The Chump Block – Cruel Ultimatum For Fun And Profit

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Monday, May 31st – The first of many questions that may arise when one looks at my list is “No Siege-Gang Commander?” While Siege-Gang may be the five-drop of choice for any deck packing a significant amount of Red, I’m not really convinced that it is head and shoulders above the Malakir Bloodwitch which is taking its place now.

This week, I’m going to talk about a deck that I’ve found has a relatively high level of success in today’s metagame. I didn’t fare extraordinarily well in the PTQ that I recently played, but that is probably due to the fact that I had, on average, a mulligan every single game that I played in 4 rounds. With 26 land in the deck, that sort of outcome feels more like one of those random variance situations than anything else, as I have been doing quite well grinding the 2- and 8-man queues online.

I knew from early on, once I saw builds winning online premiere events and Nationals Qualifiers, that I wanted to play some sort of Grixis deck. The deck plays Cruel Ultimatum! Although that card has gone down significantly in how it profitably affects the board (not hitting manlands or planeswalkers, to be specific), it is still a solid wallop wrapped up in a neat seven-mana package. The deck that I’m currently happy playing has gone through many iterations in the past couple weeks, but I think it’s best if I start with where I am now and reverse-engineer how I came to some decisions:

The Creatures

The first of many questions that may arise when one looks at this list is “No Siege-Gang Commander?” While Siege-Gang may be the five-drop of choice for any deck packing a significant amount of Red, I’m not really convinced that it is head and shoulders above the Malakir Bloodwitch which is taking its place now. That being said, this is one of the card choices I am least sure about, so if you, gentle reader, were to vehemently object to this decision, foam seething from your mouths as you proclaim my ignorance, I probably wouldn’t hold it against you.

Simply put, I started with Malakir Bloodwitch and I have yet to be disappointed with her, as she does a couple things really well. First and foremost, she is a complete wrecking ball against any sort of White-based Planeswalker deck. Yes, the horrible opponent can Day of Judgment/Martial Coup her away, but any creature really shares that same vulnerability. She cannot, however, be Pathed, O-Ringed, Gideoned, blocked by Wall of Omens/Baneslayer Angel/Celestial Colonnade, or tapped by Ajani, which means that, unless they have a sweeper, she’s going to be all up in them faces, for the most part unhampered. While Jace, The Mind Sculptor can indeed bounce her, that is generally acceptable, as that usually implies that Jace is going to die in the face of the copious amounts of burn that the deck packs, and it’s really not a permanent solution to her. Yes, if they’re bouncing her and then attacking with an Baneslayer or Gideon, that might be a problem, but let’s not let it get to that point, okay? The fact that I’m running a few other vampires is really only icing on the cake.

Against decks like Naya or Mythic, she has her place as well, although I imagine Siege-Gang Commander might be a little more of a threat in this capacity. Their ability to ping her away via Sparkmage/Collar can be frustrating, whereas with the Commander you at least get three shiny goblins for your trouble. Siege-Gang can chump block for a while, albeit finitely, whereas Malakir Bloodwitch can chump block some creatures infinitely (Knight of the Reliquary, Ranger of Eos, Stirring Wildwood, Rhox War Monk) and some creatures poorly (Raging Ravine, Vengevine, and exalted Bloodbraid). Again, they each have their tradeoffs; one has to weigh the option for themselves.

One of the other interesting choices in the deck that I imagine might catch people off guard is the inclusion of Cunning Sparkmage. This, I am happy to admit, is something that I came upon myself as I haven’t seen it in any lists as of yet (at least maindeck). The power of the Sparkmage is not surprising as he is played in a variety of decks, even those without access to Stoneforge Mystic or Basilisk Collar, but I’ve found he accomplishes something that is greater than the sum of his parts in this Grixis list.

One of the issues that I was having with Naya/Mythic, and to some extent Jund, was that my Gatekeepers of Malakir were, about half the time, particularly underwhelming. Don’t get me wrong, netting a 2/2 body while killing a guy of theirs is the definition of card advantage, but more often than not I was offing a Birds of Paradise or Saproling Token or Elspeth Soldier Token or something else not particularly relevant. What Cunning Sparkmage does is drastically increasing the power of your Gatekeepers/Cruel Ultimatum/Consuming Vapors by removing all of the pitiful underlings clogging up the board so that you hit a guy worthy of being sacrificed upon the alter of evil and destruction that you support.

Along that same line of thought, running Sparkmages in the deck allowed me to increase the effectiveness of other cards. A few examples:

A turn 2 Lotus Cobra from my opponent is a very scary thing. Often, I would be forced to kill it lest my opponent begin a violent rampage of mana-infused craziness. With Sparkmage in the deck, I can save that Terminate/Bolt in my hand for something a little more concretely threatening.

One of the awkward things about Lightning Bolt is its inability to do more than 3 damage (I know, right?). It doesn’t get rid of Putrid Leech (unless you’re playing an idiot), Celestial Colonnade, Rhox War Monk, Craw Wurm — really anything with four toughness. With a Prodigal Sorcerer upgrade on the board, you dramatically increase the power of your Lightning Bolts by granting you a level of defense against traditionally harder-to-kill-via-damage threats.

It may not seem like it, but Sparkmage is also quite useful in dealing with planeswalkers as well. Against our Grixis deck, if an opposing Jace that does not immediately go to 5 counters by fatesealing a player, is likely to die a horrible Blighting or Lightning Bolt-infused death. With a Sparkmage already out on the board, the escape from burn island is no longer possible, as Sparkmage gets two shots to bring a five loyalty Jace back down to a more burnable 3. Elspeth is contained as well, as any 1/1 tokens will immediately die, therefore rendering her annoying Angelic Blessing ability also moot, since control decks rarely have more than a few creatures that can attack. Since Elspeth only goes to 5 counters upon first use, the same double-ping Blightning/Bolt one-two punch combo can also pick her off.

He embarrasses Polymorph, he stops Sarkhan the Mad/Saproling token shenanigans, he can do damage directly to a player’s face; the possibilities are endless. I could go on and on about how I think Sparkmage deals with the annoying threats while your more important spells can be used more effectively, but I hope I made my point.

Next up, both Gatekeeper of Malakir and Sedraxis Specter are pretty much Grixis mainstays at this point, with most successful lists running one, if not both. I’ve seen some lists with four of one or the other, but I haven’t found a full playset of either to be either necessary or optimal. With regard to the former, one of the majorly awkward situations you can find yourself in is a lack of Black mana. Let’s be real: having to cast Gatekeeper of Malakir without kicking him is probably one of the least gratifying things this deck can do, as random 2/2s without any special ability simply are not going to do much to advance any sort of game plan. Not only is getting to triple Black mana in a timely manner occasionally difficult, the problem is exacerbated by the prevalence of Spreading Seas in our current Standard. I’ve actually added a Swamp to the build I originally ran, simply because of this rather frustrating issue. He is still invaluable when it comes to dealing with things like a Knight of the Reliquary threatening Sejiri Steppe protection, or a Sphinx of Jwar Isle, but I would venture that Gatekeeper is one of my least favorite cards to have in my opening hand. It’s important to note that Jace, the Mind Sculptor has the ability to bounce your own Gatekeeper in order to keep your opponent on lockdown, but that might be a little too cute, as unless they have some insane hard to handle threat, I’d much rather just Brainstorm.

As for Specter, he suffers from the same issue that Blightning does right now: Vengevine. If I’m playing against a deck that I believe has Vengevine in it somewhere, chances are I will not be attacking with my Specter, or casting Blightning, unless I can 100% get rid of every card in their hand. If they topdeck a Ranger of Eos or Bloodbraid Elf, so be it, but one of the most amateur mistakes that one can make with this deck is allowing your opponent the mega blowout by having him discard a Vengevine and them promptly return it the next turn for huge beatings. Specters don’t particularly trade well against Jund if they’ve put up any sort of aggressive assault (and let’s not forget that dropping this guy turn 3 is not a given all of the time with the number of Enters the Battlefield Tapped lands), losing value to both Sprouting Thrinax and Bloodbraid Elf while also providing a target for your opponent’s otherwise mostly dead Pulses, Terminates, and Bolts. Finally, one thing to note about the matchup where Specter supposedly shines: if you attack a planeswalker with a Specter, your opponent does not have to discard a card, a point that I think a lot of people miss. Despite the fact that I’ve just spent a paragraph bashing this guy, I do think Specter is by and large super, but I didn’t want people to ask why I wasn’t running 4 copies of what should be an auto-include.


I don’t have too many insane inclusions that set my decklist apart from most, but I did want to talk about 2 cards: Earthquake and Traumatic Visions.

I think any Grixis list not running Earthquake, at the very least in their 75, is making a HUGE mistake. This card is a BEATING. Not only can it completely decimate an opponent’s army (I’m looking at you, Noble Hierarch and Lotus Cobra), but it also acts as a great rebuttal against two commonly played “big” spells: Martial Coup and the aforementioned Siege-Gang Commander (another reason why I prefer the vampire). It effectively makes Lightning Bolting a Sprouting Thrinax “not as awkward,” and it only kills two creatures in our own deck. Finally, however, is the fact that it has the ability to do a TON of damage if need be.

One of the main aspects of this deck that alludes a lot of people, mostly opponents, is that Grixis just win from out of nowhere. Like Faeries from a year ago (yes, I realize the decks are not remotely similar except in this point I’m about to make), Grixis can go from being in defensive mode to “kill you” mode. All those Blightnings, Unearthed Specters, Malakir Bloodwitch drains, Creeping Tar Pit sneaks, and fetchland activations add up. As I like to say whenever I case it: “Welcome to Erf.”

Finally, I had been looking for a replacement for Divination, by far the most awkward card in the deck. Drawing two cards is certainly much better than drawing one, but more often than not I was finding that I had much better things I could be doing with my mana on turn 3 (i.e. interacting with the board). I also found that I mostly wanted Divination as way to hit my land drops, and having to wait until turn 3, or heaven forbid, turn 4 to cast it meant I was putting myself far behind, tempo-wise.

For a while, I tried See Beyond, which was better. I was able to cast it earlier, and again, all I really wanted to do was guarantee my land drops for the most part. In those times where I didn’t particularly need the land drop, I could always shuffle one back into my library and be satisfied that I hadn’t really lost too much. However, the issue remained that See Beyond wasn’t really doing enough, and sometimes (rarely) it wasn’t even drawing me a land! I switched to Traumatic Visions, and have been extremely happy with it. Ever since I cut Countersquall from the maindeck (more on that later), I’ve been aching for at least some semblance of a counterspell, and Visions fit the bill. The number of times I’ve cast it is probably slightly less than the number of times I’ve cycled it, mostly to be able to hit Cruel mana on turn 7 or 8.

The Sideboard

I’ve going to use this as an opportunity to talk about not only the sideboard, but about some cards that didn’t make the deck, main or otherwise.

Magma Spray is, in a word, invaluable. It’s main goal is to provide a drop in the overall casting cost in the deck in order to match the speed of the opposing deck. Whether that speed be in the form of Goblin Guide and Plated Geopede, or Noble Hierarch and Lotus Cobra, being able to have additional point-and-click removal, especially at the cost of only a single Red mana, is extremely important in winning those matchups. While the exile clause is mostly extraneous, when it’s relevant it shines. Recursive threats (Vengevine, Bloodghast, Hell’s Thunder) are extremely frustrating permanents to deal with, which is why I chose something like Magma Spray over a comparable, perhaps even more versatile card like Burst Lightning. The number of times I have lamented not being able to aim it at my opponent’s face is approximately nil.

For a long time, Countersquall was in the maindeck. All that changed when I started to play Naya/Mythic again and again. Do you know how many non-creature spells most of them run? Not many. Having one of those spells in my hand against them is one of the worst feelings in the world, as it’s essentially a card I can never cast. Yes, perhaps I’ll get lucky and nab an Ajani or Gideon or Jace or Behemoth Sledge, but chances are slim. This is definitely one of those metagame calls as to whether to keep this in the maindeck or not, as it is obviously quite good against any sort of deck that runs an even remotely pertinent number of non-creature spells.

Consuming Vapors is an interesting card, and I keep wanting to add a second one to the sideboard (and probably should), although I’m not sure what I would take out for it. Probably the Terminate, since they accomplish the same thing… Anyway, the point to note about this card is to know when to get greedy and wait for the two-for-one and when to just go ahead and nab their one guy and time warp. Often, if you’re playing a good player they will see this card coming and probably not play into it; that, coupled with the prevalent of manlands, makes this card much less of a Time Walk than it normally might be. I would place this card in the “quite solid” pile as opposed to the “mega-bomb game over” pile.

There is no Consume the Meek in my deck, which is THE card that everybody kept talking to me about. This strikes me as one of those cards that everyone assumes is the nuts without actually thinking about its implications or playing with it themselves. Perhaps others have had different experiences with it, but I rarely found Consume the Meek to be anything to write home about. In the matchup where you really want to draw it, you have, more than likely, already been killing their mana dorks to make sure they play the game at a fair pace. Once you have Consume the Meek mana online, your opponent should also have Bloodbraid Elf, Vengevine, and Ranger of Eos mana as well which, by the way, the Black instant does not kill. I have died more times sitting with this card in my hand wishing it was something else more than any other card I’ve tested.

Double Negative is a card that is ready to be played. Unlike Countersquall, this card is good against creature-based decks and control decks alike, and I would happily try to find room for a second if I felt I needed to go in that direction. While deflating a Bloodbraid slamdunk might be the best possible use for the card, keep in mind that it does not stop the Vengevine’s return-to-play ability.

Finally, I talked about this card last week, but I have been thoroughly impressed by Zombie Outlander’s inclusion in the deck, and would suggest you try him out before knocking him. Most responses that I get when he drops into play on turn 2 or 3 span the gamut of “Wow, he’s really good/annoying” to a colorful variety of curse words. Again, he’s not a foolproof solution — he gets killed by Ajani/Gideon, which some decks are running now, as well as Bolt, Path, and Terminate (from Jund decks) — but overall he serves the purpose of what I am reiterating from last week: providing ample time.

Anyway, I hope that this little Grixis variation/primer was as good for you as it was for me. If people are interested, I’d be happy to include a detailed sideboarding guide as I will be taking this deck to whatever Standard tournament I happen to be playing in the future.

Thanks for reading…

Zach Jesse

Zoochz on MTGO
[email protected]