Magic Memories: Tendrils of Agony


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.


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...


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.


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.


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...

Aaron Forsythe said:
Powerful spells that tutor for a single card are generally restricted in this format, so what about one that tutors for four cards? Seems natural, especially as the card's cousin, Fact or Fiction, also resides on the Restricted List.

Gifts Ungiven was, for a long time, used primarily in a deck based around it—"Gifts"—that would control the game long enough to tutor up a suite of win conditions that left the opponent no way out. Recently the card has been creeping into other decks, including Control Slaver and Gro-A-Tog, as its power is undeniable. It should still see play as a one-of.
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.


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.

The DCI is continually looking to do what is best for the health of the Vintage format.

The combination of Flash with only a few cards, leads to too many turn zero and turn one kills. The speed and ease of these Flash combos led to Flash being added to the Restricted list.

Merchant Scroll, Brainstorm and Ponder have all been added to the restricted list. Merchant Scroll tutors for the most powerful cards. Likewise the access power of Brainstorm and Ponder make finding the powerful restricted cards in a deck too easy.

Gush returns to the restricted list. Last year, we removed four cards from the Vintage Restricted list. Of those cards only Gush has proven problematic as a free card-drawing instant.


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.


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.


The Tentacled One
Gush Tendrils
In September of 2010, Gush was unrestricted again. The blue/black/green decks with both Dark Ritual and Gush, known as TTS, didn't make a comeback. But Gush did return to the format in a big way. There were Gush aggro decks, Gush control decks, and a Gush combo archetype using Tendrils of Agony as the kill. Initially, Gush Tendrils decks employed Mana Drain and functioned a bit like the older Drain Tendrils decks, but with the explosive GushBond engine to speed things up. Gifts Ungiven was still restricted and was used as a one-off. time Vault + Voltaic Key was another possible win condition, and most early versions also had Tinker for the new Blightsteel Colossus. Such decks couldn't make room for a package of black spells worth running, so Dark Ritual was out (the essentials of Yawgmoth's Will, Demonic Tutor, and a copy of Tendrils as the kill card were retained, as was Thoughtseize).

As the environment evolved, Gush Tendrils decks shifted more toward countermagic, fewer artifacts, and a slightly slower kill.

To Remora or Not to Remora?
I'll always have a kind of fond regard for Mystic Remora. I used the card for its casual multiplayer applications since 2000. I had lots and lots of copies of the card from my 1990's grab-bag-buying days, and it was just one of those irrelevant Ice Age bulk cards, but then Rhystic Study showed me how strong the effect was and I tried it out. Mystic Remora was one of my favorite cards in my old Seattle Highlander deck (which would now be an "Esper Control" deck, but that term didn't exist at the time). A few years later, when I was really into Vintage and had lost all of my testing partners, I worked on my own and had a couple of Remora-based concepts that I tested against tournament-winning decklists, and I was really impressed with the card. But I didn't own Power cards and wasn't attending tournaments anyway, then school and work became too overwhelming and I abandoned the whole project. When Mystic Remora decks finally broke through in competitive Vintage in 2008, I felt pretty vindicated. I'd beaten the tournament players to the concept by years, not that I had anything to show for it. If I'd saved records of my own decks (I think I actually might have a couple of old lists in an Apprentice folder on my old computer) and compared them to the actual usage, it'd probably be obvious that my Remora decks were crude and not really comparable to the competitive decks that emerged later. And even if I really was prescient on this one thing, it never really mattered to anyone except me. Whatever. I still think it's cool.

Not all Remora decks were Tendrils decks, but many were. In particular, many of them were Gush Tendrils decks. Paradoxically, Remora Tendrils decks thrived in environments with lots of Gush decks. Mystic Remora has a severe upkeep, but against opponents that cast lots of non-creature spells, it either functions as a mass card-drawing machine or it slows the game down on both sides. For Gush Tendrils players, squeezing a Mystic Remora package into the deck gave it a huge advantage in the mirror-match, but didn't do much against, say, Dredge. For traditional Drain Tendrils players, transitioning into a Mystic Remora deck made the Gush matchups very favorable.


The Tentacled One
Ritual? Who needs it?
Traditional TPS decks fueled by Dark Ritual continued to appear in Vintage, but increasingly, the card associated with Tendrils of Agony in Vintage was not Dark Ritual or even Mana Drain from the Drain Tendrils decks, but Gush. For a while, the three coexisted, but Gush was clearly on top. This was helped along by Fastbond, as always, but also by the complementary engine of fetchlands and Lotus Cobra.

Storm decks always needed some cards to give them mana as fuel for their spell chains. With fetchlands already being played universally in Vintage decks for other reasons, Lotus Cobra became the premier mana accelerant in the format. Crack a couple of fetches, get mana from Lotus Cobra, tap the lands for mana, bounce the lands with Gush to draw cards, replay one of the lands and get another mana from Lotus Cobra, then tap that land for mana again. It got crazy with multiple copies of Lotus Cobra and even crazier with Fastbond. This enabled Gush Tendrils decks to maintain their blue-heavy approach based on card selection and countermagic, while mimicking the mana burst of traditional Ritual-fueled combo decks. In this environment, Dark Ritual was looking somewhat sidelined, but not all TPS players abandoned the deck. In particular, because it didn't require as much setup as Gush Tendrils, TPS could be faster.

Doomsday gets a boost

With Gush-based Storm decks nearing the height of their popularity, another important development in Vintage combo decks was incoming. A Legacy combo player would probably cite Past in Flames as the most important card to come out of Innistrad. A Vintage combo player might choose Griselbrand. Most non-combo players might be inclined to pick Delver of Secrets or Snapcaster Mage. But for a Doomsday enthusiast, it was Laboratory Maniac. The challenge for Doomsday in combo decks was that while it offered a nice potential "win now" button as an alternative to ramp mana into, most Doomsday piles had some hefty requirements involving otherwise bad cards, so it was usually easier to just go off with Tendrils of Agony. Laboratory Maniac revolutionized Doomsday piles, allowing decks to focus on, well, everything outside of the Doomsday setup. Out of character for the rest of the format, Doomsday decks tended to run both Dark Ritual and Gush. The nuances of their deck construction made a Gush Tendrils shell a strong starting point, but Dark Ritual was great for fueling Doomsday itself.

Doomsday decks are notoriously challenging to pilot, possibly the most difficult major archetype in Eternal tournament history. So it's difficult to tell just how good they ever were or could have been, the paucity of good data being a perennial Vintage problem for would-be analysts. But subjectively, I'd think some of these early 2010's Doomsday decks were among the scariest Vintage decks ever, if not the strongest potential performers. They could win on turn 1, they could fight countermagic battles, they could go for a quick, explosive Ritual-fueled kill, or they could do more hand-sculpting and gain an insurmountable early advantage with Gush. And if you gave them an opening, even if you could stave off a Tendrils kill, they might just set up a Doomsday win with Laboratory Maniac. Fast, robust, and versatile. But again, challenging to play correctly, which somewhat mitigated the power of the concept.


The Tentacled One
The Return of Burning Wish
The synergy between Oath of Druids and Forbidden Orchard has had a presence in Vintage ever since Forbidden Orchard was varied. The exact creature or creatures used with this combo have varied wildly over the years, and I'll make no attempt to cover them all here. I noted that Tidespout Tyrant was a popular one with a Tendrils of Agony kill. In early 2012, some intrepid Vintage player asked the question, "What if I could, like, Oath up Yawgmoth's Bargain?" And Griselbrand Oath has been with us ever since. Later incarnations would shift more toward taking control of the game and beating the opponent's face with the 7/7 flying lifelink demon, but for a while, it was all about drawing 14 cards and then going off with Tendrils of Agony.

And then, in September of 2012, Burning Wish was unrestricted. The old Burning Desire deck that had once dominated Vintage did so in an environment without anything like the competition that had been evolving from 2003 to 2012. More importantly, Lion's Eye Diamond was still banned. But Oath into Griselbrand made the whole thing feasible anyway. Burning Oath aka Burning Tendrils decks were packed with broken, restricted cards, a clear spiritual return to the Storm decks of 2003. The use of Burning Wish to grab Yawgmoth's Will made a comeback, and even without it, the deck could win with Draw-7 spells, by rushing out Yawgmoth's Bargain, over a couple of turns with Necropotence to gain enormous card advantage, with a natural Mind's Desire spell chain, or with Griselbrand to imitate Yawgmoth's Bargain.


The Tentacled One
Magic 2014: Beginning of the End
Burning Tendrils was doing pretty well and was quickly becoming the Storm deck of choice for Vintage. But it went downhill from there, and not for a single, simple, clear-cut reason. The trigger for the decline of the decline of a card that had spent nearly a decade as a cornerstone of the format, though, was this little guy.

You can look at the actual text of Young Pyromancer and attempt to divine its insidious nature in crippling Tendrils decks, but don't look too hard: you won't find it. Nothing intrinsic to the card ruins Tendrils decks. It's not particularly good against Tendrils decks. In fact, Gush Tendrils decks adopted Young Pyromancer as an alternate threat, one which demanded a response or it would overwhelm the opponent. It had the bonus of potentially weakening opponents and decreasing the Storm count necessary to achieve a Tendrils kill. So, the increasing availability of disruptive anti-combo cards like Mental Misstep, Flusterstorm, and Mindbreak Trap, it might seem odd that I'd cite a card used alongside Tendrils of Agony as the beginning of the end. Well, I agree: it is odd. But that's how it goes. It started with Young Pyromancer. It didn't stop there.

Gush Aggro had been leaning on Talrand, Sky Summoner. Young Pyromancer was just better, so it became a Gush Pyromancer deck. Gush Storm didn't universally drop Tendrils of Agony, not at first, but it also shifted toward Gush Pyromancer. With the advent of Dack Fayden in Conspiracy, artifact-heavy decks like Workshop decks took a hit, and fast blue/red decks with card-filtering got a boost. Most of those were Pyromancer decks. And then Treasure Cruise and Dig Through Time were printed.

Those cards turned Vintage on its head and dominated the format, centralizing it around blue card-drawing and card-filtering, each in its own special way. Both were eventually restricted, but not before Young Pyromancer got a huge upgrade...

Monastery Mentor is, in some ways, a better Storm kill card than Tendrils of Agony. And instead of needing to keep up a burst of mana to pay for spells, including the 2BB for Tendrils itself, once a Mentor is on the board, a deck can use a smaller number of relatively cheaper spells, maintaining more control elements and having better protection. In 2015, Vintage started to become centralized around Gush Mentor decks and Workshop decks. Tendrils decks were not well-equipped to fight either of these not-quite-dominant archetypes. Gush Mentor decks were just a little bit slower than Tendrils decks, and came well-equipped with things like Mental Misstep, Flusterstorm, Force of Will, Spell Pierce, and sometimes even Mystic Remora to crush Tendrils decks. Some of them had maindeck Mindbreak Trap. The cards that Gush Mentor decks were using to combat each other happened to work even better, as a side effect, to shut down Tendrils decks. And Workshop decks aimed to sabotage the cheap spells used by Gush Mentor with Lodestone Golem Shield Sphere, Thorn of Amethyst, Trinisphere, etc. Cards that were even better against Tendrils decks. Some players tried new variations on TPS that accounted for the new environment, but it was an uphill battle. And Vintage Tendrils decks haven't been the same ever since.


The Tentacled One
The Rise and Fall of DPS
By mid-2015, Gush Tendrils, powered by Dig Through Time, was the strongest performing Storm deck. Good old TPS was still kicking around, but it was an uphill battle against Mental Misstep. Two things changed that opened up more space for Tendrils of Agony. The second was that Dig Through Time and Chalice of the Void were restricted. The first was this card...

The Spell mastery mechanic from Magic Origins is one of my favorite underdeveloped mechanics. None of the individual cards are quite good enough, but the concept of making instants and sorceries matter in this way is interesting. The cost for Grim Tutor was always just a bit too steep. Dark Petition offered a new option: a higher initial investment in mana, followed by a Spell mastery rebate. This enabled a new Storm deck, superficially similar to the traditional blue/black TPS. "Dark Petition Storm" sought to Ritual into Dark Petition with Spell mastery. The two primary targets for this expensive tutor were Yawgmoth's Will and Necropotence. If one already had a spell chain going, especially if the game had opened with an early Windfall or Wheel of Fortune, going off with Yawgmoth's Will, the backbone of so many prior Tendrils decks, was easy. This was more reliable than the old Burning Wish approach to consistently finding Yawgmoth's Will. If one couldn't yet go off with Yawgmoth's Will, but could cast an early Dark Petition, then it could be used to find Necropotence and seek a lethal spell chain in the next couple of turn. Perhaps more than any previous tournament archetype, this was a "Necropotence Storm" deck. I'll elaborate on the use of Necropotence in Vintage, where it's still legal (albeit restricted) in some other thread. Dark Petition would usually be used on one of those two restricted cards, but it had a some other corner-case uses, such as setting up Mind's Desire or ending a lethal spell chain by fetching Tendrils of Agony.

DPS led to a bit of a resurgence of Tendrils decks. And for a while, for over a year really, that was most of the story. DPS rose very suddenly, with the advent of Dark Petition as a new option, and fell off gradually. It didn't go out with a bang, but sort of faded over time. The death-knell wasn't some shift in gameplay that was hostile to Storm in some unprecedented way. Instead, it was another new Tendrils deck...


The Tentacled One
It's a Paradox!

Tendrils of Agony is one of those cards that's mediocre within a relatively limited environment, but keeps getting better the more cheap card-drawing and mana acceleration you throw at it. That's why it was nonexistent in competitive Standard and took a while to find a niche in Extended, but became a major contender in Legacy and Vintage. Those formats had a kind of critical mass of of the necessary mana-producing and card-drawing necessary to make Tendrils viable. In Legacy, the right engine came along with Infernal Tutor + Lion's Eye Diamond, supported by mana accleration in the form of Dark Ritual, Lotus Petal, and other options such as Rite of Flame, Chrome Mox, and Cabal Ritual. But Legacy didn't get a strong way to draw enough cards for this to work until Ad Nauseam (which technically doesn't draw cards, but it puts them into your hand, which is the important bit) entered the format. In Vintage, the suite of restricted mana-producing artifacts did the job even better than Legacy's playsets of LED and Lotus Petal. Similarly, Mind's Desire was a safe in Extended, but banned in Legacy and restricted in Vintage. Cards that produce more mana than they take to cast really enable that one, but if an environment doesn't have a critical mass of them, then Mind's Desire isn't really a dangerous card. Kaladesh introduced a new, bizarre card that took this principle to the extreme: Paradoxical Outcome.

For any format outside of Vintage, players were left thinking, "I bounce my own stuff to draw cards, losing tempo and forcing myself to discard down to 7? Why would I pay four mana for that?" In Vintage, the immediate response to the card was, "Hey, it draws cards and makes mana. Seems good!" These days, it seems like the "typical" Magic game is supposed to be a midrange creature combat slug-fest, and Paradoxical Outcome would be abysmal in such a scenario. But in a format with lots of artifacts that tap for more mana than it costed to cast them, Paradoxical Outcome is both a card-drawing engine and a mana-producing engine. It even has the property, which got Mind's Desire preemptively restricted, that casting the card fuels future casts of it. That's because with enough artifact mana, Paradoxical Outcome can draw into another Paradoxical Outcome while also generating the mana to cast the next Paradoxical Outcome, which could be bigger than the first. The third, if necessary, could be bigger than the second. And since you're recasting all of those artifacts, a lethal storm count for Tendrils of Agony is trivial to pull off.

Although technically Paradoxical Outcome has a bit of synergy with Dark Ritual, it has far more synergy with artifact-based mana sources, so most Paradoxical Outcome Storm decks eschewed Dark Ritual and black cards for a higher number of artifacts. Not all of them, but Dark Ritual is unusual in such a deck. However, there's a lot of diversity in PO decks. I've seen builds with Brain Freeze and no Tendrils of Agony, builds with Dark Ritual and Dark Petition, builds with Time Vault + Voltaic Key, builds with Tinker + Blightsteel Colossus, builds with Mental Misstep, builds with Gush, builds with Mana Drain, builds with Counterbalance + Sensei's Divining Top, builds with Oath of Druids, builds with Mishra's Workshop, and so on, and so forth. Really, I think Vintage players just don't understand Paradoxical Outcome, the card with the most apt name ever. But they know it's good and so they'll try to mix it with other things that are good. With so little good data and so many variations, I wouldn't presume to tell the comprehensive story of Paradoxical Outcome. But a few notable patterns did emerge...
  • Monastery Mentor was/is so overpowered that it became the most popular kill condition for PO decks. The card was eventually restricted, so Mentor-based PO decks had to adjust or switch to a Storm kill.
  • Even though PO decks run lots of artifacts and few lands, Gush is still good enough to use. Not as spectacular as it was in dedicated Gush Mentor decks, but still totally worth it.
  • There was a lot of confusion over whether PO decks were flash-in-the-pan fad or were so powerful that Paradoxical Outcome itself would get restricted, with the result landing somewhere in the middle. Paradoxical Outcome can be fast, but these decks tend to be sensitive to disruption and especially artifact hate, which is a major downside in an environment with everyone gunning for Workshop decks.
Paradoxical Outcome decks were, for a time, a huge part of the Vintage metagame. They're still around, but less prevalent. Some of them still run Tendrils of Agony too, so it's worth noting that this isn't a dead usage for the card.


The Tentacled One
I Call That a Bargain
I'll wrap up this summary of Tendrils of Agony in Vintage with the latest major development for the card, and one that's especially meaningful for me personally. In August of 2017, Yawgmoth's Bargain was unrestricted. Earlier that same month, I'd started one of these Memories threads for the card. I reminisced about casual games with the card, as it had the special distinction of being played a lot against me when my best friend and I were still fairly inexperienced players, and then played by me a lot a little later. I also speculated on the card's potential as an unrestriction candidate in Vintage, concluding that it should be safe but pessimistic about WotC actually setting it free. I claimed...

That being said, if we could get a Bargain rogue deck, I'd build it and I wouldn't want to play anything else.
I was quite serious. I did indeed build a Bargain Storm deck. It's not my brew. I netdecked it at some point. Eventually, I do want to make my own refinements to it. This is of academic interest to me, as I have no plans to attend Vintage tournaments and my competitive Bargain Storm deck would generally be an unfair matchup for the casual games I tend to play. Bringing a gun to a knife fight or whatever.

Anyway, Bargain turned out to be safe, but also turned out to be strong enough to reasonably see play in Vintage. Bargain Storm is arguably the best Storm deck in Vintage currently, although it is relegated to a small share of the competitive metagame. That share has slowly climbed from being a novelty to being a respectable archetype, not even a rogue deck, really. I'm optimistic that Bargain Storm is here to stay, but it's hard to tell what the future holds. Supposedly, WotC was considering unrestricting Windfall, but it hasn't happened yet. I don't think that Windfall would add much.

Yawgmoth's Bargain was originally restricted in 1999, long before Tendrils of Agony existed. And that remained the case until August of last year, so the last five months have constituted the entirety of the existence of a possible competitive Bargain Storm deck. While Bargain was already featured as a one-off in many previous decks, this is kind of new territory. I have my thoughts on it and I'm going to continue testing my own Bargain Storm deck. I don't know whether any conclusions I come to should go here in the Tendrils thread or over in the Bargain thread, but it'll probably be neither. I intended these threads to be more about memories, and this is something new. Kind of. Sort of, anyway. We'll see. In any case, we're up to the present day. That's it for Tendrils of Agony in Vintage. The abridged version, anyway. One might notice that my summaries were brief and superficial. I didn't even provide any decklists. Much, much more could be said about Tendrils of Agony in Vintage. But someone else can worry about that. I set out to show that the application of the card and the types of decks that used it in tournaments had considerably variety.


The Tentacled One
I don't think that I have a lot of old casual Tendrils decklists saved, but while reminiscing on these things, I remembered that I'd archived Nick's old Enchantress Bloom deck here at the CPA. This is the list...

4x Enchantress's Presence
4x Argothian Enchantress
2x Demonic Tutor
1x Helix Pinnacle
1x Tendrils of Agony
1x Words of Wilding
2x Cadaverous Bloom
3x Squandered Resources
3x Fastbond
4x Elephant Grass
3x Planar Void
4x Seal of Primordium
4x Utopia Sprawl
4x Wild Growth
4x Bayou
12x Forest
3x Swamp
1x Serra's Sanctum

Most of my Tendrils decks were either built with Legacy or Vintage in mind or were casual decks that defied conventions of what is fair and such, running full playsets of Sol Ring and whatnot. This list looks a bit more on the tame side of things, although it does run 2 copies of Demonic Tutor and 3 copies of Fastbond. In the Memories thread for Wheel of Fortune, I talked about the crazy combo deck I helped Jared build for a "fun tournament."

Many years ago, a local gamestore used to run these "Type Fun" tournaments with no set format. They kind of made up rules as they went and often changed things on the fly. It was a total mess. I went a few times and actually won one of them. What did it take for me to win a tournament? Well, they decided to make it Two-Headed Giant. Then they decided that last time they'd done Two-Headed Giant it took too long, so each team would share 20 life instead of 40. I had my Burn deck. With Flame Rift and Fork. My random partner also had his own aggressive red deck. Some of our opponents put up a valiant effort, but we dominated our matches. My other ventures into these tournaments were far less successful. I had some noticeable bad luck. But my friend Jared (former CPA member Unsanitarypigs) participated in a lot more of these and fared better. At some point, in part due to his domination, they established a new rule that players couldn't kill their opponents until their fifth turn of the game. Because that's the kind of silliness you get when you don't ban cards and people start to scrape together broken decks (it would have happened much sooner, but most of the players were young). Out of spite and wanting to make a point that this rule wasn't going to work, Jared resolved to build a deck that sidestepped the rule. An eager proponent of spite (what is wrong with me, anyway?), I agreed to help him build a new deck. We were going through his cards and the conversation went something like this...

"If I use Strip Mine and Crucible of Worlds, I can lock them out of having lands for the first five turns before I kill them."
"Well then, use Fastbond."
"Oh yeah. But I need card-drawing. Maybe Yawgmoth's Bargain?"
"Could work. Both cards hurt you. You were going to hit them with Tendrils of Agony anyway, so you could gain some life back with that."
"But that would kill them and I am not allowed to kill them until turn 5."
"Well, you'd have to make sure that Tendrils is cast with a storm count 8, so you only hit them for 18 life. Then you wait to finish them off."
"I like it, but what if I can't find what I need?"
"Oh, just use Zuran Orb and instead of Fastbond hurting you, it can let you gain infinite life. Then you can use Bargain as many times as you need to."
"Alright, so Dark Ritual and Demonic Tutor to make sure that I get Bargain out fast. What else?"
"Wheel of Fortune and Windfall?"

I don't remember exactly how many playsets of Vintage-restricted cards we packed into this thing, but when we commenced to testing it, the result took us by surprise. We thought it would be fast, but this deck was incredible. It made my Academy deck look fair and balanced. Jared later reported back to me that he won every game with it at the tournament. I forget if I ever heard if they started using a banned list subsequently, although these silly tournaments were gone years later when I returned to that store.

Yes, broken cards are broken and this is news to no one. But like I said, it took us by surprise. We'd built cheesy combo decks before. I'd been using Tolarian Academy decks for several years before this, and I'd also done Memory Jar, High Tide, Bargain, etc. But I guess we just hadn't used such a critical mass of overpowered cards that synergized with each other. I think we'd missed just how strong Fastbond and Wheel/Windfall were together.
I suppose it goes without saying it that crazy stuff starts happening when you pile on playsets of cards like Fastbond, Wheel of Fortune, etc. Then again, Stephen Menendian claimed that Fastbond could be unrestricted in Vintage, so who knows? One might suspect that he's sore over losing unrestricted Gush for the fifteenth time or whatever it is now, and it just trying to trick everyone into a roundabout way of realizing that Gush isn't so bad. I don't know. On the one hand, Fastbond is completely bonkers and everyone knows it. On the other hand, didn't we all think that about Yawgmoth's Bargain? Dream Halls? I could just about get away with a Memories thread for Fastbond, but it'd just be a bunch of stuff that would elicit the response, "You build a bunch of obnoxious, broken combo decks." And that'd be true. Fair, I suppose. When I messed around with Fastbond, I didn't go, "Well, I'd better only use one copy, as per the Vintage Restricted List." If I look back, I did dabble with some more unequivocally "casual" stuff: Sensei's Divining Top loops, Second Sunrise and the Egg cards, Bubbling Muck "Dark Tide" decks, decks aiming to cast lots of copies of Meditate (a card that I still love), and even a deck based around Recycle. Some of the weird combo decks I tried to build were rather obvious and similar to the efforts others have also made. Some of them were really off-the-wall and I've never seen them anywhere else. Some of them just plain didn't work. So it's not just broken cards. I guess I could say, "I like decks that loop lots of spells together and Tendrils of Agony is a natural win condition for that sort of thing." Yeah. I like decks that loop lots of spells together and Tendrils of Agony is a natural win condition for that sort of thing.

But the most vivid memories and the concepts I stuck with ultimately were the broken cards. Broken cards are fun!


The Tentacled One
I don't know if this falls within the scope of memories about Tendrils of Agony, but it's been bugging me for a while and I've touched on the subject before...

In my previous post, I wrote about broken cards and using them with Tendrils of Agony. I've gotten some first-turn kills over the years. More, probably, than my fair share. But whether, it's Legacy, Vintage, or Casual, I've paired Tendrils with some pretty notorious cards. Just off the top of my head...

Wheel of Fortune
Lion's Eye Diamond
Black Lotus
Sol Ring
Mana Crypt
Mana Vault
Memory Jar
Mox Opal
Mox Diamond
Chrome Mox
Mox Emerald
Mox Jet
Mox Pearl
Mox Ruby
Mox Sapphire
Lotus Petal
Grim Monolith
Tolarian Academy
Gifts Ungiven
Yawgmoth's Will
Demonic Tutor
Demonic Consultation
Vampiric Tutor
Mana Drain
Ancestral Recall
Fact or Fiction
Mystical Tutor
Dark Ritual
Cabal Ritual
Rite of Flame
Seething Song
Yawgmoth's Bargain
Gitaxian Probe
Past in Flames
Ad Nauseam
Time Spiral
Time Walk
Library of Alexandria
Crop Rotation
Squandered Resources
Dream Halls
Sensei's Divining Top
Frantic Search
Hurkyl's Recall
Ancient Tomb
City of Traitors
Burning Wish
Infernal Tutor
Oath of Druids
Imperial Seal
Lotus Bloom
Ancestral Vision
Mind's Desire

That list isn't comprehensive, but I've used every single one of those cards in decks alongside Tendrils of Agony at some point. They've either been banned from tournaments, restricted from tournaments, or have been highly respected for their power in tournaments and widely employed for competitive Magic at some point. That list is practically a Who's Who of Broken Magic Cards. Tendrils of Agony, as I noted before, does very well for itself when a critical mass of powerful cards is available.

And yet, Tendrils itself has a reputation as broken. Without the cards on that list, it tends to be tame. Lackluster. When a card needs access to other cards, cards already acknowledged to be broken for other reasons, in order to be powerful, then that card is probably not broken. Much of this culture surrounding Tendrils of Agony seems to come from players who don't really have direct experience with the card, but who are familiar with Mark Rosewater's "Storm Scale." Storm, you see, is at the top of the scale. Therefore, it is broken. Or "bah-roken" but that isn't a real word. Well, Mark Rosewater has said other things on the topic as well, and none of those other things were explanations of how Storm is too powerful. While I haven't seen him state it explicitly, Mark Rosewater does not like the set Scourge. When it comes to his own mechanics, some of which have been demonstrably problematic in tournaments, he has tended to either remark on the mistakes as learning experiences or to shift the blame to development (to opine that the cards or mechanics were potentially good design, but that the costs weren't fine-tuned properly and resulted in something too efficient). And that's fine. I don't agree with all of his conclusions on those "mistakes" but some of his analysis seems spot-on. Uh, for example, he's described the issue with Dredge that the more of it there is, the easier it is to manipulate and that it inherently makes other, graveyard-fueled mechanics more dangerous than they otherwise would be, limiting design space. And as an example on the other side of the coin, I disagree with his analysis of the land-untapping "free spells" from Urza's Block, which he seems to regard as a mistake because they actually managed to affect tournament gameplay in unanticipated ways, even though the confluence of circumstances required to make them especially powerful is elaborate and not evidence for a blanket condemnation of the entire mechanic (i.e. yes, Palinchron can go infinite, but that doesn't mean the whole "free spells" mechanic is inherently unsafe).

With Storm, perhaps uniquely, a mechanic that wasn't even a problem in tournaments is misremembered as not merely dangerous, but as the most broken mechanic ever. With mechanics like Dredge and Affinity for artifacts able to lay claim to devastating major tournament environments and leading to card bans, one would think that the most broken mechanic would have been a much bigger disaster. Instead, Mind's Desire was preemptively banned in Vintage, an unpopular format with the unique distinction of having a bunch of 0-drop mana-producing artifacts to fuel the "get to cast stuff for free based on the number of spells I've cast this turn" card. Considering the widespread understanding, and explicit acknowledgment on the part of Mark Rosewater himself for that matter, that making spells free is dangerous, one would think that the problem there is Mind's Desire specifically and not the entire Storm mechanic. It was a weird case anyway and the crisis was averted by a restriction. Sure, the "Burning Desire" decks then got out of hand, but that was Lion's Eye Diamond, the broken card in the rough, the "oops, we forgot to restrict Black Lotus." Do attributions of brokenness from that debacle get attached to Tendrils of Agony, the humble kill card? I'd think they shouldn't. We wouldn't see Channel + Fireball and then decide to ban Fireball.

That brings the "Tendrils decks broken in formats without access to Black Lotus and Moxen" to a whopping zero. I touched on virtually every Tendrils deck in every sanctioned format at some point in this thread. None of them went on to dominate. Most of them were what tournament players would think of as "tier 2" although some of them were comfortably "tier 1." If there's a problem inherent to Storm as a mechanic or to Tendrils of Agony, where's the smoking gun? Where's the format it ruined? The card, and the mechanic with it, seem to be unfairly maligned.