It takes confidence to be a good Magic player. However, confidence can be a dangerous thing as well. In fact, to even use the word confidence is to put an unnecessarily positive spin on things. Good Magic players tend to be confident, but more accurately they tend to be arrogant, conceited, stubborn, and opinionated. Suffice it to say that I, myself, am a confident Magic player.
Nowhere do these traits show themselves so clearly, and so dangerously, as in deckbuilding. I never copy someone else’s decklist, and I rarely choose the most popular deck in any given format. I build my own decks because historically, I have better results when I do so, but needless to say, there are negative aspects to such a policy as well. Doing everything from scratch on your own is unnecessarily difficult. Ignoring advice from other players means leaving your best tool to rust in the garageâ€”and it’s downright stupid.
For Pro Tour Dark Ascension in Hawaii, I had the amazing opportunity to work with a group of many of the best players and deckbuilders in the history of the game. Being the youngest and least experienced of the group, I felt it was best to err on the quiet side, asking questions instead of forcing my opinions on everyone else like I might ordinarily do. I wanted to give myself the best chance of doing well, but I also wanted the learning experience of working on a deck as part of a team. Thankfully, it happened that I was able to meet both goals at once.
While the majority of our team settled on a Delver of Secrets Spirit deck, Patrick Chapin and I felt going in that Grixis Control would fit better with our play styles and personal experiences. Patrick was coming off great finishes at the World Championships and Grand Prix Orlando with Grixis, so I deferred to him on the core of the deck. Together we talked through the changes we would make with Dark Ascension and for the metagame we expected at the Pro Tour.
After trying Faithless Looting in other decks like Sun Titan Control and Wolf Run Ramp, I felt this card was too good to not play with; it was the last little push I needed to be on board with playing red compared to sticking to straight U/B. In Orlando, Patrick used two copies of Ponder to smooth out his mana and his draws, but Looting does all that and more.
Since Faithless Looting and Desperate Ravings are the most important early plays, we were able to shift the mana a little bit away from blue towards red. In addition to reducing mulligans, the change also facilitated Slagstorm, which ended up being among the most valuable cards for me over the course of the tournament.
Looting is at its best against straightforward beatdown decks like Humans and Mono-Green Aggro. U/B Control traditionally struggles against such decks because the density and efficiency of their threats makes it too hard to answer everything. However, the game plan with Grixis is not to answer everything, but simply to survive to play a six-drop. In Patrick’s words:
“The most important change was the move towards Grave Titan. In this build, he is a sort of catch-all. How do you deal with X? Play a Grave Titan! How do you deal with Y? Play a Grave Titan! His ability to fight removal and hexproof creatures, race big threats, and totally take over games on his own makes him especially well positioned at the moment.”
There’s nothing better than Faithless Looting for setting up that game winning Titan. You can hit your lands, you can find an intermediate play like Pristine Talisman or a sweeper, and you can increase your chances of having the right bomb at the right time. If you can do that, it doesn’t matter much whether the Grave Titan is the last card in your hand because it can basically beat their whole deck on its own.
Faithless Looting, like Desperate Ravings, plays to a huge strength of Grixis, which is the use of flashback spells. Whenever things slowed down and went late, I knew I could simply take a peek at my graveyard and find plenty to do! I’ve discussed how powerful and efficient Faithless Looting is for smoothing out the early turns, but the fact that it has flashback means it also provides insurance against flooding in the late game.
Finally, Faithless Looting helps from a deck construction and sideboarding standpoint because it allows you to play with cards that are powerhouses in some situations but may not be universally useful. Curse of Death’s Hold is incredible against many of Standard’s top decks but is embarrassing against pure control. Ancient Grudge is frequently dead, but when it’s not it’s utterly game breaking. The flashback obviously makes it an appealing card to discard to Faithless Looting as well.
As amazing as it is, two copies of Faithless Looting is the sweet spot. You rarely have the extra cards or mana to flashback multiples in the same game, and there are some matchups where you want to sideboard them out (naturally, you’ll always have fewer bad cards to discard after sideboard). Having the two Faithless Lootings in the deck took away much of the risk of having cards that were often dead or difficult to cast. Still, we needed to show discipline and not get carried away.
Ray of Revelation is a white card that flashes back for green mana. Our deck for the Pro Tour was U/R/B, so we showed some discipline and only played one copy.
As silly as it sounds, Ray of Revelation was a big addition to Grixis and really changed the way we could approach some matchups. Against anthem decks like Humans (Honor of the Pure) and Tokens (Intangible Virtue), we could keep things on an even playing field and allow Curse of Death’s Hold to take over the game.
In control mirrors, which inevitably go very long, you can get full use of the Ray by taking out Oblivion Rings and freeing your game winning threats. That means running out something like a Karn Liberated whenever you can resolve it and knowing that even if it gets O-Ringed, you can get him back later in the game at a bargain price.
The Solemn was the one card I insisted on including. At the tail end of pre-Innistrad Standard, I used U/B Control to win the Magic Online Player of the Year tournament. The hot deck at the time was Mono-Green Aggro featuring Dungrove Elder, Thrun, the Last Troll, and Sword of Feast and Famineâ€”in short, a Doom Blade player’s nightmare. However, Solemn Simulacrum played perfectly into the plan of ignore what they’re doing, and survive to cast a Grave Titan. Solemn can block a creature of any size, with any protection, and therefore provides mana ramp, card advantage, and much-needed time. When I saw Mono-Green Aggro picking up steam in the StarCityGames.com Open Series, I knew wanted to find room for him again. In Grixis, he can also fix your colors and allow your dual lands to come into play untapped, which makes him perfect for ramping into a Sorin Markov or a Blue Sun’s Zenith.
Sever the Bloodline was yet another concession to green beatdown. In testing, our Mono-Green Aggro pilots would be looking first and foremost for Strangleroot Geist and for Green Sun’s Zenith to fetch more Strangleroot Geists. Not only does Sever have the potential to take out multiple creatures, but it exiles them and puts a stop to annoying undying shenanigans. Similarly, I predict that the application of exiling Gravecrawler and Geralf’s Messenger will become increasingly valuable with Grand Prix Baltimore on the horizon.
An exciting, and perhaps not-so-obvious use of Sever the Bloodline is against Sun Titan Control. Your opponent can spend their whole game setting up a Sun Titan plus Phantasmal Image chain, and you can pull the rug out from under them in one shot. As the games go unbelievably long, both the exile and the flashback aspects of Sever the Bloodline are critical.
Finally, it’s one more welcome answer to Hero of Bladehold against Humans.
What was it like working with Patrick “the Innovator” Chapin? Let me share a conversation he and I had many, many times in the days preceding the Pro Tour.
“Patrick, it really seems crazy to put [this card] in our deck. Shouldn’t we play another counterspell or another Doom Blade instead?”
“Reid, trust me on this one…”
Acting outside of character, I decided I’d trust him; I wrote Sorin Markov, Precursor Golem, and Ray of Revelation in permanent black ink on my Pro Tour decklist. I even went against my instincts and gave Blue Sun’s Zenith a maindeck slot.
Everybody knows that getting a Vicious Hunger every turn is unbelievably powerful…in Zendikar Limited. Little did I know before this tournament, though, Sorin Markov actually has more than one ability! I used all three over the course of the Pro Tour.
Against a Wolf Run player, I landed Sorin but was still scared of losing to a Titan he could play on the following turn. I set his life total to ten and ensured that I could finish him before he’d be able to make full use of any Inkmoth Nexus and Kessig Wolf Run he could throw out there.
In another match, Sorin nearly allowed me to pull off a miracle. My Esper opponent was racing me in the air with Lingering Souls tokens, but I played a Grave Titan. Even with him threating lethal four times over, I could’ve played Sorin and set his life total to ten, making my Titan a one shot kill. Unfortunately, my opponent had a Sorin, Lord of Innistrad sitting there at one counter so I couldn’t play my own before combat!
Against Tempered Steel, I slammed Sorin as soon as I hit six mana and began to simultaneously decimate his team and raise my own life total to get out of danger. However, I wasn’t out of the water as he eventually played Tempered Steel and could still kill with Inkmoth Nexus or his seven-counter Shrine of Loyal Legions. I used Sorin’s ultimate to Mindslaver him, attacked his Nexus into my Consecrated Sphinx, and popped his Shrine so I could take it out with a sorcery-speed Black Sun’s Zenith! Then I made him go buy me a soda before I passed the turn back.
My Humans opponent had a perfect curve out on the play with Thalia, Guardian of Thraben and Mirran Crusader. The Thalia made all of my sweepers, counterspells, and card draw unacceptably slow, but I was still able to play my Precursor Golem on curve. Like most white weenie players, his only removal was Oblivion Ring and Fiend Hunter, so he surveyed the board, realized he had no good attacks, and simply played a Hero of Bladehold. So instead of being dead, I untapped for another turn, played a Consecrated Sphinx, drew two cards, and presented my opponent with the same unpalatable options again on his turn. This time he attacked me low and played another Hero of Bladehold, but all of the extra cards from the Sphinx drew me into removal and I took the game. This miraculous comeback had all started from the Precursor Golemâ€”one of the only cards in the format that could’ve saved me.
All I wanted to play were Titans and Sphinxes, because I knew the power they had to dominate creature decks. Patrick insisted that we vary our bomb spells.
I found myself somewhat flooded against an Illusions player, who clearly had a hand full of permission. Each turn passed with him chipping at me with one or two creatures, me recovering the life with two Pristine Talismans, and making a land drop. Whenever he would extend a little too far, I would sweep the board with one of the answers that I had been saving. The key to the game, though, was that I had a Blue Sun’s Zenith in my hand, which was common knowledge due to Gitaxian Probe. My opponent could never tap low and he could never waste a counterspell because resolving the Zenith would mean winning that deep in the game. At long last, I developed a huge mana advantage, drew a Mana Leak, and waited for him to tap down to four mana. I cast the Zenith for six, leaving five lands untapped, he Mana Leaked, I paid it, he Leaked again, and I Leaked back, winning the counter war and the game soon after.
Down a game and the clock running low, I was facing down a Sun Titan and a Wurmcoil Engine out of a Five-Color Control deck. I counted my manaâ€”fourteenâ€”and I counted the cards in my opponent’s libraryâ€”twelve. I couldn’t deck him with Blue Sun’s Zenith yet, but I was dead to one more attack. I cast it on myself for seven and drew into the Doom Blade I needed to survive.
I also drew into the Ray of Revelation that I needed to win. The following turn, I destroyed his Oblivion Ring, freeing my Sorin Markov, then flashed it back on his other Oblivion Ring freeing my Consecrated Sphinx. He conceded immediately, and after he missed a land drop in game three, I was able to finish him before the clock ran out.
What was it like working with Patrick Chapin? To say it was better than working alone would be an understatement. Aside from his personal talent and experience, it was great to simply have a second set of eyes working on the same deck. On my own, I would likely have never discovered the power of Pristine Talisman against Delver or the way that Sorin Markov makes Grave Titan kill in one hit. I certainly never would have thought to sideboard Precursor Golem against Humans or to play Ray of Revelation in a Grixis-colored deck.
Think outside the box and accept help when it’s offered. Be confident, but don’t let the side effects of confidence stop you from growing as a player.
Grixis Moving Forward
If I were to list match win percentages for Grixis Control against Standard’s top decks, you might not be overly impressed. However, the deck has intangible qualities that make it perfect for a long, open tournament. You rarely have to mulligan with it (I never mulligan with it), you rarely get mana screwed, you rarely get mana flooded, and there’s plenty of room to outplay your opponents.
We chose Grixis largely as a hate deck for Delver, expecting to struggle against other strategies like Humans and Wolf Run. However, in nine rounds the only Delver deck I faced was Illusions (see above), but I pulled off a 7-2 record (and intentionally drew the final round).
I feel that U/B-based control is very good in today’s Standard, and I’ll be playing it in one form or another at GP Baltimore. Grixis in particular is a great choice as it has the variety of answers needed to combat the format’s creature decks, and the emphasis on late game power means you have an out in every situation.
For anyone interested in Grixis, I recommend the links throughout this article as well as anything Mr. Chapin has written in the past four months! I’m also happy to answer any questions in the comments section.