This past weekend, I decided to mix it up a little bit and run Grixis Control, for a change.
A Standard Grand Prix in Orlando would be a perfect opportunity to get that 200th Pro Point (plus a few more, hopefully). I had not played in any Standard tournaments since Worlds, save a few FNMs (where I just ran back my Worlds deck). Still, I could tell from the direction the metagame was going that this was potentially a good time for it. Delver had completely taken over the format, with most focus going towards beating Wolf Run and W/u Humans. Control continued to put up good numbers, despite not being as heavily played, reaffirming my suspicions. A look at the metagame I was attacking can be found here , although I suspected Delver numbers would be even higher at this event.
On the flight down to Orlando, I tried sketching out a few different Grixis decks (aka "decks"). The "Elephant" method—which involves taking the "optimal" lists against each major archetype and aggregating them into a 75—produced strange results because each list was 20 cards different for each matchup. I tried massaging the numbers a bit, and the list just sort of looked too wishy-washy. I was confident that crushing Delver was very doable, but it seemed like I was going to lose to W/u Humans, as well as my choice of either Control or Wolf Run. My first thought was to lose to Control. This isn't to say that I would "beat" Wolf Run but rather that I would be in reasonable shape.
When I got to Orlando, the first thing I did was battle some games with Raphael Levy to get a feel for my list. Well, actually, the first thing I did was randomly run into GerryT and Kaitlin at the airport (which was pretty lucky, since I decided to play the fun sub-game of leaving my phone in Wisconsin). After we took a cab to the site, I ran into Raph (while they ran into some pizza).
Raph was playing W/u Humans, which is certainly one of my less good matchups (and was my only loss at Worlds). The problem is that so many of the best cards against Delver aren't optimal against Humans, plus they have so many devastating threats. Mirran Crusader, Hero of Bladehold, and even Geist of Saint Traft are potentially game-ending, while Doomed Traveler and Grand Abolisher can be pretty annoying. Above all, though, Honor of the Pure is just a nightmare when I am relying on Whipflare, Curse of Death's Hold, and the like.
Raph mopped the floor with me pretty easily, but the games were very instructional. I liked the way my deck was playing out; I liked what Pristine Talisman was doing, and I liked Ponder. Part of the upside of moving towards Whipflare instead of Slagstorm was getting to play enough blue to not only support Dissipate but make use of a couple Ponders to make Snapcaster better, a la Darkest Mage and GerryT.
I did not like the maindeck Sorin's Vengeance at all (though to be fair, one is probably just the exact wrong number to play maindeck, as either zero or two is more effective). Chandra seemed fine, but I suspected I could do better. I also wanted to fit some Ratchet Bombs in, which would help against Humans but also just seemed great in the format.
After some tweaks, I checked into my hotel room with Shuhei Nakamura, Martin Juza, and another Czech player that Juza had introduced to us recently. I got another session in, this time against Delver, which reaffirmed my view on Grixis vs. Delver. The maindeck Curses were amazing, but I actually ended up moving the third to the board, as the matchup seemed so easy that it was slightly a waste. I was also loving the maindeck Grudge and two Ratchet Bombs (which I had made room for by cutting a Galvanic Blast and a Whipflare).
From talking with Gerry, Raph, Michael Jacob, and the guys in my room, I decided it was better to lose to Wolf Run than Control. The way I wanted to play the maindeck was not realistically going to beat Wolf Run game 1 anyway, and it would be very hard to actually get the kind of percentage I'd need to turn it around after boarding. At least with Control, I would be able to try to "Control Mirror" the guy and fight it out on my terms. Control matchups with Drownyard seemed like a nightmare, but I probably would have at least decent chances against non-Drownyard lists. Here is the 75 I eventually settled on:
As you can see, there are actually quite a number of changes between my Worlds list and my Orlando list. The most important change is the move towards U/B/r instead of B/R/u. With no Galvanic Blasts early and no need for double red for Slagstorm, I was able to reduce the number of red sources from 15.5 to 12 (counting Shimmering Grotto as 0.5 of a red source). The only early red I really "needed" was Whipflare, and a couple Ponders brought the effective red count up to 13.5, since casting Ponder on turn 2 when you don't already have red gives you a 75% chance of having a red source by turn 3 if you are looking for it (two Ponders at 0.75 "source of red" each).
Playing a more blue-based manabase meant that Dissipate (and even Blue Sun's Zenith) would be easy to support, but it also meant that I could count on Ponder as part of my manabase. Additionally, cutting four spells and just one land for two Ponders and three Pristine Talismans meant I would have a lot more mana total. This would leave me on the ropes more often (due to having inherent card disadvantage, on account of "less business"); however I planned on making it up with haymakers like Curse of Death's Hold. Another challenge of playing so many colorless mana sources was that I was going to have to trim basics like Mountains and Swamps (trusting Ponder to be my "Dragonskull Summit"). As a result, I had to trim black down to 13 sources (from 14.5), but again Ponder helps pull everything together. Fifteen sources of blue may not seem like a lot, but remember we only had room for 11.5 at Worlds!
Is two Ponders the right number? I was very happy with them, though three is not out of the question. It is a little tricky to make room for them, since you need so many different types of reactive cards (sweepers, spot elim, counters), as well as card draw and victory conditions, all in a deck nearly half mana. Still, our ability to fix our mana early, while being able to dig to an answer later is great. On top of this, Ponders ensure our Snapcasters are actually good (which is a bigger issue, now that we don't have nearly as much spot removal). To make room for them, I cut a Forbidden Alchemy (3.7 was how many I actually wanted before) and a Snapcaster (which is better from Ponder but worse from playing two Curses and an extra Ratchet Bomb, instead of two Galvanic Blasts and a Doom Blade).
As we have discussed in previous weeks, the Precursor Golems we played at Worlds have long since worn out their welcome. They were designed to beat Oblivion Ring and Beast Within, neither of which sees as much play anymore. The G/W decks are dead, and the Wolf Run decks use a different mix of removal, now. The two Curse of Death's Holds fit nicely into this spot on the curve. This reduces the overall number of victory conditions in the deck, but against Delver decks, Curse of Death's Hold IS a victory condition.
I did want to have a little more game going long, however. After all, with so little permission, we didn't want to be in the awkward position of not actually being able to beat a hand full of removal. In an effort to diversify the threats as well as ensure we had the potential to win from any position, I replaced the third copy of Olivia Voldaren with a Batterskull and the Wurmcoil Engine with Sorin Markov. Olivia is still totally awesome, but as a legend she does have diminishing returns. Additionally, Curse of Death's Hold has a ton of overlap with her, so I wanted some kill cards that were good against decks that didn't die to Curse. Batterskull can beat just about any amount of removal going long.
The combination of Batterskull and three Pristine Talismans meant that Wurmcoil Engine was no longer needed as a lifegain tool. This cleared a spot in the precious six-drop space to add a new dimension. After being less than satisfied with Sorin's Vengeance, I knew Sorin Markov was where I wanted to be. It was a game-winning threat against Delver, but it also providing an extremely powerful victory condition against people with removal. I had cut Precursor Golem because there were fewer Oblivion Rings and Beast Withins, which meant that few people would actually have answers to it. I did not anticipate much Celestial Purge (since who is it even good against right now?), but even if they had it, my Curses, Olivias, Inferno Titan, and Lilianas all ensured they were platinum anyway.
Inferno Titan and Olivia can each completely take over a game on their own. Batterskull, Sorin Markov, and Devil's Play all provide powerful alternative angles of attack against an opponent who can stop creatures. Finally, Liliana-locking someone means even a Snapcaster Mage can go the distance. For reference, Liliana-locking someone is where you successfully ultimate Liliana early enough to stunt your opponent's mana (such as six to three). Then you +1 her, destroying their hand, until you can ultimate her again in six turns. You just repeat this cycle of discarding and destroying half their permanents every seven turns until they have nothing left (leaving Snapcaster free to finish the job).
At Worlds, I had used three Slagstorms in the main, but my experiences with Raph had me wanting to trim one of my three Whipflares. Whipflare was obviously the best sweeper against Delver, but I was so good there, I could afford to diversify my sweepers a little and have an "out" to dig for, later in the game.
Isn't relying on Whipflare dangerous? What if they are playing Tempered Steel? Well, Tempered Steel was a very easy matchup at Worlds, and now I have maindeck Grudge, two more Grudges in the board, and maindeck Curses and Bombs. Obviously Slagstorm would be nice, but we are only talking about two Whipflares and one Go for the Throat. Drawing only one or two dead cards is easily made up for by a timely Grudge. Besides, not a lot of people play Tempered Steel. All I really wanted to hate out was Delver, while still having good chances against Control.
The Pristine Talismans required cutting a couple spells. I had already cut three Slagstorms and an Alchemy, so I knew my mana curve was going to be alright with the added threes. The format turning into a rock-paper-scissors of Delver-Wolf Run-Control meant less of a need for spot removal. I turned the second Doom Blade into a maindeck Ancient Grudge (primarily to help combat Sword of War and Peace). So where did we get the slots for Pristine Talismans? Galvanic Blast. With no G/W to worry about, there was much less of a need to be able to burn Mirran Crusader. Curse of Death's Hold gave us more answers to small creatures, and Talisman can effectively be "creature-removal" as it semi-neutralizes a threat on its own. It forces people to overcommit, letting us get more value out of our sweepers. This is particularly important when combating Moorland Haunt. Cutting Galvanic Blast slows us down, but Whipflares instead of Slagstorms and an extra Bomb (which I had to cut a Liliana for) make up the difference.
Hopefully four Desperate Ravings goes without saying. It makes the average quality of your hand closer to the average quality of your deck. When your hand is better than the average quality of cards in your deck, you don't have to cast it. If you need something, whether it is more land or more spells, or a specific spell or a victory condition or whatever, Ravings digs harder/better/faster/stronger than Think Twice. Additionally, every time you discard a flashback spell, you are "drawing" an extra card.
As the tournament began, it was clear my prediction was accurate regarding the overwhelming popularity of Delver. I had joked with everyone that Delver was my only good matchup, but that really wasn't that far off. Fortunately, I faced Delver over and over again, which kind of perpetuates itself once you get to the top tables. Nearly 50% of day 2 was Delver, though I suspect after this event, that number will drop. I think I faced two (maybe three) Illusion decks, with the rest being like Gindy's list.
My sideboard plan against Delver was generally along the lines of:
+1 Grudge, +1 Ratchet Bomb, +1 Liliana, +1 Curse of Death's Hold
Depending on the texture of the previous game, sometimes I would keep a Leak or the Go for the Throat and not bring in the Grudge. For instance, against Illusions, I would keep the Go for the Throat instead of the Grudge. If my opponent showed me Midnight Haunting, I would be more inclined to keep a Leak (possibly even cutting a Doom Blade). I sometimes sat the third Bomb out, depending on factors like artifact removal (including Stony Silence).
Round five was my first encounter with Wolf Run. My opponent was unable to compete in the round, as his deck had been stolen. Fortunately, it sounds like he eventually tracked it down (as it had some unique properties).
Rounds eight and nine were both swift losses to W/u Humans. I may have ran below expectation in my feature match against Ben Friedman, but there is no question that I ran better than most of my opponents most of the weekend. Between Worlds and Orlando, I am at 0-6 in games against Humans, so this seems to be as bad a matchup as I thought it was.
Sideboarding against Humans was basically:
+1 Ratchet Bomb, +1 Liliana, +1 Curse of Death's Hold, +1 Life's Finale
(Although, again, I like mixing it up and keeping one Mana Leak in, sometimes.)
Day two involved lots of Delver, but it also involved a couple of control decks. My matchup against U/B Control (with Drownyards) seemed abysmal, and sure enough I easily lost game one and ended up facing down a Liliana on six in game two (with no cards in hand). Believing in the heart of the cards, I drew and cast Liliana and began my comeback.
Sideboarding against U/B Control was basically:
The next Control deck I faced was significantly easier, as he never drew the Drownyards he probably doesn't play in his U/W/b Control deck. The sideboarding was similar, though I used all the Ratchet Bombs to fight White Sun's Zenith, Oblivion Rings, and planeswalkers (which his build was centered on), cutting Go for the Throat and another Pristine Talisman or two (since I planned on Bombing for three to hit O-Rings).
After a few more Delver decks, I was eventually 12-2 going into the last round. My opponent and I each had excellent tiebreakers and looked to be likely in with a draw, but it wasn't a lock. If we drew, one of us could miss if both Paulo and Ochoa lost their rounds. Still, the math made it look roughly 85-90% each, to make it, which seemed better odds than playing it out. Strangely enough, once again, I had dodged Wolf Run (without knowing it). Both Paulo and Ochoa won, so the story ended up all rainbows and lollipops.
Going into the top 8, I was definitely glad to see three Delver decks and just one Humans deck, though the two Wolf Run decks also seemed daunting. Hopefully, the Delver players can take care of all that jazz for me! Round one, I faced the odd deck out, Solar Flare. We each got to study the other's list beforehand, which was a huge asset. I saw that he had only two Mana Leaks, one Negate, and one Dissipate for permission. As a result, I just immediately started tapping out for threats starting on turn three and powered through his defenses.
The semifinals was yet another Delver deck, this time dedicated Illusions. Knowing that he only had one Geist of Saint Traft, as well as knowing his exact sideboard plan, helped (though I still prefer my opponents to not know every trick up my sleeve...).
Paulo had defeated Ochoa in the quarterfinals (in a Delver mirror), advancing to face Conley Woods with an exotic Wolf Run Jund. I had hoped he would dispatch Conley, as a final match against Delver is exactly where I wanted to be. Sadly, Conley prevailed, and I knew I was in for trouble.
Woods and I were both set up excellently for fighting Delvers, but in the head-to-head, I knew I would have my work cut out for me trying to hang with his four Grave Titans, four Primeval Titans, and more. Despite the rough matchup made even harder by Conley playing super-tight, we ended up having a pretty fun and exciting duel, which can be watched here . Do I regret setting my deck up to "lose" to Wolf Run? Not a chance! After all, I had to beat three Control decks to get to this point!
My sideboard plan against Conley was:
-2 Whipflare, -1 Black Sun's Zenith, -2 Ratchet Bomb, -3 Pristine Talisman, -2 Curse of Death's Hold, -1 Batterskull, -1 Sorin Markov, -1 Inferno Titan
+2 Ancient Grudge, +1 Karn Liberated, +1 Liliana of the Veil, +1 Life's Finale, +1 Sorin's Vengeance, +1 Mana Leak, +2 Negate, +2 Dissipate, +2 Blue Sun's Zenith
In retrospect, I should have probably kept the Inferno Titan in, instead of the third Grudge (and not just because of how the final game played out...). Additionally, after sideboarding Liliana in against everyone, I'd like to move the third back to the maindeck (though this is not 100% to be correct, as sometimes a sideboard card can be merely "good" against everyone, without being good enough to make the main (but a main that always has cards you want to pull out, depending on which matchup it is).
Do I recommend Grixis moving forward? I mean, it really depends on what you are into. If you like Grixis decks, why not? If you just want the objectively most powerful deck/best matchups, be warned. My record by decks:
Delver 7-0 (very easily)
Control 3-0 (you have to want to play Control mirrors, though)
W/u Humans 0-2 (drop)
Wolf Run 1-1-1 (with the win being a match loss, the draw intentional)
Grixis in Standard, right now, is the kind of thing you have to tailor to your specific meta. As is often the case with control, you can definitely beat whatever you want, no matter what it is. You just have to be willing to rough it versus the other decks. How good is Grixis? The more homogeneous your meta, the better. Finding similarities between the styles of decks that are popular in your meta can point the way to weaknesses you can exploit.
Congratulations to Conley Woods, who prevailed in the end. Our match was a ton of fun and a well-fought battle. This was my first time facing the "New Conley," and he is, without question, a force. Four-month-old Standard format? Innistrad is so deep and well-designed/developed that two rogue brews managed to battle for the title. I think we have all learned a very valuable lesson here...
...Rogue is spelled with the "g" before the "u." Rouge is a cosmetic used to color the cheeks and emphasize the cheekbones. Rogue is a deck that isn't mainstream/widely played.
Major thanks to everyone shooting positive energy my way over the weekend! I'll be back tomorrow to talk Dark Ascension. See you then!