A Shifting Definition
Originally a Stax deck featured resource removal and denial through the namesake card Smokestack. However, over time, many other cards have been added into the fold and the very idea of Stax has begun to change, noticeably, as all of the cards that were typically labelled as "hate bears" are more often being considered as Stax effects.
The main point, though, is that playing Magic gets considerably more difficult and oftentimes frustrating because of Stax. Decks full of cards that stop you from playing the game sounds like a bad thing for Commander, right? Maybe, maybe not. I've suggested that you should not play Stax without a Rule 0 Conversation about it. But as I've played a whole lot more with many varied groups through the power of SpellTable I've changed my mind; Stax is the Savior of Commander.
Spot The "Problem" Card
"All of them!" Good on you, I'd like to play in your Commander pods. But more than any other I believe Sol Ring is the problem card here. It's ubiqitous, has very little drawback, and it ends the game sooner for everyone. Consider all of the other cards here and you will see that they actually make the game last longer and all fold to simple removal. This is a very important point as it is, in fact, the entire point. I'm on record with saying Commander players commonly do not run enough removal and that interaction is not just important for deck strength, it's important for the entire Commander experience.
No Interaction Is The Problem
Many players appear to be making a lot of the same build decisions. In the last month I've played on SpellTable about 30 hours per week. At 30 minutes per game that comes out to roughly 60 games over the past month. Was there a single Terminate or Nature's Claim cast in any of those games? No. Why? Single target removal is a lot less attractive in terms of value and obviously is not part of a combo win.
However, in the vast majority of these games one player got off to a huge lead with an early Sol Ring or some other removable acceleration. One game, in particular, was a turn one Orcish Lumberjack into a turn two Pako, Arcane Retriever, which hit an immediate Sol Ring. While two of us had creatures that could kill Pako, the third player did not so the Pako triggers added up. None of us had removal in the first four turns and we ended up losing. The experience was highly frustrating for all involved.
A Tragedy Of The Common Prisoner's Dilemma
Keeping the game state even and fun is up to the entire table. If everyone played a few more removal spells, games wouldn't end early because greed would be punished. When all decks lack removal the greediest plays become the most rewarded. This creates a situation where you are forced to make greedier and greedier decisions to keep up with the greed of the table and this makes the quality of games go down, considerably.
Playing single target removal is fairly bad from a mathematical standard; you actually help two other players at the table with your card. Mass board wipes are also less likely to be the answer every time because if you are ahead they become dead draws. Gee, if only there were some kind of archetype that universally and broadly punished greedy players yet did not particularly hamper "fair" players at all? If. Only.
Stax To The Rescue
What makes a card like Lavinia, Azorius Renegade unfair? From the point of view of a fair deck, it does absolutely nothing. What about Lavinia of the Tenth? I played this card in my Brago, King Eternal deck with the ability to repeatedly blink it. Well if you play spells, it does nothing. If you play permanents that cost five or more it also does nothing. In the particular pod I was in one player was playing The Ur-Dragon and had absolutely zero problem with either of the Lavinias, but the other two players hated both. Why?
The other two players were playing tribal decks that had likely morphed from thematic tribal decks into combo decks as they continued to "optimize" their decks by making them "stronger"... likely by replacing removal with value and combo pieces. The color combinations of these other two decks? Golgari and Rakdos. Yes, a Golgari deck without removal and a Rakdos deck without removal.
Now, I don't know if these players were extremely unlucky, but, I was not stopping them from drawing cards and taking their turns and neither of them could kill a vanilla 2/2. Sure they were stopped from casting "free" spells or doing anything that cost four or less, eventually. With a little boost, Brago killed each of them with 21 points of commander damage as they also had no way to block a single flyer.
The-Ur Dragon player had no problems, at all, and we dueled back and forth.
The Holy Grail Of Commander
While my deck did not have piles of Stax features, it had enough to make the game keep going and it did not completely shut out players from playing. Many effects like Rule of Law are symmetrical, and, I can build in such a way as to avoid more one-sided effects.
Should I Play Stax?
Playing an *entire deck* of Stax effects is definitely a frustrating experience and it really should not be done at any table that ever considers itself or labels itself "casual" or "low powered". Play more removal. Definitely Rule Zero these types of decks.
At a high powered, cEDH table? Absolutely, yes you get to play full on Prison decks. But what about the in between Stax deck and mid-power tables? This is a tricky line to walk but I think the argument for Stax is better than against. The more you can say that your cards promote continuing to play the game and less about grinding the game to an absolute halt the better.
But My Table Hates Stax!
Well, don't bring something to the table that everyone hates. But do people really enjoy non-interactive value engines racing to end the game as soon as possible? Every game where I have forced interaction on a table has been more enjoyable for all those involved—take it from the last player who said "I don't know what your deck is trying to do, but I love it!" Strangling a table is bad. Forcing a table to interact? That's Commander! Also, play more removal.