The convention hall serves fried chicken and I’ve got Grixis sleeved up?
Life is good.
On Friday, I shared the Grixis list I’d been thinking about. Friday morning, I set out on quite the journey to Miami Beach. I don’t normally use Priceline’s Name Your Own Price type of services anymore, as I have found the headaches to be just not worth it. However, last-minute tickets to Miami were looking north of $500, and that was just to fly to Fort Lauderdale.
Priceline suggested a package for me that included a rental car for the weekend for just over four hundred. I thought, "What the hell? Let’s give it a shot." A feeling of dread washed over me as I noticed that one of Priceline’s affiliates was Spirit Airlines. Now, I’m not sure how familiar you are with Spirit Airlines, but let’s just say they are the Sorrow’s Path of airlines.
Spirit Airline tickets always look so cheap, mostly because they really are cheap but also because they don’t factor in things like charging you for a carry-on. I can respect a minimalist approach for people trying to get the cheapest flight they can; however, Spirit Airlines is the worst airline in just about every way imaginable. Not a comfortable plane? I’m 6’4". That’s not that strange of an experience. However, Spirit Airlines customer service is quite poor, and I have had so many long delays and "fluke" flight cancellations (and they don’t exactly have a lot of alternative flights to put you on) that I generally try to avoid them at all costs. Basically, if I saw two flights and one was $100 cheaper on Spirit, I would take the other flight.
So I saw that Spirit is an affiliate of Priceline’s and was already imagining getting stuck with them and some flight getting in after midnight, most likely to Fort Lauderdale (over half an hour away from Miami Beach). On a lark, I decided to run it, and to my surprise I was rewarded with the most unbelievably reasonable travel plans I could dare dream of. My flight leaves Denver at 10 AM and the layover is just an hour?
The airline? Delta. Nice!
Everything seemed to be peachy, but while we were on the runway, they made an announcement that we are going back to the gate but all of the gates are full, which will take an hour. Really?
At least I got an email from Brian Kowal explaining his thoughts on Grixis (which was basically one of the best Magic articles I have read in some time). So much food for thought!
Thirty minutes later, they announced that we were actually taking off right now.
I should have known the flight would be trouble given this auspicious start. Still, I fell asleep and all seemed right with the world. Eventually, I woke up and discovered that we were in a holding pattern over Alabama. They announced the Atlanta airport was completely shut down, allegedly on account of Burst Lightning.
So we were just circling (or whatever the hell it is you do when you’re in a holding pattern, because from my experience you generally just stress out about a phone call that may or may not ever come). Eventually, they decided to land in Alabama to refuel.
They assured us that all flights have been postponed and we will make our connections. We waited in line to refuel and eventually were on our way. When we finally touched down in Atlanta, we were quite a few hours late, but there were people at the gate helping direct people where to go. I was pointed to a gate with a new flight time. Sweet. So far, so good.
A quick meal and I was waiting to board the final leg of the trip. Of course, when they scanned my ticket, the gentleman informed me I am not on this flight but if I wait he will help me out. Ok. I looked up and saw the standby list for this flight is 25 people deep. If I am not listed…
Once he started boarding standbys, noting that only a few were getting on, I tried to get his attention to make sure I’m added to the list. He dismissed me by saying he can’t help me until he is done boarding this flight.
I made it clear that I am in the market for this flight, and he made it clear he is not in the market to help me at all.
I went to the Delta customer service deck to try to get help. There was a line all the way down the corridor. Hrmm…
I tried printing out my new boarding documents and instead received a hotel voucher. Umm, that’s a little distressing. I was definitely not in the market to stay in Atlanta for the night. I called Delta’s customer service number and was told of a flight at ten-something I might be able to fly standby on. I noted that there’s another flight leaving Atlanta in less than twenty minutes. Can I fly that?
I’m sorry sir. It’s too late to book you on that flight. It’s leaving in less than twenty minutes.
E Terminal? Did it have to be all the way on the other side of the airport?
I began sprinting through the airport, bobbing and weaving like Ben Stark on the basketball court. After achieving a new land speed record (among folks carrying a duffle bag and a laptop case), I made it to the gate with moments to spare. The flight was in fact full; however, from the looks of it, three people hadn’t shown up yet. Just then, three people walked up to board.
The first two got on no problem, but the third was told that they are standby. Success!
A little airline status later and it was revealed that I am the first standby and am on my way!
At this point, I was pretty sold on Grixis, as most everything Kowal said made a lot of sense. I had a list brewed up and couldn’t wait to get to the convention center to jam some games.
By the time I arrived at the hall, it was almost quarter to midnight. Obviously, the hall closed at midnight. A kind stranger about to leave agreed to give me a game of Naya Aggro before he left. The list I played him with had lots of one-ofs to try a variety of cards. Even though we played just a single game, a number of things were made clear.
To begin with, Desperate Ravings (and Think Twice) were not what we’re looking for. Kowal had said exactly this, explaining that Grixis wants to use all of its mana all the time and should be playing as a tapout deck anyway. Ravings and Think Twice cost five mana; Divination costs just three. With those cards, you are paying a premium for the instant ability (an ability mostly squandered in Grixis at the moment).
One game against Naya confirmed Kowal’s observation. With Far // Away, Turn // Burn, Mizzium Mortars, Snapcaster Mage, Aetherling, and Olivia Voldaren, you have so many ways to spend your extra mana that you really want to be as mana efficient as you can be.
After getting kicked out of the hall, I set out to find a hotel. Normally I would already have arrangements, but seeing as I was getting in early afternoon, I didn’t think it’d be that big an issue.
On the plus side, I had a car. The downside, of course, was that I had a car. Trying to park a car in Miami Beach is not a trivial exercise. Making matters worse, the first eight hotels I stopped at were all booked solid. As I was trying to find a place to temporarily leave my rental to go inside a hotel, an older gentleman approached me and inquired, "Whatcha doing?"
I explained I am just trying to see if they have any rooms. He asked if it is just for me, to which I answered the affirmative. He said $100. This all seemed pretty dubious, as this guy is just out on the street. I agreed that I could use a room but that I should just go inside. He told me to park in a handicap spot and follow him and that my car will be fine. It’s 1:30 in the morning, so I am really just trying to find a place to crash for the night.
I decided to roll with it.
I went inside the facility (which looked more like a cross between a cheesy vacation tour guide shop and a remodeled old apartment building). His story seemed to be checking out, so I gave him the money and he gave me a receipt to put in the window of my rental, which he assured me will be ok.
From the looks of the place, I strongly suspected I would not want to be here all weekend, so I booked just one night, figuring I would get another place during the byes.
Entering the room was not exactly delightful.
It was 80-something degrees, and for a brief moment…
"Dear God, please no. Not like this."
Across the room, I saw an air conditioning unit and gave it at least a 75% chance of actually working. Sure enough! Ok, starting to run better.
I surveyed the place, which certainly looked like it was the type of place one rents by the hour or perhaps indulges in unspoken activities. Oddly, though, there was a full-size refrigerator. Not the type that ever appears in hotels, just a full on, William Perry-sized refrigerator, freezer included. Opening the freezer revealed that it was, indeed, quite cool inside of there.
I hope I cannot be judged a bad person for propping the freezer door open to help cool the room. The A/C worked, but who knew how long it would take to make the room bearable?
Brian Kowal and I resumed a phone conversation we had been having about Grixis, and we hammered out a final list. Anyone that has ever had the privilege of working with Kowal will tell you that he is a world-class deckbuilder, has tons of really good ideas, and is a true pleasure to discuss ideas with. The combination of well thought-out analytic reasoning, outside-the-box ideas, and off-the-cuff joking around makes for a lot of stimulating chats. Let me just give you an example of the level of analysis Kowal brings to the table:
It’s about lean, mean spells and reusing value. Creating tempo advantages. Deck velocity.
So I think the most powerful things to do in Grixis are:
- Pillar of Flame
- Olivia Voldaren
- Far // Away
- Bonfire of the Damned
- Mizzium Mortars
- Snapcaster Mage / Augur of Bolas
- Turn // Burn
The way I look at this deck is that it has a modular ability to have cheap removal in the early game and gets more powerful as you develop in mana. What I think you want to do is ramp as hard as you can because the Grixis cards will keep paying you off the more mana you get.
I don’t think you need a draw smoother like Desperate Ravings or Think Twice. What you want is mana. What I think might work really well is ramping with cards like Rakdos Keyrune, Ral Zarek, and Gilded Lotus. I think the Lotus is the key here. It combos awesomely with Ral Zarek and gives you huge power boosts. If you want any kind of card draw, I would lean more towards something like Divination. I don’t really get why nobody likes Divination. It is quite a bit better with Snapcaster than stuff like Think Twice. My only worry with this whole line is Acidic Slime on the Lotus, but that card has become a lot less prevalent lately and I think you might just be advantaged against that deck anyway. You get the Ral/Staticaster combo as a bonus if you want it as well.
I saw in your article that you were a little skeptical of Tribute to Hunger. I thought it was the best edict when I was messing around with Mono-Black a while back. The life gain can get really significant, and there are still a lot of decks trying to Ghor-Clan Rampager you. I would way rather play it than Liliana. Devour Flesh is fine too if you want a cheaper card, but Tribute was pretty much the Goddamn when backed with a bunch of other removal spells. I would set up my Tributes to gain more life.
I think Aetherling trumps just about every pure high mana play that is six or greater.
Obviously, I don’t have any kind of list."
After having a few hours to mull over our earlier conversations, Kowal asked what I think of the following list:
I liked a lot of what is going on here, but that sure did seem like a lot of Gilded Lotus. And four Ral Zarek, zero Jace was a little out there. I know Jace isn’t super popular at the moment on account of Sphinx’s Revelation, but if my experiences in Block showed me anything, it was the true power of the Architect of Thought.
I asked about the lack of Mortars or Bonfires that he suggested earlier. He admitted he had forgotten about those and we should probably fit a couple. Additionally, upon further thought, he said he had come around on a couple Dreadbores in case of Domri Rade.
With three Gilded Lotuses and so few two-drops, I wondered about the possibility of a few Prophetic Prisms and a Godless Shrine or two to support Sphinx’s Revelation. Could we have our cake and eat it too?
Kowal agreed that it might be possible but thought it was probably too fancy to try without testing. Besides, with all our kicker-esque action, we would have plenty to do with our mana, and what you really want are a few more two-drops that affect the board, not a commitment to playing some that don’t.
I had tried a miser’s Syncopate in my lone playtest game, but I only had to draw it to realize how horrible of a fit it was for tapout Grixis. You really need to use all your mana for other things, and leaving mana open is not ideal. If you want a third Counterspell, it should just be another Dissipate. Dissipate replaced Counterflux, by the way, because of the ability to play it off a Gilded Lotus on turn 5.
Eventually, BK and I arrived at the following list:
We compromised on the Jace/Ral split, and he certainly had nothing against Jace; he just thought Ral Zarek was underplayed. Trimming an Olivia was just a function of needing to find room for more early plays. Moving the third Staticaster to the board was much more painful and was actually the final spell cut.
As for the spells themselves, I had to cut a Gilded Lotus, as drawing two seemed like it would just be awful. Besides, it’s not like the deck is packed with expensive cards. Gilded Lotus mostly just lets you play more of your cheap spells more often (and with the maximum amount of kicking). Ral Zarek + Gilded Lotus is a mondo combo, but what are we even doing with that eleven mana?
Cutting those two creatures gave us room for a pair of Mizzium Mortars, and two of the Turn // Burns could swap with Dreadbores without much problem. Turn // Burn is a fine card, but it’s nowhere near the same league as Far // Away if you ask me. You can combine it with Izzet Staticaster to make a two-for-one, which is sweet, and it does deal with Thragtusk quite well, but dealing two damage is less valuable when you already have four Pillar of Flames (the reason to play red in control in my opinion).
Finally, we were probably a little punch drunk and decided to add some spice to the list. Enter Devil’s Play and Blast of Genius. I’d wanted to use a Staff of Nin, but Kowal wondered if Blast might not just be better. After all, often we would rather have three cards now than an extra card a turn starting next turn. Dealing five damage (fuse cards) was pretty sweet, and Blast of Genius would make Snapcaster Mage a much bigger threat going long.
Staff of Nin is pretty sweet with Izzet Staticaster or Ral Zarek, but Putrefy is a card. And besides, it is just hard to play six-cost spells that don’t have a big immediate impact when you could just play another Aetherling. Still, if I were to do it again, I think I’d have to cut the Blast of Genius. It was decent and the verdict is still out, but it was unnecessarily expensive when we could have just been using more cheap cards. We’ll see how it is on day 2 (it’s the night of day 1 as I write this), but Aetherling, Olivia, and planeswalkers already gave us a lot of haymakers. I might even still want a Staff, but I would lean towards something cheap instead (like the four Divinations we cut for it). As a note, Divination is much better than Pilfered Plans here because of the ability to play it off Gilded Lotus.
The Devil’s Play gave us another thing to spend mana on (particularly for when we combined Gilded Lotus + Ral Zarek) as well as more planeswalker defense and a last-ditch weapon against Nephalia Drownyard decks. Besides, I’d had good experiences with it in Grixis at Worlds 2011 and Grand Prix Orlando. With one day in the books, I’m unsure of the Devil’s Play’s value. If I had to guess, it is probably right to cut it, but it did look better than the Blast of Genius and I could definitely imagine it being right to play (or possibly to have one in the sideboard).
Cutting the sideboard down to fifteen cards was definitely painful, as there are just so many amazing options. BK and I walked through the Naya, Jund, The Aristocrats, and U/W/R Flash matchups, trying to make sure if nothing else that at least I had the right number of cards to bring in for each matchup. The final and most difficult cut was the Curse of Death’s Hold I wanted to sideboard. Curse of Death’s Hold #1 was sideboard card #16, not to mention Curse of Death’s Hold #2 being sideboard card #19. I have always loved the Jace + Curse combo, and both Izzet Staticaster and Turn // Burn love a good Curse.
With the benefit of a day of playtesting, I am certainly playing at least one next time and am going to try to fit the second. It really is a pretty decently positioned card in the format for most of the same reasons Izzet Staticaster is good right now. Izzet Staticaster isn’t strictly better, as it has a way of dying quite a bit. On balance, however, many of my opponents drew Golgari Charms, Ray of Revelations, and Oblivion Rings, so perhaps investing in a Curse of Death’s Hold isn’t that wise after all.
Most of the anti-control cards are no surprise, though I wonder if Notion Thief really was worth the slot. He can be a total monster against Sphinx’s Revelation, no question, but how many people are even playing it and is Notion Thief really the best card I could draw against them? l love having access to one, if only to mise, but I think I would have preferred just having another counterspell (maybe Dispel or Counterflux) or perhaps even a Duress. Slaughter Games was tempting but seemed expensive, slow, and too brutish considering there weren’t really key cards I wanted to hit. I guess maybe other people’s Aetherlings, but how many of those people are even out there?
The Aetherling was partially a sideboard card against control and Jund, but it was also available to help tune the deck once I had played a few rounds and had a better idea of how the deck should have been built in the first place. Blast of Genius was completely untested, and if it turned out to suck, I could swap it for an Aetherling every round.
A lot of discussion centers on deckbuilding when we have all the time in the world to prepare. Deckbuilding in real time has added challenges and skills that go along with it. Sometimes the best you can do when brewing in real time is give yourself some reasonable deck-tuning options in your sideboard. Obviously, it would be better if we just didn’t have the bad cards in our maindeck, but sometimes it can be unclear when a card is a worse something else and when it is actually the new hotness that the rest of the world will adopt in a couple weeks. A little playtesting can go a long way, but sometimes your flight emergency lands in Alabama and you end up a little short on time.
The Psychic Spiral was earmarked to be a Jace, Memory Adept or Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker. At the time, I did not yet have Drownyards, so it seemed like I might not be equipped to really win a Memory Adept game. As for Nicol Bolas, it is just so hard to justify spending eight mana on it when you can get Aetherling for seven.
Last minute it seemed like opposing Drownyard decks might be a problem, so I decided to Spiral. In retrospect, this was a totally wasted slot. If they are on the Drownyard plan, there is just too good a chance they win the fight over the Spiral anyway. What it should be is a noncreature threat that’s good against people that Slaughter Games your Aetherling. Jace or Nicol Bolas might work, but Staff of Nin is also an option. There is also a reasonable possibility that some other option is even better. Maybe Rakdos’s Return? I generally like Reap Intellect better in decks like this, but I would like this slot to actually win the game and all this burn adds up. That said, we’re probably boarding most of the burn out against people where this slot would come in. I considered Lone Revenant, but there are just too many Far // Aways and Lilianas.
Barter in Blood and Cremate were easy and easily as good as advertised. We are a little light on sweepers, and Barter does a passable job. It was also nice to have so many answers to Bant Hexproof (Barter, Tribute, Rolling Temblor), which I thought might pop back up again this weekend. As for Cremate, it was supposed to be for Junk Reanimator, but I brought it in against U/W/R Flash, Strangleroot Geist, Rancor, and even Immortal Servitude. I would love to find room for a third. The one Rolling Temblor was decent, and I wouldn’t kick a second one out of bed but wouldn’t go chase it down the street either.
The one Tribute was ok, but I could take it or leave it. This much cheap removal makes the life gain less important, though we certainly are vulnerable to Bonfire of the Damned so a little life gain would be nice. Homicidal Seclusion is interesting with Izzet Staticaster (and friends), but there just didn’t seem to be enough burn to warrant it. Maybe that’s a giant punt though. I could imagine playing one, but it will be much better when Mutavault is legal (a card I would play a lot of copies of in here…)
The third Staticaster, like the Tribute and Aetherling, was another tool for tuning the deck once I had a better feel for it. Besides, there are more than a couple people out there that get absolutely wrecked by it.
I never drew the Reap Intellect, but I boarded it in several times and it would have been amazing if I had drawn it. I would not hate a second one at all. I played one match against Matt Costa, who was on U/W/R Flash, where he tapped out for a monster Sphinx’s Revelation on his turn. If I had followed that up with a Reap Intellect, it would have been curtains.
While I had to submit my decklist before sleeping, I dreamt of Gerry Thompson scolding me for not playing enough lands, causing me to wake up fifteen minutes before final lists had to be in for sleep-in special people. I had to hand it to the GerryT of my dreams; 25 lands with no two-mana smoothers was pretty greedy. Not knowing what to cut in my half-sleep delirium, I decided to rock the time-honored 26/61.
At the time, I also had no Drownyards, but the last thing I wanted to do is lose control mirrors, so I took this opportunity to make the 26th land a Drownyard and replace the third Cavern with one. Looking back, I did win at least one game with Drownyard that I would not have won otherwise. Of course, I also lost a double Watery Grave, double Drownyard game where a red mana of any variety would have given me excellent chances. It may just be my play style, but I would run the Drownyards again.
"Play more lands, Patrick."
As for the tournament itself, I am currently sitting at 7-2 going into day 2. This is pretty disappointing considering a thunderous 7-0 start, but round 8 I lost a close one to Costa’s Flash deck then had a fairly uncompetitive round 9 against Bant Aggro due to mulligans and mana screws. The four actual wins were against a Junk Aristocrats deck, a traditional Jund deck, an Act 2 Aristocrats deck, and another Junk Aristocrats deck with Immortal Servitude.
I also got to playtest between rounds with Josh Utter-Leyton, Owen Turtenwald, and Shahar Shenhar piloting Bant Hexproof, fast Jund Aggro, and Bant Hexproof, respectively. The Bant Hexproof matchup is a little shaky game 1, but I am confident post-sideboard favors us. It’s too hard to say on the fast Jund Aggro matchup, but it felt pretty close. All the haste and the Bonfires were kind of annoying considering my quantity of sorcery speed business.
I have a long road in front of me before I hoist up that trophy, but I am super pumped to play tomorrow. Grand Prix Miami has been well run, the convention center serves fried chicken, playing Standard is a treat, and as for the accusations of loving to play Grixis?
Guilty as charged.