Combo Wars

Carsten talks you through a match he played with Storm against Omni-Tell. Check out the matchup between two of Legacy’s most popular combo decks before #SCGCLE!

Lately there has been a lot of discussion in the Ad Nauseam Tendrils thread on The Source concerning the Omni-Tell matchup, and given that these are two of the most popular combo decks in the format, that probably interests at least a reasonable number of you, my dear readers. At the very least looking at the matchup a little more closely should shed some more light on the inner workings of both decks.

A lot of Storm players seem to have trouble with the Omni-Tell matchup, while I personally find it to be quite favorable. I can only assume that the difference here stems from taking a wrong approach to the matchup, so that’s what I’d like to cover today.

Now, just telling someone "that’s the way you need to go" is very hard with a deck as flexible as Storm, but there are two basic approaches you have to keep in mind for the matchup and adjust your play accordingly. Some hands all you care about is getting them dead as soon as possible and use your disruption to pave the way for that early kill before they can go off. In others you go for a grindy long-term fight in which you rip their hand to pieces with discard again and again while waiting for the necessary cards to show up in your hand slowly but surely with the help of your natural draw step. Omni-Tell is a three-card combo deck after all; they should need more time to recover than you do.

Instead of just making these few sentences into a full-fledged article, I thought I’d do something a little more interesting. I’ll take inspiration from two articles I wrote roughly a year ago—a detailed report of playing a match of Storm against Delver, putting my thoughts on paper as they appeared in my head while playing the match. A lot of you liked them quite a bit, so this seemed like a great opportunity to explore how this matchup should be played while again showing off what playing Storm actually looks like from the player’s point of view.

Well, enough introduction; let’s get to the action!

Entering The Ring

"In the red corner, weighing in at exactly 60 cards and playing 3.5 colors, Stooooooooooooorm!"

This is the list I’m currently running minus some sweet little sideboard tech I’d like to keep hidden until the Bazar of Moxen takes place the first weekend of November. I went back to Preordain because Top proved just a little too slow in the maindeck, have finally said goodbye to the maindeck Ad Nauseam because the variance is just too much against decks that can deal damage relatively quickly, and went from two Lim-Dul’s Vault to one plus one Grim Tutor. Drawing two of either is generally terrible, while drawing both is actually good, and each of them has its own strengths and weaknesses, meaning this way I at least have a chance to draw the right one for each kind of situation.

"And its opponent in the blue corner, the reigning champion, also weighing in at exactly 60 cards but only a single color, Omni-Teeeeeeeeell!"

Given that Brian Hood won the last StarCityGames.com Legacy Open with this list, it seems only fair to pick the "reigning champion" for this faceoff. Common variations include one fewer sol land, a couple of Gitaxian Probes, and a Flusterstorm in the maindeck instead of the Intuitions. That’s pretty much it, though, so the list should be representative enough.

"Alright, shake hands. I want a clean, fair fi—oh screw it! These are crazy combo decks. Neither of them is ever going to fight remotely fair. Just ring the bell!"

Ding, Ding, Ding!

This is it. The last chance Legacy grinder. The final. The player who wins will have three byes tomorrow; the other will go home with nothing but a couple of packs to show for a day’s work and a frighteningly short night.

My opponent and I saw each other crush through opponents all day, and we’re well aware what the other is bringing to the table. It’s going to be a brutal battle, veering from blazingly fast to incredibly grindy. No quarter asked, and none given.

I get to the table. Pen. Paper. Dice. Deck. It’s all there. Time to get my game face on. I give him the Storm look; "Ready to get killed on turn 1?" my eyes say. We exchange few words, each of us concentrated to the utmost. I pick up my deck.

Round 1

Riffle. Pile. Riffle. Present.

We roll the dice; he gets to go first. On the draw then.

Shuffle. Cut. Hand it back.

"Have fun."

"You too."

He thinks for a while and then mulligans. I look at this beauty of a hand:

Duress Polluted Delta Dark Ritual Polluted Delta Island Brainstorm Infernal Tutor

This is an excellent hand. It has everything I want in this matchup—Duress to slow him down or clear the way, Dark Ritual and Infernal promising a reasonably fast kill, and Brainstorm to get rid of the third land weighing me down.

Perfect. "Keep."

He shuffles them up again and presents. Shuffle. Cut. Hand it back.

He counts out six and keeps them.

He plays Island, Pondercome on shuffle!—keeps them, and passes the turn.

I draw another Duress. Excellent. Duress him now; I don’t wanna die on turn 2, and that way I get to maximize my Brainstorm next turn.

Polluted Delta, fetch Underground Sea (19). Duress. It resolves, and I see:

Flooded Strand Island Brainstorm Show and tell Cunning Wish

Alright, he has no interaction and is missing just an Omniscience or Dream Halls plus blue card for the turn 3 kill but has no possibility to win on two. Brainstorm might blank my next Duress—he didn’t shuffle—and might also find a Force of Will.

"Take Brainstorm, go."

Arguably, my opponent might have wanted to keep Brainstorm up here instead of playing the Ponder to play around discard. Given his hand, especially the lack of countermagic, it seems right to maximize your mana usage and either find countermagic or hope a turn 3 win on the play is good enough. The biggest reason to already play the Ponder is that it both maximizes the cards seen and gives you the option of playing two cantrips on turn 2 if either Ponder or Brainstorm hit another one.

He frowns, draws his card, plays the Flooded Strand, and passes. So the third card was bad?

I untap and draw Lion’s Eye Diamond. Bingo!

I can Duress here and make ten Goblins if he has nothing I need to take over that Wish. Goblins are pretty terrible in this matchup, though, and Brainstorm should find something that lets me win next turn anyway.

Tap Sea, play Brainstorm. I draw:

Dark Ritual Lotus Petal Brainstorm

The stone-cold nuts. Excellent.

Put back Brainstorm and Island, crack Polluted Delta for another Underground Sea (18). "Duress."

I see Cunning Wish, Show and Tell, and a freshly drawn Dream Halls, taking the Show and Tell because I can. Time to go off.

I flip over my hand so that he can follow along or scoop at his leisure. Lotus Petal (storm 3), Dark Ritual (storm 4, BBB floating), Dark Ritual (storm 5 BBBBB), Lion’s Eye Diamond (storm 6, BBBBB), Infernal Tutor, "hold priority, sacrifice LED for red" (Storm 7, BBBRRR), find Past in Flames and cast it (Storm 8, BB), flashback both Dark Rituals (Storm 10, BBBBBB), flashback Infernal Tutor into Tendrils of Agony for 24 with zero floating. He scoops them up. Now that was nice and easy; let’s do that again.

Time to sideboard. Alright, he’ll probably cut the useless Pact of Negations and the Emrakul for his Leylines; he can’t really have much else, maybe a Flusterstorm or two.

Leyline is a problem. I definitely want my Xantid Swarms for that and at least one Chain of Vapor to actually get rid of it to Tendrils him. Probably two so I can make my discard live more often. He doesn’t deal damage, and passing the turn is terrible, so Empty the Warrens has to be turned into Ad Nauseam. I also want the Therapy for games where he doesn’t hit Leyline or it gets bounced too.

What to take out? Well, the Empty the Warrens for Ad Nauseam swap is obvious. I want to remain fast, so I can’t cut acceleration. Even Lotus Petal is important now with Ad Nauseam. Same thing with the tutors, though shaving one could be ok. Getting rid of the Swamp is usually fine in combo mirrors too. Other than that it’s Gitaxian Probes and Preordains. Probes make Therapy better, but that whole plan runs headfirst into Leyline. How many slots do I still need? Two Chain of Vapors, three Xantid Swarms, one Cabal Therapy—that’s six. If I get rid of the Swamp and one tutor, I need to cut four cantrips. I’ll go with two Probes and two Preordains for now; maybe he misses on Leyline after all.

The question remains which tutor to cut. Grim Tutor can win straight from hand, which is valuable, but it also is quite clunky. Lim-Dul’s Vault can find Xantid Swarm or Chain in addition to whatever I’m missing, which is nice, and I still have two Probes and four Brainstorms to make it truly busted. Hmmm, it really depends on if he hits Leyline. If he doesn’t, I’m probably tapping out for disruption and cantrips on turn 2, closing the best window to cast end of turn Vault. If he does, though, it’s the only card that can both answer Leyline and find the win at the same time.

Well, if he doesn’t have Leyline, I can probably slow him down enough to make LDV good anyway, and if he has Leyline, I want it to find whatever it is I’m missing to win through a hexproof opponent. Let’s cut the Grim Tutor.

Xantid Swarm is key during sideboarded games. Basically what you do is to prepare for two kinds of games: ones with Leyline and ones without. If they have Leyline, your plan is to bait counters with Chain of Vapor and Xantid Swarm to go off as soon as possible since you can’t stop them from winning.

On the other hand, if they don’t have Leyline—or your Chain of Vapor resolves—you usually want to use your discard as defensively as possible unless you can straight-up win right then and there. Because Swarm deals with their countermagic, you can fully concentrate on destroying Omni-Tell’s potential to go off with Duress and Therapy. If they don’t kill you, you will kill them at some point, and you’re better in a topdeck war than they are with a mostly empty hand simply because your acceleration will sit around untouched to win whenever it becomes possible.

Round 2

Riffle. Pile. Riffle. Present.

Unsurprisingly, my opponent wants to go first.

Shuffle and cut, hand it back.

He looks at his cards, thinks for a little while—sketchy hand with Leyline or an ok hand with no Leyline—and keeps.

I look at this seven:

Chain of Vapor Infernal Tutor Brainstorm Gitaxian Probe Lim-Dul's Vault Ponder Infernal Tutor

Hmmm, tempting. If I draw a land off my draw step or the Probe, I have two cantrips to find mana and a Chain to deal with possible Leylines or to interrupt his combo if he has to use Cunning Wish instead of the straight Enter the Infinite. How likely am I to draw a land? Let’s see. I have fourteen lands in 53 cards, 52 because the other Probe free cycles. That’s a little better than one in four to hit a land. So I don’t hit the land 3/4 * 3/4 = 9 times out of 16. A little more than half the time? Not good enough, especially as this hand could also brick off if I don’t find acceleration fast.

"Mulligan." I peek and obviously would have drawn Underground Sea and Lion’s Eye Diamond on my turn for the turn 3 Ad Nauseam if I hit another land with Ponder. Oh well, it happens.

Riffle. Pile. Riffle. Present.

When he hands it back, these are my six:

Lion's Eye Diamond Lotus Petal Xantid Swarm Cabal Ritual Dark Ritual Scalding Tarn

Hmm, having no business sucks. But this wins as soon as I hit a tutor and has both a Swarm and a way to cast it that leaves me with blue mana to play cantrips. Has to be better than five.

"Keep." He plops a Leyline into play. Well, at least I don’t have any discard spells.

His first turn is Island, go. Alright, I’m either dying pretty soon, or he overvalues Leyline if he kept a hand without cantrips.

I draw Duress for my turn. Obviously. Well, let’s see if he has the Force of Will as well as the Leyline.

Crack Scalding Tarn for Tropical Island (19) "Xantid Swarm." He lets it resolve. Nice, no Force. I hope I’m not dead.


He draws, plays an Ancient Tombuh oh—and just passes back. Still missing something.


I draw a Lotus Petal. Pointless.

"Attack with Swarm." He plays Cunning Wish for Intuition in response (18). Cunning Wish to get a tutor for the last piece, huh? I guess I have one more turn.


He untaps, plays a City of Traitors and passes back yet again. I draw a Badlands. Darn it, probably dead. I attack with Swarm; he Intuitions for Island in response. Ok, I’m dead.


He untaps, taps City of Traitors, plays the Island, casts Dream Halls, and plops Enter the Infinite and a blue card on the table. Yep, dead. I pack them in.

This is why I hate keeping hands without cantrips or a business spell. There is so much mana in the deck that you often take a couple of turns to topdeck into something useful. That’s fine if you’re savaging their hand but not if you let them just goldfish.

Having both Xantid Swarm and all the mana I could ever need means I need only a single card to take the game, so I think this keep was correct, especially when I was already on six cards. There are definitely days where I would mulligan that hand though.

Alright, that didn’t go as planned. Time to profit from being on the play.

Round 3

Riffle. Pile. Riffle. Present.

"I’ll go first." He laughs. Obvious choice.

Shuffle and cut, hand them back.

I fan out this seven:

Polluted Delta Scalding Tarn Brainstorm Duress Cabal Therapy Xantid Swarm Underground Sea

Oh man. Does he have a Leyline? I look at him while he’s contemplating his cards. He doesn’t give anything away.

Well, if he has Leyline, I have turn 1 Xantid and a Brainstorm to hopefully find something to do. If he doesn’t, I have to brick hardcore, or his hand has to be insane for me to lose the long game here. Let’s gamble.

"Keep." So does he.

I pick up my hand and play the Underground Sea. Yes! No Leyline!

Tap Sea, "Duress." It resolves, and I see a sick hand:

Omniscience Brainstorm Island Force of Will Brainstorm Preordain Polluted Delta

Oh crap. Let’s see. Brainstorm makes Cabal Therapy lackluster to say the least; I wish I had a Lotus Petal to fire it off now. Maybe I’m lucky and he Preordains? Nah, he’s going to hold it as Force fodder and might want to play around Therapy anyway after what happened game 1. Force of Will can stop Swarm, and if he decides to hit Brainstorm with it for whatever reason, I’m pretty much dead. At least he doesn’t have too many combo pieces and no sol land . . . Hmm, this doesn’t get me anywhere in a reasonable time frame. Let’s look at it differently.

Taking a cantrip accomplishes nothing; he still has an excellent hand with a combo piece, a Force, and two cantrips. So I take either Omniscience or Force of Will. If I take Force of Will and he uses Brainstorm as discard protection, there’s a chance he’ll just win before I can with my hand. If I take Omniscience, he needs to find all three pieces again but also gets to protect the Force with Brainstorm or counter my Swarm, which makes Forces he finds with his cantrips life in addition to his combo pieces. He might also randomly counter my Brainstorm and leave me stranded with a hand full of nothing. Alright, no idea if this is correct, but I’m taking the Force.

"Take Force of Will, go."

He draws and thinks for a moment before playing an Island and passing the turn.

I untap and draw Polluted Delta. Great, more useless cards. Time to Brainstorm into Swarm. Let’s hope he blows his Brainstorms and doesn’t find the sol land-fueled win so I get to Therapy him again. I might get him with the Swarm trigger too, and if worse comes to worst, I can use Swarm for the flashback too.

Tap Underground Sea. "Brainstorm." It resolves, and I draw:

Tendrils of Agony Brainstorm Lotus Petal

Well, at least there’s a Brainstorm here. Let’s get rid of the worst bricks, play a Swarm, and try again next turn.

I put back Tendrils of Agony and Polluted Delta, play Scalding Tarn, crack it for Tropical Island (19), and play Xantid Swarm. He stops me there and starts to think. Well, he’s clearly considering whether looking for Force of Will here is worth it. On one hand, I might just win next turn. On the other, there are just three Forces left in his deck. What are the odds he hits one here and then another one to make countering Swarm even relevant?

Well, if he Brainstorms now, he sees up to eight new cards by the end of next turn but just one new one on turn 3. If he ignores the Swarm, he sees up to seven cards next turn and another four on turn 3. Nine cards seen compared to eleven—pretty big. On the other hand, with Swarm in play he’s quite likely to simply never see a turn 4, devaluing the turn 3 Brainstorm. After all, he doesn’t know my hand.

I’d probably try to counter the Swarm to at least keep the threat of countermagic around. Sure, you half-waste a Brainstorm, but at least you get to use all of your mana and have Brainstorm plus Preordain next turn into the possible turn 3 win, while I still have to worry about countermagic. Not having Swarm in play makes Force of Will insane after all.

After a moment, he just nods the Swarm through. Seems he decided the odds of him finding double Force were too slim to gamble on. Let’s try not to die then, shall we? At least he can’t hold up the other Brainstorm anymore with the threat of Swarm looming.


He untaps, draws his card, and Brainstorms followed by playing and cracking the Polluted Delta (19). He then casts Preordain, shipping both cards—excellent—and the turn.

I draw a Cabal Ritual and attack with Swarm, while he only nods.

Tap Tropical Island, play Brainstorm:

Lotus Petal Ponder Cabal Ritual

Well, at least there’s another cantrip, and I now have two Rituals to win with. Time to decide on a plan. I obviously keep the Ponder and the fetch to get a fresh top of my library. I also keep at least one Cabal Ritual because I need the mana. That’s where it gets tricky though. I need to put back two from among the Cabal Therapy, one or both Lotus Petals, and the second Cabal Ritual. If I keep both Petals, I can cast Cabal Ritual after Ponder this turn . . . That’s only five mana—pointless. Ok, dumping both Petals. Therapy should hopefully buy me a turn. Not tricky at all actually.

I play Polluted Delta, crack it for Volcanic Island (18), and tap that to cast Ponder. I see Dark Ritual, Cabal Therapy, and Xantid Swarm. Hmm.

"How many cards do you have?" He shows five. Well, one is a Brainstorm, which I’d Therapy now. If he has the win in hand at that point, I can flashback with Swarm to stop him. If not, I can wait til next turn to cast another Therapy and flashback it with the other Swarm if necessary. That probably leaves both of us close to topdeck mode, with me having a Dark Ritual on top I still need to draw. If that Dark Ritual were a cantrip, this would be great since he’d need to topdeck all three pieces again and I get to dig. As is, I’m not sure how good that really is, but I’ll be looking for just one card, while he needs two or more. Alright, I just talked myself into it.

I order the cards as Cabal Therapy, Xantid Swarm, and Dark Ritual; draw the Therapy; and cast it, naming Brainstorm. He reveals:

Brainstorm Omniscience Cunning Wish Intuition Island

Brainstorm leaves. Ok, if he topdecks Show and Tell, I’m dead. On one hand, if I flashback now, he can Intuition for Force of Will next turn to stop the second Swarm. On the other hand, that leaves him pretty much on empty. I could also simply Therapy that first. Seems fine.

I sacrifice Xantid Swarm to flashback Cabal Therapy on Omniscienceonly thing that protects me from getting Show and Telled—and pass the turn.

He untaps, draws, and thinks for a moment before playing Preordain, bottoming one of the two and passing the turn.

I draw my Swarm and cast Therapy, which resolves. I name Intuition, hit, and see a hand of Cunning Wish and Show and Tell. Damn, Omniscience off the top kills me now. Do I sacrifice Swarm to Therapy again? Well, first things first.  

Tap Tropical Island, "Xantid Swarm." It resolves obviously.

Alright, do I Therapy here? Well, if I do, what do I take? Cunning Wish might be able to find a counter and can slow-turn into a combo piece thanks to Intuition, not to mention it wins with Omniscience out. Not so much with Dream Halls at the moment. If I take Show and Tell, he needs to find either mana to cast a Dream Halls—as well as blue cards or turns to turn Cunning Wish into Intuition—or another Show and Tell. Alright, clearly I take Show and Tell if anything. Taking the Show will buy me at least two turns since he needs to draw both Omniscience and another Show and Tell. It probably gets me significantly more given how bad Cunning Wish is as a win condition right now. Yeah, that seems solid; even if he hits countermagic, that means I have even more time.

"Flashback Therapy on Show and Tell, go."

He untaps, draws, plays a Polluted Delta, and says go. Ok, he might be able to Wish for Flusterstorm now.  

I untap, draw my Dark Ritual, and pass back. He Wishes for Intuition on my end step, untaps, draws, and passes back again. I draw Infernal Tutor. Niiiiice, but not nice enough. If he has drawn a blue card, he can now Intuition for Force of Will and basically Mind Twist me if I try to go off. If I don’t, he might Intuition and just kill me. I think I have to take the risk here; he would have to have hit Show and Tell or Omniscience last turn and draw the right combo piece off the top after a blind Intuition on my end step now to win, while all I need is a discard spell. Also, if he Intuitions and misses, he just dies if he doesn’t draw a counter.

"Go." He thinks for a while during my end step—alright, he hit either Show and Tell or Omniscience last turn and can go for it now but also knows he’d need to get lucky. The question is if he wants to play around discard here and/or around me just killing him if he misses. With Omniscience out, cantrip chains become quite insane too actually. Darn it, if only I’d known I’d hit the tutor straight away—before finally casting Intuition for Omniscience. Uh oh, hope he misses!

He untaps, draws, and casts Show and Tell. "I’ve got nothing. Am I dead?" He shakes his head, puts in Omniscience, and passes the turn. Phew!

I draw a Ponder. Ok, I think I need to go for it now if I can. He has drawn either land, Force of Will, or a redundant combo piece there. If I wait, every cantrip, Wish, Intuition, or Enter the Infinite will probably kill me. Let’s see what Ponder finds; maybe I can just find a discard spell and win safely. What land to use though? Sea is needed to combo, but I also need to empty my hand, which means green mana if I draw the last Swarm. Hmm, there’s just one left, and I need red for Past in Flames, which otherwise bricks me too. Seems better to keep Volcanic up.

Tap Tropical Island. "Ponder." It resolves:

Ponder Xantid Swarm Gitaxian Probe

Ok, Probe is great; no more wondering. I just hope that isn’t a Force in his hand. I can’t cast Swarm, but the other Ponder should at least find a land or any fast mana to get me there if the coast is clear, even though I might have to Ad Nauseam. If it isn’t, Ponder might also find me a way to deal with the Force. Sounds solid.

I put them back as Probe, Ponder, and Xantid Swarmand draw the Probe, casting it for life (16). He flips over a Dream Halls with a frown. Excellent. Come on Ponder; find me something I can play.

 I draw Ponder for Gitaxian Probe and tap Volcanic Island to cast it:

Xantid Swarm Island Ponder

Got there! Good Island.

I keep them, draw, and play Island followed by Dark Ritual (storm 4, BBB) and two Cabal Rituals (storm 6, BBBBBBBBB).

Ok, Infernal Tutor is storm seven, seven floating, and Island untapped. Eight minus four—perfect.

"Tap Island, ten mana floating. Infernal Tutor, storm is seven with eight mana floating. Get two more tutors into Tendrils for twenty?" Tutor chain for the win!

My opponent sighs and shrugs. "You got me," he says and packs them in.



Now, these were exactly the three games I played for this article—no editing out or playing extra games to be able to make a point. I guess I got pretty lucky to hit an excellent mix for what I wanted to talk about. Game 1 showed off Storm’s biggest advantage perfectly—it’s faster than Omni-Tell, and they really don’t have all that much to interact with you, especially in game 1, so a lot of the time you get to just take their counter and race them.

Game 2 illustrated how Storm loses. You either just don’t get there, like it happened here, while they have a Leyline to keep you from stopping them to buy time, or they randomly have one of their turn two or three kills with some form of protection and blow you out.

The third game is the kind I like best (from a gameplay perspective; obviously from the tournament player’s point of view I’d rather just kill them on turn 1 all the time)—the ones where the Storm deck actually takes the control role.

That game got quite dicey against my opponent’s excellent hand and the Show and Tell deck topdecked nearly perfectly to make me sweat for a turn, but that’s what happens if you play control without any countermagic. They go into topdeck mode, and if they draw exactly what they need, you lose.

Luckily, they need to topdeck a lot of different pieces after you go Mind Twist mode on them, so you’re generally able to either kill them or find more discard to keep pace with whatever it is they are topdecking.

One final note about my thought commentary: those are the things I actually thought about when playing the game, and I already realized one mistake, so there probably are others. Once Omniscience was in play, I considered Cunning Wish a card that would kill me, but with Emrakul likely hanging out in the sideboard and Intuition already Wished for, there’s actually nothing for them to kill me with, reducing my opponent’s outs by another two cards. Just thought I’d point that out.

Feel free to discuss different lines of play for both players in the comments—there’s nearly full information about the mono-blue player’s options thanks to all the discard—and to share any other insights you might have. I’ve never played a perfect game of Magic, and I’m sure there’s much to criticize in these as well.

That’s it for today; until next time, do whatever needs to be done!

Carsten Kotter