Too-Specific Top 10 – Stax Switch

(Icy Manipulator | Art by Douglas Shuler)

Rules For Thee, Not For Me

Welcome to Too-Specific Top 10, where if there isn’t a category to rank our pet card at the top of, we’ll just make one up! (Did you know that Watchdog is the only colorless artifact creature to have an ability that only works when it’s untapped?)

In the beginning, Garfield created Winter Orb, and it was… well, opinions on it were divided, even at that time. Some found its interactions with Icy Manipulator very clever, and others were not enthused by the “I untap but you don’t” gameplay.

Regardless of where you come down in that discussion, the fact remains that there used to be a mechanic in the game of Magic: The Gathering that turned artifacts on and off. Interestingly, however, it wasn’t written on the cards themselves:

Even as late as Tempest, artifacts that now read “as long as _____ is untapped” were instead covered under what now feels like an obscure rule that covered all artifacts in existence:

Which would make you think that there were a ton of cards that were affected when this rule was changed in Sixth Edition, the set immediately following Urza’s Legacy (AKA the second set of the second block themed around artifacts in Magic‘s history). Only… there weren’t. Rather than take this rule that in gameplay by and large didn’t actually come up that much and apply it to every “Continuous Artifact” printed between Alpha and Sixth Edition, it was instead decided that only a specific handful of cards would receive errata: Howling Mine, Winter Orb, and Static Orb. That said, in the very next set printed, Urza’s Destiny, Storage Matrix was printed as a brand new card that also had the “as long as Storage Matrix is untapped” rider.

Which got me wondering, what are the most popular artifacts that you can turn on and off?

Top 10 Artifacts That Turn Off When Tapped

No fancy criteria or corner cases this time, just an extremely limited card pool to start with!

Criteria: Artifacts that have an effect that only operates when said artifact is untapped. As is tradition, all results are ordered by EDHREC score.

10. Sphinx Sovereign

(310 Inclusions, 0% of 111,060 Decks)

Naturally, right after I say there’re no corner cases this time, I find myself having to explain whether Sphinx Sovereign really meets the spirit of our criteria. After all, it’s mostly a 6/6 flier that you want to deal nine damage a turn with its tap ability, meaning it’s more turning “on” than “off”. Still, when there’re only 12 legal cards total that meet your criteria, you can’t afford to be too choosy.

As for how good the actual card is, you don’t really have to extrapolate a whole lot more than “it’s eight mana”. Cards like that are supposed to win you the game, not wait a turn to swing in for less than a quarter of someone’s life total.

9. Thunderstaff

(550 Inclusions, 0% of 863,329 Decks)

Thunderstaff has the distinction of being the only card on this list that can tap itself to turn itself off, a fun design space if I’ve ever seen one, and to borrow a page from Mr. Megill, I’d just like to state plainly that this card is extremely underplayed. For three mana, you render token decks that haven’t yet found their pump spells entirely moot, all while pumping your own on the crucial alpha strike turn. The amount of damage an average Thunderstaff will prevent in a game isn’t small, either, as pretty much every scenario that doesn’t involve Voltron probably has multiple creatures attacking. In fact, if I may, I’d like to give everyone a bit of homework during their next EDH game: every time you’re attacked, imagine you had a Thunderstaff in play, and see how often it feels bad that you don’t. I have a feeling that I’m going to ruin your day a bit.

8. Farsight Mask

(957 Inclusions, 0% of 863,329 Decks)

In the same vein, it must follow that Farsight Mask is underrated, right? Well, five mana is a lot. In the days where Boros and mono-white decks had no other options for card draw, it would do in a pinch. Not only that, those that played during those days probably have a couple of stories about the time someone plopped down a Pestilence or a Pyrohemia and they ended up drawing most of their deck. In reality, however, Farsight Mask is a better Fog than a card draw outlet. Players just see that you’ll draw cards when they attack you, and so they won’t. Which is a nice backup to Ghostly Prison, don’t get me wrong, but again: it costs five mana.

7. Storage Matrix

(1,549 Inclusions, 0% of 863,329 Decks)

I have a confession to make. I not only play Storage Matrix, but I do it in the worst way possible: in my “hey, don’t worry, it’s a fun Rule Zero deck” featuring Alexander Clamilton. It’s a Persistent Petitioners build, and alongside other notable Stax and chaos cards, like Sands of Time, Confusion in the Ranks, and Possibility Storm, Storage Matrix works well when you’re all in on a single card strategy. I choose creatures every turn and continue to mill a player for 24 or so while they have to make a real decision about whether they want to play new spells or attempt to attack into my army of 1/3s. With that said, looking at the numbers, I’m far from alone. 1,500 decks are also deciding to be a jerk about everyone’s untap step, and this is actually one of the nicer ways you can do it.

6. Static Orb

(6,233 Inclusions, 1% of 863,329 Decks)

Which brings us to our Stax segment of the program. While not as ubiquitous as Winter Orb or Stasis, Static Orb is nonetheless an old school Stax staple, easily allowing you to untap everything while your opponents limp along so long as you can find a means of tapping it. While that last part used to be a bit tricky, necessitating clunky cards like the infamous Icy Manipulator, the answer to how to break parity with Static Orb gets a lot easier in the format where you always start with the same card in your “hand” every game.

While casting creatures at instant speed isn’t always the easiest, Derevi seems to manage, and Urza, Lord High Artificer just sees an opportunity to Brainstorm or Counterspell for free on your turn before untapping themselves as normal.

As for Galazeth Prismari, you really have to feel for Wizards sometimes. “Hey Treasure fans, here’s a fun new Treasure commander that’s also an Elder Dragon,” to which the community replies, “What, you mean the extra token for keeping me above board with my Tangle Wire and Smokestack?”

5. Trinisphere

(7,364 Inclusions, 1% of 863,329 Decks)

If you are a Stax player, then you probably find yourself talking about “fair” Magic a lot, and Trinisphere is definitely one of those cards that forces folks to play exactly that. Taking the Storm deck down from casting 15 cantrips a turn to 5 a turn? That goes a long way, not to mention making efficient removal and interaction a lot less efficient. In short, if you really want your opponents to slow down and smell the tapped lands, then a Trinisphere can go a lot further than a rule zero discussion when push comes to shove.

4. Genesis Chamber

(7,983 Inclusions, 1% of 863,329 Decks)

My favorite card on this list, however, has to go to Genesis Chamber. Sure, it’s not really in the spirit of things, as most decks playing it are just looking to out-creature their opponents rather than bother tapping this thing down to prevent their opponents from getting Myr. Many decks playing it are actually hoping it never gets tapped, as they actually want their opponents to be as flush with creatures as possible for their Suture Priest or Grismold, the Dreadsower.

If you are looking to be a bit of a jerk while racking up some death triggers, however, Genesis Chamber does see play in almost 40% of Kaervek, the Spiteful decks.

3. Blinkmoth Urn

(9,516 Inclusions, 1% of 863,329 Decks)

Blinkmoth Urn has been a staple of artifact decks since the beginning of the Commander format, often giving the artifact player double digits of mana every precombat main phase. While most are content to let their opponents then get a piddly two or three mana for themselves, there is still the option of tapping it down to ensure only you get the upside. Mostly, though, you’re probably going to want to spend that energy just keeping it on the board, as any experienced player that’s seen what Blinkmoth Urn can do will most likely be trying to remove it before you get even a single mana out of it.

2. Winter Orb

(12,207 Inclusions, 1% of 863,329 Decks)

Well, that was a nice break from your more typical Stax pieces, but now we’ve reached the grand-daddy of them all: Winter Orb! While Stasis prevents everything from being untapped, rather than just lands, it comes with a significant upkeep cost that can be difficult to keep paying when you yourself don’t get to untap. No such problem with Winter Orb. Not only do you get to untap a land every turn, but you can also easily find a means to turn the Orb off during another players turn, making it so only your opponents are having to deal with limited mana. Stax is all about breaking parity, and that’s pretty much the definition!

1. Howling Mine

(16,832 Inclusions, 2% of 863,329 Decks)

When it comes to our #1 card, however, most folks aren’t really going out of their way to break parity. Don’t get me wrong, Derevi would happily take a card and deprive everyone else of it, but most have figured that they’d rather be doing something a bit meaner, with Howling Mine not even showing up on Derevi’s page. Instead, Howling Mine is the quintessential group hug card, highlighting list after list of decks that want to break parity in another way: by giving the table all the resources in the world, and building their deck around being able to use those resources more effectively.

While most group hug decks are also fattening up everyone’s land count so that they can feed a Helix Pinnacle, give the entire table a horde of Hippos with Phelddagrif and a Suture Priest, or just cast Approach of the Second Sun twice in the same turn, another huge piece of the strategy is what Howling Mine provides: having a huge grip of cheap, efficient interaction that you can use to keep others from winning while you get your splashy win-con online.

Either that, or they’re not group hug at all, and they’re just feeding an Underworld Dreams. No card is friendly all the time.

Honorable Mentions

I mentioned that this was a small list, barely qualifying for top ten status at all. As such, our honorable mentions this week are less honorable and more “what’s left?”

I’m not entirely sure that Watchdog deserves to be behind Sphinx Sovereign, especially not by the 250 inclusions it is. Sure, it’s “must block” rider combined with a 1/2 body is rather underwhelming, but in similar fashion to Thunderstaff, it turns off a ton of go-wide strategies. Combine that with the fact that it’s not three colors and eight mana, and I think I’m a bit offended on Watchdog‘s behalf.

On the other hand, you can completely see why Voodoo Doll is only in 19 decks total. It’s old, it’s obscure, it’s six mana, and it’s essentially all downside. After you’ve paid your six mana, you get to wait a whole turn to put a counter on, and then are forced to pay two mana to deal one damage to something or you get dealt one damage for your efforts and sacrifice your six mana artifact. Then do that every turn, only the cost doubles.

In other words, I can’t think of even one deck or strategy that would want this. Even Zedruu and Blim don’t want to give this away, as the recipient will just sacrifice it at the first given opportunity.

The last contender on our list was never a legal option to begin with, but given the small card pool I figured we could revel in Urza’s Contact Lenses for a moment. If you never had the honor of both playing and understanding how this card works, it was either a calm bit of strategy or a complete riot of chaos. The controlled strategy was simply to keep everyone’s hands open on everyone else’s turn, then to clap before you drew your card for the turn, keeping your new card secret. The chaotic strategy was to essentially be clapping all the time, having players constantly putting down and picking up hands in an attempt to distract and see who could get the best snapshot of what everyone else had going on.

Let’s just put it this way: in regard to that second strategy, we’re currently in a time where more and more nonsense that would have been classified as silver-bordered is creeping into the game all the time, with even a silver-bordered set having a ton of black-bordered components in the guise of Unfinity. Even in that environment, Urza’s Contact Lenses would and will never be legal in any format. It’s a fun experience, though, if you ever manage to draft some Unglued!

Nuts and Bolts

There always seems to be a bit of interest in how these lists are made (this seems like a good time to stress once again that they are based on EDHREC score, NOT my personal opinion), and people are often surprised that I’m not using any special data or .json from EDHREC, but rather just muddling my way through with some Scryfall knowledge! For your enjoyment/research, here is this week’s Scryfall search.

What Do You Think?

Being an old-hat player that’s been around for most of the life of the game, I often forget that a lot of folks I’m playing with have no idea about the old eccentricities of this game. I have both an understanding and an opinion on damage going on the stack, for instance, whereas when I bring it up in regard to cards that used to be much better under the old rules, like Yavimaya Elder and Sakura-Tribe Elder, I usually end up explaining things for a good ten minutes. So, with that in mind…

Finally, what is your favorite artifact that you can turn off? Do you think this is a fun design space that we should see more of? Is there other old rules that should be played around with a bit, like mana burn is with Yurlok of Scorch Thrash?

Let us know in the comments, and we’ll see you at the (ノಠ益ಠ)ノ彡┻━┻, once we’ve ┬─┬ノ( º _ ºノ).

Doug has been an avid Magic player since Fallen Empires, when his older brother traded him some epic blue Homarids for all of his Islands. As for Commander, he's been playing since 2010, when he started off by making a two-player oriented G/R Land Destruction deck. Nailed it. In his spare time when he's not playing Magic, writing about Magic or doing his day job, he runs a YouTube channel or two, keeps up a College Football Computer Poll, and is attempting to gif every scene of the Star Wars prequels.