck like Rule of Law. Plenty of combos rely on casting the same spells over and over, but by limiting your opponents to one spell a turn, this white enchantment restricts more than combo decks.

Eidolon of Rhetoric provides the same effect on a creature. These pair especially well with blue decks that play at instant speed, allowing them to use their opponents’ turn to cast spells, and in ramp decks that tap out for a single card each turn.

#16. Thalia, Guardian of Thraben

Thalia, Guardian of Thraben

Thalia, Guardian of Thraben often fulfills the taxes half of Death and Taxes, a strategy utilizing disruptive creatures to knock their opponents off-balance and close the game before they stabilize. Thalia isn’t played as often as it used to be as metagames shift, but it’s still an excellent way to slow your opponents while you flood the board with creatures.

#15. Wandering Archaic

Wandering Archaic

I had a friend swear by Wandering Archaic. I thought it was weak—until I saw it in action. Making your opponent choose between paying an extra 2 mana or giving you copies of their instants and sorceries is far more effective than I gave it credit for. You win many counterspell wars, not to mention stealing ramp or card draw.

#14. Defense Grid

Defense Grid

Defense Grid protects your spells from most interaction with a major cost: It protects the entire pod. You need to be sorcery-speed for this to be effective. Outside of Commander, this powerful sideboard card messes with Force of Will decks.

#13. Drannith Magistrate

Drannith Magistrate

Drannith Magistrate does little outside of Commander, but boy is it fantastic there. Stopping your opponents from casting their commanders from the command zone is the tip of iceberg: Nothing is cast from exile, from graveyards, or from libraries, as this Drannith Magistrate shuts down casting from every zone except your hand. Goodbye cascade, Bolas's Citadel, and so many other strategies.

#12. Teferi, Time Raveler

Teferi, Time Raveler

One of the best planeswalkers and overall best Azorius cards you can play, Teferi, Time Raveler provides the best stack protection in the game. It protects everything you do on your turn like Grand Abolisher but goes much further. You win every counter war; your opponents can’t stop you from interacting with their board… this is a messed-up card.

#11. Ensnaring Bridge

Ensnaring Bridge

Ensnaring Bridge reminds me of Lantern Control in the Modern of yesteryear… good times! Properly utilizing this card requires two things: You need to be able to empty your hand quickly (making this artifact a great discard payoff) and you can’t rely on creatures as a win condition. Decks that meet those requirements get a unique artifact that controls the board with little effort.

#10. Archon of Emeria

Archon of Emeria

Archon of Emeria is the best Rule of Law effect. This archon restricts your opponents to a single spell per turn while preventing them from fully utilizing their lands, grinding everybody to a halt.

#9. Winter Orb + Static Orb

Winter Orb Static Orb

Do not play Winter Orb without a plan to break the symmetry unless you want a very unhappy table. The best way to break symmetry? Urza, Lord High Artificer.

Meria, Scholar of Antiquity, Clock of Omens, and Galazeth Prismari work, too. If you can leverage this kind of effect, Static Orb and Hokori, Dust Drinker provide redundancy.

#8. Chalice of the Void

Chalice of the Void

Chalice of the Void isn’t much of a Commander card but does tons of work in Constructed formats. Chalice on 0 is one of the best ways to stop Crashing Footfalls decks in Modern; I’ve lost many Legacy games to a Chalice with one counter turning off everything but Force of Will. The keys to making this card work are understanding what strategy you want it to work against and finding the acceleration necessary to play it before your opponent dumps their hand.

#7. Narset, Parter of Veils

Narset, Parter of Veils

Drawing cards is an integral part of Magic; Commander veterans encourage newbies to put at least 10 draw spells in their decks for a reason. Narset, Parter of Veils is the best tool for many Commander decks to prevent that powerful resource accumulation. Spirit of the Labyrinth provides a similar, though more restrictive, effect.

#6. Trinisphere

Trinisphere

Trinisphere might be the hardest stax piece on this list to leverage, but that makes it one of the hardest to play through (symmetrical effects, am I right?). It works best with fast mana like Mana Crypt and Ancient Tomb to power it out and pay the intense tax.

#5. Esper Sentinel

Esper Sentinel

This wouldn’t be a list of the best cards in Magic without touching on Modern Horizons. Esper Sentinel might be the best (and most annoying) creature you can play turn 1 in a game of Magic. You can even find it with Urza's Saga!

#4. Collector Ouphe

Collector Ouphe

Many Commander decks rely on artifacts for mana acceleration, even if they aren’t strictly artifact decks. Collector Ouphe wrecks those strategies, plus Treasure decks and anybody leveraging vehicles or equipment. Null Rod fills a similar role, though the Reserved List makes it inaccessible to most players.

#3. Opposition Agent

Opposition Agent

Anti-search effects already have a place in Commander, but what if we made them into true card advantage? Opposition Agent, one of the best “control your opponent” effects in the MTG, is not okay. “Drawing” cards is strong, but you can also use this to permanently remove an important combo piece from the game by exiling a tutor target and never casting it.

#2. Blood Moon + Magus of the Moon + Back to Basics

When I think “mana disruption,” Blood Moon comes to mind. Magus of the Moon provides a redundant color-hosing effect; Back to Basics is a pretty different card, but close enough to put here. All three options are and destroy multicolor decks. That makes them restrictive; you can’t play more than two colors if you want to leverage these and even that’s pushing the bar. But these shut down players better than many cards on this list; you can pay your taxes, but you can’t play around a nonfunctional mana base.

#1. Rhystic Study

Rhystic Study

Rhystic Study takes the crown with Commander in mind; it doesn’t do much in other formats. But the sheer power of this card… I’ve lost more games of Commander to players refusing to pay the 1 than any other card. Even with The One Ring as a contender, this is the best single card draw engine in the format. Drawing 30 cards or making your opponent spend 30 extra mana… you win either way.

Best Stax Payoffs

Aggressive decks leverage stax effects the best. The archetype slows your opponents and hampers their ability to play the game, but few of these cards win the game outright. Thalia, Guardian of Thraben slows your development, but you’ll eventually draw lands and play around it unless you’re playing Storm. The deck requires pressure to take advantage of slowing your opponent.

Alela, Artful Provocateur

Many stax effects come attached to creatures, giving you an easy avenue to pressure. If you want to use artifacts and enchantments, look for cards that grow stronger with them. Alela, Artful Provocateur is an excellent choice for a stax commander. Your pressure doesn’t need to be combat-based, either; a few disruptive pieces go a long way towards buying combo decks the necessary time to assemble their combos. Some of them double as protection pieces.

Another very critical part of leveraging stax pieces is avoiding nonbos and making sure you can break the symmetry. For a simple example of a nonbo, your Torpor Orb deck shouldn’t rely on Reclamation Sage and Solitude for removal, just as a Storm deck shouldn’t play Trinisphere. Those are exaggerated examples, but you’d be surprised how many stax decks fall apart because they interfere with their own game plan.

Many people villainize stax players, but it’s a legitimate game plan as long as you have a game plan. Playing Winter Orb with Urza, Lord High Artificer is a game plan; playing Winter Orb because “LOL stax!” is a crime.

What Beats Stax?

Interaction. Figure out how the stax player might restrict you and pack interaction for their interaction. Diversifying your removal suite help; for example, a flicker deck whose only interaction involves ETBs can fold to Torpor Orb, but a March of Otherworldly Light takes care of it.

An element I often see missing from the argument that stax decks aren’t interactive, both online and in my pods, is a lack of removal. To the players saying their cascade deck can’t beat Drannith Magistrate, I ask why you can’t remove a 2-mana 1/3.

You can make very convincing arguments that Drannith Magistrate and its ilk are too powerful for many casual decks, and I agree. But few stax pieces win outright. Sometimes you just don’t draw the interaction and that sucks, but the first thing you should do to beat the stax deck is ensure that you have ample ways to remove the stax pieces.

Another piece of the puzzle has to do with your deck’s strategy. Many stax pieces insist on a “fair” game of Magic; they shut down tutors, make it hard to combo off, and so on. Creature-heavy decks tend to have better stax matchups than turbo-combo-spellslinger strategies because more stax pieces naturally restrict and punish players attempting to cast free spells, generate tons of mana, and so on. 

Wrap Up

Rhystic Study - Illustration by Paul Scott Canavan

Rhystic Study | Illustration by Paul Scott Canavan

Stax might be the most divisive archetype in Magic. I’ve seen more players argue about its validity and fun as a strategy than any other. But I enjoy it. Some stax pieces are wildly strong, but they often pose an interesting puzzle: How can I win around this obstacle? Besides, having a couple effects to keep players honest rarely hurts.

What do you think of stax decks? What’s your favorite stax piece? Let me know in the comments or on the Draftsim Discord!

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2 Comments

  • Avatar
    Anon February 8, 2022 2:15 pm

    Stax gets to much hate, if people ran more interaction it wouldn’t be nearly as much of a problem. But everyone is to worried about other people having fun.

  • Avatar
    Daniel Küttel August 25, 2022 4:33 am

    Great article. I´m too not a big fan of stax pieces, but I play some of them, because they are too many decks that only runs good, because no one tries to shut them down. Why should I have fun when someone is flooding the board for trying one hit me, but I should not slow him a little bit down? Only a Deck with stax pieces is a no-go, but some pieces are very useful and should be played by everyone.

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