I am aware of the fact that maybe I’m writing about Storm a little too much. But usually, I am talking about how to improve with Storm. This time, I’m acting against my own self-interest in talking about how to beat Storm. If you’re a Storm player, you might still benefit from this article though, because you can also read this as “Why am I losing with Storm?”, which is certainly an important question to ask oneself.
Further, this article is not exactly specific to Storm, much of what I’m saying applies to beating combo decks in general. However, certain aspects are specific to Storm and I will be leaving out information pertaining other combo decks, like Sneak & Show for example.
The most important aspect of beating combo decks is the realisation that you can not just leave them alone – if you do that, they will eventually just kill you. And in the case of many combo decks, eventually means turn two or three (if left alone).
This puts players facing combo decks in an unusual position; they have to be beatdown and control at the same time. You can’t just try to race them because they’re faster than even the most aggressive “interactive” decks, but you can’t just try to lock them out either, because they will have answers.
Let that sink in, because it’s a mistake novice players often make: They put some hate card in their sideboard and expect that card to win the matchup for them. This might work for some decks in Modern, but in Legacy, combo decks are faster, more consistent and have better interaction.
One Trinisphere is not going to just beat Storm. I have seen players Storm through massive amounts of hate, Trinisphere is not an exception.
What you really want from your cards is to slow your Storm opponents down, to the point where you can win before they can.
You don’t play Thoughtseize in the hopes of taking their one business spell and them never drawing another.
You don’t play four copies of Force of Will in the hopes of always countering their Infernal Tutor.
You shouldn’t expect your Storm opponent to scoop to Thalia, Guardian of Thraben or Chalice of the Void on one either.
These are the three pillars of interaction: Discard, Countermagic and Permanent Hate (which includes graveyard hate). Let’s break them down.
Discard is the one that stacks the worst but is the hardest to interact with from the Storm player’s perspective. If all you do is cast discard spells, they can just find Past in Flames and undo all your hard work. On the flip side, if they don’t have a Brainstorm at hand nor happen to run Sensei’s Divining Top, Storm players can’t do much about discard outside of having redundant pieces.
Most of the time, an early discard spell will allow you to bottleneck their development in a way that forces them to spend their cantrips on redeveloping their resources. The second discard spell is already much worse than the first though. Unless the Storm player is very low on cards, you will be hard-pressed to create two bottlenecks with just discard, because the only two resources they need to win are mana and business, which make up almost their entire deck.
However, if you can force them to interact on another axis through countermagic or permanent hate, discard becomes even more effective. They will need to find another type of card, i.e. discard or removal. Discard combines really well with other forms of interaction.
Countermagic is similar to discard in that it directly interacts with the Storm player’s cards. In contrast to discard, however, the Storm player gets to decide which of their cards they expose to countermagic – you can not force a Storm player to cast their Infernal Tutor into your Spell Snare, while they have no choice but to discard it if you select it with Thoughtseize.
Countermagic also stacks much better than discard. You will never be able to reach your opponent’s draw step with your discard spell, but with countermagic, you can conceivably interact with all your opponent’s relevant cards. While discard directly creates bottlenecks, countermagic exploits them. If a Storm player can only cast one business spell (because of the interaction between Lion’s Eye Diamond and Infernal Tutor, for example), you don’t need to counter any of their rituals, you can keep your Force of Will for the Infernal Tutor.
This also makes countermagic much harder to use because you’re rarely operating with perfect information. Two situations might look exactly the same, but in one case countering their first ritual will win you the game, whereas other times they have an abundance of rituals but no discard spells.
(Let me note at this point that it’s a common misconception that you can reliably beat Storm by simply keeping your counter for their Tutor. It’s not only possible to avoid that scenario, it’s also very easy to exploit that line of thinking with spells that interact favourably with countermagic, like Past in Flames or the Storm spells.)
One last thing that is unique to countermagic is the fact that even the threat of counterspells will force Storm players to play in a specific way. It’s very dangerous to go all-in on an Infernal Tutor against a deck with countermagic without knowing the contents of their hand. Thus, Storm players will try to fire off a discard spell or Gitaxian Probe before going off.
Permanent Hate is the least flexible and also the slowest, with almost all of the permanent hate pieces costing two mana; Deathrite Shaman being the lone exception. In exchange, most permanents have very powerful effects. Sphere effects (e.g. Thalia, Guardian of Thraben or Sphere of Resistance) not only give Storm players a hard time going off, they also hinder the Storm players’ resource development by doubling the mana requirements for cantrips. Sphere effects stack exceptionally well.
Other cards, like Ethersworn Canonist or Gaddock Teeg downright prevent Storm players from going off at all. They absolutely have to be dealt with and can not be sidestepped.
And just like discard is not perfectly reliable against Storm, discard is not perfectly reliable to protect Storm players from permanents. As countermagic forces Storm players to use discard against blue decks, the threat of permanent hate forces Storm players to have removal spells in their decks against certain decks.
As I mentioned before, permanent hate also includes graveyard hate, despite the fact that not all graveyard hate is permanent-based. It’s not hard to sidestep graveyard hate, and most forms of graveyard hate are easily offset after the fact – Rest in Peace doesn’t bother you much if you can blow it up before going off with Past in Flames, you don’t usually need all your cantrips and fetchlands in your graveyard, you care about the rituals and tutor effects. Grafdigger’s Cage is even worse – if the Storm player deals with it, it’s like the Cage never happened.
Unique to graveyard hate is also the fact that it can be completely irrelevant, and it simply does not stack at all. I generally advise against devoting slots to graveyard hate when trying to combat Storm. I also advise against boarding more than one card that does nothing outside of interacting with the graveyard. I’d rather have a Tarmogoyf and a Grafdigger’s Cage than two copies of Cage almost all of the time, which is nothing to say of cards that are actually relevant against Storm. If you can choose between Thoughtseize and Grafdigger’s Cage for your Storm plan, Thoughtseize is usually the much better option.
Lastly, we have manadenial in the form of Stifle, Wasteland and Rishadan Port. These are not relevant things in their own right. If you have a Storm player under a Life from the Loam + Wasteland lock, they will still be able to operate, most of the time even to their full potential while forcing you to spend mana and land drops on your manadenial.
However these greatly supplement other forms of interaction, especially those that already interact with the Storm player’s ability to cast spells, like Sphere effects, or soft counters like Daze and Spell Pierce. One Wasteland alone doesn’t do a whole lot, but combine it with two soft counters and suddenly that Wasteland turned two of your cards into very real threats for the Storm player.
Now that we have all this information, what do we do with it? What do you need to do in order to actually beat Storm?
I have always said that Storm is limited in how successful it can be. If you want to beat Storm, you can. You just need to figure out what reliably beats Storms and you need to determine if you’re not giving up too much in other matchups in order to have a good/better Storm matchup.
The first step is awareness of matchup dynamics. It is very important to not have an “unwinnable” matchup before sideboarding. I don’t think we (the Magic community) talk enough about matchup dynamics in general, but we should.
We don’t have fixed win rates throughout matches – we should view each game separately. It’s not just before and after sideboarding either. There is “preboard”, “postboard on the draw” and “postboard on the play”. Game one can also play out differently depending on play/draw in some matchups, but it’s usually not too big of a difference. It matters more if you know for sure your opponent is on Storm.
Most decks have bad matchups against Storm before sideboarding. Some are even worse than that. Not only do you need a very specific set of cards to beat Storm, but most decks are also low on these cards before sideboarding. How bad your game one matchup is determines how good your matchup has to be after sideboarding.
Here’s the tricky part though: If you sum up your results regardless of play/draw differences, you can draw some very bad conclusions. The truth is, Storm is not great on the draw after sideboarding, but it’s still very good on the play after sideboarding. Or rather, most decks are not good enough against Storm even after sideboarding when they’re on the draw.
An overly simplified example would have Storm always winning game one, always losing on the draw after sideboarding and always winning on the play after sideboarding. In reality, this means Storm always wins the matchup, but if you read that as a 50/50 matchup postboard, Storm suddenly only has 75% to win. As I said, it’s not quite this extreme, but most matchups actually work in a similar fashion.
And as a matter of fact, there is a reason for this. Also, this issue can be fixed.
Without opposition, Storm can win on turn two very consistently. If the Storm player needs to cast a discard spell before going off, Storm wins on turn three most of the time. This means if your deck loads up on permanents (two-mana cards) after sideboarding to beat Storm, you will oftentimes lose the game before you even get an opportunity to cast your hate.
You shouldn’t respect Storm’s turn one kill, but you should definitely respect (and expect) Storm’s turn two kill. Your strategy should not be to concede half the games your opponent gets to play first.
A Duress or Spell Pierce might not look as impressive as an Ethersworn Canonist, but the one mana spell is vital to ensure you even get to two mana. Blue decks have enough of these cards almost by default (but not all of them before sideboarding, see current Miracles), but non-blue decks are usually lacking in this regard.
As a rule of thumb, you want upwards of seven ways to do relevant things on turn one, the more the better. This is not limited to one-mana spells, even ways to generate two mana on turn one count. If your deck is running four copies of Mox Diamond and a critical mass of hate permanents, you might actually get away with only three one mana discard spells.
One last thing that is very important is managing your expectations. I mentioned this before, but please don’t expect to win with your disruption alone. There are only few cards that slow down Storm players by more than a full turn – and even a full turn is more than most cards do.
You need to be playing for something. If you timewalk a Storm player five times with the only benefit being that you haven’t lost yet, that’s not worth it. If you timewalk a Storm player five times after playing a Delver of Secrets on turn one, however, you’re in business.
You also have to be aware of the opportunity cost of deploying your clock. Tarmogoyf is very clunky; if you tap out to play it, you negate the threat of countermagic outside of Force of Will. If you have a one mana creature like Delver of Secrets or a Flash creature like Vendilion Clique, the opportunity cost is much lower.
This is why I like hatebears against Storm and what makes Deathrite Shaman good. They do two jobs at once; being both clock and disruption. There is no opportunity cost to playing Ethersworn Canonist on turn two, it does double duty by forcing your opponent to deal with while also cutting short their time to do so.
–have enough early interaction
–have enough interaction in general
–you need to win the game at some point, otherwise your cards get too easily negated
–most effects don’t stack super well, try to diversify
–graveyard hate is usually not worth it
-mana denial is a great supplement, but not strong enough on its own
Thanks for reading!