Why We Love Legacy: Justin Kessel on Storm

I have a love/hate relationship with Ad Nauseam Tendrils (ANT).

I started off watching great players play the deck on streams or in large tournaments. I felt the urge to invest time and money into the deck and become one of the “masters” that people feared playing against. The power of a deck that can set up to win in one turn was alluring and eventually, I gave in.

The first time I ever played the deck, also known as “Storm,” I finished in 32nd place at the last SCG St. Louis Legacy Open. I fell in love with the deck even more then. I later took 13th at SCG Louisville’s Legacy Classic (back when they still had Legacy Classics every time). I played to a few 4-1 and 5-0 league finishes online and I began to feel like I was really learning the deck. Then bad luck struck, and struck way too often.

I started to lose and lose hard with the deck. I started to see horrible luck and variance over and over. After enough of that pain I decided to move on and try to find another deck to call home. I was tempted to play with my favorite card of all-time (Force of Will) instead of weathering the highs and lows of Storm.

I ended up building Miracles, and I sold off my Storm pieces to fund that venture (which, to the player keeping score at home, investing in Miracles ended up being more painful once Sensei’s Divining Top was banned). Even after I moved on I still look back to Storm, checking to see what new cards are being tried out and how it’s faring. I also still have the deck built on Magic Online and I take for a spin from time to time.

Though I had huge ups and downs I still have love for the deck. Every game is a puzzle waiting to be solved, and that makes the deck feel like you’re playing more than just Magic. It feels like you’re in a small group of people who intimately know how the deck works, while other people have a general, or sometimes no, idea of what’s going on. I have had many opponents ask “Am I dead?” out of fear when I only had one card in hand, even though it’s almost impossible to win with only one card. They respected the power of the deck more than I could have thought. And even now, when I play against it I have that same fear. But this fear is more of a “did they see a line that I didn’t?” thought. This deck commands so much power over players, and I love the idea that something like that exists in this game.

The deck

For those who aren’t as familiar with the deck, ANT Storm is a combo deck that wants to win the game in one turn with a large number of cheap spells that fuel other spells. Once enough spells are cast, the ANT pilot goes for the win by utilizing the Storm keyword on Tendrils of Agony or Empty the Warrens. Each card in the deck is carefully selected to help the overall goal of winning. Mana acceleration spells like Dark Ritual or Cabal Ritual help give the gas needed to cast more spells. Card draw spells help protect the hand or recover from opponent’s discard, and also give more chances to find missing pieces of the combo engine. Infernal Tutor and Dark Petition help find the win conditions at the needed time. And finally, the deck’s own discard spells help ensure the coast is clear to go all-in for the win.

When it comes to decklists, I lean heavily on what the Storm master, Caleb Scherer, is currently playing. Here’s a modified version of his most recent successful list. This is what I would play in the next CT.

Ad Nauseam Tendrils, by Justin Kessel

Good matchups

Elves: Elves is a great matchup because Storm is usually a turn faster. We don’t have to worry about counter magic and have almost every avenue open for us to combo off. The only times it gets tricky is if they have an active Deathrite Shaman and we have to use our graveyard either for Cabal Ritual or Past in Flames. Deathrite can mess things up by exiling a card when you cast a Cabal Ritual with only 7 cards in your graveyard. Or it could exile the only tutor in your graveyard when you cast Past in Flames. But beyond that and some small discard, Elves is pretty much “Who combos first?”  Usually, that will be Storm.

Lands: Another deck that has little to no interaction. The biggest thing to fear here would be Crop Rotation into Bojuka Bog when we need the graveyard to combo off. Lands also plays Chalice of the Void from time to time so it’s sometimes safe to board in a bounce spell that costs two. Chalice will mostly be set to one, so having a two CMC bounce to take it off the table is best.

Non-Blue Decks: Storm needs to cast crucial spells (namely Infernal Tutor, Past in Flames, and Tendrils of Agony) and if the opponent doesn’t have countermagic, Storm can be sure the spells resolve. Usually, non-blue decks will have some form of disruption such as Chalice of the Void, discard spells, or taxing artifacts (Sphere of Resistance or Thorn of Amethyst), but those can be worked around since countermagic isn’t there to spoil your fun. The only thing to really be afraid of is a fast clock. Storm will most likely win the game if given enough time.

Bad matchups

Eldrazi: Thought-Knot Seer has been called “Thoughtseize on a Stick”, but the exiling of the card is extremely relevant here. Storm needs cards in its graveyard to flash back with Past in Flames or to fuel threshold for Cabal Ritual. Also, depending on the Storm build, Thought-Knot Seer could possibly hit the only win condition (Tendrils) or slow Storm down by taking the only tutor in hand. Storm has a hard time winning when you add in the fast clock that Thought-Knot Seer and friends provide to the Thorn of Amethysts Eldrazi decks have in the sideboard.

Burn: Burn is about even, actually, but it can be extremely horrible at times. If Burn sticks an Eidolon of the Great Revel, it becomes very hard to win. It can be done, but many things have to fall perfectly in line. Price of Progress can sometimes be a pain if draws require non-basics to be fetched up. Also, Ad Nauseam and Gitaxian Probe feel horrible here. Sometimes you have to cross your fingers and cast Ad Nauseam to win, but be careful to not go below 5. Fireblast is a real threat.

Death and Taxes: Sometimes this is a great to the best matchup since they don’t have Force of Will or Flusterstorm. And other times it’s the worst deck to play against. Thalia, Guardian of Thraben slows Storm down and Sanctum Prelate can just stop the deck completely in game 1 (by naming 4, Storm can never cast the Tendrils of Agony or Empty the Warrens to win). When you combine the mana taxing with more mana disruption (Wasteland and Rishadan Port) and a clock, victory is hard to find. These creatures are some of the reasons people might see cards like Massacre or Dread of Night in Storm’s sideboard. This matchup is very fun at times, but I’d rather limit the number of hoops I have to jump through to just “How many counterspells do they have?”

Leovold, Emissary of Trest Decks: Another card that can really hurt. If the opponent doesn’t find a Leovold, the Storm deck just plays the normal “get through a counterspell wall” game. But when Leovold hits the table, it becomes very difficult to set up a win. Every card draw spell Storm runs is immediately shut off (except Ad Nauseam) and winning with Tendrils becomes even harder, because every copy of the spell targets the opponent. Leovold triggers for each spell and the opponent gets to draw that many cards. So, the opponent gets a great chance to find Flusterstorm if they are running it, and many decks have 1-2 main deck now. The new sideboard tech of Fatal Push helps get rid of Leovold for good, but the opponent still gets to draw a card and/or counter the Push. Empty the Warrens is also a fine plan, but we have to have a properly set up hand before Leovold hits the table.

The untouchables

Almost every card. Seriously.

I started a list of cards that I felt were crucial to the deck, but I found that I put the entire deck in the list. Storm is built to use every card to achieve victory. Everything from card draw to mana production is critical for the overall goal of setting up a turn to go off and win. There are very few flex slots and weaker cards, so it’s easier to highlight those. But here’s a quick rundown on why the cards are important for those who want a little more to gnaw on.

Lion’s Eye Diamond, Lotus Petal, Dark Ritual, Cabal Ritual

These are your mana production cards. They help increase your Storm count while also producing mana for the final spells of the game. Lion’s Eye Diamond is a little special as it only creates mana under certain circumstances, such as in response to casting Infernal Tutor or when you are ok with discarding your hand when you have Past in Flames to cast. Lion’s Eye Diamond also helps enable Infernal Tutor’s Hellbent keyword and let you find any card you want. Toss in the fact that Lion’s Eye Diamond and Lotus Petal both have a casting cost of 0 and one can see why they are powerful when casting an Ad Nauseam.

Infernal Tutor, Dark Petition

These are the cards used to search out the win condition. Sometimes they are used to find other cards to help combo off, such as another tutor or more mana acceleration. These cards let us play only one copy of our win conditions and dedicate the rest of the deck to set up the combo turn.

Ad Nauseam, Past in Flames

These cards help give us the power to make it up and over the hill. Ad Nauseam gives us more cards to continue to combo off and Past in Flames gives us more cards by essentially giving back the cards we already used. While the main pieces start the engine revving, these two are the main gas.

Tendrils of Agony, Empty the Warrens

Empty the Warrens used to be delegated to the sideboard, but it can be so good against some decks that’s it’s nice to have one in the main. It’s also nice to have a secondary win condition. Tendrils of Agony is the main way we want to win, though, as it usually wins right away when we cast it. Empty the Warrens requires us to wait a turn and then attack once or twice. That gives the opponent too much time to wiggle out. I still approve of a copy in main decks now, as I sometimes want to have the Empty option in the first game. Sometimes 8 or 10 goblins on turn one or two can seal the win against an unknown field.

The flex spots

Rain of Filth

Preordain

Dark Petition (but only to an extent)

There really aren’t many flex spots in Storm. Players can tweak a few numbers here and there, but usually there will only be 1-3 true flex spots. When Sensei’s Divining Top was still legal, players would usually play one in the main deck to help with grindy matchups. Now, players are replacing that spot with a land, another copy of Past in Flames, the 4th Cabal Therapy, Thoughtseize, and, in the above decklist’s case, Rain of Filth. I prefer running Rain of Filth as it acts as an extra ritual effect and creates some surprise “double mana!” turns that your opponent may not be expecting (especially in the late game where you already have 5 or 6 lands out.)

The deck also used to run two copies of Dark Petition, but that has been trimmed to one in favor of having a single copy of Empty the Warrens main. I totally agree with that change. Usually, the proper sideboard plan would be to trade one of the Dark Petitions for one Empty the Warrens in almost every matchup, so this is just taking that plan and running it main. I wouldn’t consider cutting Dark Petition, but if you have access to Grim Tutor I could see that being a decent replacement. The only issue I would see there is that Grim Tutor costs three mana and three life, where Dark Petition will most likely end up costing only two since it gives the three mana back thanks to Spell Mastery. Dark Petition is also friendlier to your wallet.

The mana base

Fourteen lands seems a little low, and I have seen a few people run 15. But when you look at the deck, there are only five cards that cost more than two. We use the mana production to ramp into those more expensive spells anyway. The deck can win with only one or two lands in play so having more room for spells to fuel the engine is crucial. Sometimes, against non-Wasteland decks, you can sideboard out an Island to increase your spell count in games 2 and 3.

There are also three basics to help out against Wasteland and Blood Moon. We’ll sometimes run into hands where we’re punished by those two cards, but the deck has the ability to play around them most of the time.

Gameplay

ANT Storm is a very complex deck that rewards practice and format research. Playing solitaire games/goldfishing is extremely helpful towards understanding what the deck needs and the different paths it takes to win. Research on other decks helps with knowing what to play around, how to sideboard, and what to name with Cabal Therapy or take with Duress. If you choose to play Storm you are essentially choosing to learn every other deck in the format as well in order to be successful.

Storm has three paths to victory and it’s very important to know all of them. Sometimes you need to switch between plans in the middle of the combo turn because of how your opponent may interact with you. These cases would include something like a counterspell in the middle of comboing (which also fuels the Storm count, by the way) or the opponent exiling your graveyard prior to finding Past in Flames. Here are the paths listed by frequency used and importance.

  • Path A:  Past in Flames. Generate mana and Storm count, most likely cast a tutor for Past in Flames, cast Past in Flames, recast all the spells you already used this turn, cast a tutor for Tendrils and win.
  • Path B: Tutor Chain/Natural Storm. Generate a ton of mana and Storm, cast Infernal Tutor to get another Infernal Tutor, repeat casting Infernal Tutors to get the Storm count high enough, use final Infernal Tutor to find Tendrils of Agony to win.
  • Path C: Ad Nauseam. Cast at the end of your opponent’s turn (usually with a Dark Ritual to power it out), or during your own turn (hopefully with mana floating) to fill your hand with cards to start Path A or Path B.

It’s difficult to give any kind of “how to” with Storm due to the number of variables at any given moment of a game. One can get into so many “if this then that, but if this other thing…” possibility trees that it’s not productive. Again, practice with the deck is crucial to help trim these possibility trees down to the only ones that matter.

But practice helps find different rules of thumb, and here are a few tips I have found during my Storm experience:

  • Try your hardest to expose your black source at the last possible moment. Black mana is crucial on the turn we combo off, as it is the initial spark that creates the explosion of mana. We won’t be hurting for mana once a Dark Ritual or Cabal Ritual resolves, but they are impossible to cast without black mana. If your opponent has a Wasteland up, or is showing a Crop Rotation to a possible Wasteland, hold on to your Underground Sea. You can use Island and maybe the Volcanic Island to cast the blue cantrip spells, and then play the Underground Sea or crack a fetch for black mana the turn you’re going to win. Basically, assume that you only get one use of an Underground Sea, so play to make it count. There are also some matchups where you don’t have to worry about Wasteland, Blood Moon, or Ghost Quarter. Revel in those and fetch up your duals!
  • Every spell in the deck has a use, and possibly more than one. Sometimes experience won’t help you find these, and that’s where articles like this one are wonderful. Take, for example, Gitaxian Probe. It’s fantastic when casting it before a Cabal Therapy and it’s great to know what your opponent might have to disrupt your combo. But you can also use it to combo off. If you have a Lion’s Eye Diamond in play, you can cast Gitaxian Probe, hold priority, sacrifice your Lion’s Eye Diamond for mana in response to your Gitaxian Probe, and then draw the Ad Nauseam, Infernal Tutor, or whatever other spell you put on the top of your deck from Ponder or Brainstorm. A trick like that has to be taught or luckily stumbled upon. Look for these.
  • Another trick to help bump the Storm count in the sideboarded games would be using Chain of Vapor. There can be a few lines where we can cast Chain of Vapor on our Lion’s Eye Diamond or Lotus Petal, sacrifice a land to make a copy of Chain of Vapor (as it says the permanent’s controller may), use that new copy to bounce another Lion’s Eye Diamond or a Lotus Petal, then sacrifice a land, make another copy, and finally target the problematic permanent on our opponent’s board. Once all of that has resolved you can replay all the artifacts for even more Storm.
  • If you’re ever against a Thalia, Guardian of Traben, put an emphasis on Cabal Ritual. Cabal Ritual, with Threshold, adds 5 black mana to your pool. If you have 2 or even 3 of these, you may be able to get enough mana to power through a Thalia. Sometimes, this requires you to cash in an Infernal Tutor to get another copy of Cabal Ritual. Also, you can play Lion’s Eye Diamond a turn before you go off, by paying one mana for Thalia’s tax, to help the next turn with mana production. There are ways to win through Thalia when you don’t have an answer, and experience helps guide that.
  • Sometimes an Empty the Warrens for three or four is enough to win the game. Six or eight power on turn 1 can take two or three turns to win, but many decks struggle with answering that. Always keep your eyes open for the possibility for an early Empty. It’s also a great feeling to mulligan to five or four and still win like this.

Sideboarding

Sideboarding is very tricky with Storm as we have to be careful to keep the engine intact. Usually, we can trim two Preordains and maybe a Cabal Ritual or two (in the case of graveyard exiling hate), but we need to hold onto the main card draw, mana acceleration, and win conditions. There are a few times that Duress or Cabal Therapy could be sideboarded out, but most players will bring in Storm hate and we can hit that hate with discard.

One rule of thumb that has been shared widely is “If you don’t know what to do, do nothing.”  Storm’s main deck is still strong enough to win sideboarded matchups, but I feel that you can save yourself by having access to some “Get out of Jail Free” card. I would suggest to “do little” instead of “do nothing”. In this case, when you don’t know what to sideboard, swap out the two Preordains for two bounce spells. This will give you a safety net in case your opponent brings in some permanent that is specifically meant to fight Storm. Most of those permanents mean an auto-loss if you don’t have an answer, and I’d rather take the chance of having a dead card over simply losing.

A few notes on some sideboard cards:

3 Chrome Mox

Bring these in for games where you want to hit the gas pedal and win as quickly as possible. They are great for Ad Nauseam hits as they give you mana to kick off another set of Dark Ritual and Cabal Rituals.

3 Fatal Push

This is some new tech that I like. Usually, Storm just bounced a problematic creature (e.g., Leovold, Emissary of Trest, Gaddock Teeg, Eidolon of the Great Revel) and tried to combo off the next turn. But if the combo fails you’ll need to try and rebuild to have another go at it. Having the ability to kill the creature permanently relieves a lot of pressure as well as unlocking the cards needed to re-sculpt the hand.

2 Dread of Night

These are there specifically for Thalia, Guardian of Thraben, so bring them in against Death and Taxes, Eldrazi and Taxes, and Maverick. They fulfill the role mentioned about Fatal Push as it permanently removes Thalia, and future Thalias, from the board.

2 Chain of Vapor, 2 Echoing Truth

Chain of Vapor is one of my favorite cards in the sideboard, and one I have considered running main. I signed up for a “Quick Fire” Legacy tournament where the matches were only one game, no sideboarding. In this case, I pre-sideboarded my deck by putting Chain of Vapors in the main. I went 3-0 thanks to that tweak.

But the reasoning for that is that Chain of Vapor is a cheap bounce spell that can get rid of a permanent that is stopping you from winning. I used it to bounce Thalia a few times that tournament as well as using it to generate more Storm by bouncing my artifact mana. It has a lot of utility so that’s why I can never see removing it from the sideboard.

Echoing Truth is a bit different, though. If you’re expecting a lot of tokens from your opponent (Young Pyromancer, Empty the Warrens, etc) or maybe something that stops Chain of Vapor (a Chalice of the Void on one, for example) then maybe Echoing Truth is the card you’ll want. I certainly like being able to have a two-CMC spell to help get around Chalice of the Void and Sanctum Prelate at times.

Wrap-up

Ad Nauseaum Tendrils is a complex, yet extremely fun, deck to play. I miss playing it and I keep considering it as an option for every Legacy tournament I enter. It has treated me well in the past, and with practice and preparation I believe the deck can help many others.

We may not have Mind’s Desire style Storm decks in Legacy, but I’m glad we have something that’s powerful enough to be competitive. So, when you want to win with a flash and have your opponent living in fear during each of your turns, give this deck a try. With time and patience I’m sure you’ll find the winning line.

Justin Kessel is a computer programmer from Urbana, IL. When he’s not playing Magic he is usually found playing music, learning a foreign language, chatting with his fiancée on Skype, or relaxing and watching Netflix with his cats.

 

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