Innovations – Grixis Control at Grand Prix: Houston *10th*

The StarCityGames.com Open Series returns to Atlanta!
Thursday, April 8th – At last weekend’s Grand Prix: Houston, Patrick “The Innovator” Chapin rocked an excellent Grixis Control deck to a high finish. Today, he talks us through the genesis of the deck, through Verhey and Tsumura, and discusses the strategies and sideboarding plans behind the build.

This past weekend was particularly fun for me. Not only did I get a chance to compete in Grand Prix: Houston, talk to so many people that have now had a chance to read the expanded paperback edition of “Next Level Magic,” and see so many of my friends that I have not seen since Pro Tour: San Diego, I also had an opportunity to play so many of my absolute favorite Magic cards of all time. I have been thinking about Grixis ever since I saw Gavin’s article. I thought he had some interesting things going on, but the power level wasn’t high enough and I felt that too much of his game relied on just hosing people that couldn’t beat Blood Moon or Night of Souls’ Betrayal. It did have Jace, the Mind Sculptor, though, a card I knew I wanted to play.

Kenji’s Grixis deck was the next step. Kenji went ahead and moved towards Cruel Ultimatum. What a hero! I knew from eye-balling Kenji’s deck that I wanted to try his list with a few changes, such as Mulldrifter, since in my experience Cruel with creatures is much better than no creatures, as besides, Mulldrifter is one of my favorite cards, so it fits the theme.

I traveled out to Madison and did some playtesting with Brian Kowal, Gerry Thompson, and Misha Gurevich before driving down to Houston on a road trip along with Owen Turtenwald (and on our way back, we gave a lift to vagrant hitchhiker Cedric Phillips). By the time I got to Madison, I was pretty sure I had a brew in mind that was going to be sick. I had been chatting with Gerry about our love affair with Jace, the Mind Sculpting, and my idea was to try Cryptic Commands so as to continue the theme of cards I love, as well as Gatekeeper of Malakir as per our conversations about how generally awesome he was in the format. Brian Kowal and I sat down and actually started grinding out some games, and it took us no more than a couple of hours to be pretty sure that the deck was actually awesome.

One of the first lessons I learned was that Remand was not at all what I wanted. Remand is best used as a tempo card against expensive spells. It can work fine in a control deck even just for delaying two-drops, making it seem like a fine choice for this build, but upon further examination, I found that I actually didn’t usually want to counter two-drops at all. The spells I wanted to counter were Hypergenesis, Scapeshift, Dread Return, Tribal Flames, Thirst for Knowledge, and so on. These were not spells that I really wanted to Remand. Even Hypergenesis, which is where you want Remand most, in theory, I was unhappy with it, as they would just suspend it, beating me with it three turns later.

What do these spells have in common? They are spells! I realized that Negate would actually serve me better, which quickly became Countersquall when I realized that it was very, very unlikely that I would not be able to cast it. I still wrestled with whether the two points of Countersquall life loss would actually be worth the small but non-zero chance of getting screwed by the casting cost, but in the end I think I made the right decision. While it is true that my opponent’s life total doesn’t matter much, in the combo match-ups, I actually find it useful at times to start clocking my opponent with a Mulldrifter or Gatekeeper, then try to keep them off balance long enough to reduce them to zero. I don’t have a ton of permission, so I don’t always have “control,” and the added life loss seemed like it would help me race. I actually ended up winning one round by exactly two points of life (caused by the Countersquall), and never got stuck unable to cast one. Results oriented? Maybe, but when you don’t know one way or the other, on a theoritical level, results are often the absolute best indicator to orient your strategy around. The key to the “results oriented” trap that so many fall into is to not let small sample size results trump theory without reason. If you don’t have theory to guide you, results can be clutch for guiding the way.

Before I go too much further, let’s take a look at the list that Brian Kowal and I played in Grand Prix: Houston.

As you can see, the influences from Gavin’s and Kenji’s lists are numerous, though there are certainly very different strategic choices made. Gavin’s list was based on a build by John Treviranus, though that deck’s game plan was fundamentally very different, despite nearly half of the cards being the same. Gavin and John’s decks were essentially hate decks that tried to “win the game” by using cards like Blood Moon and Night of Souls’ Betrayal to create a situation where the opponent could not properly execute their game plan.

Kenji’s build goes a different direction, using Cruel Ultimatum as its cornerstone. Kenji moved away from just trying to hose people to being a tap out control deck that just does big things. I liked Kenji’s evolution, but did not think that a total tap out approach was ideal in such a combo heavy format. In addition, I thought that the omission of Cryptic Command was just criminal. Finally, I thought there were a number of lessons from Cruel Control in Standard that could be learned from and used.

Cruel Ultimatum is a very powerful card, there is no disputing that, but it is far more powerful when you are reliably getting a good creature back. It is not just an extra card, but actually quite a bit more. Look at Mulldrifter, for instance. By the time you Cruel, generally, casting Mulldrifter is easy. That makes it sort of like 3 extra cards. In addition, it is nice to have a reliable additional blocker to buy yourself time to take advantage of all those extra cards.

I tried Nicol Bolas and Sorin Markov, two cards I have a great deal of love for, but found that I really just wanted Cruel Ultimatum whenever I had that much mana. Whereas Kenji played 5 expensive bombs, I only played 3, but it was like I had far more since I added so much card draw. Compare the card draw used in each build:

4 Thirst for Knowledge
1 Compulsive Research
4 Jace, the Mindculptor
1 Liliana Vess
1 Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker

3 Thirst for Knowledge
1 Compulsive Research
3 Jace, the Mind Sculptor
1 Sorin Markov
3 Cruel Ultimatum
1 Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker

3 Thirst for Knowledge
3 Mulldrifter
3 Jace, the Mind Sculptor
3 Cryptic Command
3 Cruel Ultimatum

As you know, I am a huge advocate of Wafo-tapa style deck building and he is one of my key influences. By playing fewer high-end bombs and more card draw, I end up finding the bombs at a similar rate as I would if I had more, because I am drawing so many more cards. The nice thing about this sort of strategy is that it ends up making your deck more consistent, as you look at so many cards so quickly, you can actually greatly smooth out your draws. On top of that, we play a TON of mana (29), and when you play that much mana, it is vital to have a plan to make up for the natural flood that you will experience by around turn 5-8. With a steady stream of cards, you can continue to put those lands to work. In addition, Thirst for Knowledge and Jace, the Mind Sculptor are two of the best ways to use extra cards you don’t need.

When I was testing with GerryT, I couldn’t help but notice that my Chrome Moxes were kind of bad. Too often I was just never playing them. Keep in mind, at the time, I only had 1 Thirst for Knowledge (I was not always playing this much draw). You might ask why would I have only 1 Thirst, when Gavin and Kenji had more. The answer was that I had already determined that I really did want 3 Mulldrifters and I just assumed that meant cutting Thirsts for them. I asked Gerry if I should cut the Moxes. His response? Keep adding Thirsts until Mox was good.

“Gerry, I thought you agreed we need 3 Mulldrifters?”

“Yeah, I didn’t say cut Mulldrifter. Just play MORE card draw. I thought you liked drawing cards?”

I took his advice and found room for the additional Thirsts by shaving a few numbers. One of the first things people seem to notice about this list is that there are no 4-ofs maindeck, aside from a few choice mana producers. This is not a new phenomenom and if you go back and look at the old five color control lists, this actually happened quite a bit. In fact, often, the card draw spells were the only ones that showed up as 4-ofs and that was only because there just weren’t enough good card drawers. Now that we have access to so many, we can actually diversify those as well.

Is it out of the question to add a fourth copy of any of the cards in the main? Not at all, and while I joke that I stuck the fourth Cryptic in the board to “fit the theme,” (which isn’t totally untrue…) it is totally certainly reasonable to consider a 4th copy of Cryptic, Damnation, Smother, or any number of other cards if you so desire. The reason three often becomes a default number is that when you play a TON of card draw, you need a TON of mana to fuel it. Then when you have a TON of mana, you need EVEN MORE card draw to make up for it. Once you have just an absurd amount of card draw and mana, you start to notice that your deck has 29 mana and 15 card draw spells, leaving you just 16 slots to build a deck out of, heh.

If you think this is crazy, think about Vintage for a moment. It’s the same type of thing, where you just want so much card draw and mana, you end up playing very few spells that do anything else. One of the funamental difficulties that potentially stands in your way if you go this route is the risk of the “all-air” problem. That is when you go too far towards mana and card draw and end up in situations where you make plays like this Legacy game:

You: Tropical, Ponder

Opponent: Mountain, Goblin Lackey

You: Brainstorm, Fetchland, Sensei’s Divining Top

Opponent: Hit you and play more dudes.

You: Activate Top, Fetchland, Goyf

What is wrong there? Well, you are on the play and can’t manage to meaningfully impact the board until after you are way behind. That is not to say a deck using those cards will generally have that problem (Counterbalance is among the absolute top tier Legacy decks, of course). Rather, you must pay attention to how often you have games where all you are doing is drawing cards and making mana when you need to be impacting the board. This is a big part of the reason why you will notice that so many of Wafo’s decks are full of cheap counter-magic and cheap removal. When you draw that many cards, you don’t need many high end powerhouses to get the job done. You just want to make sure you can buy yourself time early.

In addition to a boatload of card draw, I am also getting added card advantage in other ways. Aside from just Damnation, I also use Gatekeeper of Malakir, a card that does a fantastic job of straddling the cheap removal and card advantage issues. Also, it is important to remember that when you have a critical mass of card draw, you end up chaining them together and just keep drawing extra cards throughout the game. For more on this concept, check out my “What Would Wafo do?” article.

A subtle strength of this build is the surplus of victory conditions. I have no problem playing with a very small number of roads to victory, but if I happen to have a number available to me incidentally, that is a plus. All of the Mulldrifters and Gatekeepers can eat away at an opponent’s life total, and obviously Jace still will kill. Cruel Ultimatum often ends up burning people out, especially given Shocklands, Fetchlands, Countersquall, and a couple points of damage early. Finally, I also opted for a Lavaclaw Reaches, which has been awesome. The opportunity cost on the manlands is so low, and the added angle is well worth having to have a tapped land once in a while.

Why do I not use more? Well, it is possible that a second would be right, but diminishing returns is the primary factor. The first Lavaclaw Reaches you draw over the course of the game is okay in the long run, but drawing two is potentially catastrophic. This is not to say it is out of the question, just that the added value of a second back-up victory condition (and at times, terrible blocker) might not be worth the added potential to get stuck on mana. Dreadship Reef actually ended up in a similar situation, where I liked the idea but wanted to hedge a little. How much was it going to be worth actually storing up a ton of mana? Most of the time it ends up not being super relevant, but the cases where it is good, it is generally game winning. This most commonly comes up against combo and control, where I am sitting there doing nothing, with Dreadship Reef giving me a great way to progress my game plan without overextending. Finally, when the time is right, I can unleash Cruel Ultimatum with a ton of permission backing it up, often following up with even more card draw after my Cruel cards. Alternatively, I can just Lavaclaw for the full amount.

Why Lavaclaw instead of Creeping Tar Pit? Creeping Tar Pit making Blue is not a big deal here, since I need a certain number of Blood Crypt lands anyway. The real issue is that the extra base point of power and unblockable are not worth nearly as much to me as the ability to Fireball people out. Usually, I don’t attack people with a manland in this deck unless I am ready to kill them or I just have a ton of mana laying around. I am not looking to use a manland as a seventh Mulldrifter or Gatekeeper to whittle away their life. I want someone who will finish the job. Creeping Tar Pit is slightly better versus Jace on 3, but Lavaclaw is actually often better against Jace in real life, since if you have a Creeping Tar Pit, they just set Jace to 5 (which the Lavaclaw is happy to handle).

Sounds good, right? Well, if there is one thing I know, it is that Dreadship Reef makes a terrible seventh land for Cruel Ultimatum in many circumstances. In addition, Gatekeeper of Malakir and Cryptic Command have me cautious of playing too many lands that don’t let me make them early. In addition, the Sunken Ruins + Dreadship Reef draw is not super. As a result, I only played 1 Dreadship Reef, erring on the side of mana stability, rather than power. Now, after a tournament of experience under my belt, I think I am in favor of a second Dreadship Reef, as I had not full appreciated just how good Dreadship Reef works with Dimir Signet. That awkward draw above with Sunken Ruins and Dreadhip? Imagine adding a Dimir Signet. Suddenly, Gatekeeper of Malakir is online! In addition, I would not be surprised if Grixis surges in popularity in the final weeks of the season, if only because of how much people like a powerful new deck that is different from what most everyone else is doing (and it is SO much freaking fun!)

Dimir Signet is an interesting card to discuss in this build because it is probably the “best” card in the deck other than Sunken Ruins, from the perspective that you want more Dimir Signets than any other non-Sunken Ruins card. I would probably play at least 5 Dimir Signets, though probably not 5 Scalding Tarns. I would easily play 6 Sunken Ruins as it is the key to the deck functioning at all, and is just much better than any other card for the deck, not close. If I would play 5 Dimir Signets, why did I not add a Izzet or Rakdos Signet or a Talisman of Dominance? The Dimir half is really that important, not just the Signet half, if you catch my drift. Getting both colors (often at once, a sort of filtering) is far better than taking damage to get one, not to mention that with almost no action for one mana, the Talisman’s primary strength is not utilized. Why is Sunken Ruins so good? Look at the costs. Gatekeeper? Cryptic Command? Sunken Ruins might as well be twice as good as Underground Sea in this deck. Sunken Ruins biggest drawback is that you need Black or Blue to start it and it doesn’t cast 1 cost spells. We always have Black or Blue and we have (essentially) no one-cost spells. A perfect fit!

Repeal has a number of exciting functions in this build, beyond just the standard applications of bouncing Marit Lage, hosing Moxes, helping buy time against Nacatl, and combining with a Mox, Signet, or Basic to get you out of Blood Moon. Repealing your own Gatekeeper is actually a sweet play that comes up quite regularly, so be sure to look for it. Repealing the Mulldrifter is less common, though still an option. Aside from just Repealing after blocking, consider evoking Mulldrifter and then while it is still in on the battlefield, Repeal it. Don’t be one of those people who just puts Mulldrifter in the bin like so many Divinations. It might be far to expensive to Repeal Mulldrifter after evoke, but at least consider it if it is an option. Another fun play is to Repeal Jace when your opponent attacks it with all of their creatures. Timing Repeal can also help make Cruel Ultimatum as devastating as possible, such as when the opponent has a Wild Nacatl and a Knight of the Reliquary. Finally, consider bouncing your own Signet or Mox when your opponent Maelstrom Pulses it, or even just to make sure you have an artifact to discard to Thirst for Knowledge.

Cryptic Command is not just powerful (though it is, and that is a big part of the reason I made room). Cryptic Command is a very universal problem-solver. It gives me hard counters to lock out a game. It can bounce any troublesome permanent. It is more card advantage. It can buy time for the Cruel plan or to dig to a Damnation. All in all, it is quite excellent here, with the only reason the fourth is in the board being the surplus of four cost spells. When your deck is mostly card draw and mana, it is very nice to have flexible universal answers to allow you to adapt despite having so few interactive cards.

Jace, the Mind Sculptor: One of the absolute best cards in the format. An awesome card in Standard, despite being poorly positioned. In Extended, he is actually positioned quite well. For tips on how to Jace, I have actually already written 9 articles on the subject, but the most important strategy with him to remember is the default algorithm of Brainstorm, then Scry, then repeat. When you are just hanging out, this lets you continue to look at the maximum number of new cards while still increasing his loyalty. If you are behind, feel free to Brainstorm over and over. If you are making a bid to take a huge advantage, Unsummoning comes into play more. If you are stable and have at least 1 counterspell more than you “need,” start fatesealing your opponent. This is generally game over, since if you have an extra counterspell and are stable, they probably have few outs and Jace ensures they don’t hit them. In addition, they are now on a short clock and since you are generally letting them keep their top card, you always have the info you need to find the perfect line of play.

Another tactic to remember with Jace in Extended is to consider putting your best card on top of your library. If your opponent is going to Path or Ghost Quarter you, this is not ideal, but the more common situation is that your opponent will Thoughtseize or Duress you. Do you really want them to take Cruel Ultimatum the turn before you cast it? Often though, the algorithm is to put your best card on top and your worst card second, that way you can scry next turn, if you like. It is especially important to remember to consider saving fetchlands, as being able to shuffle your library after Jacing is like getting a Thirst for Knowledge for free. Veterans of Jace control decks in Standard may be used to using his ultimate to win many or most games, but that comes up a little less in Extended, at least in this build of Grixis. Most of the time, people just concede when you Cruel them, though Jace still finishes the job a fair amount of the time. It will almost surely never come up, but you can also Mind Sculpt yourself, for instance if your opponent has Academy Ruins and you want to shuffle enough cards back to have a chance to draw Cruel Ultimatum and not get decked during extra turns against an opponent you can’t deck but that can’t fight back. *wink*

Countersquall – and especially Flashfreeze – get a lot of crazy looks, but it is interesting how effective they are against most combo decks, and how good a job they do at serving as hard counters for the late game. Mana Leak is certainly not going to work, since they would just pay. Condescend has a similar problem. One of the beauties of a card like Countersquall is that you always feel great putting it under a Mox. This is not just because it is two colors, but rather because it is a situational card that is vital against some (people you wouldn’t generally imprint it on a Mox against) and really weak against others. Cards with such a high variance in power are ideal Mox candidates, also including Damnation, Night of Souls’ Betrayal, Smother, Gatekeeper, (extra) Jaces, Cruel Ultimatum, and so on. These cards are all great when you want them, but also serve an added function by speeding your mana up against whichever card doesn’t match up right. Thirst for Knowledge and Jace are also two fantastic ways to take advantage of these situational cards, and it is through cards like this that we are able to avoid the classic control deck problem of “wrong answers at the wrong time.”

I opted for a miser’s Flashfreeze instead of the third Countersquall, as a little bit of a hedge against Zoo. I really dislike drawing two Countersqualls against Zoo, whereas Flashfreeze is pretty decent. Both hit Hypergenesis and Scapeshift, and Flashfreeze actually has a variety of surprising applications against random decks, like countering Kitchen Finks out of B/W Smallpox, and countering Bogarden Hellkite or Terastodon going long. I did stick with the second Countersquall instead of the second Flashfreeze out of respect for DDT and others, though remember, it is still a perfect Chrome Mox choice. I certainly think a second copy maindeck is a consideration, possibly instead of a non-Countersquall slot, but it would depend on your meta. It cannot be overlooked that, when you have miser’s cards like this, it really does keep your opponent off balance. The first time you maindeck Flashfreeze most people in Extended, it jolts them. “Maindeck Flashfreeze?” they ask, as they now try to wrap their minds around the fact that you are capable of anything. When someone plays a card against you maindeck that you have never seen before in the format, it can be especially potent as you now have to reevaluate just what is in your opponent’s range, what he might be willing to play.

Gatekeeper of Malakir is a powerful tool that has been gaining a lot of respect lately. It is not just the card advantage or even the time it buys you (Gatekeeper the Zoo player, causing them to sacrifice Kird Ape, then you chump block the Nacatl, Lightning Helix style). It is particularly exciting right now for a couple reasons:

1. Gatekeeper puts pressure on your opponent in exactly the opposite way as Damnation. This tension is incredible and will cause most players to misplay repeatedly against you. Damnation makes your opponent only want to put out one creature at a time. Gatekeeper makes them want to play out all of their guys. What are they supposed to do? If they slowplay you, they will fall several turns behind when you Gatekeeper them. If they swarm you, they will fall several cards behind when you Damnation. Worse for them still, if you Damnation them, the Gatekeeper to follow usually kills their only (and best guy), and if you Gatekeeper first, they will have to play out most or all of their guys to try to catch back up tempo wise, walking right into Damnation. The combination of one of each is usually too much for most aggro decks, if followed by a card draw spell.

2. Gatekeeper kills almost anything. This versatility is huge when you have so few slots to work with. Sphinx of Jwar-Isle? Goyf? KotR? Bob? Progenitus? Gatekeeper is a very flexible problem solver.

3. He is a guy. This is discussed above with regards to interactions with Cruel, bounce, and as a victory condition as well as a speed bump.

4. He is super sweet versus DDT. If they play a Hexmage with a Dark Depths on the battlefield, Gatekeeper breaks it up. If they were to sacrifice it in response, Marit Lage would die. The Repeals, Cryptics, Gatekeepers, and more ensure that it is very risky business trying to go off against us early. Going long, it can not be overlooked that Mulldrifter makes a perfect chump blocker for Marit Lage, giving Gatekeeper a chance to do his business. DDT also has a chance to try to snag free wins off Dark Confidant, and Gatekeeper helps alleviate that. DDT is Grixis’s best match-up, and Gatekeeper is a definite part of the puzzle. He is even awesome against their back-up plans. Night of Souls Betrayal takes most of the wind out of the sails of Meloku or Oona, but Sphinx of Jwar-Isle and Jace, the Mind Sculptor are both popular as well, and Gatekeeper can fight both (Gatekeeper beatdown hitting Jace).

Night of Souls’ Betrayal is a powerful card in this format, as it hoses so many decks, but it is certainly near the top of the list of most often sideboarded out or imprinted on Moxes. That said, it is vital, since it is your out to Thopter-Sword. Notice how well Lavaclaw works as a finisher when you lock someone out with NoSB. Night of Souls’ Betrayal has interesting applications with Gatekeeper and Damnation, as it keeps tiny creatures off the table making sacrifices more painful, and it weakens everyone, forcing opponents to overcommit. That said, don’t get stuck think that this is a Night of Souls’ Betrayal deck. Sideboard it out against anyone that it doesn’t wreck. For instance, it is sweet against DDT, Dredge, Elves, Boros, Faeries, and Boros, but board it out against most Zoo, Junk, non-Thopter Bant, Hypergen, Living End, and so on.

Not much needs to be said about Smother, as it is just one of the best ways to survive a quick creature onslaught in this format. There is no shame in running 4, and if I played Extended tomorrow, I would have the 4th Smother in the sideboard. Since Smother really is much more restrictive than many of your other cards, you need to plan around it. For instance, if your opponent is going to Ranger of Eos you, using Smother on Knight of Reliquary instead of Deathmark can be great. One big strength to Smother is the instant speed aspect. You have to be able to stop a Treetop Village or Stirring Wildwood somehow. Actually, on that same topic, it is uncanny just how often Lavaclaw Reaches is used as an answer to enemy manlands. Remember, you can tap it to pump itself to trade with Treetop.

Thirst and Mulldrifter are obviously the primary draw engine, but playing them together is a little trickier than one might think. Generally, if you don’t have any expendable artifacts in hand, it is better early to lead with Mulldrifter. That will give you more chances to find a Mox or Signet to pitch to Thirst. In addition, it gives you more options for what to discard if you don’t find one. If you have an artifact to pitch, go ahead and get your Ancestral while the getting is good. Thirst being an instant makes it a better choice for the midgame against combo or control, since you won’t have to tap out mainphase. However, against beatdown, it is actually quite important to be able to buy Mulldrifter for his body in the middle game. Often, this will essentially just be a Divination that has kicker-2 “Gain 3 life,” but those extra life points are the difference between your opponent being able to top deck a Bolt to kill you versus already having it (or you being able to stabilize at 4 instead of 1).

If you are digging to a specific card in a hurry, such as a bounce spell for Marit Lage or Damnation against Zoo or a Counterspell versus a suspended Hypergen, use Thirst, as it digs one card deeper. One final point about Thirst, don’t be afraid to hold it. If you need every card in your hand, it is ok to just hold onto the Thirst until you hit a card that you don’t want. Think of it like you are Thirsting as the top 3 cards have a Thirst for Knowledge. If you want every card in your hand, then what is the problem? (Whereas if you need something, Thirst will let you look for it.)

The sideboard begins with permission to help tune match-ups where creature removal is not enough. In addition, you are going to want to move towards Countersquall or towards Flashfreeze against everyone, so this way you always have a cheap counter that lines up right, as well as having a ton of cheap counters against Hypergenesis and Scapeshift. The Cryptic Command usually comes in against every non-aggro deck, though often for different cards. Part of the reason for including Cryptic in the board is that it is an ideal second counterspell against Hypergen. Yes, you need a cheap disruption spell early, but their typical plan against you is to Richochette Trap your Flashfreeze or Countersquall on their Hypergen. If you read them for Richochette Trap (which is usually not hard), then simply counter their spell and bounce a land (or whatever). Richochette Trap can only hit a spell with a single target! It was not until I battled with Owen Turtenwald in a few hours of Hypergen versus Grixis that I learned this move (among a number of key tactical plays that Owen showed me, for which I am very thankful, especially given that I went on to play against 4 Cascade combo decks in the main event).

The Night of Souls’ Betrayal and Damnation are just for added tuning. Usually if you keep these cards in against someone, you will be interested in an extra copy. Damnation is actually surprisingly important for some combo match-ups, as it is a fundamental part of your plan against Hypergen, Dredge, and Living End. Deathmark is also a pretty obvious card that just get boarded in against Green and White creature decks, primarily Zoo and Noble Hierarch decks.

Thoughtseize is an addtional way to combat spell decks, since the maindeck has so much anti-creature action. Don’t get sucked into Thoughtseizing people turn 1 every game just because you can. For instance, if you are playing against Hypergen, it can often be better to just wait til turn 3 if you have a cheap counter. They won’t usually combo through it, and by turn 3 you will have a better idea of where the weak spot in their hand actually is. That said, if you don’t have a cheap counter, do what you gotta do. Often against Hypergen, I find myself taking the monsters, since it makes all the cascade spells weaker and I can usually undo most of the damage done by a Hypergen with a Damnation, unless it involves a Terastodon. Besides, when the game goes long, you gotta start countering that stuff anyway, most of the time, on account of storage lands.

Cranial Extraction and Sadistic Sacrament have a bit of an overlap, but they are subtly different. While both are good against Dredge and Scapeshift, they have different uses against other opponents. Typically against Dredge, you will be hitting Dread Returns, Iona, Flamekin, or (if you need to) Bridge From Below. I will talk a little more about the anti-Dredge plan below in the sideboarding guide. Against Scapeshift, either is usually enough to stop them from going off, since you can Cranial Scapeshift itself, or you can Sad Sac both Valakuts. If they already have a Valakut, you can generally just take 3 Mountains and strand them with few ways to get enough Mountains to actually go off (Most people only have 9-10 and remember, if you take 3, they will now no longer be able to sacrifice any on the battlefield. You may also decide to take 2 Mountains and the other Valakut, depending on the board).

In other matches, however, you don’t want both. For instance, I board in Sad Sac against Hypergen, since they generally only have 3 Hypergen in their deck, plus it lets me improvise and serves as a back-up kill. The 3 cost instead of 4 is vital against a deck that kills when it hits 3 mana. I actually don’t even bring in Cranial most of the time, as it is just too slow. On the other hand, I board in Cranial against dedicated Thopter decks (not DDT), whereas I don’t use Sad Sac here. Cranial is also a reasonable Punishing Fires answer. Almost everyone I see pick up the deck thinks that Cranial and Sad Sac are great in the mirror, but they really aren’t. You don’t want to Cranial people just to weaken their library and the Grixis deck doesn’t really have any cards that are vital. It has no shortage of victory conditions and even taking Cruels or Jaces is not that good, since the deck has so many other ways to draw cards and is now 4 mana and a card ahead of you. This is not to say that you shouldn’t use them in the mirror if you think it is right (since it definitely can be, especially with Thoughtseize to assist), just that they are not as good as they would be in other control mirrors.

Sideboard Guideline:

(Remember, just a guideline; improvise, as many builds are different, and don’t let your opponent know how many cards you are bringing in. A good way to do this is by shuffling your sideboard in and removing 15 cards, as we all know by now.)

Against typical Bant Charm, Loam Lion Zoo:
+1 to 3 Flashfreeze, +2 Deathmark, +1 Damnation
-2 Countersquall, -2 Night of Souls’ Betrayal, -0 to 2 Cryptic Commands

Repeal is also an option to get cut, particularly on the draw. Here, it is important to identify their 4s. Ranger? Elspeth? Bloodbraid? Don’t be afraid to take a little damage from your lands if you need to in order to draw more cards. It is important to keep drawing cards to find the answers you need, since every turn you don’t have answer you need, it is like getting hit with a Lightning Bolt (or worse several). This is a match-up where it is especially important to not leak information. Do they play around Gatekeeper? Do they play around Damnation? Don’t let them know which you have! Try to stabilize at 4 if possible. Win the die roll! You usually can’t wait long before Damnation, especially if you suspect Tribal Flames or Punishing Fires. Be aware of Treetop and don’t get stuck with a handful of Repeals, Damnations, and Flashfreezes, with no answer to a manland. Be mindful of Bant Charm as well. It is usually easy to see Bant Charm a mile away, but you don’t want to be surprised by a Bant Charm on your Dimir Signet the turn before you Cruel them out.

After sideboarding, the key is to play around Negate. This is actually not that hard because you have plenty to do on their turn and every turn they key 1U open, they aren’t spending it summoning monsters to bash you with. They rarely are in a position to double Negate, so you can often set up a situation where you do things like Cryptic Command bouncing their Steam Vents on their end step or cast enough Instants that they are baiting into using it. Damnation can also be used to draw out the Negate, especially if you can also use Repeal and Smother to advance the board a little after they counter the Damnation. Then, next turn, follow up with Cruel. Gatekeeper is a particularly exceptional way to punish them for holding up Negate, since the very act of holding Negate means they slowplayed their hand (or have nothing else), plus they won’t be able to counter it no matter how much they want to.

While you are a small favorite against many Zoo decks, you can often lose percentage on account of not knowing their exact build. While I was very prepared for Zoo, I did only go 1-2 against it, on account of not knowing the lists I was playing against, and sometimes Nacatl can punish you fast. In addition, Dark Confidant (which was only in one of the Zoo decks I faced) is much harder for us.

Against DDT:
+2 to 3 Thoughtseize, +0 or 1 Countersquall, +1 Cryptic Command, +1 Night of Souls’ Betrayal
-3 Damnations, -1 Flashfreeze, 0-1 Smother, 0-1 Repeal, 0-1 Countersquall

Here, it is especially important to try to determine what your opponent’s plan is. How much will they stay with the combo, versus how much will they move away from it? Gatekeeper tactics are discussed above, but all in all, just hang out and not die. Eventually they will suffocate on your card advantage. Be aware of Rite of Consumption and play around it if it is reasonable to do so. This is our best match-up, but you must still be careful as they have a lot of ways to kill fast if we are sloppy. Be mindful of Extirpate as well, as that is just about the trickiest thing they can do, though it is not that good unless it catches cards in our hand. They will attack our hand hard with Duress and Thoughtseize. The best way to fight this is generally to Thoughtseize and Countersquall their card drawers. We have so much more card draw, this will generally lead to a situation where we destroy each others hands and have to use card drawers to get going again, which we have more than twice as much as them of. Night of Soul’s Betrayal is our most important defensive measure. Their best attack is the quick turn 1 Thoughtseize/Duress, Turn 2 or 3 Marit Lage, since the late game is generally vastly in our favor. As I said, this match-up is among our best. I defeated it 3-0 at the GP, including two games where I double-mulliganed. You can easily lose a game to a quick Marit Lage, though, so don’t be too cocky.

Against Hypergenesis:
+3 Thoughtseize, +3 Flashfreeze, +1 Countersquall, +1 Cryptic Command, +1 Damnation, +1 Sadistic Sacrament
-3 Smother, -2 to 3 Gatekeeper, -2 Night of Souls’ Betrayal, -2 Repeal, -0 to 1 Jace, the Mind Sculptor

I generally like the one Gatekeeper on the draw and the 3rd Jace when on the play. Generally you will are a big dog game 1, but a nice favorite after board. This is a good match-up to practice against to get a feel for the timing of. If everyone adopts Shuuhei’s 3 Akroma’s Memorial plan, this match-up will probably get harder, since that card is so good against Damnation, though Shuuhei himself advised people not to play Hypergen. Remember to consider the effects of Mulldrifter coming in from a Hypergen. It is not always necessary to counter hypergenesis, remember. Also, it is more often than not worth it to Counter Compulsive Research. The games actually play out a lot different than you might expect, since they often can’t combo you out, instead having to rely on fatty beatdown. I cannot stress enough how much just playing 6-10 post sideboarded games against Hypergen will teach you about the match-up. This is a place where just a few practice games will actually give you something like 15-40% points over if you did not practice at all. I 2-0’ed the Hypergen people I faced, but if Akroma’s Memorial as a 3-of is adopted, this match-up gets harder (though Thoughtseize gets better).

Against Scapeshift:
+3 Thoughtseize, +3 Flashfreeze, +1 Countersquall, +1 Cryptic Command, +1 Sadistic Sacrament, +2 Cranial Extractions
-2 Repeal, -3 Smother, -3 Damnation, -3 Gatekeeper

You are a big dog game 1, but after boarding the match-up is fairly simple. It is extremely difficult for them to force through a Scapeshift without Boseiju and Thoughtseize, Cranial, and Sadistic Sacrament give you deadly weapons that sidestep this. In addition, they are often very vulnerable to New Jace, as they can’t kill him easily and they are slow enough that you can just tap out to cast him and not fear instant death. The key strategic concept to understand against Scapeshift is that you want to counter all of their mana accelerators. As long as it doesn’t expose you to an Instant Scapeshift death, it is generally right to counter every Sakura-Tribe Elder, Search for Tomorrow, and Wood Elves you can. You need to choke them on mana so that they can’t set up the Boseiju kill, Gigadrowse you, or threaten to protect their Scapeshift with counters. As long as they don’t have 7 land on the battlefield, every Scapeshift in their hand is a dead card. As a result, I generally don’t Thoughtseize the Scapeshift, but rather the mana accelerators. The primary exception to this is if you are getting set up to be blown out by Remand on their own spell. Your main goal is to stop their first couple of mana accelerators so that you can tap out on turn 4 (if they are tapped out) to play Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Cranial, or Sad Sac.

Against Dredge:
+1 Countersquall, +1 Cryptic Command, +1 Damnation, +1 Night of Souls’ Betrayal, +1 Sadistic Sacrament, +2 Cranial Extraction
-2 Repeal, -1 Flashfreeze, -3 Smother, -1 Gatekeeper

Thoughtseize is a card that everyone thinks they will board in (myself included at first), but once you actually play some games, you see that it is pretty terrible anytime except turn 1 and it isn’t that good then, unless you catch them with only one enabler. The key to picking apart the Dredge deck is to fight their Bridges and Dread Returns, then lock them out of the game with Night of Souls’ Betrayal destroying most counterplay. Evoking Mulldrifter is a beautiful way to kill Bridges, though don’t be afraid to Gatekeeper yourself if you need. You can also just block with a Gatekeeper to kill Bridges, though if you Damnation away your Gatekeeper, they lose their Bridges, though not before getting paid once more.

If you can keep them off of Bridges, for the most part, the biggest thing you have to worry about is Dread Return, usually for Iona. We are actually quite solid versus Iona, as we have Damnation and (once in a while) Gatekeeper in Black and Cryptic Command, Jace the Mind Sculptor, and (one in a while) Repeal in Blue. Blue is their best color to name against us by far, since it hits more of our outs, as well as Mulldrifters and Thirsts, but many people screw this up and name Black on account of tunnel vision on Damnation. If you Sadistic Sacrament or Cranial them, you are usually going to want to go after Dread Return, their Dread targets, or Bridge. I try avoid hitting Bridges, as I like continuing to interact with them with Gatekeepers and Mulldrifters, but it is right to just hit Bridges some of the time. When they don’t have Bridges, they just have a bunch of really sucky guys that just keep bashing. Night of Souls’ Betrayal obviously seals the deal, for the most part, though you must be mindful to not lose to a random Dread Return. Damnation is a very powerful tool against Dredge, as most of the time, all they are doing is producing a whole bunch of guys, which you can undo with a simple flick of the wrist, as long as you are getting Bridged.

Against Living End:
+1 Countersquall, +1 Cryptic Command, +1 to 3 Flashfreeze, +1 Damnation, +1 Sadistic Sacrament, +1 to 3 Thoughtseize
-0 to 2 Repeal, -3 Smother, -1 to 3 Gatekeeper, -2 Night of Souls’ Betrayal

You only want Repeal here if they have Blood Moon and even then, you might not care. This match-up is actually pretty easy, since there “combo” is slower than Hypergen and a lot less deadly. Their back-up plan is terrible against you, because let me tell you, Deadshot Minataur, Valley Rannet, Street Wraith, and Monstrous Carabid are the nut low versus Cryptic Command, Jace the Mind Sculptor, Cruel Ultimatum, etc. Sadistic Sacrament is better than Cranial here not only for cheaper manacost, but also because they very well may sideboard out their Living Ends. I Sad Sac’ed one opponent at the GP expecting to take Living Ends and ended up finding that he had boarded them out for Boom/Busts. You have such an overwhelming strategic advantage when you can actually cast your spells, a savy Living End player will focus on attacking your mana, complementing their Fulminators and Ignot Chewers with Maelstrom Pulse and Bloodmoon to try to leave you manascrewed while you die to Carabid beatdown. I 2-0’ed Living End easily at the GP and have trouble imagining what they could do to really make things tough for us. If they do have hateful cards like more LD or Thought Hemorrhage, go nuts with Flashfreezes and Thoughtseizes.

Okay, for serious, we are 8000 words deep and I am already days late on account of having to drive 38 hours home (let’s just say their were a lot of different states that needed to be visited first, and not necessarily in the order I would have liked). I have stories from the GP itself, the details of my specific matches, and more thoughts on some of the crazy powerful new Rise of the Eldrazi cards, but it will have to wait until Monday. I wanted to focus on understanding the Grixis deck first, since you may be thinking of playing something like it this weekend, or more likely, you will have to face it, and a little familiarity goes a long way.

Remember to check out the 420 page full-color expanded paperback edition of “Next Level Magic,” filled with 17 years of stories, strategy, and tools for winning at Magic. “Next Level Magic” makes a great gift and is awesome way to have a piece of Magic culture in your hands and on your bookshelf! See ya Monday!

Patrick Chapin
“The Innovator”