Saturday, December 15, 2012

Forcing Grixis: an (Ostensibly) Comprehensive look at the Standard Metagame and How to Make it Cry

I found myself once again Pondering the viability of Arcane Melee.

Now, usually when it's in my top three, I shuffle it away and hope to draw something else. But something changed in my thinking today.

We are playing in a very grind-y format. What I mean is that the games can and often do take 15 or more turns, and a good deck is prepared for that.

That's not to say that it's a slow format. Watching the aggro decks curve out right now is a scary thing. Turn four kills are all over the place. But that doesn't really mean anything unless your deck can also go toe-to-toe with a couple Thragtusks. You might be able to kill somebody turn four with a Selesnya-Charm'd Loxodon Smiter soulbonded with a Wolfir Silverheart being shot-putted by an Ajani, but your goal isn't just doing twenty damage anymore. Infect is out and life-gain is in. You have to be ready to be able to topdeck to victory.

So what does that mean for a control player?

Well, uh... it means Sphinx's Revelation.

Yes, but, besides that.

Sphinx's Revelation seems to solve basically all those problems.

But... what if you... don't wanna?

I can't explain to you why you should play a deck without Sphinx's Revelation. But I'm sure a lot of you don't really want to all that badly. It's a well-beaten path. It's been done before. It's cliché. 

We're going Grixis. No Thragtusk, no Sphinx's Revelation. At worst, it's a thought experiment. If we're lucky, we get a playable deck.

So what are our goals? That's a big question. A very big question; especially in such a wide-open format. Trying to summarize the meta-game in a few short statements is scary. I think most people feel much more comfortable trusting their intuitions instead of getting down into details of what it is exactly we're trying to control.

Hint ^

So, I won't tell you that I know everything, or even anything at all. But let's try to look at the big decks right now, and under what conditions those decks win. Then we'll see if we can't get an idea where are

1) BR aggro: It's loosely Zombie-tribal due to Gravecrawler, but Hellrider and Thundermaw are a huge part of this deck. Blood Artist shows up occasionally, and Geralf's Messenger is and always will be a Thing. Their reach comes from haste guys that come out of nowhere and knock you right the F into burn range.

2) U/W or U/W/R flash: Runechanter's Pikes have been moving steadily from twoish to closer to zeroish. These days you're looking at a deck that either win almost entirely with Restoration Angel or kick your ass with Geist of Saint Traft. You can call it a midrange deck, but Sphinx's Revelation gives them an arbitrarily large amount of reach.

3) Naya/Jund Midrange: It's very interesting to see Garruk, Primal Hunter as a real player in Standard for the first time I can remember since he was first printed a year and a half ago. With Thragtusk in the format, he suddenly becomes about two or three cards better. This has allowed for a very aggressive green deck that doesn't run out of gas nearly as easily. Make your land drops, gain life, remove your guys, chunk your life total 10 at a time. Slaughter Games gives the Jund deck a whole different dimension of scary.

4) Control decks: Bant and 4-5 Color Control. Esper builds, mostly with a Superfriends package, are also on the rise. Control mirrors inevitably resort to Mill battles, since nobody really feels like dealing 50 damage.

5) Combo decks: Another week passes, and Electrocombo hasn't quite made it into the top 8 of an SCG Open. Or the top 128. But I'm holding out hope. But there are combo decks that present themselves as pretty serious decks. The two that stand out are Grand-Prix Nagoya champion Humanimator (or Peddler Rites, if you must), and Omnidoor Thragfire.

Yes, Omnidooor Thragfire. This game is so goddamn good right now.

So, what can we take from that? What are our concerns? What do we have to beat?

Haste creatures

Instant speed removal is not at its best right now. We really only have Ultimate Price, Tragic Slip, and Tribute to Hunger. Ultimate Price is solid against Thundermaw Hellkite and Hellrider, but has a severe issue with Falkenrath Aristocrat; we need either Tragic Slip or Tribute to Hunger for her. Tribute is a tragically underplayed, and is especially in a deck that forgoes lifegain and tries to keep the board as clear as possible. 

Ultimate Price has the upside of dealing with Angel of Serenity and Thragtusk. We can't trigger Morbid with our own creatures (our creatures, if there are any at all, need to stick around and win us the game), so Tragic Slip is very narrow in most circumstances. Tribute to Hunger has the very relevant upside of dealing with Geist of Saint Traft.

Combo decks

If you're just sitting there waiting for your opponent to play creatures and play real Magic, sometimes they just don't come. Counterspells are not optional when there's a chance your opponent just drops an Omniscience, Door to Nothingness, Temporal Mastery.

But how many counterspells can you really maindeck with B/R aggro being such a big threat? The answer, if you ask me, is recursion. More on that later.

Sphinx's Revelation

Okay, that's kind of a cop-out.

Sphinx's Revelation (and other Big Draw)

Obviously it's in the top two or three of Standard cards. But what problems does it cause? You're definitely not Lava Axe'ing four times for the win here; you're looking at as much as 60 life to whittle down to zero over the course of a game. In addition, a deck that runs Sphinx's Revelation does not run out of cards. Running out of gas is the real concern here. It's not an easy deck to "out-card".

Nicol Bolas is definitely an option; he's something of a trump to control decks everything if you can resolve him and he sticks around. That's one answer, but he's vulnerable (DIES TO DREADBORE LOL) and thoroughly counterable.

So, Slaughter Games, right? Patrick Chapin has discussed the viability of playing them mainboard; it's not out of the question. But I can't imagine running more than two main; one seems correct. I don't think Slaughter Games can really combat the larger issue of card advantage all by its lonesome for several reasons. So what do we do?

We need an engine! And no, we're not messing with Sphinx of the Chimes again. I'd like to believe this option as a lot more practical and much more flexible.

That's right, about a thousand words later, we get all the way back to the card that started this blog in the first place.

How do we beat a player that can draw as many cards as they have mana? Recur our graveyard as much as we have mana!

The "combo", for the uninitiated:

As always, I must give credit to Steve Guillerm. It's my baby, but I merely adopted it.

Heh, you thought that link was going to an article, didn't you?

"Combo" is a strong word (hence the scare-quotes). It's really just very strong synergy. We don't have a fun time against Rest in Peace, but we're still a Grixis control deck, less four cards or so.

I really wish Arcane Melee was a better card. Yes, it's symmetrical. Yes, it's overcosted.

But making are spells cheap is core to the strategy of the deck. And no, we can't really replace it with Goblin Electromancer. If we run him, we can't really run sweepers. Then Augur of Bolas and Evil Twin go in. Perhaps Niv Mizzet as well. Though these are good cards, they weaken our spell recursion strategy, and leave us weak to aggressive decks where spot removal just isn't enough.

So what's the point of Mystic Retrieval et al? The point is, we have all the answers to everything always. You always have your Dissipate or Counterflux. You can cast your singleton Tribute to Hunger on five Thundermaw Hellkites (who knows, maybe it's mono-red with Elixir of Immortality!).

You know what's awesome? Casting Slaughter Games six times. In game one. Slaughter Games for BR. Mystic Retrieval for 1U. Slaughter Games for BR. Flashback Mystical Retrieval for R. Slaughter Games for BR. Runic Repetition for U. Mystic Retrieval for 1U targeting Runic Reptition...

Here's my current build:

Grixis Arcane Melee

Permanents (9):
3 Rakdos Keyrune
3 Arcane Melee
2 Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker
1 Tamiyo, the Moon Sage

Instants (13):
1 Counterflux
2 Dissipate
3 Forbidden Alchemy
3 Think Twice
1 Thoughtflare
1 Tribute to Hunger
2 Ultimate Price

Sorceries (13):
2 Barter in Blood
1 Blasphemous Act
1 Devil's Play
1 Dreadbore
3 Mystic Retrieval
2 Pillar of Flame
1 Runic Repetition
1 Sever the Bloodline
1 Slaughter Games

Lands (25):
4 Blood Crypt
2 Dragonskull Summit
3 Drowned Catacomb
3 Island
1 Mountain
2 Nephalia Drownyard
4 Steam Vents
4 Sulfur Falls
2 Swamp

This deck rewards playing lots and lots of singletons. I had a friend look at the deck looking for some advice:

"Blasphemous Act should be in the sideboard. Sideboard Slaughter Games. Sever the Bloodline, too. Kevin Mysterious Internet Guy known only by the masses by your seemingly arbitrary love of the Pokemon Abra, you're running way too many cards that are way too situational!"

And yet, as the game goes on, I can Mystic Retrieval anything I need. My graveyard is my toolbox. It's not great to Barter In Blood something you could've Tragic Slipped for one-fourth the mana. But the other end of the spectrum is staring at a Geist and a Restoration Angel on the board, and shedding a single tear as you look at the three Tragic Slips in your hand.

When you have card selection (not just recursion, but stuff like Forbidden Alchemy as well), you don't worry about which card is "best". You play a lot of cards that kill things in different ways, and you look for the ones you need most. Sever the Bloodline your Rakdos Cackler isn't the best thing in the world, but it works. Maybe next game you're able to hold it for a Geralf's Messenger.

I haven't really talked about winning yet. But when you play control, if you're not losing, you're winning. Nephalia Drownyard can do the job just fine. A Nicol Bolas ultimate is a pretty hard thing to come back from. A lot of the time, you'll find your opponent is low enough just from Keyrune hits to kill them with a couple Devil's Plays. Don't be afraid to flash it back for removal early though, you can always get it back with Runic Repetition.

We'll see how this deck fares against Big Sphinx and the fat cats on Thrag Street. The archetype is certainly viable, it's just a matter of answering the question of what questions need to be answered.

1 comment:

  1. I've always liked toolbox decks and I've been trying to find a viable Grixis build since rotation. I put this together and had a lot of fun on MTGO. This deck can do some really silly things once you start getting pieces together. The problem I had was the speed of Humans aggro. Hopefully Gatecrash brings some pieces to deal with these turbo aggro decks.