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Feature Article – Espresso Stax

Hello again!

I know it’s been a long time, since my last article. There are reasons, and if you don’t like reading about the author and the stories behind the people playing this game, then this isn’t the article for you. Fear not, there will be decklists, tech and even something new. But mostly it’s about something personal which I think some of you might identify with.

Before we go on, let me ask you guys a question first.

Have you ever tried getting rid of an addiction?

People who have know what I’m talking about when I say it’s probably the hardest thing a person can do, yet for little over 6 month’s I managed to “stay clean”. We don’t have any 12 step programs or sponsors and I went out cold turkey, cutting ties to communities (not the people in it mind you) that had been a part of my life for years, some close to decades.

Everyone gets burned out at some time and I’d been part of the Eternal community (mostly TheManaDrain.com) and the Dutch Vintage tournament scene since early 2007, organizing two monthly events, weekly events, playing and judging. I spent 3-4 nights away from home during the week, and that doesn’t include the tournaments on the weekends, or the infinte Skype calls with friends and players discussing decks and whatnot.

I had gotten some decent results in PTQ’s and GPT’s. I qualified for Nationals with Jund when people said the deck was dead, in what is still one of my fondest memories of competitive Magic in recent years. I had gotten back to winning. But then I stepped back.

I’m no college student or professional cardplayer. I’ve had a full time job as a programmer for more than 5 years now, which means that the usuall routine of having infinite spare time to dedicated to Magic has been gone for some time. Beyond that, I’ve always had a supporting family and girlfriend (who’s now my wife) who let me dabble in my hobby. Still, it needed management. All of this was starting to take it’s toll on both my personal relationships and my performance.

After I had played in the 2010 Dutch Eternal Nationals, (Vintage and Legacy Champs) I knew I wanted out. The fun was gone from what had once been a hobby, an escape and a sanctuary. It had become a burden instead of a blessing. I was burned out. So I did the only logical thing, I quit, entirely… Suddenly, it was all gone. All I could feel was relief.

Then, slowly but surely, it happend. A little spoiler viewing here, a conversation there… The excuses, the sneaking away to grab a quick fix started to reappear regularly during the spoiling of New Phyrexia. There were Facebook groups, there was Twitter. My iPhone was glued to me and whenever I had a spare moment I’d glance at the web to see if something new had come in.

The people I knew through playing this game got excited about the cards, and how could you ignore the Guillame’s downfall? I saw it all and tried my best to stay clear. I wrote the Vintage primer for this website at probably the worst possible time for me to start writing “professionally.” I had wanted to write for a major website for some time, for the opportunity to be presented to me at that time was amazing. I was and am still grateful. But the timing of it all couldn’t have been more wrong. I was busy trying to get my life together – my marriage, my honeymoon, my future home. There was a latent love of the game that was present, but the time wasn’t. There was no balance.

Fast forward a few months and I get the following call from one of my friends: “There’s a Vintage Tournament this Sunday, I’m going and you should come as well!” Since my wife was going to be out with some friends for the day and I had nothing else I had to finish, I agreed to go. Vintage, as a format, holds a special place for me. It’s by far the format where I’ve had the most success, especially when deckbuilding. The team I’m a part of (Team R&D) has been responsible for some of the most insane decks let loose on the format in recent years. A desire to play and an opportunity to battle Vintage wasn’t something I could pass up.

What I Played: (I Might Not Be Italian, But I Like Strong Coffee…)

I had been switching from my regular Combo-esque decks to running a Workshop deck called Espresso Stax before I quit. Mostly it was because I had owned Workshops for some time and I wanted to use them. Since I live in Europe, most of the real events (over 60 players) are non-proxy tournaments. I have an extensive collection, and here I had these 200+ Euro cards sitting idly by in my binder for far too long. The reason behind playing this paticular version of a Workshop deck goes back to September 2010, when my travels brought me to the home of my close friend and teammate, Nick Detwiler. I had come to New York to visit friends, spend time in Manhattan and compete in my first “Waterbury.” Waterbury tournaments had been some of the biggest Vintage tournaments in the Unite States for years. I had seen huge European tournaments (like the Bazaar of Moxen.) I was curious as to what a large American Vintage tournament looked like.

I had brought my binders with Vintage playables and a couple of decks when, during a playtest session, Detwiler brought out the beast I’m going to be writing about today. I’m a solid player, especially in Vintage (and I’m humble too, folks!) I’ve faced Workshop decks for years and I know how to beat them with my usual weapon of choice (The Perfect Storm.)

Now I was getting demolished. I switched to a Mana Drain deck, then a Dredge deck. I wasn’t able to win. I couldn’t adapt to Espresso Stax, I had no experience with it and little with Workshops. I ended up playing TPS, which ended pretty badly for me, but ended well for Nick. He ended up making top 8. After we celebrated his finish, we went back to New York. We began testing Espresso Stax.

I had played one tournament with the deck before I quit, (ending up 13th) as I didn’t compete in Vintage Champs. So, with tons of playtest data, a single event and the fact that the deck was sleeved up and ready to go it was easy to see why I ran it. That being said, it needed an update and after contacting Nick and talking some things through, I ran the updated version of the Espresso list:

Espresso Stax
As suggested by M. van Zundert

Artifact Mana
1 [card]Mana Crypt[/card]
1 [card]Mox Pearl[/card]
1 [card]Mox Jet[/card]
1 [card]Mox Emerald[/card]
1 [card]Mox Ruby[/card]
1 [card]Mox Sapphire[/card]
1 [card]Mana Vault[/card]
1 [card]Sol Ring[/card]

Artifact Mana and Fixers

4 [card]Serum Powder[/card]

Bolts

4 [card]Chalice of the Void[/card]
4 [card]Thorn of Amethyst[/card]
2 [card]Sphere of Resistance[/card]
1 [card]Trinisphere[/card]

Locks

4 [card]Smokestack[/card]
4 [card]Tangle Wire[/card]
3 [card]Crucible of Worlds[/card]

Creatures

4 [card]Lodestone Golem[/card]
3 [card]Karn, Silver Golem[/card]
2 [card]Phyrexian Metamorph[/card]

Lands

1 [card]Strip Mine[/card]
1 [card]Tolarian Academy[/card]
3 [card]Rishadan Port[/card]
4 [card]Ancient Tomb[/card]
4 [card]Mishra’s Workshop[/card]
4 [card]Wasteland[/card]

Sideboard:

4 [card]Leyline of the Void[/card]
3 [card]Pithing Needle[/card]
3 [card]Ghost Quarter[/card]
2 [card]Duplicant[/card]
1 [card]Crucible of Worlds[/card]
1 [card]Sphere of Resistance[/card]
1 [card]Phyrexian Metamorph[/card]

Understanding the Deck

Understanding why this deck is so brutal not only comes from understanding basic Workshop theory (The Vintage MUD primer by Nick Detwiler), it’s understanding the core of what makes Workshop decks do what they do. Especially this paticular type of Workshop Prison. Espresso Stax is all about consistency and brutality.

Unlike blue decks, Workshop decks don’t typically have a draw engine, so you are very dependant on your draw and on your starting hand. Being able to mulligan correctly is incredibly important and often decides the outcome of the game. But what if you could change that, to slight degree? What if you could do something to improve your chances of seeing a [card]Mishra’s Workshop[/card] in your opener, without sacrificing the power that a MUD version of your Workshop deck offered? [card]Serum Powder[/card] did just that.

Workshop decks, when they are at their best, are incredibly redundant things. Because of the limitations of Workshop, they have to be. They can’t control their draws like a blue deck. [card]Serum Powder[/card] would allow the Workshop pilot to see more hands, increasing the chance that they opened with sufficient mana and threats. And what did it really matter if they removed some of their mana, or some of their threats? There were more. I played one game in particular against Nick where he opened on a hand of seven and then used three [card]Serum Powder[/card]s, removing 21 cards from the game. As I looked through, I saw that he had removed three of his [card]Smokestack[/card]s. I joked with him “Oh man, this is great, you won’t be able to beat me this game.” Nick opened with a Workshop, then a [card]Chalice of the Void[/card] at 0 and another Chalice at 1. He dropped a [card]Lodestone Golem[/card] and a [card]Sphere of Resistance[/card] on turn two. He dropped another [card]Lodestone Golem[/card] and another Sphere effect on turn three.

It didn’t matter that the [card]Smokestack[/card]s were gone. He hit his mana and he hit his disruption.

Playing the Deck

A Workshop player can control three things:

1. The hands they keep.
2. The order of their play (which is crucially important.)
3. The stacking of their triggers (which is equally important.)

In order for a Workshop player to be effective and win, they had to do those three things well.

Most games revolve around the Workshop player cutting off as much mana as possible from their opponents. Is [card]Sphere of Resistance[/card] the right call, or is [card]Tangle Wire[/card]? What hurts them more?

There were other things too. Like this: there’s no such thing as value when you’re dead. You had to focus on the immediate, on what was going on right then. Don’t save your [card]Tangle Wire[/card]s – sometimes dropping them immediately and tying up one land is the right call. Don’t let your opponent build a board against you. If you do, you’ll die.

Debunking Some Myths

I know a lot of people don’t understand Workshop decks, but back in late 2010 Chapin took a stab at Workshop decks: While I normally agree with him, this is one case I must disagree, especially regarding this paticular brew. I’m just going to use his statements to (hopefully) help debunk some of these myths that people have about Workshop decks. Let’s take a closer look at the statements he mentioned:

“1) You are playing an artifact deck in a format with far more artifacts that creatures, resulting in tons of artifact hate everywhere, even in the combo decks. “

Artifact hate in Vintage is either spot removal ([card]Ancient Grudge[/card], [card]Nature’s Claim[/card], [card]Trygon Predator[/card], etc.) or global sweepers ([card]Hurkyl’s Recall[/card], [card]Rebuild[/card], [card]Serenity[/card], etc). The only reason people are playing artifact hate is because Workshop decks exist. The days when people included [card]Gorilla Shaman[/card] to eat a couple of Moxen in a Keeper vs Keeper mirror have been over since 2003 (when Mirrodin came out). The combo decks can’t exist without having some way to deal with Workshop decks. Just because people are gunning for you doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t be playing a certain deck. In fact, given the option of playing a proactive strategy, like the Workshop strategy, is often times a better call than playing a reactive strategy (like much of the rest of the field in Vintage.) You are the 800 lb gorilla in the room – either they can deal with you, or they can’t. But you force them to fight, on your terms, and there is value in that.

The results show it clearly; Chapin noted that Owen Turtenwald’s Vintage Championship win with the Trygon/Jace deck proved he could beat Workshops (along with being good against the rest of the field.) But did it? Vincent Forino is one of the two architects of Espresso Stax (along with his brother, Raffaele Forino.) They were ready for Owen – they had two [card]Duplicant[/card]s in the main and a full playset of [card]Maze of Ith[/card] in the sideboard. Owen was all in on [card]Trygon Predator[/card] – he had no maindeck bounce, and he had no answer to [card]Maze of Ith[/card]. If Vincent Forino had been able to get to the finals, I think we would have seen a different champion in 2010.

Chapin neglected to mention a 348 player event, The Bazaar of Moxen. BoM was dominated by Workshop decks (the winner was a Workshop Aggro deck.) Numerous smaller Mox and other power tournaments (like the aformentioned Waterbury) have had various Workshop decks show that they are capable of competing in a sea of blue. Competing and winning. If variations of a strategy are proving successful, how can consistent results mean that these players are making the wrong call?

2) You are playing a deck where most of the cards are far too fairly-costed for Vintage unless you have a Workshop on the battlefield. You won’t always have a Workshop on the battlefield.

This is very true, there are cards that come close to Workshop power ([card]Ancient Tomb[/card], [card]City of Traitors[/card]) but nothing matches it. This is where the mulligans and the correct deployment of threats comes in. You can function without ever having played [card]Mishra’s Workshop[/card] at all if you handle both correctly. It does gets way way easier if you have it. And, again, what happens if you vastly increase the chance that you have both Workshop and threats in your opening hand (a la [card]Serum Powder[/card])? Wouldn’t that change things?

3) You don’t have [card]Force of Will[/card] in your deck. Let’s not even start on the non-mana power cards, like [card]Ancestral Recall[/card], [card]Time Walk[/card], [card]Yawgmoth’s Will[/card], and [card]Time Vault[/card].

You also don’t have [card]Mana Drain[/card] or [card]Golgari Grave-Troll[/card]… Sure, I understand that these cards are format defining and insanely powerfull, but decks like Dredge also function without any of these cards. You can choose not to play any of these cards and be very competitive (looking at the results Workshop based decks have reached in the past months.) Furthermore, think of the value that a Workshop player can get out of a card like [card]Chalice of the Void[/card]. A properly set Chalice can cut off swaths of crucial cards in your opponent’s decks. Blue pilots are currently running 3-4 color mana bases. Isn’t a card like [card]Wasteland[/card] awesome when the blue pilots present you with so many choice targets?

4) Not every one of your opponents will be a match-up for which you prepared. People will have things against you every time, by accident. You will often be left out to dry when you show up and those in the know are all maindecking [card]Trygon Predator[/card]s in their Jace decks.

This statement ignores one of the fundamental points of Vintage: the decks in Vintage (outside of Dredge, which can occasionally fall under this definition) are spell decks. The opponent needs mana and time in order to play their spells. A properly built Workshop deck will punish a deck, because it is a spell deck, regardless of what it is. [card]Sphere of Resistance[/card], [card]Chalice of the Void[/card], [card]Wasteland[/card] and [card]Lodestone Golem[/card] all stop a player from casting their spells – regardless if their spell is [card]Oath of Druids[/card] or [card]Necropotence[/card]. They don’t care that you’re combo, you’re control, you’re aggro. They care that you are trying to use your mana. They’re going to work very hard to deny you that. A properly built Workshop deck can only fall so far, percentage wise, against a deck that is intent on casting spells, because so many of it’s cards are built to stop spells from ever being cast. As a final point, cards like [card]Phyrexian Metamorph[/card] have helped narrow whatever gap there may have once been between Shop decks and hate cards. Metamorph stops [card]Trygon Predator[/card], cold.

The Changes

If you look at the list posted in the link to the Meta and Top 8 Breakdown of the event several things have changed. The maindeck Sphere configuration has been changed and the maindeck [card]Duplicant[/card]s have been switched into [card]Phyrexian Metamorph[/card]s. People have been running [card]Sculpting Steel[/card] and [card]Duplicant[/card] in Workshop decks since those cards were printed. [card]Phyrexian Metamorph[/card] gives you a similar effect wrapped in a single card with the loss of being able to exile the creature you are copying (but you can hit tokens, which IS relevant).

This gets reflected in the maindeck Sphere configuration because [card]Thorn of Amethyst[/card] plays better with Metamorph than [card]Sphere of Resistance[/card], so it makes sense to reverse the switch. I did want to have more Spheres in certain matchups so I added the 3rd Sphere to the board.

The Tournament Report

My day didn’t end as I would have liked, but I didn’t play the deck as tightly as a Workshop Master would have. Even then, the raw power and the consistency of the deck were overwhelming – many opponents on the day had a difficult time responding to the weight of my effects. They were buried before they had the chance to start their game.

I write this article, and I think of the coming weeks and months. I think of the Vintage tournaments on the horizon. And I think of the balance – that a properly built deck affords, that a properly weighted life affords. I have a wife, a job, and a hobby. And with Workshops, as in life, for me, there is balance.

22 thoughts on “Feature Article – Espresso Stax”

  1. nice article and i’m sure any person that reads your article will understand quitting magic cold turkey. i’m quite jelous of you being able to go into a vintage tournament with that sweet deck

  2. @Gregg: The deck adds up to 60 without the Lotus. So I guess it’s not a mistake? Maybe the deck designer doesn’t own a Lotus.

  3. Melbourne_junkie

    “Owen was all in on Trygon Predator – he had no maindeck bounce”

    You aren’t serious, surely … ?

  4. @Gregg,
    Not playing lotus was a choice not because I don’t own one (I do, a beta even) the deck doesn’t need lotus (sounds weird I know) but the fact that lotus doesn’t stick around as a permanent mana source is kinda huge.

    @Melbourne_Junkie,
    Yes, find Owen’s Vintage Champs winning decklist from last year (here: http://www.eternal-central.com/?p=516)

  5. When you were describing how decks don’t care that “you’re combo, you’re control, you’re aggro,” I felt an interest in such a deck-agnostic outlook upon mana gain, and mana denial. Associating this mana paradigm’s synergy with proactive strategy as you said.

  6. I think Melbourne Junky is referring to the fact you said the JACE deck has no maindeck bounce.

    But I also think you are referring to bounce they will actually be able to cast…

  7. I think he is referring to bounce effects for non-creature artifacts (hurkyl’s recall, rebuild, etc.)

  8. Metamorph does not stops a Bant Trygron, only Jace Trygons. But no one has played fish since gush unrestriction.

  9. serious about not including the Lotus?
    i mean i have played Vintage a lot and there arnt many decks i would consider cutting Lotus from (maaaaybe Fish, but even there its more an include than an exclude)
    not adding it in Stax seems wrong, sorry.
    i will skip the part where i lay down what degenerated turn 1 are possible with ur deck and a Lotus

  10. @ Promaxx: The flipside to that is how good is Lotus AFTER turn 1 in this deck? Other decks have plays where they want the free Dark Ritual of any color after turn 1 but this build of Stax doesn’t. I’ve played Stax enough to see where he wouldn’t want to draw Lotus instead of either a permanent mana source or an action card. At some point it’s just not worth the card anymore as awkward as it is to say it. Also, that begs the question, “Yes the nut draws with opening Lotus are amazing, but what do you cut out of that list?”

  11. I am more suprised by the lack of sphere effects then the lotus. Are gush decks not as big in europe right now?

  12. Melbourne_junkie

    @Marske – what Moo said …. you don’t win every die roll and Jace resolves a lot in my exp (though is less resilient w/general Slash Panthers)

    Also, Blue decks ought to be playing either Lightning Bolt or Porcelain Legionarie against the Stax creatures that don’t cost 6

  13. @Egan,
    Gush decks are a natural prey for workshop decks regardless. That being said, with Serum powder you are basically guaranteed to have a sphere when you want it.

    @Melbourne_Junkie,
    You do realize that Jace costs 2UU right? That’s a LOT of mana you’re banking on getting into play on turn 1-2 (because if you’re still able to get to 4 mana without a hitch on turn 3 the shop deck is doing something wrong) I’m the guy that first brought Jaces to Vintage so I know what I’m talking about, first turn Jace off Lotus, Land is good against this deck, for sure, but there are other ways to attack people with Jace then Creatures (read: Smokestack). I’ve battled and won after Jace resolved and I’ve seen people get stuck with jaces in their hand.

    Re: Bolt, Legionnaire,
    Chalice at 1 is already a very potent play and one I make plenty a time so bolt gets shut down quickly, I don’t see what the Legionnaire is going to do because this isn’t a shop aggro deck, it might very well be that I never play Lodestone at all (or attack with it when you have that out) and just proceed to stack you out using smokestack. Better answers are Kataki and Energy Flux.

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  15. cut the mana vault for lotus perhaps? the question being: does the situation of casting mana vault for 1, tapping it, and then sacrificing it presumably to a smokestack come up more often than needing that extra mana from a lotus? the author seems to imply yes… thoughts? additionally, mana vault provides crappy beatdown with karn. sometimes you just need that 1 last point of damage or a chump block =)

  16. It does come up where you’ll need to clear the board with smokestack, especially when on the draw. When you do (and do it correctly), that extra permanent from the tapped vault should leave you with 1 artifact left. Hopefully that artifact is a trinisphere or crucible in that case. So I can agree with the omission of lotus, as this build plays no colors.

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