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Deck Evolutions: Modern Storm


The Storm archetype is one that gets a strong response from players. Some people absolutely love it and will play it any chance they get; others absolutely hate it and feel like its goldfishing plan of ignoring the opponent and casting as many spells as possible in one turn isn't "real" Magic. Wizards itself seems to be in the latter group, or at least close to it. In fact, Maro's ranking of how likely a mechanic is to return in a future set is named after Storm—The Storm Scale—because Storm is one of the mechanics that is least likely to return. Furthermore, as we will see, Wizards has targeted the deck with more bannings than any other Modern deck. It's been said that necessity is the mother of invention, and nowhere is this truer than in regard to the evolution of Storm in Modern. While some of the changes over the years have come simply because they improve the deck, many have been forced by bannings. 

As a result, the forced fighting-for-survival changes make the Deck Evolutions of Storm in Modern read differently than our other Deck Evolutions. Usually, the most recent build of the deck is the most powerful, having several more years of cards at its disposal, but this is debatable with Storm, and it's possible that some of the earlier Modern Storm decks were the best of the bunch. 

Beneath everything else, the plan of the Storm deck has remained more or less the same: cast enough spells to kill the opponent with Grapeshot, and if this doesn't work for some reason (for instance, the opponent has a Leyline of Sanctity), finish the game with Empty the Warrens. However, what spells Storm casts to achieve this plan have changed a lot over the lifespan of Modern, so let's get to it! Oh, by the way, this is actually the seventh installment in our Deck Evolutions series; in the past, we've covered Modern Tron, Legacy Miracles, the now-extinct Modern Twin, Modern Jund, Modern Death's Shadow and Modern Dredge, so make sure to check them out if you missed any of them the first time around!

Double Pyro-Storm (Magic Online Daily Event, August 2011)

Modern was first announced in May 2011, and the first Modern Pro Tour happened in September of 2011. Storm was part of the format right from the start. The first finish I could find for a true Modern Storm deck actually came in August 2011, nearly two months before Pro Tour Philadelphia, with a Magic Online user named SilverRocket taking Double Pyromancer Storm to an undefeated finish in a daily event. It was this build of the deck that sort of set the baseline moving forward. The foundation of the deck is fairly simple: 20 cantrips, including Ponder, Preordain, Serum Visions, Gitaxian Probe, and Manamorphose; a bunch of rituals; and Grapeshot to finish off the game. That said, there are two interesting aspects of the deck.

First are the rituals. What you won't find in the deck are current storm staples Desperate Ritual and Pyretic Ritual (both of which are +1 mana). Instead, Double Pyromancer Storm had Rite of Flame (at least +1 mana and up to +4 mana) and Seething Song (+2 mana). Having access to so much fast mana made the deck significantly scarier than it is today. Current Storm decks most often win on Turn 4 while sometimes winning on Turn 3 with very good draws. With Double Pyromancer Storm, it wasn't impossible to win on Turn 1, and winning by Turn 3 was the norm. The second interesting aspect of the deck is the inclusion of both Pyromancer Ascension and Pyromancer's Swath.

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One common theme you'll find in Storm decks is the ability to double up on their spells, especially their finishers. Even for a deck like Storm, literally casting 19 spells before Grapeshot can be challenging—that's 1/3 of your entire deck in the same turn! As a result, having cards that allow you to finish the game while only casting seven, eight, or 10 spells is key to the deck's success. Pyromancer Ascension offers one avenue—after you turn it on (conveniently by casting spells), all of your instants and sorceries are doubled, but a less common solution is Pyromancer's Swath. Pyromancer's Swath is a high-risk card—discarding your hand at the end of the turn is a major downside—but it makes it so each copy of Grapeshot deals three damage rather than one. So, the basic idea is that you wait until the turn you are comboing off to cast the enchantment, and then you only need seven copies of Grapeshot to win the game rather than 20. In theory, this leads to Turn 1 wins where you can double Rite of Flame into Seething Song, cast some Gitaxian Probes, cast Pyromancer's Swath, and then Grapeshot for lethal—a level of explosiveness we haven't seen from Modern Storm in a long, long time.

Ascension Storm (Pro Tour Philadelphia, September 2011)

Major Additions: Remand, Muddle the Mixture, Banefire.

Major Subtractions: Pyromancer's Swath, Serum Visions.

At the very first Modern Pro Tour, two Storm decks made the Top 8. While both decks are different, they had one thing in common: they dropped Pyromancer's Swath and went with Pyromancer Ascension as the "double up" spell of choice. While Pyromancer's Swath didn't disappear completely and reared its head at various times over the coming years, Pyromancer Ascension quickly became the primary enchantment finisher in the deck. As for the rest of the deck, you can see a focus on beating counterspells, with Muddle the Mixture and Remand offering ways to force through important spells and Banefire giving the deck an uncounterable alternative way to finish the game. While the deck didn't win the Pro Tour, it did perform well enough and looked scary enough that Wizards decided something needed to be done to reign in its power. This something took place later in the month, during a Banned and Restricted announcement brought on by the Pro Tour. 

September 2011—Bannings (Part 1)

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After looking at the data from the Pro Tour, Wizards announced a massive update to the banned list in Modern, which had huge impacts on Storm. Its two best cantrips—Ponder and Preordain—were both banned, along with Rite of Flame for good measure. When you consider that the typical Storm deck plays 18 lands (leaving room for 42 non-land spells in the main deck), these bannings meant that nearly 1/3 of the Storm deck from the Pro Tour was suddenly illegal. Typically, losing 1/3 of your non-land cards would kill a deck—it would be the equivalent of Wizards banning Liliana of the Veil, Tarmogoyf, and Thoughtseize from Jund or Karn Liberated, Expedition Map, and Sylvan Scrying from Tron—but Modern Storm is not your typical deck. Based in part on a new card that also saw print in September 2011, Storm players simply evolved and kept putting up finishes with their favorite archetype. 

Past in Flames Storm (Magic Online Daily Event, December 2011)

Major Additions: Past in Flames, Serum Visions, Sleight of Hand, Pyretic Ritual, Desperate Ritual, Desperate Ravings.

Major Subtractions: Weird Pro Tour metagame choices like Banefire, all of the banned cards. 

Immediately after the bannings, Storm saw a dip in play for a couple of months, but in a move that demonstrates Wizards' love / hate relationship with the deck, just as they were attempting to ban the archetype out of Modern, Wizards printed perhaps the best Storm card in the format: Past in Flames. In Legacy and Vintage, one of the key cards in Storm is Yawgmoth's Will, which gives the deck a way to not only reuse all of its finishers but all of its mana producers and cantrips as well. With the printing of Past in Flames in Innistrad, Modern Storm players had their Yawgmoth's Will and in some ways, a better version of Yawgmoth's Will, since you don't even have to draw it; you can simply mill it into your graveyard with cantrips like Desperate Ravings and cast it with flashback when you are ready to win the game. 

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Oddly, it took players a little while to catch onto Past in Flames (perhaps because people were down on Storm in general, thanks to the bannings). While Innistrad was released in September, it wasn't until December that the first Past in Flames Storm list put up a result in an extremely small Italian tournament, in the hands of Francisco Moreno. While Moreno may deserve credit for creating the deck, its explosion in popularity came thanks to a Magic Online user by the name of JohnnyHotSauce, probably better known as Andrew Shrout. While Shrout didn't put up the first Magic Online result with the deck (that honor goes to a user named Inuyasha, who beat Shrout to the title by one day), Shrout was by far the highest-profile name to finish with the deck and spent the next several years championing the deck.

For the rest of 2011 and through most of 2012, things were quite on the Storm front. Most of the decks putting up finishes looked like the one above, playing a combination of Past in Flames and Pyromancer Ascension too as "doublers." A few people tried Gifts Ungiven, but it didn't really catch on. Over the next nine months, the deck added a couple of Grand Prix Top 8s to its name, along with a ton of PTQ and Magic Online finishes. As the next Modern Pro Tour—Pro Tour Return to Ravnica in October 2012—drew near, the stage was set for Storm to have another breakout performance with the help of yet another new card. 

Electromancer Storm (Pro Tour Return to Ravnica, October 2012)

Major Additions: Goblin Electromancer.

Major Subtraction: Lands.

At Pro Tour Return to Ravnica, Storm was once again one of the winners, not so much because it had a great performance (although it was fine, with two players getting into the Top 32) but because of who played it: Jon Finkel, Reid Duke, Owen Turtenwald, and Huey Jenson, along with some of their teammates. Simply that fact that several of the greatest players in the world decided that Storm was the correct choice for a Pro Tour was a huge boost for the archetype, which was still finding its footing after the massive bannings only a year before. The deck itself looked much like Past in Flames Storm—in fact, it only got one new card, but this one addition was huge.

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As I mentioned before, the story of Storm in Modern is a tale of players overcoming adversity and adapting to bannings. If Wizards bans your rituals, you simply build your own rituals with the help of Goblin Electromancer. While it might not look like much, when you consider that the entire idea of Storm is to cast a ton of instants and sorceries in the same turn, Goblin Electromancer often ends up adding five or even 10 mana. While it doesn't read like Rofellos, Llanowar Emissary or Metalworker, the effect is actually very similar. In a broader sense, Goblin Electromancer often cut an entire turn off the clock of Storm. If you could play a Goblin Electromancer on Turn 2, it was fairly easy to untap and win on Turn 3. 

After the Pro Tour, Electromancer Storm became the default build of the deck. Players were winning on Turn 3 at both the Grand Prix level (with Olivier Ruel making the Top 8 at the first Modern Grand Prix after Pro Tour Return to Ravnica) and on Magic Online and the PTQ circuit. The deck also moved itself into the top tier of Modern. It's also important to remember that this was back when Wizards actually had a "Turn 4" rule in Modern, when decks that consistently won by Turn 3 (or earlier) were in danger of seeing a banning. As such, it's not really a surprise that Wizards went after the archetype once again when the January Banned and Restricted announcement came out.

January 2013, Bannings (Part 2)

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"The DCI's...primary goal for Modern is to not have top tier decks that frequently win on turn three (or earlier). Looking at the results of the recent tournaments, Storm is not the most played deck, but it is among the top tier of decks. Four of the players to get at least 18 points at Pro Tour Return to Ravnica were playing Storm, and Olivier Ruel had a Top 8 performance at Grand Prix Lyon playing Storm. On Magic Online, Storm is the second-most-frequent high-finishing deck in Modern events, at 11.42%, behind only Jund. These results indicate that, while far from dominant, Storm is a top tier deck. Looking at the results of games, turn-three wins are frequent for Storm, contrary to the DCI's stated goals for the format. The DCI looked for a card that was very important to the turn-three wins but not one of the cards that make this deck unique. We decided Seething Song is the best choice. Even with no other mana acceleration, one can cast Seething Song on turn three and it gives a net acceleration of +2 mana. While there are other options for fast mana, none appear as efficient and reliable on turn three as Seething Song."

—Erik Lauer, January 27, 2013 Banned and Restricted Announcement

While I think that Erik Lauer does a fairly good job of explaining the reasoning for why Seething Song was banned, it is worth pointing out that, with this banning, a full 38% of the non-land cards from the original Modern Storm deck were now banned in the Modern format. That's nearly half of the cards in the deck! This would have to mean the end of Storm in the format...right?

Increasing Vengeance Storm (Grand Prix Portland, May 2013)

Major Additions: Increasing Vengeance.

Major Subtractions: Seething Song.  

While Finkel wasn't the first person to play Storm after the banning (this was a Magic Online user named usokui3, who simply slotted in Izzet Charm and one Noxious Revival into the Seething Song slot), the fact that, even after another banning, he simply picked up the deck, changed a couple of cards, and proceeded to Top 16 a GP (Portland, May 2013) shows just how dedicated Storm players are to their deck. Barring the banning of Grapeshot, Storm players are going to figure out a way to kill people by casting a bunch of spells in one turn, no matter what Wizards bans from their favorite deck. 

That said, the banning of Seething Song really hurt Storm. It immediately fell from the second most played deck in the format to tier three. Through all of 2013, the deck didn't have a single finish in a major event, although it still had a presence on Magic Online and in smaller events, mostly thanks to extremely dedicated Storm players like JohnnyHotSauce, grapplingfarang, and umbrageous, who put up most of the finishes with the deck.

Looting Storm (Pro Tour Born of the Gods, February 2014)

Major Additions: Faithless Looting.

Major Subtractions: Increasing Vengeance.

Eventually, Modern Storm players settled in on Faithless Looting being the replacement for Seething Song, and Modern Storm settled into a long period of mediocrity, being good enough that some players would run the deck but not good enough to really have a huge impact on the format (and also not good enough to be targeted by another banning). Chris Fennell managed to Top 8 Pro Tour Born of the Gods with the above list, and for most of 2013 and 2014, nearly all Storm decks in Modern looked very similar. Then, at nearly the end of 2014, Storm suddenly seemed poised to make a comeback, thanks to the printing of a certain eight-mana common.

Treasure Cruise Storm (Worlds, December 2014)

Major Additions: Treasure Cruise, Thought Scour.

Major Subtractions: Mostly just trimming finishers, down to two: Past in Flames and Grapeshot.

The end of 2014 was a very strange time in Modern. Treasure Cruise and Dig Through Time were clearly the two best cards in the format (printing Ancestral Recall and a double Demonic Tutor will do that), and all of the best decks in Modern at the time were taking advantage of these cards in one way or another. While not the primary beneficiary (this was UR Delver), having access to Treasure Cruise specifically briefly gave Storm another window to shine in Modern.

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While still not tier one, Storm did see an uptick in play between September and December of 2014, culminating with several of the best players at Worlds 2014 bringing Treasure Cruise Storm to the tournament. While in number, the changes to the deck were few—mostly just Treasure Cruise itself and Thought Scour to help fill the graveyard for Treasure Cruise—having access to what is usually a one-mana draw three did a lot to improve the consistency of the Storm deck and help move it back up toward the top of the Modern format. Of course, as Modern Storm players know all too well, all good things come to an end, and Treasure Cruise Storm came to an end quickly. 

January 2015: Bannings (Parts Three and Four)

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While it is probably unfair to say that the banning of Treasure Cruise in Modern was targeted at Storm (in reality, both Treasure Cruise and Dig Through Time were simply too good for the format), losing access to a one-mana draw three was another big blow to the deck. For all of 2015 and 2016, the deck went back into hibernation in the second or third tier of the format. To replace Treasure Cruise, the deck basically just reverted back to the old Goblin Electromancer builds, and while it managed to post some results on Magic Online (often in the hands of longtime Storm players) and squeaked out a Top 8 at Grand Prix Detroit in March of 2016, the two-year period after the banning of Treasure Cruise was likely the worst Storm had ever been in Modern. When Finkel shows up to a Modern tournament and doesn't play Storm, you know the deck is in a bad place. To top things off, two years later, Gitaxian Probe was banned as well. Once again, this banning wasn't because of Storm (Infect and various Temur Battle Rage decks were far bigger culprits), at present, 20 of the 42 non-land cards from the original Modern Storm deck are banned in the format.

 

Baral Gifts Storm (Magic Online League, February 2017)

Major Additions: Baral, Chief of Compliance, Gifts Ungiven

Major Subtractions: Faithless Looting, more trimming of finishers.

Just when things looked darkest for Storm in Modern, Wizards printed a card that would shoot the deck back near the top of the format: Baral, Chief of Compliance. In past builds of Storm, Goblin Electromancer was key to the deck winning on Turn 3 or 4, but there was a major problem: you only got four copies of Goblin Electromancer, so there would be lots of games where you didn't have access to the cost-reducing effect (and when you consider how easy it is to kill a Goblin Electromancer on Turn 2, even if you happen to draw one, there's a good chance you won't get to untap with it). Baral, Chief of Compliance solved this problem in multiple ways. Most obviously, simply by being additional copies of Goblin Electromancer, it made it much more likely that you'd have a cost-reducer in your opening hand and more likely that you find another in a timely manner if your opponent manages to kill your first one. Second, Baral, Chief of Compliance allows the deck to use Gifts Ungiven consistently to tutor up its creatures or a game-ending package of rituals and finishers as early as Turn 3.

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Gifts Ungiven becoming a centerpiece of the Storm deck is one of the key parts of the deck's latest evolution. In some ways, this is the Storm deck realizing that it is no longer the best "Turn 3 kill" deck in Modern. If you want to cast a Gifts Ungiven in Baral Gifts Storm, you literally cannot win the game on Turn 3. Instead of trying to be the fastest deck in Modern, the current build of Storm instead has staked its claim as the most consistent Turn 4 deck in Modern. While Gifts Ungiven can't win you the game on Turn 3, if you resolve it on Turn 3 (thanks to a Baral, Chief of Compliance or Goblin Electromancer), it's very difficult to not win the game on Turn 4 with a Gifts pile consisting of Pyretic Ritual, Desperate Ritual, Manamorphose, and Past in Flames.

As weird as it sounds, in some ways, Storm in Modern has come full circle. Wizards banned all of the most powerful rituals, but now players simply build their own Dark Rituals with the help of Baral, Chief of Compliance and [Goblin Electromancer]]. Wizards banned all of the best cantrips, but now Storm players use Thought Scour as a cantrip that also sort of draws extra cards, since the milled cards can be flashed back with Past in Flames. Oddly, the deck that was once among the most hated in all of Magic is now an inspirational underdog story of players overcoming the odds, besting forces outside their control, and continuing to find success, no matter what Wizards throws at them. 

What does the future hold for Storm in Modern? It's hard to say. Right now, the deck is solidly in the second tier of the format (currently the 12th most played deck in Modern), and while it seems unlikely that this current build of Storm will be targeted by a banning, it's also dangerous to underestimate just how much Wizards hates Storm, so anything is possible. The good news for Storm is that Wizards is literally running of out of cards to ban. All of the good cantrips are gone. All of the good rituals are gone. So, unless Wizards decides to kill the deck once and for all by banning Grapeshot or Past in Flames, it seems like Storm may be able to live out its days in peace—no longer as the Turn 3 monster it once was but as a solid and unique deck in Modern.

Conclusion

Anyway, that's all for today. What do you think of Storm? Do you love it or hate it? Is it possible that the deck could see even more bannings? If so, what could be banned? Let me know in the comments, and as always, you can reach me on Twitter @SaffronOlive or at SaffronOlive@MTGGoldfish.com.


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