Ideas Unbound – The Process Of Actually Killing Someone On Turn One

Monday, November 15th – This is part two of Max McCall’s extensive Tendrils primer. Beat Survival decks with turn 2 kills, and take home that StarCityGames.com Legacy Open trophy!

Underground Sea, Dark Ritual, Dark Ritual, Ad Nauseam, reveal Lotus Petal, Chrome Mox, Lion’s Eye Diamond, Infernal Tutor, Rite of Flame, Brainstorm, Lotus Petal. Stop. Lotus Petal, Rite of Flame, Chrome Mox, imprint Brainstorm, Lion’s Eye Diamond, Lotus Petal, Infernal Tutor, sacrifice the Diamond in response for black mana, get Tendrils of Agony with your Tutor, bang.

Badlands, Dark Ritual, Lotus Petal, Lion’s Eye Diamond, Lion’s Eye Diamond, Infernal Tutor, in response sacrifice one Diamond for red and the other for black, go get Burning Wish, cast Burning Wish, get Ill-Gotten Gains, return Dark Ritual, Lion’s Eye Diamond, and Infernal Tutor, cast Dark Ritual, cast Lion’s Eye Diamond, cast Infernal Tutor, sacrifice Diamond in response for black, get Tendrils of Agony, bang.

Volcanic Island, Rite of Flame, Rite of Flame, Lotus Petal, Dark Ritual, Burning Wish, Empty the Warrens. This isn’t actually a turn 1 kill, but it’s probably good enough.

See you next week, folks!

What, not enough?

Tendrils is one of the best-positioned decks in Legacy right now. Tendrils’ worst matchup is Counterbalance, but all of the Counterbalance decks are getting stomped by all of the Survival of the Fittest decks running amok. As it happens, Tendrils stomps those Survival decks right back, so it’s a good time to be playing lots of spells in one turn. This is part two of two of my Tendrils primer; this article details matchup tactics and strategies.
Part one of the article, found

details how the decklist came to be.

Again, Brandon Adams, Bryant Cook, and Ari Lax, as well as everyone else on

was very helpful in providing comments leading up to this article.

General tips and tricks:

  • While it’s better to have either mana floating or a land drop when you cast Ad Nauseam, it’s difficult to quantify how much damage you can expect to take from Ad Nauseam before you have enough mana and storm for a lethal Tendrils. The damage you take is a function of how much mana you have floating, how many zero-cost mana sources remain in your deck, how much storm you need, and what spells you’ve played in the game. In general, I would reasonably expect to take between eight and twelve damage from Ad Nauseam before having lethal mana and storm.

  • A full Ill-Gotten Gains loop requires
    twelve mana total.

    Two for Burning Wish, four for Ill-Gotten Gains, two for Infernal Tutor or Burning Wish, and four for Tendrils of Agony. You need seven mana to start a loop if you’re recurring Dark Ritual and Lion’s Eye Diamond for mana, but you need eight for Rite of Flame plus Diamond or two Diamonds. You must also have Infernal Tutor, a second Burning Wish, or a Tendrils of Agony in your hand or graveyard to complete the loop.

  • Try not to trade Duress for Daze or Spell Pierce against decks with Force of Will. You’ll eventually have enough mana to beat multiple Pierces, but you need to stick Duress to get through Force.

  • Avoid keeping hands that are all mana and no business. Keeping a bunch of mana with a Brainstorm or a Ponder is fine, but you need to have some velocity that will enable you to find a business spell. You don’t just want to be relying on two or three draw steps to bail you out.

  • You can increase your storm count for free if you have black mana, Infernal Tutor, and Dark Ritual. Infernal Tutor for a second Dark Ritual; the second Dark Ritual recoup the costs of the Tutor.

  • If you have a truly excessive amount of mana and storm along with Infernal Tutor, it may not be necessary to risk casting Ad Nauseam. You may be able to Infernal Tutor for additional copies of Infernal Tutor to increase your storm before you go get a lethal Tendrils. You can also Infernal Tutor for Burning Wish for Ill-Gotten Gains and kill with the IGG loop.

  • Don’t feel obligated to cast Ad Nauseam in every game — it exposes you to a nonzero amount of risk. Unless your opponent has a ton of burn or can disrupt you at instant speed, an Ill-Gotten Gains loop or even a tutor chain ending in Tendrils of Agony is preferable.

  • If your hand contains a single land and a Brainstorm and you need to dig for something specific, consider whether or not you can reasonably go off on turn 2 if you hit your out. It may be worth waiting a turn to draw an extra card instead of taking the risk of your Brainstorm missing.

  • Don’t just keep going for no reason on your Ad Nauseams. Once you have your opponent dead, just go ahead and kill them. If you can afford to find a Duress or something to beat a Stifle, go for it, but don’t just automatically go down to four and get Fireblasted out of the game.

  • You usually want to go for Empty the Warrens on turn 1 or turn 2. Against control decks, it’s ideal to have a Duress to protect from Engineered Explosives, but few aggro decks will have any sweepers. Empty for ten on turn 1 on the play is usually good enough, but once your opponent plays a creature and looks like he might play more, you’ll want to be casting Empty for twelve or even fourteen Goblins.

  • It’s rare that you actively want Diminishing Returns to be your game plan, but it’s also important to recognize the times to use it. Essentially, you’ll only want to cast Returns when you have Burning Wish and a boatload of mana, but can’t kill with an Ill-Gotten Gains loop. You’d like to have U and B floating after Returns resolves so that you can cast any cantrips and start a Ritual chain, but sometimes you’re in dire straits and have to cast it floating nothing. If you have the option, avoid playing a land prior to Returns; you may need to get hellbent for Infernal post-Returns and don’t want lands stuck in your hand.

  • Assuming you haven’t played a land, Brainstorm will usually replace itself with at least one mana on the turn you’re going off. Particularly when you’re setting up a big Empty the Warrens on turn 2, you’ll usually want to Brainstorm if you have something like a land and a Lotus Petal or Chrome Mox for mana.

  • You don’t necessarily need Lion’s Eye Diamond to get hellbent for Infernal Tutor, but if you’re getting hellbent manually, it’s important to recognize when you’ll need to Brainstorm away excess lands or play down Xantid Swarms, which you won’t easily be able to get out of your hand.

  • When you’re resolving Ad Nauseam, you might flip Tendrils of Agony. That might seem like a problem, but it’s not the end of the world. It’s not at all out of the question to cast a Tendrils for fourteen or so and set up for a Grapeshot (or whatever) kill next turn. You can even go off with Ad Nauseam again after a short Tendrils.

  • When fighting against Daze, colored mana is typically at a premium. If your first ritual is hit by a taxing counter, it can be difficult to pay extra mana while still having enough colored sources for future rituals or Diminishing Returns. An excellent way to sidestep this problem is to lead with Rite of Flame and then cast Dark Ritual in response to Daze or Spell Pierce, using mana from the Ritual to pay for Rite.

  • Don’t let yourself get blown out by someone blowing up your Lion’s Eye Diamond before you can use it for mana. Cast Diamond last. When it resolves, immediately cast your Wish or Tutor, retain priority, and sacrifice the Diamond for mana before your opponent can nuke it out from under you.

  • Beating Wasteland is an interesting exercise. In an ideal world, you’d always draw two fetchlands and a Lotus Petal so that you could fetch out an Island and cantrip on turn 1, then use your other fetchland and your Lotus Petal for black and red mana and kill your opponent on turn 2.

  • But things don’t always go your way. The trick to fighting Wasteland is fetching such that you have enough mana to cast your setup spells while ensuring access to whatever colors you’ll need when going off. If you have Scalding Tarn and Tropical Island for mana, you can fetch the Island and cantrip, but now you need to find two more lands for when you’re going off. You’re usually better off exposing Tropical Island so that you’ll only need to find one more land if they Waste it.

  • It’s also important to recognize the times where you can’t beat a Wasteland and need to hope your opponent doesn’t have it. This most frequently comes up when you have two Scalding Tarns, Rite of Flame, Dark Ritual, and a cantrip that you need to cast.

  • It’s probably worth pointing out that Tendrils has a high enough turn 2 kill percentage that if you assume that your deck loses game 1 to Tendrils, and your plan is boarding in a bunch of hate-bears, you might not get a second turn in game 3. I think Mindbreak Trap is pretty underrated for exactly this reason.

  • If your blue opponents keep seven cards but miss their third land drop without a Counterbalance or something to show for it, they probably kept a hand with at least one Force of Will; play accordingly.

  • If you’re playing against a blue deck and you’re not sure whether or not you can move in, figure out if your situation is likely to improve as the game progresses. If you’re in a situation where you have Spell Pierce beaten but not Force of Will, you can likely only improve by drawing Duress, Burning Wish, Xantid Swarm, or a cantrip to try and dig for one of the above. Meanwhile, your opponent is drawing more cards, maybe more counterspells, and maybe he doesn’t have anything right now! Go ahead and look him up.

I give specific sideboarding plans below, but there are a few rules of thumb you can follow. If your opponent isn’t a Wasteland deck, you can safely cut a mana source. You can board out two Ponders without significantly impacting your chance to draw action. Theoretically, you can board out an Infernal Tutor for use as a Wish target, but I’ve found that Wish for Infernal for anything costs about a million mana and isn’t worth the effort, particularly since Infernal is so powerful in the maindeck.



The matchup against Zoo is a total race but with a slight twist in that the closer Zoo comes to winning the race, the less powerful your Ad Nauseams become. Zoo struggles to goldfish a kill before turn 4, but it’s certainly capable of dealing twelve or more damage by turn 3, especially on the play. Therefore, if your hand contains two copies of Burning Wish or a Wish and a Tutor, you’ll probably want to set up an Ill-Gotten Gains kill and not risk losing to Ad Nauseam.

Unless Zoo has Wild Nacatl on turn 1, they probably won’t be able to deal enough damage to threaten you unless your hand is a turn 3 kill on the draw. Some Zoo players might try to keep all burn spells to blunt Ad Nauseam, so if their turn 1 is Chain Lightning to your dome, you’ll probably want to set up Ill-Gotten Gains. Block with Xantid Swarm as soon as possible. Don’t forget that four might not be a safe life total; Fireblast is a card, even if it’s been on a downswing lately.

-4 Xantid Swarm -1 Tropical Island -1 Duress +4 Thoughtseize +2 Chain of Vapor

After sideboarding, most Zoo decks will have some combination of hate-bears (Ethersworn Canonist and Gaddock Teeg) and Mindbreak Trap. Thoughtseize and Duress fight Mindbreak Trap, and Thoughtseize and Chain of Vapor (and Burning Wish for Grapeshot) fight the hate-bears. Xantid Swarm won’t fight Mindbreak Trap if your opponent has Bolt/Chain Lightning/Grim Lavamancer/anything, so it comes out. Because Zoo doesn’t attack your mana, boarding out a mana source is safe.


Goblins isn’t nearly as fast as Zoo is. The nut Goblin Lackey draw with Siege-Gang Commander and Goblin Piledriver can kill on turn 3, but Goblins’ goldfish is more consistently in the realm of turn 4 or 5. More importantly, Goblins doesn’t deal a whole lot of damage in the early turns, particularly without Goblin Piledriver. You’ll usually be at a fairly safe life total for Ad Nauseam against Goblins.

However, Goblins does have Wasteland and Rishadan Port to disrupt your mana. This means you’ll have to be more careful when you’re setting up early turns. You’ll want to play your lands in an order such that if you’re Ported on turn 2 or 3, you’ll still have enough colored mana for all of your rituals. Usually, this means fetching an Island and cantripping, then playing a fetchland and passing, then letting your opponent Port your Island on turn 3 before playing a third land and killing them.

-4 Xantid Swarm -1 Duress -1 Ponder +4 Thoughtseize +2 Chain of Vapor

Goblins typically has either Cabal Therapy or Mindbreak Trap as their combo hate card, which you can combat with Thoughtseize. Thoughtseize is also just good value against Goblins; taking their Lackey or Piledriver slows them considerably. You also occasionally run into Pyrostatic Pillar and Chalice of the Void. You can fight Pillar with Duress, Thoughtseize, and Chain of Vapor, but Chain really just comes in to hedge against Chalice.

Beating Cabal Therapy is usually pretty trivial and involves using your cantrips to hide your business spells on top of your deck. You can also hide Lion’s Eye Diamond from discard by, you know, playing it. It’s typically a good idea to mainphase your Brainstorms and assume that your opponent will Therapy you on his next turn in case you hit any Diamonds or Petals you want to play.

Survival of the Fittest

Survival decks are sort of hard to classify these days. Everyone has Vengevine, obviously, but some people have it in a G/W aggressive shell, some people have the Necrotic Ooze/Phyrexian Devourer/Triskelion combo, and some people have the ‘traditional’ U/G version with Force of Will.

By and large, all versions of Survival are a pretty good matchup. The G/W version doesn’t have any permission, but might have a hate-bear to Survival up or a Loyal Retainers/Iona package. The Necrotic Ooze version can’t interact in game 1 outside of Thoughtseize; although they might have a maindeck hate-bear as well. The U/G versions only have Force of Will and some combination of Daze, Spell Pierce, and Stifle for disruption. Some versions have Wasteland, and some don’t, so you’ll typically want to assume that they’ve got Wastelands unless you can’t afford to play around them.

(Note: this list of Tendrils can’t beat an Iona on black without running extremely well with Diminishing Returns and Grapeshot. You can add Eye of Nowhere to the sideboard, probably over Reverent Silence, if you want to address this and are okay losing some percentage against Counterbalance. Five-color lists can play Oust, which I forgot to mention in my last article and was pointed out to me by Jona over on The Source.)

Essentially, all of the Survival decks are turn 4 combo decks. Tendrils’ bad draw kills on turn 3, so speed is rarely an issue. Against the non-blue versions, you’ll occasionally need to use Burning Wish to answer a hate-bear, but you won’t have to worry about Force of Will. Even against the versions with blue, they typically only have four Forces as hard counters, which have to defend against Duress, Xantid Swarm, and your business spells.

And, of course, if you simply Duress away their Survival, their hand probably becomes pretty bad.

G/W: -4 Xantid Swarm -2 Ponder +4 Thoughtseize +2 Chain of Vapor

Ooze: -4 Xantid Swarm -1 Tropical Island -1 Ponder +4 Thoughtseize +2 Chain of Vapor

U/G: -2 Ponder +2 Thoughtseize. If they showed you Intuition, it’s reasonably safe to assume that they don’t have Wasteland, and you can cut a Chrome Mox for the third Thoughtseize.

Basically, the versions without blue just get more hate-bears, and the blue version gets a couple extra taxing counters. Discard and Chain of Vapor beat the hate-bears, and Xantid Swarm mops up against the blue versions. Note that if you’re on the draw against the blue version, you’ll usually want to play Xantid Swarm on turn 2 so that you can play around Daze.

Merfolk and other Daze-based aggro decks

The trick to beating Merfolk and other Daze aggro decks is to recognize that, typically, they only have four Force of Wills to act as hard counters. All of their other counterspells can be answered just by paying a bunch of mana. It’s also important to recognize that most of their counterspells can’t actually counter Xantid Swarm, so if you stick a Swarm you should be home free.

I touched on this above, but because you can dodge Spell Pierce and Daze with mana, but you’ll eventually need to stick Duress or Swarm to beat Force of Will, avoid trading Duress or Swarm for Daze if you can afford to wait a turn. Also, bear in mind that you can get around Daze by casting Rite of Flame, waiting for them to Daze, and casting Dark Ritual in response. You usually can’t use Lion’s Eye Diamond to duck Daze, but you can if your opponent waits too long to pull the trigger, and you get to play Diamond, Infernal cracking Diamond.

-2 Ponder +2 Thoughtseize

These decks have Wasteland, so you’ll want to fetch accordingly. Particularly after board, the basic Swamp is pretty important for all of the Duresses.

The Daze decks will usually get crushed if they don’t show a Force of Will at some point, so they’re frequently forced to keep some pretty awkward hands. Don’t feel obligated to just shove if they don’t have any pressure; they probably don’t have any pressure because their hand is all counters.

(I also wrote a more in-depth analysis of this particular matchup with some different Tendrils lists a couple of months ago



The Counterbalance matchup is pretty tricky. There are two types of games in the Counterbalance matchup: games where your opponent plays Counterbalance on turn 2, and games where he does not.

In games where your opponent has Counterbalance but no Sensei’s Divining Top, he basically has a Chalice of the Void set to a mystery number. The easiest way to beat this is to cast a cantrip and see what the Counterbalance is on. If it’s not on zero, you’ll usually want to cast any Petals or Diamonds you’re holding; you’ll probably end up going off when the Counterbalance is on one or zero, so stick the mana now. If there’s no two, of course, you can Burning Wish for Reverent Silence and be in the clear. You can also just kill through a blind Counterbalance by casting all of your zero-cost mana sources on one turn, and then testing the Counterbalance on the next turn. If it isn’t at one, two, or five, you can cast a bunch of rituals into Infernal for Ad Nauseam. Sometimes your opponent is fortunate enough to have Counterbalance and Force of Will, but sometimes they’re not. Brainstorm can be a blowout, though.

If they play Top on one and Counterbalance on two, you’ll usually need to resolve Burning Wish and Reverent Silence before they get a chance to activate Top and lock you. Breaking free from the lock is pretty difficult but can be done if you manage to trick your opponent into flipping his Top.

In games where your opponent doesn’t have Counterbalance, he probably has a counterspell, maybe two. Treat him like a regular Force of Will deck; go find a Duress and then kill him. These games aren’t usually all that hard; although you do need to find Duress before your opponent finds Counterbalance and locks you out.

-2 Ponder -1 Chrome Mox +3 Thoughtseize

The extra Thoughtseizes go a long way towards fighting Counterbalance, although one stays in the board as a target for Burning Wish. Your opponent might bring in a few Spell Pierces or something, but it’s fairly rare to run into a Counterbalance player who also has a bunch of Tendrils-specific hate cards.

Don’t be afraid to be aggressive. Your opponent will generally only keep a seven-card hand if it has Force of Will, Spell Pierce, or Counterbalance. If you’re on the play and have a turn 2 kill with no Duress, decide if your hand can beat a Counterbalance. If it can, then go ahead and try to wait your opponent out, but if you can’t beat Counterbalance or Force of Will, go ahead and shove and hope your opponent kept a hand with Counterbalance.

The matchup also depends on the exact nature of your opponent’s build. A list like the one Tom Martell played at GP Columbus with Spell Snare, Vendilion Clique, and Counterspell is much scarier than a list that trimmed some counters to make room for a Natural Order package.


An apt metaphor for the Tendrils mirror might be two players swinging wildly at one another with sledgehammers. Eventually, someone connects. Usually, both players fire off discard as fast as possible and hope to peel in the midgame. I’d say that right now, you can assume that most opponents will have Orim’s Chant and Duress for disruption in game 1. You can fight Chant with Xantid Swarm, but even just getting Time Walked by Chant can be pretty brutal. As with fighting Cabal Therapy, you’ll want to take some steps to avoid getting hit by discard. Consider playing your Diamonds instead of risking losing them to a Duress. Mainphase Brainstorm.

Sometimes you can’t afford to play around Orim’s Chant. If your opponent didn’t mulligan and didn’t Duress you, and it’s turn 2 or 3, either he’s going to kill you when he untaps, or he has Orim’s Chant. Either way, you have to move in.

If your opponent has Chants: -4 Ponder -2 Chrome Mox +4 Thoughtseize +2 Dark Confidant

If your opponent doesn’t have Chants: -4 Xantid Swarm -2 Ponder +4 Thoughtseize +2 Dark Confidant

As you might imagine, when both players are slinging discard back and forth, the best card to have is Dark Confidant as a constant source of bombs and discard. Confidant also goes a long way towards mitigating the effects of Orim’s Chant; if you Duress with Confidant in play, you can leave Chant in their hand while taking their business spell, relying on Confidant to serve you up another piece of discard by the time you’re ready to actually kill the opponent.

Personally, I’m kind of amused by all of the attention being heaped on the Vengevine Survival decks. People are freaking out over a deck where, if everything goes right, they’ll get to attack for sixteen on turn 4. That’s, uh, neat, I guess. I’m going to be over here in the corner killing people on turn 2. I encourage you to do the same.

Max McCall
max dot mccall at gmail dot com