Defeating Gifts Storm

After SCG Syracuse, Modern players are on notice: have a plan to defeat Gifts Storm, or lose to it! Jadine Klomparens offers a guide to the essential cards, theirs and yours, ahead of SCG Richmond!

There are many potential storylines for the Modern metagame coming out of #SCGNY. Maybe you want to highlight the apparent downfall of Grixis Death’s Shadow, which, despite being the second-most-played deck on Day 2 of the competition, only managed to place a single copy into the entire Top 16. Maybe your eyes spied that Merfolk took third and your heart sung with joy. Or maybe what drew you was the Eldrazi Tron mirror that was the finals of the tournament.

No, the stories of these archetypes are all important and meaningful, but they haven’t drawn my attention in the aftermath of #SCGNY.

Let’s look at how U/R Gifts Storm did last weekend. Two copies made the Top 8. Respectable, but nothing to write home about. After all, Eldrazi Tron did that too. Looking past the Top 8, we find two more copies placing in ninth and eleventh. Altogether, that’s four copies in the Top 16. Now we’re getting somewhere.

Here’s the kicker…

No, you’re not reading that incorrectly. There were only four copies of U/R Gifts Storm total in Day 2. They all made the Top 16. But we can go further! If you cross-check with the standings, you will see that every U/R Gifts Storm player finished the Swiss with 36 points. They all went 12-3, a record good enough for Top 8. These are absolutely unheard-of numbers for an archetype to put up.

Sure, it’s only one event and a small sample size. Maybe Storm isn’t actually that good.

But then again, maybe it is. So let’s talk about what to do against it.

Their Cards

Archetypically speaking, U/R Gifts Storm is a pretty classic combo deck. The deck isn’t trying to stop its opponents from doing their thing.

Well, not directly. Putting twenty or so copies of Grapeshot on the stack is a pretty effective way of stopping opponents in their tracks.

Against combo decks, you have to kill them before they kill you. Generally, managing this involves disrupting what the combo deck is trying to do, as their kill will be faster than yours if left unchecked.

This is common wisdom, and I think most tournament-goers recognize the importance of having the ability to interact with U/R Gifts Storm if they aren’t faster than it. But the Storm deck is complicated and relatively new to the format in its current incarnation, and knowing how to best use these cards isn’t easy.

First, we have to understand their cards.

The printing of Baral, Chief of Compliance is what created this version of Storm. Previous versions of Modern Storm have revolved more around Pyromancer Ascension than the actual storm mechanic, despite the existence of Goblin Electromancer. Four copies of the Electromancer’s instant and sorcery cost reduction effect wasn’t quite enough to make a Storm deck like these current versions consistent enough to be good. Eight copies is a whole different ballgame.

Let me state this as bluntly as possible: you need to kill these creatures. U/R Gifts Storm untapping with a Goblin Electromancer or a Baral on the battlefield is a disaster for its opponent. The power of the Storm deck is that they can find ways to win without its creatures, but you probably can’t beat them if you don’t kill their creatures on sight.

For this reason, Fatal Push and Lightning Bolt are enjoying a new role as key anti-combo cards in the Storm matchup. Don’t fall into a trap of thinking that you don’t want removal against combo; make sure to leave your one-mana removal spells in your deck (with the possible exception of Path to Exile). Your two-mana removal spells too, for that matter. If you only get to draw one Storm hate card a game, you want it to be a removal spell. If you don’t believe this, take a look at Oliver Tomajko’s eleventh-place Storm list and think about what that one-of Apostle’s Blessing is doing.

In-game, if you are playing a deck that needs to interact, mulligan sevens that can’t kill a Baral. Once you get into the mid-game, start leaving up removal so that they can’t deploy a Goblin Electromancer and effectively use its cost reduction before you get a chance to kill it. The effect can be critical even after they have six lands on the battlefield, so don’t make the mistake of ever thinking that you have left the Baral, Chief of Compliance phase of the game.

Here’s the flashy stuff. These are the two cards that actually win the game for the U/R Gifts Storm deck. Don’t worry about them.

Despite being the cards that actually end the game, these aren’t the cards you want to focus on. You win more games against Storm by attacking the enablers than by thinking overmuch about the actual finishers. It’s an extreme example, but trying to sideboard into a couple of lifegain spells with a plan to get out of Grapeshot range isn’t going to work.

That’s not to say that there aren’t any edges to be gained from thinking about these spells. Storm pilots prefer to Grapeshot you. It’s quicker, it’s cleaner, and it doesn’t leave them vulnerable to a sweeper. Three of the Storm decks from #SCGNY had one Empty the Warrens the maindeck, with Caleb Scherer being the only pilot brave enough to leave all his copies in the sideboard. Empty the Warrens is strong when Storm is under disruptive pressure, generally post-sideboard, as it allows the deck to do something powerful from a lower base of resources than Grapeshot requires.

All of that is to say that if your deck’s gameplan is to disrupt Storm in any way, you should probably expect them to have more Empty the Warrens post-sideboard. It’s reasonable to sideboard into some Goblin token answers, as it’s difficult to disrupt the Storm deck to the point that they can’t put a last-ditch eight or so Goblin tokens on the battlefield. You can’t let yourself be cold to that. Dedicated sweepers aren’t great, but if they can double as Baral and Electromancer removal, that’s pretty good. Engineered Explosives is the best, but Anger of the Gods isn’t too bad.

As far as Grapeshot is concerned, you should have an idea in your head of the upper levels of their Grapeshot capabilities. The full twenty points is very hard for Storm to deal from a single Grapeshot, but the deck manages to chain them with Past in Flames or Remand very effectively. A single Grapeshot tends to max out around twelve or thirteen, with nine or ten being a more common number. Even from a very low base of resources, Storm can manage to Grapeshot for four or five. Use these numbers to make sure you don’t fetch-shock yourself into being dead.

And now we get to the card draw of the deck. Neither of these cards is exactly “card draw,” but that’s the role they fulfill. They enable the deck to have enough resources to hit the high storm counts it needs. Ideally, you don’t want them to be casting these spells.

Let’s talk a little about making Gifts Ungiven choices. I think a lot of players make a critical mistake here: they think it matters. They have this idea that the best possible Gifts Ungiven decision will win them the game, and the worst will lose it on the spot. U/R Gifts Storm is not a Gifts Ungiven deck that is trying to trick you with the Gifts cards it presents you with. The deck is redundant and powerful, and any Gifts Ungiven choice you make will leave it in a good spot. Ideally, you want to end the game before they get to use any of the cards.

Now, that’s not to say that some Gifts Ungiven decisions aren’t worse than others. Let’s look at a sample Gifts pile.

In playing against U/R Gifts Storm, I think the above set of cards is the one I am most frequently presented by my opponents after a Gifts resolves. To figure out how to handle these decisions, you need to think about the two resources Storm requires: cards and mana. You need to decide which of these two resources is the problem with their hand and act accordingly.

The most effective mana-denial decision is to put Pyretic Ritual and Desperate Ritual in the graveyard, and the most effective card-denial decision is to put Manamorphose and Past in Flames in the graveyard. If a second cast of Past in Flames is unlikely to matter, Manamorphose and Desperate Ritual might be the bins.

The cards they present to you may differ, but that idea of evaluating denying mana versus denying cards is how you want to make those decisions. Note that if mana is really not a problem, they can always Past in Flames back the Gifts Ungiven they just resolved, so any card denial you manage is only a temporary measure.

Your Cards

All right, enough about their cards. That’s the basics of what they are doing. We didn’t talk about the rituals or the cantrips, but there’s not a lot you can do to limit the effectiveness of those cards (aside from playing Thalia, Guardian of Thraben). The only other type of card that should be on your radar is their interaction, which is exceptionally light Game 1. Indeed, most lists play only Remand to interact with their opponent. Be aware that Baral, Chief of Compliance leaving Remand up is a very common turn 3 play, and think how you can avoid getting beaten by a Remand in key spots.

Now it’s time to talk about the cards we might use to beat Storm.

The goal against Storm is to keep their card count low. Often, which cards they have matters a lot less than how many cards they have. Punching a hole in their holdings with your discard is great when possible, of course, but often not quite doable. Still, looking at a hand of a bunch of cantrips with your Thoughtseize isn’t ideal. To that end, I recommend not casting discard on your turn 1 against Storm unless you don’t have removal for a creature. You want to cast discard early and often, but you can afford to give them a single turn to cash in a cantrip before you start.

As for what cards you should select to discard, it’s all about what they have. Grapeshot is rarely the right pick, as they are unlikely to be able to kill you with it without a Past in Flames anyway. Empty the Warrens, on the other hand, might quite often be the pick, as a mini-Empty is often quite good against Thoughtseize decks. Generally discard decks are trying to beat Storm by denying them cards, not mana, so your Thoughtseizes will often go after Gifts Ungiven and rarely Desperate Ritual. Ideally, you have removal for their Goblin Electromancers and Barals and don’t have to use discard on them. I would not keep a no-removal seven that has a Thoughtseize with the idea that I can just Thoughtseize the creature. Even if the nightmare of them having two creatures doesn’t come to pass, it’s just not an effective way to line up my cards against theirs.

Graveyard hate is very effective against Past in Flames, and worth it for that reason even without affecting anything in the rest of the deck. For the most part, you can sit with one of these cards on the battlefield for most of the game and wait for them to cast a Past in Flames before going to exile their graveyard, but if the Past in Flames is in the graveyard already, you may want to preemptively go for it. Be aware of the possibility of them flashing back Past in Flames, letting you exile their graveyard, and then refilling their graveyard with a couple of Rituals from their hand with Past in Flames still on the stack. This is a late-game line, but one that does come up.

Surgical Extraction is very good against Storm, and a lot of its strength is how flexible it is. That same flexibility, however, makes it very hard to play correctly. Cutting a Ritual out of their deck can certainly make life harder for them, but it’s hardly an insurmountable problem. If you manage to Surgical away both Grapeshot and Empty the Warrens, they probably can’t find a win, sure, but only getting one isn’t enough.

In reality, we want Surgical Extraction to fight Past in Flames. Ideally, we just get to Surgical the Past in Flames and we can stop worrying about that avenue to their victory. This only happens if we discard Past in Flames or they Gifts for it at instant speed. But what about when they cast Past in Flames with a medium-sized graveyard while we have a Surgical in hand?

Obviously, we want to deny them something. If they don’t have much of a hand and their graveyard won’t allow them to rebuild, it’s often Manamorphose. The Rituals all add red, so losing the ability to convert back to blue mana can stop them from being able to find a payoff. The Rituals are probably the cards you want to take the next most often in this scenario, followed by Gifts Ungiven. If you can beat Empty the Warrens tokens, taking the Grapeshots is fine too.

Last thing on Surgical Extraction: what do you do when you Thoughtseize them and see two copies of a card while you have a Surgical Extraction in hand? Don’t get too tempted to take one and then extract the other; that’s just turning your Surgical into a Thoughtseize, and not even one that takes the best card in their hand. It’s generally best to Thoughtseize as normal and remember that duplicate card info for later. If the duplicate happens to be the best card in their hand, then by all means, have at it.

There’s a long list of permanents that make life very hard for Storm. Whether it’s by making them discard a card every turn or stopping them from casting multiple spells, there are many permanents you can cast that will virtually stop the Storm deck from functioning.

The thing to keep in mind with these cards is that “virtually not functioning” and “actually not functioning” are very different things. Storm players know these cards exist, and they play answers. If you are biding your time behind an Eidolon of Rhetoric, you can expect to lose if you haven’t ended things before they find an Echoing Truth. Don’t let these cards fool you into thinking you can take your time.