The Beautiful Struggle – The Extended Perfect TEPS Primer

You don’t play TEPS because it beats every deck. You play it because it puts pressure on every deck. Most keepable hands win very early in the game, so by playing TEPS you force every opponent to win or find an answer in five turns or less. Also, you have a Burning Wish package such that even if the opponent should come up with something, you can find a bullet to deal with it. Many PTQ decks, and a great many more PTQ players, operate much worse under that kind of pressure.

As I work my way into the rhythm of having a weekly column, I have decided to return to familiar ground: one of the strongest decks in Extended is a storm combo deck that isn’t at all easy to play.

It was that way when I wrote about Mind’s Desire two years ago; three days after that article appeared on the StarCityGames.com homepage, Osyp Lebedowicz piloted Mind’s Desire to a 12-0 start at Grand Prix: Boston. You could argue that it was true last year at the time I wrote this article, because no one was able to adequately explain to me why the G/U Heartbeat deck was not the best in the format. With Compost in the sideboard, it could even beat Friggorid!

Now we have the following deck, piloted by Raphael Levy at Worlds, dubbed The Extended Perfect Storm, or TEPS:

A variant was piloted by Jelger Wiegersma; after a first-round hiccup against Eugene Harvey, he ran the table to 5-1:

A third version, splicing the Divining Tops of Jelger.dec into Levy’s deck, won a PTQ in Oklahoma City. Although it was only a 37-person tournament due to ice storms across the Midwest, I tend to take any deck seriously if it wins a PTQ because other players might netdeck it:

Why You Play TEPS

The thing about this format is, if it’s possible for a format to be too wide open, then this one is. It seems like every deck goes 5-2 against the sort of format you might expect, and then there are the decks that you don’t expect. For example, last year’s G/U Mind’s Desire deck isn’t bad against many popular decks, especially if it has Wall of Roots. However, I don’t expect it to turn out in numbers worth metagaming against. The worst part is that the same could also be said about Tooth and Nail, Elemental Bidding, the CAL, Balancing Tings, and any one of half a dozen decks that might have fallen slightly off of the radar for whatever reason.

You don’t play TEPS because it beats every deck. You play it because it puts pressure on every deck. As I’ll mention in further detail below, most keepable hands win very early in the game, so by playing TEPS you force every opponent to win or find an answer in five turns or less. Also, you have a Burning Wish package such that even if the opponent should come up with something, you can find a bullet to deal with it. Many PTQ decks, and a great many more PTQ players, operate much worse under that kind of pressure.

Comparing the Builds

Either Levy.dec or OKC.dec are the versions of TEPS you’ll be most likely to encounter – one had a Hall of Famer claim in a StarCityGames.com article that it was the best deck he had ever seen, and the other won one of the first PTQs that could be found here. This is ironic, because in almost every test game I’ve been much more afraid of Jelger.dec; if Jelger had a StarCityGames.com column and not Levy I might be writing a different article, but that’s how metagames go sometimes.

The advantages of Levy.dec and OKC.dec are that Lotus Bloom makes them very fast. Most keepable hands can win on turn 4 unopposed, but there are a couple of catches. The first catch is that you have to be a lot better at making mulligan decisions to get a keepable hand – hands with mana only are risky keeps, but Levy.dec has only fifteen non-mana cards in the maindeck. The second catch is that it’s a lot easier to disrupt Levy.dec, since it has only Infernal Tutor, Plunge Into Darkness, and Burning Wish to find bullets or answers. For example, in his Worlds article, Levy suggests cutting Pyroclasm and Hull Breach from the sideboard, because he never Wished for them, but in test games I realized that the deck then has no outs to two Meddling Mages set on Burning Wish and Tendrils of Agony.

OKC.dec improves slightly on these problems with its Divining Tops, which smooth out mana-only draws and help you “float” key cards atop your deck until you need them in hand. However, it’s Jelger.dec that does the best job, by having Onslaught fetchlands and Careful Study. You’d be surprised how much even a small number of fetchlands improves the Top’s ability to find what you need… well, maybe you wouldn’t be surprised, if you’ve played any format where Brainstorm and the fetchlands were legal. As for Careful Study, it’s the cheapest way to get what you’re looking for while simultaneously filling your graveyard for your Rites of Flame and Cabal Rituals. The price you pay is in speed, because the Top takes up some mana early in the game and Jelger.dec doesn’t even have any Lotus Blooms, but you can still win quite fast simply by sacrificing more than one Invasion land.

Your Strategy – Setting Goals

The storm decks of the last two years were trying to resolve a giant Brain Freeze, and could do so even without playing Mind’s Desire. In fact, during each of the last two Extended seasons a variant popped up that didn’t run Mind’s Desire at all, in favor of running more cards that allowed you to win at instant speed versus Psychatog, Scepter-Chant, and the mirror. These decks depend upon Mind’s Desire for a much greater percentage of their wins. In ten test games against Gabriel Nassif deck from Worlds, one of them ended in a lethal Tendrils of Agony without either Burning Wish or Mind’s Desire being cast, but games like that one are the exceptions rather than the rule. You want to get to Tendrils of Agony, of course, but most often you’ll be taking the Mind’s Desire express train to get there.

In fact, an earlier version of this article said “Levy’s deck is a Mind’s Desire deck, pure and simple,” except that’s not quite true. One key winning method is to Burning Wish for Empty the Warrens: Wish into Warrens is four tokens by itself, and you’ll probably have played an accelerant that turn (six tokens), and more often than not a Lotus Bloom or Chromatic item will have been played that turn (eight tokens), at which point many opponents will be on a two-turn clock. This is especially important because it’s your best way to win through Gilded Light and other types of hate.

Your Tactics – The Mechanics of Going Off

There’s a difference between tactics and strategy (I keep trying to explain this to my President, but the restraining order has dampened my efforts). As just explained, you have essentially two strategies when playing the deck: win in one turn with Tendrils of Agony or in a few turns with a swarm of Goblin tokens. In order to accomplish this strategy, you need to calculate your way through the use of certain techniques, what chess players would call tactics. Some of the basic tactics of playing the deck are well explained by the tastefully named Mark Herberholz in this Jon Becker video cast from Worlds, so I won’t go into them in too much detail, but there are others as well.

The point of any given tactic will be to maximize your storm, either because you are trying to maximize your number of Tendrils copies and / or Goblin tokens, or because you need to minimize your chances to “miss,” i.e., to hit a string of useless cards with your entire Mind’s Desire. That sounds really simple and obvious, I’m sure, but it can sometimes lead to counter-intuitive plays, especially with Levy.dec.

For example, in a recent test game against Gabriel Nassif deck from Worlds, Levy.dec emptied its hand except for a copy of Sins of the Past and a copy of Mind’s Desire. My notes indicate there was UUBBRRR available, suggesting two possible plays: (a) Sins of the Past targeting Channel of Suns in the graveyard, followed by Mind’s Desire, or (b) just running Mind’s Desire out there with one mana floating. Nassif.dec was tapped out with four lands, a Counterbalance, and a Silver Knight on the table, and five cards in hand; for the moment, let us assume nothing else about the game state.

First, we have to establish what strategy you’re on. Nassif’s deck can play a land, follow with Trinket Mage for Engineered Explosives, play the Explosives for zero, and activate all at once. It can make this play next turn with just a land and Trinket Mage in hand. Thus the Tendrils strategy seems preferable, especially given Nassif.dec’s tapped-out status. However, the tactics you use to achieve that end can differ depending upon key details in the game state.

If you had both Infernal Tutors left in the deck, then option (a) would probably be preferable, so that a Tutor flipped off of the Desire would be hellbent and could immediately produce the Tendrils. However, if one or both Tutors had already been used, you might prefer option (b) so that the Sins of the Past is still in reserve should your Desire hit only mana cards. Note that option (b) will require you to flip over significant mana acceleration in order to actually cast the Sins of the Past in hand, so if you have shot a significant load of “Rituals” already, that option may be sub-optimal. Finally, the amount of land left in the deck is highly relevant, since land is just about the worst thing you can flip with a Desire (doubly so with this particular deck, because almost all of your lands come into play tapped).

In the test game in question, I had already used an Infernal Tutor, but I had also used several “Rituals.” I also had drawn only one land so far in the game. I decided that maximizing the storm count was most important since I had a pretty high chance of flipping land, so I used option (a), leaving one Red mana floating. This illustrates a very useful rule for confusing and complex situations: it’s almost never wrong to maximize your storm count.

An important tactic in the versions with Sensei’s Divining Top is to have a Top in play and a Top on top of your library; then you can tap one Top to draw the other and play it, turning one mana into +1 storm count over and over. This may seem like a relatively rare board position to obtain, since it requires you to draw two copies of a card that you can’t Wish for, but you can force it using Infernal Tutor if you have drawn one Top. Also, even if the Top trick is available to you, you will need to consider if you want to do it before you play Mind’s Desire, or if you want to save your mana until after your Desire copies have all resolved (you might have a spell in hand you want to play with that mana).

Another Top tactic is to use the top in between Mind’s Desire activations. Mind’s Desire is worded such that you cannot set up what card is flipped for a Desire copy, but you can put a land on top of your library, tap the Top to draw it, and put the Top into your library. Then, when you shuffle and flip for the next Desire copy, that’s one less land and one more spell for you to reveal. The percentage that you gain with this play is small, but it’s the ability to gain small percentage that makes the difference between a PTQ win and a PTQ drop.

How to Play the Matchups

The more dangerous beatdown deck, because their best draws can win on turn 4 the same as yours. Plus, they will often have Cabal Therapy or Erayo to disrupt you; you would prefer to be running a Divining Top version against them so that you can “float” some cards on top to help you recover from a bad Therapy draw. However, only fortunate draws on the artifact deck’s part will keep this matchup from becoming a non-interactive race, one in which you are a slight favorite. Don’t be afraid to end a turn with a non-lethal Tendrils, if you can foresee a way to start going off again next turn.

Aggro Loam
An atrocious matchup, because their Devastating Dreams will crush your lands and leave you dependent upon Lotus Bloom to win. Don’t get me wrong, it is possible to win off of a lone Lotus Bloom, but it isn’t easy, and it won’t happen as often as you’d like. The problem, in case you’re curious, is that the Lotus only makes one color of mana, and you usually need at least two colors in your pool to keep a combo turn going. This means that if you happen to play against Aggro Loam, you probably should try to keep hands with Eggs and / or Chromatic Stars against them. Duress helps a little bit in post-board games, but they can still just Wish for the Dreams in their board, so don’t expect an early Duress that gets their Dreams to be an auto-win.

Big-Mana Control
This refers to the various decks built around Blue cards and either the Urzatron or Vesuva / Cloudpost. You absolutely cannot live in fear of their countermagic, or Stifles, or Orim’s Chants, or whatever else they are packing, because if you let that fear delay you in going off, then they are one turn closer to ending you with Mindslaver. Instead, try to look at the game from the opponent’s point of view: they can only counter so many spells as their mana limits them, and your combo turn will typically start with you making a lot more mana than they can match. You are attacking them at the very time where they are weakest: early in the game, when they cannot answer your combo cards with the same speed that you can play them.

On the flip side, the biggest mistake you can make is thinking that you are entitled to win this matchup because you are so much faster than they are. A good player will be able to divine the right times to show you their counterspells and other tricks. The right way to play is to play without fear, but to give their answer cards the proper amount of respect. What is a “proper” amount may vary with the opponent; if I’m playing Noob T. Nooberson, I might not give much respect, but if he’s Shaheen Soorani, I might give some more, and play accordingly.

Unlike Affinity, their kill is so slow that you would dominate them unopposed. The problem is that they will oppose you with Molten Rain, and it’s a good card to be worried about. There will be games where the beatdown deck draws two of the land destruction spell and you just end up having no shot whatsoever through no fault of your own. Now, having said that, you can beat Molten Rain with a hot Lotus Bloom draw; the land destruction simply removes a lot of your margin for error. As against Affinity, non-lethal Tendrils are often a key way to buy some time for a win next turn. Be aware that in post-sideboard games, many Boros decks are boarding in Orim’s Chant, which is obviously a tremendous kick in the nuts.

Eggs Combo
Not many people are talking about this deck; I get the impression that it’s more vulnerable to hate than your typical TEPS build is, and that it’s slightly slower. It’s also much harder to play, since even their most basic win strategy involves many more tactical moves than yours. However, like TEPS the Egg deck will typically win on the same turn its Lotus Bloom comes into play, so its ability to race you should not be underestimated. I actually love the Egg deck and I was saddened that I did not have time to test it more thoroughly for this article; I think it’s quite a tough matchup for TEPS in the hands of a well-trained combo player.

I actually wasn’t able to test this matchup; playing dredge decks on Magic Workstation is a little awkward. However, note that like the Affinity, you are mostly just racing them. It will take a few turns until they can interact with you, because they have to first set up their big dredge, and then flip both Ichorid and Cabal Therapy into the bin. You definitely have at least a 50/50 shot of winning in the time it takes them to do that. The real danger for you is that they will play an early Psychatog and kill you on the following turn with a gigantic dredge; the fact that Ichorid can attack you in multiple ways like this is what makes it such a powerful deck even in the face of graveyard hate.

Nassif.dec and other Counterbalance / Top builds
Counterbalance will sometimes just end you – remember that a land revealed with Counterbalance can stop a Lotus Bloom from resolving – and sometimes you will get around it. Nassif also had maindeck Stifle, which can be a problem. However, you can still win by using Burning Wish to find Duress and clear the way in game 1 – then, in subsequent games, you’ll have Duresses in the main deck. This matchup is a lot like Big Mana Control in that you absolutely cannot win a long game, but they will often not be able to stop a turn 4 combo kill if you kept a decent hand.

You pretty much have to scoop to a Scepter with Chant under it in game 1. Even if you had Chain of Vapor or some similar instant available, it will be hard to draw it before they get Teferi down and lock you out of the game. However, in post-board games you can fight back with instants of your own, such as the Chains in Jelger.dec or the Orim’s Chants in Levy.dec (note that Scepter reads that its owner “may play the copy” which is why that card works as a sideboard weapon in this matchup). Not a great matchup if they know how to keep a hand and if they have Meddling Mage available to them, but it is winnable.

U/G Desire
I mention this deck because apparently there is a small and very vocal crowd who think that it is still the best deck in the format once you replace the Sakura-Tribe Elder with Wall of Roots (to avoid Sudden Shock problems). The deck isn’t bad, but you are just faster – on the same turn U/G is preparing to play Fact or Fiction or Gifts Ungiven, TEPS can simply win. Proponents of this deck have told me that their big anti-TEPS weapon is Mana Short, but of course TEPS can fight back by clearing a path for its combo with Orim’s Chants and / or Duress. The only real danger is that they could hit you with a big Brain Freeze in response to a Mind’s Desire, but that’s not easy to do on turn 4.

Other Hate Decks and Hate Cards
I received an IM the other day in which an anti-Lotus Bloom reader was concerned that a turn 4 kill was still too slow, since it gave the opponent one turn to “get to Rule of Law or whatever.” However, playing combo demands that you not think like this. You must have no fear, for a couple of reasons: (a) playing combo means that you will be losing the entire game, right up until the turn that you win; and (b) most decks and sideboards will not have room for more than four cards specifically aimed at hating you out of the format.

If you’re worried about Rule of Law you could run Jelger.dec with its Chain of Vapors in the sideboard. However, if you wanted to run Levy.dec you could also just rely on the fact that not every opponent is going to have Rule of Law, most who have it will still be defenseless in game 1, not every opponent who has it is going to play it on turn 3 in every post-sideboard game, and even if the opponent has it you can wish for Hull Breach to get out of your jam.

Don’t get me wrong. Sometimes you’ll just scoop to a certain hate card. Sometimes it will happen twice in the first two or three rounds, you’ll drop from the tournament, and you’ll curse yourself (probably me also) for ever thinking you should have played TEPS in the first place. When this happens, all you can do is tell yourself that you were playing aggressively, forcing your opponents to have an answer for you, and this time they had it. The street beats that way sometimes, papi.

Getting Chaotic

I really wanted to say that Planar Chaos brought some exciting cards to the TEPS mix, but I’m not sure that it does. The problem is, there just aren’t many cards that do something better than the cards that are in the above lists.

Temporal Extortion might seem strong at first – either Time Walk, or put the opponent in range of a very easy Tendrils – except that if you can manage a Burning Wish or Infernal Tutor to finds the spell, and the BBBB to play it, you might as well Wish / Tutor for Tendrils, right? What does the extra turn give you if you blow a couple of storm-count builders to get it?

I remember sitting around the comic book store back in the day and saying to my buddies, “hey, doesn’t Aluren / Man o’ War let you draw your whole deck with Recycle?” so I was definitely excited by the printing of Null Profusion. However, that card is absolutely at odds with what TEPS is trying to do: the above decklists try to play all of their cards before dropping a six-mana bomb, and the Profusion would prefer that you drop your six-mana bomb first, and the other cards in your hand are all played afterward. I definitely think the Profusion should have some kind of combo deck built around it, and that deck might even have a Tendrils or Empty the Warrens kill, I just don’t think it belongs in these particular Storm combo decks.

I like the potential of Simian Spirit Guide, as does anyone who’s ever seen Elvish Spirit Guide played in a Vintage combo deck. You might think that it would be good for TEPS as well, because it generates +1 mana with -1 cards, the same efficiency as an un-enhanced Rite of Flame. However, you have to keep in mind that the Spirit Guide’s ability doesn’t count as a spell for Storm purposes, and it doesn’t go to the graveyard to pump up your Cabal Rituals. This is not Vintage, where it’s so easy to build up a Storm count via Yawgmoth’s Will; if even one spell in your deck doesn’t help with your storm count, you can expect disaster to strike at least once per tournament. For this reason, I see no reason to fit the Spirit Guide in.

In fact, the most gain from Planar Chaos might be in the anti-TEPS department. Extirpate is some strong anti-Sins of the Past hate, but the real crusher is Boom / Bust. If a Boros or Gruul deck leads with a two-power one-drop and follows with Boom on your CIP tapped land, you almost have to have suspended Lotus Bloom on turn 1 to even have a chance in the game (and as we’ve already talked about, the chance you have will not be a big one). Given your tendency to win on or before turn 5 you probably don’t need to worry about Bust, but given your low land count Boom is almost as bad a blowout anyway.

Does Boom / Bust remove TEPS as a deck from the metagame? Maybe. On the other hand, the deck has proven pretty resilient so far, so I wouldn’t count it out. Ever.

This article written while watching Tony Jaa in “The Protector.” If Jaa could appear in movies where the story made even an iota of sense, he would be nigh unstoppable as an action star.

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