Rule of Law – Tuning Grixis


UWR control got all the attention from this past weekend’s SCG 5k standard tournament. This is understandable; Luis won the tournament with it, and he and Kibler were the two biggest names in the event and both sleeved up UWR. I played my own version of Grixis control, anticipating playing multiple rounds against opponents with little or nothing to Terminate. UWR and Grixis were my two favorite decks going in, and I still think they are the best 2 decks. Jund would be the most popular deck, but I thought these decks would factor in heavily in the later rounds of the tournament and in the Top 8. I would have to play vs. Jund of course, so I needed to stay strong vs that deck, but I wasn’t finding Terminate to be tremendously helpful there either (I was playing vs Leech-less Jund much more often than Jund with Leech in my MODO tournament experience). Terminate was good vs. decks with Goblin Guide and Plated Geopede, so I would need my replacement to do something vs. those decks. When I thought about Into The Roil as a Terminate substitute, I got very excited about Standard for the first time in a long time.

Ajani, Elspeth, Sorin, Font of Mythos, Sprouting Thrinax, Broodmate Dragon and Jace don’t really care about your Terminates, but they care about your Into The Roils. You have outs to random things, like an Archmage Ascension or Luminarch Ascension. Grixis control has trouble with some resolved non-creature non-land permanents, and the fact that the stock Grixis list plays only 2 Negate (I’ll get to Negate in a minute) exacerbates this problem. Grixis control, more than any other deck in Standard, needs to hit its land drops. Many games you need to have 7 land in play on turn 7. Every kicked Into the Roil that would have been a Terminate gets you one card closer to having 7 land, not at all an insignificant fact. Against Mono-Red Burn, bouncing a turn 2 Geopede isn’t as good as killing it, but it buys you time. When they unearth a Hellspark Elemental or Hell’s Thunder, Into the Roil is the perfect answer. I did keep 1 Terminate in the deck as a concession to Putrid Leech and Goblin Guide, but I mostly just looked for other more flexible ways to solve those problems.

I also wanted more counterspells than the stock Grixis list had. Negate was so important in the mirror match and against other control decks, and it also stopped Blightning against Jund. 4 Negate was in hindsight perhaps 1 too many, but I wouldn’t want less than 3. Drawing multiple Earthquakes was something I strongly disliked, so I decided to run only 2. In reality, I want about 2.5 of these in my deck, but I can’t run half an Earthquake and I don’t want to run 90 cards, so I chose 2. Chandra Nalaar was the first thing I cut from the deck. She has most of the disadvantages of a Terminate with the added awkwardness of costing 5. She also runs into Flashfreeze and does nothing vs Hellsparks and Hell’s Thunders.

Mind Shatter was a card I discovered through an age old Magic deck design tradition: I got my ass kicked by a Mind Shatter in a random practice match. I decided to try the card, and it was very very good. UW and UWR have Flashfreeze and Essence Scatter (and maybe Day of Judgment and Martial Coup) to aim at your Cruel Ultimatums and Sphinx’s of Jwar Isle. But what do they have to stop you from Mind Shattering all those away before you play your threat? 2 Negate, maybe? Not much happens in these control matchups for many, many turns. The first player to tap out puts himself in a dangerous position. This means you often have time to dig for your 1 copy of Mind Shatter, and to get all the way to 9 mana for the amazing “Mind Shatter you for 5 with Negate backup” play.

Even against the most aggressive deck in the field, Red Deck Wins or whatever its called, Mind Shatter was still good. They often had like 3 cards in their hand on turn 5, and something like a Goblin Guide or Geopede on the board. Mind Shattering those last 3 cards went a long way towards surviving to Cruel them on turn 7.

Why is a card that is very very good only a 1-of in the maindeck? The answer is two-fold: extreme diminishing returns on drawing a second copy, much more so than even Earthquake and Cruel Ultimatum, and also the fact that you already have a number of the slowest cards in the format in your deck, and you need to avoid being run over in every game 1 vs. a fast deck. The second copy in the board gives you more edge against UW and UWR control.

I tried Gatekeeper of Malakir as a good answer to Sphinx of Jwar Isle, a combo with Into The Roil, and a pseudo-spell to get back with Cruel Ultimatum, but it just didn’t perform like I had hoped.

Here is the list I played:


Vampires is a bad matchup, and I knew this going in. The plan vs. Vampires is the same one LSV and his crew took: you cross your fingers in the early rounds and let the Jund decks knock them out of contention so you don’t face them in the later rounds. There is some discomfort that comes from having a really bad matchup in a format. This discomfort often leads players to choose a “decent vs. everything” deck over a “great vs. most, bad vs. a few” deck. I don’t like having a bad matchup, but I think you have to be rational and think about risk vs. reward. Showing up intending to win a tournament means that you need to anticipate the field near the top tables in the later rounds and the Top 8. Everyone knew Jund would make up around 25-40% of the field, and since Vampires would not thrive in such an environment, the risk of getting paired vs. it is while in contention for top 8 is not as high as you might initially think.

The biggest mistake I made was not valuing Essence Scatter enough. I added one to the sideboard in the later stages of my testing, but I didn’t go far enough. I think you want 3 maindeck (over a Flashfreeze or a Negate). Playing 3 or 4 Negate, a Mind Shatter, and only 2 Earthquake means you have some vulnerability to creatures, especially Sprouting Thrinax, who shrugs off a Bolt or an Earthquake unless you have both Bolt AND Earthquake.

The sideboard was very strong for me in the tournament, with the exception of Swerve. I anticipated Jund boarding in Mind Rot vs. decks that leaned heavily on Flashfreeze and Essence Scatter. Many of the Jund players did, but some did other things. Swerve is so narrow that it amounts to just playing a greedy Negate. I could have devoted those 2 slots to something good against Jund (like a 4th Essence Scatter or 3th Quake) and just kept Negates in if I felt scared of Mind Rot. In the top 8 of the tournament, I drew Swerve, 3 lands, and some late game spells (a Sphinx and a Mind Control) vs Jund, and I was on the play. I kept the hand and the Swerves did nothing to stop my opponent’s 2 Thrinaxes. My Mind Control traded for both Thrinaxes, but this made me tap out, meaning the Swerves would never do anything as I played catch-up dealing with my opponent’s threats. He had Leeches in his Jund deck, and these make the matchup in his favor I think. If I fix my deck though, I can still be a favorite. 2 Deathmark and third Quake gives me a lot more action against Leeches and Thrinaxes, while also shining against Lotus Cobra/Knight of the Reliquary/Baneslayer decks.

Here is the list I would play in a Standard event that started tomorrow:


Be careful about cutting Thought Hemorrhage, tempting as I know it is. They are really good against fringe decks like Jacob Dredge and Turbo Fog. They also shine in the mirror match, where you can get the opponent to use counters on them or risk you naming either a) the counter they were holding and didn’t use, or b) one of their win conditions.

Before you comment “HOW DO I SIDEBOARD?” please understand that the decks like Jund and UW have a lot of variation, especially their post-sideboard forms. I think testing this deck out and trying a few different sideboard configurations is the best way to get a grasp of how to sideboard. I’m still figuring out all the nuances myself, and other decks are going to change to account for UWR (Fleshbag Marauder has to be more likely now, right?).


Here is the deck my brother Alex Sperling piloted to a 35th place finish at the event. I like this deck a lot, and were I not as enamored with Grixis and UWR (or if I felt that I didn’t have an edge in control mirror matches), I would certainly consider playing it.


The first thing I would try if I went to play this deck is Mind Shatter instead of Identity Crisis. When you’re not cascading, as this deck isn’t, Mind Shatter is a really nice compromise between Mind Rot and Identity Crisis. It often feels like a Mind Rot/Identity Crisis split card, and both cards are most helpful in the same type of matchup. Either Crisis or Shatter is the right idea though: get rid of their Essence Scatters and Flashfreezes and whatever else they weren’t casting in order to hold mana up for Essence Scatters and Flashfreezes.

Playing Emeria Angel and Ob Nixilis and Baneslayer Angel as the fatties is also nice in a field favoring Flashfreeze. I wonder if we can’t make those Garruks into Elspeths and brew up a BW deck that can’t be Flashfreezed at all, but Cobra and Knight are likely too important.

UWR will be popular now in standard. My Grixis list punishes that deck. My brother’s list punishes them specifically for deciding (justifiably) that Day of Judgment isn’t what they want in the current format. Wall of Denial is better than Day of Judgment right now, and Ob Nixilis and Emeria Angel are happy to hear it.

32 thoughts on “Rule of Law – Tuning Grixis”

  1. Can I just ask about the viability of Malakir Bloodwitch in the sideboard? I know there isn’t that much room, but it is by no means a poor choice.

  2. How did you fare against Mono red? I’ve been testing UWR a lot and it seems to tool the red deck but you don’t have Ajani V. or Wall of Denials so I’m wondering if Grixis can handle the early onslaught.

  3. Dragon’s claw… hmm. Why cant you just have more spot removal in the board to deal with rdw/boros?

  4. The mono red match up is the one of the worst for this deck from my playtesting, which is probably why the board runs 4 dragon’s claw. If you get that out and stabilize behind some bolts and essence scatters, you’ll win if you can resolve a cruel, sorin or a soji. If they kill you before you can do that, gg.

  5. I’m curious, why don’t this deck runs the same card draw engine like LSV’s UWR? Won’t 4 spreading seas, jaces, mind springs and some divinations will be better in this deck?

  6. I think alot of readers would like (were expecting?) a report on the tournament. Play by plays, key turns etc yield alot of useful information.

  7. Matt,

    How is the matchup between your deck and your brother’s? You mention that his punishes UWR for not running Day of Judgment, but you aren’t able to do so either. Who is favored in that match?

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  9. @ Jacob Perry
    Bloodwitch isn’t bad, but I don’t see a card in the SB I would cut for them. The deck’s strategy of attacking control players’ hands works well against those decks. Against beatdown, I think Mind Control is the better 5 mana option.

    Re: 4 Dragon’s Claw
    I’ve found that when earthquake is your mass removal, and tapping out for sphinx is often the best turn 6 you have against boros/RDW, having a Claw or two out makes life much much easier. Bolts and Burst Lightnings can finish off what Goblin Guide started alot eiser when you start drawing all removal. The bolts/earthquakes/terminate you can cast yourself will gain you a couple life.

  10. Matt,

    Why exactly did Gatekeeper not work out? Was it too hard to get BBB, or is there just no spot in the deck for it?

  11. Wouldn’t Agony Warp be better than Dragon’s Claw?

    – You can slightly more reactive than by tapping out for a claw
    – If you manage to land the -3/0 it would *technically* “gain” you enough life through damage prevention anyway
    -It’s removal


  12. I’m sad. When I glanced at the article name, I thought it said “Turning Grixis” rather than “Tuning Grixis”. While that would be a pretty serious reach to “Turning Tricks” I figured LSV was finally rubbing off on you with the pretty stretchy puns. As it turns out, it’s more like internet forums are rubbing off on me.

    In related pun news, I heard a piece on NPR this morning where they were talking to a DOE manager (Ken Baker) about how consumers can save energy by being more informed about their usage trends. Baker said, “Yes, we’ve definitely found that knowledge is power…or in this case, knowledge is LESS power…” And the interviewer responds with “Ugh…who wrote that line; did you write that line?” and Baker follows-up with, “Sorry, you can put me in the punitentiary.”

    I literally cried laughing and almost had to pull over because I was laughing so hard it affected my driving. Why don’t more government officials conduct interviews this way?

    Oh, and nice article Matt!

  13. Into the roil seems worse than Grixis Charm, which bounces lands, kills stuff Roil only bounces, comes down a turn earlier, and can even randomly turn your Sphinx into a GG (or a creature your Mind Controlled). I don’t know that the extra card is worth it, especially since Roil doesn’t actually gain card advantage, and is pretty close to even for tempo…all a turn later.

  14. ALso, Dragon’s Claw over removal because gaining life is better than killing one creature, and because you ALSO run red spells so it does a lot of double duty when you need life. or of Boros only plays one or 2 red spells and a pile of white guys (which happens a lot).

  15. @Josh G
    Gatekeeper was occasionally difficult to kick, but the mana wasnt that big an issue. If he did what i wanted him to he’d make the cut. He just didn’t do enough vs jund and the control decks. Jund has Siege Gang, Thrinax, etc, and is waiting to use their pulse/terminate/bit blast. Control decks occassionally ran a sphynx into it, but often it acted as a dead card instead, which is why i cut terminate in the first place. I really wanted Gatekeeper to work because its best turns are so good, but you can only put up with so much ineffectiveness in key matchups like Jund and UWR/Grixis.

    Re: Agony Warp
    Hard to get this to be better than terminate on a consistent (and not just occasional) basis.

    Re: Grixis Charm
    Turn 2 Into the roil on geopede/Lynx and the card you draw turns 4+ have been good for me, and they can flashfreeze Grixis Charm on their Ajani Vengeant that is about to geddon you. So its certainly not all upside. That said, I never considered it and I encourage you to try it out and see if it works.

  16. @Chris (comment closer to the top that I missed about the matchup between my deck and my brothers deck)

    I’m not sure how this matchup plays out. I’ve never played a game against it. It does seem more challenging than other versions of UWb I HAVE played against. Flashfreeze doesn’t hit Ob Nixilis like it does Thornling, and he is only playing 2 Pulse 4 Path as dead cards. Sculler is also somewhat annoying. Long story short, I’m not sure who is favored.

  17. Hey Matt. Thanks for the list. You helped unlock a few of the pieces I was missing for my own Grixis build.

    2 questions: Do you find the 3 sphinxs to be enough to get the job done? I ask because it feels a little light on threats and unable to counter everything.

    The other thing is the walker. Any love for Bolas? Thinking of adding him as a SB card and playing 3 claws.

  18. Why dont you use magma spray in the sideboard rather than dragons claw. Magma spray is good agaisnt RDW, and also helps alot against vampires, and emeria the sky ruin decks

  19. @ Mahamoti

    Your rabid need to devil’s advocate is beyond facepalm. Clearly, if it is Into the Roil vs Terminate, the token is eating it.

  20. The card LSV and Jeff Huang seemed to have most problem with were bloody russians and not mind shatter, have you tried this swap? It also does something against red decks to keep you out of reach. Of course it is not so hot against jund as it does not kill anything short of bloodbraid elf or maybe something like borderland ranger if they run it.

  21. @ oyzar

    Against Jund it’s not too horrible. Setting them to ten can set up a kill with Cruel + Sphinx, and normally reduces your clock by a turn at least. He also soaks a ton, most people kneejerk reaction to him and try to kill him at all costs.

  22. Matt, I think you might be undervaluing Agony Warp versus the field. Its very good against Boros, RDW, opposing Baneslayers in combat with the Sphinxes, and other random obnoxious cards. Terminate kills things dead but I think Agony Warp is an interesting tool for Grixis. I’m going to test it out and see if I can’t get the matchup % up against those decks.

  23. How about including Blightning?
    The disruption could be quite helpful and it also helps bringing your opponent to 0…

    I’ve toyed around with them some in this deck and has not yet disappointed. However, I find it hard to settle on what to take out.

    I’m definitely doing to try Grixis Charm, tho!

  24. Everyone here is bashing the Dragon’s Claws, but after playing a bunch of games with the decks, I find that post board against mono red and boros I always hope there’s one in my opening seven.

    I’m planning on playing this in a tournament this upcoming weekend, and I expect jund with leeches and UWR control. I plan to cut a negate or 2 for a terminate and/or possibly another earthquake, since I feel every game I have it against jund and the aggro decks turns into a blowout. Any thoughts or suggestions for changes with a more aggro-jund tuned metagame?

  25. @Dennis: Blightning isn’t that great in Grixis control. It’s an aggressive, tempo oriented card. This makes it great for Jund where it can cascade into it or just hard cast it to keep the opponent off balance. Grixis Control doesn’t really care about that early game three damage, and the chances are they’ll redraw the 2 cards before you can efficiently capitalize on the discard. The slots that would go towards Blightning are better suited towards helping you survive to Sphinx/Cruel mana.

    @everybody: Grixis Charm, in testing, has been garbage compared to Into the Roil. The modality is not nearly as useful as the extra card.

    t Matt: I’ve been running a 1/1 split between Sorin and Chandra and it has been working wonders for me. There will be the occasional awkward control game where both players get stale mated behind Sphinxes/Wall of Denials and Chandra can force a counter war or completely pull the game out from under the opponent.

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  27. @Matt

    I play Grix control myself, I am wondering why you wouldn’t run at least 2 Double Negatives? As far as into the roil is concerned, there’s only a few decks that’s really worth playing the card (Mono White control and some variants and Eldrazi Green) and I was wondering why aren’t you playing Nicol Bolas? I actually consider SBing Grixis charms JUST for those decks. Gotta hate those ench/artifact reliant archetypes.

    You’d probably also want to try running the Thought Hemorrhage/Telemin performance combo, it’s especially NASTY against American control (UWR). Thought hemo his wall of denial, then BAM, Telemin performance him for the win.

    As far as RDW/Boros decks, it’s a bit reliant on your first hand and his first hand. RDW isn’t much of a problem, as long as you bolt/terminate the right pieces and freeze whatever hurts. main problem imo is boros, you can never have enough earthquakes, pyro, bolts, and terminates early game.

    Although, I’m adapting your Mind control sideboard, solves whatever you can’t target/remove with red/black. Especially those nasty prot red/prot black creatures.

    Essence scatter’s strength is reliant mostly on jund, i found myself, like what you said, needing a bolt + earthquake combo to neutralize a SINGLE sprouting thrinax. Where as if it were countered from the get go, it wouldn’t be so bad. I actually tried increase earthquake to 3, and like you said, 3 earthquakes at hand really doesn’t do much but clog your hand.

    Just my 2 cents, All in all, great article, great job Matt!

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