Ad Nauseam – A Primer
“Do you have a decklist or primer somewhere?”
I get asked this question pretty much on a weekly basis. When you’re known locally for exclusively playing one deck, you get a lot of cold-calls from people asking for insight. Modern has been a format for only slightly longer than I’ve played this deck in it, to the exclusion of all other decks. When you’re known as “The Ad Nauseam guy”, in one of the largest Magic scenes, in one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world, it gets you a lot of people asking you questions.
Questions like “Why are you giving the camera that stupid face?”
I’m not saying I have all the answers. I don’t even have the most recent good results in town (that honour goes to Kevin Fang). But I do have more time spent on this deck than almost anyone else on the planet. As a result, I thought it might be a reasonable idea to write a succinct guide for the deck: Why you should play it, what its strengths and weaknesses are, how to sideboard, what to do when your wife won’t let you get the art tattooed, and so on.
Chris Flink – Ad Nauseam
What does the deck do?
In the broadest sense, Ad Nauseam is a combo deck that attempts to win the game with the two-card combination of Ad Nauseam and either Angel’s Grace or Phyrexian Unlife. The latter two cards cause you to not lose the game for being at a negative life total. Ad Nauseam allows you to trade loss of life (but notably not damage, or life payment) for cards. Once you put every card in your library into your hand, you win in one of two ways. The most straightforward way is to exile three Simian Spirit Guides, cast Lightning Storm, and discard enough of the lands that are in your hand to kill your opponent. The backup win condition is to cast Laboratory Maniac, and follow it up with a Serum Visions. As our library is empty, Laboratory Maniac replaces the card draw with a win.
Okay, I understand. But why?
I know it sounds like a lot of hoops to jump through, and a lot of bad cards to play. The simplest answer is that Ad Nauseam attacks on a different axis than the majority of decks. As of publication, the four strongest and most represented decks in Modern (Death’s Shadow, Eldrazi, Burn/Naya Zoo, and Affinity) win the game by having the best, most aggressive creatures. As a result, most Modern players expect to have to kill creatures, and fill their decks with removal. Thankfully, since we essentially have no creatures, we blank up to a fifth of their deck. Because our game is played out primarily in sculpting our hand and developing our mana, the number of ways our opponents can interact with us are limited.
What do the individual cards do?
The cards in the deck can be sorted into four generic categories: Combo, Mana, Selection, and Protection. Some cards into more than one category.
4 Ad Nauseam – Combo/Selection – Primarily used to end the game as discussed above, the five-mana Instant can also be used to draw a bunch of cards. If your life total isn’t being pressured, if you have multiple copies in your hand, or if you’re in a do-or-die situation, don’t hesitate to fire it off for its intended purpose.
4 Angel’s Grace/4 Phyrexian Unlife – Combo/Protection – Again, primarily used as a combo enabler, these spells have the built in function of extending your life total beyond its natural time frame. They each have specific uses, however. If you are, for example, at 2 life, and are attacked by 2 creatures for 3 damage each, Angel’s Grace will have you finish combat at 1 life, wheras Phyrexian Unlife will have you finish at -4 life (and 0 Infect). Subsequent sources of damage will be dealt as though they have Infect, and while you are at 0 or less life, Angel’s Grace will not positively affect your life total. Sequence your plays appropriately. Additionally, [card]Angel’s Grace[card] can help you survive your Pact triggers (see below), burn spells on your upkeep, and more.
3 Sleight of Hand/4 Serum Visions – Selection – The best cantrips available to us in Modern. Sleight of Hand is better early, as it allows us to find a turn one Lotus Bloom more easily, whereas Serum Visions is better late, as it allows us to sculpt our future draws more effectively.
3 Spoils of the Vault – Selection/Combo – This card is most obviously a way to find missing combo pieces cheaply and effectively. It’s a very powerful card, with many hidden strengths and weaknesses. Frank Karsten had an excellent write-up on the math of accidentally exiling all of your win conditions when casting Spoils (Spoiler: It’s approximately 7% bad, though this math didn’t account for exiling 2 or more Simian Spirit Guides). If you’re willing to look past this negative, the card has many other things going for it. Firstly, this deck runs a high density of Scry effects. Scrying a card to the top, and drawing it with Spoils, for a cost of 0 life, is a perfectly reasonable and frequent play. Furthermore, Spoils can be a back up win condition in this deck which is generally thought of as a one trick pony. It requires having one of Angel’s Grace or Phyrexian Unlife, and either three Spoils, or two Spoils and one Serum Visions. Cast Angel’s Grace so you cannot lose. Spoils of the Vault naming Laboratory Maniac. Spoils of the Vault naming a card not in your deck (my preferences are Browbeat for fun, or Condescend if I want to slowly and painstakingly explain the combo to my opponent). Naming a card not in your deck exiles your library. Follow this up with your Laboratory Maniac and a Serum Visions and you’ve won the game.
1 Mystical Teachings – Selection – Mystical Teachings is probably the single most powerful card in our deck. It can find either half of the combo, as well as the majority of the sideboard cards. Also, it can be flashed back, which is great in long games.
4 Lotus Bloom/4 Simian Spirit Guide/4 Pentad Prism – Mana – I don’t have much to say about these except that they are mana acceleration. Casting Simian Spirit Guide is crucial in the mirror match, but rarely ever else.
3 Pact of Negation – Protection – The only real interaction we have in the mainboard, these should be used wisely. Obviously, if you are in the middle of combo-ing, use them. Otherwise, the most important skill is knowing when they should be used. As Ad Nauseam and Lightning Storm are both instants, you can always combo while your own Pact of Negation trigger is on the stack during your upkeep. As mentioned before, you can also use extra Angel’s Graces to skip past Pact triggers.
Sideboard (They’re all Protection of one kind or another)
1 Echoing Truth – Kind of a catch all against problematic permanents. Works well against artifacts and enchantments that work against our game plan, such as Blood Moon, Chalice of the Void, Stony Silence, Worship, and Thalia, Guardian of Thraben. It is also a good way to slow down problematic threats, such as Tasigur, the Golden Fang, Primeval Titan, and Monastery Mentor tokens.
3 Ethereal Haze – Comes in against the decks that, combined with their disruption, are often just one turn faster than us. Burn, Zoo, Eldrazi, Death’s Shadow, Meforlk, and Affinity all fall into this category.
4 Leyline of Sanctity – Probably the most important card in the Sideboard, and the one to which you are most likely to want to mulligan. Hand disruption is extremely problematic for this deck, and Leyline protects our first few turns while also being relatively hard to remove.
2 Disenchant – Again, for those pesky Artifacts and Enchantments that mess with our game plan.
2 Thoughtseize – Thoughtseize serves two purposes. Firstly is in the control match up, where we need to know when it is safe to combo, or to make it safe to do so. Secondly is when are opponent has spells so problematic that simply allowing them to be cast is unacceptable. Such cards include Karn Liberated, Scapeshift, and opposing Ad Nauseams.
1 Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir – Another card that serves multiple purposes. The primary function is to force our Ad Nauseams through countermagic, by casting Teferi on our opponents’ end steps, and untapping to cast our combo. Other, more narrow purposes for Teferi include making it impossible for Living End to Cascade, acting as an emergency blocker, and attacking low loyalty Planeswalkers in control decks, such as Saheeli Rai and Nahiri, the Harbinger.
1 Spell Pierce – I originally included this card as a concession to Liliana of the Veil. It also plays nicely as a foil to Blood Moon, Stony Silence, other Planeswalkers, pump spells from Infect, and countermagic.
1 Slaughter Pact – A bit of a holdover from when Infect was more popular, Slaughter Pact deals with many of the most annoying creatures in Modern, such as Eidolon of Rhetoric, Eidolon of the Great Revel, Ethersworn Canonist, Thought-Knot Seer, Spellskite, and Glistener Elf.
What are Ad Nauseam’s favourable and unfavourable matchups?
Generally speaking, Ad Nauseam has mostly slightly favourable matchups, with a couple of strongly favourable, and a few unfavourable to strongly unfavourable. Let’s break them down.
Death’s Shadow – Unfavourable – +3 Ethereal Haze, +4 Leyline of Sanctity, -1 Boseiju, who shelters all, -2 Pact of Negation, -1 Phyrexian Unlife, -1 Sleight of Hand, -1 Lotus Bloom, -1 Mystical Teachings
Death’s Shadow is a very fast deck with a lot of hand disruption. Typically packing 10-13 discard spells (including Liliana of the Veil), this can be a very difficult match. After sideboard it improves a bit, with Leyline of Sanctity and Ethereal Haze, but they also have access to Fulminator Mage and Collective Brutality, which are problematic for our game plan.
Burn – Favourable – +3 Ethereal Haze, +3 Leyline of Sanctity, -1 Boseiju, who shelters all, -2 Pact of Negation, -1 Mystical Teachings, -1 Pentad Prism, -1 Phyrexian Unlife
Burn is a fairly easy match. Their outs usually involve multiple Eidolon of the Great Revels, or hands that play three Goblin Guides in the first 2 turns. Bring in some, but not all of your Leylines, as they can remove them with Destructive Revelry. Don’t forget that Ethereal Haze also prevents the damage from Eidolon triggers (except the trigger which is in response to your Ethereal Haze!)
Eldrazi Tron – Favourable – +2 Disenchant, +1 Spell Pierce, +1 Echoing Truth, +2 Thoughtseize, -1 Boseiju, who shelters all, -1 Lotus Bloom, -1 Phyrexian Unlife, -1 Sleight of Hand, -2 Pact of Negation
This match is an absolute walk, unless they Thought-Knot Seer your combo away, or they have enough Chalice of the Voids to shut you out of the game. Bring in your Disenchants and Spell Pierce, and do your best to be faster than them.
Affinity – Favourable – +2 Disenchant, +1 Slaughter Pact, +1 Echoing Truth, +2 Ethereal Haze, -1 Boseiju, who shelters all, -1 Lotus Bloom, -2 Phyrexian Unlife, -1 Pact of Negation, -1 Sleight of Hand
Like Burn, this is another fast deck with little interaction. Hope to not get Thoughtseized, and Haze your way to victory. Inkmoth Nexus can be problematic, as can Stubborn Denial and Ethersworn Canonist. Slaughter Pact and Disenchant answer all these cards fairly effectively.
Bant Eldrazi – Unfavourable – +1 Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir, +2 Leyline of Sanctity, +1 Slaughter Pact, +1 Echoing Truth, -1 Pact of Negation, -1 Lotus Bloom, -1 Sleight of Hand, -2 Phyrexian Unlife The problem with Bant Eldrazi, as opposed to Tron, is the speed and interaction Bant has available. Between blinking Thought-Knot Seers with Eldrazi Displacers, and countering our combo with their cheap countermagic, Bant Eldrazi has many more tools to combat us than their colourless cousin. Some number of Leylines are recommended to help protect your hand.
Abzan/Jund – Even – +4 Leyline of Sanctity, +1 Spell Pierce, -2 Pact of Negation, -1 Boseiju, Who Shelters All, -1 Phyrexian Unlife, -1 Simian Spirit Guide
GB/x decks are a bit of a coin flip. They are slow but very consistent and resilient. If they see their hand disruption, you will be hard pressed to combo before you are taken out. Conversely, if they exclusively see their fair creatures and removal suite, they will likely lose on turn four without ever having made a meaningful play. Post-Sideboard games exacerbate this, as we gain access to Leyline of Sanctity, and they gain even more hand disruption.
Grixis Delver/Control – Favoured +1 Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir, -1 Phyrexian Unlife
These decks combine cheap, efficient threats with a strong suite of countermagic and removal. As mentioned before though, we don’t care about their removal, and their countermagic is easily overcome by Pact of Negation, Boseiju, and Teferi.
Scapeshift – Favoured +2 Disenchant, +1 Echoing Truth, -2 Phyrexian Unlife, -1 Boseiju, Who Shelters All
Scapeshift is a lot like Ad Nauseam. It’s a non-interactive combo deck that relies on big mana and a bunch of sub-par cards working together. That said, it’s slower than Ad Nauseam, and less effective at finding its pieces. Try not to drop to 18, don’t get hit by a Primeval Titan, and try to play around Chalice of the Void, and there should be minimal trouble.
That’s all I have to say for now about Ad Nauseam, the deck. Oh wait, I lied. A very interesting couple of Magic cards are in Amonkhet. Firstly, Gideon of the Trials. This is an especially intriguing card for Ad Nauseam decks, because it can functionally replace some number of Phyrexian Unlifes, and it also is a card that will give us headaches if it sees regular play against us. In my limited testing (15 games against Jund), it was good but not great. I plan to start Amonkhet Modern legality with a 2-2 split with Phyrexian Unlife, and move from there. Conversely, the card is extremely hard for us to beat, and the main board may have to shift to include a Void Snare as an answer.
The second new card from Amonkhet that has piqued my interest is Glorious End. I have no idea if this card is good. I have no idea if this card belongs in the mainboard, the sideboard, or in the bulk rare box at your LGS. What I do know is that it enables a lot of interesting plays. With Angel’s Grace or Gideon, we can ignore the drawback, functionally making it a 3 mana time walk. Additionally, we can use it to get extra triggers out of our Lotus Blooms, skip past Pact of Negation triggers, counter spells and Planeswalker activations, skip combats, whatever we need. The dream of blanking someone’s entire third turn, followed by comboing off is so real that I am very excited to test this card in the wild.
That’s all I have to say for now about Ad Nauseam, the deck. But this time for real.