Inner Workings: Ad Nauseam
In each installment of the Inner Workings series, we'll examine a different Modern archetype to find out what makes it tick. This time, it's the turn of Ad Nauseam, the only combo deck in Modern to abuse a card also commonly seen in Legacy to create a flashier play.
After Ad Nauseam was printed in Shards of Alara, three years before Modern was even a thing, it was picked up by Legacy decks as a tool for Storm, in a Legacy-specific variant of the mega-archetype called ANT, short for "Ad Nauseam Tendrils." Pretty soon, however, Modern's progenitor format, Extended, started to experiment with lists that wouldn't just use Ad Nauseam in such a straightforward fashion, i.e. as a simple means to draw a few more cards to increase your storm count with, making sure you don't kill yourself in the process. No, those decks were trying to exploit Ad Nauseam to its fullest. Taken to the extreme, what Ad Nauseam really does is it allows you to draw your entire library.
Of course, if you keep repeating Ad Nauseam's tempting process, the spell will inevitably deal a ton of damage to you, unless your deck is mostly made up of lands – a consideration that actually foreshadows the final form of the future archetype, but let's not get ahead of ourselves here.
At the time, a way already existed to prevent Ad Nauseam's abuses from making you lose the game; in fact, it had been printed a couple of years prior. And another one would come up three years later, right before the beginning of Modern's history. The Ad Nauseam archetype we know today employs both of those security systems, because you can never be too cautious when it comes to avoid being defeated by your own deck. Thanks to them, the Modern Ad Nauseam brew came to renounce its original Storm roots and Tendrils of Agony altogether.
Adrian Malushaj's Ad Nauseam, 1st place, Face to Face Modern Open+ in Toronto, Ontario
|20Lands||17Other Permanents||23Instants and Soreceries|
|3City of Brass||1Laboratory Maniac||4Ad Nauseam|
|3Darkslick Shores||4Simian Spirit Guide||4Angel's Grace|
|3Gemstone Mine||4Lotus Bloom||1Echoing Truth|
|1Island||4Pentad Prism||1Lightning Storm|
|1Plains||4Phyrexian Unlife||3Pact of Negation|
|3Seachrome Coast||4Serum Visions|
|3Temple of Deceit||4Sleight of Hand|
|3Temple of Enlightenment||2Spoils of the Vault|
|3Bontu's Last Reckoning||2Fatal Push||1Hurkyl's Recall|
|4Leyline of Sanctity||1Pact of Negation||1Slaughter Pact|
|2Thoughtseize||1Wear // Tear|
The deck's final play is actually quite simple. It involves casting Ad Nauseam with a Phyrexian Unlife in play, or in the same turn you've cast Angel's Grace. In both cases, you don't lose the game for getting to a negative life total, which going full-library with Ad Nauseam inevitably causes. Incidentally, both these white enablers double as ways to help remain in the game until the combo is ready to go, either postponing, if not even thwarting, the opponent's own conclusive act, or slowing down aggro assaults by virtually adding ten more life to your total.
Then, after Ad Nauseam has resolved, we'll have our whole deck in hand, which is always an exhilarating prospective. How do we win from there? Different "draw-everything" decks found different answers in the past. Ad Nauseam found an obscure piece of direct-damaging mischief from the source of all that's bizarre and unexpected: Coldsnap.
Once we've cast Lightning Storm with the help of our Simian Spirit Guides, we'll just need to pitch enough lands for lethal, being aware that the opponent may themselves have one or two lands in hand to redirect our ginormous Lightning to our own face; luckily we'll have all our remaining lands at our disposal, and we'll usually need only nine to feed the Lightning Storm kill and no more than five or six on the battlefield, so we should have plenty to further redirect any unwanted redirection.
Most Ad Nauseam lists also feature a second win condition, to play around discard and Memoricide effects, including those of our own making, as we'll see below.
Laboratory Maniac perfectly complements a deck whose endgame entails not having a library anymore. He's slightly more problematic than Lightning Storm, at least when it comes to sealing the deal, especially when you consider the five or six mana we may have had to pay to cast Ad Nauseum and Angel's Grace. Also, both of those and Lightning Storm are instants, allowing the deck to win at any time, even in response of the opponent's own finishing move. With Laboratory Maniac, you either already have him out on the battlefield, which is risky, or you'll be required to proceed into your main phase, then probably filter some of the red mana from your Spirit Guides through a Pentad Prism, in order to obtain the one blue mana in the Maniac's cost plus another for the resolutive cantrip. On the plus side, the Maniac victory doesn't rely on dealing damage, nor on any other interaction with the opponent's side of the table. On the downside, the little dude is more likely to require protection, especially if you cast him beforehand.
Among the less frequent wincons that similarly lose Lightning Storm's instant-speed factor, Conflagrate directly beats discard by actually needing to end up in the graveyard, and it's able to create a larger damage count in case the opponent gained enough life to slip beyond Lightning Storm's reach, which may happen sometimes. Good old Seismic Assault has the advantage of generating discrete damage amounts rather than one big total, so you can use a few of those activations to get rid of adverse board presences like Platinum Angel.
Every combo deck is hard-pressed to dig for its combo pieces, and with Ponder and Preordain out of the format, Ad Nauseam logically turned to the next best cantrips available, Serum Visions and Sleight of Hand, the former also doubling as a finishing move post-Nauseam when Laboratory Maniac is on the battlefield (whereas Sleight of Hand doesn't work to that end).
Along the same lines, Spoils of the Vault is both a tutor and a way to achieve a Maniac win even in absence of the deck's namesake spell; you'll just need to search for a card that's not in the library at all, provided you're able to cheat death either by angelic intervention or by having turned yourself into a Phyrexian. It's worth noting that Spoils being an instant, it can also be used to momentarily find any answer we find ourselves in need of, not just a combo piece. And while paying life is never a concern in the Ad Nauseam world, exiling too many cards can be dangerous, which is why having Spoils of the Vault in the starting sixty sort of forces the Ad Nauseam player to add at least one second win condition, for safety reasons. Problem is, the archetype is not too keen on devoting too many slots to the wincons, because cards like Lightning Storm and Laboratory Maniac are entirely dead draws, something the deck especially hates, since it's bound to draw all of its cards eventually, so having the wincons in hand at a previous time is not only completely useless, it also exposes them to the risk of being discarded or exiled from hand.
Many builds have a Conjurer's Bauble somewhere in there. It's mostly meant to reintroduce into the library a discarded win condition.
Almost all Ad Nauseam builds include a singleton Echoing Truth as a catch-all safety valve in case something on the battlefield is threatening to stop the combo; for instance, a permanent that prevents us from targeting the opponent with Lightning Storm by giving them hexproof or shroud. It's the reason why the turn before going off is possibly the most crucial, as we have to set the table perfectly, making use of our mana to remove what needs to be removed, and countering what threatens our key permanents like Phyrexian Unlife. Once Ad Nauseam succeeded in drawing us everything, we can stop being worried about having the right card in hand, because, clearly, we will.
This makes Pact of Negation a natural fit for the deck. During the critical turn, there won't be too much mana to spare, if at all, so a combo insurance that doesn't cost any mana is ideal, and the list already incorporates a way to ignore the "you lose the game" part anyway. In fact, the Pact of Negation we cast the turn before the big finish is automatically nullified by Angel's Grace. Under Phyrexian Unlife, we could even resolve Ad Nauseam then cast Lightning Storm with the Pact's trigger still in the stack. And when we're in that turn, it's all-in by design, so any Pact we cast at that point is really a free Counterspell, because our next upkeep will never come.
Swan Song is another good piece of protection to use in the decisive stretch of the game, because that Bird is not going to matter by then.
Simian Spirit Guide is mainly used to cast Lightning Storm in the turn Ad Nauseam resolved; you'll just need three of them for that (or two and a Desperate Ritual or Pyretic Ritual, but the Apes are better because their mana ability can't be stopped), so you can use one of them as an accelerator leading to that final turn.
The deck is fully able to consistently combo off by turn five, but it can be brought forward to turn four by Pentad Prism and turn-one Lotus Bloom, both of which also act as emergency mana reserves during the Ad Nauseam resolution.
The Mana Base
As mentioned, this is an archetype in serious danger of dead draws, so it's the rare case where you don't like to shuffle your library, as you want the cards that Serum Visions and Sleight of Hand put on the bottom to stay there until the end. This means fetch lands are not Ad Nauseam's friends, while the Temples are much more helpful, despite the slower mana development they provoke.
The deck's sideboard is extremely customizable, mostly encompassing various control elements, some disruptions against the other combo archetypes, some artifact and enchantment hate. In the sweeper department, Bontu's Last Reckoning has de facto replaced Supreme Verdict, but the latter is still a common presence, even maindeck, depending on the meta. Reckoning allows for a turn-three sweep that still leads to untap on turn five for the win.
Slaughter Pact is the creature spot removal of choice for the same reason Pact of Negation is the preferred counterspell, given that free spells are key in an otherwise mana-intensive build, and any Pact's clause comes pre-neutered by one half of the deck's combo game.
Leyline of Sanctity also plays into the zero-cost appeal, providing generic protection against burn and discard – not so much in the mirror, though, as once Ad Nauseam has resolved, the deck will almost certainly have a way to get Leyline off the board.
Some builds even arrive to include one copy of Dragonlord Dromoka against slower decks, to Silence the opponent during our turns (while also fielding a scary lifelinker). And of course, Silence itself is a good card to accomplish the very same goal. As is Boseiju, Who Shelters All to shut down counter magic at crucial times. After all, you're one of the players most likely not to care about spending life.
All in all, Ad Nauseam is an exciting combo deck that traffics in near-death experiences in unique ways, and comes equipped with an arsenal of interactive solutions to the troubles it may encounter along the way to its explosive, larger-than-life finale. It's sort of a Spike's idea of a creatureless deck that would still feel somewhat appealing to a Timmy. It's a relatively fast, consistent combo build that doesn't use the graveyard to win, nor artifacts, nor necessarily creatures, making a lot of the other archetypes' common maindeck answers completely moot. And more importantly, it's Modern's regular way to feel the thrill of holding your entire deck in hand without having to invest twelve mana for the trouble.
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