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Grixis Control in Vintage

The Bazaar of Moxen concluded last weekend, held for the first time in Paris. As a few people seemed to enjoy my article about Vintage Oath, I thought I’d follow it up with an article about the deck I played this time.

At the last Bazaar, I played Oath. Although I was familiar with the deck and tested a little, I managed a meager 5-4. I still do like the strategy, and a few new lists have cropped up since. However, I didn’t really want to fight through a sea of [card]Abrupt Decay[/card]s. At the last Bazaar that was still a relatively new card to the Vintage metagame, but it is a fixed part of it now. It is certainly possible to fight through by adding more black to the deck and playing discard spells, but I had access to a good Grixis Control list, and I just preferred to play that instead. Saying, “I had access to” is actually quite an overstatement as Carsten Linden Top 8’d the last Bazaar with an identical 75, so basically everybody could just copy-paste. It might be more accurate to say that I had a lot of faith in that list.

This take on Grixis Control was originally designed by Pascal Wagner. Although so far Pascal has not made a mark of his own, he had his hand in designing the storm list that Timo Schünemann took to a victory at GP Ghent. To sum this up, some Germans you have probably never heard of have built this deck and been mildy successful with it. Sweet. Anyway, Grixis Control is a well-known archetype and the 2012 Vintage Champion—another German you have probably never heard of—played it as well. I could ramble along about the intricacies of the Germany Vintage community, or I could give you the list and discuss the card choices:

Grixis Control

[deck]Main Deck
1 Black Lotus
1 Mox Emerald
1 Mox Jet
1 Mox Pearl
1 Mox Ruby
1 Mox Sapphire
1 Sol Ring
1 Mana Crypt
3 Misty Rainforest
3 Scalding Tarn
2 Island
3 Underground Sea
2 Volcanic Island
1 Library of Alexandria
1 Tolarian Academy
1 Ancestral Recall
4 Dark Confidant
3 Jace, the Mind Sculptor
1 Sensei’s Divining Top
1 Thirst for Knowledge
1 Brainstorm
1 Tinker
1 Blightsteel Colossus
1 Voltaic Key
1 Time Vault
2 Mana Drain
4 Force of Will
1 Spell Pierce
1 Mental Misstep
1 Spell Snare
2 Lightning Bolt
1 Repeal
1 Demonic Tutor
1 Vampiric Tutor
1 Merchant Scroll
1 Mystical Tutor
1 Time Walk
1 Yawgmoth’s Will
3 Snapcaster Mage
1 Hurkyl’s Recall
Sideboard
3 Ravenous Trap
3 Nihil Spellbomb
1 Pithing Needle
1 Pyroclasm
4 Ingot Chewer
1 Hurkyl’s Recall
1 Red Elemental Blast
1 Flusterstorm[/deck]

The Mana Base

Vintage mana bases are usually not that hard to build, especially for 3-colored decks. However, in contrast to what some people believe, you don’t just jam all the Moxen and a [card]Mana Crypt[/card] in there no matter what. It turns out that off-color Moxen are usually quite bad, and even on-color, the non-blue Moxen are only okay most of the time. That might seem like sacrilege, but it is true. The problem is that off-color Moxen are essentially colorless mana sources. Some of the fairer decks in Vintage don’t need all that much colorless mana, though. On top of that, these decks usually play [card]Wasteland[/card]s and [card]Strip Mine[/card], so the danger of having a hand with only colorless mana sources becomes very real.

So why does this deck play them? For one thing all lands other than [card]Library of Alexandria[/card] are colored mana sources. That reduces the danger of color-screwed starting hands. The other reason is that this deck has many profitable ways to use colorless mana. Enabling a turn one [card]Dark Confidant[/card] might be the most important consideration. If you can stick that, the game is already over against everything but Dredge and their turn one kills.

If you take a closer look at the cards in the list you will notice that the deck is so blue-centric that even [card]Mox Ruby[/card] and [card]Mox Jet[/card] can almost be considered colorless mana sources. On the other hand, so many cards in this deck use colorless mana that this is rarely an issue. In fact, there is basically just one scenario where you are frustrated by the colorless Moxen. Land + Mox usually doesn’t enable you to [card]Mana Drain[/card] them. This is not a reason to start cutting Moxen of course, it is just something that can’t be helped. As much as you would want it, Mana Drain is not a turn one play in Magic.

As we are talking about the mana base, I’d like to say a word about [card]Strip Mine[/card]. This is a card I would like to have access to. It is one of the best cards you can maindeck against Dredge, and it is an out to an opponent’s [card]Library of Alexandria[/card] in the control mirror. However, you are just so dependent on blue mana that you cannot count [card]Strip Mine[/card] as a mana source. Your lands have to produce blue, and you usually get enough colorless out of your fast mana sources, therefore you don’t need a slow colorless source on top. Taking this into account, [card]Strip Mine[/card] would count as a spell. In contrast to [card]Hurkyl’s Recall[/card], you cannot pitch Strip Mine, though. In the end, you wouldn’t tutor it up all that often, either, as in most cases you would go for [card]Tinker[/card] to kill them rather than try to slow them down. It’s a close call. Strip Mine would allow us to handle the one card type we have absolutely no answer to: land.

The Engine

[draft]1 Ancestral Recall
4 Dark Confidant
3 Jace, the Mind Sculptor
1 Sensei’s Divining Top
1 Thirst for Knowledge
1 Brainstorm[/draft]

These are the cards that allow you to get ahead. If you don’t have one of those cards in your opening hand, you basically have no game plan. I don’t think we have to discuss the merits of [card]Ancestral Recall[/card]. Other than that, [card]Dark Confidant[/card] is the strongest of these cards. Of course, I’d rather have a Jace in play, but Dark Confidant typically fits your game plan better. If you have him in your opening hand, you can often cast Bob right away, and then lean back and watch how they fall behind. This makes for very one-sided games.

Jace is a bit more clunky than Dark Confidant, but if you can get him into play and have him stay there you will obviously be in an even greater position than if you had Dark Confidant. As to the numbers, in most cases it is best when you have exactly one Jace or Dark Confidant in your opening hand. Pierre Dagen once demonstrated in an article that 7 is the right number for a strategic element that you want to have exactly one of in your opener.

[card]Thirst for Knowledge[/card] and [card]Brainstorm[/card] feel quite underpowered, especially if you are used to Brainstorm from playing Legacy. For Brainstorm, I believe that is at least in part because you can play only one, and thus cannot shape your deck around it. That said, you have a few cards in your deck that you would like to shuffle back in, and drawing Brainstorm is never a bad thing. Perfecting Brainstorms is just not such a key element to Vintage as it is to Legacy.

As to [card]Thirst for Knowledge[/card], is this card on the restricted list for real? Call me naive, but it felt like this was by far the least powerful card in the whole deck. I mean, casting a Thirst occasionally is not a bad thing, but the card is quite clunky for what it does. Maybe Vault/Key gets too dominating if you can discard unwanted Vaults and Keys at leisure, but I am not really convinced that this is a restricted list-caliber card. If I wanted to get another business card into the deck, this would probably be the slot I’d change. I can definitely see myself cutting this for a second [card]Sensei’s Diving Top[/card]. Top is less clunky, and makes the rest of the deck better. All shuffle effects become more powerful, Dark Confidant less harmful, and even the mostly useless [card]Voltaic Key[/card] has better chances of doing something real. In contrast, [card]Blightsteel Colossus[/card] is the only card in the deck that really gets better because of [card]Thirst for Knowledge[/card].

The Mini-Combos

You have [card]Voltaic Key[/card] and [card]Time Vault[/card] to kill them out of nowhere, and [card]Tinker[/card]-[card]Blightsteel Colossus[/card] to set them on a one-turn clock. That clock can sometimes even be accelerated by the use of [card]Time Walk[/card]. Tinker and Colossus don’t really fit the strategy of the deck, but they are a necessary evil to steal games from Dredge and occasionally Shops. Against Dredge you literally cannot win if you don’t have any of these combos. Tinker is obviously the easier one to pull off, being a one-card-combo. Unfortunately a naked [card]Blightsteel Colossus[/card] might not even beat Dredge all the time.

Vault-Key just ends any game on the spot. The problem I have with Vault-Key is that it is not that synergistic with the deck, either. Completing the combo just in time and then losing to your own Confidant or Mana Crypt is just miserable, and also the kind of anti-synergy that you are usually trying to avoid when building a good deck.

Sadly, there isn’t really an alternative. Vault-Key gives the deck a new dimension, and an extremely dangerous one. When you have that innocent [card]Voltaic Key[/card] in play, your opponent cannot blink for one second, because suddenly the game might be over. This extra-dimension not only gives the deck a chance to compete with the most unfair decks in the format, it also forces the fairer opponents to hold back. A resolved Jace, or even a Blightsteel Colossus. are problems that can be fixed—Vault-Key is forever.

The Control Package

[draft]2 Mana Drain[/draft]
4 Force of Will
1 Spell Pierce
1 Mental Misstep
1 Spell Snare
2 Lightning Bolt
1 Repeal[/draft]

The card numbers might seem awkward, but they are not that difficult to explain. If you are interested enough in Vintage to read this article, I will not have to explain four [card]Force of Will[/card]. Less will just not do. [card]Mana Drain[/card] used to be a 4-of in blue control decks a long time ago.

Since, it has often been reduced to a 3-of, and in this list it is only a 2-of. I can even see making it a 1-of. The thing is, Mana Drain looks like the all-in-one answer card, but it is in fact a very specific, mid-game card. On turn zero and turn one, Mana Drain doesn’t do anything. In the late game, [card]Force of Will[/card] is often almost as good. You don’t care for the mana requirements, and you don’t care for the mana boost, you only want to make sure that you counter their threat. Thus, having more than two Mana Drains is rarely useful. You can tutor for Drain if you really need to, and you can flash them back with [card]Snapcaster Mage[/card]s. Cutting a Drain for a Mana Leak is a move I suggested in the Oath article already. Strategically, [card mana leak]Leak[/card] fits better into Oath than into Grixis Control as you don’t plan for the long game there. Depending on your metagame, it might still be viable to play one Drain and one Leak to have an additional turn one counter. If your metagame is control-heavy you will probably not want to do this, though.

[card]Spell Snare[/card] and [card]Mental Misstep[/card] are all-around great cards. There are so many good one- and two-mana plays in Vintage. Having these in your deck not only means that you have potential turn zero and turn one answers to cards like [card]Ancestral Recall[/card] and [card]Sphere of Resistance[/card], it also gives your Snapcasters more relevant flashback options for the entire game.

I would like to have access to a second Mental Misstep. The card seemed very good all weekend. In the mirror, [card]Ancestral Recall[/card] and [card]Lightning Bolt[/card]s aimed at [card]Dark Confidant[/card]s are key plays, and there are a few other targets, so Misstep will rarely be a dead card. Creature decks have 1-drops most of the time. However, it is not as good against Shops. Another reason for more Missteps is that my opponents had more than one Mental Misstep. Now, this leads to an awkward trajectory: The more Missteps everybody plays, the more important it becomes to have even more Missteps yourself, because everybody has more good Misstep-targets—their Missteps.

At some point, people waste too much energy on these fights at the expense on their overall power level. This will hurt them a lot in matches against Shops and Dredge, but it can also be bad in the mirror. If everybody jammed four Mental Missteps into their deck, you might be better off assuming that your [card]Ancestral Recall[/card] will never resolve, and just beat them with your otherwise better card quality.

However, I don’t think this will ever happen in Vintage. If Mental Misstep became so widely played, people would just sidestep the hate by playing Dredge, Shops, or even something like Oath or Dragon Stompy. It never worked out this way for Legacy, though. Legacy as a format is very much about efficiency. Removal and creatures are so much better at one mana than at two. Cantrips are basically unplayable at two mana, and even counters and discard spells often cost only one mana. There are just very few viable strategies in Legacy that don’t have a lot of one-mana spells.

If you look at [card]Chalice of the Void[/card] you see this distinctly. Chalice for 1 on turn one is one of the most devastating plays in the format. Fortunately it is a symmetric play, and by making Chalice a viable card for your deck, you have to sacrifice so much power that it never turned out to be a a very good strategy.

It never worked out this way with Mental Misstep, because Misstep doesn’t demand sacrifices in deck construction. Thus, Mental Misstep could never have fit a Legacy format that resembles our current Legacy even remotely. Why is Vintage so different? In Legacy, our basic paradigm of a mana curve still holds—it is probably more important there than anywhere else. Efficiency is king. Vintage decks deploy their mana curve differently, though. Many decks can afford to play no real 1-drops at all, because most starting hands will have a Mox anyway. Shops goes one step further, and tries to deploy 4-drops on turn one. The abundance of ways to jump-start the mana curve is why Mental Misstep is easily sidestepped in Vintage.

The next control piece we should take a look at is [card]Lightning Bolt[/card]. That was the main innovation that helped Marc Lanigra win the Vintage Championships last year. Although Vintage is generally not perceived as a creature format, Lightning Bolt is an all-star in all matchups but Dredge. In fact, people do play creatures in Vintage, and when they do, they have very important roles. [card]Dark Confidant[/card], [card]Trygon Predator[/card], and [card]Lodestone Golem[/card] come to mind, but there are many more. Jace is also not too fond of high voltage. Having access to two Bolts is nice, because you almost never have starting hands with two Bolts, which would be very awkward, but it still gives you access to creature removal reasonably often.

[card]Repeal[/card] is a catchall solution. With four tutors in the deck, having one of these is invaluable, because you get access to a new dimension of answering opponents’ cards at an extremely low cost. Bouncing a Chalice on 0 is probably the best scenario, but there are many others, that don’t come up as often. You wouldn’t want to play a card like [card]Echoing Truth[/card] to get access to this effect, but Repeal comes at almost no cost to your deck. You can cycle it on a Mox every time.

[card]Spell Pierce[/card] is the only card in the deck where I can’t say why you want to have exactly one copy. It’s reasonably good against everything but Dredge, but why not two, then? Drawing two early wouldn’t even be all that bad. The best I can explain it is that you don’t want to have a full copy more of all the other counter magic options, but you want one counter more, and Spell Pierce can give you a little of everything.

The Tutors

This is the glue that keeps the deck together. The deck would certainly work without tutors especially in fair matchups, but these effects are too good to ignore for the opponents that play unfair. Turn two Tinker is one of the few ways to beat Dredge. [card]Mystical Tutor[/card] and [card]Vampiric Tutor[/card] enable that reasonably often, even against their [card cabal therapy]Cabal Therapies[/card]. [card]Demonic Tutor[/card] is just an always degenerate card that happens to be in your color, and [card]Merchant Scroll[/card] is basically a clunky [card]Force of Will[/card]/[card]Ancestral Recall[/card] split card.

The Rest

[card]Yawgmoth’s Will[/card] and [card]Time Walk[/card]? They are pretty good cards I would say. And they fit the deck’s strategy well. If you have Dark Confidant or Jace you are pretty far ahead already. An extra turn here should always be GG. Time Walk also lets you insta-kill with Tinker, and ramps you into double-blue when played on turn one, enabling Jace or Mana Drain before they make their first play.

I guess the only real question regarding [card]Snapcaster Mage[/card] is: why not four? The problem is that Snapcaster is extremely clunky in Vintage, and having two in your starting hand is far from optimal.

[card]Hurkyl’s Recall[/card] is the only card that is really awkward in this deck. You never want to draw it except for when you play against Shops, when it is suddenly extremely powerful. In contrast to Repeal, playing a card like Hurkyl’s Recall comes with a real price as it will often be a mulligan. On the other hand, it is a perfect fit for the deck when playing Shops. You can search for the blue instant with all your tutors, and even reuse it with Snapcaster Mage. In the non-Shops matchups you can at least pitch it to [card]Force of Will[/card]. I would say that Hurkyl’s Recall is as maindeckable as such a specific sideboard card can ever be.

The Sideboard and Matchups

Dredge

This matchup is all about your combos. If you can [card]Tinker[/card] a [card]Blightsteel Colossus[/card] on turn two, you will probably win. If you can assemble Vault-Key by turn three you will also win. Otherwise you are just dead. Either scenario would be very unlikely, but fortunately there are a bunch of tutors in your deck. [card]Mystical Tutor[/card] and [card]Vampiric Tutor[/card] are better here than [card]Demonic Tutor[/card] as they protect you from [card]Cabal Therapy[/card], and any semi-experienced Dredge pilot will surely see the writing on the wall when you play Demonic Tutor on turn one. There is really not more to this matchup pre-board. If you [card]Lightning Bolt[/card] your own Snapcaster to remove their [card]Bridge from Below[/card] that is as much interaction as you will ever get here.

Out

-1 [card]Hurkyl’s Recall[/card]
-3 [card]Jace, the Mind Sculptor[/card]
-1 [card]Spell Snare[/card]
-1 [card]Repeal[/card]
-2 [card]Mana Drain[/card]

In

+3 [card]Ravenous Trap[/card]
+3 [card]Nihil Spellbomb[/card]
+1 [card]Pithing Needle[/card]
+1 [card]Pyroclasm[/card]

There are no [card]Leyline of the Void[/card] because we want hate pieces that are good with our card drawing engines. Drawing Leylines is not. Traps are also better with tutors, but in most cases you want to tutor for Tinker anyway. [card]Nihil Spellbomb[/card] provides an effect very similar to Trap, which is a good thing. Killing their graveyard will not save you if you do it only once, but it gets very tough for them if you purge them two or three times a game.

The difficult thing in this matchup is to time your hate correctly. Basically, they can force you into action via [card]Ichorid[/card] or [card]Cabal Therapy[/card]. In most cases you do not want an [card]Ichorid[/card] to come into play. A [card]Narcomoeba[/card] is less dramatic, but it can be annoying because you can’t stop [card]Cabal Therapy[/card] if they decide to dredge in their main phase or discard a Therapy off [card bazaar of baghdad]Bazaar[/card]. In both cases the presence of [card]Bridge from Below[/card] in their grave forces you into action almost all the time.

The cards you are going to board out are all cards that are either too slow or actual do-nothings like [card]Spell Snare[/card].

Shops

This matchup is mostly decided by their start. Especially on the play, they can do horrible things to you. [card]Lodestone Golem[/card] and [card]Chalice of the Void[/card] for 0 are bad, and at least one or the other will often come down on turn one. When they can combine the Chalice with a [card]Sphere of Resistance[/card] you are in trouble. Also be grateful that [card]Trinisphere[/card] is restricted as you can’t beat turn one [card]Trinisphere[/card] without [card]Force of Will[/card].

When they can’t hate you out of the game right from the start, their deck is surprisingly tame. Cards like [card]Kuldotha Forgemaster[/card], [card]Triskelion[/card], [card]Wurmcoil Engine[/card], [card]Metalworker[/card], and [card]Duplicant[/card] are only impressive when you cannot take an active part in the game. If they can’t imprison you, you can handle their actual threats on a 1-for-1 basis, and let your card advantage take over. As Shops uses many slots on hate pieces instead of business, and forfeits card drawing altogether, they cannot win if you escape the prison they built for you.

And in case this isn’t obvious, fetch for basic Islands!

Out

-1 [card]Merchant Scroll[/card]/[card]Repeal[/card]
-2 [card]Snapcaster Mage[/card]
-1 [card]Thirst for Knowledge[/card]
-1 [card]Mental Misstep[/card]

In

+4 [card]Ingot Chewer[/card]
+1 [card]Hurkyl’s Recall[/card]

Their main deck is well-equipped to beat us. However, they usually don’t get much help from their sideboard, whereas our deck gets a lot more resilient to their prison strategy. [card]Ingot Chewer[/card] is the most efficient artifact destruction spell. It trumps even [card]Smelt[/card] by being a creature, and thus cheaper under [card]Thorn of Amethyst[/card]. Consequently, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that we want four. In contrast to [card]Ancient Grudge[/card] or [card]Shattering Spree[/card] the Chewer only trades 1-for-1, but we are fine with that as we don’t need further card advantage. We just want to make sure to break out of that prison. In the later stages of the game Ingot Chewer can even double as win condition.

The cards you sideboard out are either way too expensive like [card]Snapcaster Mage[/card] or almost completely useless like [card]Mental Misstep[/card]. I will let [card]Repeal[/card] stay in the deck on the draw. When your opponent starts off on Chalice 0, you can bounce that cheaply and deploy your Moxen. On the play getting your Moxen into play is obviously not an issue. [card]Merchant Scroll[/card] is better then. It is in most cases a very reasonable turn one play.

Other Control Decks

These games comes down to a fight over the card advantage engines. If you win such a fight you are far ahead. Don’t get greedy then! It is very difficult for your opponent to catch up if you have [card]Dark Confidant[/card] or Jace in play. If you cast a tutor it is almost always correct to go for [card]Force of Will[/card] or [card]Mana Drain[/card]. It might feel better to [card]Merchant Scroll[/card] for [card]Ancestral Recall[/card], but you don’t need to get even further ahead on cards, you just have to make sure that you don’t die to Vault-Key or a backbreaking [card]Yawgmoth’s Will[/card].

Out

-1 [card]Hurkyl’s Recall[/card]
-1 [card]Tinker[/card]
-1 [card]Blightsteel Colossus[/card]
-1 [card]Mystical Tutor[/card]

In

+1 [card]Flusterstorm[/card]
+1 [card]Red Elemental Blast[/card]
+2 [card]Nihil Spellbomb[/card]

Tinker is not at its best in this matchup. Some games you might bruteforce a [card]Blightsteel Colossus[/card] into play, but Jace will make you wish you hadn’t even tried. On the other hand, when you are ahead, time will take you further ahead, and at that point you have the tools to win anyway, be it by Jace ultimate, Snapcaster beatdown, or Vault Key-ing them. Finally the games go long and you don’t want to let Bob kill you with [card]Blightsteel Colossus[/card].

Boarding out [card]Mystical Tutor[/card] might seem awkward, but as you are trying to win more or less fair fights instead of doing something broken, the investment of a card usually doesn’t pay off. You might think, “but I tutor for Ancestral Recall,” which is true, but if your opponent fights for that and you lose, you are still down a card.

Having more efficient counters is obviously good, but why [card]Nihil Spellbomb[/card]? It’s not like the card is awesome. But you have bad cards to board out anyway. At least Nihil Spellbomb cycles and does something marginally good. Having an additional, mana efficient, hard counter for [card]Snapcaster Mage[/card] and [card]Yawgmoth’s Will[/card] is nice, and if the game resorts to draw-go, you can store an eighth hand card in play while they are discarding. It might not seem like much, but in this kind of scenario small advantages count.

Other Decks

You will encounter a bunch of other decks in Vintage tournaments. 15,000+ available cards and a metagame that is not at all defined past tier one can do that. In these matchups, you’ll have to judge what you need. Generally you will board out a subset of Hurkyl’s Recall, Spell Pierce, Repeal, and slow cards (Thirst for Knowledge, Mystical Tutor, Merchant Scroll). Which cards from your sideboard should be boarded in will be mostly obvious.

–Florian

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