MTG Grand Prix D.C. – Part 2

When last we left our hero, I had abandoned my previous deck choice (B/G Loam Pox) in favor of my new flirt (ANT storm combo). I was executing a plan in which I distilled down my deck possibilities to a handful of options and tested to see which one I like the best. After I had chosen a deck, I was going to grind games for over a month to really learn the deck and get experience with every matchup I could.

ant

For reference, this is the deck I decided to play to start off my month-long testing spree.

Lands (15)

  • 2 Island

  • 1 Swamp

  • 2 Gemstone Mine

  • 4 Polluted Delta

  • 3 Scalding Tarn

  • 2 Underground Sea

  • 1 Volcanic Island

Spells (45)

  • 4 Lion’s Eye Diamond

  • 4 Lotus Petal

  • 1 Ad Nauseam

  • 4 Brainstorm

  • 4 Cabal Ritual

  • 4 Dark Ritual

  • 2 Cabal Therapy

  • 4 Duress

  • 4 Gitaxian Probe

  • 4 Infernal Tutor

  • 1 Past in Flames

  • 4 Ponder

  • 4 Preordain

  • 1 Tendrils of Agony

Sideboard

  • 3 Carpet of Flowers

  • 2 Abrupt Decay

  • 2 Chain of Vapor

  • 2 Slaughter Pact

  • 1 Surgical Extraction

  • 1 Cabal Therapy

  • 1 Massacre

  • 1 Tendrils of Agony

  • 1 Tropical Island

  • 1 Karakas

There is a lot of material on the internet that talks about the inner workings of the deck so I won’t go into too much detail about that. I will mostly discuss what drew me to playing it and my impressions after playing it.

How does the deck work?

In short? Use duress & cabal therapy as protection, the cantrips (Probe, Preordain, Ponder, Brainstorm) find combo pieces, make lots of mana with the rituals and Lion’s Eye Diamond, use Infernal Tutor to find Past in Flames so you can re-cast everything (making lots of storm and more mana), and then kill with Tendrils of Agony. Or, make a bunch of mana and play Ad Nauseam for a lot of cards, make more mana, play more hand disruption, and play Tendrils of Agony for the win.

tendrilsofagony

Don’t let my very abbreviated description belittle how difficult the deck can be to play. You have to be able to do a lot of quick mental math for both mana and storm count. This can be a bit challenging when the line isn’t obvious and you have to win this turn because you’re dead on board or when the line is long and requires a lot of spells to be played. Since you get to see the opponent’s hand often, you also need to keep careful track of the cards they play and those they have in their hand. You constantly need to be thinking about you opponent’s plays to try to discern every card they have so that you can evaluate how much time you have to combo. Ultimately, you are trying to execute various lines of play despite their interaction.

So, why this deck?

One of the things I love about this deck is how you can be proactive with hand disruption. Duress and Cabal Therapy are phenomenal, and their contributions should not be underestimated. You get to see your opponent’s hand, which in a combo deck is highly valuable information, and you get to take a card. The proactive nature of getting information and then either slowing down your opponent or paving the way to a successful combo turn is much nicer than being very reactive by using counterspells. In High Tide, I often felt safe with a couple counterspells as back up, but I either ran into more resistance than I expected or I sequenced wrong because I didn’t know my opponent’s exact hand. With ten cards that let you see the opponent’s hand, I rarely had this problem with ANT.

Another great thing about ANT is you don’t need that many cards to combo. A lot of the deck is built to be redundant so you have a high chance of finding the piece, or an equivalent, that you need. By contrast, some other combo decks require you to dig and dig for one of four copies. With all the cantrips in the deck, finding the combo pieces you need is a quick task. The redundancy and the ability to see a lot of cards make the deck rather consistent.

ANT also does a decent job of recovering after a failed combo attempt. Again, the redundancy of the cards helps you replace the ones you played before failing. In the event you blew your whole hand, there are a bunch of top decks that can potentially pull you out of the situation, such as Past in Flames to flash everything back, Ad Nauseam to draw a new hand, Infernal Tutor to find one of those two, a cantrip to find one of those three, or I even had a top deck Lion’s Eye Diamond allow me to flashback my Past in Flames to combo to a win. This, again, impressed me in contrast with High Tide — where often after a failed combo, I just lost or it took too much time to get the necessary pieces all over again.

Testing and Changes to the List

I did the right thing and capitalized on my newfound enthusiasm for the deck. I tested as much as possible. I played against Shardless BUG, RUG Delver, UWR Delver, Merefolk, ANT mirror, Dredge, Pox, Loam, Counter-Top, Burn, and others that I’m probably forgetting. I played constantly. I have to give some shout outs to Team BIG, the 89 house, Donatello the purple ninja turtle, and all the dudes at TEG for the support. I wanted to test as much as possible, and my friends and the local Legacy community backed me up.

When I wasn’t testing, I was goldfishing the deck over and over (For those who don’t know, goldfishing is playing hypothetical games: drawing cards, and making the decisions you “imagine” would be correct). I’d watch TV and during every commercial I’d goldfish. I’d eat dinner and goldfish. I’d listen to music and goldfish. My girlfriend would make dinner and, yes, I’d goldfish. This is a prime example of a deck that benefits greatly from goldfishing. It is important to discover and try all lines of play and learn what they can look like with different combinations of cards. This also adds a level of comfort to the mental aspects of tracking mana and storm count down different lines of play. After goldfishing in a vacuum, you can goldfish “against” different decks; as you go through turns, you can induce situations to play against. For example, you could decide to goldfish against a RUG delver deck that has a turn-1 Delver that flips turn-2 with double Force of Will protection. As you go through your turn, you try to “play” around their interaction. You can find situations and ask “What if” questions to see how you might have to sequence differently to still combo successfully —  i.e. what if they have Spell Pierce instead of Daze? Or Force of Will instead of Stifle? etc. This approach of applying conditional reasoning in different situations is fantastic practice for real matches when you’ll need to run the odds of whether you can combo against unknown cards in an opponent’s hand.

So, what did I discover that I didn’t like about the deck as I was executing such extensive testing? My first complaint was actually with the large volume of cantrips. I found myself in situations where I would Ponder and see a bunch of other cantrips (and have cantrips in hand), shuffle, and draw another cantrip. I’d end up in this cycle where I’d cantrip into cantrip, never finding what I actually needed (which was usually either an Infernal Tutor or a hand disruption spell). This basically gave me the impression that the Preordains, the weakest cantrip in my opinion, could be something else. Some decks run a Grim Tutor as the 5th tutor, but I didn’t have access to one. Plus, three mana is kinda expensive for this deck.  So, what should the Preordains be? More on that soon.

Another complaint for me came in some post sideboard matches. Surgical Extraction is a popular sideboard card in Legacy because it is so versatile against a variety of decks. The instance that annoyed me was when my Tendrils of Agony ended up getting surgically extracted. This left me with with a sour taste since, at that point, I can’t win. Another situation was coming up against Leyline of Sanctity. Even with Chain of Vapor out of the board, you have to work hard to because you don’t actually want to mulligan aggressively to have it in your opener, so you need to just find them during the game. Long story short, I wanted to work in Empty the Warrens into the sideboard. The issue with that is boarding it in is actually kinda awkward. You generally don’t want stuff like Tendrils and Past in Flames in your opening hand, so adding Empty the Warrens along with those just increases the chances of an undesirable opening hand.

So, what is the answer? I don’t want Preordain. I wish I had more tutor-type cards. I want more optimal access to Empty the Warrens. The answer came when I posed my issues to my roommate who lent me the deck. He said, “Well you could do what the Europeans are doing and add some Burning Wishes to the mainboard and have a small wish board.” He had me at “Europeans.”

emptythewarrens

The Deck, the only deck, so help me…at least until the GP

Lands (15)

  • 2 Island

  • 1 Swamp

  • 1 Badlands

  • 1 Tropical Island

  • 4 Polluted Delta

  • 3 Scalding Tarn

  • 2 Underground Sea

  • 1 Volcanic Island

Spells (45)

  • 4 Lion’s Eye Diamond

  • 4 Lotus Petal

  • 1 Ad Nauseam

  • 4 Brainstorm

  • 4 Cabal Ritual

  • 4 Dark Ritual

  • 4 Cabal Therapy

  • 3 Duress

  • 4 Gitaxian Probe

  • 4 Infernal Tutor

  • 2 Burning Wish

  • 1 Past in Flames

  • 4 Ponder

  • 1 Preordain

  • 1 Tendrils of Agony

Sideboard

  • 3 Abrupt Decay

  • 2 Chain of Vapor

  • 2 Slaughter Pact

  • 2 Dread of Night

  • 1 Duress

  • 1 Meltdown

  • 1 Diminishing Returns

  • 1 Ill-Gotten Gains

  • 1 Tendrils of Agony

  • 1 Empty the Warrens

To my own credit, this idea had occurred to me earlier. I was looking at The Epic Storm decks that run a full suite of Burning Wishes and liked how you had a decent amount of utility with a variety of targets in the sideboard. None of the top ANT lists that placed at U.S. tournaments ran them, so I assumed they just seemed better in theory and not in practice. I was happy to find out the Europeans were using Burning Wishes to great success.

I cut one Preordain for another hand disruption spell and rearranged the counts to max out on Cabal Therapy. I often felt like I had the information to name a card in my opponent’s hand, and the opportunity to knock out multiples was too juicy to pass up. I was also concerned about some creature-based decks and wanted Cabal Therapy to hit the hatebears out of Death and Taxes and the likes. The other two Preordains became my Burning Wishes. I liked how the Wishes felt but didn’t want to go super deep on them. One Preordain felt fine.

burningwish

Burning Wish fills a perfect role. As I mentioned in my gripes with the deck, I often wished Preordain was either just another disruption spell or a tutor, and I still wanted to work Empty the Warrens into the deck. The “Wishboard” provided that and much more. Let me go through my choices:

  • 1 Duress – Hand disruption on demand. Would be good in the mirror. Also good against blue because if they counter Burning Wish, that’s fine; if not, you get to Duress the counter out of their hand.

  • 1 Meltdown – This was mainly to beat Chalice of the Void but also had fringe benefits against Affinity, MUD, Tezzeret, and other artifacts.

  • 1 Ill-Gotten Gains – One of my main targets. IGG enables combo turns that wouldn’t be possible without it. Example time: You have a not-so-uncommon hand of 2 Lion’s Eye Diamond, 1 Dark Ritual, 1 Infernal Tutor with one land in play; Past in Flames won’t get you there; Infernal Tutor for Burning Wish for IGG will. This is critical when Ad Nauseam isn’t possible because you are too low on life.

  • 1 Diminishing Returns – Serves a similar role as IGG but is more of a Hail Mary. Diminishing Returns is great for beating an opposing Deathrite Shaman that can shut down a Past in Flames or Ill-Gotten Gains with an activation.

  • 1 Tendrils of Agony – Allows Burning Wish to essentially act as a direct replacement for Infernal Tutor.

  • 1 Empty the Warrens – Alternate win condition. Beats Leyline of Sanctity.

In testing Burning Wish, I felt great and the changes to deck were noticeable in a positive way for all the reasons I listed. I hit a milestone where, mentally, I felt confident about not only the deck choice but the specific card choices in that deck.

Reinforcing this were the results from all the high profile Legacy events that were occurring before the Grand Prix. All signs pointed to True Name Nemesis. Either beat it or play it was the general consensus. People were devoting significant sideboard slots to beat it (that means 2 in Legacy). My deck had one of the best answers: ignore it.

So with plenty of practice, with a deck choice I was confident in, and with card choices I liked, I felt ready to go sling spells in the nation’s capital. The hero will return in Part 3, recounting his courageous feats in pursuit of glory and bar-be-que.

Post comments or questions in the comments below!

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