The truth is that this article probably won’t be helpful for very long. Storm put up the best record of any deck in Valencia, winning nearly 60% of its matches. The Pantheon members who played the deck won two out of three of their matches, excluding draws and mirror matches. Even if you exclude The Pantheon, the other storm decks in the field managed to best 50%, if only just barely. Wizards hates this. I’ve heard many times that their unofficial policy is to ban cards until I stop playing the deck. I’m not really sure why they hate Storm so much. Living End is a “lamer” combo with almost no decision making required. Burn plays like a combo deck (Did I draw 18 points of damage and the land to cast it?) that also lacks choices, and Wizards seems totally fine with the creature combos of Pod and Splinter Twin.
There would certainly be worse things for Magic than having a good, difficult, skill-intensive combo deck that is very easily hated out. It’s also nice to have decks in the "eternal" format that attack the game from different angles. Storm as a percentage of the metagame easily gets into negative feedback loops. There is a card that says 2W: Storm loses the game. While it’s technically possible to beat Rule of Law, nobody is going to be excited to sleeve up Storm when half the decks have three Rule of Law in the sideboard.
Despite all of this, I’m pretty sure that Storm is going to actually be dead at the next banning. So until then, go forth and play with the last remaining bastion of old-school, real Magic. Here’s the list I played in Valencia, and the same 75 I’d sleeve up for a tourney tomorrow:
4xSleight of Hand
3xPast in Flames
3xEmpty the Warrens
Get This Deck
Like most people, I assumed Storm was dead after they banned Seething Song. I didn't even want to play in GP Portland, but the team was going to be there so I figured I might as well. Since I was going to have to play something, I borrowed the same Affinity deck (please, not Robots—I know it doesn't have much Affinity left, but have some respect for history) Paul and Zvi Top 8'd with from my friend Mark Schmit. Then, when I was packing up for my flight, I came across my Storm deck and decided to do some goldfishing for old time’s sake. I swapped out the four Songs for the fourth Pyromancer Ascension I'd always wanted, threw in two Increasing Vengeances to get to a critical mass of rituals for Past in Flames, and then 1 Peer Through Depths to fill things out.
Things went well. Things went really well—in fact, it felt as if the deck had somehow barely been hurt at all.
Obviously the deck was actually weaker, but in Seattle the deck might have been a touch heavy on rituals, given the addition of Goblin Electromancer. While eight is probably fewer rituals than optimal, twelve was too many, but I couldn't really go to less than four of any of them in a Pyromancer Ascension deck. It seemed especially rough to cut a four to a three in order to add the fourth Ascension.
The point is that with Electromancer in the deck we really didn’t need those extra rituals—it's not hard to get enough mana to go off and the deck still runs smoothly. In Portland my changes were hasty and untested, but for Valencia I had more time. Once I realized we didn’t need the Vengances as rituals, it all fell into place. The main question became Thought Scour or Peer Through Depths. Peer Through Depths is amazing, but it costs 2 mana. Thought Scour is just supremely solid. It costs one mana and replaces itself while making your Ascensions a little better, your Ravings a bit better, and your Past in Flames a bit better. It’s almost like it generates 1.5 cards. Thought Scour is exactly the sort of solid role-player this deck needs.
At its heart Storm is a deck with a couple superstars and a bunch of role-players. Grapeshot ends the game, but Ascension or Past in Flames win it. Everything else is mana or card drawing. They’re completely necessary, but you need one of the finishers to actually win.
Past in Flames is pretty obvious—generate a bunch of mana, Past in Flames, cast a bunch of spells from the graveyard, and Grapeshot them out. It’s OK to play three though, as you see a bunch of cards before you need to cast it, and each copy also has flashback if you’re fighting through counters.
An active Ascension is also usually game over for your opponent. The great thing is, you get Ascension wins as a sort of free bonus for playing Storm. I've seen some dedicated Ascension decks, but this deck is just about as good with Ascension out as those decks. If I have an active Ascension and two card draw spells, I'm almost certain to draw my entire library. Even with just one Sleight of Hand or Serum Visions and a few land I have a reasonable chance, so I don't feel the need to do much more than throw them into my Storm deck and try to play fours of almost all my instants and sorceries. It's also game over for counterspell decks. So when looking at my list and doing your own "tuning," do not take out any Ascensions.
One more thing: play four Electromancers. The little Goblin regularly generates ten mana in a turn, and unlike Ascension, they can kill him, so multiples aren’t wasted. You can always play one turn two if you have multiples and force your opponent to kill it. Having Electromancer in your deck means your opponent has to live in fear of you going off at any point in time. Your opponent taps out on turn three? Half the time they won’t get a turn four. The difference between casting Past in Flames with an Electromancer and casting it without is enormous. Goblin Electromancer is like the Dennis Rodman of role-players—it’s the role-player that often actually wins the game. Playing three in the deck is just a travesty. If I were a religious man, it would make me question the existence of God that people choose to do such a thing.
A lot of people who haven’t played much with the deck, and a few who have as well, argue for Faithless Looting over Desperate Ravings. While I’m almost certain this is wrong, it’s not with the all-encompassing certainty that playing three Electromancers is wrong. But I decided on Ravings based both on theory and also on playtesting. While the testing component I can’t show here, I can talk about the theory a bit.
People are too scared of randomness. The cards in the Storm deck have a tremendous amount of redundancy, so you’re rarely in a situation where a discarded card is crippling. Your key spells are Ascension and Past in Flames. The first comes out turn two, and the second has flashback. Everything else is card draw or mana. Electromancer makes Ravings much better as well—casting the first half for one mana and the second for two is huge. I will concede that against hyper-aggressive decks the Ravings are a bit slow, but against decks with Islands or Thoughtseize, there’s no card I want to draw more. Ravings is card advantage, and Looting is card disadvantage. When you’re trying to build up to a critical mass, rather than just assemble a very specific combo, that makes a huge difference.
If I were going to add another card selection spell, it wouldn’t be Looting, but Peer Through Depths. Especially given that Electromancer reduces its cost to one, I really wonder whether Peers should be added to the deck. The main reason I haven’t is that Peer costs two mana and it seems really rough to get four spells that cost two mana into the deck. If playing Ascensions didn’t make playing 4-ofs very important, there would almost certainly be two in the deck. While I feel that my list from Valencia was well tuned, this is the one place it wouldn’t shock me if someone improved on it. Now, let’s talk a bit about playing the deck.
First of all, you have one of the greatest assets in Magic: Gitaxian Probe. Knowledge of your opponent's hand will play into many of the decisions you make and can make you deviate from standard practice. For example, one of the hardest choices to make is whether to hold the Electromancer for the turn you go off or to cast him second turn. If you cast him second turn you’re much more likely to win on turn three, but if they have removal you could be setting yourself really far behind. If you can see their hand it's an easy choice. If not, I can't give you an answer except "it depends." Obviously if I have two I'd love to bait the removal with the first, or if I don't have the mana to play him and go off in the same turn it's an easy call to play him. Conversely, if I have RRU-producing mana and an Electromancer with a couple Rituals and Manamorphoses with a Past in Flames and a few card draw spells in the graveyard it's easy to wait. The in-between places are where it comes down to experience and feel.
There are some other situations for which I can give you more concrete advice:
• Unless you really need to draw into something specific, don't use two Probes on turn 1 (and probably turns 2 or 3 either, unless going off or can’t use all your mana). Save the second for if you need to dig further or most importantly to turn on Pyromancer Ascension. It also helps to see one or two more cards to know what you’re up against.
• The same goes for Manamorphose. Absent an Electromancer, I always burn the first one to get a card deeper, but I save the second one until I really need it or I play an Ascension. When it comes to casting the “free” spells I ask myself, “do I already have the optimal play for this turn in my hand?” If it’s turn two and I have an Ascension, nothing I can draw would change my play, so I might as well wait until next turn. Otherwise, please cycle them. Most players err on the side of holding onto the cantrips, especially Manamorphose, for too long. You really want to have the most information possible at all times, so that you’re able to make optimal decisions about when to attempt to go off.
• When it comes to the one-mana spells, on the first turn you should always lead with Serum Visions. Sleight of Hand is only better the turn you go off, and if you don't have a spell that lets you draw one card as a followup. The only possible caveat is if you have 2 Sleights and an Ascension, as this might let you turn it on faster.
• Turn one if you have a Probe, a sac land, and no one-mana blue spell, pay 2 life for the Probe before using the land. This lets you choose whether or not to bring in the land untapped after seeing if you draw something to use the mana on. Yes you lose a little bit of thinning but the deck is light on land anyways and doesn't mind drawing 3 or 4 eventually. The benefit is that you don't get an Island over a Steam Vents or pay 2 life unnecessarily. Paying mana for the Probe is not worthwhile because the cost of not being able to play a one-mana search spell should you draw it is so high.
• Don't hesitate to cast a Desperate Ravings for fear of what you'll discard. As I mentioned before, with the exception of Past in Flames (and Ascension, but you probably cast that turn two) the cards in the deck have a ton of redundancy. It’s really nice knowing that the one card you’d normally least want to discard has flashback. I can count on one hand the number of games I chose not to cast a Ravings during testing for fear of discard.
Usually that’s when you’re in the “I have the game won no matter what already” phase. Simply put, losing the game because you cast Ravings and discarded the wrong card happens way less often than you think. I ran bad in Valencia in this regard. I actually lost a game to Owen Turtenwald because I discarded the wrong card—an Ascension that I drew off a Ravings. This will happen every once in a while, but don’t be that guy who has it happen and then says “screw it; I’m not playing Ravings anymore.” Faithless Looting is for the faint of heart, Storm is not. Be aware that you will almost never have the kill actually in hand when you go off. If you can go off with adequate mana and a few card draw spells, you'll almost always get there. This deck is about percentages.
• When going off with Past in Flames, try to leave 2 copies of a card in your graveyard as long as possible in case you draw an Ascension along the way. Save your "free" draw spells (Probe and Manamorphose) until after a Serum Visions, so you don't end up in that awkward spot where you scry to find a card that just sits on top of your library where you can't reach it or where you have to waste a Sleight of Hand to get it.
• It is sometimes correct (especially when you have exactly 8 mana) to respond to the Past in Flames with a Desperate Ravings. This lets you get the Ravings and the card you discard under the Past without the fear of discarding it—this is important because you'd much rather flashback with red mana than blue (plus it's one cheaper). If you happen to draw a ritual or a Manamorphose off the Ravings, you can still cast it while the Past in Flames is on the stack.
• One of the harder choices, although it comes up rarely, is deciding whether to cast Grapeshot before or after you cast Past in Flames. Generally I cast it before if it obviously kills them or I just need to draw into one or two more spells to get to enough storm. Sometimes they’re at high life and you’re long on mana but short on card draw. In those cases it’s imperative that you wait until the end to cast your Grapeshot, then flashback your Past in Flames and cast Grapeshot again.
• I could write a whole article about Pyromancer Ascension alone. As I alluded to earlier, if you untap with active Ascension four lands and two card draw spells (You might need a Ritual too if one of the draw spells is a Ravings), you will almost certainly win. One is usually enough, unless it's Manamorphose or Probe. Even then there's no downside to hoping to get a little lucky.
• There are a lot of interesting interactions with Ravings and Ascension. You can cast a Ravings to put the second counter on the Ascension and then cast a key instant from your hand before the Ravings resolves and still have it forked, without fear of discard. This could be a ritual, a Manamorphose, or even another Ravings. It is also important to resolve your Ravings one at a time with an Ascension in play so if you draw any of your instants that you really need to cast you don't give yourself unnecessary opportunities to discard them.
• Lastly, don't worry too much about your storm count. With rare exceptions I never hold spells because I’m worried about whether my final storm count will be enough. Use your card draw spells to dig further so you can get to active Ascension or to a big Past in Flames. When this deck wins, it tends to really, really, win—rarely are you just on the borderline of being able to kill them. It's also fine to try to go for it and miss. You don't want to waste Rituals, but often if you go or it and miss you can just kill them the next turn since most of the cards replace themselves. Your choke points tend to be total mana, blue mana, and card draw spells. Going for it with a bunch of Rituals, a Past in Flames, and one card draw spell in your graveyard is probably a bit aggressive, but if you are digging and get choked on blue mana, you probably picked up a few Rituals along the way and can flashback the Past in Flames next turn.
A big advantage for the deck, both in Portland as well as Valencia, was its positioning. With both Storm and Eggs hit by the post-Seattle banning, the amount of sideboard hate people have has dropped way down. It tends to be more of the “beatable” variety (Relic of Progenitus, Grafdigger’s Cage, Rakdos Charm, discard, and counters) than the “unbeatable” kind (Rule of Law, Leyline of the Void). Of course, since Storm was the best performing deck at Valencia, that might change, but it is a difficult deck which was only played by 3% of the field, so we’ll see.
When it comes to sideboarding, Storm is usually at a disadvantage and I used to sometimes wonder if I wouldn't be better off just running the original 60 rather than change anything. Finally in Valencia, for the first time, I had a really strong sideboard.
The four Lightning Bolts are great. They're answers to Ethersworn Canonist (though he doesn't see much play anymore) and can also buy you time against aggro decks. They also really rev up your Grapeshots, allowing you to get some kills more easily, especially when people are taking 5+ damage from their lands. Combined with the three Empty the Warrens, the Bolts make your matchup with Zoo more advantaged after sideboarding.
The three Shatterstorms are also amazing, and Affinity is the matchup that becomes most improved for you after sideboarding. I've gone back and forth between Shatterstorm and Shattering Spree, but I'm currently on Shatterstorm because it doesn’t let them put a big Ravager on a Nexus and it can't be regenerated from, although it is more vulnerable to Spell Pierce.
The three Empty the Warrens are also good because they let you get a victory from a storm of 5-7. When playing versus control decks and Jund this is much better because it's a lot harder to get to critical mass, but Probe, Ritual, Manamorphose, Sleight of Hand, Empty is very doable and is usually enough. In these matchups, unlike against Zoo, I don’t always bring in the 3rd one, because I always leave in one Grapeshot. Often when you go off you really go off and get to see your entire library. In those cases it's very important to have one kill card that ends the game right away as opposed to next turn.
The other three-of is Blood Moon, which is incredibly strong in today’s environment. It’s great against control decks—even if they get one Island, it often isn’t enough for a deck with Cliques and Cryptics. It’s also nice to know they can cast at most one counter in a turn. It’s good against Jund and even black/green decks. Against Zoo, especially Tribal Zoo, it’s very good on the play where you’re likely to be able to cast in on turn two. And of course there are some decks, like the Amulet of Vigor deck, that just lose to it outright.
Rounding out the sideboard is one Defense Grid, to give you a bit more of a game against control, and one Echoing Truth, which is a catchall answer to whatever they might sideboard against you. It’s especially relevant against Leyline of Sanctity. One copy in your deck makes it do nothing at all, as when you go off you’ll draw your entire library and bounce the Leyline right before you Grapeshot them for 40.
Here are the sideboard plans vs. various matchups. I definitely switch things up a lot depending on what I see and what they see. If I beat them with Empty game two, I might shave one of them in case they bring in board sweepers. If I beat them with Blood Moon, I might shave one or two because they’ll be more likely to crack for basics. If I see Rest in Peace, I’d max out my Empties and drop to one Past in Flames (but never zero). Don’t be afraid to deviate from my suggestions at all.
Hopefully this article will be helpful for those of you considering playing Storm in Richmond or in the weeks to follow. It will probably help those playing against Storm too, but that’s just something I’ll have to live with. I won’t be able to attend the Grand Prix, as I have a bachelor party to attend (my sister’s fiancé. Yay!), but I will definitely be refreshing the standings from Vegas and looking for Electromancers and Ascensions near the top.