Andrew Wolf, US Nationals ‘02
Most of the time, I make decks with an eye on tournament play, and there are a lot of inherent limitations on creativity when it comes to making those decks. If you play in Block Constructed, say Odyssey Block Constructed, for example, it's quite hard to make a deck that doesn't include one of the following cards: Wild Mongrel, Psychatog, Mutilate, or Mirari's Wake. So it goes that many, many decks get sent to Deck Limbo, tossed into File 13 with rarely any hope that they'll see the light of day again. Plenty of great cards never have their potential realized, because they may have only been good for a week, or they may have only been good if something else didn't happen to exist.
Smokestack was one of those cards I kept plugging away at. I even got to play a Smokestack deck once in a tournament, a whopping 10 person event in Milwaukee's classic small-town Magic shop, the VGC. I did okay, beating up on two former Wisconsin State Champions, Rob Castro and Jake Welch, in the process. (I'm only bragging about that because it's fun to rub in the sweet taste of victory on former State Champs who are past their glory days).
Making people lose hope. The cards that make people lose hope are the ones most likely to get me excited. As someone relentlessly loses cards to a Smokestack, they really do start to get frustrated. If you'd like, every turn they'll lose yet more permanents than the turn before. A quick note for those of you who don't realize this about Smokestack: you aren't required to add an extra counter every turn. Keeping track of the proper pace of the Smokestack is a good skill to acquire. Here are the best general ways to abuse the card.
Lots of extra permanents
One of the first, best ways to have a Smokestack be truly great is to have a lot of extra permanents running around. A Smokestack, left unattended, will remove a lot of permanents. Essentially, you both are going to lose the same amount of permanents, but your opponent is going to lose them first. If you simply have a lot of things on the table, this can make sacking things not seem nearly as symmetrical. It's almost as if you and your opponent both go to the same swank club, pay the entrance fee at the door, but you're the only one left with money for drinks!
One of the best ways to get a bunch of permanents is to have a good card drawing engine and cheap spells. There are a ton of ways to accomplish this feat. Of course, with Mirrodin Block cards out right now, it is easy to start talking about Affinity cards and combining them with say a Future Sight or a Vedalken Archmage for card draw. This is a really good way to throw a bunch of stuff into play, certainly, but it begs the question, why lock them out? You have free 4/4s and stuff. Why not just smash their face?
A better way to get the card drawing going is something like Necropotence or Enchantresses (with Argothian Enchantress being top notch here). Both of these decks can have a ton of good, cheap spells that will make it easy to get permanents into play. Enchantress decks easily win here, though, when it comes to a side-by-side comparison. Each of the permanents that an Enchantress deck is likely to drop are going to be quite cheap, and easy to sacrifice. Also, Enchantress decks go well with cards like Exploration. Exploration makes it easy to have a bunch of extra permanents (land) so long as you have the cards to back it up.
Lots of permanents doesn't make the Smokestack any less costly in a literal sense to your side of the board, but it does mean that you really don't care that much about paying the cost. Your opponent isn't likely to have that luxury.
Sweeping up (or locking down) the board
A lot of people usually love to say at this point “That's why I love Tanglewire with Smokestack! It's a combo!” Well, they are both individually powerful cards, but they are not a combo. Essentially, they both put their disruptive abilities on the stack. However, whichever one is the most potent is going to be the only one that your opponent notices on their turn. If you have more tokens on Tanglewire, your opponent won't be any further disrupted by it – they can just sacrifice their tapped permanents. Better examples of cards that lock up the board that are actually relevant are cards like Opposition, Propaganda, or Icy Manipulator.
Propaganda encourages your opponent to sacrifice their creatures, as they are likely to quickly lose the land it takes to make any useful attack occur. Against a creature deck, this is pretty nice. Propaganda is nothing compared to locking down directly - Icy Manipulator and Opposition are effectively the same thing, just with different impacts. Opposition, of course, is the powerhouse here. After they've sacked their permanents, a useful permanent that they have left can be tapped for every creature you have. Oftentimes, this can lead the opponent to quickly having no game left at all.
The first truly ridiculous use of Smokestack that I remember ever seeing made use of this idea. Teenage Milwaukee Magic player Jon (or Angry Jon, as he was sometimes called) made a fantastic “Enchantress Prison” deck for Urza's Block Constructed. Using a ton of cheap enchantments, Deranged Hermit, Opposition, and Smokestack, the deck could completely lock out most opponents quite quickly. Far more disruptive than any other Enchantress deck I had ever seen, Angry Jon's deck was quite impressive.
When I started working on the deck myself, I added in some more “sweep up” cards. In that case, I used Sunder, but I could have used Armageddon or Cataclysm if I hadn't been interested in keeping the deck legal for Urza's Block. The idea of knocking out all the land is quite simple: without the luxury of having land to sacrifice, the Smokestack can destroy all kinds of incredibly useful permanents that your opponent actually spent the time casting. Sunder is especially great here. Put the mana in your pool during your upkeep, sacrifice a few of the lands, and then bounce all land back up to everyone's hand. After you drop a land during your main phase (or more land if you have Exploration out), watch your opponent squirm as they lose a whole bunch of “real” permanents. They'll be under a hard choice on that turn: do they lay a land to probably just lose it to the Smokestack, or do they wait it out, and hope you'll sacrifice your own Smokestack to itself?
Cards you want to sack
If you run a card like Vedalken Shackles or Old Man of the Sea, sacrificing your opponent's creature is a great deal. On the next turn, steal another creature to sacrifice and give them even less choices for what to lose.
On a less exciting note, one of the nice things about Smokestack is how it makes every useless permanent in your deck have a purpose: kindling. If you are the kind of person who like to run Circle of Protection in your main deck, now you're not stuck with a completely dead card if you aren't playing against the right color. Of course, your opponent gets the same luxury, but you're the one that knows ahead of time and can plan accordingly.
Chucky cards – they never seem to die
The math works out exactly the same for cards like Rancor or (better yet) Despondency. The problem with these cards is that they cost mana to keep going, and they also require useful targets. They also need to successfully get onto something in order to come back to your hand when they are sacrificed. A well-timed Lightning Bolt can get in the way of that happening… There is, of course, the added advantage of more easily getting multiple cards of this type going. Nether Spirits don't like to travel in packs.
The fail-safe switch
Another great way to break the synergy of Smokestack is to strategically break the Smokestack itself. Before it gets to your own turn, getting rid of a Smokestack means you won't have to suffer the losses that your opponent just did. This can be especially important once a Smokestack has gotten up to a large number of counters.
This can be accomplished in any number of ways. The most blunt way is to simply Disenchant it. Of course, this isn't nearly as fun as a lot of other options. By actually destroying the Smokestack, you're down two cards, and are partway losing out on the whole point of getting rid of the Smokestack in the first place. Better is to bounce it. Boomerang, Echoing Truth, Rescue, and Vedalken Mastermind are some of the better choices here. They are better, essentially, because they are cheap.
Another great way is to change the Smokestack into something else. Goblin Welder is an amazing card because it can do just that. Christian Luhrs used a deck based around just this idea for an early Extended Masters event.
Christian Luhrs, GP Prague ‘03
Here, he can change the Smokestack into any number of great cards if it gets to be too much of a bother. The fantastic thing is that he can also bring it back into the mix if it becomes useful. I'm grinning right now just thinking of all the great things the Welder can do, even without Smokestacks around!
A bit less exciting, but still quite effective is using Claws of Gix. The card is incredibly cheap to cast, and is a good permanent way to destroy the Smokestack on your opponent's turn. In addition, Claws of Gix can be used as a mini-life gain engine in combination with your “Chucky” cards like Despondency or Rancor.
Two specific cards to abuse with Smokestack
There are a bunch of individual cards that can be used to great effect with the Smokestack, but here are my two favorite:
Dismantle – Okay, it is slow. But it can be quite neat. If you Dismantle your own Smokestack, those tokens can be put to use on any artifact creature that you might have, or any artifact that uses charge tokens. Dismantle a Smokestack and put some tokens on Lightning Coils for a small army of 3/1s. Make a Pentavus or Triskellion have more options. Or, just make your Mishra's Factory or Blinkmoth Nexus bigger. Personally, one of my biggest favorites here is going to be Mindless Automaton. Turn those soot counters into cards!
Upheaval – Sure, it's a lot of mana, but wow is this combo a beating. Put a bunch of mana in your pool, cast Upheaval and put your Smokestack back into play (any other cards in play is just gravy). Now your opponent is basically stuck unless they can drop a bunch of permanents at one time. You aren't required to put a token on Smokestack, so if they don't drop a land, don't put one on the Smokestack and just develop your board. If they do put out a land, on your own turn, up the token count on Smokestack, make them lose their land, and keep them locked out of the game. If they have the cheap spells to get out of it, you're still ahead on the race!
Overall, Smokestack is one of my favorite cards in a long time. I even spent time working on an Extended deck for one of the Pro Tour Kobe Qualifier season. In the end, I did qualify with an Isochron Scepter / Orim's Chant deck, but here is the deck I almost tried to qualify with:
The deck plays quite admirably versus control decks like Psychatog. Many of the control games would end on turn 2 with a Scrying Glass. The Glass and the huge amount of discard totally rip people up, setting up a Smokestack or Contamination lock pretty quickly. Testing against Sligh was incredibly rewarding. It was very hard for them to win a game.
There are only 2 Smokestacks (though there was one in the board) because you could easily tutor for them, and Extended is so fast you don't want one to be sitting in your hand unless you can power it out. Of course, the deck has lost access to Entomb since that card was banned, so the easy ability to get a Nether Spirit going is now gone. One potential, if silly, solution is to run 3 to 4 Nether Spirits, and run one or more Scrabbling Claws to Tutor for. Now, if you get an extra Nether Spirit, just target yourself with the Claws and remove it from the graveyard. Without Entomb running 1 Roar of the Wurm and Moment's Peace doesn't make a lot of sense, so you can toss those cards to the curb.
The deck is a lot of fun. It strips your opponent of resources either literally or virtually, and when the game is in a situation of parity, takes over with Contamination/Smokestack/Subversion/Flashback (depending on the matchup). The deck uses the “more permanents” idea with Flashback cards, “sweeps the board” with Pernicious Deed, has Nether Spirit as a “Chucky”, and also gets the Deed to double as a “fail-safe switch”. If any of you do put it together, I'm sure you'll have a blast with it like I did.
Before I close the article, one final note about last week's article. Many of you wrote in to ask about the table in that article. One column was entitled “A number” and another “That number, Poxed”. The “That number, Poxed” column is what remains after a Pox. I had thought that that was clear, but so many people wrote in to mention it, I felt compelled to respond. My second 1.5 Chrome Mox error somehow slipped through from sheer sloppiness. I was copying an old Extended decklist I had lying around and changed Mox Diamond to Chrome Mox. All apologies for that one.
Have a great rest of your week!