There has to be a way to break Griselbrand in Legacy. Rarely has there been a card that is easy to put into play, draws fourteen or more cards at once, and you can't win the game on the spot. I feel like everyone's decks are built poorly with just step one in mind, including my own.
Last weekend I finished 82nd at Grand Prix Atlanta, aka tied for dead last. I played Reanimator after improving on my list from the SCG Invitational in Indianapolis. Going into the Grand Prix, I knew I wanted to Griselbrand, and I knew that Reanimator did it the fastest. It seemed like the best choice given the lack of preparation I was going to have. Rather than try out new ideas, I spent a few days scribbling ideas in my notebook.
Wasteland to fight Karakas? Nah, Karakas is a better Wasteland since all you want to kill is Karakas anyway and it's probably better in the mirror. Bouncing Thalia is just icing. Not of this World fights Gilded Drake, Karakas, Jace, and random stuff like Swords to Plowshares. Obviously it's not a permanent answer to Karakas, but with a Karakas of your own, eventually you'll kill theirs.
Both of those seemed like upgrades to most of the hate I'd face, so I was pretty happy. Meanwhile, I was talking to several groups of people, each with their own baggage. I expected Ryan McKinney, Mark Sun, KYT, LSV, Jason Ford, Drew Levin, and my own local team might help me out and provide some insight. I was basically wrong. In the end, I ended up giving Karakas and Not of this World to everyone and getting no technology in return.
The bright side was that I knew a number of top pros would be on Reanimator, so I started sculpting sideboard plans where I could side in a Fish package or Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Unfortunately, many people came to the same conclusion. At the very last second, I cut the Jaces for some added interaction against creature decks. If everyone else had the same trump, I needed to go either faster or slower, and I chose to go faster and do minimal sideboarding.
This is what I played:
My rounds went as follows:
Round 4: Zoo, 1-2
Round 5: BUG Control, 1-2
Round 6: Reanimator (with Protean Hulk) 2-1
Round 7: Elves, 2-0
Round 8: U/R Delver, 2-0
Round 9: Reanimator, 2-1
Round 10: Burn, 0-2
Round 11: U/R Delver, 2-1
Round 12: Maverick, 2-0
Round 13: Junk, 0-2
Round 14: Maverick, 2-1
Round 15: RUG Delver, 0-2
Eight of my game losses involved getting something into play and then dying anyway. The rest of my game losses typically involved mulligans and then failing to play spells or casting several cantrips and ending up with a hand full of lands or dead cards.
I also realized that the onus was on me to play well. I needed to anticipate my opponents having certain cards and then try to sculpt a hand that beat those. Often, I would make a wrong choice. Against Matt Ferrando with Junk, I knew I'd be able to Reanimate once despite him Thoughtseizing me turn 1 on the play and then playing Karakas plus Scavenging Ooze. Go go Lotus Petal!
I ended up with a Tidespout Tyrant in play along with Island and Swamp, while my hand was Brainstorm, Daze, and Polluted Delta. Earlier, I could have kept a backup Reanimate or a Brainstorm off a different Brainstorm, but I figured the Reanimate would be useless. If he had removal, it had to be an exiling effect like Swords to Plowshares.
Wrong! He Diabolic Edicted me, I Dazed it in order to bounce his Ooze and give me another chance to draw that Reanimate I wanted, but I failed. Despite his insane start, I was so close to winning! If I were a combo deck, I probably could have just killed him with my Griselbrand though.
Reanimate, the card, was very poor for me. Even though it was cheap and therefore dodged things like Spell Pierce quite nicely, it was basically at the cost of seven cards. Initially, I was planning on not having Not of this World and Animate Dead in my deck at the same time, but over the course of the tournament, I was siding out Reanimates instead.
Blazing Archon is great against Sneak and Show, but I didn't expect that deck to show up in high numbers. That said, I still wanted it in case I played them or a similar deck because none of my other Entomb targets were all that special against them. Iona could have subbed in for that role though.
Tidespout Tyrant is the catchall and is fantastic at protecting itself when it's wearing an Animate Dead. This guy is better than Angel of Despair by miles, but I could see Terastodon being a little bit better.
The rest of my list was mostly the same minus the mana base. I added a couple Petals because they didn't seem that much worse than lands most of the time, plus they enabled sick starts like turn 1 Entomb plus Reanimate. It also worked well with the sideboard Show and Tell package, and they helped play around Daze or Spell Pierce.
It's not surprising that Griselbrand Reanimator hasn't been doing very well (even though it did get 9th and 10th at the GP). The problem with combo decks in Legacy that involve paying life is having to combo quickly before they deal you a bunch of damage. Back in my day, we were able to sit back, sculpt, and eventually combo off while at two life (since we needed one life to use Force of Will).
Ad Nauseam, while a very, very good card, tends to lose to itself quite a bit. Even decks like Zoo, with minimal disruption, can give you the beatdown and force you to combo off at eight life. Griselbrand is similar in that regard. Playing with the card Reanimate further complicates matters. You get to draw seven cards, but does it matter if these are the cards you draw?
What exactly do you do with those? That Ponder better be fantastic.
The truth is that drawing fourteen cards should equal victory. If it doesn't, especially when your deck is designed to draw fourteen cards in one turn, then you are probably doing it wrong. I knew this going into the Grand Prix, but I didn't have time to work on anything else. That's basically still the case, but at least I have some ideas now!
Option 1: Include Few, If Any, Cards That Deal You Damage
Yes, this includes Thoughtseize and Reanimate. I hate them with a passion. If it weren't for Daze being so good, I'd play Darkslick Shores over some fetchlands. Force of Will isn't going anywhere, and we need some fetchlands for Brainstorm. Bad River ain't cutting it. Just keep the life paying to a minimum in order for Griselbrand to pay you more.
Option 2: Be Able To Beat The Board
If you're not killing them the turn you put Griselbrand into play, you need to be prepared for what comes next. They will likely kill, bounce, or disable it (Karakas, Linvala, Vapor Snag, Ice, Maze of Ith, Carrion Feeder / Bitterblossom, Phantasmal Image off Aether Vial, etc.). At that point you're up some cards, but they've still got a board presence.
I wanted some removal or bounce or something that could deal with permanents and give me more time to set up again, but it didn't seem realistic. My Reanimator deck would be far less efficient if I loaded it up with Ghastly Demises, but I guess being able to function was more important than being efficient.
Option 3: Protect Griselbrand
This is the strategy I went with for the Grand Prix. Going into the SCG Invitational, I knew Not of this World was a card, but I was too scared to pull the trigger. I was also toying with something I thought of back in the day, which was playing Wasteland in Reanimator to keep your Dazes live. However, since everyone was high on Karakas, Wasteland served a real purpose. In the end, I choose to make minor adjustments to Reid's deck and was (slightly) punished.
Option 4: Utilize Free Spells
Cards like Snuff Out, Unmask, Foil, and Not of this World are great with Griselbrand in play. It's like you're not even playing the same format as them anymore. As janky as it sounds, Nourishing Shoal and Autochthon Wurm are probably awesome.
The real problem with this strategy is getting Griselbrand into play when you're playing a bunch of semi-dead cards, and how exactly do you kill them?
Option 5: Combo Them Out
There are several combos that exist in Legacy, and Griselbrand can give you the fuel you need to find them. Things like Leyline of the Void / Helm of Obedience would splice well into a Show and Tell strategy. Storm-Griselbrand hybrids already exist, but I don't like the look of them. Utilizing Thopter Foundry / Sword of the Meek is an old favorite of mine, but it's relatively slow when there are combos that actually kill people. Still, it's a reasonable backup plan.
The option is siding in another combo. I love when my opponents overvalue a Tormod's Crypt and keep a hand specifically because it's there. After sideboarding, I've shaved my Reanimation parts and am mostly a Show and Tell deck anyway.
I could see siding into something else, like the aforementioned Leyline/Helm combo, Doomsday, or something else. Sidestepping their hate with your sideboard is perfect.
I remember after Pro Tour Berlin where Elves took six of the Top 8 slots. Many thought a banning was coming and were shocked to see the DCI take no action against this "obviously" powerful deck. A few Grand Prix and a Pro Tour later, and Elves was no longer on top. Decks like Faeries and Zoo were beating it handily, and cards like Night of Souls' Betrayal were starting to get played.
Many were surprised that Griselbrand didn't get the axe in Legacy either, but I'm not. Grand Prix Atlanta proved why it didn't need to get banned (yet). I know that it can be broken in Legacy, and I'll be damned if I'm not the first one to find the best version.
Bonus! Here's my updated U/W Delver deck for Standard:
Of course, this will all likely change once Talrand, Sky Summoner comes out, but for now, I like this list. The green decks are enemy number one at the moment, so Sword of Feast and Famine makes a comeback. Of course, there are control decks with Lingering Souls and midrange U/W decks, so you still need Sword of War and Peace in the sideboard.