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Vintage 101: From Dark Rituals to Dark Petitions

Oh, the Agony!

A Long Time Ago, in a Tournament Far, Far away...

One of the more popular decks on Magic Online these days is Storm. Sometimes it's called TPS (The Perfect Storm); sometimes people refer to it as DPT (Dark Petition Tendrils). Storm decks were among the first decks I played when I began my journey into competitive Vintage. I spent a lot of time reading about those decks at the time. I wanted to learn as much as I could, so I spent hours scouring the internet and reading old articles by Stephen Menendian and other popular Vintage writers. What I found was there was a long line of Vintage decks that used Tendrils of Agony as their win-condition. The amazing thing is that many of the cards core to the deck's strategy have remained very close to what you might see in an event today. I think there's a lot to be gained from learning from the past, so in today's Vintage 101 we're going to look at the lineage of Ritual-based Storm.

It's a (Mike) Long Story...

Onslaught block had a huge impact on Eternal Magic formats and gave Magic players the first round of "fetch lands." Even though the fetches were fantastic for building a mana base, the flashiest cards came later on. The final set of the block, Scourge, would introduce a couple of cards that were of immediate interest to combo players. Indeed these cards, and the Storm mechanic would change Magic forever. 

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Prior to Storm-based win conditions, many combo decks were designed to generate obscene amounts of mana and used cards like Stroke of Genius to kill someone. It took quite a lot of mana to win with Stroke of Genius, and while it wasn't that hard to generate the 50+ mana needed for Stroke to be lethal, it was still a lot of work. The Storm count generated while making a lethal Stroke of Genius would likely make Tendrils of Agony kill someone several times over. Anyone with experience playing combo decks before Scourge would have known that Storm was a combo player's best friend. While the consensus was that Tendrils and Mind's Desire were amazing, the real question was what deck would the Storm cards fit best into? Tolarian Academy combo decks seemed like an obvious fit, but in the end a new archetype would emerge. 

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The Storm deck first started to take shape when a player by the name of Mike Kryzwicki put together a deck built to abuse Lion's Eye Diamond, Yawgmoth's Will, Burning Wish, and most importantly, Mind's Desire. Apparently this deck, aptly named "Burning Desire", was so powerful that the staff at Wizards built a copy to see for themselves. They found that indeed Mind's Desire was worthy of restriction. On July 1st, 2003 Mind's Desire went on the Vintage Restricted list. Attention quickly turned to Tendrils of Agony as the primary focus for brewing the Storm deck.

It was around this time that the infamous former Pro Tour player Mike Long began to expound upon the potency of this combo deck on various online forums. Mike Long's name became so associated with the archetype that people started calling it "Long.DEC". According to everything I could dig up, Mike Long didn't actually design the first versions of the deck, but the "Long" name has stuck ever since. 

The deck pictured above is an early build of Long.DEC designed by Stephen Menendian. The classic build of the deck has play sets of Lion's Eye Diamond and Burning Wish, two of its most important cards. Another aspect of "Long" that made it different from a dedicated Tolarian Academy deck was the use of Dark Ritual. While some Academy decks did indeed use Rituals, many did not and this new archetype was much more centered around Dark Ritual than those Academy builds. 

Long.DEC represents the original "Ritual-Based Storm Deck." This is why when people mention the pillars of the format, Dark Ritual is named as one of them. The realization at the time was that one of the fastest and most consistent ways to build a lethal Storm count was through the use of "Ritual effects" (Dark Ritual, Cabal Ritual, Black Lotus, or Lion's Eye Diamond), Tutors, and Yawgmoth's Will

Regarding Burning Wish, it's important to note that at this time "removed from game" did not function exactly as it does today. There was no "exile zone" as we now know it. What this meant was that not only could Burning Wish fetch a card from the sideboard as it does today, but it could also fetch a card that was removed from the game by what we refer to now as "exiled." For instance, Yawgmoth's Will exiles itself and all cards that would be put into a graveyard the turn it is cast. In the era that this deck was legal you could Burning Wish for a [[Yagmoth's Will] that you had already played once! This interaction made Burning Wish even more powerful than it is today.

Lion's Eye Diamond (LED) is a card that had seen some play in combo decks in the past, but for the most part the colloquial nickname for it, "Bad Lotus," was an apt description. Mike Kryznicki happened to see the true potential of LED, and as a result he was able to design the fastest deck in Magic at the time. With all of the draw-seven effects and graveyard recursion in this deck, Lion's Eye Diamond did the best Black Lotus impression anyone had ever seen before. All of a sudden the "Bad Lotus" didn't seem so terrible . . . 

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Part of the lasting legacy of Long.DEC is that it was responsible for the eventual restriction of Burning Wish and Lion's Eye Diamond. Eventually Burning Wish would come off of the restricted list, but Lion's Eye Diamond is likely to remain there in perpetuity. Aspects such as speed and consistency are what makes a combo deck viable or not. Restricting key cards like Lion's Eye Diamond and Burning Wish threatened to derail the deck by reducing the frequency and speed of its combo kill. Vintage players didn't give up on the "Long" concept and a substitute for Burning Wish was found.

After the aforementioned restriction of Burning WishDeath Wish was used as a temporary replacement, creating "DeathLong." Death Wish was ultimately replaced with Grim Tutor once "beginners only" sets like Portal and Starter became tournament legal in October of 2005. Grim Tutor was nearly identical in function to Death Wish but much less hazardous to a player's life total. 


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The Perfect Storm

Many players who have picked up Vintage in the last year or so have felt the effects of Chalice of the Void, both before and after it was restricted. It has been a long time since Workshop decks had one of their key lock pieces restricted, and Chalice absolutely was not the first bogeyman to emerge from the Workshop decks. Darksteel brought the wrath of the mighty Trinisphere down upon the combo-playing masses, and it was a frightening thing to behold. 

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With four copies of Mishra's Workshop and four Trinispheres, Workshop decks in the Darksteel era of Vintage were able to play a turn one Three-Ball a large percentage of the time. On the play this move was absolutely backbreaking and effectively ended a game in short order. In response to the threat of Trinisphere, European Vintage players designed a deck that they called "The Perfect Storm."

Take a look at this list and you'll see one of the defining features that makes a deck a TPS deck. This list plays Force of Will in addition to Duress as its disruption / protection package. Decks directly descendent of "Long" typically played only Duress-effects to ensure they resolved their key spells. 

With Trinisphere a major threat at the time, Storm decks of this era needed a way to combat the artifact menace. To do so The Perfect Storm employed several "artifact bounce" spells like Rebuild and Hurkyl's Recall. The idea was that you'd spend your early turns building up as much mana as possible so that you could cast a bounce spell at your opponent's end step, enabling you to combo off unimpeded the following turn. 

Force of Will was another hedge against Workshop decks. Workshop decks are always the strongest when they're on the play. Their fast mana allows them to play their inhibitory cards like Sphere of Resistance or Trinisphere before their opponent's first turn. This advantage often leaves many cards and mana-artifacts stuck in the opponent's hand. Force of Will in the opening hand is far from a guarantee that the Blue mage will win, but it can go a long way towards ensuring they can create a meaningful board presence in the early game. 

Changing the make up of the deck to improve matches against Workshops had both positive and negative effects for the deck. TPS had a much higher land count than decks designed in the "Long" fashion, and TPS was a few turns slower on average. Still, being able to Force a turn one Trinisphere instead of rolling over and dying was a legitimate strategy. 

Here's the Pitch!

Continuing on with the practice of using the word "Long" in a Storm deck's name, up next we have Pitch Long.

Shown above is the deck that Paul Mastriano used to win the Vintage Championship in 2008. At first glance Pitch Long, Grim Long, and TPS all are very similar. The main difference here is there are less lands than the TPS deck and more "pitch spells" like Force of Will and Misdirection. I've seen lists that use as many as six or seven "pitch spells", but this list opted for only one Misdirection

The Pitch Long deck also used Tinker into Darksteel Colossus as an alternate win condition. Today Darksteel Colossus has been supplanted by Blightsteel Colossus, but many Storm decks are eschewing the Tinker / Bot kill anyway. 

The Days of Dark Petition

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Perhaps the biggest thing to happen to Ritual-Based Storm decks in recent history is the printing of the best replacement for Grim Tutor thus far, Dark Petition. Most of the time Dark Petition equates to having extra copies of the restricted Demonic Tutor for Storm pilots. It takes a little bit of forethought to use properly, but much of the time the Magic Origins sorcery is cast with spell mastery and it leads to the resolution of Necropotence or Yawgmoth's Will and subsequent victory. 

At its core Dark Petition Storm is just like a Grim Long deck. All of the decks in this family tree used Grim Tutor (or Burning Wish in the case of the original "Long" decks) as supplementary copies of Demonic Tutor. Grim was the closest Tutor to Demonic for many years, but it's obvious now that Dark Petition is better than it in nearly every way. The only real downside to Dark Petition is that it requires you to get to five mana to cast it, and it relies on Spell Mastery to be efficient enough to warrant playing it. This clause means that mana-taxing cards and graveyard nukes can turn Dark Petition into a worse version of Diabolic Tutor — quite scary for a Vintage player. 

Just like Grim Long, the current crop of Petition-based Storm decks are running discard for their protection suite instead of Force of Will. Duress and Cabal Therapy are more efficient than Force of Will and can be used proactively. Force costs two cards to protect one of your spells, and you really want as many cards in your hand as possible with this style of deck. More cards means that your Storm turn will be easier to put together, and it will be more likely to create a lethal Storm count. Playing discard instead of pitch spells like Force of Will and Misdirection also means you don't have to care about the number of Blue cards in your deck. There's nothing worse than sitting on a Force of Will that you can't cast because you're holding a hand full of Black cards and artifacts. 

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Another major piece of technology utilized by modern Storm decks is Defense Grid. This anti-counter card is so potent that for a while most Vintage Storm decks were playing some number of them in their main decks. Grid demands an answer immediately, otherwise the Storm pilot is free to combo off unimpeded. If your opponent does manage to hit the Defense Grid with Force of Will or Mana Drain, there's now one less counter to stop the follow-up Necropotence. In this way Grid plays into the classic Storm strategy of throwing bomb after bomb onto the table forcing opponents to waste all of their countermeasures. Choosing to play Defense Grid is another reason to not run Force of Will due to the painfully obvious conflict between the two cards. 

Future Storm

Storm decks are performing very well these days, but in recent history they had not been doing nearly as well. The landscape of the format is much different today than it was in 2003. Since the time of the first Storm decks, many cards have been printed that make it tough for the deck to succeed as easily as it once had.

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Cards like Mental Misstep allowed a free and easy way of countering key cards like Dark Ritual or Duress. Stopping a Dark Ritual might not seem like a huge problem, but doing so could stop a Storm deck from resolving a bomb like Necropotence or Yawgmoth's Bargain. Mindbreak Trap is a counter that can potentially stop a spell chain dead in its tracks, and it is one of the few ways to completely counter Tendrils of Agony. Flusterstorm is also a potential road block for a Storm player. 

Workshop decks have become much more potent in the years since Long.DEC as well. Cards like Lodestone Golem, Thorn of Amethyst, and Phyrexian Revoker hadn't been printed when Storm was at its peak. While early TPS decks were built to beat Trinisphere, the mighty three-ball doesn't actually provide pressure in the form of a damage clock. In contrast, Lodestone Golem provides a mana-taxing ability to Workshops with a built-in four-turn clock. The plan of slowly building up mana to cast an end step Hurkyl's Recall just doesn't work when you're being smashed for five damage a turn. 

As I had mentioned, when I started playing Vintage on Magic Online, Storm decks were what I played. They were somewhat popular at the time. Each week Workshop decks began to take up more and more of the online metagame, and I soon realized that it was a terrible match up and I moved on to other decks. Many Magic Online players did the same, and Storm decks dwindled to near extinction in the Magic Online queues. Workshops continued their upward trajectory and the archetype represented roughly half of the Magic Online metagame around the time of the last Vintage Championships in August of 2015. Then in September, Storm players of the world received a small reprieve; Chalice of the Void went on the restricted list. 

With Chalice restricted, the online meta shifted away from Workshop-Prison. Decks with greedier mana bases started to become more prevalent. Soon, Eric Froelich and several other prominent members of the Magic Online Vintage community started playing Dark Petition Storm decks, and other players followed suit. In fact, it was only a few short weeks ago that "TPS" was the most popular category on the MTGGoldfish Vintage Metagame page. 

The number of Storm decks have started to recede slightly as Workshops have once again gained momentum. As it stands at the time of this writing Workshop decks are number one, and Storm is sitting at number three, with less than half as many appearances as Workshop decks.

Even with Chalice restricted, Workshop decks are not a great match up for Storm decks. The situation is probably better than it was in the past, due to there being less times that a turn-one Chalice will prevent the Storm deck from playing any of it's Moxen. If you love casting your Dark Petitions, you're going to have to have a very solid plan for dealing with Workshop decks attacking your mana base. 

Besides the obvious spells like Hurkyl's Recall, I've seen Storm decks that have played cards like Pulverize in their sideboard along with some number of basic Mountains. Another route is to play Wastelands in the sideboard to cripple the Workshop deck's mana, and some people play Ancient Tomb in their sideboard as well. One Ancient Tomb can help pay for the cost of a pair of "Spheres" allowing the Storm player to actually play their Hurkyl's Recall before they die to a Lodestone Golem.

With the recent shift of the metagame and increase in Workshop decks, I question if it might be a good time to revive and update the classic TPS build. Force of Will, Hurkyl's, and Rebuild are very helpful when facing Workshops. Cards like Duress and Cabal Therapy are not as effective against Workshops as they are against Blue decks, especially on the draw. 

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The Vintage format is still in flux. It is still adjusting to the restriction of Chalice, and people are learning which decks are better positioned than others. I don't know for sure where the format will settle, but in the future Storm decks aren't likely to be as prevalent as they had been a month or two ago. Oath of the Gatewatch doesn't seem to have anything in it that will turn the format on its head, although there are a few cards that might see some play. Warping Wail and Sea Gate Wreckage might see play in Workshops, but I don't think that there's anything to make Ritual-based combo any better or worse than it already is. 

One important thing to note, there have been many other decks that have used a card with Storm as a win-condition. This article has focused on the Dark Ritual-based combo decks, but there's a rich history of Vintage combo decks beyond this one group. Perhaps one day I'll write about those decks. Gifts Ungiven could probably get its own article, and there's plenty of interesting history about Gush as well. 

Thanks for joining me this week, I hope you enjoyed this little Magical History Tour. You can follow me on Twitter @josephfiorinijr - Islandswamp on MTGO

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