In my last article I talked about the best way to approach becoming a competent Storm pilot. When I wrote that article, I intended to write a follow-up article that provided an overview of the available decks.
However, once my article hit 20,000 words and was only halfway finished, I realized that a single article could not possibly be comprehensive enough. Additionally, there were certain points that I needed to cover before looking at specific decks. Although I appreciate that this will frustrate people following this series in anticipation of deck lists, I now intend to cover these basic principles before giving each archetype its own article.
This then, is a presentation of some basic Storm deck design concepts that a pilot should be familiar with in order to select the appropriate deck. Many of the archetype articles are already written in rough, and will be posted once they have been reworked as stand-alone articles.
The shifting meta
We all need to recognize that Magic is a game that shifts constantly, both at a local level, and also at national and global level. In part, this is because the card pool keeps changing, and in part it is because the sheer diversity of decks makes it difficult for any one deck to stay â€œon topâ€ for any length of time. Players react to the dominance of a given deck by playing decks that have better a matchup against the dominant deck, and that dominant deck then falls from favour. A new deck may then become dominant, and so the cycle repeats.
What this means, of course, is that any deck lists that I post here will become outdated quite quickly. I shall deal with this by introducing some general concepts about the way in which Storm decks operate; concepts that ought to apply even when the deck lists themselves shift. These concepts can also be applied to new Storm decks that might arise from the printing of new cards.
I’m also going to err towards â€œclassicâ€ or proven deck lists that really capture the feel of an archetype rather than the most current incarnation based on today’s meta. These deck lists, and a discussion about them, will follow in separate articles.
A basis for comparison
To compare Storm decks intelligently we need to be able to identify meaningful traits for comparison. At first glance, you might think that the win conditions help define a deck, but this is misleading. The kill is largely a matter of convenience, and in any case, most Storm decks have at least two ways of ending the game.
Instead, let’s consider a few important questions that we can ask of each Storm deck. How does a deck produce mana? How does it build Storm (and find its win condition)? How does it deal with disruption? What particular vulnerabilities does the deck have?
How a deck produces mana
All Storm decks require some level of mana to be generated during the combo turn, though the amount needed can vary from game to game. Rather than list the different cards that produce mana, it’s more useful to describe a deck’s approach to generating mana, and consider the strengths and weaknesses of each approach.
WYSIWYG – What you see is what you get.
These decks use cards that produce straightforward mana advantage. The classic example, of course, is land. You put a land into play, tap it, and get mana appropriate to the land. Of course, only one land can be played each turn, which is too slow for most combo decks, so very few Storm pilots rely exclusively on land to generate mana.
Storm decks therefore use a wide array of other cards to generate mana, such as Dark Ritual, Chrome Mox and Elvish Spirit Guide. These additional cards can be divided into two categories; those that are reusable and those that are not. Reusable mana sources are more powerful in the long run, and make decks that use them more resilient. However, single use mana sources tend to be more powerful in the short term, allowing decks that use them to be more explosive.
Compare Chrome Mox with Lion’s Eye Diamond. The first costs you and additional card and produces one mana this turn, but is reusable. The second costs you all your unused cards and generates three mana and can only be used once. WYSIWYG decks try to strike a balance between the two types of mana sources to match the overall stategy of the deck. Fast decks like Belcher use far fewer reusable mana sources than decks like ANT that are happy to wait until turn 2 or 3 to go off.
The advantage of this approach is that each card is individually useful (subject to restrictions on the card, such as Imprint) and can be used as soon as you draw it. This straightforward approach to mana production allows you to focus on the other elements of your combo.
On the otherhand, some decks try to put together mana engines that can create vast (sometimes infinite) amounts mana. A classic example is Grim Monolith and Power Artifact, though this engine does not see much play right now. The more mana a deck can produce, the more abusive it can become.
Unfortunately, mana engines require a combination of cards to work, and each element is typically useless or only marginally useful on its own. Add to that the fact that mana engines tend to be quite bulky – taking up lots of deck space – and you can see why many Storm decks avoid mana engines, despite the power on offer. Piloting a Storm deck is difficult enough, without worrying about assembling a mini-combo before going off!
How a deck builds Storm (and finds its win condition)
There are broadly three different ways in which a deck tries to build Storm. The first approach is what I call Null Draw (No real draw, have to mULL). These decks generate Storm purely from the cards they have in their hand and rely on having a (real or virtual) win condition in their opening hand.
We can make a few logical generalizations about this kind of deck.
1) Mulling properly is critical to this deck. Each time the pilot mulls they are effectively casting a draw 6, draw 5, etc. This is far more effective than trying to top-deck the same number of cards.
2) The threat density of this kind of deck will be very high. Any card necessary to the combo (such as a kill card) needs to appear in the opening hand, which means that there will need to be huge levels of redundancy in the deck as compared to other Storm decks.
3) These decks will lack significant protection. Increased threat density will squeeze out utility cards, such as disruption.
4) Storm levels will be limited by cards in hand. This eliminates a number of potential Storm kills, meaning that most Null Draw decks will kill with Empty the Warrens or a non-Storm card.
5) These decks will be very fast. Unable to sculpt your hand, these you either have the win, or you don’t. If you do, you have little reason to wait.
6) These decks will be very fragile. A series of poor draws will run the deck out of options, and with no draw or filtering spells a Null Draw deck has no tools to recover. They also go off without the benefit of much protection, which leaves them vulnerable to cards like Force of Will.
The next approach is Linear Draw. These decks use draw cards that virtually guarantee that the pilot can find whatever card they want. This could be because the card is a tutor effect (such as Infernal Tutor) or because the card lets the pilot see a statistically significant portion of their deck (like Ad Nauseam).
(For the sake of clarity, not all tutor effects are used as Linear Draw; some are simply a stand-in for another card. In Belcher, for example, Burning Wish is used almost exclusively as a virtual Empty the Warrens.)
Linear Draw is very, very powerful, and we can make a few generalizations about decks using this kind of engine.
1) Mulling is far less important. Linear Draw decks are much more forgiving of poor opening hands than Null Draw decks. This should not be taken as suggesting that mulling is unnecessary.
2) These decks will be well protected. Depending on the situation, a Linear Draw card can be one of several cards in a Storm deck (ie, Infernal Tutor will fetch Tendrils of Agony, Dark Ritual or Ad Nauseam). This allows a Linear Draw deck to run fewer copies of each key card, which in turn makes room for other cards, such as disruption effects.
3) These decks can generate a fair amount of Storm, but need the mana to do so. Although Linear Draw can be viewed as â€œvirtual copiesâ€, this is too simplistic. Having a Hellbent Infernal Tutor in hand might be virtually the same as having Tendrils of Agony in hand, but it costs two more mana and creates one more Storm.
4) These decks often suffer design restrictions. Because linear draw is so powerful, it often comes with a heavy penalty. Mitigating this penalty or condition affects deck design. See Infernal Tutor, Ad Nauseam or Doomsday for examples.
5) These decks are generally easier to play than other kinds of Storm decks. The linear (A-B-C) approach to assembling the combo makes playing this kind of deck somewhat more straightforward. This is not simply opinion; Linear Draw decks are the go-to option for non-Storm players in metas that they feel favour Storm. They also tend to put up the best tournament results.
The third approach is Non-linear Draw. These decks use various effects to draw the top cards of their library, a few cards at a time. This gives them very little control over what cards they see, but by chaining draw spells together they can draw or filter most of their library. Classic examples of Non-linear Draw include Ponder, Brainstorm, Meditate, and Cruel Bargain.
We can make some generalizations regarding Non-linear Draw decks.
1) These decks are very resilient. With unparalleled amounts of card draw AND card advantage, a poor hand can easily turn into an excellent hand with a small dose of luck. As such, these decks are very resilient and hard for an opponent to predict. Few Storm decks recover from disruption as effectively as Non-linear Storm decks.
2) These decks can reach high Storm counts. Because of the extended spell chains, Non-linear Draw decks easily produce the highest Storm counts. This gives them access to all a wide array of win conditions. Reaching lethal Storm counts happens almost by accident.
3) These desk are mana intensive. Chaining together draw spells is very mana intensive. However, no Storm deck is better placed to abuse surplus mana than a Non-linear Storm deck. This means that Non-linear Draw decks are the most likely to favour mana engines.
4) These decks are the hardest to play. While Null and Linear Draw pilots can generally plot out their exact line of play before comboing, Non-linear pilots simply can’t. They have no idea what the next card they draw is going to be. As such, they must constantly weigh up the probabilities of various actions based on their knowledge of the deck, their ability to draw more cards, and their mana limitations.
Having discussed these three approaches to finding cards and generating Storm, it’s important to recognize that â€œpureâ€ examples do not exist. ANT, a deck that abuses Ad Nauseam and Infernal Tutor is a classic Linear Draw deck, but many builds run Ponder and/or Brainstorm, which are Non-linear draw spells. However, it is generally possible to identify the main draw engine of the deck, and classify the deck accordingly. This will give you a valuable initial insight into the workings of the deck.
How a deck deals with disruption
Here, again, there are three answers, which divide decks into three categories.
Race decks typically don’t have any answer to disruption other than sheer speed. The more land an opponent has, the more disruption he is able to play; decks that Race therefore typically try and go off before their opponent is able to make more than one land drop. However, even one land allows a whole range of disruption, if the opponent has it in his opening hand. And Force of Will, the 800 lbs gorilla that every Storm deck needs to consider, can be cast without any lands in play.
To an extent, most Storm decks are Race decks, but few rely on speed exclusively. Even those that do often board in some other kind of disruption for games 2 and 3.
Proactive Disruption is disruption that is cast before trying to combo out. This kind of disruption might include Duress or Silence. The disadvantage of this kind of disruption is that it eats up valuable resources during the combo turn, possibly unnecessarily (although Duress can be cast the turn before comboing, to be 100% effective it needs to be cast during the combo turn… that top-deck could be the Force of Will that shuts you down).
Reactive Disruption is usually (but not exclusively) Blue based disruption, and is cast only in response to an opponent’s attempt to disrupt your combo. The advantage of this kind of disruption is that it costs nothing unless you need it. Because of the color restrictions associated with Reactive Disruption, however, relatively few decks are able to run this kind of disruption.
It is always worthwhile considering what particular weaknesses any new deck has; it might well be particularly unsuited to your local metagame, although I personally have never selected or rejected a deck on that basis; metagames shift, and Storm takes a long time to master, so there is no guarantee that you meta choice today will be a better (or worse) choice than any other a year from now.
Here are some sample vulnerabilities to consider.
Fragile mana base. This usually occurs when a deck is trying to operate on three or more colours. While Wasteland is an obvious threat, it is also possible to draw an opening hand that initially looks great, but on closer inspection does not provide the full range of mana that the business spells require. Remember that, at best, a single dual land can only satisfy two of your deck’s colour requirements.
Over-reliance on a key card. All combo decks, to a certain extent, rely on a few broken cards to combo off. However, some decks rely more heavily on their key card than others. Spring Tide and Solidarity both rely on abusing High Tide, but whereas Solidarity can combo without High Tide (albeit with difficulty) Spring Tide generally cannot. If your deck leans heavily on a key card, extra effort needs to be put into protecting and resolving that spell.
Vulnerable to common sweepers or removal. This is particularly relevant to decks using Empty the Warrens, but is not exclusive to them. You might combo off perfectly, only to find that Pernicious Deed or Echoing Truth wrecks your day.
No way to deal with resolved hate. Depending on the speed of your deck, this may not happen often, but sometimes hate cards resolve. A turn 1 Trinisphere or Chalice of the Void will wreck most combo decks, as will a turn 2 Counterbalance. Does your deck scoop to this, or do you have a fighting chance of dealing with resolved hate? While some of this comes down to your particular build (you may, or may not, have a maindeck answer), some decks are better at dealing with this than others.
Lack of a late-game. From time to time, all combo decks fizzle. While often due to pilot error or disruption, it can also just be bad luck. Does the deck have a plan, or the resilience, to bounce back from this kind of setback? Usually, the answer will have to involve some kind of way to quickly refill your hand (ie, card advantage).
With these issues in mind, we can now take a look at the different archetypes available to you. My next article will actually contain a deck list.