It's Beginning to Look a Lot like Grixis

Posted in Top Decks on October 23, 2008

By Mike Flores

Michael Flores is the author of Deckade and The Official Miser's Guide; the designer of numerous State, Regional, Grand Prix, National, and Pro Tour–winning decks; and the onetime editor-in-chief of The Magic Dojo. He'd claim allegiance to Dimir (if such a Guild existed)… but instead will just shrug "Simic."

The Grixis shard represents what most players would consider the three strongest colors for tournament Magic play, at least historically. Blue is the color of Counterspell, Treachery, Morphling, and Tinker. Black is the color of Hymn to Tourach, Necropotence, Yawgmoth's Will, and, more recently, Damnation. Red is the color that evens the playing field between grizzled veteran and fresh-faced newcomer. It bundles the barbaric speed of Jackal Pup with the devastating game-ender Fireblast; red is the spoiler, the underdog, the hated Other, and sometimes the best. It is the color, in recent years, of Greater Gargadon and Demigod of Revenge, a savage mix of controversies and unlike elements... chaos.

Together these colors represent true control, disruption, card advantage, board control, threats, and answers all. It is interesting therefore not just to look at some of the great examples of "Grixis" of the past... but to contextualize what some of these ancient lessons have to tell us about the explicit Grixis of the present. Then and now, it's beginning to look a lot like Grixis.

Then – Benzo

Darwin Kastle's Benzo

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It's hard to argue that this wasn't the best deck of Pro Tour–New Orleans 2001. Team Your Move Games members and later Hall of Famers Darwin Kastle and David Humpherys both made Top 8 of the Pro Tour... and both Rob Dougherty and Tight Tommy Guevin brawled their paths into the Top 16! We wouldn't see another set of finishes like that until, well, Team ABU in Tokyo later that year, I suppose (four in the Top 8).

Aren't all of those Benzo lands Swamps? Well, yes... So how Grixis was this deck?

I mean this deck was about as Grixis as they come. First of all, the Grixis keyword is unearth, and Benzo was basically 39 cards of graveyard manipulation. The deck used a combination of Vampiric Tutor and Entomb to position exactly the right card into the graveyard and then Animate Dead, Exhume, and Reanimate to pull it into play to create an overwhelming advantage as early as turn two.

Verdant Force

Mono-red beatdown across the table? How about a 7/7 Fog machine? I'm calling up Jamie Wakefield and asking if I can borrow a Verdant Force. Not an easy race for the red deck...

Combination deck? What do you think they would think of a Crosis, the Purger stealing all those unspent combo pieces?

Plain old creature deck? Can it even remove Avatar of Woe from play? Because the Avatar can certainly remove most everything on the opposite side....

So just how "Grixis" was Benzo? At this point, some of us crudely equate the shards with their Invasion counterparts—that is, Grixis reminds us of Crosis—and Benzo might have been the best "Crosis" deck of all time.

In fact, Crosis in this deck gave way to an absolute legend of the Pro Tour.

In the Top 8 of New Orleans, Darwin set up his singleton copy of Crosis, the Purger and swung in, Brian Kibler-style, across the Red Zone, connected with Kai Budde's jaw, and activated that awful Dragon's breath. Hi-yah! Darwin cleverly named blue, and over the course of a strike or two, Kai was forced to discard three copies of Illusions of Grandeur (75% of 50% of his deck's combination and path to victory).

Remember what I said about it being hard to argue that Benzo wasn't the best deck of Pro Tour–New Orleans? Well Kai could make a good argument for his deck. He plucked his last copy of Illusions of Grandeur off the top of his deck and played it, which allowed him to weather another strike from Kastle's 6/6 proto-Grixis legendary Dragon. Darwin clocked him again; Kai paid the cumulative upkeep on his Illusions, drew a Donate, and handed the Illusions to Darwin. Poor Darwin, with his great deck and better draw, struck out. For his part, Kai beat Hump on the way to yet another Pro Tour win.

Now – Kelpie

So what is the modern Benzo? I don't know that there is one (at least thus far in Standard), but there are some great blue, black, and red cards that can work together to purge a control or combination deck's hand, just like Darwin with Crosis, still utilizing the graveyard.

River Kelpie, Raven's Crime, and Flame Jab

At the end of this past summer's PTQ season, Kelpie was a rising strategy. We don't know how high it would have risen! The synergy in this deck is quite powerful—almost irresistible—in some matchups, especially control.

James Herdman's River Kelpie

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A deck like this one could force River Kelpie into play, either the old fashioned way or with Makeshift Mannequin (in fact, River Kelpie likes Makeshift Mannequin to the tune of a card when it comes into play, and has built-in resistance to Mannequin's drawback thanks to persist). Raven's Crime from the graveyard basically feeds the next Raven's Crime... forever. That's quite difficult for a control deck to deal with, and all kinds of hell on any Cruel Ultimatum strategy; at the same time, you can tear the last Cloudgoat Ranger out of Kithkin's hand, or punish many a slow mana draw... Might not be the best against Demigod of Revenge, though.

Potentially adding red for Firespout and Flame Jab can enhance the synergies with River Kelpie, or make Nucklavee a worthwhile addition... plus it closes off the Grixis trio.

Then – Controlling Tempo

Patrick Chapin's Blue-Black-Red

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This underappreciated build by Patrick Chapin was one of the unsung superstars of Invasion Block Constructed, putting Chapin and his Midwest-based associates into a string of PTQ Top 8s.

The deck, as described in Eric Taylor's classic Controlling Tempo was all about netting mana and cards in exchanges with the opponent. For example, Repulse was a popular card in Invasion Block Constructed... Taylor and Chapin theorized that Terminate did much the same job against a single creature, but using only two mana (consider also that the default creature in Invasion Block Constructed was a 2/2 for two mana and Terminate was "tempo-neutral" when trading with one of those, whereas Repulse gave up a mana).

Even the untrained eye can see that Ravenous Rats and Flametongue Kavu were "comes into play" creatures that generated card advantage while helping to slow down the opponent's forward motion... plus, could deal damage offensively.

Flametongue Kavu

And then there were the big spells on five, Void and Yawgmoth's Agenda... One of those was a black and red sweeper that affected not just the board but the opponent's hand, the other a potent card advantage play pulling help from the graveyard.

Antonino De Rosa and I liked this deck quite a bit and played versions of it at the 2006 Magic Invitational's Block Party event.

Now – Cruel Control

Chris Woltereck's Cruel Control

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You'll have to forgive this Quick 'n Toast variant its Condemns and Cloudthreshers... For all its White and Green mana production capabilities, what looks like the breakout deck of the new Standard—Cruel Control—is named for Cruel Ultimatum, the most "Grixis" Grixis card in the new set.

Cruel Ultimatum

Cruel Ultimatum is awfully Grixis... It is seven mana large and awash in black, blue, and red mana without even one colorless fouling its shard's purity (if "purity" can even be applied to a black-centered shard).

One of the most significant things about this deck is how it improves Nucklavee, a card that used to represent a Cryptic Command and maybe a Firespout. Today's Nucklavee has the classic choices, but it's really there to pick up Cruel Ultimatum, sometimes even creating a vicious loop between the two cards (Nucklavee being a creature, and Cruel Ultimatum being a part-time Raise Dead).

So how does this relate to Controlling Tempo?

Like the 2001 deck, the Cruel Control deck is all about tempo and card advantage. Cruel Ultimatum in particular is all about card advantage.

Consider the drops... Chapin's Invasion Block list had creatures with "comes into play" effects like Ravenous Rats and Flametongue Kavu... his 2008 list has Shriekmaw, Mulldrifter, and Kitchen Finks to get ahead on cards and control time.

Consider the big spells... Cruel Ultimatum is kind of like a Void stapled to a Yawgmoth's Agenda... with a little more duct-taped on for good measure!

Like I've said before, I expect Cruel Control to be a breakout deck at States in a couple of weeks... Go Grixis!

Then – Psychatog

Mark Ziegner's Blue-Black-Red Psychatog

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The Top 8 of the 2002 World Championships was actually six Psychatog decks and two Squirrel Prison decks! Ziegner's was a minority list, including rd instead of a purely blue-black build with multiple Upheavals.

So how did this pre-Grixis Grixis deck work?

Like most Psychatog decks, Mark's was a controlling deck. The card quality was extremely high, with Fire // Ice, Fact or Fiction, and of course the best creatures of the era (and nice competitors in any era), Flametongue Kavu and Psychatog.

This deck had a fair number of permission spells, all chosen for their synergy with Nightscape Familiar and Psychatog (you'll notice Mark didn't even play Counterspell itself). His something strange and wonderful was built around his trio of Burning Wishes.

Burning Wish in this deck allowed Ziegner to play a variety of sorceries—many singletons—in his sideboard, allowing him to get the perfect tool for the perfect point in the game. If he were getting swamped it might be Pyroclasm. If he was about to get mobbed by Squirrel Nest it might be Stone Rain. But most often, to end the game in classic fashion, it would be Upheaval.


At eight mana, Mark could play Upheaval, float two mana, play one of his old lands back down, and summon Psychatog; with nine lands in play, he could make the same play but leave an Island up for Circular Logic defense! With the opponent stuck on one land the next turn, one Circular Logic would probably be more than enough...

Now – Kederekt Leviathan

Kederekt Leviathan

This is a card I have been thinking about for some weeks. While preparing a previous column I actually misinterpreted it as a one-card Upheaval + Psychatog (okay, Upheaval + Tarmogoyf), but the Leviathan does not return lands to hands. Yet the card, properly positioned, should still be very powerful. Think about the tick-tocking inevitability packed into the Leviathan against control. Can it be countered? Certainly. The first time. But that keyword unearth is, again, something special... something that might take a year for proper positioning and adoption.

The idea I had was to play it not in a slow control deck where for such a gigantic amount of mana we can already run something like Cruel Ultimatum or a true (provided it resolves) "I win" in Empyrial Archangel, but in a beatdown deck with a couple of Cascade Bluffs. Need to clear the path or get in that last 5? This might be a surprisingly sticky sideboard option to crush counterspell decks. An unearthed Leviathan might not be an automatic "I win," but it certainly puts the opponent into a position to defend with only a narrow count of cards, which in a long game for the beatdown deck is compelling in and of itself.

And yes, like the red Psychatog decks, if this idea takes hold... it will probably be in a minority build.

Then – The Greatest Grixis... Trix(is)

The Top 16 of Grand Prix–Philadelphia 2000 was littered with Team Your Move Games players, all running some variation on the same three color Trix deck. Here is the one Hall of Famer Dave Humpherys played to 10th:

David Humpherys's Trix

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Up until Billy Moreno's Flash-Hulk at Grand Prix Columbus, full-on Trix with Necropotence was probably the strongest tournament deck of all time.

Illusions of Grandeur

It was a combo deck that could win on the third turn, gain 20 life in the face of a beatdown player, accelerate massive amounts of mana, tear the opponent's hand to pieces with Duress, and protect a first turn (and probably game-winning) Necropotence with Force of Will.

All of those things.

It could play so many games... the card drawing game, the disruption game, the fast kill, even transformation into a creature deck with big big three-drops...

The touch of red in the YMG version for Firestorm and Pyroblast shored up the Trix deck's few enemies, from the lowly Elvish Lyrist to the Illusions of Grandeur played by another Trix deck.

The best in Grixis colors, and one of the best ever!

Now – Nothing

...And thank goodness for that!

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