A few months ago, Dave Shiels built a Grixis Blood Moon/Shackles control deck on a whim for a local Modern tournament. At that point the deck was in its infancy and filled with underpowered 1-ofs and pet cards, but it has since evolved into what I believe is one of the best decks in Modern. With the printing of Kolaghan’s Command, Grixis-colored Snapcaster decks are among the most popular decks in Modern—some slanted more aggressive with Delver and Young Pyromancer, while others opt for the Splinter Twin combo to end games. The version of the deck I’ve been playing is more focused on attrition while also using powerful permanents like Vedalken Shackles and Blood Moon to help lock the opponent out. This past weekend I played the deck to a 7-1 finish in the Modern portion of the Invitational, and I plan on playing essentially the same deck at GP Charlotte:
One of the biggest advantages this deck has over the other long-game decks in Modern is that it is able to operate off of fewer lands. Going into the mid-to-late game, you simply have more action cards than the opponent both thanks to having fewer lands and to the filtering effect of Serum Visions. One of first pieces of advice Dave game to me when I started playing the deck was to not get too concerned if you miss land drops early. The deck really is capable of hanging in a game on 2 or 3 lands for a number of turns. The deck originally played 21 lands, but Academy Ruins seemed like a good addition that is both good in matchups where land drops are valuable and as a late-game engine card.
One of the most common questions and criticisms about this version of the deck is whether Vedalken Shackles is viable in a metagame dominated by Kolaghan’s Command. There is no denying that Shackles would be more powerful if Command didn’t exis—but I don’t feel that it’s presence it metagame is a reason to not play Shackles.
Against decks like Jund and other Grixis decks, card advantage is typically the focus of most games. As such, Kolaghan’s Command is basically always a must-counter 2-for-1 regardless of whether or not it is targeting a Shackles. There are a few different types of games that play out regarding the artifact. The best-case scenario is that you land a Shackles in the midgame and it goes unanswered and you win the game relatively quickly. Similarly, you play enough counterspells that it is often easy to set up a Shackles that you can defend from a Command.
Even if Shackles stays in play for a few turns in the midgame before they answer it, the value gained is usually enough to win you the game. Playing against a Jund opponent who can’t play creatures or apply pressure because of Shackles will usually let you develop your mana and sculpt a great hand—and even let you dig for counters to defend the Shackles with.
The worst-case scenario is that Shackles gets answered immediately—but I really don’t think that’s a bad outcome. If they are using Kolaghan’s Command you were going to get 2-for-1’d anyway and you may have forced them to use another mode inefficiently because of how big a threat Shackles is.
One of the most important things is to think of Vedalken Shackles as a win condition, not an answer to creatures. One of the easiest ways to lose is to slam down a Shackles on turn 3 and expect it to stabilize the board, making sure that you lose a ton of tempo when it gets destroyed. I think players choosing to use the card in this way may be why Kolaghan’s Command seems so scary.
Let’s not forget that there are plenty of other matchups in Modern which simply can’t beat a Shackles. If you get paired against Infect, Affinity, GW Hatebears, Collected Company, or Merfolk, having Shackles in your deck may help you win games no other card could.
For a long time, the 2 Deprives in this deck were Remands. However, the ineffectiveness of the 4 two-mana counterspells in long matchups was very frustrating, given that this deck tries to play long games. In sideboarding against decks like Jund and blue mirrors, you want to sideboard those types of cards out, but still need counterspells to answer tough-to-deal-with threats like Liliana of the Veil or Keranos. A week before the invitational, Dave found Deprive, which fit perfectly into the deck. Given your low land count, picking up a land drop often isn’t a huge cost if you didn’t have a land to play on the following turn anyway. In addition, Deprive is great going long, acting like straight-up counterspell on turn 10. Having a counterspell in your graveyard that isn’t dead when used with a late-game Snapcaster Mage is really important as well. This deck wants to have the option to counter things early (like Karn or Liliana), but really looks to save counterspells to lock up the late game. Deprive is the perfect balance between the two.
Go for the Throat
Go for the Throat is one of the best removal spells in Modern, and would be a slam-dunk outside of the presence of Affinity. However, I think it is so much better against the rest of the field that it is worth the risk of having a dead card in that matchup. You need to be able to kill Tasigur, Tarmogoyf, Primeval Titan, and Siege Rhino consistently, and there are basically no other removal spells that can to do that.
With regard to Affinity, it is definitely a tough matchup regardless of whether or not you have Go for the Throat. In fact, I don’t know that changing Go for the Throat into something like Dismember even improves the matchup substantially. For the most part you will lose to their great draws and only win if they stumble or if you draw multiple Kolaghan’s Commands early on. The marginal upside of Go for the Throat in that one matchup doesn’t seem worth the downgrade in so many others. The sideboard has plenty of tools to deal with Affinity, like Anger of the Gods and Engineered Explosives. Hopefully between Spell Snare, Kolaghan’s Command, and sideboard cards, you will be able to pull it out.
Academy Ruins was a late addition to the deck, but has proven its worth. Initially a concession to the deck’s ability to kill Vedalken Shackles, the interaction with Engineered Explosives has shown to be a great tool against decks with Lingering Souls and even just normal Jund. There are some matchups where Engineered Explosives will be phenomenal sideboard card—like Elves, BW Tokens, and Affinity—but I’ve found it to be good against just about any Tarmogoyf deck (and as a back-up answer to Liliana). I even won a game against Melira Collected Company in testing by decking them after they had gained infinite life, thanks to Academy Ruins. Ruins also lets you use Thought Scour to dig for a certain artifact, if you really need to find Shackles or Spellskite to help win a game.
There are too many decks in Modern to count, but I’ll try to cover as many of the most popular ones as possible.
I think sideboarding out Blood Moon against Jund is one of the most counterintuitive things about this deck, but I’ve found it to be more effective. I genuinely believe that you have late-game inevitability against Jund, so removing cards that don’t help you survive early pressure is a good way to avoid that. In addition, Jund decks are usually reasonably equipped to fetch around Blood Moon, so it’s not like it’s game over and often hurts you a bit by turning off some sources of black or triple-blue for Cryptic Command.
Blood Moon is also awkward against Tarmogoyf, since it pumps them up. It’s awkward with Tasigur by giving your opponent the option of a potentially dead card to give you back. I think if you focus on surviving the early game and generating card advantage, this matchup is winnable and even advantageous. For the most part you want to save your counterspells for Liliana, Kolaghan’s Command, or some crazy late-game card like Chandra, Pyromaster or Outpost Siege.
One of the common ways to end the game against Jund is to eventually return Keranos with Kolaghan’s Command once you have stabilized—a card that they have zero permanent answers to.
Splinter Twin (Grixis or Blue/Red)
I really like sideboarding out Cryptic Command in blue mirrors in Modern. It is very weak in counter wars and a huge liablity against things like Dispel or Negate. It will often even turn on Mana Leaks that your opponent has (for some reason) left in their deck. Simply put, a counterspell that trades down on mana in such an interaction-heavy matchup is really dangerous.
For the most part I would expect Twin opponents to side out the majority of their combo pieces, but some lists are forced to leave them in based on their other sideboard choices. As a result this matchup usually plays out like a blue mirror where you are fundamentally advantaged but they may have a backdoor combo to get lucky and beat you if you tap out at the wrong time.
Abzan Collected Company
The Vendilion Clique + Dispel package may look a bit weird, but Collected Company is their best card by such a substantial margin that it is important to have a really efficient answer to it. In addition, Path to Exile is basically their only way to beat Tasigur, so Dispel helps protect him as well. Vendilion Clique is pretty good as a flying win condition, but it also prevents them from building up a hand of lots of Collected Companies/Witnesses to overload your counterspells. Clique on end step (with Dispel or Deprive up) will force them to either go for it or lose a great card, and let you use your counterspell mana efficiently and on your terms.
You don’t have a ton of great sideboard cards for this matchup, but the ones you do have are really great. The plan of Blood Moon + Vendilion Clique + counterspells is often more than good enough to win against RG Tron. You will still lose to their nut draws but so will everybody else. Spellskite isn’t great but it does fill the role of protecting Blood Moon, which is often all that matters.
Amulet Bloom is a better matchup than RG Tron, but also a better deck. Your Blood Moons are even more effective here, and having hard removal for Primeval Titan is relevant in certain types of games.
Spellskite is good at protecting Blood Moon and also at buying you a turn by shutting off a Slayers’ Stronghold activation. Dispel is reasonably good at fighting Pacts, as well as Nature’s Claim if that is their Blood Moon answer.
For the most part all of the blue matchups are similar, with Lightning Bolt and Cryptic Command varying in mileage based on their level of aggression. It is definitely possible for these decks to burn you out, so having access to one Spellskite is pretty good. If you think they rely heavily on Young Pyromancer, Jace and Engineered Explosives are considerations—but for the most part an early answer to Young Pyro + Tasigur or Shackles to clean up the tokens will be enough.
This is one of the few matchups where Tasgiur is both not a great win condition and not particularly good at playing defense. Spell Snare is an all-star here at fighting Plating and Ravager, and both EE and Shackles can handle Etched Champion.
This matchup is pretty good, but they do have some really punishing aggressive draws. Many Lightning Bolt decks need to worry about Wild Defiance, but you have counterspells and hard removal like Murderous Cut (and Kolaghan’s Command for Nexus). If you never tap out and play conservatively, this matchup will get better and better for you as the game goes long.
Grixis decks are becoming a true force in Modern, and I believe Grixis Control is both the most well rounded and the best against pseudo-mirror matches. Just like any deck in Modern, there are strategies you really want to avoid playing against (Living End)—but if you plan on trying to beat Snapcaster decks, creature decks, and “land decks” this is among the best choices.
Hopefully I covered most of the questions people have asked me this week—but let me know in the comments if you have any of your own. Don’t forget to give Dave Shiels credit for this deck—he truly put in the hours and came up with something that I believe will be a force in Modern tournaments this summer.