Grixis Control Deck Guide

Oliver Tiu has been absolutely killing it this year. He’s qualified for the Magic Online Championships and has now put up back-to-back fantastic Pro Tour results to catapult himself into the lead for Rookie of the Year. He has locked up Gold, is on the hunt for Platinum, and his weapon of choice in Standard? Grixis Control.

Grixis doesn’t differ dramatically from Esper on the surface. The cheap black removal spells are excellent at dealing with the tons of tough creatures in the format, but red has cheaper removal, cheaper sweepers, and some awesome planeswalkers and creatures to go into battle with. If you’re looking for the best Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet deck in the format, Grixis may be the answer.

Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet invalidates whole strategies. Against BG Sacrifice, turning off the sacrifice outlets renders the deck just a bunch of mediocre creatures that don’t stand a chance. Catacomb Sifters are mostly turned off, Zulaport Cutthroats aren’t doing anything, Blisterpod is embarrassing, and trying to turn on a Westvale Abbey may result in Kalitas being big enough to race an Ormendahl.

Against other strategies where Kalitas isn’t completely back-breaking, it’s still going to threaten to completely take over the game. Grixis is filled with tons of removal spells and it’s a common line of play to cast Kalitas and a removal spell in the same turn, guaranteeing some great value. Against creatures like Hangarback Walker and Deathmist Raptor, they will look like overcosted liabilities.

Chandra, Flamecaller does it all in this style of deck. As a sweeper, Chandra can wipe the board, albeit at a high casting cost. With the rotation of Siege Rhino, Chandra’s minus is much more likely to kill everything. In combination with Kalitas, she will be able to completely swing many games. Chandra’s top use is still going to be that of a finisher. The +1 generates 6 power in attacking creatures every turn, which is the perfect way to end the game or to kill opposing planeswalkers. The person who plays their Chandra second is actually at a huge advantage since the plus ability will kill an opposing Chandra. Finally, being able to draw a bunch of cards is extremely useful in this deck. There are plenty of ways to utilize the graveyard, and when you’re playing a control deck filled with removal and lots of lands, the odds of having unwanted cards that you would love to loot away are high.

With most of the deck being cheap instants and sorceries, the remaining creatures need to be versatile. Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy and Goblin Dark-Dwellers fit the bill. Interacting with your opponent early with removal spells is a good way to stay alive, but there are plenty of ways for opponents to actually get ahead if this is your game plan. Collected Company puts multiple creatures into play, while Gideon, Ally of Zendikar or Catacomb Sifter might present multiple threats to deal with. Trading 1-for-1 isn’t always the most effective way to do this, but it’s important early on to try to stabilize for the critical late game. Jace being able to filter your draws before flashing back key spells for card advantage is a big part of the game plan. Jace is actually the only blue card in the main deck for many versions of Grixis, and there aren’t many blue sideboard cards either! That’s how powerful Jace is. Dark-Dwellers has evasion and represents card advantage as soon as it enters play, often killing a creature and presenting a big enough road block that decks will struggle to get through the 4/4 body.

When it comes to cheap interaction, one of the key advantages Grixis has over its Esper counterparts is Fiery Impulse. This is quite a critical tool in a world where Humans decks are strong, popular, and aggressive. Having a play on turn 1 can completely change the dynamic of this matchup since you will often save 6+ damage over the ensuing turns before another deck could have resolved a Languish. That’s an insane amount of damage when we’re talking about casting a 4-mana sweeper on time. Being able to play a red land tapped on the play or having the potential to have an untapped source on the draw can be the difference between winning or losing.

Fiery Impulse’s applications in so many matchups are a key reason to consider Grixis over Esper. A 1-mana answer to Humans, Jace, Duskwatch Recruiter, Zulaport Cutthroat, and virtually every creature in Bant Company once you turn on spell mastery is awesome. It’s also one of the cleanest answers to problematic cards like Shambling Vent, Hissing Quagmire, and Wandering Fumarole that can’t be hit by Ultimate Price.

These two cheap instants make up the key black removal spells. They come down early against aggressive decks, but they can also both kill an Archangel Avacyn. That’s a lot of flexibility. Each has their own weaknesses, with Grasp not being able to handle a Sylvan Advocate in the late game (and also being harder to cast in the early game), while Ultimate Price can’t kill Reflector Mage, Bounding Krasis, or any creature land, but they’re easy to flashback with Jace or Goblin Dark-Dwellers and are impactful early and late in most cases.

Another big advantage for Grixis that doesn’t see much play in the format is Kolaghan’s Command. Command is awesome for both the card advantage and flexibility. You also happen to be living in a time where a 5-mana artifact in Pyromancer’s Goggles is popular, and being able to destroy that and get additional value from a 3-mana instant is incredible.

A common play line against other control decks will involve them killing your Jace before playing their own. At instant speed you can kill their Jace and bring yours back, completely swinging the game. The most common line will be to kill an opposing creature and make them discard a card, which doesn’t sound like much for 3 mana, but the cards discarded really do add up. The instant speed element means you can commonly do this in their draw step after they were hellbent to take away any non-instants they may have drawn.

It works with Goblin Dark-Dwellers to both get back other Dwellers or to just keep pushing the card advantage. Killing a creature and making them discard is a nice 2-for-1, but once you get a 4/4, kill another creature, and make them discard another card for just 5 mana, it can be extremely tough for any deck to compete against that.

Read the Bones gets the nod in this deck over Painful Truths not only because of Dark-Dwellers but because of how painful it can already be to produce other colors. This deck does actively want certain cards, so being able to scry 2 to the bottom to find the most impactful cards is more important than in many other decks. In my testing, I would scry 2 to the bottom more often than any other combination. With such a powerful late game you want to preserve as much of your life total as you can.

Ruinous Path is a huge piece of the puzzle in a world where planeswalkers are prevalent. While this deck does have a number of creatures to attack them with, those creatures won’t be swinging any early than turn 5. With Nissa, Voice of Zendikar and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar being important pieces of the most popular deck in Standard, you’ll need other answers. Ruinous Path is not the most efficient piece of creature removal, but being able to kill anything is valuable. The awaken cost will actually help take down multiple planeswalkers, or a creature protecting the planeswalker, in the late game. This will often be the last piece of removal you cast against decks with powerful planeswalkers, but the first piece you cast against decks without them due to its inefficiency. This is also the way to kill cards like The Gitrog Monster that other removal can’t touch.

Here’s the list that Tiu used to go 8-2 at Pro Tour Shadows over Innistrad:

Grixis Control

I like so much of what this deck is doing, but the mana is a bit scary. That being said, I’m not really sure how much you can do about it. I hate the shadowlands in basically any 3-color deck, but they are a necessary evil here. You need more red and black dual lands, even if they might come into play tapped, but the battlelands can help you to keep them untapped on the necessary turns.

If you sequence your lands perfectly, the mana won’t be an issue in most games. It will be an issue often enough that it’s a concern, though. I spent the entire week before the big MOCS playoff event on MTGO testing various builds of Grixis, and was locked in to playing it up until the morning of the event when I was worried I would stumble too much on my mana and lose to token strategies. I didn’t expect Humans to be a huge part of the metagame, so despite my 14-1 recordagainst it online, I wasn’t sure how strong a choice Grixis would actually be. It turns out 4 of my 7 rounds were against Humans!

Here’s the list I originally submitted before chickening out and playing GW Tokens:

Test Deck

Eric Froehlich

This isn’t a big difference, but I felt like Kalitas was the best card in the deck. Kolaghan’s Command is good, but it also is a 3-mana spell that I didn’t want to clog up my hand with, especially because it doesn’t kill the important creatures in decks like Humans and Bant Company. I felt 3 was the perfect number there.

I also moved some Radiant Flames to the main deck. I think it’s useful when players don’t suspect that, but it’s really not the best card. Two might be too many, but having one when you need one couldn’t be better. Sweeping the board against BG Company, GW Tokens, Bant Company, and Humans is great, but being on the draw with Radiant Flames wasn’t always enough against Always Watching.

As for the sideboard, I added a copy of Virulent Plague thanks to the popularity of and how tough of a matchup it can be. If they stumble even a little, the Grixis cards are more powerful, but Tokens is pretty consistent. Needing answers to a bunch of planeswalkers that make creatures and will punish you if you can’t deal with them immediately is serious pressure. Dragonlord Silumgar is awesome against Gideon, stealing it and immediately making an emblem, but there are also many decks in Standard that don’t have answers to the Dragonlord.

In fact, Oliver Tiu ended up taking his original creation, making a few changes, and then piloted that right into the Top 8 of a huge GP in Toronto last weekend! Here’s his updated list:

Grixis Control

Oliver Tiu, Top 8 at GP Toronto

The big change Tiu made to the main deck was getting rid of a pair of Chandra, Flamecallers. This may seem hard to believe to you, as it certainly was to me, but Dragonlord Silumgar might just be the better card right now, especially if you have access to Radiant Flames. I love Chandra and I’ve stated many times that I believe she’s the best card in Oath of the Gatewatch, but you can only play so many 6s and maybe the Dragonlord is where you want to be in a Gideon world.

In this Gideon-and-Nissa-infested land, I do still like my move to the 4th copy of Ruinous Path main. I’m not really big on Transgress the Mind in the main deck, even though it’s a decent card in many matchups, because it’s not the best tempo play. I prefer to have the answer to my opponent’s threat, and even though taking their Nissa with Transgress is clearly better than killing it the next turn, there’s no good defense for the top of the deck here. It’s my opinion that 1 Transgress and the 4th Ruinous Path would be slightly better, although I will continue to test.

Fevered Visions is a card I’ve played a ton of as I tested a number of different UR decks for the Pro Tour, but I haven’t tried it in Grixis yet. I could see it being awesome in a variety of matchups where they’ll never be able to kill you through all of your removal and card advantage while Visions just locks that up.

I tested with Dragonmaster Outcast from Tiu’s lists but it never impressed me, even in matchups where it should shine. It has no impact until late in the game, and then I felt other cards did more. I wasn’t impressed, although I do typically like a card that has the effect of a powerful 6-drop that can be cast for a single mana.

Sideboarding

I like how easy is to sideboard with decks like this. The bad cards are usually obvious. Cut cards that are too slow and upgrade removal. This means Ruinous Path or Read the Bones or Dragonlord Silumgar aren’t going to be as powerful against Humans as the cheaper removal or the sideboarded Radiant Flames and Rending Volley. Against blue versions of Humans, be aware of Dragonlord Ojutai. There are tons of ways to deal with it, but not with an Always Watching in play. The most likely way is multiple Radiant Flames, which is unreliable, so Transgress the Mind is necessary despite it being a bad matchup for that particular card. You can also cross your fingers and hope they never get to 5 mana, which isn’t invalid in the slightest.

Against control decks, you can pretty easily cut cards like Fiery Impulse. The big upside of having Kolaghan’s Command in your deck is that you don’t need to hedge on Jace removal against control decks since the Commands can kill their Jaces so you’ll never be caught without removal. The actual removal spells you cut can vary depending on the matchup, as leaving 1-2 Fiery Impulse isn’t uncommon against decks that will have both Jace and Shambling Vent. Since Impulse can kill Vent and Ultimate Price can’t, it will often be the better card. Duress and Fevered Visions are the cards you’re interested in, while Rending Volley will be your best removal spell.

I haven’t tested with Ob Nixilis Reignited and Silumgar’s Command, but they’re slow and powerful. Against decks with planeswalkers, Command is a clean answer. Ob Nixilis is at his lowest point right now, but there are a number of control decks he can dominate against, especially with Duress and Transgress the Mind to help clear the way.

I was testing out a single Dark Petition to go with an Infinite Obliteration and Virulent Plague in my sideboard. Neither of these bullets is amazing, especially if they have Dromoka’s Commands in their deck to kill the Plague. There are also board states against Tokens decks where the token hoser barely impacts them! The same is true of casting Infinite Obliteration, taking their World Breakers, and then having them kill you with another big creature. It helps to have, but I’m not convinced that I found the answer. I did like having Dark Petition as a sideboard card that can come in against slower decks, even without bullets to fetch, especially with Jace to flash it back.

Beating Grixis

If you curve out smoothly, you will have good game against Grixis. The deck stumbles a bit on its mana, has to pay life to cast some of its spells, and a number of the removal spells are clunky. The threats cost double-red, double-black, and possibly blue if they play the Dragonlord. They’re also expensive, as hitting 4, 5, or 6 mana especially isn’t a guarantee.

Discard spells are quite good as there are key spells and there are redundant clunky spells. Transgress the Mind is awesome against Grixis, and Duress is quite good. Taking the Read the Bones that was going to smooth their draw or Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet can completely swing the game.

Ultimate Price and similar removal ranges from being great to just OK. Jace and Kalitas are both hugely important, but they’re legends that Grixis is already playing 4 copies of. I can’t tell you how many games I had a mediocre hand where I was Jace flooded, only to have them kill my turn-2-and-3 Jaces and the turn-4 Jace gets them. The same is true of Kalitas. If Grixis plays turn-4 Kalitas anticipating removal, and then plays turn-5 Kalitas plus Fiery Impulse, the game is close to over. It’s a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t situation where one of the best ways to win is to have them clogged up with dead cards, but the one in play is so powerful that it doesn’t matter. Grixis is good.

Ramp decks are advantaged in this matchup as basically all of the Grixis removal spells look horrible in the matchup and many versions have literally 0 countermagic in the sideboard. With no counters and no Infinite Obliteration, they’re left hoping the top of your deck doesn’t deliver the goods even with their good Transgress draws. Dragonlord Silumgar can win the game on his own since Ramp doesn’t have many ways if any to kill the Dragon, and stealing a monster can end the game quickly. I’ve definitely stolen an Ulamog, had my Dragonlord killed by second Ulamog, and had second Dragonlord steal the second Ulamog for the win before.

Grixis is my favorite deck to play at the moment and I think it has potential to be the best deck. Finding ways to continue to improve the GW Tokens matchup is critical, as that is current public enemy #1, and I’m not convinced that the matchup is great yet. Do you have any ideas to improve the deck or any major matchups? Sound off in the comments!

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