The Chump Block – Two PTQs: When 9-0 Isn’t Enough

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Friday, June 18th – I had the pleasure of playing in two PTQs these past couple of days. One was held at Misty Mountain in the Madison area on Sunday, while the other was held in the vast reaches of Cyberspace that is MTGO this Tuesday. I ended up doing reasonably well in both, ending up in 11th and 3rd place respectively.

I had the pleasure of playing in two PTQs these past couple of days. One was held at Misty Mountain in the Madison area on Sunday, while the other was held in the vast reaches of Cyberspace that is MTGO this Tuesday. I ended up doing reasonably well in both, ending up in 11th and 3rd place respectively, and I was actually in a position to make Top 8 in the real life venue, sitting in 5th place going into the last round. I was able to draw in, but unfortunately my opponent was not in such an enviable position and we were forced to do battle. I ended up losing game 3 when my sick two-land hand decided not to become any more landified over the entire course of the game. While I’m upset, I’m not really in a position to complain considering many of my opponents were in similar manascrew positions throughout the day.

The online PTQ went much better, seeing me sweep the entire swiss (since draws are not allowed) and going 8-0. I actually straight up lost the semi-finals match for myself, which is rather unfortunate. If I had played even remotely cautiously during the final turn of game 3, I almost certainly would have won the game, but to my opponent’s credit he could still have topdecked a Lightning Bolt, Bloodbraid Elf, or Ajani Vengeant to seal the deal. It’s unfortunate to lose to my own blunder, and it certainly didn’t help that I had been playing Magic for about 9 hours straight with little sleep, but play mistakes are still play mistakes no matter how much you try and pass the buck.

I played Grixis both days, with similar but not exact decklists. In lieu of doing two (or even one) tournament report, I think our time would be better spent having me talk about some of my admittedly bizarre card choices, Grixis as a whole, and how you should approach the deck.

Here is the list I played on the Sunday.

I’ve had this list (or something similar to it) on MTGO for a good while, and was fairly happy with the way it was running. I shared it with my friend Frank Lepore, who then proceeded to go 10-0 with the deck in his next 10 matches. There you go.

Invariably, the first question that people tend to ask when they see this list is “Thought Hemorrhage maindeck?!” Yes. Settle down. I will admit that I was quite frightened by the prospect of being repeatedly Vengevined, which sounds a lot dirtier that it actually is. With so much discard, as well as no consistent way to put the raging plant beast in its place, Vengevine could potentially prove to be a huge thorn in my side (pun definitely intended). Thought Hemorrhage alleviates a lot of that stress, as well as being quite useful in the other matchup I thought would be big: Planeswalker Control. I must have exiled a solid dozen Gideon Juras and Jace, The Mind Sculptors on Sunday. Without the raw power of Gideon and Jace, the planeswalker decks are not quite as threatening, and it allows you to avoid the scramble to find an answer. In the planeswalker matchup, being able to redirect damage to a planeswalker on board should you actually get lucky and rip whatever you named from their grasp is just icing on the cake, although clearly I wouldn’t put all my eggs in one basket.

While they’re not the sickest against Jund, Thought Hemorrhage helps in not getting blown out by their hard-hitting spells. I usually named Blightning rather than anything else, as I can almost always prepare an answer for most of their other threats, but it becomes much harder when I don’t have a hand. Naming Bloodbraid Elf or Siege-Gang Commander are also fine choices, but that sort of blind guessing means you’re probably not going to grabbing anything from their hand unless you have some sick soul read on them.

In my testing too, I found that Thought Hemorrhage made matchups against RandoDeck much better. Sorry brah, no more Open the Vaults for you. Nor can you have Warp World. And why are you playing those in the same deck? I eventually removed Thought Hemorrhage from the deck, not because I felt like it was a bad card by any means. Rather, I decided to take the deck in a new direction, which I’ll get to later. If you feel inclined to keep it, I would recommend playing Inquisition of Kozilek maindeck. It not only is a good card in its own right, but the ability to look at the opponent’s hand makes naming the right card much easier.

I had proposed, several weeks ago, that I thought Cunning Sparkmage would be a good addition to the deck, as he essentially makes all your removal much better. I’m going to go ahead and give myself a gold star for being 100% correct on this one, as I am not exaggerating when I say that Cunning Sparkmage was, BY FAR, the best card in my deck all weekend. He makes any matchup in which you opponent relies on Birds of Paradise or Noble Hierarchs or Lotus Cobras almost comically unfair. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel. While he does not shine quite as bright in other matchups, he allows your Blightnings / Creeping Tar Pits / Lightning Bolts / Sedraxis Specters to take out opposing Jaces / Elspeths / Ajanis / Gideons much more easily. If you plan on playing Grixis in any form over the upcoming weeks, I suggest you try him in your deck, and I myself might even go up to three maindeck.

I’m going to make a statement now that I think might catch many people by surprise, especially considering how much I like Grixis: I don’t think Cruel Ultimatum is good enough anymore. Last year, it was the crux of most controlling decks, but now the game-winning effect that it had is no longer there. I have died more times with a Cruel Ultimatum in hand and not being able to cast it, or worse, being able to cast it and know that I would immediately die if I did so. How did this once beloved card fall into such a sad state?

First and foremost are the introduction of manlands. Previously, when you Cruelled someone, their mana was going to be wasted if they drew a blank. Now, you can almost guarantee that you’re going to be attacked by a Celestial Colonnade, or a Raging Ravine, or at very least, a Stirring Wildwood. And you’re not going to be able to do anything about it, because you’re tapped out! This means that, unless you have some sort of nice defensive bulwark set in place (which you probably won’t, because you’re playing Grixis), the life gain from the Cruel is mostly going to be taken right away.

Next up, the creature bases that people are playing are not really susceptible to Cruel Ultimatum anymore. You used to Edict your opponent and get a Figure of Destiny or Great Sable Stag or some other “worthy” target. Now, your opponents are sacrificing their Sprouting Thrinax, or a Saproling token, or a Siege-Gang Commander token, or a Birds of Paradise or a Wall of Omens. The best case scenario of your opponent having only a single threat on board is a thing of the past, and now you have to contend with tapping out for Cruel and still facing down an army of attackers. This also is partly due to not being able to play Wrath of God in the same deck anymore as well.

Reason #3: Planeswalkers. I’ve written a short scene:

You: “Cruel Ultimatum you!”

Your opponent: “Sure. Draw for my turn, Brainstorm with Jace, animate Gideon, pump him with Elspeth. Attack.”

You: “Erm…”

Your opponent: “Oh, and Armageddon you with Ajani.”

In case you didn’t get the memo, Planeswalkers are either incredibly awesome or incredibly annoying, depending on who controls them at the time. Cruel Ultimatum does nothing to impede their usefulness, and therefore its ability to generate card advantage is dramatically reduced if your opponent has even a single one in play. While the Grixis deck does a commendable job on dealing with Planeswalkers, it’s not unlikely that they will have some on board when you go to Cruel.

Finally, manabases in today’s age? They suck. Have you seen the casting cost of Cruel Ultimatum? Seven mana! All of which is colored! Casting Cruel Ultimatum used to be easy with Reflecting Pool and Vivid Lands and Filter Lands. Nowadays, not only do we not have those, our opponents are playing with highly unfair cards like Spreading Seas, Goblin Ruinblaster, and Tectonic Edge all of which make getting to seven mana much harder. Not only that, but decks are, by and large, MUCH faster than they used to be last summer, meaning that, like I mentioned before, a lot of times you’re just dead before you can cast it.

I hope that this brief explanation makes you second guess your trust in the mightiest of Ultimatums. While I still think it’s quite a good card when it’s timely cast, these are the reasons that I dropped down to only a single Cruel in the second iteration of this deck.

The last point I made about Ultimatum — things being much faster now — was the reason for the addition of the random Into the Roil. I had found that the majority of the time when I was losing, it was because my opponent was doing things, and I was not. While this point is easy to hear and comment “Duh” about, it definitely came as a realization for me and made me tweak the deck in such a way that I was able to interact with the opponent sooner. Throughout the tournament, Into the Roil was an all-star, and I was never disappointed in it. I actually ended up casting it on my own permanents more often than not, in order to save them from removal, get an extra use out of them, or both. This last point is the main reason why I switched over to Aether Tradewinds, a card that I will discuss further later.

Leading up to Sunday, I began thinking about how many games I had won via mana screwing the opponent. I had seen Goblin Ruinblasters in other Grixis lists and had really liked how they complimented the Spreading Seas that I was already playing. I had little time to test them, but I did experiment with a list running 4 of them online in lieu of Jace, the Mind Sculptors (more out of necessity than anything, as I had to return the ones I was borrowing). I actually felt that Jace was out of place in the deck, and was tempted to not play him whatsoever. Unlike many other decks, Grixis has relatively few ways to protect its Jace except when dropping it on an empty board, as we don’t run many creatures like Wall of Omens or Elspeth tokens. Even when dropping it on an empty board, we still run the risk of it dying to a Vengevine or Bloodbraid or O-ring or Maelstrom Pulse. Jaces in other decks certainly run this risk as well, and I eventually decided that, yes, I would like to Mind Sculpt, but thinking about how Jace was not an all-star in deck reiterated my perception of the type of deck Grixis is.

Grixis is not really a “control” deck. I’m not sitting here, waiting, counters-in-hand, for when the time is right to drop this unstoppable bomb on your behind. I’m just killing you. I’m killing your creatures, I’m killing your planeswalkers, and then I’m focusing laser cannons on your life total. I’m doing it all while gaining card advantage. Look at the above list. Aside from a handful of cards, every spell is a piece of removal that gains card advantage which makes it similar in terms of Jund in that it can just out-attrition the opponent. Moreso than Jund, the deck I like to compare it to is Faeries. While the decks don’t even really have the same gameplan, they both have the ability to control the game until the point when they can just win out of nowhere. Creeping Tar Pit is very good at dealing damage to the opponent, and lots of incidental damage tends to add up.

Anyway, after the Sunday PTQ, I half-jokingly mentioned on the drive home that I was going to build a deck with Contaminated Ground in it. I put together a pretty mediocre B/R Bloodchief Ascension deck that ran the Black enchantment as a sort of pseudo-Spreading Seas that also happened to trigger the other Black enchantment. It wasn’t really good enough, although it certainly let me respect the Contaminated Ground. I should probably show you the list before I start rambling on.

Yup, I went 9-1 with a list that ran Contaminated Ground.

To respond to your question: I didn’t draw it terribly often, but there was never a time when I drew it that it didn’t help. Put another way: it was great every time I drew it. It single-handedly won me at least one game, and definitely helped with the whole mana denial strategy in several others. Not only does it mana-screw the opponent, but the damage from it is almost as good as drawing a card from the Spreading Seas. Imagine you are playing a U/W Control deck, and your first land is enchanted with Contaminated Ground. How many times can you reasonably tap it for mana? The answer is certainly “less than 10,” but realistically, against a deck that packs so much burn and evasive creatures, how many times would you actually dare to use it. Four? That’s 8 life you just lost. I’m not saying that Contaminated Ground is the new mega tech, but I think you should try it before you dismiss it.

The last card that I wanted to talk about, as I mentioned above, is Aether Tradewinds, another “did this card really just get played in a Constructed deck” card. Aether Tradewinds is surprising effective, as there are lots of good permanents for you to target on your side of the table. Gatekeeper of Malakir, Goblin Ruinblaster, Siege-Gang Commander — all of these cards love to be returned to your hand. You can also return Spreading Seas to your hand in a pinch, making it sort of like a cantrip, or Jace if your opponent is attacking with a bunch of creatures to kill him. Just as important though, is its ability to return troublesome permanents on the opposing side to their hands. Combined with the mana denial strategy, you can effectively “kill” a creature by returning it to your opponent’s hand if they can’t cast it again. There’s also the subtle difference between it and Into the Roil in that Aether Tradewinds can target lands. While this is important to note if you’re being attacked by a Raging Ravine or whatnot, it can also be used to put a hiccup into your opponent’s mana development. While I wouldn’t normally go out of my way to target their land with the intention of mana screwing them, the option is always nice.

I’ve written a lot, and while I’m sure I haven’t hit on every point, I hope I presented you with both interesting deck tech and some food for thought. I’m always eager to hear what people have to say, so if you have anything interesting to comment upon or ask, feel free to e-mail me or write in the forums.

Thanks for reading…

Zach Jesse

[email protected]

ZoochZ on MTGO