So Many Insane Plays – Meandeck Ad Nauseam

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Monday, October 13th – Ad Nauseam… a card that has polarized opinion in the Vintage community. Is it a powerful effect that promises much in the Vintage-with-Shards metagame, or is it an overpriced and over-hyped waste of resources. Stephen Menendian believes the card has potential, and Team Meandeck have created a deck to prove it…

Whenever a card with big risks but potentially big rewards is spoiled, the Vintage community splits into two camps: the advocates and the naysaysers. For Ad Nauseam, there were (and are) quite a few naysayers. The naysayers are generally right in the sense that flashy, unusual cards generally don’t pan out in Vintage. There is a graveyard of littered potential. For every Mind’s Desire there are a hundred Magus of the Jars, Null Profusions, and Street Wraiths… cards that promised to transform the format as we know it, but barely register a blip on the tournament scene.

I won’t say that years of experience has given me the insight to be able to definitively distinguish between hit and miss, but it has given me the wisdom to appreciate that there is a difference between being viable and being transformative, between potential and certainty. And although the line may be hard to spot, I can sniff out the difference.

Most of the Vintage community immediately recognized that Chrome Mox would be a supportive player in any Ad Nauseam deck. It was also quickly recognized the double synergy that Pact of Negation would provide (protecting combination decks that execute in a single turn like Ad Nauseam, and costing zero). Beyond that, design seemed to split in many directions.

I, too, followed many of the red herrings that my teammates and others followed — the siren’s call of conventional wisdom and common knowledge.

Here is a fundamental truth when it comes to design: Successful decks are not a result of ‘good cards.’ Rather, ‘good cards’ are a result of successful decks*. What I mean by that is that cards become “good” by virtue of their success. They become salient to the mind as a result of their presentation and showcase in some major deck.

The case I point is Merchant Scroll. Prior to 2005, Merchant Scroll saw very little play in Vintage. It was played as a singleton, if at all. In 2003 GroAtog, a few Scrolls were featured, but that was the most action that card had ever seen in Vintage. With the printing of Gifts Ungiven, I recognized a tactical partner to Gifts that was superior to the conventional wisdom Thirst For Knowledge. The reaction among most parts was that Merchant Scroll was garbage: it was a sorcery speed card that would interfere with the use of Mana Drain, and that the second and third Scrolls would be dead draws.

The original approach to building Gifts decks was to basically make them a modified Control Slaver deck. Thus, Shortbus Severance Belcher was a retrofitted Control Slaver deck using a couple of Gifts. Meandeck Gifts rejected that orthodoxy and set out to rebuild the deck from the ground up.

The early design approaches I saw with Ad Nauseam were retrofitted TPS or Grim Long lists.

Like Gifts, Ad Nauseam cannot and should not be built using a pre-existing shell, such as Grim Long shell or an Intuition Tendrils shell. A card like Ad Nauseam requires not a retrofitting into an old shell, as was done with Tezzeret, but a new shell designed for it with an open mind and clear goals. Trying to figure out how to build it using cards that are conventionally understood to be effective may miss the larger point, which is to fashion a deck from scratch that maximizes new synergies. Cards that are “good” in other decks may not be so here, and cards that are not good in other decks may be excellent here. In short, we are looking for this deck’s “Merchant Scroll.”

I may have found it.

I am proud to present Meandeck Ad Nauseam Combo:

In designing this deck, the requirements were clear. We needed to:

1) Consistently find and resolve Ad Nauseam through countermagic.

2) Win consistently after resolving Ad Nauseam.

3) Build a stable and reliable manabase.

4) Be resilient to hate cards and common disruptive strategies, like 2Sphere.

The major trick with any Ad Nauseam deck will be balancing the various requirements. The requirements for finding and protecting Ad Nauseam will be in tension with the second requirement and fourth requirement. Thus, running Force of Will impedes the deck’s ability to win off Ad Nauseam. While there are many challenges, I believe the central difficulty to building a successful Ad Nauseam deck is to balance the requirements for being able to resolve Ad Nauseam with the requirements for winning once an Ad Nauseam resolves. It requires a careful balancing act. I believe this deck achieves that balance, or makes substantial progress towards it.

Let me cue you into some of this deck’s features:

First of all, this deck’s converted mana cost is a hair above 1.25. That means that if you are starting with about 18 life, you should be able to draw about 10-11 cards before you get into the five-point danger zone, where you have to stop flipping.

Second, this deck is almost all four-ofs and one-ofs. That is a trademark visible in many of my decks, from Meandeck Gifts to GroAtog. I try to find the absolutely most important cards and then feature those in maximum amounts for consistency.

The central hinge of the deck is Chain of Vapor. Chain of Vapor serves multiple roles here, just as Merchant Scroll did for Meandeck Gifts. Like Scroll, Chain of Vapor provides resilience to cards like Ethersworn Canonist, Sphere of Resistance, Meddling Mage, and Pyrostatic Pillar. It is the deck’s backup if the offensive line of 8 Duress effects fails to stop a key threat from resolving. It also interacts with the 8 Duresses to take problems off the board forever.

However, Chain of Vapor is not simply a front-end card. It is a key storm builder so that your Ad Nauseam wins the game. Once you have drawn your ten or so cards off Ad Nauseam, Chain of Vapor will be one of the key cards that helps you generate needed storm. You will unload your surplus spells on Chrome Moxen, and then bounce the Moxen with Chain, sacrificing lands along the way if necessary. From there, you will have the mana and storm you need to play a lethal Tendrils.

One of the problems that some Ad Nauseam decks have is that they can’t find Tendrils with enough consistency. This deck recognizes that it is absolutely essential to find Tendrils immediately, and thus plays four of them.

This gives the deck the additional benefit of being able to chain two Tendrils together for a victory that doesn’t require Ad Nauseam. With Chain of Vapor, it is not terribly difficult to Tendrils for 4 or 5 and then play another for 5 or 6 in the same turn, with a couple of Rituals. Also, it means that Necropotence will be a powerful play that will always find a needed Tendrils.

The manabase is fairly solid, although a touch light. It runs four basic lands on top of four fetchlands. You should have little difficulty developing your manabase with Wastelands on the table.

I do not think that Pact of Negation is optimal for this deck. It is tempting to include because of its casting cost and its efficacy when trying to play an Ad Nauseam. These are red herrings. Although it protects Ad Nauseam, it is not very effective at stopping your opponent from advancing their game plan. Vintage games, contrary to the stereotype of the format, are not two decks goldfishing. Thoughtseize can stop an opponent from advancing a game plan, which is often part and parcel of protecting yourself. It can be used in the turns that precede Ad Nauseam, taking cards like Tinker or Sphere of Resistance, or an opponent’s Duress. Pact of Negation, likely, cannot. In terms of casting cost, Thoughtseize is a mere single Black mana, and does not really change the underlying math of how many cards Ad Nauseam will see. True, Thoughtseize costs 2 life, but the way I’ve built the deck, using the Chain engine, that life does not really matter. Although this is the strongest argument against Thoughtseize, testing has shown that Thoughtseize is far superior to Pact of Negation. In fact, it may be superior to Duress since it can take an early creature which could inflict some small amount of damage. There is a chance that you’ll use Pact of Negation to protect Ad Nauseam, but actually be just short of being able to win that turn while having a solid win the following turn. Pact of Negation makes it very difficult to win those games. Finally, Thoughtseize can protect cards like Necropotence, while Pact of Negation protecting Necropotence is terrible. On balance, it is clear that Thoughtseize is superior to Pact of Negation. There are reasons to run Pact of Negation over Thoughtseize, but none of those reasons hold up when weighed against reasons to run Thoughtseize instead.

The sideboard is designed to shore up weaknesses. First of all, I’ve dedicated 6 slots to the Ichorid matchup. You may decide on different ratios.

Second, I’ve put in additional lands and three Hurkyl’s Recalls for the Workshop match, knowing that Chalice on one is probably as devastating a play as you can face. The deck cannot win when multiple Spheres on are the table. I entertained the notion of using Teferi’s Realm, but I think that it is probably just better to rely on Hurkyl’s Recalls. You’ll have the stable manabase to play them. Then you can untap and just win the game. If you are truly worried about this matchup, you may want to run more, or even a Rebuild or two.

Finally, for mono-Blue or heavy countermagic matches, Xantid Swarm is here. Jeremy Seroogy independently recognized the power of Swarm here too. You will want to sideboard in the two Green dual lands along with the Swarms.

I believe that this deck meets the four requirements I set out for myself. I hope you’ll agree.

Until next time…

Stephen Menendian

* Actually, this is an oversimplification. In truth, looking at cards is the wrong frame. In the game of Magic, there are really no ‘cards,’ there are only interactions among cards. A Magic card is something that you open from a pack or put in a binder. In the game itself, the card is merely a part of a web of interactions: interactions with other cards and with the rules of the game itself. Within the game, cards do not exist in isolation as they do in a binder. To look at a card is looking at it in the wrong frame, because the cards are meaningless without the interactions. It is the interactions that matter, not the individual cards. By “good cards” here, I am actually referencing powerful interactions (i.e. synergies). Good decks run powerful synergies, and when those synergies are easily portable, such as Brainstorm and Fetchlands, and the more positive synergies a card is a part of, such as Tinker or Black Lotus (practically infinite synergies), the more likely it will be considered a “good card.” I will elaborate and explain this undeveloped area of Magic theory in a future article.