There an old saying that “you gotta dance with the one that brung ya”. For me, the deck that “brung” me to Legacy was The Epic Storm. I was drawn to Legacy watching SCG Opens, back when Legacy coverage was more frequent. After seeing Tendrils of Agony resolve a few times, I knew I was going to end up playing Storm one way or another.
At that point, I had never played Magic beyond the “kitchen table” and was going to take on the task of breaking into Legacy. As far as I knew, there was the ubiquitous Ad Nauseam Tendrils, The Epic Storm, and a few off-beat choices like Belcher or Doomsday (more on all these options later). I narrowed my choices to ANT or TES and began looking for all the reports and coverage I could find. After reviewing dozens of matches with each deck, I noted that TES, despite having fewer users, won more of its matches. In hindsight, that’s likely due to “fanatic” pilots championing their deck of choice. Still, the win percentages were the objective data I needed to support my subjective conclusion that TES was the far more exciting deck and the one that seemed most interesting to explore. A few days and many dollars later, I was blitzing through MTGO dailies; winning hard and, likely, misplaying harder.
Over a year later, I’ve sampled all the Storm decks out there and rose from neophyte to, realistically, a rather well-researched and enthusiastic amateur. For those interested in trying out The Epic Storm, these next paragraphs are all about how to start your journey off right.
The Grass Is Always Greener… Bluer, Blacker, Redder, Whiter…
The intuitive first step in getting into TES is figuring out if you even want to play the deck in the first place. I’ll take it as a given that you’re interested in some sort of Storm deck, since you’re likely reading this article on a web-page related to Legacy Storm decks. That said, let’s take a minute to examine some of the other options that are available.
ANT/Cabal Ritual Storm: A quick note, the latter name is a credit to the multi-Tendrils of Agony/Past in Flames developments of the past few years that defy typical ANT lists. Given its higher usage rate, I think many assume ANT to be the best Storm list. ANT, realistically, incorporates a lot of hedges in its construction and requires a lot less finesse, thus it attracts more players by being initially easier to use. That said, some ANT and TES lists can share many cards since TES has picked up more fetches and occasional copies of Cabal Ritual over time. TES leverages Rite of Flames and Empty the Warrens whereas ANT capitalizes on Cabal Rituals and Past in Flames, TES plays more acceleration in proportion to lands compared to ANT, and TES uses a greater density of threats as opposed to ANT’s cantrips. Taking all those differences into consideration, TES excels at early-game confrontations and ANT can build a more impressive late-game, with both decks having effective ways to win at middling speed. ANT tends to be the more stable and less explosive deck compared to TES, so a metagame with a low amount of hate bears and greater emphasis on resource denial or control can make ANT the better of two good choices.
Inquisition/Belcher: I feel these decks are just worse than ANT or TES due to consistency and metagame conditions. In highly blue metagames, it’s valuable to be able to hit land drops, cast cantrips, and protect your combo. Moreover, the power-creep of creatures has made Empty the Warrens and Draw-4 effects worse. These decks also have a lower skill ceiling than ANT or TES since a hand often has only one play to rotely accelerate out. In my opinion, playing these decks is like bringing a flintlock to a gunfight: there may be some novelty in doing so, you may even get a kill, but you’re relying on an archaic and underpowered weapon overall.
Doomsday: Doomsday is one of the most polarizing decks I’ve ever encountered; I’ve heard all sorts of tall tales about how Doomsday is an unbeatable or unusable deck. In truth, Doomsday isn’t too hard to use once you memorize basic piles and know how to use cantrips and Lion’s Eye Diamonds in a pile. In terms of an engine, Doomsday does provides a precise path to victory without relying on your life total. However, Past in Flames also provides an alternative to Ad Nauseam without requiring as much work or card disadvantage. Doomsday has a more severe vulnerability to Chalice of the Void or Counterbalance than other Storm lists, but does boast resilience against mana denial, common hate cards, and discard. Depending on your meta and technical prowess or enthusiasm, Doomsday is a valid pick.
If you’re still looking to play TES after all that window-shopping of other Storm decks, I’ll start in on some common sticking points or topics of discussion. As this article is about giving people a running start playing TES, I’ll be introducing strategic concepts that can be developed as you gain experience.
Leaping Before You Look
Playing any kind of Storm deck well involves knowing how to launch the combo right on time. Too soon, and you risk folding to a particularly disruptive or prepared hand from the opponent. Too late, and you become vulnerable to increased disruption as well as the opponent’s win conditions. In the case of TES, cards like Empty the Warrens, Ad Nauseam, and Chrome Mox can become worse as a game draws out, so the opportunity cost for waiting to combo is often very high. The volatile and explosive nature of TES rewards those willing to put their opponent in check with aggressive plays.
The aggressor role means accepting some risk because you don’t have the robustness of resources to wait for ideal conditions to combo off. This doesn’t mean that you act like you’re playing solitaire, it just means that if you think you see an opening, go for it. These calculated gambits are often the correct play and can actually avert many risks that a slower pace of play invites. This can also lead to quite a few “nail-biter” games, though. You may find yourself charging blindly into a possible Force of Will, keeping draws that fold to Thoughtseize, hoping Goblins can go the distance, or praying an Ad Nauseam doesn’t fizzle. Conceptually, forcing an opponent to answer whatever win condition you decide to throw at them gives you the edge because it requires the opponent to answer a nebulous threat with little time to prepare any sort of defense. If you get comfortable with gambling and learn to look for good odds, then you can win big with TES.
Knowing Thy Enemy
While aggression and threats are important things to have in mind while playing TES, an equally critical concept is the recognition that “aggression” and “threats” are relative things and depend on the sort of opposition you’re facing. Decks tend to be fast, slow, controlling, or aggressive by design and that design implies and accepts certain tradeoffs as a consequence. TES aims to deliver a threat quickly, so knowing what’s threatening and how quick you need to be is important information when it comes to evaluating cards in your main deck or side deck.
Careful observation of the opposing metagame confers the ability to optimize the deck you’re using. For example, slower and more potent accelerants like Cabal Ritual can pay large dividends against control, whereas more Chrome Moxen can shine against aggro strategies. While Chrome Mox is clearly faster than Cabal Ritual, both configurations manage to be relatively faster than their respective opposition. Fully optimizing the tradeoff between speed and stability involves being just fast enough to contest the opponent’s cards and just stable enough to consistently resolve your own cards. After a certain point, it’d just be less efficient overall to keep on sacrificing stability for extraneous speed or vice-versa. It’d feel awful to be drawing Chrome Mox in a drawn-out grind against control, just like it’d be frustrating to stare at a hate bear with Cabal Rituals sitting in your hand.
A lot of hotly debated picks or configurations in TES can be solved on a personal level by just looking at your own metagame and drawing logical conclusions on which cards line up better against what you tend to play against.. This can be as simple as perusing the tables of your local play group, or as tough as combing through dozens of deck lists in anticipation of a statewide event. It isn’t an exact science, though; there are always a few spoilers or unexpected builds that can crop up no matter how much you prepare for the field. This is occasionally the case on MTGO, where the metagame is very blue and reflects the trendy deck-types, but there often those lurking in the queue with unusual, budget, or lower-tier decks looking to spike the events by getting lucky or catching people off guard.
It can be easy to get mired in debate over whether a card is worth running or performs better than other options, especially when people value or experience aspects of their own meta differently. While other players can provide valuable insights, it’s fundamentally important to do your own work to understand the opposition and try to find answers for yourself.
Be Careful What You Wish For…
The use of Burning Wish is a distinctive feature of TES, learning to manage the utility and constraints of this powerful sorcery is definitely worth your time. TES is one of the best Burning Wish decks in Legacy, it has the mana base and stability to easily Wish for utility’s sake or as a set-up for a later combo (unlike Belcher) and TES can generate bursts of red mana from Rite of Flame to create aggressive plays with Empty the Warrens or Past in Flames (unlike Cabal Ritual or Doomsday storm). However, the constraints that Burning Wish puts on side deck slots and the “surcharge” of Wish’s mana cost means that it can bog you down if you don’t carefully approach its use.
Broadly speaking, I break Wish targets down into three categories: “bombs”, “utility”, and “silver bullets”. Bombs are the big hits like Empty the Warrens, Past in Flames and Tendrils of Agony. Wishing for bombs is often the best use of a Wish because all those cards are somewhat resilient to countermagic and very threatening. Moreover, the big impact these bombs provide makes the cost of the Wish more acceptable, it becomes about as good as an Infernal Tutor.
Utility targets are things like Thoughtseize, Void Snare, or the occasional Infernal Tutor. Wishing for utility seems intuitively good, but I dislike it because it is often a low-power tactic. However, utility Wishes can be good in slower match-ups as you can bait out counters, often have multiple Wishes and Tutors to resolve, and you can split up the casting of the Wish and the target over multiple turns. Even then, I would still consider Wishing for a bomb, since the best utility you can often find against control is Infernal Tutor to find Ad Nauseam in situations where the other bombs aren’t as good.
Lastly, “silver bullets” are cards that behave like bombs or utility, but they bring very powerful effects to specific match-ups. These are cards like Massacre, Reanimate, or Telemin Performance. The obvious issue is that the match-ups the bullets are aimed at have to occur often enough that you aren’t wasting slots in your board. Having cards to actually side in for relevant match-ups is a consistently good thing, whereas having a great Wish target in a matchup that occasionally occurs is much less consistent and demands careful scrutiny. Keep an eye out for opportunities to exploit your meta with a good silver bullet, but understand that you’re taking a chance that you’ll go through an event with a side deck that effectively only has thirteen or fourteen cards.
Overall, Burning Wish is a powerful card to have and you will be rewarded for learning how to give yourself just the right amount of useful targets and managing when and what to Wish for in-game.
I’m going to close things out with a few tips on the general mindset to have for playing TES. I mentioned already that a tolerance to risk is necessary for success, an extension of that is accepting that gambles sometimes don’t pay off. Avoid getting tilted by a fizzled Ad Nauseam or some blow-out answer from your opponent. Bad luck happens, there’s no value in getting worked up over it, especially when you can steal games or shut people out at least as often as you’ll fall victim to poor variance.
Additionally, try to avoid the trap of functional fixedness. A lot of cards in TES can be flexible and provide multiple uses, if you fixate yourself on the primary use or plan for your cards, you can miss opportunities to find a better path to victory. Sometimes the utility Wish will be the best play, sometimes Infernal Tutor should be doubling up cards instead of pairing with Lion’s Eye Diamond, etc.
Finally, glean as much information as you can from your opponents. A lot of the unknown information that makes your plays risky in the first place is information your opponent has. Recognizing patterns or cards that an opponent is representing can be the difference between winning and losing. When you have a good read on your opponents, you can also bluff innocuous cards as threatening and vice versa, taking control away from them. If you can be observant, be willing to experiment, and carefully think things through, then you can go far playing TES.