Today I will be focusing on Grixis Control. Where it came from, the challenges it faces, how it can respond to the new Modern landscape we find ourselves in, and what role it will play moving forward. For those unfamiliar with my opinions on this deck, you can brush up here, here, and here.
While we have a bit of metagame information to analyze due to the SCG Classic in Baltimore, I’m going to hold off my post-ban metagame analysis until next week at the very least, so we have more than one tournament's worth of information. I’ll still reference results from SCG Baltimore, and talk about how the uncertain metagame as a whole is beginning to take shape, so stick around if you’re not that interested in Grixis. Not sure why anyone would feel that way, but…
My renewed interest in Grixis Control is the result of two providential events: the banning of Eldrazi, and the unbanning of Ancestral Vision. Eldrazi as a broken archetype did many things to the metagame, but its most lasting impact has been the polarization of the archetype spectrum away from combo and towards linear aggro. With Eldrazi gone, these combo decks can come back, but they now have to focus on combating a proliferation of linear aggressive decks.
These slight metagame shifts benefit Grixis Control twofold---by removing the focus from control which will allow it to flourish, and by filling decks with interaction aimed away from control and towards aggro. With Ancestral Vision suggesting the possibility of a fairer, viable Treasure Cruise in Modern geared specifically for control decks, the stars have never aligned so well. Let’s start by looking at where we’ve been.
The birth of Grixis Control can be traced to GP Charlotte, in the hands of Patrick Chapin. On June 15, 2015, Chapin narrowly missed Top 8 with his fresh look on a control archetype in Modern focused on the powerful synergy between delve, Thought Scour, Snapcaster Mage, and Kolaghan's Command. In the almost full year since his finish, the archetype has gone through multiple iterations, but I remain convinced that the key to Grixis’ success in Modern lies somewhere within this shell.
Chapin's deck exhibits a unique philosophy regarding the Grixis archetype. Here are some key aspects of his particular take:
Abundant interaction. Chapin’s version of Grixis Control capitalizes on cheap removal in excess to disrupt opponents and gain advantage wherever possible. By crafting the game to a state where the opponent’s resources are almost depleted, Chapin is able to pull ahead through the use of his ten two-for-one’s (Cryptic Command, Snapcaster Mage, and Kolaghan's Command).
Instant-speed gameflow. Chapin built his deck to play true draw-go, with only nine sorcery-speed spells. Serum Visions and delve creatures like Gurmag Angler and Tasigur, the Golden Fang can often be cast for one mana, leaving most of Chapin's mana free to interact with the opponent on their turn. This list is clearly focused on putting opponents in the classic control squeeze: do something, it will get countered/killed; do nothing, you play right into control’s gameplan. This list takes pronounced advantage of “free” mana, casting Kolaghan's Command or Cryptic Command whenever possible to gain material advantage and restock on cheap interaction.
“Cheap” win conditions. If you can call them that, because no “actual” win conditions are present in the list. Delve creatures function as excellent blockers that could turn the corner and hit hard when ready. Resolving Cryptic Command doesn't end the game immediately, but often puts the opponent at a significant enough material disadvantage that defeat is assured. The strength of this deckbuilding choice lies in its elasticity; rather than set up a pivotal turn or strategy, it focuses primarily on casting spells and making efficient use of mana.
To give context to the above list, we must remember that Chapin’s Grixis existed at a time when Splinter Twin, Tron, Burn, and Affinity were the top players in the metagame. Amulet Bloom had just had its breakout party, and Grishoalbrand was much less common than Living End or Scapeshift. Towards this perceived metagame Chapin’s Grixis was geared---abundant cheap spells and interaction focused on pushing gameplay into the midgame where two-for-one’s are king.
The printing of Jace, Vryn's Prodigy // Jace, Telepath Unbound, while originally universally maligned, proved to be a force to be reckoned with in both Standard and Modern. Above is the list I played for much of summer/fall 2015, and I can say with confidence that it was tuned perfectly to respond to the immediate post-GP Charlotte metagame. Here are the major features this build brought to the table:
Jace, Vryn's Prodigy // Jace, Telepath Unbound. When supported by a 75 that unlocks his full potential, Jace one of the most powerful cards you can cast in Standard or Modern. While it fails the Lightning Bolt test, Grixis Control wants nothing more than for opponents to keep in cheap interaction that fails to kill delve creatures.
Jace, Vryn's Prodigy // Jace, Telepath Unbound has incredible synergy with the foursome of Thought Scour/Snapcaster Mage/Kolaghan's Command/Gurmag Angler. In addition, Grixis can take advantage of every one of Jace’s abilities, looting, flashing back spells, invalidating small creatures or shrinking opposing Tarmogoyf’s, and even winning the game with his ultimate. And by his ultimate, I mean flashing back two spells. That’s generally all it takes.
Prioritizing cheap spells. Cryptic Command as a focused strategy is potent, but difficult to accomplish easily. Cryptic Command in hand goes against every facet of the archetype, and plays at odds with the primary strategy of Grixis: casting multiple, cheap spells. As a result, Cryptic Command often feels awkward and the player is pressured to cast it at the first possible opportunity.
Diverse reactive spells. Jace, Vryn's Prodigy // Jace, Telepath Unbound plays best with multiple options to choose from. Discard helps assure he lives (or just takes their best spell) and is a great target to get double use from, especially when we’re casting multiple Kolaghan's Command as well.
Jace, Vryn's Prodigy // Jace, Telepath Unbound, while powerful in the above list, exists only as a means to an end. If he dies, he dies. Jace can be pushed, however, from deckhand on a well-built ship to captain of a machine of war.
Again, the unique features of Jessup's version:
Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy as a core component. Danny Jessup included multiple pieces of technology developed in large part by Michael Majors and others: Rise // Fall, Liliana of the Veil, and discard in high numbers. Jace, Vryn's Prodigy // Jace, Telepath Unbound doesn’t play well with counterspells and can only make partial use of instants in general, so many players moved towards a Jund-style build, focusing on casting the most powerful thing possible turn after turn, but with synergy and cantrips instead of Tarmogoyf.
Pia and Kiran Nalaar as a stabilizer/win condition. Depending on your opinions on the card, Pia and Kiran Nalaar’s inclusion is a testament either to the awkwardness of the archetype or the strength of the strategy, but it can’t be both!
More clunky than Cryptic Command, Pia and Kiran Nalaar at best provides four power spread among three creatures for four mana, and at worst a bunch of chump blockers. Proponents argue that letting it die and getting it back to recast with Kolaghan's Command or Rise // Fall is gamebreaking, but given that freedom the control deck should be winning anyway.
Grixis for a New Modern
This brings us to today. We see that Grixis Control historically has been built in one of three ways: draw-go, Grixis with Jace in a supporting role, or Grixis Jund. Today, I have two lists for you to check out (or dream nightmares about facing). Your choice!
This list is an update to the “Jace as a tool to use and abuse” style of Grixis Control that I have found the most success with. You won’t see any Rise // Fall or Pia and Kiran Nalaar here, just solid, synergistic cards that come together to form a cohesive strategy.
It is essential to view these Grixis lists as more than just a pile of removal and value cards thrown together. While any player can find success with a solid list and a couple changes, the deck performs vastly different once you start to change four or more cards. Thought Scour or no, draw-go or no, discard as a question mark, the mix of removal, the number of four-drops, the focus on delve---these are all questions that need to be answered and players new to the archetype can quickly fall into some deckbuilding traps. While it might look simple to add a singleton Tasigur, the Golden Fang to a Grixis list, the presence of other four-drops (or lack-thereof) can greatly influence the effectiveness of that decision.
I was not an early adopter of Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet and Goblin Dark-Dwellers in Grixis (in fact, I solidly opposed their inclusion from the beginning) but the availability of Ancestral Vision has forced me to come around. Goblin Dark-Dwellers recasting Ancestral Vision is the ceiling, but the floor isn’t that bad either. When we are building with Ancestral Vision in mind, we need to take into account games where we don’t find it, or it gets countered or Thoughtseized. In those scenarios, we need some sort of Plan B to pull ahead. A 4/4 and a free re-bought spell on Turn 5 is not a bad backup plan when we can’t draw three cards like we hope.
In addition, Goblin Dark-Dwellers plays great alongside Jace, Vryn's Prodigy // Jace, Telepath Unbound discarding Ancestral Vision. A drawn Ancestral Vision in the midgame can be extremely awkward, but instead of waiting four turns for it to come off suspend we can discard it to Jace, Vryn's Prodigy // Jace, Telepath Unbound and rebuy it for free a turn or two down the line.
Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet is also much better when we’re playing for a grindy, accumulated-value strategy. Getting one free Zombie will often be good enough, and we have the possibility of getting many more. The floor is just a 3/4 lifelink creature for 2BB, which isn’t too embarrassing when we consider the effect it will have on our opponent’s post-sideboard decisions. If they cut large removal, Kalitas can take over the game, and if they cut small removal, they’ll be interacting with Jace, Vryn's Prodigy // Jace, Telepath Unbound at a disadvantage when they’d rather be spending time and mana racing our Ancestral Vision.
When we’re including the above heavy hitters we can cut Tasigur, the Golden Fang and Gurmag Angler, not because they are poor options, but because that allows us to cut Thought Scour as well. While we definitely could play 10+ blue draw spells, we won’t have as much time to cast things like that when we’re trying to survive to get our Ancestral Vision off suspend.
There’s also the issue of making our velocity high enough to take advantage of the draw-three. One of the major reasons I’m not interested quite yet in including Thopter/Sword alongside Ancestral Vision is the awkward draws that can come as a result. When our back is against the wall, we don’t want to draw into land-combo piece-counterspell.
In an Ancestral Vision Modern, Remand is absolutely insane. I already loved this card, and pre-Jace, Vryn's Prodigy // Jace, Telepath Unbound lists often played at least one, but we have a strong reason to go up in numbers should the metagame break the right way. It’s poor against aggro, but then again so is Mana Leak. Against control and Ancestral Vision however, Remand is now just as good or better than Dispel (previously in the conversation for best blue spell in Modern).
Finally, I’m not sure about Liliana of the Veil in a format where people are drawing three cards. It will be interesting to see where the true “fight” comes in control mirrors---letting opponents draw three and focusing on their actual threats, or fighting over their Vision. Regardless, a repeated effect when we’re looking to grind is still excellent, and I imagine Liliana of the Veil is still solid, if diminished. Apply this thinking to Jund and I’m not too excited to be playing that archetype until they show me some breaker for the control matchup.
Thing in the Ice // Awoken Horror is a little more speculative but I’m confident it will see at least some play in Modern. Both Matthew Nester and Dylan Donagan opted to play Thing in Baltimore, and it looks like it served them well.
What I love about Thing in the Ice is its casual solid positioning against an overly aggressive field. A Wall of Omens that can bounce our opponent’s board and attack for huge chunks of damage in lieu of drawing a card sounds great if we expect to run into a bunch of Wild Nacatls and the like.
We don’t have to jump through any hoops to give Thing in the Ice // Awoken Horror a chance to greatly affect the game---we just have to play spells (which we were doing anyways). There’s a limit to how many interactive elements we want when we’re playing Thing, and the same goes for expensive spells, but just chaining cantrips and removal will activate Thing quickly.
In a build like this we definitely want to be chaining spells as often as possible, so Thought Scour is back in. This ensures we won’t run out of things to do to thaw Thing in the Ice // Awoken Horror. Firing off a Lightning Bolt leaves us down a card, but cantripping into another spell lets us keep chugging.
Without Jace, Vryn's Prodigy // Jace, Telepath Unbound in the list, Desolate Lighthouse helps us loot away a late-drawn Ancestral Vision should we need to. Keep in mind that Izzet Charm can also provide this effect. As a fresh Ancestral Vision player, one of the most exciting aspects I’m looking forward to is thinking four turns ahead, learning when to suspend Ancestral Vision and when to throw it away in search of something faster.
It’s still a little too early for any definitive analysis of this new Modern, but initial results look interesting. Scapeshift seems to benefit greatly from Ancestral Vision as well, and it will be up to Grixis Control to keep Scapeshift in check while also beating up on the numerous aggressive decks running around.
If Affinity, Scapeshift, Jund, Infect, and Abzan Company remain at the top, Grixis Control has a real shot to be a major player in this new Modern. Should Merfolk, Burn, and pure control rise up, Grixis might be in trouble. Still, I’m excited to start tuning and I’m looking forward to crushing fools on Magic Online under an onslaught of card advantage!
What do you think about Grixis and this new Modern? Let me know in the comments, and I’ll see you next week!
The_Architect on MTGO