Grixis In Modern

Patrick Chapin revisits his beloved Grixis Control, this time in Modern in preparation for Grand Prix Detroit next month. Check out his list and let him know what you think!

Time to take it back to my roots.

Time to take it back to Detroit.

Time to take it back to Grixis.

Look, I wasn’t just walking around looking for a Grixis deck. I didn’t choose the Grixis life. It chose me. Super Stream Master Paul Cheon has been playing Grixis in Modern lately and thinks of me whenever he casts Cruel Ultimatum.

Which is the nicest thing I have heard this month.

And speaking of which, I haven’t actually built a Grixis deck all month. Maybe it’s time to get down to business!

Cheon, like me, is a fan of U/W/R Control. That said, the archetype is a very known quantity, and people have had time to adjust their strategies against it. Additionally, despite Shahar Shenhar’s win over Reid Duke in the finals of the World Championship (playing U/W/R vs. G/W Auras), the strategy typically has a weakness against Aura decks (which I expect to increase a little in popularity).

Now, that said, there is a very good chance I play U/W/R Control in Grand Prix Detroit next month. The deck is very good. There are a lot of different ways to play it, some closer to Standard Flash decks complete with Restoration Angels and all and some closer to pure control decks that Wafo-Tapa would play.

If the Grand Prix were tomorrow, I’d play U/W/R Wafo-Tapa, just like I did in GP Portland. Of course, GP Detroit isn’t tomorrow, so there is still plenty of time to brew. Which brings us back to Grixis.

Why Grixis?

Well, Cruel Ultimatum actually looks pretty sweet in the format right now. Just being able to play with it is a very powerful plan in and of itself. The format is not so fast that the game is always decided before you can get to Ultimatum mana. Besides, there are a lot of cheap interactive spells, and you really need a way to take over the game. Like Sphinx’s Revelation? Cruel Ultimatum is a lot like that, although at seven mana I would much, much rather have an Ultimatum than a Revelation most of the time.



Just think about it for a moment. Sphinx’s Rev giving you four cards and four life is totally awesome, to be sure, but look at Cruel Ultimatum:

  • Draw three cards plus get a creature back. If you’re playing creatures, this is slightly better than drawing four cards already.
  • Gain five life, which is more than four!
  • They lose five life, which isn’t a big deal, but it’s better than them not losing five life!
  • They sacrifice a creature, which is really big these days. I know it sounds funny to talk about seven-mana edicts against Slippery Boggle decks that can kill you on turn 4, but if you have meaningful interaction, this element of Cruel Ultimatum is a game-winning follow up. Edicts are so good right now (particularly when combined with Electrolyze) that I actually want to make room for a lot more of them (although admittedly the rest probably need to be a bit cheaper)
  • Oh, by the way, they also discard their hand! Yeah, Cruel Ultimatum is actually Rakdos’s Return and Sphinx’s Revelation at the same time! This is great for destroying their possible counterplay. No playing around sweepers. No saving "the combo" (even casting Deceiver Exarch in response leads to it being edicted). No fighting back!

Of course, Sphinx’s Revelation being an instant is absolutely incredible; it cycles to draw two when you have just five mana, it’s much easier on your mana (letting you have nice things like Tectonic Edge), and it has the ability to go much larger than a mere four-point Rev. These are not trivial advantages, and this list alone might be enough to force us back into U/W/R-Land. Once you factor in how good of sideboard cards white gives us, it’s clear that we are going to need something pretty sweet out of this Grixis deck in order to justify black over white.

I started my latest expedition into the uncharted waters of Grixis by taking a look at Cheon’s latest list:

This is a pretty old-school Grixis deck, with lots of good cards, a good curve, and Mystical Teachings to pull it all together. First, some observations about the card choices:

Snapcaster Mage has been a Grixis standby since the day it was printed. Grixis decks are literally packed to the gills with juicy Snapcaster targets, with Lightning Bolt and Spell Snare recursion early being a very mana efficient way to get an advantage and reusing Cryptic Command or Cruel Ultimatum being game-winning late game. My concern? I kind of imagine that GP Detroit is going to have an awful lot of Scavenging Oozes . . . like even more than that. I could totally picture more than 40% of the day 2 metagame playing Scavenging Ooze. I don’t know how much that should push me off of Snapcasters, but it is a factor.

Scavenging Ooze is just not a realistic Magic card. That card is just so incredible. We have already seen it take over Standard, and I’m pretty sure Modern is no different. The card is excellent in Legacy, so why not Modern? Grixis is not exactly hard up for ways to kill an Ooze, but just because you play Doom Blades doesn’t mean you are always going to have one handy.

Vendilion Clique is fine. It’s a card I cut from decks slightly more often than I probably should, but it is also a very jack-of-all-trades kind of card. When you want something specific, Vendilion Clique is rarely it. The card’s raw power is high, but it does promote a nickel-and-dime kind of game plan (trying to sneak in damage with it, Tar Pits, Snapcasters, and the like rather than totally taking control), which is certainly not the only way to play Grixis. Of course, it is also just a great card and never really bad.

Batterskull is a reliable victory condition going long. Do you really need such a thing? I don’t know. If I didn’t play one main, I would probably have at least one in the sideboard. It is a nice way to gain life and make sure you can beat lots of removal. That said, Cruel Ultimatum is also a nice way to gain life and make sure you can beat lots of removal.

Magma Spray is another mana-efficient play that is particularly good against mana creatures (like Deathrite Shaman) and Voice of Resurgence. I love the ingenuity, but I am a little hesitant since we also have Electrolyze dealing two damage (and the format is aware of how incredible Electrolyze is and sometimes tries to mitigate its effectiveness). I could totally see Magma Spray, but competition for slots is going to be tough and it is a bit weaker of a card than many of the others. Besides, maybe I am sick, but I want more Spell Snares I think.

Speaking of Spell Snare, I think the question should be between three and four, and I kind of lean four if we can get away with it. I played four in my U/W/R deck in Portland and didn’t regret it for a second. Basically everyone plays tons of great cards at the two spot, and Scavenging Ooze is only going to increase this. It is just such a fantastic play when you are on the draw and successfully Snare a two-drop and unlike a lot of other cheap spells is still rock solid later.

Mana Leak is a necessary evil (assuming it really is necessary because it is definitely an evil). I would love to be able to play a card like Remand, but the format has too many cheap spells and cards that can be replayed easily. At the end of the day, Mana Leak is still a quality card for bridging the earlier turns, plus it is an effective way to fight the threes that dodge our Snares.

Think Twice helps contribute to the additional card draw we need, but is it really the best way to get early card flow? I play Think Twice in U/W/R, to be sure, but Grixis has a different texture. This isn’t just a Desperate Ravings vs. Think Twice type of thing either. Cryptic Command doesn’t really love Ravings that much, but the rest of the deck could take pretty good advantage of it (Teachings, Snapcaster, situational reactive cards, needing tons of mana but also being prone to flood). Rather, I wonder if flashback cantrips are really the best way to go or if we need something more mana efficient. More on this later . . .

Shadow of Doubt? Sure. If you have Teachings, you have to play at least one maindeck, and I actually maindecked two in my GP Portland U/W/R deck just to mise. I think there is going to be a lot of Pod, and you can always try to catch someone’s fetchlands. It does use of some of your durdling equity, which along with Think Twice and Mystical Teachings is actually taxed pretty hard in this list. Still, the blowouts happen more often than you might think, and opponents that know you don’t have it can take such greater liberties.

Terminate and Dismember are just standby removal spells that are diversified to help make Teachings better, though Cheon notes that the Dismember could also be another Terminate. Additionally, he sometimes plays a Dreadbore in place of it. Obviously, you can’t Teach for it, but it does give you an added out to Domri Rade and Liliana, both of which can be annoying. Still, Lightning Bolt, Electrolyze, Snapcaster, and Tar Pit put a serious cap on just how annoying Walkers can be.

I would like to note that while Terminate has traditionally been the best spot removal available to Grixis (other than Lightning Bolt); I am pretty drawn to edict effects at the moment.

Electrolyze has been awesome in the format for a while now and still rocks. I could totally see playing four, but it is such a known quantity that playing just three is totally defensible. Besides, this list is not short on ways to use its mana each turn. One great feature of Electrolyze is how much better it makes edict effects . . .

Cryptic Command is one of your absolute best cards, if not the best. It isn’t the fastest card in the world, but it does everything and usually while gaining value. Besides, we have a shortage of hard counters, which we actually really need. Being able to bounce your own creatures is actually completely sick, and Cryptic Command as a Fog is actually better in Grixis than U/W/R because of the added dimension of buying you time to get to seven mana. It sounds funny, but bouncing a problematic permanent and then making them discard it with Ultimatum is actually not that uncommon of a play.

Teachings is a card advantage engine that also solves specific problems. When combined with enough Snapcaster Mages, you actually solve a fair number of problems as many times as it takes. I wonder, though, how much utility are we getting out of the Demonic Tutor aspect? It’s not like we actually have that specific of bullets. We do have Consume the Meek, but besides that everything we would search up is really not that different from anything else we play.

It’s not like we’re playing Ancient Grudge; Extirpate; Punishing Fire; Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir; Sphinx’s Revelation; or other cards that open up novel dimensions outside of "draw cards, counter spells, and kill creatures." When you play Mystical Teachings, you really are paying for the toolbox, and I kind of just want raw quantity of cards more than selection. It is a minor point, but people do play a fair number of Shadow of Doubts these days, which is pretty effective against Teachings.

All this said, Teachings is just a really strong card and generally a good core engine. In a perfect world, we would just be Mind Sculpting like civilized folks, but Modern is hardly a perfect world.

As for the sweepers, Cheon has a nice mix despite only being able to search for the Consume. If you have Teachings, you need a Consume the Meek, but beyond that Damnation is generally going to be better. The miser’s Pyroclasm instead of the second Damnation is partially to bring the curve down and partially just to mise. I generally like diversifying the reactive cards, though I am slightly hesitant on Pyroclasm because we already have Electrolyze. Of course, the reason we have Electrolyze in the first place is because it is so good in the format (for many of the same reasons Pyroclasm is good on its own). Overall, if we play just three Electrolyzes, then I could be convinced on a Pyroclasm.

The mana base doesn’t really have a lot crazy going on. The biggest stylistic choices made here are the fairly standard use of four Tar Pits (which I generally like), the use of two Islands and a Mountain (to take less damage from Scalding Tarn), and an expert mix of duals. Playing Tar Pits, fetches, and shocks is nothing special, but it takes a veteran deckbuilder to come up with Sunken Ruins for U/B (to support Damnation / Consume / Cruel / Cryptic), Scars land for B/R (to support Lightning Bolt and Thoughtseize), and Sulfur Falls for R/U (since there isn’t a R/U Scars land and we need to cast Lightning Bolt and Spell Snare off it).

Cheon’s sideboard is a great mix of primarily reactive cards and really is just going to be a metagame call the night before the tournament. Rakdos Charm is perhaps the most important, as it adds so many dimensions to his Mystical Teachings with graveyard hate, artifact hate, and Twin hate all in one. It should also be noted that despite the Sowing Salts Tron is still not the matchup you want to face with a deck like this. Not having Tectonic Edge hurts so much when they can just out mana you from a very early point.

Rather than just try to tune Cheon’s list, I thought it might be more educational to just build a Grixis deck from the ground up and then compare it to Cheon’s list, seeing what can be learned from the comparison. Cheon’s list looks very solid, but it also looks like a Grixis version of U/W/R Control that just has Cruel Ultimatum instead of Revelation. My guess is that if Grixis is right, it needs to have a dimension or focus not present in U/W/R. Two come to mind:

  • Edict effects – Black gives us all we want, whereas white’s are pretty mediocre.
  • Raw card draw – Cruel Ultimatum is pure brute force. Rather than build for precision, what if we build for brute force?

In thinking about edict effects, I suddenly remembered Gatekeeper of Malakir exists!

I immediately pulled up my archives to look for the Extended Grixis deck Brian Kowal and I built for Grand Houston back in April of 2010. Amusingly, Ctrl-F for "Grixis" in my archives didn’t exactly narrow down the search as much as much as I thought it would, but nevertheless I found the article and list in question.

A very different Grixis deck indeed!

There are a number of points to remember when examining this list:

The next step was sending out the brew signal to Brian Kowal (the same great mind that was a part of this Houston Grixis deck, as well as the Grixis deck I played in Miami). Within seconds he was on the phone and full of ideas.

We tried working backwards from this list, seeing what it would look like today.

  • Replacing the Moxes was as simple as adding three more lands (we hoped).
  • Countersquall and Flashfreeze became Mana Leak.
  • We knew we wanted four Lightning Bolts and the three Smothers were an obvious start, but to make room for the fourth we trimmed a Talisman (which might just be wrong). Notice that the Houston deck was just a U/B deck with Cruels. Adding Lightning Bolt is going to require adjustments to the mana base.
  • We knew we wanted three or four Spell Snares, but with no obvious cut we would just look for room.
  • Signets became Talismans to better support Spell Snare. Not 100% sure of this one, but historically it’s been worth it for this reason. We have also tentatively shaved one, but I could see going back up to four. We’d love a U/R Talisman to cast Lightning Bolt or Spell Snare off of, but we have to work with the tools we have. At least this one casts Gatekeeper of Malakir easier than Dimir Signet did.
  • Three Thirst for Knowledges became three Electrolyzes since we don’t have Moxes and Electrolyze just rocks.
  • One Damnation got trimmed for the fourth Cryptic since we have Electrolyze to help with small creatures.
  • The Night of Soul’s Betrayals were just a metagame call that is no longer appropriate. They are cut and don’t need to be replaced, giving us two slots for Spell Snares.
  • Two Repeals turned into a Far // Away as an experiment and one of the Spell Snare slots we need. Is Far // Away too slow for Modern? It is added card draw (sort of), and I just think the card is great. That said, it could be Devour Flesh if we are just lame, and both Electrolyze #4 and Terminate is still on the table. But I would love to discover that we can actually support a second copy of Far // Away somehow.
  • We debated Mulldrifter, but in the end it actually sounded pretty good to us. Maybe we are just a couple of degenerates, but Mulldrifter is a really good card. To gain the most from playtesting, we are starting with a split, two Snapcaster and two Mulldrifters, although Mulldrifter may be just too ambitious.
  • Replacing the Jaces is tough. Kowal initially suggested Chandra, Pyromaster, both as a card drawer and because of its synergy with Electrolyze (the pings add together to kill bigger creatures). Besides, this is a deck that would actually get some value out of Chandra’s ultimate. Ultimately, however, there are just too many counterspells and expensive cards to justify Chandra when we have excellent options like Jace Beleren and Jace Architect of Thought (both of which are pretty underrated in Modern). I’m not sure which is better, but I kind of like the Architect of Thought more. Still, to get the most out of testing, I wanted to start with a one-one split. Both work great with Talismans (Architect for the perfect curve, Beleren for the planeswalker + Bolt / Snare turn), with the third Mind Sculptor being replaced by the fourth blue card draw creature.
  • Playing three Cruel Ultimatums is definitely pretty aggressive, but I’d rather start by aiming high. It was great in Houston and I do like three Revelations in U/W/R, but we have so much card draw that it could easily be right to go down to two.

Here is the list we arrived at and is going to be the starting point for my testing:

Obviously this list is optimized for learning things from testing rather than having the highest chance of being the final list. One area I am very interested to learn about is Lavaclaw Reaches vs. Creeping Tar Pit. Tar Pit is the stronger card in general; however, me from four and a half years ago argued for Lavaclaw over Tar Pit because by the time you actually started activating it you generally had plenty of mana (and the unblockable wasn’t a huge draw).

The Houston list had to play fewer tapped lands because of Chrome Mox, so now we do get to have a little more fun. My guess is that it is more likely we add Tar Pits than anything else, but this split should be sufficient for testing. For what it’s worth, we might actually just go full-on berserker mode and play more than four manlands!

The mana base is going to take some work anyway. There are a number of challenges confronting us with this deck’s mana base:

  • The old list was a U/B deck with Ultimatums, while the new one has Lightning Bolt and Electrolyze, both of which want to be cast early.
  • Gatekeeper of Malakir is not trivial to cast (but he just seems so awesome to me in the format, particularly when we have Electrolyze to help clean up the small stuff), not to mention if we ever Far // Away for the total blowout.
  • As always, Cryptic Command and Cruel Ultimatum are not without some amount of constraint on our mana base.
  • Finally, we have access to just one on-color fetchland (as opposed to U/W/R, which has two). This wouldn’t even be that bad except the one color it is not is the one color we need the most. Misty Rainforest and Verdant Catacombs seem pretty bad for our purposes.

Related to the mana base, I am curious to see how the Chromatic Lantern plays out of the board. Kowal suggested it as a solution to Blood Moon, and honestly it sounds kind of sweet. If we are serious about having chances against Blood Moon decks, however, we probably need to make room for a second. That said, if we are all-in on the Lantern, we might be more vulnerable to artifact hate, particularly since we already have Talismans (which are respectable against Blood Moon).

Thinking outside the box, maybe we could sideboard a Mind Bend. For one mana, at least we have all the blue mana we could want. It is also fetchable with the sideboarded Mystical Teachings. The downside is that it sucks.

Speaking of Mystical Teachings, it is actually a long-time stand-by move I like to sideboard a Teachings (or two) in control decks that don’t use it. There are a fair number of decks where we want more card draw after sideboard, and it meets this need while also letting us get more out of each of our sideboard cards. Shadow of Doubt? Rakdos Charm? Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir? It is great to be able to play just one copy of each and still have decent chances of accessing it.

As you can see, this build is very much not a U/W/R deck with Cruels instead of Revelations. It could easily prove not good enough, but it does meet the goals of having a core that U/W/R does not have access to, as well as actually supporting Cruel Ultimatum with brute force rather than paying for finesse. I’ll admit Mulldrifter is pretty greedy (and we do have a lot of slow card draw), but it sure is sweet in all the ways Think Twice isn’t. It’s worth noting that acceleration tends to make Mulldrifter better.

If Grixis testing proves fruitless, my back-up plan is something along the lines of the following:

Some quick thoughts on U/W/R:

Thanks for joining me this week. I am out for today but will be doing commentary this weekend at SCG Open Series: Cincinnati, so be sure to check that out. Any feedback on Grixis or Modern in general is much appreciated, so hit me up in the comments.

See you next week!

Patrick Chapin
"The Innovator"

Next Level Deckbuilding