The Art of Playing Grim Long

Stephen takes a look at the more esoteric skills needed to succeed with the powerful Grim Long deck. He examines the stronger cards in the deck, and provides some sample hands to demonstrate various thought processes and plays. While the science of Magic is something Stephen excels at, the art behind this particular deck is what makes it so rewarding. Looking for an edge at your next Vintage showdown? Look no further.

Although many aspects of playing Magic are indeed scientifically derivable or logically deducible, other elements of the game – such as reading opponents, psychological banter, and intimidation – are not. Moreover, although the logical mind may calculate the optimal path of play, often times there are so many lines of play that one line may appear statistically equivalent to another. At these points in the game, playing Magic becomes more of an art than a science.

I do not know if there is one correct approach to Grim Long. I do not know if there is one correct build of Grim Long. To think about these matters for long leads one into deep areas of inquiry that could consume all of our time. It is better to traverse these fields lightly, knowing that they are often unresolvable questions.

My approach to playing Grim Long focuses on one simple question: what can I do? What is my deck capable of accomplishing at any given moment? Conversely, Paul Mastriano, who has obviously achieved success with Grim Long, approaches the deck from a different angle: he is concerned primarily with what his opponent is capable of doing. His focus is to beat whatever his opponent may be capable of doing. How can two players who have enjoyed success with the same deck have such diametrically opposed points of focus while piloting this deck? This is because playing Grim Long is an art.

I am of the belief that my deck is capable of doing far more than meets the eye. It is incumbent upon me to discover the hidden lines of play, to solve the puzzle before me and find the precise combination of cards that will result in victory. Considering what my opponent may do is simply a mental distraction. First, I must figure out what I can do. Once I’ve gone as far as I can, then I think about my opponent’s threats abstractly – their ability to counter my spells, to attack my graveyard, and to disrupt my mana.
Alternatively, if I am already being attacked, I still maintain the same focus: what am I capable of doing? How does my potential overcome whatever limitation the opponent has placed upon me?

Magic is by design a game of limitations, of rules. One land per turn. One attack step. One draw per draw step. I play Grim Long as a puzzle within those constraints. I view my opponent and their cards as merely further constraints upon the game. Constraints that I must play within or find ways of evading. Null Rod, for instance, prohibits me from tapping Moxen for mana. My mind thinks about my alternative sources of mana: my Dark Rituals, my Elvish Spirit Guides. I mentally prepare myself for how to either remove the Null Rod or to play around it.

Because so many cards in Grim Long are restricted, meaning that there are over 30 unique cards in the deck, there are virtually infinite lines of play. Although there is the same end point — Tendrils – and the same beginning – a hand of seven (hopefully) cards – the way you connect those two dots with Grim Long is never the same. No two games with Grim Long are identical. Sure, you will play cards and end the game with Tendrils, but the myriad possibilities give this deck a great deal of maneuvering room. How you mentally frame and conceptualize this reality will often determine what lines of play become visible to you.

Paul and I may end up making the same decision the vast majority of the time. But the difference in focus may lead to vastly different perceptions of what to do or why, and may lead either one of us to see plays and possibilities that the other cannot see.

When playing Grim Long, I tend to mull and chew over potential plays, selecting a play only when I feel comfortable. A more structured mind may look at Grim Long and evaluate lines of play by mentally separating out the consequences of any given action or series of actions and then choosing the one that involves the least risk and the most benefit. I tend not to look at lines of play with that level of detail, but look for reasons to support or oppose a considered line of play. I then choose the play that makes the most sense given what I come up with. I try not to select a play until I’m confident that I’ve put a great deal of thought into the possibilities.

A big mistake with this deck is to select a plan and then stick with it despite new information or new cards. This is a mistake in Magic generally, but one that can be fatal with Grim Long. Planning with Grim Long must be flexible. It is also advisable not to go “all in” if possible. However, as you will see, what this means is not immediately clear from the outset.

[For reference, here is a sample Grim Long list. – Craig.]

With a deck like this, it is probably best to start at the end and work our way back to the beginning. We can’t discuss the nuances of the manabase or explain how to mulligan unless we know the end to which such efforts are put. Thus, I’ll end with a discussion of the manabase and the mulligan.

Tendrils of Agony

The finisher. The win condition. The kill.

The printing of the storm mechanic gave Vintage combo decks the superior method of dispatching their opponent. Compared to the older Stroke of Genius kills, this is beautiful and elegant. It is surprisingly simple to achieve (particularly with powered out by Dark Rituals and Cabal Ritual), but is not a weapon so much as the finishing touch.

There are some situations with Grim Long where a simple combination of bounce, acceleration, and Tendrils is all that is needed to end the game. Decks like Eric Becker’s Intuition Tendrils (IT) are great at making this point. However, for every hand that can turn into an early and manageable Tendrils kill, in my view, these are far outweighed by the wasted mental energy that one could consume thinking about how to kill with Tendrils and very little else.

For this reason, I think it is a mental cushion to simply ignore storm counts with Grim Long unless you are intentionally setting up a Mind’s Desire or you are certain you are going to go off with Tendrils (or unless there may be some dispute about it, and there is a chance that you’ll be winning with Tendrils this turn). Far too many storm players focus on storm. With Grim Long, storm is inherent. It’s a part of the deck. It’s a given that you’ll be playing a great deal of spells. For me, thinking about and keeping track of storm while evaluating difficult and mentally rigorous lines of play is simply an unnecessary burden. Have faith that you’ll get there.

No other Long deck was as capable of generating storm as this one. Earlier Long incarnations with Wishes were unable to replay many of their spells. This deck doesn’t have this problem. While the Wishes – Burning and Death – only found cards from the sideboard or others that were removed during the course of the game, the tutors in this deck give this deck a great deal more library manipulation. This is why storm is never at issue, whereas it might have been in an earlier Long incarnation. For instance, going off with Wishes and a single Brainstorm means that the Brainstorm can’t dig any deeper. But the Tutors shuffle your library so that Brainstorm sees new cards, not to mention more cards with the tutors.

One of the big questions about Tendrils of Agony is how many should be run. Although Tendrils will be perceived as quite threatening to your opponent (since it is the face of your deck – the image scarred into their memory at the crescendo of their most recent defeat at the hands of storm combo), it is actually the weakest card you can draw in your opening hand. Unless you fear library disruption like Jesters Cap, you rarely want to see this in your hand. Decks like Grim Long are far less competent at pulling off instant kills with Tendrils and bounce and mana than decks like IT. Even if they are, the presence of this card in your hand means that you did not have access to some other more potentially useful card.

I think that two Tendrils in the maindeck is a patent mistake. Many players, on the other hand, think a Wish is a useful addition. I do not think that they are necessarily wrong. However, that is a different question. Having access to a second Tendrils is not the same thing as using a second Tendrils. Wishes give you flexibility despite their sluggishness.

Tendrils will be the card you must play every game. You’ll pray for it off a Draw7. You’ll be excited to see it early off Yawgmoth’s Bargain. You’ll fear for its safety in your graveyard. You’ll worry that someone will play Duress on you while you have Necropotence in play and Tendrils in hand. You care about where it is, but you prefer that it is in your deck rather than in hand, most of the time. Sometimes you’ll play a mini-Tendrils to give life that you can use to finish the job. Sometimes you’ll find yourself frustrated that your Tendrils is face down in a Memory Jar hand, knowing that you’ll have to build up such a combo that you can Time Walk and still win next turn. Most of the time, Tendrils will be exactly where you want it and it will find its way to you. Respect it, but don’t let it lead you down the wrong path. Don’t keep hands because of Tendrils. It’s often a forced mulligan.

Yawgmoth’s Will

The original Long concept was built around this card. The idea was pretty simple: Yawgmoth’s Will found via Burning Wish and powered out by Lion’s Eye Diamonds provided the surest and simplest path between two points: the start of the game and a lethal Tendrils.

Yawgmoth’s Will is the most powerful spell in Vintage, around which many decks have been built. It is an enormous source of card advantage, with built-in storm. And if often generates mana. It is a cheap accelerant, a mana generator, a storm engine, and an unholy source of card advantage.

The simplest plans with Grim Long involve Yawgmoth’s Will followed by Tendrils. For example:

Gemstone Mine
Mox Pearl
Lotus Petal
Dark Ritual
Dark Ritual
Grim Tutor
Grim Tutor

This hand is pretty simple:

Turn 1
a) Gemstone Mine – > Duress

b) Lotus Petal -> Dark Ritual.

c) Grim Tutor for Black Lotus.

d) Play Black Lotus, Mox Pearl, Dark Ritual and play Grim Tutor for Yawgmoth’s Will

e) Play Yawgmoth’s Will – replay all the mana acceleration and Grim Tutor for Tendrils


See how Yawgmoth’s Will turned your Grim Tutor into Black Lotus – a mana neutral play – into a play that generated three free mana?

Pretty sick, eh?

The downside to Yawgmoth’s Will is that it is so powerful and so visible to this deck, indeed the quantity of tutors was designed to find and (mis)use this card, that it will often be the target of your opponent’s hate. Don’t worry, this deck isn’t nearly as Yawgmoth’s Will centric as past Long decks.

Just remember that there are some golden equations for using Yawgmoth’s Will to win with Tendrils. The general number to remember is seven. You need seven mana to win with Tendrils. Grim Tutor plus Yawgmoth’s Will is six mana. But you need seven to play Grim Tutor plus Tendrils. Thus, you need to remember is whether you can generate seven mana on the way out – that is, at the tail-end of the combo. However, you also need seven-mana on the way in. Just playing Grim Tutor plus Yawgmoth’s Will after tapping out will not permit you to replay the Grim Tutor unless you have a Lotus Petal, a Black Lotus, or a Lion’s Eye Diamond. Thus, the six mana will not be enough unless you have one of those cards in your graveyard before you play Yawgmoth’s Will, or unless you can generate additional mana somehow.

Some players think that they have to win immediately when playing Yawgmoth’s Will. This is not true. A weak Yawgmoth’s Will is often good enough. For instance, Yawgmoth’s Will on turn 2 merely to replay a Lotus Petal, a Brainstorm, and a land that got Wastelanded is a fine play. It will help you get into a position where you can win later down the road. It’s not the ideal Yawgmoth’s Will, but it is certainly an option you should consider. That’s how powerful Yawgmoth’s Will is.

I’ve played lots of strange Yawgmoth’s Wills, and they almost always seem to pan out. I have played Yawgmoth’s Will like Recoup – where its sole purpose was to replay a card like Timetwister and maybe a mana or two. I have played Yawgmoth’s Will as Regrowth to replay an Ancestral Recall. These are fine plays. The only thing that matters is that you win. Do not be concerned about setting up the “optimal” Yawgmoth’s Will.

Signed in BLOOD

Yawgmoth’s Bargain

Although Yawgmoth’s Will and Black Lotus have a rightful claim to being the best cards in Vintage, Yawgmoth’s Bargain is, objectively speaking, the most powerful ever printed. Aside from the obscenely expensive cards that actually have the words “you win the game” on them, like Coalition Victory, no card upon resolution actually says: “I win” like Yawgmoth’s Bargain does. Granted, you need a bit of life and some thought to make the thing work, but it does work.

I have been in situations where I’ve lost with Yawgmoth’s Bargain in play, but the loss was my own. For instance, I was playing against a teammate who had Leyline of the Void, True Believer, and Meddling Mage naming Tinker. The Leyline had prevented the Yawgmoth’s Will in my hand from doing anything productive. The True Believer prevented me from playing Tendrils, and my Tinker for Darksteel Colossus plan was non-achievable so long as Meddling Mage lay on the table. My out was Chain of Vapor used in the correct manner.

When I played Yawgmoth’s Bargain, I had already taken some damage from the two men already mentioned and Isamaru so that I was at 11 life. I was holding Yawgmoth’s Will with no graveyard.

I drew down to three life with Yawgmoth’s Bargain. My hand was full of Brainstorms and Rituals. Upon the mistaken belief that it wouldn’t make a difference, I played some Rituals to alleviate my mental burden of figuring out the best line of play – i.e. less cards in hand, less cards to consider. I broke my Black Lotus for UUU and thought. I drew down to 1 life with Bargain. I played a Brainstorm. In that Brainstorm I saw Chain of Vapor and Lotus Petal. I thought for a moment. I Chained some of my Moxen, including Sapphire and Jet and a Vault, by sacrificing lands, and then I Chained my opponent’s True Believer. I played another Brainstorm. Then Another and the last card there was Tinker.

If I had Chained the Leyline, I could have used Yawgmoth’s Will for the exclusive purpose of replaying Chain of Vapor on the True Believer and replaying one last Brainstorm. The card underneath Tinker was Demonic Tutor. Had I done that play, my Yawgmoth’s Will would have been functionally Restock on Chain of Vapor and Brainstorm – but it would have seen me Demonic Tutor which would have won me the game. Alternatively, I could have Chained the Mage to play the TInker I saw just to shuffle so that a Brainstorm would see three fresh cards.

The Moral of the Story: Yawgmoth’s Bargain gave me the tools I needed to win the game. I just didn’t see what had to be done. Yawgmoth’s Bargain will give you what you need, but that doesn’t mean it will be easy. Often it will be easy. In fact, no card in this deck creates simple kills like Bargain. But when the going gets tough, you gotta get smart and win small, even with a card as broken as Bargain.

Once in a while, the correct play with Bargain is actually to play it, draw a few cards, and then pass the turn. A turn 1 Bargain that may lead you to stupidly draw most of your deck, discard a dozen cards and then pass the turn leaves you in a precarious position. If you don’t draw LEDs, Lotus, Petal or a Mox Jet off of the Bargain, and chances are you’ve played at least one of these already, you can’t go off the turn you play it. It’s safest just to wait one turn and win with full power, albeit a slightly more complex opposing board state.

Mind’s Desire

Mind’s Desire and Yawgmoth’s Bargain are the two most expensive cards in the deck. And in a sense, Mind’s Desire is the priciest. UU in addition to four other mana is much harder to achieve than BB plus four other mana. This is because you can’t use Rituals off a potential Blue source, like land, if your one of your only Blue sources is that land.

Another thing to remember is that Mind’s Desire is not quite uncounterable. Older incarnations of Long used Crop Rotation for Tolarian Academy. The switch to Grim Tutor makes Black far more important and the Desire play less so. Thus, a great deal of the time you are playing this card early it is off Black Lotus. Frequently, intelligent opponents will smell its pungent aroma and counter your mana before you can open that powerful door to Blue mage fantasies. Unless you have Lotus or Academy, you are going to have to jump through some hoops to make this card work.

Desire was misunderstood when printed. Many people likened the card to Time Spiral. It’s actually far more broken. I hardly need spend but a moment on that point.

The important point is that no deck in Vintage has Mind’s Desires like this one. The threat density and power level of the threats of Grim Long make for the best Desires in Vintage. A Mind’s Desire for four doesn’t sound too good, but like a weak Yawgmoth’s Will, its often enough to ensure that you win the game eventually. A Mind’s Desire for five is a sure bet. And a Desire for six is equivalent to ending the game now.

Because Desire is so hard to cast, it frequently requires a plan to support it. Mind’s Desire is your best “break out of the box” solution. In the right matchup, you can set up a broken Desire. Imperial Seal for Desire in combination with the right support can lead to an unbeatable play. It requires a great deal of investment in that setup, but the payoff can be large. The investment is so steep that I too often overlook that play, but it is a great play nonetheless.

Never forget that you can play Instants while your Desires are resolving. Brainstorm is a card that should often be played while Desires are on the stack.

Desire also permits you to do a very silly alternative win. I’ll discuss this play later on.


The Skull. This is one of the strongest cards in the deck. When I sort Grim Long, I take five cards from the deck and designate them the most busted cards: Desire, Bargain, Will, Ancestral Recall, and Necropotence.

Necropotence is the most powerful simple turn 1 play this deck can muster. It can be cast off of eight cards on turn 1:

Turn 1:
Land, Dark Ritual, Necropotence

Turn 1:
Land, Mox, Cabal Ritual, Necropotence

Turn 1:
Land, Mox Jet, Time Walk.

Turn 1(A): Land, Necro

And my personal favorite:

Turn 1:
Black Lotus, Necro

It’s basically as easy as turn 1 Ancestral, but virtually guaranteed to win you the game.

Necropotence is a disgusting source of card advantage. I have lost very, very few games where I resolved a Necropotence with any semblance of a healthy life total.

You can feed Necro with a mini-Tendrils if you can’t quite finish the job in one pass.

The trick with Necro is knowing how to use it precisely. There is no rule of thumb for using Necro – it is highly situation dependent. I’ll give some relevant examples.

Recently, I was playing Grim Long against a weak player online and he was putting up virtually no pressure. My hand already had three cards in it, so I Necroed for seven, going to twelve. I removed the three weakest cards and yet still handily won next turn.

If you are on the draw against a speed control deck like Gifts or Slaver, I would gorge a lot, but not too much. I would go for 10-12 cards. If you were on the play, however, you have the cushion of a half-turn before you get Slaved or slammed by their combo – so I’d probably go for 7-11 cards instead. You don’t have to gorge quite as much. If you are playing against a really aggressive combo deck, I’d probably go for something like 14 cards. You want to leave a little bit of a cushion for several reasons.

First of all, there is a chance you’ll see Time Walk. If so, you’ll be able to access a few more cards before your opponent gets their following turn. Second, in case something goes horribly wrong, you’ll want a few cards to sort of “Ancestral Recall” next turn. For instance, if you see almost all mana and your one threat is Duressed or what not, you want a little bit to back up with.

The biggest problem with using Necro is not that people don’t get enough, but it’s that they get too much. Grim Long has a fairly high threat density, so people will Necro and then pitch strong threats from game when they didn’t have to. You’ll also have less life to use Grim Tutors and cards like Vampiric Tutor and Imperial Seal.

If you are being beaten down, you’ll have to calculate how much damage they’ll deal to you, add a cushion for your cards like Mana Crypt and City of Brass and Grim Tutors, and then take the appropriate amount.

If you are post-board, you want to keep in mind that you may have access to Force of Wills. Thus, you’ll want to Necro enough to make Force of Will likely. Also, if you have mana open, remember that there is a chance that you’ll be able to Brainstorm after you have drawn the cards with Necro. The one scary thing about Necro is if you are holding the Tendrils and they Duress you. If you discard with Necro in play, the card is removed from game. People forget this. I’ve lost games to total scrubs because of this fact. Be careful and wary.

Also, be careful in how you use Necro against opposing Tendrils decks. Tendrils is really easy to fire off lethally when your opponent is at less than ten life.

Finally, remember that despite the fact that Necro is amazing, you can’t turn off your brain. Your brain will want relief. You’ll be so happy to have resolved Necro because it will signal a little bit of mental ease. This is not so. It will be complicated and it will be annoying. Just brace yourself. Whatever you want to see, you will not see it. You will be forced to make difficult decisions. It will be frustrating. You will want the game to be over, but it won’t be. Just take your time to figure it all out and you’ll be fine.

The most frequent error I see regarding Necropotence is an incorrect
valuation of tutors versus draw7s. In a normal game state, Draw7s and
tutors have a particular value. After you have Necroed, the value of
Draw7s dips dramatically vis-a-vis draw7s. The reason is this: With
the mana already on the board and the resources you have just drawn
using Necropotence, you have already probably hit the threshold amount
of mana you need to just win using Grim Tutors, or whatever other
tutors you need. For example, in a mana heavy hand with Brainstorm, I
have seen people throw away Grim Tutor and keep Wheel of Fortune.
This is generally not correct. The Draw7s are probably the wrong card
to keep. Thus, let’s say you have two lands, and two moxen on the
table and in your Necro draw you have two Dark Rituals. You have
already hit your 7 mana threshold going in and coming out. Take a

Tap your two moxen and your two lands. 4 mana floating.
Play Dark Rituals. 8 mana floating. Now, Grim Tutor for Yawgmoth’s Will.
Then replay the grim Tutor to play Tendrils – that’s game.

An Oscar-worthy card

Ancestral Recall

What more can be said about this card that hasn’t already been stated? Quite a bit. Ancestral Recall is, with Necropotence, the most potent card drawer in the deck. For three Black mana, you can draw a third of your deck. However, for one Blue mana, you draw three cards. Casting Necropotence can be tricky. At the least, you are investing resources in playing it — probably a Dark Ritual. With Ancestral, the resources used to play it are so meager it might as well be free. One Blue mana is not very hard to achieve at all.

Ancestral Recall is a damned if you do, damned if you don’t card for your opponent. If it resolves, you’ll be so far ahead with your broken cards that you’ll be able to leverage your card advantage and superior firepower into a win. If it doesn’t resolve, you’ve traded well. If they Force of Will Ancestral Recall, you’ve pulled a counterspell from their hand and made them lose another card in the process.

Ancestral Recall is one of the best cards to draw off a mulligan — as it helps correct your starting disadvantage. In the Top 8 match of SCG Chicago back in October of last year, I mulliganed to five and my opening hand has Mox Jet, Duress, land, Ancestral Recall, and Mystical Tutor. I played Duress plus Ancestral on turn 1 and went on to win the game.

One question that recurs — a pattern that arises time and again is when you have the option of turn 1:

Ancestral Recall

Which do you play?

This has come up many times. One situation in which it came up, I was mana bottlenecked. My hand was like this:

City of Brass
Ancestral Recall
Dark Ritual
Lion’s Eye Diamond
And three-mana spells

My teammate Justin Droba was quite insistent that this hand is not keepable. I strenuously disagreed.

Assuming you keep it, what you do?

In general, the answer to the first question posed: if you can Ancestral or Duress, which do you do? I think the correct answer is almost always Ancestral Recall. The extreme case may be the case in which you are mana bottlenecked. You may want the Duress just to ensure that you Ancestral resolves. Here is the reason why you almost always Ancestral: there is a 40% chance they have Force of Will. So, the chances of it resolving are favorable. If they Force of Will, they are pitching a Blue card. If you follow it up with Duress, you’ll have peeled three cards from their hand at the price of U and a B mana, and you’ll be able to apply pressure with that time you have bought. It’s just the correct thing to do.

The question is: what if you are in desperate straights? What if you are bottlenecked worse than the hand I posted above? What if your land is a Gemstone Mine and you have all expensive spells in your hand? Then, perhaps, Duress first may be the right way to go. But it is still hard to say. If you are on the draw, then you are going to be contending with possible Mana Drain mana on your second turn. In addition, being on the draw means you’ll see more cards first off of your draw step. Thus, I’d be more inclined to play the Ancestral first if I was on the draw and possibly more inclined to play Duress first if I was on the play. But in general, the correct play is Ancestral.

The most important, unresolved issue regarding Ancestral Recall is its role as bait. Paul Mastriano and I got into a debate over this very question. What we mean by this is different than the situations I’ve described before. Let’s say your hand is:

City of Brass
Gemstone Mine
Dark Ritual
Ancestral Recall
Wheel of Fortune

You are on the play.

You go Turn 1: City of Brass. Do you play the Ancestral Recall now?
Paul might argue that you should wait until their end step to play it. That way, if they now have counterspell up — say because they played Brainstorm or dropped a Mox Sapphire, then you can bait with Ancestral, a must counter. I can’t think of the precise circumstances of the test game, but I remember being persuaded, after a heated debate, that Paul was right. I think the situation was a little unusual, but it could come up again. The point is that instead of looking to resolve Ancestral immediately, look to see if playing it later could serve to clear the way for an enormous bomb. For instance:

City of Brass
Gemstone Mine
Dark Ritual
Mox Emerald
Sol Ring
Ancestral Recall
Yawgmoth’s Bargain

This is an example of what I think Paul and I were talking about. If I’m mistaken, direct your questions to Mr. Type 4.

Before we leave Ancestral Recall, I want to remind you that the role of Ancestral Recall is a significant difference between Grim Long and Death Wish Long. Death Wish could not find Ancestral Recall. And yet Grim Tutor for Ancestral Recall is not a rare play. Even at the cost of ten life, Death Wish could not find Ancestral. Grim Tutor does so at the much less painful cost of three life.

Aside from Tendrils, the last five cards I’ve just reviewed are the big five — these are the game-ending or game-swinging bombs that you will frequently tutor for. Yawgmoth’s Will, Mind’s Desire, Necropotence, and Ancestral Recall are big tutor targets because they are so frequently game-ending.

I’ll publish part two of the Grim Long manual next month, and I’ll cover how to use the Draw7s.

Stephen Menendian