Building Ancestral Grixis in the New Modern

Today I will be focusing on Grixis Control. Where it came from, the challenges it faces, how it can respond to the new Modern landscape we find ourselves in, and what role it will play moving forward. For those unfamiliar with my opinions on this deck, you can brush up here, here, and here.

While we have a bit of metagame information to analyze due to the SCG Classic in Baltimore, I’m going to hold off my post-ban metagame analysis until next week at the very least, so we have more than one tournament’s worth of information. I’ll still reference results from SCG Baltimore, and talk about how the uncertain metagame as a whole is beginning to take shape, so stick around if you’re not that interested in Grixis. Not sure why anyone would feel that way, but…

Thing in the Ice

My renewed interest in Grixis Control is the result of two providential events: the banning of Eldrazi, and the unbanning of Ancestral Vision. Eldrazi as a broken archetype did many things to the metagame, but its most lasting impact has been the polarization of the archetype spectrum away from combo and towards linear aggro. With Eldrazi gone, these combo decks can come back, but they now have to focus on combating a proliferation of linear aggressive decks.

These slight metagame shifts benefit Grixis Control twofold—by removing the focus from control which will allow it to flourish, and by filling decks with interaction aimed away from control and towards aggro. With Ancestral Vision suggesting the possibility of a fairer, viable Treasure Cruise in Modern geared specifically for control decks, the stars have never aligned so well. Let’s start by looking at where we’ve been.

Grixis Control, by Patrick Chapin (9th, GP Charlotte)

Creatures (9)
Gurmag Angler
Snapcaster Mage
Tasigur, the Golden Fang

Instants (26)
Kolaghan’s Command
Thought Scour
Dispel
Cryptic Command
Spell Snare
Electrolyze
Remand
Shadow of Doubt
Terminate
Mana Leak
Lightning Bolt

Sorceries (4)
Serum Visions

Land (21)
Sulfur Falls
Creeping Tar Pit
Scalding Tarn
Steam Vents
Watery Grave
Polluted Delta
Swamp
Mountain
Island
Sideboard (15)
Keranos, God of Storms
Izzet Staticaster
Spellskite
Batterskull
Dispel
Countersquall
Fulminator Mage
Shriekmaw
Damnation
Flashfreeze
Slay
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The birth of Grixis Control can be traced to GP Charlotte, in the hands of Patrick Chapin. On June 15, 2015, Chapin narrowly missed Top 8 with his fresh look on a control archetype in Modern focused on the powerful synergy between delve, Thought Scour, Snapcaster Mage, and Kolaghan’s Command. In the almost full year since his finish, the archetype has gone through multiple iterations, but I remain convinced that the key to Grixis’ success in Modern lies somewhere within this shell.

Kolaghan's CommandChapin’s deck exhibits a unique philosophy regarding the Grixis archetype. Here are some key aspects of his particular take:

Abundant interaction. Chapin’s version of Grixis Control capitalizes on cheap removal in excess to disrupt opponents and gain advantage wherever possible. By crafting the game to a state where the opponent’s resources are almost depleted, Chapin is able to pull ahead through the use of his ten two-for-one’s (Cryptic Command, Snapcaster Mage, and Kolaghan’s Command).

Instant-speed gameflow. Chapin built his deck to play true draw-go, with only nine sorcery-speed spells. Serum Visions and delve creatures like Gurmag Angler and Tasigur, the Golden Fang can often be cast for one mana, leaving most of Chapin’s mana free to interact with the opponent on their turn. This list is clearly focused on putting opponents in the classic control squeeze: do something, it will get countered/killed; do nothing, you play right into control’s gameplan. This list takes pronounced advantage of “free” mana, casting Kolaghan’s Command or Cryptic Command whenever possible to gain material advantage and restock on cheap interaction.
Cryptic Command

“Cheap” win conditions. If you can call them that, because no “actual” win conditions are present in the list. Delve creatures function as excellent blockers that could turn the corner and hit hard when ready. Resolving Cryptic Command doesn’t end the game immediately, but often puts the opponent at a significant enough material disadvantage that defeat is assured. The strength of this deckbuilding choice lies in its elasticity; rather than set up a pivotal turn or strategy, it focuses primarily on casting spells and making efficient use of mana.

To give context to the above list, we must remember that Chapin’s Grixis existed at a time when Splinter Twin, Tron, Burn, and Affinity were the top players in the metagame. Amulet Bloom had just had its breakout party, and Grishoalbrand was much less common than Living End or Scapeshift. Towards this perceived metagame Chapin’s Grixis was geared—abundant cheap spells and interaction focused on pushing gameplay into the midgame where two-for-one’s are king.

Grixis Control, by Trevor Holmes

Creatures (11)
Snapcaster Mage
Tasigur, the Golden Fang
Gurmag Angler
Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy

Instants (21)
Lightning Bolt
Terminate
Go For the Throat
Thought Scour
Cryptic Command
Kolaghan’s Command
Mana Leak
Spell Snare
Remand

Sorceries (6)
Serum Visions
Inquisition of Kozilek

Lands (22)
Polluted Delta
Scalding Tarn
Island
Creeping Tar Pit
Steam Vents
Watery Grave
Sulfur Falls
Mountain
Swamp
Sideboard (15)
Fulminator Mage
Dispel
Anger of the Gods
Damnation
Bitterblossom
Vandalblast
Inquisition of Kozilek
Izzet Staticaster
Deathmark
Engineered Explosives
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The printing of Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy, while originally universally maligned, proved to be a force to be reckoned with in both Standard and Modern. Above is the list I played for much of summer/fall 2015, and I can say with confidence that it was tuned perfectly to respond to the immediate post-GP Charlotte metagame. Here are the major features this build brought to the table:

Jace, Vryn's ProdigyJace, Vryn’s Prodigy. When supported by a 75 that unlocks his full potential, Jace one of the most powerful cards you can cast in Standard or Modern. While it fails the Lightning Bolt test, Grixis Control wants nothing more than for opponents to keep in cheap interaction that fails to kill delve creatures.

Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy has incredible synergy with the foursome of Thought Scour/Snapcaster Mage/Kolaghan’s Command/Gurmag AnglerIn addition, Grixis can take advantage of every one of Jace’s abilities, looting, flashing back spells, invalidating small creatures or shrinking opposing Tarmogoyf’s, and even winning the game with his ultimate. And by his ultimate, I mean flashing back two spells. That’s generally all it takes.

Prioritizing cheap spells. Cryptic Command as a focused strategy is potent, but difficult to accomplish easily. Cryptic Command in hand goes against every facet of the archetype, and plays at odds with the primary strategy of Grixis: casting multiple, cheap spells. As a result, Cryptic Command often feels awkward and the player is pressured to cast it at the first possible opportunity.

Diverse reactive spells. Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy plays best with multiple options to choose from. Discard helps assure he lives (or just takes their best spell) and is a great target to get double use from, especially when we’re casting multiple Kolaghan’s Command as well.

Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy, while powerful in the above list, exists only as a means to an end. If he dies, he dies. Jace can be pushed, however, from deckhand on a well-built ship to captain of a machine of war.

Grixis Control, by Danny Jessup (22nd, SCG Dallas)

Creatures (12)
Pia and Kiran Nalaar
Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy
Tasigur, the Golden Fang
Snapcaster Mage
Grim Lavamancer

Planeswalkers (1)
Liliana of the Veil

Instants (14)
Kolaghan’s Command
Thought Scour
Go for the Throat
Terminate
Mana Leak
Lightning Bolt
Remand

Sorceries (10)
Dreadbore
Inquisition of Kozilek
Rise // Fall
Serum Visions

Lands (23)
Mountain
Island
Swamp
Sulfur Falls
Blackcleave Cliffs
Creeping Tar Pit
Scalding Tarn
Blood Crypt
Steam Vents
Watery Grave
Polluted Delta
Bloodstained Mire
Sideboard (15)
Rending Volley
Dreadbore
Vandalblast
Izzet Staticaster
Spellskite
Nihil Spellbomb
Dispel
Thoughtseize
Rise // Fall
Darkblast
Molten Rain
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Again, the unique features of Jessup’s version:

Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy as a core component. Danny Jessup included multiple pieces of technology developed in large part by Michael Majors and others: Rise // Fall, Liliana of the Veil, and discard in high numbers. Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy doesn’t play well with counterspells and can only make partial use of instants in general, so many players moved towards a Jund-style build, focusing on casting the most powerful thing possible turn after turn, but with synergy and cantrips instead of Tarmogoyf.
Pia and Kiran Nalaar

Pia and Kiran Nalaar as a stabilizer/win condition. Depending on your opinions on the card, Pia and Kiran Nalaar’s inclusion is a testament either to the awkwardness of the archetype or the strength of the strategy, but it can’t be both!

More clunky than Cryptic Command, Pia and Kiran Nalaar at best provides four power spread among three creatures for four mana, and at worst a bunch of chump blockers. Proponents argue that letting it die and getting it back to recast with Kolaghan’s Command or Rise // Fall is gamebreaking, but given that freedom the control deck should be winning anyway.

Grixis for a New Modern

This brings us to today. We see that Grixis Control historically has been built in one of three ways: draw-go, Grixis with Jace in a supporting role, or Grixis Jund. Today, I have two lists for you to check out (or dream nightmares about facing). Your choice!

Visions Grixis, by Trevor Holmes

Creatures (11)
Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy
Snapcaster Mage
Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet
Goblin Dark-Dwellers

Planeswalkers (1)
Liliana of the Veil

Sorceries (8)
Ancestral Vision
Serum Visions

Instants (18)
Spell Snare
Mana Leak
Remand
Terminate
Lightning Bolt
Kolaghan’s Command
Tribute to Hunger

Lands (22)
Polluted Delta
Scalding Tarn
Island
Creeping Tar Pit
Steam Vents
Watery Grave
Mountain
Swamp
Blackcleave Cliffs
Darkslick Shores
Ghost Quarter
Sideboard (15)
Dispel
Bitterblossom
Molten Rain
Crumble to Dust
Damnation
Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet
Leyline of the Void
Vandalblast
Izzet Staticaster
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This list is an update to the “Jace as a tool to use and abuse” style of Grixis Control that I have found the most success with. You won’t see any Rise // Fall or Pia and Kiran Nalaar here, just solid, synergistic cards that come together to form a cohesive strategy.

It is essential to view these Grixis lists as more than just a pile of removal and value cards thrown together. While any player can find success with a solid list and a couple changes, the deck performs vastly different once you start to change four or more cards. Thought Scour or no, draw-go or no, discard as a question mark, the mix of removal, the number of four-drops, the focus on delve—these are all questions that need to be answered and players new to the archetype can quickly fall into some deckbuilding traps. While it might look simple to add a singleton Tasigur, the Golden Fang to a Grixis list, the presence of other four-drops (or lack-thereof) can greatly influence the effectiveness of that decision.

Kalitas, Traitor of GhetI was not an early adopter of Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet and Goblin Dark-Dwellers in Grixis (in fact, I solidly opposed their inclusion from the beginning) but the availability of Ancestral Vision has forced me to come around. Goblin Dark-Dwellers recasting Ancestral Vision is the ceiling, but the floor isn’t that bad either. When we are building with Ancestral Vision in mind, we need to take into account games where we don’t find it, or it gets countered or Thoughtseized. In those scenarios, we need some sort of Plan B to pull ahead. A 4/4 and a free re-bought spell on Turn 5 is not a bad backup plan when we can’t draw three cards like we hope.

In addition, Goblin Dark-Dwellers plays great alongside Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy discarding Ancestral Vision. A drawn Ancestral Vision in the midgame can be extremely awkward, but instead of waiting four turns for it to come off suspend we can discard it to Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy and rebuy it for free a turn or two down the line.

Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet is also much better when we’re playing for a grindy, accumulated-value strategy. Getting one free Zombie will often be good enough, and we have the possibility of getting many more. The floor is just a 3/4 lifelink creature for 2BB, which isn’t too embarrassing when we consider the effect it will have on our opponent’s post-sideboard decisions. If they cut large removal, Kalitas can take over the game, and if they cut small removal, they’ll be interacting with Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy at a disadvantage when they’d rather be spending time and mana racing our Ancestral Vision.

Goblin Dark-DwellersWhen we’re including the above heavy hitters we can cut Tasigur, the Golden Fang and Gurmag Angler, not because they are poor options, but because that allows us to cut Thought Scour as well. While we definitely could play 10+ blue draw spells, we won’t have as much time to cast things like that when we’re trying to survive to get our Ancestral Vision off suspend.

There’s also the issue of making our velocity high enough to take advantage of the draw-three. One of the major reasons I’m not interested quite yet in including Thopter/Sword alongside Ancestral Vision is the awkward draws that can come as a result. When our back is against the wall, we don’t want to draw into land-combo piece-counterspell.

In an Ancestral Vision Modern, Remand is absolutely insane. I already loved this card, and pre-Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy lists often played at least one, but we have a strong reason to go up in numbers should the metagame break the right way. It’s poor against aggro, but then again so is Mana Leak. Against control and Ancestral Vision however, Remand is now just as good or better than Dispel (previously in the conversation for best blue spell in Modern).

Finally, I’m not sure about Liliana of the Veil in a format where people are drawing three cards. It will be interesting to see where the true “fight” comes in control mirrors—letting opponents draw three and focusing on their actual threats, or fighting over their Vision. Regardless, a repeated effect when we’re looking to grind is still excellent, and I imagine Liliana of the Veil is still solid, if diminished. Apply this thinking to Jund and I’m not too excited to be playing that archetype until they show me some breaker for the control matchup.

Some Grixis Thing, by Trevor Holmes

Creatures (10)
Snapcaster Mage
Thing in the Ice
Tasigur, the Golden Fang
Goblin Dark Dwellers

Sorceries (8)
Ancestral Vision
Serum Visions

Instants (20)
Lightning Bolt
Terminate
Thought Scour
Murderous Cut
Kolaghan’s Command
Mana Leak
Spell Snare
Remand
Dispel

Land (22)
Creeping Tarn Pit
Polluted Delta
Scalding Tarn
Steam Vents
Watery Grave
Desolate Lighthouse
Island
Swamp
Mountain
Sulfur Falls
Sideboard (15)
Dispel
Inquisition of Kozilek
Vandalblast
Anger of the Gods
Izzet Staticaster
Jace, Architect of Thought
Goblin Dark-Dwellers
Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet
Crumble to Dust
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Thing in the Ice is a little more speculative but I’m confident it will see at least some play in Modern. Both Matthew Nester and Dylan Donagan opted to play Thing in Baltimore, and it looks like it served them well.

Thing in the IceWhat I love about Thing in the Ice is its casual solid positioning against an overly aggressive field. A Wall of Omens that can bounce our opponent’s board and attack for huge chunks of damage in lieu of drawing a card sounds great if we expect to run into a bunch of Wild Nacatls and the like.

We don’t have to jump through any hoops to give Thing in the Ice a chance to greatly affect the game—we just have to play spells (which we were doing anyways). There’s a limit to how many interactive elements we want when we’re playing Thing, and the same goes for expensive spells, but just chaining cantrips and removal will activate Thing quickly.

In a build like this we definitely want to be chaining spells as often as possible, so Thought Scour is back in. This ensures we won’t run out of things to do to thaw Thing in the Ice. Firing off a Lightning Bolt leaves us down a card, but cantripping into another spell lets us keep chugging.

Without Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy in the list, Desolate Lighthouse helps us loot away a late-drawn Ancestral Vision should we need to. Keep in mind that Izzet Charm can also provide this effect. As a fresh Ancestral Vision player, one of the most exciting aspects I’m looking forward to is thinking four turns ahead, learning when to suspend Ancestral Vision and when to throw it away in search of something faster.

Conclusion

It’s still a little too early for any definitive analysis of this new Modern, but initial results look interesting. Scapeshift seems to benefit greatly from Ancestral Vision as well, and it will be up to Grixis Control to keep Scapeshift in check while also beating up on the numerous aggressive decks running around.

If Affinity, Scapeshift, Jund, Infect, and Abzan Company remain at the top, Grixis Control has a real shot to be a major player in this new Modern. Should Merfolk, Burn, and pure control rise up, Grixis might be in trouble. Still, I’m excited to start tuning and I’m looking forward to crushing fools on Magic Online under an onslaught of card advantage!

What do you think about Grixis and this new Modern? Let me know in the comments, and I’ll see you next week!

Trevor Holmes
The_Architect on MTGO
Twitch.tv/Architect_Gaming
Twitter.com/7he4rhitect

Trevor started playing Magic in 2011. He plays primarily online and studies Architecture at UNCC. Recent paper Magic accomplishments include a 2015 Regional PTQ win qualifying for Pro Tour: Magic Origins and a Day Two performance at GP Charlotte. He also streams weekdays at twitch.tv/Architect_Gaming! Follow him at twitter.com/7he4rchitect and architectgaming.wordpress.com!

12 thoughts on “Building Ancestral Grixis in the New Modern

  1. Nice article, Trevor. I like your first list a bit more than your second (though I share your concerns about Liliana in the shell, and would cut her in favor of a 2nd Tribute to Hunger), though I kind of want to see Thing in the Ice put through its paces in a control shell. Perhaps a 2/2 split between the two? That said, I will disagree with the thoughts that Jund is poorly positioned and that Scapeshift will reap benefits from Ancestral Vision. Allow me to elaborate as to why:

    As long as there are creature-based aggro decks trying to slip under control and make sure that they never live to see the T5 upkeep they need for Ancestral Vision to resolve (and those aren’t going anywhere), Jund will live on. Liliana may be somewhat diminished in its ability to shut down control, but it’s not dead yet, and it can do the job in any hand that’s backed up by enough creature density and/or targeted discard to force a control player to go trade 2-3 cards before she lands. Jund is the #1 deck in Sheridan’s way-too-early meta analysis, and while I don’t expect it to retain 11% of the field, I do expect it to remain a Tier 1 deck, and to have a respectable control matchup.

    On the Scapeshift front, I think Ancestral Vision doesn’t quite strike the right chords for the deck. For example, the SCG Modern Classic at Baltimore over last weekend had 2 Scapeshift decks in the Top 8, and neither had any Ancestral Visions. I also doubt that it was an issue of availability – the Grixis Control players at that same event managed to get their hands on 4 apiece. Vision skews what was already a slow deck even slower, and I don’t think that’s the way to go.

    1. You make good points, I’m inclined to believe for now that a Thing in the Ice list should be focused on maximizing that spell, it seems to require a little more as far as deckbuilding than something like a singleton Tasigur, the Golden Fang that can be slotted in without much thought.

      I think Ancestral Vision out of the board of Scapeshift for post-board games against control is quite potent, it makes Remand a necessity in that matchup where there were only ever a few spells of your opponent’s that you were looking to Remand. Scapeshift often is well set up to just wait a few extra turns anyways.

      1. Check out Leridan his post – this weekend also had Dutch Modern Open with 11 more players than SCG Baltimore – a grixis list run by Robbert Bal went 7-1-1 and placed 9th missing top 8 only on breakers. There is more than USA 😉

  2. I liked your first list of visions grixis. Wouldnt you think 2x Vendilion Clique would be better than 1x Liliana and the drop for tribute to hunger. I will sleeve your list with this modification just to see how it goes.

  3. Regarding your concerns about Merfolk (and possibly with applications to aggro, Affinity, and Thoptersword) I’ve been experimenting with Jaya Ballard, Task Mage in a Temur Pyro shell. So far she seems quite solid in this metagame in a UR/x shell that can protect her. She gets added value when you have Tarmogoyfs, Delve, and/or Snapcasters/Jace, Telepaths Unbound to make use of. Might also be a valid sideboard card here.

  4. This is a really great article, I’m looking to build a Grixis control list of my own very shortly and these lists have given me some great ideas.

    I myself like the lists with the ~4 Delve creatures. I think it allows for more option of changing your play style depending on your opponent to be more tempo or more control. Especially with cards like thought scour. It looks to me as though the lists’ following that follow a more strict control heavy playstyle with lots of card draw( Probably the ‘oh snap, Jace is super good when he sticks! let’s have 4 so he always sticks!’ philosophy) . But, Aye, that’s just me.

    I really like the flavor of Thing in the Ice, it’s a really cool card. although, I have my reservations about it for it to be truly competitive, at least within a grixis shell.

    My problem with it is that, it kind of just sits there and has to stick, and you have to protect it. Which is fine, but I am not so sure it will consistently be able to be protected, whereas ideally, the delve creatures and the other utility creatures in these lists can have an immediate impact to the game. The delve creatures and kalitas need to be dealt with immediately if the opponent has any hope of winning, and snapcaster’s /dark dwellers/ Jace allow you to find/use what you need to keep control of the board/opponent.

    Thing in the nice is none of those things until you cast your 4th spell after spending two mana to get it no the board to begin with.

    I guess I’m saying I don’t like a win condition that can ever have the possibility to be ignored. I feel like if its your playstyle to want your win condition to hit the board, and you just play with your opponent to try and keep it sticking, then maybe a list that would normally support a young pyromancer with this in its place may be better, or just this in a UW control list in general would be a better home than grixis. But, maybe I’m wrong, maybe ancestral visions will allow it to be played at a tempo similar to the delve creatures with more ouch.

    Thanks for the article!

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