Brewing for Modern – Old Dog, New Grixis by Dave Shedden
Well, Modern-lovers: we have ourselves a shake-up.
By now, most of you will have heard all about the changes to the format’s banned list.
Some of you, like my colleague Grant, will be rubbing your hands in glee at the thought of unleashing an army of Faerie tokens.
Others will be crying happy tears, as you slide your Wild Nacatls into card sleeves for the first time in what seems like aeons.
Still others will be excitedly riffle-shuffling your Melira-Pod decks, basking in the realisation that what was already a top strategy in the format has just seen one of its major predators (in Deathrite Shaman) sent to the sin-bin.
But what of that other strange breed, the Grixis Control-lovers? How will they fare amidst the aftershocks of these seismic changes?
Ah, I see. Well, I’m glad that’s cleared up.
The lay of the land
After having sampled some Modern under the auspices of the new ban-list – and listened to the thoughts of some much more accomplished players – I’ve formed a picture in my mind of how I think the new format will line up.
While I’m relatively confident in the basic feel I’m getting, bear in mind that I don’t have the resources of a Pro-Tour testing team. As long as you don’t bet your house on my calling it right, things will probably be fine.
OK, let’s get to my first assumption:
Travis Woo said it very quickly after the ban announcement; I agree with him. If a deck can’t hang with the Cat (to use the parlance of today’s youth), it can’t hang with Modern, full stop. Anything we play needs to have a reasonable game against Zoo decks – even though, for the moment, we can’t be certain exactly what the best build of Zoo looks like.
Next, perhaps the easiest observation of all:
It doesn’t take a genius to put this one together.
Melira-Pod was winning big tournaments on a regular basis, during the era of Deathrite-equipped Jund. It’s a deck which exploits major graveyard synergies – and the card which most effectively played Sheriff against graveyard abuse is now gone. This deck will be strong – and to win Modern tournaments you will need to beat it at least once, if not several times.
Working on some of the same logic, we come to my next assumption:
Again, Travis called this one – although I suspect, in my heart of hearts, that Travis always thinks Living End is a good bet. I can’t really blame him; I’m writing about Grixis Control again, so we’re two sides of the same coin.
Less main-deck graveyard hate, alongside the expected prominence of a creature deck make his prediction a good one this time around. I haven’t tested the match-up, but I expect that resolving a Living End in the declare blockers step of a Zoo opponent’s turn will be a supremely difficult play to beat.
This is good news, because my Living End matchup is very good!
Now, time for a controversial prediction:
The truth is, I just don’t see it. I think a lot of people will play Faeries in the new format, for reasons of nostalgia, curiosity etc; but I think Zoo will be pretty hostile to the deck and, based on my first assumption, that will mean that it can’t hang with Modern.
Of course, Faeries is exactly the kind of deck which will annihilate Grixis Control, so perhaps I’m just guilty of wishful thinking…
There’s just time for one last point:
This is perhaps an understatement. UWR Control will actually be brilliant, provided my prediction about Faeries holds.
It does everything a player wants against Zoo, with cards like Lightning Helix providing very meaningful incremental advantages, before Sphinx’s Revelation eventually comes online and puts the game away. Based on my analysis, I should probably be playing UWR, but… what can I say? I have an unhealthy, distorting relationship with Cruel Ultimatum.
As for Splinter Twin: the deck is so, so solid. It’s a neat aggro-control shell with a reliable ‘oops, I win’ button.
Until either Twin or Kiki-Jiki are benched alongside Deathrite Shaman, Splinter Twin will continue to be a premier strategy. It’s one of the decks I would recommend to players looking to get into the format, because once built, it will only require minor adjustments over the coming years.
Refitting Grixis: the cuts
Now that I have a picture of the format in my mind, how can I best retool the deck of my heart to have a shot against it?
Well, there are some painful cuts to be made. Oh, how I’ve agonized over these. I’ve been playing this deck for quite some time now – and each time I shave a card, it’s like ending a relationship.
First to go is Pillar of Flame.
Pillar has been a stalwart in the deck since its inception. It’s very important to have a sufficient density of one-mana creature removal spells; Pillar was deployed as a ‘fifth Bolt’ on the advice of Patrick Chapin (designer of the deck which I later evolved) who preferred it to Magma Spray because it could burn out the opponent in a pinch.
It has done good work against Voice of Resurgence and various persist creatures over the months… but we are now living in the Nacatl era, wherein three-toughness is the unquestionable benchmark. Against the Cat, or his chums the Ape and the Lion, Pillar is a blank.
My second cut is a Spell Snare.
When snare is good, it’s exceptional.
The trouble is, I find myself holding it just a little too often, wishing it was something that could deal with a resolved threat.
Dropping down to two copies will still give me a little insurance against the exceptional two-drops of the format, but make space for a remedy to the more common kinds of early aggression I expect to see.
Next up is a single copy of Electrolyze.
For exactly the same reason that Pillar is going, I feel I need to shave at least one of my beloved value spell. However, I can’t cut too harshly, because the entire construction of the deck is based around maintaining a steady, incremental card flow.
I could potentially add another spell exclusively to draw cards, but I’m not ready to do that… because a critical mass of burn is very important in closing out games where I am required to switch gears and go on the offensive. If I need to take the ‘End step Bolt, Snap-Bolt, untap and attack’ line, I would much rather be drawing an Electrolyze on my next turn than a Compulsive Research.
Finally, my toughest cut of all: Jace, Architect of Thought.
Even now, I have no idea if this decision is correct. Jace does a lot of work in this deck as a singleton, contributing to card-flow, holding off token armies and casting Cruel Ultimatums right out of the deck with surprising frequency.
That said, Jace feels like he might be a luxury card in the Nacatl era.
-1/-0 is not a back breaking intervention when my opponent can send in the Cat, then Bloodrush a Ghor-Clan Rampager on said feline. Four mana is a big investment. Sorcery speed is inflexible and unappealing.
Refitting Grixis: the new cards
Right, I’ve dried my tears. Time for the fun stuff.
Damn, but it feels good to have these sleeved up.
Flame Slash is my new Cat-killer, ideal for toasting turn-one Nacatls when I’m on the draw – and surprisingly flexible at picking off larger threats too. I’ve played against some ‘Big Zoo’ variants in the last couple of days, matches which really showed off the value of the card.
How popular these variants will end up being, I don’t know. What I will say is that one opponent played three Smiters on Consecutive turns against me, thinking that the ‘Bolt, Cryptic’ deck would be powerless to respond.
It’s amazing how much safer one feels casting a bulk-discard spell, once the opponent has blown 75% of their Smiters already.
Anger of the Gods is the sweeper I’ve been searching for. Whilst by cutting Pillar of Flame, I’m giving up a tiny bit of margin against Melira-Pod’s graveyard-friendly creatures, I’m getting far more in return by packing Anger into the deck. On Saturday evening, I resolved the card against this board:
It certainly felt like divine intervention from where I was sitting.
Of course, Melira isn’t the primary reason for including Anger. It just so happens to wipe most of Zoo’s problem creatures from the board, making it a clutch card against both of the best decks I expect to face. Exiling any Snapcasters I happen to have in play is definitely a downside – I need them in my Graveyard to chain together Ultimatums, after all – but it’s one I’m prepared to accept for a substantial boost in my war against the Cat.
After all my dribbling, where do we find ourselves? With a new, retuned Grixis deck, of course.
My sideboard is a much more fluid affair, which aims to shore up the tougher matches where my Jack-of-all-trades maindeck is disadvantaged.
It may look like a hodge-podge, but there is method in the madness, I promise.
- The additional counterspells slot in against decks against where my Creature removal is underwhelming
- The Sowing Salts are for Tron and UWR control, whose Colonnades provide a decisive advantage in our first games
- Rakdos Charm does great work against graveyard decks and Affinity, with Vandalbast joining for the latter matchup
- Jace lives in the board for those matchups where his card-drawing, token-disabling qualities will truly shine
- Coalition Relic and Echoing Truth form my anti-Blood Moon hedge
- Thoughtseize and Pithing Needle are multi-purpose disruption
- …and Combust is present for the sliver of extra margin it will give me against Celestial Colonnade, Splinter Twin‘s creatures and Mistbind Clique.
Let the show commence!
I’ve had my say – now it’s time for the professionals to have a crack at the Format of Kings.
Could we be about to witness the dawn of a new super-deck? Will the Cat get its claws into Modern and refuse to let go? Will Faeries make me look like a drivelling idiot?
By Sunday night, these and more questions will be answered. I can’t wait.
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