Grand Prix Washington DC Postmortem

Two-time Grand Prix finalist Ari Lax talks about The Epic Storm list he played at #GPDC and the lessons he’s going to put to good use this weekend at SCG Legacy Open: Providence.

I played The Epic Storm at the Grand Prix.

I had real, logical reasons.

I felt like the best way to handle True-Name Nemesis was to simply ignore it and combo. I don’t think I was wrong on that end. I debated Elves but was pretty sure the True-Name decks would be loaded up on sweepers to answer the 3/1 Progenitus in mirrors. That left Show and Tell and Storm, and of the two there was one I was clearly more comfortable with. I also assumed that there would be a significant amount of Show and Tell hate given the deck’s recent success.

Within the Storm category, I chose The Epic Storm over Ad Nauseam Tendrils for two reasons.

The first was the Show and Tell matchup. Being able to always get in under their Griselbrand is huge, and TES is about a full turn faster than ANT and Show and Tell. You also have the most reliable Xantid Swarm, which is the easiest way to shut off their game plan.

The second was my experience against RUG Delver, specifically Stifle. My issue was never Stifle as a counter I had to fight through to storm out. TES would often catch Delver in a position they couldn’t cast it, whether due to tapping out or due to a Silence resolved at any point before or after an Ad Nauseam. ANT had similar lines involving Cabal Therapy and Past in Flames that negated RUG’s threat of countering a lethal Tendrils of Agony.

The issue I had with Stifle was my lands.

Every time my land was Stifled, it was miserable. I needed my mana to maneuver through their Dazes and Spell Pierces. Stifle denied that access even if I tried to play around Wasteland.

TES has three fetch lands. ANT has nine. One of these decks is significantly less susceptible to this problem.

For those who keep up on this, this is basically Bryant Cook latest and greatest. I trust that he has put significantly more work into this deck than I have, and my experience suggested most of his decisions were correct.

Some of the newer choices:

The Main

0 Tendrils of Agony, 1 Empty the Warrens

I was very resistant to this change earlier mostly because of how I felt it would affect my normal lines of play. I was very used to just having the Tendrils there to get, and without it I felt I would have to do significantly more work to win.

I then played some games with Empty the Warrens. It actually makes things much easier. You are much less obligated to continue playing Magic against a lot of things. Most notable is a Delver opponent without mana up but with potential cantrips back to set up later turns. The jump from six to seven mana for a quick win off Infernal Tutor is also pretty big for playing around early Dazes or Duressing a Force of Will. Even in the matchups where Empty the Warrens is worse, when you are full comboing you will usually find a Burning Wish or at least a Silence to Time Walk their one turn to handle the Goblins.

2 Duress, 1 Cabal Therapy, 0 Thoughtseize

I’m not sure whether the 4/3 split on Silence / discard is better than the reverse, but I trusted Bryant on that. What I did not trust him on was Thoughtseize. This deck Ad Nauseams a lot of games and has to race Insectile Aberrations with Goblins a lot of the rest. Two life is a big deal when Gitaxian Probe is also involved. Even if you can’t snipe a Thalia with a Duress, you can still take the Force of Wills that matter and just beat Death and Taxes in other ways.

As for two Duresses over two Cabal Therapys, I’m just stupid and lazy at times and didn’t want to have to determine which card I wanted to name against Delver. Spell Pierce? Daze? Flusterstorm? Force of Will? Who cares, take whichever one you actually have. That said, Cabal Therapy is really nice with Empty the Warrens, so keep that incentive in mind.

The Mana

I almost cut a City of Brass for a fourth fetch land. I then decided I didn’t plan on needing to play long Brainstorm games and didn’t want to get Stifled as per above.

The Board

3 Xantid Swarm, 1 Tropical Island

Xantid Swarm is almost strictly for the Show and Tell matchups where they have no way to interact with it once it resolves. The Tropical Island ensures you have the maximum possible ways to cast the card off a land, adding another four sources. I was boarding out the second Underground Sea to keep the mana count the same in these cases, but that could be wrong.

Swarm is also reasonable against any deck playing only Swords to Plowshares or other pure blank removal they will likely board out. Same logic applies: if it can’t die, it makes the game real easy. If you see Swords to Plowshares post-board or get them with it game 2 and proceed to game 3, consider switching it up. Or just pump fake and hope they reboard. The exception here is Counterbalance, where Swarm is unplayable since you have to keep your deck fast and use your hate slots to battle permanents. Miracles also tends to leave in Terminus to answer Empty the Warrens, so they will have removal anyway.

Against Lightning Bolts, specifically Delver decks, do not board in Swarm. They will leave them in anyway to speed up a clock. No need to trade a card for something non-interactive.

2 Chain of Vapor

Still the best bounce spell. If you ever are unsure, you can board it in and use it as a storm engine if there isn’t a target. There need to be way more Chalice of the Voids to change this slot, especially as Wipe Away for a Mother of Runes protected Thalia is basically uncastable at three mana.

1 Cabal Therapy

Bryant had a Thoughtseize here as well. You want one discard spell to Wish for, but I cut the other because I couldn’t think of a scenario where I wanted to board it in and the matchup was slow enough to warrant it. I was wrong; you definitely want two of this effect.

That said, they have to be Thoughtseize and/or Cabal Therapy. You need to be able to shift your disruption against Death and Taxes or aggro decks to handle hate bears and need these slots to handle potential Mindbreak Traps or Force of Wills.

1 Ill-Gotten Gains, 1 Past in Flames

I always Wished for Ill-Gotten Gains in the past, but Bryant had the Past in Flames. I made the decision of both, and it was probably a wasted slot. I never wanted either. The swap to Empty the Warrens in the main means that more games end before you reach the point of needing one of these engines to storm off. I did enjoy the benefit of boarding in Past in Flames versus Delver as a good engine against counters, but you may be able to do that regardless since Ill-Gotten Gains is not especially good there.

1 Diminishing Returns

The odds of winning with this card in practice appear to be inversely proportional to the actual calculated odds. No mana floating, no land drop versus a Force of Will deck? Lifetime a favorite to win. Three mana floating, opponent Xantid Swarmed, land drop still up for grabs? My new seven versus Show and Tell was disruption full of Infernal Tutors.

But as the kids used to say, no gamble, no future.


I went 3-3 with the deck. I felt extremely helpless in the games I lost, but I faced a much higher level of hate than I expected.

I won most games against one hard counter. I won most games against one hard counter and a soft counter. I won half the games against two counters. Unfortunately, the latter was fairly common. Even my Tin Fins opponent had multiple Mindbreak Traps.

What can I take away from what I saw?

Lesson 1: Legacy Moves Much Slower Than I Expected

To be fair, I should know this one. At Grand Prix Providence with Mental Misstep, I was crushing people with Storm when I instead should not have won a game.

I’ve skipped a lot of Legacy events this year because they weren’t Grand Prix, and as a result my expectations were flawed. I played Northeast local events, which have their own inbred peculiarities, and tested with other people who also had 100% access to any card in the format.

I underestimated how much people are stifled by what they own and what they know. More specifically, I overestimated the constraints on the blue players.

Part of this is a coverage bias. There are a large number of top players who are biased towards blue decks in Legacy, and those players get a lot of feature matches. As I mentioned, those are also top players. They put the work in and get a lot out of it. If Stoneforge Mystic plus True-Name Nemesis invalidates all the other fair decks, they will know it.

In the end, we saw True-Name Nemesis plus Stoneforge Mystic triumph over all the other fair strategies in a fairly convincing manner. But this was in the hands of top pros. I expected too much out of my opponents. Not enough people tested with True-Name Nemesis and not enough people tested how little their post-board answers actually did to manage it, and as a result I was a level too deep.

Lesson 2: The Secret Issue With Storm

Storm is regularly referred to as one of the most skill-intensive decks to play in Legacy, but it’s often also one of the most skill-intensive decks to play against. Casting a Thoughtseize often requires your opponent to virtually play your hand, especially when any cantrip is involved. Same thing applies to Daze and Spell Pierce.

The real issue with Storm is that given enough interaction there is a subset of games against Storm that are impossible for the non-combo player to lose.

Probe you and see Force of Will, Flusterstorm, Spell Pierce, Daze, and Brainstorm with Delver in play. Guess I’m dead. That isn’t the greatest example since Delver sometimes just does that to everyone, but it’s one demonstration. Two Stifles, two Wastelands, and Force of Will. Two Mindbreak Traps, Silence, and a turn 2 kill.

Storm could also easily beat a lot of these hands, but it’s always obvious to your opponents what cards are good in a given game state. With other decks, your opponents have to make constant judgments about what cards are and aren’t valuable in their hand and in yours. With Storm, it’s always clear another counterspell helps.

The fair decks can suffer from this issue against combo, but part of the problem is the speed that these scenarios are assembled in. When the fair decks assemble these hands against combo, they have the advantage of having the time to cantrip into them. Maybe only one or two shots, but they have time. Most of the nut draws from combo are just there. They are three or four cards shallower to find a similar quality assembly of cards.

Basically, while a combo deck’s average hands can be played through a fair deck’s average draws, the fair decks have access more potential nut draws.

It wasn’t terrible to play a deck I felt was good against the top percentage of the field, but in the future it would be better if my deck provided me with a bit larger edge against worse players drawing better than I do.

Lesson 3: My Range Is Too Narrow

I definitely tripped some people up with Death and Taxes at Legacy Champs.

I did not trip people up with Storm.

To be fair, not all of them pegged me on it. They just all viewed it as an A or B decision. Their deck can’t beat Storm? Better find a good hand versus Taxes. Their deck can’t beat Taxes? Double Force of Will it is!

From testing for this event, I know I have the skill set to operate with almost anything in the format. Some of the intricacies of Brainstorm out of Shardless BUG were a little non-intuitive, but I felt the same sort of flow while playing RUG as I did Storm.

Even with some rust, I’ve played a lot of Legacy. In fact, most of my perceived decay in the format over the last year is likely because I’ve played with no good Storm analogues in other formats. My plays aren’t 100% correct, but I’m very good at sculpting game plans and understanding the choke points of the format.

I think the reason I’ve continued to play Storm is in large part because I started on it in the format. The precision that ANT required made it so that I had to know all the little tricks. Most other decks are way more forgiving, and I fail to account for this. I may have misused a Flickerwisp trick or missed a damage with Death and Taxes, but I still won. I might only be at 80-85% proficiency with a Stoneblade deck, but that last percentage is not a big deal.

Once I accept this, I will start winning more with more decks. When I do decide to play Storm, it will be because it is 100% the best deck, and I won’t have to face extra hate because my reputation colors mulligan decisions.

This is probably my biggest takeaway. As I mentioned above, I have access to everything for almost any event. I should play more like I do.

For events that matter less, I might start getting wild. Not necessarily in my deck options, but in my choice. I don’t want to rule out playing Storm, but I don’t want to be biased playing it.

Die rolls? Coin flips? Either one sounds good.

Besides, even if I don’t get to play Diminishing Returns, I get all the enjoyment of it.

One time dealer, let’s hit something spicy for Providence this weekend.