Grixis Control Keeps Me Hanging On

What’s a control player to do when hyper-aggression rules a format? Shaheen Soorani looks to Modern Grixis Control muse Corey Burkhart for inspiration ahead of SCG Indianapolis!

SCG Indianapolis February 25-26

Modern is the format we hate to hate. The weakness of control pushed me into the forbidden realm of aggro a few months ago. The inability for traditional control decks to thrive in Modern, and my desire to not let my team of Pascal Maynard and Brian Braun-Duin down at GP San Antonio, was enough for me to look for alternative ways to contribute outside of the Island. I eagerly sleeved up Naya Zoo in preparation for the upcoming month of Modern events, but I’ve had mixed results that stopped my aggressive momentum in its tracks. The new revolt creatures have really added a power boost to the Reckless Bushwhacker strategy, giving an additional four Burning-Tree Emissary in the form of Hidden Herbalists.

I have personally played over 50 matches with the deck between my local Wednesday Night Modern and on Magic Online, and determined that the boost in power wasn’t worth the consistency. This pushed me to go back to the old Tarmogoyf setup, only utilizing the Narnam Renegades from the revolt clan. The upside to Hidden Herbalists was minimal, but Narnam Renegade is a fantastic addition. It having deathtouch is randomly relevant, providing another dimension to the blitz aggressive deck in combat. Being able to kill an enemy Tarmogoyf or Death’s Shadow, is big game for a deck that has the fewest decision tree options out there. The rest of the deck is fairly traditional, and I can’t in good conscience write an entire article on nuisances of a one-note Zoo strategy. There is a deck, however, that has piqued my interest thanks to Corey Burkhart’s dedication and resilience.

Deck Synopsis

The state of control in Modern would require an entire article of its own. For those who want to join the conversation about the freeing of Jace, the Mind Sculptor, please join me on Facebook and follow me @shaheenmtg. Today I want to focus on the positive and go over the strengths of Corey’s deck, as well as offer my advice to enhance the deck against the influx of Death’s Shadow and boost other matchups across the board.

Grixis Control deploys a reactive strategy, which is the only avenue that control can take in such an aggressive format. The deck is completely instant-speed, and the key win condition costs only a single black to summon. This provides that draw-go feel that control mages like me strive to recreate in while building decks.

The card advantage in Grixis Control is gained through Cryptic Command; Kolaghan’s Command; Snapcaster Mage; Tasigur, the Golden Fang; and the most powerful attrition card in the deck, Ancestral Vision. Ancestral Vision was a card that I was thrilled to see unbanned, and since its return to the Modern format, I’ve seen mixed results. It was an amazing card in Standard and a powerhouse for a few months in Legacy, but it hasn’t seen the Legacy breakout that was expected. Card draw is something that is simply not used in Modern because of the limited time any deck must build up their resources.

Ancestral Vision hits the spot at one mana, though, and has earned four spots in this build of Grixis Control. I have always been a fan of running four due to the upside of having it in the opening hand. The downside is the opposite, drawing copies of it later in the game, or having it returned to you with Tasigur, the Golden Fang, when there is not enough time to wait for the suspend counters to fall off. High-risk, high-reward cards in the opening hand that reward the user for playing the maximum amount of copies are the backbones of Modern.

A control deck in Modern with Ancestral Vision will typically have Serum Visions as well. Serum Visions is a staple in each of the blue control strategies that hover around the Tier 2-3 range, providing control aficionados with smooth draws in the early games. Playing this, combined with Snapcaster Mage, provides us with the required interaction spells for any particular matchup, which is crucial in Modern. This format is unforgiving in that regard, and drawing the “wrong side of your deck” is typically a death sentence.

This is the very essence of weakness in control decks, and why a hand of Terminate / Lightning Bolt, cantrips, and land looks wonderful until your opponent plays an Urza’s Mine. We aren’t an aggressive deck that can shake off cards like these and drop three Burning-Tree Shamans to bash face while holding a dead Path to Exile. Grixis Control builds like this rely on Serum Visions, Thoughtscour, Ancestral Vision, and Snapcaster Mage rebuys to get to the perfect answers for a format that presents a huge diversity of threats.

The first thing I noticed about Corey’s deck is the complete absence of hand disruption.

One of the strongest weapons that black-based control has in any format is its ability to tear apart an opponent’s hand, yet I agree fully with his omission of these types of cards from the maindeck. Thoughtseize is a huge liability, and the matchup against aggressive decks, or most decks for that matter, isn’t great Game 1. When Ancestral Vision resolves, the cards that follow must be immediately useful to threats already on the battlefield.

There are obviously times where having Thoughtseize or Inquisition of Kozilek is great, but most Modern decks are very aggressive, which typically deters use of hand disruption. Being on the draw with a Thoughtseize in-hand is miserable and prevents casting one of the twelve card draw spells that allows the control mage to continue to hit land drops. This deck simply wants to wait for the opponent to try to use their mana, respond with removal or countermagic, and eventually play a Tasigur, the Golden Fang to clean up. The limited amount of win conditions is perfect because of how powerful Kolaghan’s Command is. This allows the Grixis Control player to be resilient, like the other decks in Modern, to hand disruption. There is a lot of repetition in this version, having three- or four-ofs all the heavy hitters.

One of my favorite parts of this deck is the counterspell package. Spell Snare is an absolute house in the format, providing us a line of defense against the absurd aggressive draws as well as stopping a few combos in their tracks early on. Corey decided on two in the deck, which follows a similar line of logic as the hand disruption model. Drawing Spell Snares later in the game can be devastating, but having one early on will typically save your life. To join the best one-mana counterspell in the format, Logic Knot makes an appearance. For those who have seen a few Modern lists by me, you know how much I love this card. Logic Knot feels identical to Counterspell, and with fetchlands and Thought Scour fueling your delve, it can become a hard counter immediately. There is a single copy of this in his maindeck, as well as a single copy of Countersquall. This is one of those spells that have completely replaced Negate in decks that have access to both colors. He still decided on using a copy of Negate in the sideboard, but I’d suspect that a third Countersquall would be a better fit.

The Cryptic Commands have been a staple for control decks in Modern for quite some time. There were short periods within the last few years where people ran fewer due to the popularity of Dispel in the blue mirrors. With blue-based control decks all but pushed out of Modern, this threat doesn’t exist anymore. I joke around with other Magicians on social media about the three decks to beat, and those are “bad combo decks, unplayable midrange decks, and 50 shades of broken aggressive decks.”

Blue-based control falls into a rogue category and has an uphill battle against the prescribed field. You won’t find many mirror matches in your typical GP, but you will see a few loyalist control players battling to the very end at any local game store. I myself have run into these players that never surrender, but sadly, I had to take them to the Zoo. I do feel that this strategy can win in Modern, but it needs a lot of help to get there if you are anyone else besides Corey. There are certain players that can attune with a specific deck and find success; some label me with that Esper ability. Let’s try a few changes to make this deck more streamlined to handle the hyper-aggressive metagame.

Three Changes

1. Counterspell package makeover.

I mentioned earlier that I found the Negate to be a bit out of place. That would become a Countersquall in the sideboard, raising the count to three for the big mana/combo decks that lurk around the Tier 2 realm. The other counter change I’d make is reducing the Cryptic Command count from four to three. I love me some Dismiss, but Logic Knot is simply too powerful in this deck to not add a second. Moving that Cryptic Command count slightly down and adding a Logic Knot gives this deck a slightly lower curve, which is always good.

2. No Fatal Push?!

I understand why Fatal Push was omitted, but after jamming some games against Death’s Shadow, Affinity, Zoo, and every little creature monstrosity you can think of, it is needed. Terminate handles the big stuff like Tasigur, the Golden Fang; Primeval Titan; and other big scary things but these types of threats are far and few between. Fatal Push is the black Swords to Plowshares, and I don’t think I could ignore it completely in a field that is dominated by little creatures. I cut two Terminate for two Fatal Push, and it has been impressive so far. I find myself wanting to run more copies, but thanks to the amount of cantrips in the deck, it hasn’t been hard finding one early in the games I’ve played.

3. I hate Creeping Tar Pit.

These reactive decks with heavy mana requirements on every turn from 1 until the end get stifled by lands that enter the battlefield tapped. I was a staunch advocate of maximum copies of Celestial Colonnade in Esper Control, as well as Creeping Tar Pit in U/B/x Control. I learned my lesson the hard way, losing games with un-suspended Ancestral Vision, inability to Spell Snare on the first turn, too little-too late Cryptic Commands, and just sad starts that didn’t have to be that way.

I have cut down to one Creeping Tar Pit, but even that singleton has begun to outstay its welcome. Darkslick Shores has been a great replacement, only causing a slight power level drop in the late-game. The upside of having a threat on the battlefield to create lethal damage after a few Lightning Bolts and Snapcaster Mages is there, but the downside is much worse. I suggest taking these creature-lands and placing them right in the binder until the format slows down, or maybe until the most powerful planeswalker that has ever lived returns to us.

Thanks for reading, everyone, and I wish all of you luck in this unforgiving Modern world!

SCG Indianapolis February 25-26