The Storm bug has bitten me again. You see whenever I start admiring the raw power of linear decks it always leads me back to the realization that the ability to win before my opponent makes his second land drop is some good stuff. And so it went once again while testing the Dredge deck I talked about last time.
Aside: Congratulations to Ando Ferguson for taking Dredge to the Top 8 in Indy. The Flayer of the Hatebound package with the obligatory additional Dread Return—you need two of them to make Flayer into an instant-win—seems like something we'll hear a lot more of in the future (if you read the comments section of my article you knew about that alternative combo finish too). His list does exactly what I'd want my Dredge deck to do: plays an extremely fast combo game 1 and adapts to the grind when necessary game 2. /end aside
Back to the subject at hand playing a deck that could win this early reminded me how much fun it is to play Tendrils Storm which in turn brought me back to an interesting list that had won a recent Bazaar of Moxen qualifier event. I originally checked out that Top 8 because Nicolas Brun aka OrGy on mtgthesource told me he had piloted Caw Cartel to a Top 8 finish there and lost to said Storm deck. Ever since that list seems to have lodged in my subconscious ready to spring forth when given an opening.
Seeing the Gitaxian Probes/Cabal Therapy set up I remembered that an extremely similar list had made Top 8 of GP Amsterdam in the hands of Eli Pichon but not much had been heard of it since. That approach resurfacing made me wonder why I hadn't seen more of it—I guess making Top 4 of a GP isn't good enough to really make a splash or something? Especially considering the deck only lost a three-game match to Canadian Threshold that should've gone 2:0 to the combo deck (given how Pichon lost game 1 to not de-sideboarding when having the safe Past in Flames win) that really seems like a huge oversight.
Being Recruited by the Cabal
My interest was piqued and I started to play a few games with Vicaire's list; it was incredible. I cruised through massive counterspell set ups from true control decks and routinely dismantled even hands with multiple Snares Dazes and Stifles from Tempo thanks to Gitaxian Probe Cabal Therapy and most of all Past in Flames.
Gitaxian Probe was really good on its own because it allowed me to both figure out what I was playing against on turn 1 on the play (knowing what you're up against is very powerful if you can easily win turn 2 by going all in but also have the ability to sculpt a plan to fight through significant disruption using cantrips and discard) and take advantage of openings I might otherwise have eschewed fearing countermagic. They also set up the Cabal Therapy really well obviously.
Speaking of Cabal Therapy having these worked like a black version of Orim's Chant a lot of the time stripping multiple Spell Snares and Stifles like it was nothing. I originally felt like they might be somewhat weak if you haven't drawn a Probe or Duress first but really naming Force of Will blind is just fine and your next Therapy is going to take care of whatever's left.
The most important tool in the deck by far was Past in Flames though. You see the biggest problem with fighting through counterwalls against Tempo in the past was that you'd take damage in the meantime making Ad Nauseam a lackluster engine while Stifles remaining in the opponent's hand made going for the Tutor-chain win impossible and counters in the yard shut off Ill-Gotten Gains. Past in Flames totally changes how this matchup plays out. It also gives you an easy way to win without variance (I've died more than once casting Ad Nauseam from twenty before).
The two things I was unhappy with were the mana base and the sideboard. Badlands was causing mulligans in otherwise totally acceptable hands (lots of cantrips) and I really wanted another Island to build up more lands under the threat of Wasteland. As for the sideboard most people seem to keep some Swords to Plowshares in for possible Dark Confidants so Tombstalker seemed lackluster and I really hated the Empty the Warrens plan.
Against true control it was much easier to just ravage their hand and win with whatever though having a single Empty to be able to win with Tutor plus four mana proved sweet.
Against Tempo I found myself losing as many games to not being able to capitalize from an opening without Ad Nauseam (when you bring in so many high cost cards Ad Nauseam becomes too weak to keep in) as the Empty plan was winning. It also was incredibly weak in the face of Stifle seeing as how you'd try to go for it early (otherwise why have three of them). That kind of massive adjustment also simply didn't feel necessary considering how the MD matchup went.
Some reworking transpired and this is what I'm at right now:
The Hurkyl's Recall would be a Sadistic Sacrament if I expected the mirror in my metagame but nobody plays either TES or ANT here (another reason I wanted to bring out the Tendrils—there isn't much hate for it in Berlin at the moment for obvious reasons).
Note that you're kold to hate bears game 1 but them's the beats. In game 1 your weapon against decks that have maindeck hate bears (read: Maverick) is to either fire off a discard spell before they can play them (name Green Sun's Zenith with Therapy on turn 1 if they started on Hierarch) or to just kill them before they have the mana to do anything relevant; turn 2 kills are quite frequent. I haven't adjusted anything but the mana in the maindeck so let me talk about the sideboard.
The Anti-Control Package
The singleton Empty the Warrens is an excellent tool to profit from openings on turn 1 or 2 before you can fully combo out. This is a very powerful option to have against both Tempo and control decks and I wouldn't want to miss the ability. I just didn't enjoy getting Empty the Warrens flooded which is why I downgraded the plan to a Tutor target.
The Cabal Therapy is simply another discard spell to make fighting through disruption easier post-board. Considering I was quite happy with how the maindeck matchup went I simply decided to reinforce the "Duress you three times kill you" plan and it has been working rather well so far. One thing I've been considering is to run a Snapcaster Mage or two because of its synergy with Cabal Therapy.
The Anti-Combo Package
The full set of Extirpates is something I really liked in Sbastien's deck. Reanimator and new age Dredge are two of the harder matchups you can face (Reanimator is as fast as you are while having Force of Will and Daze Dredge is as fast as you are) and Extirpate gives you a very solid way to stop them for long enough to win. Extirpate wins out over Surgical for me because Reanimator can't counter it.
This is also where Sadistic Sacrament fits in which can just remove all the win conditions from the true mirror and a lot of High Tide lists. It isn't effective against TES (because of Burning Wish) and is therefore a little too narrow in application for my liking (and as I mentioned unnecessary in my metagame).
The Hate Package
If you aren't fighting countermagic you generally can expect to see hate bears (Gaddock Teeg Ethersworn Canonist and Thalia Guardian of Thraben mainly) or Chalice of the Void. Against these threats your best answer is to just bounce whatever they have during their end step before you go ahead and kill them on your turn.
Chain of Vapor is the best effect in the abstract. It only costs one mana and works as a backup storm engine when you don't need the bounce spell (play your artifacts bounce them with sacrificing lands replay them). Because Chalice of the Void is a card though you really want to have bounce that doesn't cost one (the most common setting against this deck as it shuts off Dark Ritual and all the cantrips used to set up the win) which is where Echoing Truth comes in (bouncing multiple Chalices at once is better than having the option to pay a kicker that never comes up in a fifteen-land deck).
The Hurkyl's Recall is there because I don't have room to bring in the fifth bounce spell against decks with a multitude of hate bears anyway (because of the next card) and this way I win a few random games against Stax variants that have Trinisphere.
The one problem with this plan is that Maverick has a tendency to assemble either Mother of Runes and a hate bear or two hate bears quite early post-board at which point getting there with bounce becomes quite hard. Infest on the other hand takes care of any number of hate bears as they luckily are actual bears and have only two toughness. This might be better as Virtue's Ruin though the difference will be totally negligible in 90+% of your games (killing Ooze vs. getting rid of a Sworded-up hate bear).
The Speed Up Package
The version of Storm I have the most experience with is Ari Lax's U/B ANT list that has two Grim Tutors. This new version skimps on the threat-density a little by cutting one and when you're trying to win as soon as possible (aka against non-blue decks) the additional Tutor brings you back up to that magical six. It also has the sweet benefit of Tutoring for your anti-hate cards if the situation requires it.
The Chrome Mox is simply more cheap acceleration that also does wonders to make your Ad Nauseams safer. With only Lotus Petals you're actually rather unlikely to win on an Ad Nauseam with zero floating and your land drop made simply because you have trouble hitting a starting mana source. Chrome Mox increases the chance of hitting that magical first mana by a fifth. My sixteenth sideboard card would probably be another one.
The Monster in Action
Let me start of by breaking down the three different engines:
Tutor chaining: This was my favorite way to win with the pre-Flames version of the deck simply because it's the safest. Cantrip until you can make a ton of mana then Tutor for more Tutors until you've reached the necessary storm count and go get the Tendrils for the win. This is quite mana intensive though and does come up a lot more rarely now because you can usually win earlier with Past in Flames. It's still something to remember post-board if they might have Surgical Extraction or bring in other random graveyard hate.
Ad Nauseam: The Ad Nauseam plan is actually the weakest plan you have because it involves a lot of variance (as evidenced by game 3 of the last StarCityGames.com Open Series finals). As mentioned above you often end up not finding the gas you need to win the turn you cast it with this list. That being said it's much faster and easier to set up than your other ways to win and therefore well worth being included.
I've actually passed the turn after resolving Ad Nauseam about as often as I've just won off of it; the games just ended a turn later but still in my favor. Drawing 12+ cards does that—I simply decided not to risk dying to it and waited a turn using Ad Nauseam as a Necropotence instead of a Yawgmoth's Bargain.
Past in Flames: The whole reason the deck runs red and man is it worth it. About 90% of my games have been won using this like the Vintage Long.dec used Yawgmoth's Will. Cast two Rituals Tutor for Past in Flames flash back the Rituals flash back any discard necessary flash back the Tutor get your Tendrils. Cabal Ritual is really what pushes this over the top because of how much mana you can generate of off just one-to-two cards.
Now as to general gameplans:
Your opponents come in two varieties blue decks and non-blue decks.
Blue Decks: Use your cantrip engine and Probes to create a situation where you have the opportunity to resolve a Tutor and the mana to win then go for it. It's really that simple even though it's a very intricate dance during the actual game. You'll generally just go for a grind out game in which you bide your time and strip their hand with discard before winning with Past in Flames. Ad Nauseam allows you to grab any opportunity that presents itself to just Necro for a bunch of cards early while games 2 and 3 Empty the Warrens makes early capitalizing even easier.
Non-blue decks: They can't interact with you on your turn so if you can go off its always safer just to do so (beware of Mindbreak Trap as well as Surgical Extraction against Past in Flames post-board). Other than that you either try to win before they can deploy any hate or dig towards an answer to their hate to go off once you've handled it (this second part is only applicable after game 1 obviously. Be aware that you can simply win through Thalia though.).
One particular thing to look out for is discard. You have no way to directly interact with the discard spells but you can minimize their impact by hiding cards on top of your library with both Brainstorm and Ponder. In addition against discard you'll generally want to play out your artifact mana so that it sits safely in play ready to be used to power out an Ad Nauseam or Past in Flames as soon as you draw a Tutor.
Some technical things:
Any hand of more than five cards that doesn't either have direct business or a library-manipulating cantrip (and is otherwise nearly there) is a mulligan. Don't rely on Gitaxian Probe and your draw step to get you there.
Do not forget to sacrifice your Lion's Eye Diamond in response to your Infernal Tutor. As soon as you pass priority your opponent can just say "resolves" and you'll be sitting there without mana.
If you're planning to Tutor-chain someone out every two mana accounts for an additional storm as long as you have Infernal Tutors left in your deck. After that three mana still represents an additional storm thanks to Grim Tutor and that's where your chaining ability ends.
If you cast Ad Nauseam with no mana floating you win that turn less than half the time. Keep that in mind when deciding if you want to keep flipping cards. It's often much safer to pass the turn at a healthy life total with a hand full of business. If you can float mana you always want to have a black mana first to cast more Rituals. Only once you Ad Nauseam with two floating are you actually close to guaranteed to win this turn.
In addition when you can go into Ad Nauseam with at least one mana it's preferable to keep a Lion's Eye Diamond around to have more mana floating. That way it's much easier to enable Infernal Tutors in your hand after Ad Nauseam has drawn you a dozen new cards.
Remember Infernal Tutor can search for cards you have in your hand even when you're not hellbent. One thing I particularly like to do is to cast my Dark Ritual and cast Infernal Tutor off it to double up on a Cabal Ritual in my hand bringing me that much closer to threshold. This is also a very powerful way to double up on disruption against control and combo decks though in that case you're probably not doing it of off a Ritual.
You can enable threshold for a Cabal Ritual with the help of Lion's Eye Diamond if you have a bunch of useless cards in hand by putting the Tutor on the stack and responding with Cabal Ritual before cracking your Lion's Eye Diamond.
Also remember that Cabal Therapy says "target player" not "target opponent." I've used Therapy on myself more than once (especially after Ad Nauseam revealed lots of Rituals discard effects and cantrips while I didn't have any blue mana available) to become hellbent for Infernal Tutor.
Your magical life total numbers are seven—Grim Tutor for Past in Flames flash back Grim Tutor; 5—nothing in the deck kills you off Ad Nauseam; 4—single Grim Tutor; and 3—Gitaxian Probe's still active and you're generally safe to flip another time with Ad Nauseam. Note that I said generally—there are three spells in the deck that deal you three or more.
Conversely your magical mana numbers are eight and seven. Eight is Grim Tutor for Past in Flames with B left over to flash back the first Dark Ritual or Grim Tutor into Ad Nauseam with zero floating. Seven gives you the same options with Infernal Tutor. Note that double Dark Ritual is not enough to Tutor into Tendrils by itself; you'll need another mana floating.
After a resolved Past in Flames you might need to cast Gitaxian Probes to boost your storm count from the graveyard. Remember to cast your Infernal Tutor first while you're still hellbent. Nothing is worse than drawing a land off Probe and sitting there without a way to actually find your Tendrils.
Don't forget that you don't actually have to win by Tutoring. If you happen to draw the Tendrils it isn't that hard to set up a lethal spell-chain between cantrips and Probes. Winning this way will also often take blue players by surprise if they've held back countermagic to deal with your Tutors and you just Tendrils them straight up.
Finally playing with the deck it's easy to forget that R&D felt reprinting Yawgmoth's Will wasn't good enough; they had to give it flashback. That means it's an easy discard to things like Smallpox and you can actually cast it with LED mana even if it's in your hand. Lion's Eye Diamond Lion's Eye Diamond Dark Ritual Dark Ritual Cabal Ritual Infernal Tutor Past in Flames for example is a turn 1 kill while Ad Nauseam revealing Tendrils of Agony double Lion's Eye Diamond Dark Ritual Cabal Ritual and Past in Flames has gotten there even with zero floating.
Flashback also means a lot of mana makes stopping you much harder so drawing a Past in Flames off cantrips instead of shipping it like you would Ill-Gotten Gains is often a good plan against control. If you resolve Dark Ritual Cabal Ritual with threshold and a Lion's Eye Diamond while having a red mana your opponent will have to counter your Past in Flames twice to actually stop you.
Nine Ten Dead
Well there you have it my latest obsession from the realm of broken decks. If you enjoy fast mana and early wins you should really give this version of Storm a try. It's slightly slower than TES but in exchange has a much more resilient mana base and a lower variance gameplan. The Probe plus Therapy disruption suite is also extremely powerful much more so than it appears on first sight. Oh and you're the only deck in the format that is very much focused on abusing Legacy's own Yawgmoth's Will. That definitely does count for something.
If you consider taking this up but are inexperienced with cantrip-based Storm decks beware: this isn't an easy deck to play. You're likely to throw away games due to very subtle misplays made during cantrip sequencing. You also need a good knowledge of what opponents' might have depending on their first one or two land drops to aim Cabal Therapy correctly. If you manage to play flawlessly though this is quite the Juggernaut. Until next time make sure you've done the math correctly!