Writer’s Note: Despite my personal inability to make this deck perform well in tournaments, I have received plenty of questions and suggestions about this deck that are best addressed with a primer of this sort and hopefully justify the effort by answering them.
In Type One, the key to deck design, particularly combo deck design, is asking the right question. A properly framed question crystallizes all the necessary issues and binds them together into a tight focus.
An idea popped into my head last summer. I was reflecting on combo decks I had a hand in and about the decks that use Tendrils of Agony generally. MeanDeath and Draw7 go through all sorts of contortions to generate the requisite storm, mana, and search to find and play a lethal Tendrils of Agony. Did one really need to play all these Draw7s or Wishes just to play a lethal Tendrils? Is that too much trouble? Bothered by the fact that I had never attempted to see whether a four Tendrils deck might work, I sat down and asked a simple question:
How would I go about building a deck designed to play exactly nine spells and then Tendrils of Agony?
II. Designing Meandeck Tendrils
What conditions would need to hold to fulfill the goal of playing nine spells and then Tendrils of Agony? First, you would have to generate four mana, two of which had to be Black. Second, you would need a way to play just a few more spells than were in your opening hand. Third, you would have to play all of the spells in one turn because of the storm mechanic. The Storm mechanic naturally pushes such a concept toward either a turn 1 or a turn 2 kill. Fourth, you would need a way to find the Tendrils. As I said, asking the right question is the key to design.
I’ll spare you the boring design notes and simply say that after a few hours of amusement, I abandoned the concept as ineffectual and fragile. I didn’t even bother to mention it to my team. After SCG Chicago my team was looking for something to play and we were brainstorming deck ideas en masse. We were just posting whatever ideas we came up with and suddenly I remembered the four Tendrils idea. In the process of trying to recall the various components I inadvertently improved the design because I started goldfishing more consistent turn one wins. A month or so later and we had pretty much finished tuning the final few cards.
4 Tendrils of Agony
III. Is this Deck Consistent?
Decks that want to significantly impact the game on turn 1 or 2 are heavily reliant upon their opening hand. As a result, deck construction, not fixers, is the first step toward consistency. Such decks need to follow the “7-9” rule to be consistent. What this means is that you need a multiple of seven to nine copies of any critical effect. Most combo decks follow this scheme through accidental tuning. As an example of what I’m talking about, take Worldgorger Combo. It plays 8 Discard Outlets (4 Bazaar of Baghdad and 4 Compulsion), 8 Red Creatures (4 Squee and 4 Dragon), 7-8 maindeck disruption spells (4 Force of Will and 3-4 Duress or Xantid Swarm), 7-9 Animate spells and so on.
Like Dragon, Meandeck Tendrils relies upon redundancy of effect to be consistent, not a critical mass number of restricted cards.
While not every category fits neatly into the “7-9” rule, it comes close enough to justify discussing it. The 7-9 rule isn’t a hard and fast rule, but a rule of thumb – guidelines to help facilitate deck construction.
If you break this deck apart into its components, you’ll see that it has:
You can break the mana up into other configurations that better follow the 7-9 rule. For example:
8 or 16 or 23 Cards that net you 1 mana:
5 Moxen, 1 Lotus Petal, 1 Sol Ring, Demonic Tutor (for Black Lotus) (you can also add the 4 Cabal Rituals and the 4 Spoils of the Vault (naming Dark Ritual) and you’ll have a multiple of the 7-9 rule. You reach 23 if you add the 4 Land Grants and the 3 lands.
Assuming, for the purposes of illustration, not realism, that you draw one component from each of these categories, you have a very good chance of winning the game and I’ll show you how.
Let me show you how. The steps follow the Storm Count.
2) Play Dark Ritual. BBB floating. 5 cards in hand.
3) Play a Mox Pearl. Tap it. BBBW floating. 4 cards in hand.
5) Brainstorm or Sleight of Hand to optimize your hand. You are looking for mana acceleration. Still 4 cards in hand. Let’s say you saw a mana source (ideally it will be a card that goes to the graveyard) – say it was a Lotus Petal.
6) Play Land Grant finding no Land. 4 cards in hand, one of which is a land.
8) Then play Spoils of the Vault or any other restricted tutor. Assuming that you have not seen another Ritual, Spoils for it. 3 cards in hand and you now have threshold.
9) You spoilsed for Cabal Ritual and you don’t die, play the Ritual and you’ll have BBBBB floating. 2 cards in hand.
10) Play Tendrils for lethal damage.
While that is the most basic idea, the whole deck is a variation on that general theme. The reason it works is because the cantrips and Blue cards help you optimize our hand by seeing so many cards in a single turn.
IV. How Do I Play This Deck?
I can’t teach you how to play this deck for reasons that will be clear in a moment, but I can teach you the process of playing this deck. Most combo decks follow a fairly linear sequence of plays that are repeated from game to game (macro-patterns). For example, MeanDeath will play turn 1 Duress, turn 2 Draw7, and turn 3 Wish for Yawgmoth’s Will (assuming the Draw7 was countered). Meandeck Tendrils is composed of mostly unrestricted cards compared to most T1 decks. It has no draw7s or other critical components that it is trying to resolve. Instead, it is just trying to get nine spells and then Tendrils. Unfortunately, there aren’t really any macro-patterns that one can safely rely on. You can follow them and they will generally guide you to a positive result, but you may well be missing a critical and amazing play. Instead, I advise that you rely on small micro-patterns that will arise in different situations. For the reasons I have stated, it is improper to tell you how to play the deck. It’s the process that has to be learned.
The general approach I advocate to learn this deck should be, first, to draw your opening hand. One-by-one you should begin to examine various lines of play. Follow them as far as possible making any reasonable assumptions you need. Third, calculate the risk of failure any given line of play. Finally, compare the risks with the risk of failure of another given line of play. Then make the play that is least risky.
The trick is to be precise and careful when examining various lines of play. The more potential lines of play, the more careful you are going to have to be. Think of the lines of play as you might approach a chess game.
Take this example opening hand from round one of StarCityGames Virginia. I drew:
Now think about this hand for a few moments. Is it a mulligan? Is there anything that can be done with it? Should you aim for turn 2 or is it possible to win on turn one? Try to determine what the best course of action is as far as you can take it. Once you think you have figured it out, scroll down.
To most folks, this just looks like a mess. You might be surprised to find out that this hand is a turn 1 goldfish a majority of the time.
The hand is fairly complex and determining from the outset the best series of plays requires an organized approach.
The first question should be:
Step 1) What cards may I play first? (7 Cards in hand)
There is only card that you can play first. That is good because it dramatically limits the number of play orders that are possible. This is the first and most important question you should ask when playing this deck. It focuses your attention on examining lines of play from the outset. Even if the early steps are formalities – it can’t hurt to examine them anyway.
Step 2) What can you play after the Mana Crypt? (6 cards in hand)
I can play two cards: Egg or Sphere.
a) I examine what happens if I play Egg. I have to wait until next turn to use it. If I do that, I can also play Chromatic Sphere this turn and see three cards next turn. This sets me up for a turn 2 win. The only risk involved is the risk that my opponent will drop something that prevents me from doing anything on turn two. This depends upon what deck you are playing against. Now take that knowledge and keep it in mind to compare it to other lines of play.
Step 3) Assuming I play the Sphere only and break it I can play one of three subsequent cards with the one mana floating (assuming I don’t draw another zero- or one-mana spell): Dark Ritual, Chain of Vapor, or Darkwater Egg. (Before playing the third spell, have 6 cards in hand, 1 of which is a mystery to me).
a) If I play Chain of Vapor on the Mana Crypt, I can replay the Crypt and then play nothing else but Egg. If I draw another mana source of the Sphere, I could drop the Egg and use it, but the chance of me drawing a mana source that I can use if I break the Chromatic Sphere for Blue is 30.1%. There are 53 cards in the deck before drawing off the Sphere of which 16 are usable mana sources in this situation (not counting Lion’s Eye Diamond). If you don’t draw a mana source, then you will have completely wasted the Chain of Vapor. The Chain of Vapor might be maximized later in the combo.
b) If I play Egg with Chromatic Sphere mana, this play is little different from step two’s logical extension except that it sees another card now instead of next turn, which actually makes it the superior play to step two. So far, this is the best play. Next turn, I would see two more cards.
c) I can play Ritual. Now we need to compare what can happen if I play Dark Ritual with play 3(b).
To summarize: since step (a) is pointless and wasteful, and since (b) is practically identical to the full line of play in step 2, the only line of play we have to compare it against is (c).
Therefore, what happens if I play Ritual?
b) Play Night’s Whisper and see what you get. If nothing drop the Egg.
c) Drop the Egg, break it, and then cast Night’s Whisper.
All four plays appear to lead to reasonable outcomes. But only one is optimal. Keep in mind that although we have come this far in the analysis, in the actual game state, you should not have actually played a single card yet. Playing even a single card may be a mistake in a deck built around storm.
We will determine what the optimal play is by “doing the math.”
Let’s take a closer look at Step 4:
a) Will end the sequence of plays with 5 cards in hand, 3 of which we have not seen yet.
b) Will end the sequence of plays in the same position as step (a), provided you see nothing relevant off the Night’s Whisper. For this reason, we can eliminate step (a) because this is directly superior.
c) Will end the sequence of plays with 6 cards in hand, 4 of which we have not seen yet.
d) Will end the sequence of plays with 5 cards in hand, 4 of which we have not yet seen.
So far, we still have four viable options: Step 3(b), Step 4(b), (c), or (d).
Under step 4(b) we go:
Mana Crypt, Chromatic Sphere, break it for Black, Night’s Whisper. Then if we see nothing, drop Egg and pass the turn. The important question becomes, what are the chances that you will be able to go off this turn with this play. You will see three cards and have a Whisper and Chain of Vapor in hand. After playing the Whispers, you will have one mana floating and 4 storm.
Let’s take a look at the decklist:
4 Tendrils of Agony
There are two possible approaches once we reach this point. We can ask: what cards will enable us to continue to go off, or, what cards can we draw that will cause us to “fizzle”? It is easier to calculate the risk of failure than the risk of success.
Since under step 4(b) there is no Blue mana, you don’t want to draw a single Blue spell unless you also draw a source of Blue mana. The chance of you not drawing a source of Blue mana is 33/52 off the Sphere (I’m counting Dark Ritual, Land Grant, Fetchland, Tropical Island, Mana Vault, Black Lotus, Mox Sapphire, Lotus Petal and Demonic Consultation as “success.” Then if you don’t draw one, 38/51 and finally 37/50. If you multiply those numbers, the chance of failure after drawing three cards is 38%. So your chance of success is well over 50%. If you draw a Blue mana source, you can Chain of Vapor the Mana Crypt. However, if you draw another Ritual, then your Egg becomes source of Blue, so the math becomes even more complicated. In order to find the optimal play, you basically have to do the math – but in an actual tournament setting, this math is very complicated and requiring adding various probabilities together based upon what’s in your deck without being able to look at a decklist like we can right now. The difficulty of play becomes a serious problem with this deck that I’ll talk about later. You basically have to be Deep Blue or a math genius to play this deck perfectly at a tournament (and within a reasonable amount of time).
Skipping ahead for the moment – since we have realized by this point that there is turn 1 combo potential, we can assume that we aren’t going to hold the Mana Crypt until a later turn. Therefore, there is no reason not to simply play the Mana Crypt, then the Chromatic Sphere and break it for Black. At the worst, this would put us at Step 3(b). You should then use the information you have gleamed by your draw to help figure out the next play. The next question basically is whether to play the Ritual or the Egg. If we decide to play the Ritual, we have basically narrowed the lines of play down to playing the Egg first or the Whispers. Two lines of play have us playing the Egg first and breaking it before playing Whispers.
The real difference between the Whispers off Ritual or Egg and break it off Ritual is that if you play and break the Egg you are somewhat committing to winning this turn because there is a chance that you will not draw another Blue or Black mana source. However, if you play the Whispers and see nothing of importance and then drop the Egg, you still have Blue and Black next turn and a full hand.
Although the math calculations will tell you what the chances of you getting what you need are, probably the overriding question will be: can you afford to pass the turn? This will depend in no small part upon the deck your opponent is playing. If you don’t know what they are playing, you need to make a risk assessment about the chance that they are playing something that you simply cannot afford to have a turn.
Although I can’t say this with total confidence, I think that 4(d) is the proper play. In the actual tournament, I made 4(b) and immediately I realized that I could have won on turn 1. After the tournament, I goldfished this hand doing the 4(d) play three times and I had success each time. I suggest that you go onto some sort of Magic computer program, pull up that hand and goldfish with it to see what you can come up with. Or if you don’t believe me, you should try this hand out for yourself.
V. Closing Thoughts
The important thing is that you should begin your play trees with the first step by asking: what is the first card I *can* play? It’s not unlike Chess. In Chess you basically examine every reasonable sequence of play that likely follows from a given move and try to determine how that will impact the end-game. The same principle applies here: you attempt to find the optimal play that enables you to achieve the conditions which enable you to win: Tendrils in hand, four mana, and nine or more storm. And you should try to do this before playing your first card. Only play cards if it will help you resolve various lines of play down the road or unless you are in a tournament.
One of the issues that I personally had with this deck in my second tournament attempt is the fact that the sheer quantity of options can make it is too difficult to identify the optimal play by eliminating every inferior play in a “reasonable” time – certainly not in the time that judges expect people to play Magic in. This is one of the factors that makes me doubt the deck’s tournament viability. To be sure, you could probably eyeball a good play within a few minutes – but if you want to find the truly best play, it requires some math that you simply don’t have the time to execute in a tournament setting. Admittedly, most hands aren’t that complex. But the one’s that are will make this a devil of a deck to play.
So far I have provided a brief sketch of the deck and offered my suggestion approach to playing it. In Part Two, I will go through a card-by-card analysis – including a discussion of cards that were considered but rejected. Then in Part Three, I will hand the reins over to my only teammate to perform well with the deck and he will explain how to play the deck in greater detail.
If you have any questions about what I have discussed so far, post in the thread accompanying this article and I’ll do my best to answer them.