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April 14, 2016

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Going Rogue: “96-Card” Grixis Control

Hello and welcome back to Going Rogue, where winning isn’t the goal but it often happens anyway.

If Modern wasn’t shaken up enough in January when Splinter Twin got the axe and the format was taken over by Eldrazi, we’ve now been thrown for a new loop with the recent unbanning of control bombshells Ancestral Visions and Sword of the Meek.

These cards have the potential for enormous impact, so much so that despite playing a lot of Modern, I honestly have no idea what the Modern landscape is going to look like over the next few months. We need a meta expert up in here, but more than that, we need some creative brewing too.

Control is certainly looking good, but whenever this conversation comes up we always find ourselves back in the same rut, bemoaning the difficulties in selecting removal options to make be able to answer Wild Nacatl, Tarmogoyf, and heck, even Slippery Bogle. A control deck stuffed with Lightning Bolts can handle the aggressive decks fine, but run out of steam when they need to double-up burn spells on a bigger body.

So today I want to take a bit of a novel approach to the Modern control deck – one that simply doesn’t care if we need to double up our spells to get the job done because of an overwhelming level of card advantage. Numerically speaking, I am going to effectively cram up to 96 cards into a 60-card deck.

That’s Madness.

No, Madness was last week. This is Sparta.

The card advantage now available to a Grixis shell is simply obscene. With a set of each of the above as the core, we turn 16 cards into a virtual 48. Take a trip with me, if you will, to Magical Christmasland, where all plays work out all the time:

  • Ancestral Vision is a very obvious 3-for-1. Just wait out the time they take to go off, and four quickly turns into 12.
  • Goblin Dark-Dwellers has a very special clause that lets it break the rules with an Ancestral Vision in your graveyard. In the dream scenario, each Dark-Dweller hits an Ancestral Vision, and these four cards quickly equal 16.
  • Kolaghan’s Command is a very obvious 2-for-1, but can very easily become an indirect 3-for-1 if you happen to be using the Raise Dead effect on a value creature like Snapcaster Mage or Goblin Dark-Dwellers. Once again, four cards can actually equal up to 12.
  • And finally, Snapcaster Mage is the same idea as Kolaghan’s Command – ordinarily a 2-for-1, but target another 2-for-1 like Kolaghan’s Command and you double up on your gains. Four = 12.

So while our deck with full sets of the above four cards might be physically 60 cards (44 + 4 + 4 + 4 + 4 = 60), a little bit of substitution shows us where the value is really at: 44 + 12 + 16 + 12 + 12 = 96. This is still sparta.

Playing with a Full Hand
Strategically, there is a lot more merit to this level of card advantage than just slyly grinning over your full grip against your opponent’s topdeck. It also makes a lot of situational cards far more reasonable to play because you have the cards to spare if they’ve kind of gone to waste. I’m talking about things like Inquisition of Kozilek, Mana Leak, and Spell Snare, as well as playing more mana-producing cards than normal, as you can better tolerate a flood.

At the same time, resource imbalances let us exploit the power of bilateral effects. Specifically, Liliana of the Veil‘s +1 ability is extremely powerful when your discard options heavily outweigh your opponents.

This level of value can be as hard to defeat before sideboards as more traditional unfair strategies such as combo decks, so it’s a viable option to build our list pretty all-in. If we need answers to opposing shenanigans, that’s what our sideboard is for. The final list is likely to differ, but let’s take a first look:

Alex’s 96-Card Grixis Control – Take 1

Creatures: (8)
Snapcaster Mage
 Goblin Dark-Dwellers

Spells: (25)
Ancestral Vision
Inquisition of Kozilek
Lightning Bolt
Mana Leak
Terminate
Serum Visions
Electrolyze
Kolaghan’s Command

Other: (4)
Liliana of the Veil
Talisman of Dominance
Talisman of Indulgence

Land: (23)
Blackcleave Cliffs
Darkslick Shores
Bloodstained Mire
Polluted Delta
Blood Crypt
Steam Vents
Watery Grave
Island
Swamp
Desolate Lighthouse

Sideboard: (15)
Lightning Bolt
Tribute to Hunger
Kolaghan’s Command
Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet
Negate
Engineered Explosives
Duress
Spell Snare
Dreadbore
Damnation
Pithing Needle

Heck, with the Serum Visions and Electrolyze, this one takes our imaginary card count up to 100! Look out EDH, here we come.

Building the list like this will certainly generate results and take some decks by storm, but it has some major downsides.

  • A full set of 5-drops is ambitious, even with a bit of ramp in the form of the Talismans. I’m almost tempted to play Simian Spirit Guides, but I think that one’s a “no”.
  • Speaking of the Talismans, although they are good, they are a somewhat hypocritical inclusion in a list that boasts a full set of Kolaghan’s Command, and which purports to be able to outgrind Jund, the deck that features it most.
  • A full set of Kolaghan’s Command can also often leave your options a bit stale. While terrific versus Affinity, it is decidedly less effective against bigger aggro strategies like Merfolk or Zoo. A mature deck will value slightly more versatility.
  • Liliana of the Veil is slightly awkward. Although she gives us a strong anti-hand angle of attack, she is also the only spell that costs two Black mana, and is the only worthwhile target for opposing Abrupt Decays.
  • Finally, some of Jund and Abzan’s best late game comes in the form of its manlands. Without access to Raging Ravine, we are at a significant disadvantage, but I suspect that Wandering Fumarole might be able to fill a similar role. (Creeping Tar Pit is definitely the higher-quality target, but I think for a deck that wants to grind into the extreme late game, higher blocking potential matters more than evasion.)

Elaborating on the Planeswalker point above, there is a good argument to be made that Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy fits the deck better than Liliana. He certainly will be in situations, but I suspect that overall he is not very effective in the deck for a few reasons:

  1. We already have Snapcaster Mage and Goblin Dark-Dwellers sniping graveyard targets to recast. This is an effect we can overdo and run out of resources.
  2. Despite being a more nimble play, at 1U versus 1BB, he turns on opposing Lightning Bolts as well as being equally susceptible to Abrupt Decay.
  3. In many ways, he would be more valuable if his flip trigger was optional. Looting is great in a control deck, and we can’t always afford to pay for the ability on Desolate Lighthouse. We will quickly fill up our graveyard though and not have the option.

                   

At the end of the day, I think I want to keep Liliana. I really like neutralizing opposing Bolts (or at least forcing a two-for-one), and in a deck as controlling as this one wants to be, her ultimate actually becomes a very feasible option. Who needs a real finisher when you get to Fact or Fiction their board?

There’s also what I believe to be a fairly powerful and versatile card that one might not ordinarily associate with a control deck:

No, we’re not just trying to tick up our storm count. Manamorphose is a helpful tool with some of the mana requirements of this deck, offering Mana Leak/Terminate flexibility with imperfect mana, or helping cast an early Liliana.

But I also like it a lot as a flashback target. With either Snapcaster Mage or Goblin Dark-Dwellers, it converts into simple card advantage while also letting you turn back to your hand for resources. Playtesting has shown me that this deck won’t always have its spells where we want them when it’s time to cast a creature, and our heavy two-drop spell slot makes Manamorphose an extremely versatile tool that fits our CA theme.

With a little bit of ratcheting and tweaking, here’s the final list I arrived at:

Alex’s 95-Card Grixis Control

Creatures: (8)
Snapcaster Mage
Goblin Dark-Dwellers
Tasigur, the Golden Fang

Spells: (26)
Ancestral Vision
Inquisition of Kozilek
Lightning Bolt
Mana Leak
Terminate
Serum Visions
Manamorphose
Kolaghan’s Command
Tribute to Hunger

Other: (2)
Liliana of the Veil

Land: (24)
Blackcleave Cliffs
Darkslick Shores
Bloodstained Mire
Polluted Delta
Dragonskull Summit
Blood Crypt
Steam Vents
Watery Grave
Island
Swamp
Mountain
Wandering Fumarole

Sideboard: (14)
Lightning Bolt
 Thoughtseize
Kolaghan’s Command
Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet
Negate
Engineered Explosives
 Duress
Spell Snare
Dreadbore
 Electrolyze
Pithing Needle

Some of the changes brings our virtual card count down to 95, but I think leaves us with a more respectable list. The bar I’ve set for performance is the ability to consistently beat Jund, which it has been able to accomplish with about 60% success.

The primary drawback of this build is that it is even more reliant on its graveyard than last year’s Grixis Control. It is the heart of our value engine, and so we need to be very wary of cards like Scavenging Ooze, Relic of Progenitus, and Rest in Peace. Between the main and the side we do have several ways to fight these threats, but it means always holding up spells and mana whenever we would be vulnerable to them.

The other challenge that I’ve discovered – unsurprisingly – is that Tribute to Hunger just isn’t enough to reliably hedge against aggressive decks post-board. While our late game is nigh-unstoppable, Zoo/Burn present an enormous challenge, and Infect isn’t a walk in the park either. Otherwise, the only real problem matchup is tokens, as even with intense recursion and value, Lingering Souls is basically a 4-for-1 against us, and wide strategies unfortunately also handle Menace well.

Whether a deck like this will be able to be competitive will depend entirely on the meta. In aggro-land, you’d obviously want to steer clear, but in a meta of control decks, the 96-card monster is king.

Regardless of the build, I think Goblin Dark-Dwellers and Ancestral Vision is a legitimate combo, and I think we’ll be seeing a lot of them played together, whether here, providing a similar role in a Jeskai build, or perhaps being the piece to finally enable a competitive Temur deck. Maybe I’ll get to one of those in the weeks to come! But that’s all for now, so until next time, have fun and may the force be with brew.