Tendrils of Agony is an addictive card. It is a fantastic feeling to be able to play a deck with nearly 100% setup and dedicate a single slot to your combo kill.
Combo decks are the way of the future in Legacy. It is difficult to come prepared for all of the different decks that Legacy has to offer, so a proactive plan is simply a superior strategy. Combo decks are the superior proactive strategy because they provide overwhelming power compared to other proactive decks. Prepare to openly mock Goblin Lackey.
But which combo deck? Combo decks are generally judged on three things: consistency, resilience, and speed.
There are certain combo decks that cannot do anything some of the time. For example, The Spanish Inquisition (a mono-black Goblin Charbelcher deck) doesn't actually do anything a high percentage of the time. Legacy combo decks need to be able to execute their combo every game against no resistance fairly quickly—generally around turn 3.
In addition, executing a combo and failing to win the game is not acceptable. Putting an Emrakul, the Aeons Torn into play is a successful execution of the combo in Sneak and Show. However, this only deals fifteen damage and annihilates six opposing permanents. This is not killing your opponent! There is nothing worse than executing the combo and losing.
Despite the plethora of combo decks that is available in Legacy, it is still largely an interactive format. Force of Will is one of the most important spells in the format, and discard spells such as Thoughtseize are starting to creep into the "must play staple" tier. Wasteland is quite popular as well. These are the primary disruptive cards that nearly any combo deck has to worry about. Each combo deck also has to worry about specific hate cards. Depending on the deck, cards like Leyline of Sanctity, Karakas, or Thalia, Guardian of Thraben can ruin the game plan. A resilient deck has the capability to fight through these interactive cards. If a single Thoughtseize or Force of Will is sufficient disruption, the combo deck is likely not very resilient.
In general, the most resilient decks have the fewest "dead" cards. If the combo is not being executed, does the card have an impact on the game? A card like Children of Korlis or Narcomoeba is an excellent example of a card that does not want to be drawn and will not help start the combo.
Speed is often seen as a form of resilience. If your opponent doesn't get a turn, they can't play their Thoughtseize. Decks like Goblin Charbelcher and Oops, All Spells! use this to their advantage. Unfortunately for their viability, Force of Will is a free spell, and no amount of speed can overcome Force of Will. That being said, when your opponent is relying on throwing a bunch of interactive cards at you (such as Liliana of the Veil, Hymn to Tourach, Counterbalance, Gaddock Teeg), one of the best ways to combat them is to simply execute your combo before those cards become relevant.
Speed is also one of the most important factors in a combo mirror match. Most combo decks dedicate cards to protection rather than disruption, so often combo mirrors are pure races. The best protection cards in my opinion are discard spells and Force of Will, as they are capable of disrupting your opponent when necessary.
Given that consistency, resilience, and speed are the important features of a Legacy combo deck, why Storm? While other decks might be faster, more consistent, or more resilient, I firmly believe that no other deck offers all three at the same time.
One of the greatest attributes of the deck is the versatility in which it can execute its narrow plan. There are certain draws that are capable of turn 1 wins, but it is more accurately a turn 3-4 deck capable of sculpting great hands and throwing ample disruption while setting up.
Cast nine other spells. Then cast this! All other lines of play lead to this, but there are many different lines available that constitute the "cast nine spells" part of this plan.
4 Brainstorm, 4 Ponder, 4 Preordain, 4 Gitaxian Probe
This is the biggest appeal to the deck. With a combo deck, fixing draws and sculpting perfect hands is the name of the game. The cantrips in this deck make it among the most consistent combo decks in Legacy. They also help to make it more resilient. If one of the combo pieces is disrupted, you can then use cantrips to find another copy or a way around it.
Basic lands are sweet in a format with Wasteland. There is nothing more infuriating than being mana light without a way to play against Wasteland. There are two Islands because blue mana is more important on turns before the kill turn. The Swamp is primarily for discard spells on an earlier turn. Keep in mind that Wasteland is only an issue on non-combo turns, so nonbasics will still work on the final turn.
Important not only for manipulating cantrips but also for getting threshold for Cabal Ritual. The interaction between the cantrips and the fetchlands is incredibly important for this deck. In addition, many other Legacy decks utilize your skill with cantrips. A quick primer:
Without a shuffle effect, Preordain > Ponder > Brainstorm. This is because being able to shuffle away what you put back with Brainstorm is by far the most powerful manipulation you have. So powerful that it is a defining feature of Legacy. After Brainstorm, the Ponder + fetchland interaction is quite powerful and oft overlooked. With a fetchland, Ponder becomes an Impulse of sorts, except that the perfect number of cards can be drawn before fetching. Gitaxian Probe can be used to draw a second card from Ponder before fetching the same turn.
Improving your play with these cantrips involves quite a bit of sculpting what kind of hand you want and how you think the game will play out. It's also much easier to use these cantrips once you've seen the opponent's hand!
Dual lands. You almost never need to fetch more than two Underground Sea and a Volcanic Island, allowing the rest to be Gemstone Mines. Three counters is plenty for Gemstone Mine, and some spells cost red or green mana, making Gemstone Mine superior to Underground Sea. Once in a blue moon, you can waste Gemstone Mine mana to put it into the graveyard to threshold Cabal Ritual.
4 Cabal Ritual, 4 Dark Ritual
The most important cards in the deck. You will generally (but not always!) need two of them to enable Past in Flames as a viable kill. Cabal Ritual is often considered clunky, but it's only clunky in comparison to Dark Ritual, which is just absurd. This deck is likely unplayable without Dark Ritual—there is just no realistic comparison. Dark Ritual is the backbone of your Ritual effects. That being said, Cabal Ritual is still excellent and allows you to execute your combo in exclusively black mana (often with one red mana for Past in Flames).
This is the weakest Ritual in the deck but is important for providing extra explosiveness. The other Rituals usually provide multiple mana, but Lotus Petal provides a ton of color flexibility and better Ad Nauseams. This deck probably needs Lotus Petal the least of any deck that plays it, but it still provides reliable explosiveness.
Black Lotus. The primary function of this card is to be used with....
Demonic Tutor. Also a reasonable Magic card. While the ideal situation involves putting Infernal Tutor and Lion's Eye Diamond together for the actual Black Lotus + Demonic Tutor combo, there are plenty of other uses for these cards. More on this later!
The big cards. These three, combined with Infernal Tutor, are the "action" cards. In reality, all of these are designed to build a storm count to find the eventual Tendrils of Agony with a lethal storm count. When you have sixteen cantrips, this is enough ways to kill people.
This is not the strongest deck for Ad Nauseam, as I'm not willing to play cards that exclusively support the card like Chrome Mox. When playing the deck, drawing ten and passing the turn is often the play. I don't like casting it without either a land drop or a black mana floating. Starting from nothing, Ad Nauseam needs to reveal all of the following:
- Lotus Petal
- Lotus Petal #2 or Dark Ritual
- An additional Ritual or two
- Tendrils of Agony or Infernal Tutor + Lion's Eye Diamond or Past in Flames and (usually) Lion's Eye Diamond and other cards
It's not particularly easy to find a 4+ card combo in the top fifteen cards or so, and having a single black mana floating takes away the need to find exactly Lotus Petal. While finding an exact average number of cards to draw doesn't really help you decide when to stop, you can generally draw double-digit cards with standard Ad Nauseams. However, Ad Nauseam isn't the best engine for generating spells, as it is not a guarantee. Instead, the preferred storm generator is Past in Flames.
After it's printing, Past in Flames replaced Ill-Gotten Gains as the premier graveyard-based storm enabler. Ill-Gotten Gains is a fine Magic card, but it is somewhat poor against Force of Will and other counterspells. Given that discard spells are the preferred protection, Ill-Gotten Gains is not well suited for Storm decks. While it adds a "third" color to the deck, Past in Flames is well worth it for simple, guaranteed kills. Red mana is sometimes an issue, but any artifact will enable a Past in Flames.
Past in Flames has a few different requirements than Ad Nauseam but is a lock when it works. Graveyard disruption (even a Deathrite Shaman) often takes away a Past in Flames kill. Sometimes red mana can be an issue. While both can operate off of as little as one black mana floating, Past in Flames requires actual Rituals where only artifact mana generally won't do. Dark Ritual, Cabal Ritual, Infernal Tutor -> Past in Flames is a very common line with this deck and gives you enough black mana to flash back Infernal Tutor for Tendrils of Agony.
Infernal Tutor chains are the other way to get a high enough storm count. With ten mana with six spells (not out of the question by any means), a hellbent Infernal Tutor as the seventh spell can generate enough storm by itself, no Past in Flames or Ad Nauseam required. Simply get another Infernal Tutor such that IT -> IT -> IT -> Tendrils will be lethal.
Finally, an oft-overlooked line of play is simply to natural Tendrils. One of the most enjoyable things to do with this decks involves drawing the Tendrils of Agony naturally and killing an opponent either with cantrips, their spells, or aggressive use of their life total (via Thoughtseize, Sylvan Library, fetchlands, etc.). In general, a combination of both is needed, but it is a very potent line of play once the Tendrils of Agony is drawn.
4 Duress, 2 Cabal Therapy, 0 Inquisition of Kozilek, 0 Thoughtseize
Discard spells are the best protection for this deck, as permanent-based disruption (such as Thalia, Guardian of Thraben) is less prevalent than stack-based disruption (counterspells). In addition, permanent-based disruption is often found in sideboards, which is evidenced by the popularity of Leyline of Sanctity. Duress is easily the best, as there are very few creatures that are worth taking. As for the next option, we have Cabal Therapy (without the ability to flash it back), Thoughtseize, and Inquisition of Kozilek.
When combined with a Gitaxian Probe or a previous Duress, Cabal Therapy is easily the best of these. Between eight copies of those two, Cabal Therapy is the next best option. Inquisition of Kozilek cannot take Force of Will, and Thoughtseize impacts Ad Nauseam negatively, especially once Gitaxian Probe is already competing for your life total. As I mentioned in the Ad Nauseam section, this deck is not foolproof in its Ad Nauseams. Discard spells that don't cause you to lose life allow for stronger Ad Nauseams. Finally, six is the correct number of protection spells for this deck. With too many discard spells, finding Rituals and an action spell might prove to be too difficult.
0 Burning Wish, 0 Grim Tutor
This is probably the most contentious point of this deck. Why are there not any Tutors other than the four Infernal Tutor to find a storm generator? The reason that only four Infernal Tutor is correct is twofold.
1) Burning Wish and Grim Tutor are almost strictly worse than Infernal Tutor, so much so that they affect what you can do with them. Getting hellbent with Infernal Tutor is comically easy, with the primary restriction being number of lands drawn exceeding the number of turns played. With fifteen lands, that is generally not a huge issue. Burning Wish is terrible in this deck because there are so many things it cannot do compared to the things that it can do.
First, it cannot Tutor for a storm engine card! That is somewhat of a big issue. If the target is Past in Flames from the sideboard, there is no longer a Tutor in the graveyard to chain to get the Tendrils. A second Tutor or enough blue mana to cantrip your way to a second Tutor is required. Given that the concern with playing Burning Wish is having enough Tutors to draw one every time, playing a Tutor that requires a second Tutor doesn't solve anything!
There are other sorceries that could be considered finishers with Burning Wish, but Time Spiral, Diminishing Returns, and Empty the Warrens all have their flaws. Ad Nauseam is an instant, so that is out of the question as well. Finally, Burning Wish introduces a non-black color of mana to the combo process (earlier than what is required of Past in Flames). Given the presence of taxing counterspells such as Daze and Spell Pierce, this can often be prohibitive.
Grim Tutor is definitely better than Burning Wish but is still pretty bad. First, three mana is quite a bit more than two. In a Past in Flames loop, this is two extra mana and six extra life, which is often prohibitive. It makes one black mana + Dark Ritual + Cabal Ritual fall short with Grim Tutor, which is actually quite a big deal. While Grim Tutor is bad with Past in Flames, it is even worse with Ad Nauseams. Being an extra mana costs an extra life if you flip it, and costing three life to cast restricts the number of cards Ad Nauseam can draw. When you Ad Nauseam, Grim Tutor stops being a relevant flip far quicker than other Tutors to the point where it's unacceptable.
2) If you draw multiple Tutors, you are often in a tough spot given that Infernal Tutor requires you to be hellbent. Sure, Brainstorm is quite the Magic card and can fix things, but Brainstorm should be used for far more important things than fixing crappy draws. Non-hellbent Infernal Tutors are sometimes easy to get rid of, as it can often break even on mana with Dark Ritual or gain a mana with Cabal Ritual. Burning Wish and Grim Tutor are much more difficult to get rid of additional copies. Other storm decks use Chrome Mox to help alleviate this problem, but those decks are sacrificing consistency and resiliency by throwing away cards to cover corner-case scenarios that are often avoidable. In short, the presence of secondary Tutors makes Infernal Tutor much worse.
If there were a functional reprint of a different name, this deck would probably want six or seven copies of Infernal Tutor. However, the alternatives are just so much worse than Infernal Tutor. A second Ad Nauseam is actually the next best "action" spell for the deck, but that carries its own risks.
As a general rule, sideboard lightly. The cards in the maindeck are selected because they are the best cards for enabling a storm kill. Taking some of them out will result in more difficult storm kills. This is incredibly important.
Legacy is a format with a nearly unlimited number of playable decks, and sideboarding for one specific matchup is foolhardy. Fortunately, Storm is a deck that needs very little focus in its sideboard since the basic game plan doesn't change. Against some strategies, the right mix of lands, Rituals, and disruption can be altered. In other scenarios, the core engine must be compromised slightly in order to fit in some anti-hate cards. Here are some generic sideboard guides.
Dedicated Combo Mirror (Example: Storm, Belcher, Show and Tell)
When speed is important, the fifteenth land can go. There will be no Wastelands to punish a lighter mana base. However, an extra discard spell can be very helpful.
What Matters: Speed. Throw away hands with too many cantrips because they will be too slow. Discard helps buy turns.
Mana Denial Blue Decks (Example: RUG Delver)
Preordain is generally the first cantrip to get cut since it is the weakest. That being said, going below two copies is not recommended because finding action can be difficult. Pyroblast can punish keeping cantrip-light hands, leaving you at the mercy of the draw step.
Force of Will + Discard Decks (Various Flavors of BUG, Stoneblade)
No changes. Everything is needed, and the best cards are already in the maindeck. If Wasteland is not a factor, a Swamp can be cut for an Ignorant Bliss. If they have Hymn to Tourach, Gitaxian Probe can be shaved for Ignorant Bliss.
What Matters: Cantrips, specifically Brainstorm. If your hand is under attack and your spells aren't safe, a sculpted hand is very important. Look for opportunities to fix inefficiencies in your draw. An early Duress can take one of their discard spells if a second discard spell is held in reserve for their Force of Will.
Discard Decks without Force of Will (Jund, Manaless Dredge)
This is the same as before, but discard spells are less important. Mindbreak Trap is common here.
Hate Bear Decks (Elves, Burn, Maverick, Death and Taxes)
-5 Discard Spells
-X Gitaxian Probe
This is fluid. Going up to sixteen lands is acceptable against Wasteland, but seventeen is too many. Leave in at least one discard spell to hedge against Mindbreak Trap, but in general they are not needed. Abrupt Decay is generally poor against hate bears since two mana is expensive and green mana invites Wastelands, but sometimes many answers might be needed.
Elves is clearly different from the other decks, as it can kill you much faster but has less interaction. They are still much slower and must rely on disruption. Burn's hate card is generally Pyrostatic Pillar.
What Matters: Turn 2 kills on the play. This is always the best strategy against these decks. Failing that, develop a rock solid mana base and sculpt a hand that can beat multiple hateful permanents.
Finally, some cards that are not worth sideboard space:
Does nothing. Tendrils of Agony reduces your opponent to zero. It's far too easy for Legacy decks to beat an Empty the Warrens for twelve Goblins, even on turn 1 or 2. It also opens up the deck to a ton of cards that would otherwise be dead, such as Detention Sphere, Engineered Explosives, and Engineered Plague.
Creatures like Dark Confidant and Xantid Swarm
Simply put, most Legacy decks are not constructed to have 60 viable cards post-sideboard against this deck. Legacy is just too diverse to be able to play many cards that are excellent against a deck such as this. This deck is built to avoid interaction from the majority of cards. For this reason, opponents have incentive to keep in some removal that may be effective against cards like Dark Confidant and Xantid Swarm. Do not let your opponents get value from their worst cards.
Once again, sideboarding is one of the least important parts of Storm. It is far more important to be able to find appropriate lines of play in basic games than it is to know how to sideboard with this deck. Expect opposing decks to be similar from game 1 to game 2, only with all of their available hate instead of just the maindeckable stuff. Games still play out remarkably similar in many matches.
Tips and Tricks
Brainstorm is incredibly powerful in this deck, and protecting your cards from discard effects is one of its most important functions. Ponder and Preordain can serve a similar purpose but less often since the card you want to protect has to be on top to begin with.
Infernal Tutor + Lion's Eye Diamond is basically Black Lotus + Demonic Tutor—the core interaction of the deck. In fact, it is often correct to leave a Lion's Eye Diamond in play with Ad Nauseam on the stack, as Infernal Tutor will most likely require Lion's Eye Diamond to be hellbent.
Past in Flames + Lion's Eye Diamond is also exceptional. Oftentimes, Past in Flames can simply be discarded to Lion's Eye Diamond and flashed back. If Infernal Tutor is involved, the Tutor can get a Dark Ritual or Cabal Ritual if need be. Regularly, Lion's Eye Diamond will make three blue mana in order to play three blue spells from the graveyard when trying to kill with Past in Flames.
In the scenario where you need to cast a large amount of cantrips post Ad Nauseam / Past in Flames, the proper order is generally Gitaxian Probe (for life), Ponder, Preordain, Gitaxian Probe (for mana), Brainstorm (provided the last cantrip cast is Brainstorm). This will dig the deepest without seeing repeat cards.
In the event that a natural Tendrils of Agony is required, Brainstorming it back to the top of the deck allows Lion's Eye Diamond to make mana if used in response to a second cantrip. Given that multiple cantrips are generally required to enable a natural Tendrils of Agony, this is a way to allow Lion's Eye Diamond to be useful outside of simply being a free spell.
Carpet of Flowers can act like a Ritual. Simply add mana during the second main phase.
When Tendrils of Agony is drawn, getting to ten spells can be difficult without another "action card," but it is possible. Given a maximum hand size of seven, three spells will have to find another spell to cast in order to generate lethal storm without help of the opponent. Infernal Tutor can count as two spells, but other lines of play will often open up with Infernal Tutor. This puts much of the burden on the cantrips to find other spells, but this is often reasonable.
Storm is an incredible deck. As you become more experienced with it, different lines of play will open up to you. It is one the greatest feelings in Magic: being actively rewarded for expanding your knowledge. In many ways, it's like leveling up. Hopefully, this primer will help you get started.
Thanks for reading,