“When you cast this spell, copy it for each spell cast before it this turn. You may choose new targets for the copies.”
From Mind’s Desire in Vintage, to Tendrils of Agony in Legacy, and Grapeshot in Modern, Storm cards are repeatedly the go-to payoff for combo decks across every format. Their simplicity and power level make them one-card-win-conditions in decks looking to draw lots of cards and casts lots of spells in one turn. In Modern, the deck has somewhat of an underdog story-line, overcoming numerous bannings and enduring multiple iterations to remain a tier deck. Its fan base is relentless and their innovations have kept Storm a consistent percentage of the meta.
The mechanic was introduced in the small expansion set Scourge back in 2003, created by then-lead designer Brian Tinsman. Here’s the intro deck to showcase the new Storm mechanic called, “Storm Surge.”
The deck list really gives you some insight into what WotC was expecting from the mechanic. Many of the Storm cards featured in this list are fairly defensive like Wing Shards and Hindering Touch. The article showcasing the deck goes into some examples on how to take advantage of the mechanic by playing a couple of spells, and then giving a creature +3/+6 until the end of the turn with Astral Steel, not exactly what we’d consider a very powerful Storm turn today. The article even suggests that if you’re looking to modify the deck, you could cut the blue cards all together for more small white creatures, which is ridiculous since Mind’s Desire is the most powerful card in the deck!
It’s clear that WotC didn’t fully understand what they had created and with eternal formats foaming at the mouth for these Storm cards, Mind’s Desire was preemptively restricted in Type-1 (Vintage). The issue with Mind’s Desire of course is that you could Mind’s Desire into other copies and chain them together. Type-2 (Standard) decks took full advantage of cards like Brain Freeze in Early Harvest decks while Tendrils of Agony slotted perfectly into Dark Ritual/Yawgmoth’s Will decks in older formats. Before Storm cards were printed, “Storm” decks relied on Quirion Dryad and Psychatog to “one-shot” an opponent with a single attack. Now that they had access to Storm cards, they no longer needed to rely on creatures to kill their opponent.
With Empty the Warrens and Grapeshot printed as attempted ‘fixed’ versions of the mechanic, Modern now had its own Storm cards to utilize. It was an early all-star in the young fomat with two copies making top 8 of the first Modern Pro Tour.
Here is one of those lists from Pro Tour Philadelphia in 2011:
This has to be one of the most banned decks I have ever seen. The mainboard features all of Modern’s once powerful cantrips as well as the Splinter Twin and Punishing Fire combo in the sideboard. It’s no wonder a deck like this quickly became dominant, consistently breaking WotC’s very stern “turn 4 win” rule. Due to its capability to win before turn 4 and meta dominance, WotC banned Ponder, Preordain, and Rite of Flame. Over the next six years, Storm would also see Seething Song and Gitaxian Probe go.
After years of multiple bannings it seemed that Storm would never return as a tier 1 deck ever again, that is, until they printed Baral, Chief of Compliance. By banning all the best rituals, Storm players were forced to “build their own Dark Rituals” with cost reducing creatures. Now that they had access to 8 of them, Storm players could take the worst rituals Modern had to offer and make the deck whole. With the added consistency of Gifts Ungiven, the deck quickly became a tier one deck once again and closely resembles the versions you see today.
The deck cares very little about what their opponent is doing. Like a game of solitaire, Storm prefers when it can play as though no one is sitting across from them and focus solely on executing its own game-plan. The deck requires a large number of redundant cards which leaves little room for spells that interact with the opponent. Storm decks these days will typically play one Repeal in the mainboard to deal with pesky permanents and a couple Remands which can be used as tempo plays against the opponent or used on their own Grapeshot during a combo turn.
An ideal game might start a little something like this:
Turn 1: Land, Cantrip (Serum Visions/Opt/Sleight of Hand)
Turn 2: Land, Mana Bear (Baral, Chief of Compliance/Goblin Electromancer)
On turn 3, if the Storm player still has their mana creature, there is a very good chance that they can win. With every ritual netting an extra mana than they normally would, 3 lands is all that is needed to cast 15+ spells and win with Grapeshot. If the Storm player can’t go off on turn 3 and passes with mana up, expect a Gifts Ungiven on your end step to give them enough gas going into turn 4. The Gifts package will often look like this:
In almost every situation you should give the Storm player the Manamorphose and the Past in Flames. Denying them as much mana as possible is the only way to strangle their resources and hope that they fizzle. If they untap on turn 4 with their mana creature, after a Gifts Ungiven, your pile choice most likely wont matter as the fail rate at that point is very low. After numerous cantrips and rituals, a Past in Flames to do it all over again, Grapeshot becomes very easily lethal.
With zero interaction the deck is very capable of killing on turn 3 and is probably the most consistent turn 4 kill in Modern. Thankfully, Rock decks have some great tools to help fight this strategy.
As with many of Modern’s spell based strategies, our discard is our best tool in the match-up. Storm players need a high volume of cards to go off in a turn and discard can ensure that they not only have fewer resources, but also have the worst of all the options left over. Most of the cards are very redundant and usually the rituals and cantrips will be bad takes. The best cards to take with discard are the mana creatures, Gifts Ungiven, or Past in Flames, especially if you have a Scavenging Ooze in play. You may think the mana creatures are bad takes since we have so much removal for them, but the reality is that Storm players know this and may sandbag the creatures until the turn they combo. If they play Baral on turn 4 with 2 lands up there’s a good chance they can go off and win even through removal. You can try to disrupt the combo at this point but the 4th land unused could represent a Remand or as much instant speed rituals as they can cast while still having the cost reduction available. The stack could end up looking like this:
At the end of the sequence they’ve gotten their value and are still poised to win that turn, while the removal spell you were hoping would stop your opponent only minorly inconvenienced them. If a combo player attempts to go off in situation, I find that the best time to try and use your removal is when they are essentially out of resources. An example of this kind of situation would be if a Storm player plays a Past in Flames with one mana available, relying on Baral’s cost reduction to recast rituals from their graveyard. In this scenario a removal spell can be well timed to choke them on castable cards in the hopes that they fizzle. Of course all of this can be avoided if you can strip the mana creatures before they’re a problem and is the reason they’re fine targets for your discard.
The discard won’t matter much if you can’t capitalize on the tempo with a fast clock. This is why the best start any Rock deck can have against Storm involves turn 1 discard into turn 2 Tarmogoyf. Pressuring their life total is so incredibly important because all the opponent needs to get back into it is a late game Gifts Ungiven or Past in Flames to win on the spot.
I remember many games played against Storm where I prioritized holding up Abrupt Decay over playing a Grim Flayer, or decided to hold up Fatal Push instead of attacking with Raging Ravine. I took these lines out of fear that my opponent could go off if I went shields down. What this line actually does is allow my opponent the time needed to assemble their combo. I cannot stress enough how important it is to be aggressive in this match. Playing it “safe” is really just playing into the hands of the Storm player.
The squeeze between stripping their resources and attacking their life total needs to be simultaneous to be effective. You need to get your Storm opponent into a situation where they feel like they have to go for it when they’re uncomfortable doing so. Most of my game 1 wins against Storm are accomplished by making them feel like they have to go for it and end up casting a Grapeshot that kills some of my creatures instead of me. Following up with more pressure, especially something like Scavenging Ooze, after they’ve failed to kill you and filled their graveyard to the brim, is the perfect way to hammer the final nail in the coffin. Scavenging Ooze is no doubt the best creature you can draw in the match. It doesn’t pressure the opponent the way Tarmogoyf can but the graveyard interaction can make it very difficult for the Storm player to use Past in Flames, which is almost necessary game 1 to accumulate enough Storm to win with Grapeshot.
Post-sideboard, we can trade out our weaker interaction for more discard and graveyard hate. Let’s look at Abzan first. Here’s an Abzan Traverse list that got second at Grand Prix Sao Paulo in the hands of Leonardo Giucci.
This list has a lot of excellent cards for the match-up. Being a Traverse decks means we get to bring in some meaningful silver bullets that could buy us a lot of time or just win on the spot.
The Bojuka Bog will likely be more impactful than the Ghost Quarter and is a great piece of graveyard hate that we can search up with Traverse. The Bog also has the advantage of being essentially an uncounterable, unbounceable piece of interaction. Surgical Extractions are more great pieces of graveyard hate that can strip entire win conditions from decks. In conjunction with discard, Extraction can take out playsets of impactful cards from our opponent’s deck.
Eidolon of Rhetoric is perfect for these matches by grinding the game to a halt, forcing the opponent to play at a less than preferable pace. Gaddock Teeg is another great silver bullet since he stops Past in Flames, Gifts Ungiven, Empty the Warrens, and stops some of Storm’s interaction like Repeal.
Last but not least we’re gonna bring in Maelstrom Pulse as a safety valve for Empty Warrens. Just 8-10 tokens can be enough to win or at least to buy them a lot of turns outside of our Trampling threats. Having Maelstrom Pulse in our deck gives us an out to clear an Empty.
Coming out we have Liliana the Last Hope, whose modes aren’t terribly relevant in this match. We’re also taking out Path to Exile since it’s our worst removal spell in the match. While removal is necessary to deal with the important mana creatures, this is the kind of interaction we tend to get flooded on since they don’t have a ton of targets. Our Storm opponent most likely has a plan to take some of these creatures out after sideboarding anyway, making our removal even more limiting. Our Pushes, Decays, Liliana edicts, and Pulse should be enough of this kind of interaction that we can cut the Path. The last cut is a couple of Lingering Souls. The threat can be very slow and often not worth the mana investment on turn 3.
Next let’s look a this Jund list that went 6-1 in the most recent Modern Challenge in the hands of Reid Duke.
Reid has a smattering of one of’s that we get to bring in for this match-up. Obviously Damping Sphere can be annoying for our opponent. While not synergizing well with the Bloodbraid Elves, it does a fine job of slowing our opponent down and could buy us a number of precious turns.
Nihil Spellbomb and Grafdigger’s Cage are fine pieces of graveyard hate to help our Scavenging Oozes. Cage only turns off Past in Flames but often times that is the one card that wins them the game as a late top deck.
The extra Thoughtseize and Collective Brutality are exactly the kind of interaction we’ll be looking for after sideboarding and we’re happy to bring them in.
Much like Abzan, we want enough removal to ensure we see it when we need it but not be flooded with it. For this reason we’re taking out the Dreadbore, Terminate, and Fatal Push. Lastly, and perhaps controversially, I’m also interested in cutting both Kolaghan’s Command. There are very few matches in Modern where Kolaghan’s Command doesn’t have relevant text but I believe this might be one of those. An instant speed Raven’s Crime and Shock for 3 mana is not really something I’m terribly interested in.
Both of these decks could also consider their sweepers depending on how “all in” the opponent wants be on Empty the Warrens. Anger of the Gods, Flaying Tendrils, Damnation, Engineered Explosives are all fine answers next to Maelstrom Pulse that can help clean up tokens.
After sideboarding Storm is looking to slow their game-plan down and go head to head with our attrition. Pieces of the Puzzle can help rebuild after discard and enable Pyromancer’s Ascension. Ascension is brought in to get more value out of their spells on fewer resources. Expect to also see Empty the Warrens to help win outside of Grapeshot, and some number of removal for Scavenging Ooze.
Coming out, Storm players will go down on mana creatures since they can be unreliable against G/B and pivot towards a Storm deck that can win without them. They will also most likely drop the Remands, a couple of the Gifts Ungiven since they can be clunky without the mana creatures, and then a blend of one of’s.
The deck will be much more grindy and willing to go long with an Empty the Warrens win over a Grapeshot one. They know that without the mana creatures and the pressure of our hand disruption putting them on fewer resources, games won with Grapeshot will be less likely. Instead, They’ll be looking to build a small Storm count and go off with a medium Empty the Warrens. This could happen as early as turn 2 with a Ritual into 2-3 other spells and an Empty the Warrens for 6-8 Goblins. That amount of goblins will certainly stretch our removal thin and put us under a lot of pressure. If it doesn’t win on its own, it will buy enough time to rebuild and go for another.
It seems that no matter how many times WotC tries to take Storm down a peg, it relentlessly finds its way back to the top of the meta. For some reason, WotC won’t ban any of the payoffs regardless of their distaste for the mechanic. Even after banning most of the good enablers for the deck, cards like Grapeshot and Empty the Warrens continue to be build-around win conditions that can be taken advantage of.
Maro, head of R&D, even created a scale based on the likelihood of a mechanic returning to future sets. The scale is known as the “Storm Scale” ranging from 1, being very likely to return, and 10, meaning most likely never to return. Not surprisingly, the Storm mechanic has repeatedly been dubbed a 10. Grapeshot and Empty the Warrens were supposed to be the fixed Storms cards, but it seems no Storm card is safe from exploitation. Unless WotC actually decides to ban Grapeshot and Empty the Warrens, expect to fight the decks looking to abuse them.