Hey everyone! I’m Corey Burkhart, a Gold-level pro from Southern California with a love for all things Grixis. So much so that my friends have nicknamed me “The Swamp King.” Today, I’m going to share with you the deck I took to 2nd place at Grand Prix Dallas-Ft. Worth, how to sideboard with the deck, and my general philosophy on approaching a Modern tournament.
The Role of Grixis
Grixis plays a very similar role in the format to Jund and Abzan. At its heart, it's a control deck looking to dismantle the synergies of the linear decks and disrupt the combo elements of the combo decks. While Jund and Abzan focus on stripping their opponent of resources through discard, this iteration of Grixis focuses on removing threats systematically, and countering the key spells these decks put on the stack.
Jund and Abzan shine by being proactive in addressing the problems. Thoughtseize, inquisition of Kozilek, and Collective Brutality allow the G/B players to play both sides of the game by stripping the key cards from their opponents. These decks trade mana for selective reduction of the opponent’s resources. In the case of a counterspell-heavy Grixis deck, you’re much more in the business of trading mana for mana. Counterspells shine when you spend less mana on your counter than the opponent’s spell. The tradeoff is that the opponent can play a spell that you’re not willing to counter, and they can try and get you to not spend your mana. These tradeoffs, while subtle, are very important to understand the root of why the Grixis deck is built the way it is.
The Flash Game
With the number of counterspells in the deck, you need to keep up the allure that you have things at all times. You cannot tap out for a couple of turns in a row, and then leave 2 lands up 3 turns in a row and expect that you’re going to deceive your opponent. A cunning opponent will catch on that you have a counterspell or some reactive element, and measure their spells carefully. Instead, if you leave out mana open each turn and focus on instants/flash spells that you can play any time during your opponent’s turn, you make the game much more difficult for the opponent to play, as they're constantly under pressure of instant-speed interaction.
Modern is an exceptionally quick format, with games ending on turn 3 and 4, so it's important to keep yourself protected. If you’re going to play a control game where you answer most of your opponent’s threats, dismantle their synergies, and prevent their combos from going off, you’re going to need some help.
Like Jund, Lightning Bolt and Terminate keep pesky creatures off your back. They’re efficient and answer most of the threats in the format at a mana-neutral (equal mana cost to the creature you’re killing) rate. Spell Snare sees way less play than it deserves, mostly because people are too sheepish to build and play many blue control decks. Most decks have an important 2-mana card. Affinity has Cranial Plating and Archbound Ravager. Infect has Blighted Agent. TitanShift has Farseek and Sakura-Tribe Elder. Jund and Abzan have Scavenging Ooze, Tarmogoyf, and either Grim Flayer or Dark Confidant. The list goes on and on, and you’ll hear me bring this up at lot, but mana efficiency is how this deck functions. You’re spending 1 mana to answer a 2-mana spell—this allows Grixis to catch up and really turn a corner going into the late game.
The Late Game
To want to play a late game, especially in Modern, you need to have a plan. And this deck play the best late game of any non-Tron deck in the format.
These are the big four. These are the cards that allow you to trade 1-for-1 with your opponent for turns on end to grind the opponent’s strategy to dust. Ancestral Vision is the deck’s best turn-1 play. Since becoming unbanned, it’s the card I’ve spent the most time playing with and learning how to utilize. Ancestral Vision allows the deck to function. In Grixis, all of your cards are intended to trade for all of your opponent’s cards. When all the dust settles, you have an Ancestral Vision coming off of suspend allowing you to fuel up for the second wave of threats your opponent will commit to the board. It’s a 3-for-1 in a world of 1-for-1 trades.
Snapcaster Mage is the premier blue card in Modern. If you’re looking to play a blue deck in Modern that’s not looking to combo-kill the opponent, you must be doing something exceptionally special to not play 4 Snapcaster Mage. Snapcaster Mage allows you to cherry-pick your answers in the mid-to-late game and, along with the Commands, transitions from a control card to a tempo card quite effectively.
Kolaghan’s Command and Cryptic Command give the deck the flexibility to grind out any opposing deck. The most frequent modes on each of these cards are Raise Dead plus Raven’s Crime and Counterspell + Reach Through Mists. You’ll note that each of these is 1 less mana than their card you’re casting, but what you’re paying for here is the flexibility. The ability to alter each of these Commands to the needs of the game allows you to play from both ahead and behind. Both are fantastic in a race, in a grindy game, against combo, against aggro, you name it. These cards never get boarded out, and if they were slightly more efficient, I’d have the full 8 copies.
These three are the variance-reducing cards in the deck. Serum Visions is fairly ubiquitous so I won’t go over it here. Thought Scour + Tasigur, the Golden Fang, however, are a fantastic package. Thought Scour is the blue Dark Ritual. You get 3 cards into your graveyard for delve for 1 mana, and instead of getting that mana in the pool, you get the flexibility to mill your opponents and draw a card. This combines exceptionally well with finding cards for Snapcaster Mage and Kolaghan’s Command, as well as filling up a turn-2 graveyard for Tasigur, the Golden Fang when paired with a fetchland. These cards are the ones I most frequently see people try to cut from Grixis Control, but these are the heart of the deck. They may not be the flashy cards winning the game, but they allow you to play each game out in a similar fashion, digging for that piece of removal you need in the matchup, the counterspell you need to hold on to your last few points of life, or a threat to turn the corner and end the game.
The Metagame Dependent Pieces
I'm exceptionally high on Engineered Explosives. Each color has its weaknesses, and sometimes entire Shards have their weaknesses. Grixis struggles with resolved enchantments. You can bounce them with Cryptic Command, but usually that’s too late, or too difficult to get going against Choke, Blood Moon, or Rest in Peace. EE allows you to answer many of these threats, while also serving as a removal spell against many of the battlefield-based decks.
When I Top 8'd Grand Prix Los Angeles, I didn’t know Countersquall was a card. I didn’t play Magic until Zendikar, and Countersquall was from before I got into the whole Constructed scene. I like Countersquall quite a bit—it’s an extra black mana versus Negate, but the life loss does a fair amount more work than you would anticipate. In the 14 rounds of Magic I played in Dallas, it changed the clock in 7 games, and the prohibitive mana requirement only mattered twice (unfortunately, once in the finals of the tournament).
I played these two cards as I anticipated many Death's Shadow, Affinity, and TitanShift decks. If you were more expecting Bant Eldrazi, Merfolk, Burn, or Slippery Bogle, you should consider playing cards like Dismember, Negate, Spell Snare, Essence Extraction, or Devour Flesh. Grixis has the tools in its kit to fight the entire Modern metagame—the difficulty with the deck comes from presenting the proper 75 cards at a tournament. If you had 25 sideboard slots, I think Grixis would be a truly great deck. With only 15 sideboard slots you’re just one decent deck among a sea of them in the Modern metagame.
As a Gold-level pro, I play many of the Grind Prix formats. You can see me traveling 20+ weekends a year to tournaments. Among these, Modern is my favorite to play. This is a minority opinion among the pro community. Modern rewards many different skills than Standard or Limited, and it resembles Legacy more closely than it does the other two.
Going into a Modern tournament, I try to compile the results over the last few major tournaments, the MTGO metagame, and new cards that were printed. As a semi-professional Magic player, I usually only play Modern once per set release, or about every 2-4 months. This greatly rewards the people able to see all the moving parts at the top level. Despite certain decks not performing well (Tribal decks and Burn were among them going into this GP), people will still play these decks, and they’re still good decks. You should calibrate your expectations to the new powerful decks in Modern, but remember that people will play their tried-and-true loves.
With this knowledge, I knew that U/R Spells (Thing in the Ice + Kiln Fiend double strike deck) and Dredge were going to be much more popular than they were previously. These are two decks that aim to kill people on turn 3, but Dredge is much more resilient and doesn’t fold to your usual form of Lightning-Bolt-based removal. Therefore, I knew I’d need to tune my Grixis list to have some game against Dredge.
Rather than complaining about the potency of these turn-3 decks, figure out how you can fight on their axis. What do the turn-3 decks in the format do? U/R Spells, Infect, and Death's Shadow try to kill you with one pumped up creature. Scapeshift, Ad Nausem, Goryo’s Vengeance, and Lantern each focus on finding a key spell and resolving it.
You can play a fair deck in this metagame and be successful. Either you need to pinpoint the decks that are going to be popular in your area that weekend, or find cards that overlap their hate against a variety of strategies. While Modern is currently a turn-3 format and not a turn-4 format like Wizards planned, I don’t think the format is far off. You can take the stance to ban many more cards, and I think you can take the stance of banning a few more cards. At the end of the day, I think Modern will fall in line greatly with where the format is at right now if Wizards refines their goals for the format.
As for deck choice, find something that is uniquely you. I personally love the tricky nature of the blue cards. They’re less powerful than the cards in most the other colors in terms of raw power, but the synergies between them and the cards of other colors are high. I love the hopeless feeling this deck can invoke from my opponents as I cast a second or third copy of Kolaghan’s Command in their draw step. In Eternal formats, like Modern and Legacy, you’re going to perform better on average if you find a deck that you love, and practice it a ton. I have hundreds if not thousands of matches under my belt with Grixis Control at this point. Most of what I do in a match is second nature. If you can practice a deck and know all the nooks and crannies it has when you walk into a tournament, even if your deck is “tier 7” as Huey Jensen called my deck on Saturday, you have a shot at taking down the title.
If you’ve read up to this point, you’re a trooper! If you have any comments or questions, feel free to post them below, or shoot me a message on Twitter @Corey_Burkhart!