Magic Memories: Tendrils of Agony

Discussion in 'Single Card Strategies' started by Oversoul, Dec 11, 2017.

  1. Oversoul The Tentacled One

    Meandeck Tendrils
    With TPS filling the role of a flexible, robust combo deck that was still fast, most other combo decks focused on maximizing cheesy, more consistently fast wins. Dedicating card slots to protecting itself meant that first-turn kills were rare and even second-turn kills were tricky to shoot for. Initially, the premier glass cannon combo deck was Belcher, which sought to maximize first-turn kills. Meandeck Tendrils was a new approach that occupied similar space. This foreshadowed the evolution of Belcher decks, which would later hybridize to include Storm-based kills. Meandeck Tendrils ran only 3 lands in the maindeck, playing like a kind of Belcherless Belcher. A key component was the brand new card Repeal, from Guildpact, which could bounce a tapped mana-producing artifact and allow it to be replayed, bumping up the Storm count by 2, drawing a card, and potentially creating a net increase in mana. Meandeck Tendrils didn't bother with big card-drawing like Wheel of Fortune or Yawgmoth's Bargain, but focused on cantrips and tutors. Other than Repeal, Tendrils of Agony, and Yawgmoth's Will, every card in the deck either directly produced mana or dug for more cards.
  2. Oversoul The Tentacled One

    Tendrils of Agony in Legacy, 2004–2008
    Tendrils of Agony in competitive Legacy has been defined by the full legal usage of Lion's Eye Diamond. I don't want to merely rehash the LED Memories thread, which covered much of this. And really, having followed Legacy since the format's inception and having focused on combo decks, there's really too much I could say about this stuff, ranging from the evolution of The Epic Storm to the elusive Eggs Tendrils to Charbelcher hybrids to my own experiments with Meditate and Infernal Contract. I wish I'd done more to catalog my own failed Legacy decks. Oh yes, I built and extensively tested Tendrils decks in early Legacy. Some of my own brews were unlike anything that saw the light of day in tournament records. This wasn't due to any unwillingness on my part to participate in tournaments. It was just that with work and school going on, I was too busy. Also, I was mostly using Apprentice and proxies and couldn't afford to assemble real, legal versions of some of my concoctions. Going roughly by memory, a lot of my experiments involved the use of Meditate, a strong card that never seemed to make its way into tournament Storm lists.

    I say 2004–2008 because Shards of Alara changed everything when it introduced Ad Nauseam to the format. Before that point, Tendrils decks struggled, mostly in vain, to compete in Legacy tournaments, and most of the successes came from IGGy-Pop.
    My qualm with this was that this version of Storm relied on graveyard recursion to win, which made it ultimately no less vulnerable to graveyard hate than a dedicated Reanimator deck, with little to make up for that. As I noted in the LED thread, IGG served as the poor man's Yawgmoth's Will and was the power behind Tendrils decks in the early years of Legacy. New sets coming out after 2004 actually gave Legacy combo decks a lot to work with, such as Rite of Flame, Infernal Tutor, Sensei's Divining Top, Ponder, Street Wraith, Empty the Warrens, and Pact of Negation. This enabled new archetypes like The Epic Storm and Fetchland Tendrils, which still used IGG, but didn't rely on it 100% and could easily still win through graveyard hate. A vital innovation, which was too good not to use, was the Infernal Tutor + LED combo.
    Again, some of this material is probably already covered in the LED thread. I'm covering old ground here. If you really just want to cast the card that you are going to tutor for and discarding your hand doesn't matter (or is even beneficial), then you can activate any number of copies of Lion's Eye Diamond you happen to have and use their mana to pay for whatever broken thing you're doing, often Tendrils of Agony. LED turns Infernal Tutor into Demonic Tutor, and Infernal Tutor turns LED into Black Lotus. Both cards can be used independently of each other: Infernal Tutor can help with hand-sculpting to boost mana production and LED can be used alongside Ill-Gotten Gains. The cards were used together in tutor chains. Without an example on-hand, I'll just try to roughly describe it. A combo player would go for a tutor chain if the opening hand and matchup looked like it would allow for such an approach. The first couple of turns would be spent dropping lands and casting cantrips or targeted discard spells, sculpting one's own hand to prepare for the kill turn and sizing the opponent up. The Storm player would either have LED in hand or would dig for it, saving mana-producing cards in-hand and using any spare copies of Infernal Tutor to pull more copies of LED out of the library. Then, all at once, any mana-producing cards would be deployed (Dark Ritual, Rite of Flame, Cabal Ritual, Lotus Petal, Lion's Eye Diamond) and Infernal Tutor would be cast with Hellbent, using up those Lion's Eye Diamonds and producing an excess of mana, allowing Infernal Tutor to search for Infernal Tutor, chaining them into each other and using the last one to find Tendrils of Agony, which will be lethal because of how many spells were cast in the same turn. In some decks, mostly The Epic Storm, Burning Wish could be added on to the tutor chain. This technique is mana-intensive and won't work if the opponent was able to hide countermagic from discard spells by using Brainstorm, but it is immune to graveyard hate, is somewhat robust against disruption because it doesn't rely on leaving permanents such as creature or artifacts on the battlefield, and isn't dependent on the Storm player's life total. Assessing the opponent's clock and level of disruption and weighing it against the amount of mana one can generate for tutor chains is a fundamental skill in piloting Legacy Tendrils decks.

    In the LED thread, I emphasized The Epic Storm, a deck characterized by the use of Rite of Flame, Burning Wish, and Empty the Warrens, serving as a kind of hybrid between Empty the Warrens and Tendrils of Agony and flexibly going for the kill with either depending on the situation. Another achetype was Fetchland Tendrils, which was similar to IGGy-Pop, but took advantage of the synergy between Sensei's Divining Top and the Onslaught fetchlands to control topdecks and move away from a reliance on graveyard recursion. Sometimes they used Infernal Contract to help power out Tendrils kills...
    ...and starting in about 2007, they began incorporating Doomsday, to set up yet another option for Tendrils decks. This led to Doomsday Fetchland Tendrils. DDFT continued to exist as a kind of rogue Legacy tournament deck from 2007 all the way to 2017, when Sensei's Divining Top was banned. Doomsday decks are notoriously tricky to pilot.

    That covers most of it, but there was one other major Tendrils archetype in Legacy pre-2008, which I haven't mentioned yet...
  3. Oversoul The Tentacled One

    No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!
    Mere months after Mirage introduced Infernal Contract, WotC released Portal (my first set!), which contained a functional reprint of the card: Cruel Bargain. That's quite the oddity. They had no problem with reprinting cards in the set, including such notable cards as Natural Order, Armageddon, Pyroclasm and Storm Crow. They also chose to create exact functional reprints of some cards under new names, but all of those were some kind of generic version of an existing card with a proper noun (the name of a fantasy place or entity) in its name, all except Cruel Bargain.
    Maybe it was because they were still in the mid-90's "Better tone down the demonic-looking stuff so pearl-clutching parents aren't put off by the flavor of the game and calling it Satanic and stuff" phase and they were touchy about it in the set meant for new players, so even "Infernal" was too much? I don't know. Anyway, this meant that a Legacy deck could have 8 copies of the same effect. The obvious problem is that paying half your life is a pretty big deal and Infernal Contract is kind of a niche effect anyway. Risky.

    As DDFT evolved, it gave rise to a deck that aimed to push the black "Draw-4" spells and mana acceleration to outrace opponents. Eventually, a mana-producing core of Dark Ritual, Lotus Petal, Cabal Ritual, Chrome Mox, and Culling the Weak was paired with the Draw-4 spells and "The Spanish Inquisition" was born. In its day, this was the fastest deck in Legacy, and it's still a contender for that distinction. I'd argue that Oops, All Spells is the fastest these days, but it didn't exist back then anyway.
  4. Oversoul The Tentacled One

    Ad Nauseam
    Alara Block didn't do much to affect Tendrils deck except for the advent of one card, and it sure was a big one. A really, really big one. Ad Nauseam was kind of like a new take on Necrologia, but actually good. I've written about the card before. See here and here. Ad Nauseam has proven itself to be such a powerful engine that it has made a splash in different formats, used in completely different ways, as I noted in my article. This can involve combos with cards that prevent you from losing the game at 0 life, so that you can Ad Nauseam for your entire library, or it can involve decks fueled by lands, such as Seismic Assault decks, which can afford to keep digging with Ad Nauseam because lands don't incur life loss when revealed. But in Legacy and Vintage, the card is 100% associated with Tendrils of Agony.

    My single card spotlight article for Ad Nauseam does a fair job of covering the usage of the card and its history with Tendrils of Agony. No need to rehash all of that here. But to summarize...
    • Ad Nauseam essentially took over as the preferred Storm engine in Vintage and Legacy.
    • The existing TES deck (The Epic Storm, a deck characterized by its use of all the good Legacy Storm kills, Tendrils of Agony, Enter the Warrens, and Grapeshot) adopted Ad Nauseam and put the card to good use. It focused on the Infernal Tutor + Lion's Eye Diamond combo to power out the card for very fast wins.
    • A new Legacy archetype, eschewing the red Storm cards and focusing more on blue/black, was created based around Ad Nauseam and including an entire playset of the card to increase chances of having it right available right away. The deck was called ANT (Ad Nauseam Tendrils).
    • Legacy decks moved away from using 3 or 4 copies of Ad Nauseam to only using 1 copy and relying on Mystical Tutor and Infernal Tutor to find it.
    • ANT was crippled by the loss of Mystical Tutor after the card was banned, but retooled with the advent of Past in Flames and began placing greater emphasis on cantrips and Past in Flames as a wannabe Yawgmoth's Will. It still used Infernal Tutor + Lion's Eye Diamond, but increasingly went for Past in Flames kills without even bothering to fetch Ad Nauseam.
    • Paradoxically, TES became the Ad Nauseam deck and ANT (the deck with Ad Nauseam in its name) became a Past in Flames deck, maintaining a single copy of Ad Nauseam as a backup plan in the face of graveyard hate.
    • Due to the nature of Vintage (decks filled with powerful restricted cards), the deckbuilding constraint on Ad Nauseam isn't so severe, and Vintage Ad Nauseam decks never really bothered to drop to low counts of the card the way Legacy Storm decks did. In Legacy, the prospect of taking a 5-life hit when revealing Ad Nauseam with Ad Nauseam was enough to incentivize deckbuilders to focus on tutors and to run only 1 copy (sometimes 2 copies, historically). Vintage Ad Nauseam decks have continued to run a full playset because they're running a lot of 0-drop artifacts anyway and can reliably afford this approach.
    • While the Vintage version of Ad Nauseam Tendrils never fully died off, it has been dramatically sidelined and the card is generally associated with Legacy.
  5. Oversoul The Tentacled One

    In 2006, multiple combo decks using Gifts Ungiven arose in Vintage.
    Without providing decklists or trying to be at all comprehensive, I'll just note that Gifts decks varied substantially. Some were mostly controlling blue decks that attempted to use Mana Drain to power out a combo finish. Some looked more like traditional Storm decks with Dark Ritual and had Gifts Ungiven as setup. Some used Dark Confidant to generate card advantage. Ultimately, they exploited the interaction between Gifts Ungiven, Yawgmoth's Will, and Recoup to ensure that they could cast spells from the graveyard. Because some level of acceleration and setup would go into casting Gifts in the first place, which would then be followed up by casting spells from both hand and graveyard, Tendrils of Agony was the most suitable kill for these decks.

    WotC ultimately put a stop to this in 2007 when they restricted Gifts Ungiven. Although Gifts decks were the best Tendrils decks at the time, it wasn't the case that Tendrils decks were dominating Vintage. Rather, the use of Gifts Ungiven in both combo and control decks was seen as disturbing, and the card was restricted to disrupt that...

    Realistically, many of the Gifts decks were similar to other, preexisting decks and were only using 1 or 2 copies of the card anyway, so the impact of the restriction is unclear, especially coming simultaneous to the unrestriction of Gush.
  6. Oversoul The Tentacled One

    The Tropical Storm
    In 2007, Gifts Ungiven was restricted and Gush was unrestricted. This led to the development of "The Tropical Storm." Properly applied, Gush could both draw cards and generate mana. With Dark Ritual, Fastbond, and 0-drop artifact mana, this was enough of a burst to threaten lethal spell chains with Tendrils of Agony. Superficially, this deck was similar to TPS, but the deck had to trim other slots to make room for the Gushbond engine.

    In retrospect, this was highly unusual. Dark Ritual has feature heavily in combo decks and Gush has featured heavily in combo decks, but the two side-by-side in the same deck? Not so much. I don't know what would have happened, ultimately, to this brand of Storm. Both TPS and TTS were getting a lot of mileage out of unrestricted Brainstorm and Ponder. In 2008, about a year after Gush was unrestricted, it was restricted again alongside Brainstorm, Ponder, Merchant Scroll, and Flash. It was the most heavy-handed action WotC ever took in Vintage, and the explanation was especially cryptic.

  7. Oversoul The Tentacled One

    Drain Tendrils
    While Tendrils of Agony was mostly associated with the Dark Ritual "pillar" in Vintage, it was also employed as a kill condition in, slower, more controlling decks with Mana Drain. My cursory searches show that such decks were appearing in top 8 spots from 2007 to 2014. Although not universal, a common theme in such decks was the use of Mana Drain to power out the Intuition/AK engine.
    Most Drain Tendrils decks also relied on Thirst for Knowledge up until the card was restricted in 2009, at which point they were stuck with only one copy. Other outlets for Mana Drain mana included Gifts Ungiven, Mind's Desire, Repeal, and even Mind Twist. After a Drain Tendrils deck had spent some turns dropping lands and drawing cards, the usual methods for achieving lethal Storm were Rebuild, Hurkyl's Recall, and Yawgmoth's Will.
  8. Oversoul The Tentacled One

    Death Long
    As mentioned, I dislike the naming trend of Storm decks being anything "Long." But a few of these really never seemed to have been called anything else. With Burning Wish restricted, some Storm players turned to Death Wish as an alternative. Burning Wish offered a bit of a toolbox, as TES decks in Legacy have amply demonstrated. While Death Wish is technically capable of finding any card, its use as a toolbox was impractical and it was really just used to grab Yawgmoth's Will. If it's starting to sound like these Vintage Tendrils decks were basically just Yawgmoth's Will decks, aimed at different setups to get mana, a big graveyard, and then recasting everything with Tendrils of Agony as the coup de grace, then, well, yes. Yes, that is true. Gifts, Drain Tendrils, TTS, and most other Tendrils archetypes all revolved around Yawgmoth's Will.

    Pitch Long
    Starting around 2006, one of the Vintage offshoots of TPS was a deck that brought in Misdirection to use alongside Force of Will to protect the key components of its spell chains. There was a lot of overlap with Grim Long. Pitch Long died out with the restriction of Brainstorm in 2008.

    Grim Long
    Demonic Tutor, it turns out, is really good. No, I mean it. Really, really good. Extremely good. The more good cards there are for it to find, the better it is. In Vintage, where cards are only restricted for power level, rather than banned, there are a lot of excellent options for Demonic Tutor. Tendrils decks tend to use more restricted cards than other Vintage decks, and being able to consistently find them is valuable. Alas, Demonic Tutor is, itself, restricted. In October of 2005, the cards from the Portal and Starter product lines were allowed into Vintage and Legacy. Those products were not particularly successful. That they were all strictly illegal in tournaments until more than five years after the last one was released seems like it might have just a little bit to do with that failure. Anyway, Grim Tutor became an option. It does cost one mana more than Demonic Tutor and you do lose 3 life, but Storm players were willing to work with that. Grim Tutor was certainly easier to work with than Death Wish. So Grim Long outlived Death Long and Pitch Long, but ultimately fell out of favor. After the dust settled on the 2008 restrictions, good old TPS made a comeback as the most consistent Tendrils deck in Vintage.

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