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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:

Maindeck:

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:

Maindeck:

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?).

BONUS DECK:

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.

DORAN’S GRANDCHILDREN

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.

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