Grixis Control was, believe it or not, the most played Legacy deck at Pro Tour 25th Anniversary earlier this month in Minneapolis. In terms of performance, however, the deck didn't do super well. While individual results are impossible to track in a team tournament where match results are calculated by team wins alone, it's still possible to get a general idea of how well the deck did by calculating the win percentage of teams with a Grixis Control pilot on their team. Based on that metric, teams with Grixis Control in the Legacy seat put up a slightly under 50% win percentage.
That is not terribly surprising to me. In our testing, we concluded that Grixis Control was the best all-around deck in Legacy, but Grixis is a lot like classic Jund-style decks where you don't have any auto-win matchups, but rather just have a lot of slightly above 50% matchups around the board. Without good sideboard plans or with poorly constructed lists, those percentages can easily drop under 50%. In fact, in our testing, Grixis was ahead against almost every deck we threw up against it, but the margins were small. In 10-game sets, it was winning a lot of sets 6-4, while it had some matchups, like Eldrazi Post, which were nightmarishly bad.
Is Grixis Control still my choice for the best deck in Legacy? That's hard for me to answer. I would wager that the Blue-Black Death's Shadow deck that team CFB played at the Pro Tour might just be a better deck, as Shadow solves the problem of Delver decks not having a second good one-mana threat. Coupled with arguably the best creature in Legacy, Gurmag Angler, this deck now has enough good threats to compete in power level with the rest of the format. Reanimate to turn on Death's Shadow and attack opposing combo strategies was also a huge innovation for the deck.
With that said, I still think Grixis Control is a very good deck in Legacy, boasting favorable matchups against most of the field. This is the list Lukas Blohon and I played at the Pro Tour.
All the initial Grixis Control lists that I used as a starting point from Magic Online or from SCG Tour results played 20 lands. People just kind of adopted that mana base and went from there.
I found out through extensive testing that I really wanted to play three basic lands – two islands and one swamp – to insulate myself against Blood Moon, and to also allow myself to fetch basics on early turns in some games against land destruction strategies like Temur Delver or Lands. I also found that I rarely had issues with flooding out, but I lost quite often getting stuck on two or three lands and either being completely unable to cast my cards or being unable to deploy them quickly enough to matter. This deck often wants to hit land drops up to five mana or sometimes even more. At five mana, you have access to Snapcaster Mage on Kolaghan's Command, and you can also hardcast Force of Will at that cost. When you keep that in mind, it's easy to see why it's much harder to flood out than to get mana screwed.
I ended up cutting the main deck Counterspell I had previously been playing to go up to 21 lands, and the deck played out significantly smoother past that point. I personally would not play less than 21 lands, and I'm confident enough to state that 22 lands is closer to being correct than 20. This deck doesn't have Deathrite Shaman anymore and can't afford to just play infinite three and four-mana plays and hope to just draw enough lands, especially with only 8 cantrips in the deck. Keep in mind that Snapcaster Mage is a deceptive two-drop in that it is also at least a three-mana play if you want to extract any value out of it.
Another change that I made to the deck was cutting Counterspell from the list entirely. Yes, having Force of Will as your only hard counter main deck does make some combo matchups slightly worse in game one, but Counterspell was just really, really bad for me in the deck.
I found that there was a huge competition between Hymn to Tourach and Counterspell. Sometimes the deck wants to cast Lightning Bolt on turn one and Hymn to Tourach on turn two, or even Thoughtseize into Hymn to Tourach. Badlands is often the correct land to fetch to facilitate these early plays. The problem is that Badlands doesn't cast Counterspell. In fact, Counterspell is quite hard to cast in this deck if you also want access to cast Hymn to Tourach, especially in Wasteland matchups.
Even past mana issues Counterspell created, I found that strategically it was not what I wanted. For one, the deck wants to tap out a lot. Hand disruption, removal spells, Baleful Strix, Gurmag Angler, and planeswalkers are all cards you want to tap out to play in the early turns, and Counterspell creates a lot of tension when you have to decide if you're going to tap out and let your opponent slip something through, or continue to play conservatively, but end up wasting opportunities if your opponent doesn't play something worth countering.
Additionally, I found that Hymn to Tourach and Counterspell compete strategically with each other. Hymn to Tourach favors a more proactive Game Plan, while Counterspell a more reactive Game Plan. In a deck like Miracles that wants to sit back and answer everything while building up card advantage, Counterspell is a great card. However, I didn't find that Grixis plays out at all like Miracles. I don't think you want to or must answer everything in Grixis Control. My general plan is to use Thoughtseize and Hymn to Tourach to strip my opponent of their most precious resources and then use my removal to clean up whatever slips through the cracks.
I tend to think of Grixis as a snowball strategy in some regards. Your two-for-ones like Hymn to Tourach and Kolaghan's Command amplify each other. If you get to Hymn your opponent, then they'll have less plays to make the next turn and less options for what to discard when you follow up with Kolaghan's Command. If you get out ahead with Hymns and Kolaghan's Commands, then cards like Jace, the Mind Sculptor will be even stronger and pull you even further ahead. Force of Will is a perfect complement to this Game Plan, because the card disadvantage is tempered by the two-for-ones and the free mana cost pairs up exceptionally well with tapping out for big plays. Counterspell does not complement the Game Plan. In fact, Counterspell runs counterproductive to this style of play completely.
I found Counterspell was often one of the last cards I would Cast Out of my hand in a lot of games, and often if I was behind, I had to just fire it off on whatever my opponent played – good or bad – because I just needed to cast all my cards as often as I could to try to catch back up. Personally, I would just take some licks to combo decks in game one and keep this card out of my deck.
Among our testing team, Reid Duke and Lukas Blohon also played Grixis Control at the Pro Tour, with Andrew Cuneo going his own way and playing Miracles instead. The last card we debated on was whether to play the third Jace, the Mind Sculptor or the fourth Snapcaster Mage in the deck. Both cards are often clunky in games where your mana is being attacked or your opponent is playing cards like Daze, Thalia or Thorn of Amethyst.
Reid ended up playing the more powerful Jace, the Mind Sculptor while Lukas and I both played the fourth Snapcaster Mage. The conclusion we came to was that Jace, the Mind Sculptor is generally going to be a better card in game one. Jace lets you Brainstorm away bad cards in game one matchups and can sometimes be a way to steal wins in really bad matchups. In post-board games, though, once you've configured your deck to be tuned specifically against your opponent's strategy with effective one-mana answers, Snapcaster Mage ends up being better. Jace also tends to be a bit worse when cards like opposing Pyroblasts factor in.
Considering that you play more sideboard games in a tournament than game ones, I opted for Snapcaster Mage to improve my sideboard games. We also considered cutting Liliana, the Last Hope for the third Jace, the Mind Sculptor, but I refused to play with less than two Liliana in my 75 because of how insanely good the card is in the mirror, against some Delver strategies, and against creature decks like Death and Taxes and Elves.
Another debate is whether to play Ponder or Preordain in a deck like this. Preordain is typically better in grindy matchups, while Ponder shines more in combo or Delver matchups. Against combo decks, you're often digging for very specific cards, like Hymn to Tourach or Force of Will, and Ponder lets you see one card deeper to find those cards. Against decks like Delver, you're often just trying to hit your land drops as well as you possibly can in the early turns, and again Ponder helps find lands better than Preordain does.
In more grindy matchups, like against other control decks or in some games against decks like Death and Taxes, Preordain ends up being better because Preordain doesn't require fetch lands, or in some cases Liliana's -2 ability, to get the most value of the card. With Ponder, unless you can fetch away some of the cards from the Ponder, you're stuck either taking all three cards or shuffling and getting just a random card. Later in the game in grindy matchups, you don't really want to have to keep playing and cracking fetch lands every time you cast Ponder. You'd rather just draw all spells at that point, which is where Preordain is a better card.
I think which one of these cards is better is going to be contextual to the format. Right now, I prefer Ponder, because I want to make sure I have the best chance of getting out of the early turns of the game without stumbling too much or just straight up dying to combo decks. I think if Grixis Control can escape the first three turns of the game smoothly, then it is generally a huge favorite to win against nearly every deck in the format.
The major change I want to make in this deck moving forward is to get some Liliana's Defeats into the sideboard. While this card is extremely narrow, I currently think that Death's Shadow, Grixis Delver and Grixis Control are three of the top 10 decks in Legacy right now. Liliana, the Last Hope is one of the hardest cards in the format for this deck to beat, and all of those decks play the card. Gurmag Angler can also be a huge problem for this deck to beat if you can't keep a Baleful Strix in play or be lucky enough to line up a Diabolic Edict against it.
Liliana's Defeat is a nice one-mana answer that slays Gurmag Angler, Death Shadow, reanimated Street Wraith and Liliana the Last Hope, and the beauty of cards like these is that if you draw them, you very often get to use them multiple times with Snapcaster Mage.
Another change I would consider making is to cut the Toxic Deluge from the sideboard for a second Marsh Casualties. I like the versatility of Toxic Deluge, but when you think about it, there aren't a whole lot of matchups where it is definitely stronger than Marsh Casualties, and Deluge also killing your Strixes and Snapcaster Mages can be a real drawback in a lot of matchups where you have to kill True-Name Nemesis, but it sucks to have to throw away your own board to do so.
The second Flusterstorm, the second Pithing Needle, the third Surgical Extraction, and Ensnaring Bridge are all cards that can be reasonably trimmed from the sideboard, depending on what you expect to face. Flusterstorm is pretty mediocre almost across the board but comes in to slightly upgrade your deck in a lot of matchups. Pithing Needle is a phenomenal card against Sneak and Show and any Dark Depths strategy but is otherwise a fairly narrow card in application. Surgical Extraction is also fairly narrow, but if you get paired against a matchup where Surgical is good, drawing one copy is often enough to just win the game.
Much like anything else in Legacy, especially when control decks are concerned, it's all contextual.
One thing I learned playing this deck that ran counter to my previous experience and knowledge of the format is the role of Force of Will after sideboard in fair matchups. Previously, it was fairly common for decks like this to cut Force of Will for fair matchups or matchups like Delver. Force of Will is card disadvantage, and when your opponent is playing a bunch of cards that all do roughly the same things, you don't want to have to two-for-one yourself to answer a card that you can just answer instead with a simple one-for-one answer.
The more I tested with Grixis, the more and more I figured out that I actually wanted to keep Force of Will in for more and more matchups. This deck can't always answer everything, including cards like True-Name Nemesis that dodge most interaction, and with Hymn to Tourach, Kolaghan's Command, and Snapcaster Mage recuperating so much lost card advantage, the two-for-one drawback of Force of Will is significantly muted. As I alluded to earlier in this article, getting out ahead in the first few turns is essential for this deck, and sometimes slamming a Force of Will on a turn-two Young Pyromancer can buy you the tempo and time to advance to the late game, where card advantage will dominate.
I also found that while Gurmag Angler is an amazing clock and essential for racing and playing defense against a lot of decks, like Eldrazi or Delver for example, there are a lot of matchups where the glacially slow clock of Grixis just doesn't matter. Once Grixis gets out ahead, it can just bury the opponent in card advantage and lock out their draw steps with Kolaghan's Command and it doesn't matter if there is a clock in play or not. For that reason, I actually side out Gurmag Angler in quite a lot of matchups, even though it is one of the best cards in the deck in many other matchups.
In: 2 Flusterstorm, 1 Hydroblast, 2 Pyroblast, 1 Red Elemental Blast, 1 Liliana, the Last Hope
Out: 4 Force of Will, 2 Fatal Push, 1 Diabolic Edict
Despite my previous rant, I don't like Force of Will against heavy discard-based fair decks. They are bad topdecks after both players have stripped each other's hands, and it's hard to leverage them against Pyroblast. Diabolic Edict is weak against Snapcaster and Baleful Strix, but Gurmag Angler is very good in the matchup and you need something for it. Liliana and Kolaghan's Command can clear the way for it. If you have Liliana's Defeat, cut the other Edict.
In: 1 Ensnaring Bridge, 2 Flusterstorm, 1 Hydroblast, 2 Pithing Needle, 2 Pyroblast, 1 Red Elemental Blast, 2 Surgical Extraction
Out: 2 Fatal Push, 2 Lightning Bolt, 2 Gurmag Angler, 1 Liliana, the Last Hope, 2 Kolaghan's Command, 2 Baleful Strix
We had a lot of debate surrounding the value of Surgical Extraction in this matchup. Personally, I think it is good because Sneak and Show has a limited number of cards that matter, and each Surgical Extraction can significantly cut into their ways to win a game. It also pairs with Thoughtseize and Hymn to Tourach very well. If you can ever Surgical Extraction a Griselbrand, it is very tough for them to win, since you have Edicts and Jace, the Mind Sculptor to deal with Emrakul and Pithing Needle for Sneak Attack.
Lukas and Reid I believe eventually decided to leave in Gurmag Angler over Surgical Extraction in this matchup, but I don't agree with that. My philosophy is to have as many pieces of interaction as I possibly can in my deck and just focus on disrupting their combo as hard as I possibly can and then just plan to win with whatever is left over. Surgical Extraction may not be game-ending interaction, but paired up with Pithing Needle it can leave your opponent in tough spots. Needle on Griselbrand and Surgical on Sneak Attack, for example is a tough nut for them to crack, as is Needle on Sneak Attack and Surgical on Show and Tell.
In: 2 Flusterstorm, 1 Liliana, the Last Hope, 2 Pyroblast, 1 Red Elemental Blast
Out: 2 Gurmag Angler, 2 Fatal Push, 2 Diabolic Edict
You can keep Gurmag Angler over Lightning Bolt if they don't have Monastery Mentor. Angler is pretty weak against Swords to Plowshares and Jace, the Mind Sculptor, but it's also a great clock and way to end a game before they draw out of your early disruption, so I'm of a mixed mind about it. Lightning Bolt is a safer hedge, because it can also kill Jace, the Mind Sculptor, and if Monastery Mentor goes unchecked it is always game over.
In: 1 Ensnaring Bridge, 2 Flusterstorm
Out: 1 Liliana, the Last Hope, 1 Hymn to Tourach, 1 Force of Will
This is completely untested, for what it's worth. However, I feel like Force of Will retains some value in this matchup for slowing down their most explosive hands and countering their big threats like Gurmag Angler and Liliana, the Last Hope. Ensnaring Bridge seems lights-out against them. I don't traditionally like discard against Delver decks, but it seems a lot stronger against this deck as they have bigger threats than most Delver decks do and their threats like Death Shadow and Gurmag Angler take setup time, meaning the tempo-negative aspect of the discard is mitigated.
It's possible I should have some Pyroblasts in my deck in this matchup, but their main deck and their sideboard is actually pretty heavily based around black cards, so I'm unsure if it's worth it just for countering cantrips and sometimes killing Delver. They may be better than some discard spells.
In: 1 Liliana, the Last Hope, 1 Marsh Casualties, 2 Pithing Needle, 1 Toxic Deluge
Out: -2 Gurmag Angler, -3 Force of Will
I like to cut Gurmag against most Swords to Plowshares decks, and Gurmag is a pretty weak threat against Death and Taxes anyway, as it's tough to race them with it, and cards like Mother of Runes just embarrass it.
In: 1 Ensnaring Bridge
Out: 1 Liliana, the Last Hope
If they have a bunch of Karns, bring in Pithing Needles as well and cut one Snapcaster Mage and one Lightning Bolt. Believe it or not, this is a good matchup for Grixis Control, but you must be very careful with how you sequence your spells and what you use Force of Will on. For example, don't counter a Chalice of the Void with Force of Will if you don't have one-mana cards in your hand or if you have a Kolaghan's Command. Save it exclusively for cards that are tough to answer or beat, like Walking Ballista, Endbringer and Reality Smasher (if you don't have a Baleful Strix).
In: 2 Flusterstorm, 1 Toxic Deluge, 2 Pyroblast, 1 Red Elemental Blast, 1 Ensnaring Bridge (unsure)
Out: 1 Jace, the Mind Sculptor, 1 Liliana, the Last Hope, 2 Thoughtseize, 1 Hymn to Tourach, 2 Force of Will
Ensnaring Bridge is great against them if they don't have any card that interacts favorably against it, but it's a huge liability if they have Sulfuric Vortex or Ancient Grudge, which they sometimes bring in to kill Baleful Strixes. I'm still unsure if it warrants inclusion. Thoughtseize is pretty weak against them, but Hymn is strong because they often spend their first few turns holding up Stifles and Spell Pierces and playing cantrips. Hymn forces them to react to it, and if you aren't under immediate pressure, resolving one backed up by a Flusterstorm is pretty backbreaking for them. Even if it gets countered, bleeding out their soft counters to resolve more important cards later is still valuable.
In: 2 Flusterstorm, 1 Hydroblast, 3 Surgical Extraction, 2 Pithing Needle, 1 Ensnaring Bridge
Out: 2 Lightning Bolt, 2 Fatal Push, 1 Liliana, the Last Hope, 2 Kolaghan's Command, 2 Gurmag Angler
If they have a sideboard plan that involves Bitterblossom, keep a Liliana or more Kolaghan's Commands, trimming on Baleful Strix. If they have a sideboard plan that involves Magus of the Moon then keep another Kolaghan's Command and cut a Baleful Strix.
In: 1 Toxic Deluge, 1 Marsh Casualties, 1 Liliana, the Last Hope, 2 Pyroblast, 1 Red Elemental Blast
Out: 2 Force of Will, 1 Kolaghan's Command, 1 Hymn to Tourach, 2 Fatal Push
In: 1 Toxic Deluge, 1 Marsh Casualties, 1 Hydroblast, 2 Pyroblast, 1 Red Elemental Blast, 1 Liliana, the Last Hope
Out: 2 Thoughtseize, 1 Jace, the Mind Sculptor, 3 Hymn to Tourach, 1 Force of Will
On the play, keep 2 Hymn to Tourach and cut 1 Force of Will and 1 Pyroblast
In: 2 Flusterstorm, 2 Pyroblast, 1 Red Elemental Blast, 3 Surgical Extraction, 1 Marsh Casualties, 1 Toxic Deluge
Out: 1 Liliana, the Last Hope, 2 Fatal Push, 2 Lightning Bolt, 2 Diabolic Edict, 1 Gurmag Angler, 2 Baleful Strix
In: 2 Flusterstorm, 1 Hydroblast, 2 Pyroblast, 3 Surgical Extraction, 1 Marsh Casualties, 1 Toxic Deluge
Out: 1 Liliana, the Last Hope, 2 Fatal Push, 2 Lightning Bolt, 2 Diabolic Edict, 2 Gurmag Angler, 1 Baleful Strix
In: 1 Liliana, the Last Hope, 2 Pyroblast, 1 Red Elemental Blast, 1 Toxic Deluge
Out: 2 Fatal Push, 2 Gurmag Angler, 1 Baleful Strix
In: 1 Ensnaring Bridge, 2 Pithing Needle, 3 Surgical Extraction, 1 Hydroblast
Out: 1 Liliana, the Last Hope, 2 Fatal Push, 3 Hymn to Tourach, 1 Lightning Bolt
Hydroblast is a weak one, but countering Gamble to stop them from getting Life from the Loam active is key, and sometimes they have random cards like Boil or Molten Vortex. Sometimes countering a Punishing Fire once is good enough to get an extra turn out of Jace or push in a few extra points of damage. The value of Lightning Bolt, Hydroblast and Thoughtseize are all marginal against them, so I'm not totally sure which mix of those cards is best to leave in the deck.
I wouldn't put Ensnaring Bridge into play unless you're dying to a Marit Lage that turn, because Gurmag Angler pressure is pretty important against them. I also wouldn't even side it in if I know they are bringing in Krosan Grip.
I cast Surgical Extraction aggressively on Dark Depths. Without Depths in their deck, it's actually pretty hard for them to win, especially if you can Pithing Needle Wasteland or