The Stack and Back

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Welcome to "Best Of" Week 2! While it feels odd to be picking a repeat from one of the few articles I've had the chance to write (here's to making the decision harder for me in 2010!) I was charged with pulling the very best of everything Serious Fun had to offer this year, including from my bag of tricks. After some consideration it became clear to me that the best I've offered up (yet) is sharing my passion about the Stack.

Stack is a format that has been nothing but surprising to me every time I sit down with it. The cards, the players, and the stories I walk away with are always different and interesting. If you find yourself with free time and a few Magic friends, give Stack a try—I sincerely doubt you'll be disappointed!

This article originally ran on November 24, 2009.

The letter T!he "stack" is the magical zone where spells and abilities reside, in order, while waiting to be resolved (or countered, bounced, or "fizzled") and is not a part of the rules I'm particularly adept at. What also makes the stack interesting is that it is a shared place between players. Everyone has their spells and whatnot going in and out, being revealed, and making their announcement before what it's trying to do happens. However, while I'm sure there is an excellent exposé on how interesting and fun the stack is, I'm not going to talk about that stack.

There's another stack of cards in Magic. It's called, unimaginatively, Stack, and it's something special to me. Stack is more than just "a pile of cards" and is a means to an end: the simultaneous expression of awesome fun and unique game play. You see cards like Kokusho, the Evening Star and Vindicate next to cards like Endrek Sahr, Master Breeder and Spinal Embrace, cards like Capsize and Miraculous Recovery, cards like Chameleon Colossus and Herald of Leshrac; everything that's fun, thrilling, big, bold, and just interesting—all of it—in one central spot.

If you thought Elder Dragon Highlander was interesting and different, Stack will bring new meaning to the age old Magic question "Ready for a new game?"

 Format: Stack  

In Brief: Stack is a casual duel and multiplayer format where anywhere from a hundred or so cards up through a few thousand are individually selected (i.e. Singleton or "Highlander" restriction of one copy of any card) by the Stack owner, randomized, and played as a shared library and graveyard a chunk at a time. Stacks are generally built without any dedicated mana fixing per se, like dual lands or Mana Cylix–type cards, but virtually any card can be included in the Stack if desired.

Rules Rundown: Aside from corner issues involving sharing your library and your graveyard among each player, the main difference is that whenever a player would draw a card that player may instead choose a basic land type of his or her choice and draw that card instead (it's still a card draw). Hence the general "exclusion" of mana fixing—you really won't need any!

Effects that would allow you to search your library for a basic land instead just let you grab from outside the game as if you had searched. In general if any effect would have you search you library, you instead search within a different chunk of the Stack, leaving the current library as the great unknown.

The general rule for effects that trigger or result in more than one player simultaneously involving cards in a shared zone (cards like Exhume, Prosperity, and Whetstone) is to follow APNAP (Active Player, then Next-active Player), with decisions moving around the turn order in multiplayer games. If you've played a lot of Free-for-All multiplayer or EDH you're probably already doing this without even thinking about it.

Pros: Stack is both simultaneously extremely random and tantalizingly fun. A Stack can be built to emphasize creatures and combat, big spells and crazy effects, subtle play decisions mimicking a very strong Limited environment—or all of it at once, or even something completely different. Since the Stack is the shared library, once someone has a Stack it naturally scales to any number of players—in fact, you can play for hours without anyone else even having brought their own deck! Because of the stand-alone nature of Stack, it also layers well with other formats like Planar Magic (what Planechase is all about).

Cons: As with any format that has a deep card pool there are quite a few cards that are hard to get for one reason or another but can be arguably the most fun (like Shahrazad). While avoiding search effects is an "easy" answer to maintaining randomness, search effects are also a lot of fun too—it's a philosophical choice whether to include, many, some, or none at all. Additionally, some older cards (like Animate Dead) may be unintuitive or unclear to some players who have never seen them before, or may carry erroneous or misleading reminder text (like Torment cards with madness). Finally, you should bear in mind that the permutations of possible interactions seem to ensure at least one potentially confusing situation occurs each game.

While your initial knee-jerk reaction to Stack may be "This is just a Cube!" I want to argue that the similarities are only on the surface (single cards hand-picked for inclusion). Cubes are, generally speaking, trying to answer the question "What are the very best cards in the history of Magic?" which is deep, very involved question with many answers being debatable in one context or another. Stacks, however, are trying to answer a question that's equally subjective but immensely more concrete in answers: "What are the cards I find the most fun in the history of Magic?"

Cubes are, again with general terms, structured and balanced to perform much like a set in Magic (think Zendikar but with 500-1000 different, unique cards). Stacks need not be balanced, structured, or even tuned, though working at maintaining some of all three can certainly improve things in terms of the Stack being consistently fun. With Stack there are few rules, and those are your rules to make.

A History Lesson

While I would love to have really defined something as awesome as the Stack I most certainly did not. Chris H., one of the many very sharp players local to the store I play at every Thursday, introduced this to others at the store and it was one of those players who introduced me to it and it, in turn, led me back to Chris.

I asked Chris H. to share the story of how the Stack came about and this is what he had to say:

Former University of Maryland students Hans and Paul came up with the premise of the 'stack' circa 2001 following the release of Odyssey. Armed with nothing more than a bulging cardboard box of random non-land cards and some free time, the two shuffled up a scoopful of cards, laid out some piles of basic lands, and began playing Magic with only two simple rules:

  1. Whenever a player would draw a card, that player may choose to draw a basic land of his or her choice instead.
  2. Library and graveyard are shared – at all times it is both "yours" and "opponents'"

I played my first game of Stack with Hans, Paul, and fellow gamer Chris Jordan at the UM Student Union a year later and was hooked instantly. By this time, the box had grown bigger and cards more worn, but the nature of the 'stack' had remained the same. The simplicity of the game and the diversity of the cards was positively addicting. Just grab a hunk of cards, shuffle up, and play.

No banned and restricted lists. No metagame. No sleeves. What cards might you draw? Who knows! After a few plays, I began to dream big. Although the allure of roughing it every time with a random stack of cards was powerful enough [I thought] "What if instead I applied the two fundamental rules of 'stack' to a pile of my favorite Magic cards?" How could my friends or I ever be let down with a draw if I knew that it would be awesome?

It was at this point that the 'Stack' moved from an informal saying to a noun or verb in my gaming vocabulary. By the end of the year, "Let's Stack!" practically became the standard line for a pick-up game of Magic among my friends. We had no idea what we were getting into other than a good time.

That's it!

While Hans and Paul may not have been the first players to gather cards and play Magic this way—sharing a library and graveyard seem like a natural variation on game play—Stack has grown to be more than just a quick way to play. The capability to carefully manage and massage the choices of cards in the Stack mean that not only does ones Timmy side get its "completely random, epic fun" fix, but one's Johnny side gets its "intricate interactions and surprising cards" fix as well.

Guess Whose Stack

In order to get the story and rules cleared up I met up with Chris H. and much of the rest of the original Stack crew (Chris J., Hans, and Paul) to play. Chris H. has the following stacks: the "A Stack" which is virtually all foil, mostly artist signed and altered, and contains many very valuable and old versions of cards, the "B Stack" which is not foiled, does not contain many of the highly valuable cards, and has more than a few differences in terms of the cards contained, and a very special one called the "Aggro Stack" which requires some further explanation later. Hans and Paul, meanwhile, still have the "Original Stack," in terms of the continued organic evolution to its current state.

All of these Stacks are a fair mystery to me, despite playing all of Chris H.'s Stacks at least once each. With the A Stack being the premium option, as well as the presence of the Original Stack meant that I was in for a very nice ride indeed. Virtually every card was a surprise—not just for me, but for everyone—and I think you'll find a few of these surprising too.

We started with the Original Stack which is not sleeved, foiled, or artist signed. In fact, nothing about it immediately jumps out as special other than that every cards looks, and feels, fairly heavily played. These cards have been loved over time, and the worn edges, scrapes, water warping, and sometimes even punctured cards all feel natural. These cards are all loved and have been loved for quite some time.

The game started off fairly slow but progressively exploded from there. I had a turn-two Hearth Kami but nearly everyone else seemed to be making bigger plays. There was Kalonian Behemoth, Weatherseed Treefolk (which I had put on Delay for four turns), and an Enslave onto Thriss, Nantuko Primus—all by Chris J. Hans had a Forgotten Ancient that put four counters onto a Guul Draz Vampire when someone was below 10 life, to which I played Backlash on it to take him down from 13 to 6! Aside from the Hearth Kami, I also had parked a Golgari Guildmage and Cephalid Retainer through most of the game. Tapping others creatures created juicy opportunities for other players to bash in, eventually leaving me at the highest life total and fairly solid board position. In the end, Chris H. and I stood facing each other with potentially lethal damage. He had some tokens and a few other dudes, mostly tapped from taking out Paul, but no creature with flying. I took a fourth Island for my turn, tapped two of his dudes, and swung in for lethal if he didn't have an answer.

He didn't have one, and the unblocked Hearth Kami that sat the entire game got there. Why did I keep a little 2/1 dude for so long? I was told that there was very little artifact or enchantment destruction in the Stack. To paraphrase either Hans or Paul (I can't recall which): "You'd put out something awesome and it would only get wrecked before it had a chance to mess around with the board. So we fixed that."

Knowing that I wanted to keep an "ace-in-the-hole," so to speak, I held onto him, and as a reward for taking out the not-too-easy-to-take-out Chris H. I was asked to sign the Hearth Kami, forever securing its place in the Stack.

After getting the formal introduction to the Original Cube, we switched gears to something that is very much distinct from Hans and Paul's nebulous, organic Stack: Chris H.'s "A" Stack: a tuned, analyzed, well-tested, foiled, artist signed and altered, double-sleeved über-Stack. It was his baby and it was another awesome play experience.

Chris H. uses spreadsheets to organize a fair amount of data about what's all in his Stack. While I didn't want any part of the data (in order to maintain the mystery of what he has been doing with his), you can see that he's spent quite some time "upgrading" his cards and truly loves the Stack experience.

Another friend, Tim, had shown up midway through our game using the Original Stack and he gladly joined in for the A Stack goodness. Sadly, though, he was knocked out first and left before the pictures were taken.

The game took well over two hours, with six players using seemingly random cards (like Skarrgan Skybreaker), making amazing plays (I cast Biomantic Mastery for a total of eight cards getting copied by Tim's Mischievous Quanar), and seeing only a handful of board-clearing effects will make games last a long time. (Chris H. dropped an Ixidron off of his Mirari's Wake after which I cast a Fire Covenant to deal 2 damage each to the three face down creatures and 1 to Ixidron itself for the low, low cost of 7 life—a four-for-one!) However at no point did the game devolve into a board-locking combo. Everyone had things to do and the subtle pressures of finding the right offence and keeping the right defense kept the "biggest threat" hat shifting around between all of us. Eventually, Elspeth, Knight-Errant and Rancor teamed up for Hans to start bringing the mad beats (at least I clearly remember Hans knocking me out)—but Paul's Garruk Wildspeaker, in conjunction with drawing into Shelter and Wildsize, ensured him victory.

Left to Right: Paul, Chris H., Chris J., Hans

Along the way, cards like Memory Plunder; Bösium Strip; Dralnu, Lich Lord; and Phyrexian Grimoire kept some modest recursion going, forcing us to remove a hundred cards or so from the bottom of the graveyard—twice! However it was a Seedborn Muse that really stole the show. Chris H. dropped it initially, but with his Mirari's Wake the table forced it to die, only to come back under Tim, Chris J., and myself all at different points, some multiple times. Additionally, she it the target of several Rise from the Grave type effects only to be shifted or preempted by other players. We were all strangely grateful when it finally became exiled.

Apparently, untapping your permanents during each player's untap step means a lady like that sure knows how to treat a planeswalker—or at least get a few to compete for her affection.

Stacking up to Your Expectations

I hope you've found the Stack to be as interesting as I do. However there is one slight variant to Stack some of you may really like: Aggro Stack. The Aggro Stack is best described as a true combination of Cube and Stack: the cards that go into an Aggro Stack are the most aggressive creature cards (think about creatures like Blastoderm, Carnophage, and Goblin Guide) as well as lots of solid removal and card drawing. The goal is to have a Stack that plays as aggressively as possible, swinging with a crazy variety of dudes, and to facilitate this you replace your normal card draw with drawing a basic land or a fetch land (i.e. Wooded Foothills, Verdant Catacombs, etc.), which you can use to fetch any true dual land (i.e. Savannah, Bayou, etc.), with all of these lands still being outside the game. While costing you life each time you use a fetch land it makes every hand have its mana fixed completely as early as possible which allows you to play your best creature or spell every turn. Nice!

Share your thoughts on Stack in the forums and let me know what you think! Although I don't have an example Stack list to share I have already shared a good reason why: I don't want to know what's all in Chris H.'s, or anyone else's for that matter, Stacks. I love the suspense and epic nature of drawing the unknown from the top of the deck as well as being blindsided by a cards I've yet to see or Chris had added recently!

And, finally, I want to send another round of thanks to Tim, Chris H. and Chris J., Hans, and Paul for giving me the inside scoop on the Stack and the great games of Magic! Without guys like you, Magic would be slightly less fun. Thank you!

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