Grixis mages have had a rough time recently. They’re all devotedly praying to the mighty Grixis Cabal: Corey Burkhart, Patrick Chapin, and, er… um, well, that’s about it. Maybe that says something about Grixis, that its patrons are so few and far between.
Well, there are a few cards coming in War of the Spark that might change that. I mean, given the set is centered on Nicol Bolas, you’d bloody well hope so. We’ve been chasing this bloody Dragon across the multiverse since 2016, and what do we have to show for it? Dark Intimations? Admiral Beckett Brass? No one’s criticizing pirate grandma (no one who doesn’t want her to pillage their village, anyway), but come on.
Recent spoilers have re-lit the Grixis spark, however. While we may not be casting Cruel Ultimatum in Standard any time soon, Grixis devotees will nonetheless be able to fill their boots with the very best of the Grixis life: drawing cards, destroying creatures, and defeating their… well, look, there will definitely be defeats. We don’t need to focus on which side of the battlefield they’ll be on.
Ilharg, the Raze-Boar
Praise be to our mighty porcine overlord! Ilharg, the Raze-Boar has come unto us from the great pigsty in the sky, and lo, there was much rejoicing.
Quite aside from his ridiculous tusk situation (a pig dentist would look at Ilharg and think: oho, here we go, second holiday house), Ilharg does not muck about. 5 mana for a 6/6 trampler with a built-in recursion engine—even if that recursion is slower than Manfield and Nassif in a control mirror—is already a card that fans of little kid Magic will appreciate. On top of this, an ability that lets you cheat even bigger monsters into play? Ilharg is the sort of card that a 12-year-old with their first starter deck is going to look at and wish they hadn’t spent their money on… Fortnite skins? Yo-yos? Honestly, I’m nearly 30. I have no idea what’s cool any more.
Most people would immediately look at this card and think of a green-based ramp shell in which to play it, cheating Impervious Greatwurms and Ancient Brontodons into play. I think a different tack might pay dividends, however.
1 Swamp 4 Steam Vents 4 Sulfur Falls 4 Dragonskull Summit 4 Drowned Catacomb 4 Watery Grave 4 Blood Crypt 4 Thief of Sanity 3 Hostage Taker 4 Nicol Bolas, the Ravager/Nicol Bolas, the Arisen 3 Plaguecrafter 1 Massacre Girl 3 Ilharg, the Raze-Boar 3 Angrath's Rampage 4 Lava Coil 4 Thought Erasure 2 Bedevil 4 Disinformation Campaign Sideboard 1 Arguel's Blood Fast/Temple of Aclazotz 3 Duress 3 Legion Warboss 4 Moment of Craving 2 Negate 2 The Eldest Reborn
Like an extremely unambitious one-man band, creature-based Grixis strategies try to do two completely different things simultaneously, and usually don’t do either very well. Grixis Midrange lists, in attempting to apply both pressure and disruption, don’t do either exceptionally well.
Well, the winds of change are blowing, and they smell like pulled pork. Ilharg is in a position to change this paradigm, by allowing Grixis decks to proactively—and swiftly—close out a game after having disrupted the opening turns. Casting a removal spell instead of a Thief of Sanity on turn 3 is now a much better play, as now as soon as Ilharg attacks you can get in with the Thief anyway!
There’s a temptation with a card like Ilharg to get into what is diplomatically referred to as “best-case scenario mentality,” and rather undiplomatically referred to as “being a greedy idiot.” Using your turn 4 to deal with a threat, then cheating in your Nicol Bolas, the Ravager with Ilharg allows you to play a better value-oriented game that will get them dead very quickly, simply due to how much pressure Ilharg provides.
In addition to Ilharg, we got a few other new trinkets from War of the Spark. Professional Brad Nelson impersonator Mike Sigrist highlighted Angrath’s Rampage as a card he’s interested in playing, along with Massacre Girl. Both of these cards appear in this list (you’d better hope, however, that Massacre Girl doesn’t get a taste for bacon when Ilharg sneaks her in), and complement this early interaction/late pressure game plan very nicely.
Nicol Bolas, Dragon-God
Have you heard the good word of our lord and… well, not savior, really. Just lord. Dragon-God, to be more specific. And his word isn’t exactly good, either. Look, he’s a megalomaniacal, near-omnipotent Dragon. I’m not here to criticize him. I’m here to tell you about how Nicol Bolas, Dragon-God is going to shift the Standard landscape.
2 Swamp 4 Blood Crypt 4 Drowned Catacomb 4 Dragonskull Summit 4 Watery Grave 4 Steam Vents 3 Sulfur Falls 4 Augur of Bolas 4 Nicol Bolas, Dragon-God 1 Liliana, Dreadhorde General 3 Moment of Craving 4 Thought Erasure 1 Cast Down 1 Negate 1 Search for Azcanta/Azcanta, the Sunken Ruin 3 Ionize 3 Deliver Unto Evil 3 Cry of the Carnarium 3 Vraska's Contempt 1 Ral's Outburst 3 Angrath's Rampage Sideboard 3 Duress 4 Thief of Sanity 1 Moment of Craving 1 The Eldest Reborn 3 Legion Warboss 1 Cry of the Carnarium 2 Negate
We’ve seen a lot of variations of the old 5-mana planeswalker with +1: draw a card, -3: kill something, -8: win the game (four of which are currently legal in Standard). None, however, do it as well as Nicol Bolas, Dragon-God. His mana cost may be restrictive—so restrictive, in fact, that we have to play Ionize rather than Sinister Sabotage—but he more than makes up for that with a power level that will straight-up break Vegeta’s scouter.
Teferi has warped Standard around him, and Nicol Bolas is, in many ways, simply better. A big part of Teferi’s success, of course, is that he costs an effective 3 mana, and while Nicol Bolas can’t compete on that axis, he blows Teferi out of the water on every other conceivable metric. Going upstairs for a two-for-one? Straight up murdering something rather than tucking it? An ultimate that actually wins you the game on the spot? Nicol Bolas’s abilities are so powerful that they make his static ability a little unimpressive!
We’ve got a few other hits from War of the Spark to include here as well. Siggy also mentioned Liliana as a stone-cold powerhouse, and I’m going to take an extremely brave position here and agree with him. She reminds me of Theros’s Elspeth, as a high-impact 6 mana planeswalker that can either gum up or clear out the board. Ral’s Outburst is experimental—it’s definitely no Prophetic Bolt—and Augur of Bolas is a nice speed bump that survives Cry of the Carnarium. The most exciting card outside of the Dragon-God himself, however, has to be Deliver Unto Evil.
I may be drastically overrating this card purely thanks to its exquisite art—Seb McKinnon has outdone himself here—but I have a suspicion it’s the real deal. In a deck full of cheap instants and sorceries, Deliver Unto Evil will be a great way to buy back removal spells, avoiding the classic Chemister’s Insight-into-two-lands. And if you ever cast it for full value—not a huge task with a playset of Nicol Bolas —you’re drawing four cards for 3 mana. That’s an insane rate, not even taking into consideration you get a level of choice over what you draw!
Putting Grixis Back on the Map
Is Ilharg the answer to Grixis Midrange’s woes? I like how it allows the deck to re-position itself and forge a more focused game plan: interaction first, pressure second. Ultimately, however, we’ll have to wait and see. Perhaps the answer is to give Ilharg haste, instead, with something like Rhythm of the Wild. We’ll keep an eye on things.
If Grixis is to topple Esper as the control deck de jure of Standard, it has its work cut out for it—Kaya’s Wrath is a hell of a card, and Teferi has ruled the waves since he was first printed. But the power of Nicol Bolas, Dragon-God cannot be denied (unless you’re Gideon Blackblade, I suspect). With such an artillery of sweet cards to back him up, too, it might be time for the Grixis Cabal to reclaim its lost glory in the name of Cruel Ultimatum!