Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Dark and Stormy

Let's talk about counting to ten. It's among the first things you learn as a tiny barely-sentient proto-person. But did you know that it can also help you crush people's dreams, leaving them a withered husk of shattered hopes? All because of a little thing called "storm", and playing Magic the way Richard Garfield intended: with a big pile of broken nonsense.

- Kill 1 Tendrils of Agony - Cantrips 1 Ancestral Recall 1 Brainstorm 1 Ponder 4 Gitaxian Probe - Protection 4 Duress 1 Chain of Vapor 1 Rebuild 1 Xantid Swarm - Tutors 3 Dark Petition 1 Demonic Tutor 1 Vampiric Tutor 1 Imperial Seal 1 Tinker - Storm Engines 1 Mind's Desire 1 Necropotence 1 Yawgmoth's Bargain 1 Yawgmoth's Will 1 Memory Jar 1 Timetwister 1 Wheel of Fortune 1 Windfall - One-shot Mana 4 Dark Ritual 2 Cabal Ritual 1 Black Lotus 1 Lion's Eye Diamond 1 Lotus Petal 1 Simian Spirit Guide - Persistent Mana 1 Mana Crypt 1 Mana Vault 1 Mox Emerald 1 Mox Jet 1 Mox Pearl 1 Mox Ruby 1 Mox Sapphire 1 Sol Ring 4 Gemstone Mine 3 City of Brass 3 Underground Sea 1 Badlands 1 Tolarian Academy
3 Xantid Swarm 1 Abeyance 1 Blightsteel Colossus 1 Time Walk 1 Library of Alexandria 1 Echoing Truth 2 Hurkyl's Recall 1 Disenchant 1 Ancient Grudge 2 Toxic Deluge 1 Doomsday

Alright, that deck has some ambitious choices. Let's break it down, because I didn't pick any of those cards on a whim. Some of the edges are very small, but many small edges lead to large ones (as long as you don't obliterate those small edges by playing like an idiot the way I frequently do).

But then, I might be wrong.

The Kill

1 Tendrils of Agony. No more, no less.

Why I might be wrong: I would be shocked if we don't see an uptick in Mindbreak Traps as the Vintage meta resettles around a post-Lodestone Golem world. Now most countermagic is not a serious issue for the single Tendrils; you have access to both Will and Timetwister to rebuy it if need be. But… well:

In fact, I was That Guy just a few weeks ago with my Mentor list and thought I was about to cruise to an easy win with the game one Mindbreak Trap. Alas, the treacherous villain has a second Tendrils. It's not a totally unreasonable choice, and it opens up more options for a mini-Tendrils to either pad the clock or draw more cards off Necro/Bargain.


1 Ancestral Recall, 1 Brainstorm, 1 Ponder, 4 Gitaxian Probe

This is a typical configuration. Probe is an awkward card in a lot of ways; the 2 life can be a significant cost if it hurts your ability to Necro. It also makes mulligan choices more opaque and if it's your only chance to draw business, all you can do is knock the top of the deck and see what falls off. It can scope out the opposition but rarely actually helps fight them (note the lack of Cabal Therapy in this list). Sometimes all it does is let you know how screwed you are.

But besides cycling for velocity, to draw Vampiric/Seal targets, and to pad your storm count, it also feeds Spell Mastery, making it easier to turn Dark Petition on. Now, it's trivially easy for this deck to hit Spell Mastery naturally. But post-board, you'll occasionally need to rebuild your yard quickly after dealing with something like a Leyline of the Void or Rest in Peace, and Probe can get you there without tying up mana. It's very hard to justify playing anything less than the full set, and believe me I've tried.

Why I might be wrong: Preordain is an exceptional draw-smoother and is particularly good at two things this deck frequently wants: turning marginal keeps into great hands, and finding both protection and a missing piece of the puzzle. It does slow the deck down though, and this version of Storm does not want to slow down, because it is not equipped to do anything against other combo decks except rush in under them.


4 Duress, 1 Chain of Vapor, 1 Rebuild, 1 Xantid Swarm

The bare minimum I think I can get away with. Duress over Thoughtseize because there are relatively few creatures I care about game one vs. keeping that life to Necro with, and over Cabal Therapy because the deck plays so little true disruption you cannot afford to miss. Hate is more diverse than it used to be when you'd just name Force of Will then do your thing. Naming Force and seeing double Flusterstorm, Mindbreak Trap is a disaster you cannot afford.

Rebuild maindeck over Hurkyl's Recall is a recent change enabled by the LSG restriction. With Shops decks no longer having access to a full 12 stackable Sphere effects (plus Trinisphere), the additional mana, while still significant, is no longer the difference between "frequently castable" and "never happening". The cycling lets you ditch it more easily in irrelevant pre-board games and even grab a Vampiric or Seal target from time to time. Chain of Vapor is a catch-all for any random nonsense and in a pinch can be a handy Storm engine and even Threshold enabler for Cabal Ritual: target your own Moxen, floating mana, sacrificing your lands, replay all your Moxen. Free Storm and you can go from 4 to 7 cards in the yard easily and often netting positive mana besides.

Xantid Swarm…

Oh, Xantid Swarm.

Someone holding a full grip of Flusterstorms.

I'm just gonna drop this here and move on.

Another minor note: if, for example, an opponent has a Trygon Predator in play to block your Xantid Swarm, but you're not ready to go off, but you also can't afford to take a hit from the Trygon because it will eat your Mox Sapphire which also happens to be your only blue source at the moment, you can swing, resolve the trigger, and Echoing Truth the Predator before block step, immune to countermagic no matter how much free mana they have up. Let's see Defense Grid pull that off.

Why I might be wrong: To quote Jerry Maguire: "We live in a four Mental Misstep world." Now, at present I'm comfortable with that, because even getting one Misstep out of their hand with a Swarm can be a window through which I can throw the entire rest of the deck. The other big flaw of Xantid Swarm is turning on their main-deck creature removal, which would otherwise be comfortably dead game one. This is awkward and does not feel good, and unlike Defense Grid, Swarm doesn't really protect itself at all. I've also had it lead to awkward places with Vampiric Tutor, where I didn't have a way to draw the target immediately in my second main phase (under Swarm protection) but couldn't risk casting it on their endstep or my upkeep (because they probably have a hand full of countermagic Swarm is keeping them from using) and couldn't main-phase and pass the turn for fear of Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Yes, that's a very specific set of circumstances, but it's not a fun place to be.

A lot of people with a lot of Vintage experience and much sturdier records than mine are, and continue to be, on Defense Grid. On the other hand, as long as that's true, the bees are an unexpected next-level play. This is the dance of the metagame, akin to the music of the spheres.

I still think City of Solitude is terrible though.


3 Dark Petition, 1 Demonic Tutor, 1 Vampiric Tutor, 1 Imperial Seal, 1 Tinker

Demonic, Vampiric, and Tinker are all pretty consensus picks. Some people like having the Blightsteel Colossus in the maindeck. I prefer it in the side, especially with the number of Monastery Mentor decks in the format packing Swords to Plowshares, so I'm usually casting Tinker for Memory Jar as a draw 7. I have also been known to Tinker for Black Lotus, Mana Vault, Mox Jet, and on one occasion where I had gotten way too cute with sideboard plans, Helm of Obedience. (PS: Fuck your Rest in Peace, buddy.) So you really never know.

Why I might be wrong: The controversial picks here are the Dark Petition count and Imperial Seal vs. Mystical Tutor vs. something else (many people have argued for the 4th Petition). Seal is a frustrating card: even having cast it dozens of times, it's always, somehow, just a little worse than I remember.

The problem, and the reason I keep coming back to Seal, is mana. I haven't kept a record, but if I had to guess what my top three targets are with Seal, I'd say Black Lotus, Tolarian Academy, and Dark/Cabal Ritual (depending on Threshold). Seal is a terrible first tutor but a very solid second one with the flexibility to get engines like Necro or protection like Xantid Swarm, all things Mystical struggles with. The "Mystical for Demonic for X" chain can set up some amazing Will turns but when you're in a hurry or pinched on mana, it's often too clunky.

Many of them are also things Dark Petition does badly, especially in post-sideboard games, which is one of the reasons I haven't stuck with the 4th copy. A hand of Dark Petition + Seal can find a Chain of Vapor, bounce their Leyline/RIP, then needs only one more spell to upgrade Petition and get the party rolling. A hand of double Dark Petition… well, look, there's a reason we don't play Diabolic Tutor in this deck, and even if you have Spell Mastery, DP is only Demonic Tutor if the card you're finding is black. Moving to the Rebuild also makes Seal ~1.6% better than it used to be. Small edges, people, small edges.

So that's Imperial Seal: It's probably the worst card in the deck, but something has to be. (PS: If Jace, the Mind Sculptor makes a big comeback, I will sprint to the 4th Dark Petition over Seal. Or, more likely, switch to a Jace deck.)

Storm Engines

1 Mind's Desire, 1 Necropotence, 1 Yawgmoth's Bargain, 1 Yawgmoth's Will, 1 Memory Jar, 1 Timetwister, 1 Wheel of Fortune, 1 Windfall

Oh, look, a bunch of restricted cards. Not a lot of room to argue on these, and there's not really anything else you'd want to add.

Why I might be wrong: The two cards you'll often see people cut are Mind's Desire and Windfall. Desire is very blue-mana intensive for a deck full of black rituals and Windfall is easily the worst draw-7 except for the 2% of games where you get to bounce someone's entire board and Windfall for like fourteen cards.

I sideboard both out pretty frequently, and I can't blame anyone for wanting to cut them even if Mind's Desire is among the sweetest cards in the format. #thedangerofcoolthings

One-shot Mana

4 Dark Ritual, 2 Cabal Ritual, 1 Black Lotus, 1 Lion's Eye Diamond, 1 Lotus Petal, 1 Simian Spirit Guide

Again, pretty stock. The most flexible slots are the 2nd Cabal Ritual and the Spirit Guide. I'm playing both to increase my explosiveness, but a deck that wanted to pump the brakes just a little in favor of more resilience could swap them for either cantrips or protection pretty easily. You would, however, lose the chance to Tendrils for 18 then win the game with Monkey Beats, and that is an experience worth having at least once.

Persistent Mana

Artifacts: SoLoMoxen, Crypt, Vault

Broken artifact mana. Vault is a simple decision: if you're playing Mind's Desire and Memory Jar, you definitely want Vault; if you're playing only one, you probably want it; if you're playing neither, cut it.

Lands: 4 Gemstone Mine, 3 City of Brass, 3 Underground Sea, 1 Badlands, 1 Tolarian Academy

Fuck fetchlands and fuck basics.

Welp, we're done here!

Oh, you probably want me to defend that manabase, as though it were not a self-evident work of mad genius delivered to us in a time capsule from the mysterious world of 1998. OK, let's talk lands.

Disclaimer: if Brainstorm gets unrestricted (I cannot imagine this ever happening), this land base becomes trivially incorrect and we all need to get back on the bus to Fetchlandtown. That's not even in dispute.

The problems with the fetch/dual/(1-2)basic manabase are these:

  1. You will draw basic Swamp with a hand full of blue cards.
  2. You will draw basic Island with a hand full of black cards.
  3. They always have the Strip Mine.
  4. I'll unpack that last one a little. In Legacy, fetching a basic makes you safe forever except against the handful of Ghost Quarter-wielding vigilantes. In Vintage, you're never safe. Fetching a basic represents intentionally crippling yourself for the rest of the game and does not even guarantee you get to keep it. That sucks. That sucks bad.
  5. When I'm getting Wastelanded, I want more lands in my deck, not fewer. Have you been Wasted off every source of black mana in your deck? Or been slowrolling a fetchland to get that last one exactly when you need it and whoops, there it was in your draw step? Or just been on zero lands tapping the top of your deck every turn for a mana source to appear there? That whole "deck thinning" argument cuts both ways.
  6. Worse sideboard options. Black is good against their hand but not the top of their deck, and can remove creatures but nothing else. All blue's removal is either countermagic or strictly temporary, and the desperation Hurkyl's against robots attacking for lethal only to watch them replay all their lock pieces in the second main is a gruesome way to go. You often end up in three, even four colors anyway, and that leads us to:
  7. Screwing yourself on turn two. We've all been there: you fetch up the Badlands to play Ingot Chewer and cast Dark Rituals later, but draw blank, blank, Hurkyl's while they rebuild their board. You fetch Underground Sea to play cantrips and rituals but can't find a red source for Chewer before you die to 5/3s and 2/1s. And on, and on, and on. 5c lands also play better with Moxen; Island + Sapphire = no rituals. City + Sapphire = All the rituals.
  8. The Vancouver Mulligan. If I mull to 6 on the play, I want that scry. I don't want to keep a Necro on top or bottom a blank just to shuffle my deck immediately, and I also don't want to pass turn one without doing anything if I have plays to make. Every time I mulligan with this deck, I want every edge I can get to pull back to parity.
  9. Every fetchland is one fewer card off Necro.

And I'd like to emphasize: this is not just about the upsides of 5c lands, which I think anyone who's played Magic for any length of time can tell you have a lot of upsides if you're willing to pay the costs. It's also about the hidden or even merely understated downsides of fetchlands. Maybe you want to play them anyway. Hell, if you cut all the way down to two colors, you can build a rock-solid, Wasteland-resistant manabase. What I'm done registering is "X interchangeable fetchlands, Y black duals, 1 Swamp, Mountain in the sideboard" plan. It has shat the bed too many times.

And you know what? Yeah, I've lost games with this deck, because I'm an idiot. And some of them were because I was choked on mana in the absolute sense (and at one of those was probably because I went for Mind's Desire because #dangerofcoolthings instead of a safer play). But none of them have been because I had the wrong colors. And I get to play any sideboard cards I want.

Why I might be wrong: I really don't think I am. Of the many dubious choices in this deck, the mana is the one I have the most confidence in, and part of that is just down to speed. A slower list might want to set up a board where they keep multiple fetchlands in play then fetch with all of them in one turn and dodge Wasteland, but this list is happy to go land, play some nonsense, get Wastelanded, play the next land and play more nonsense. Especially since there are more lands left in the deck and most of them make all the colors I care about.

The one flex slot is the third Underground Sea. I've experimented with this one a lot. The three cards I've tested in that spot are the main-deck Library (which I don't like), the 4th City of Brass (iffy) and Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth (has some upsides). Next on the list to try is Sunken Ruin, which is useful for washing Ritual/Petition mana into blue spells or Tolarian Academy mana into black, but runs the risk of godawful one-land keeps.

City of Brass vs. Mana Confluence: Look, you do you. For myself, I think that anytime I'm locked under Tangle Wire the game is already close to lost anyway, and City can cast Tendrils at 1 life (announce Tendrils, pay costs, stack City trigger then Storm trigger, resolve all storm copies to get above 1 then take the ping). Those are thin margins and I break the tie in favor of gorgeous old-frame flavor over a generic name and boring "puddle of paint" art. If you play the Urborg, Mana Confluence is probably better. But really, whatever floats your goat.


3 Xantid Swarm, 1 Abeyance, 1 Blightsteel Colossus, 1 Time Walk, 1 Library of Alexandria, 1 Echoing Truth, 2 Hurkyl's Recall, 1 Disenchant, 1 Ancient Grudge, 2 Toxic Deluge, 1 Doomsday

I change my 15 almost day to day as I think, discuss, see other match results, rediscover old cards, decide to try some cute new tech, see some cute new tech I need to make sure I beat, etc. So I'm not going to offer a full-throated defense of this particular incarnation, but I'll walk through my inspiration.

Rule #1: Never, ever cut the Echoing Truth.

Rule #2: See Rule #1.

Library and Time Walk: I am really iffy on Time Walk in Storm. In isolation it's a disgustingly powerful card. In practice, it's often an Explore that resets your storm count. If I had Blightsteel Colossus or Empty the Warrens main, I'd put Time Walk back in too. Without them, the only card it really plays well with is Necro, and Necro is already pretty good. Library comes in against control-heavy blue decks, Walk comes in against combo mirrors and most games where I bring in Blightsteel, and both come in against Shops, where both making an extra land drop and just having another land are both valuable.

Abeyance: I played a 1/1 split of Silence/Orim's Chant at my last event, and they were only "fine". I'd considered Abeyance but decided the one extra mana was a prohibitive cost for a card I have to cast exactly the turn I'm going off. But on reflection, I want to give it a trial and see how things go. The cantrip isn't nothing either.

Toxic Deluge: Maybe this should be Drown in Sorrow or split with it. Hate bears like Ethersworn Canonist are the thing you're primarily concerned about, and hey, free Scry 1 beats paying life to Deluge. In Legacy I'd be on snap Massacre, but it's much easier to play around Massacre in Vintage with artifact mana, and besides, look at this deck's lands and count the swamps. There are a lot of other options here too. I'm just not sure which I like most right now.

Doomsday: I just do not know what to do with this slot, so I'm throwing stuff against the wall to see what sticks. The intention is to have access to a tutor/storm engine I can board in that isn't dependent on the graveyard (no Ill-Gotten Gains, Past in Flames, or 4th Dark Petition), prohibitively mana expensive (no Time Spiral), or flat-out underpowered (no Ad Nauseam or assorted other nonsense). Diminishing Returns is a possibility, if a risky one with only the one Tendrils, and I have a few even more dubious ideas kicking around the back of my mind. I played Doomsday at the last event, and cast it twice but resolved it neither time, so I'm not ready to give up on it yet.

Day Two Updates (20 Apr)

After kicking some thoughts around, I'm pretty sure the correct sideboard sweeper is Pyroclasm and the correct sideboard "dubious alternate engine/tutor" is Gifts Ungiven. Not certain. But pretty sure.