September 24, 2015

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How to Not Play Magic: Griselbrand Combo at the WMCQ in Toronto (Top 4)

If you absolutely need to win a game of Magic, what do you want to be doing? What do you want your opponent to be doing?

Some players want to play a long game answering threats one by one, gaining incremental advantages leading to a win. This is not correct in formats like Modern.

Trying to play Magic is a stupid way to win. The best way to win games of Magic is to do things that can only loosely be described as actually playing Magic and/or prevent your opponent from playing Magic. This manifests in different ways depending on the format:

1. Your opponent could mulligan to 4 and not be able to play at all.
2. In Standard you can play Mono-Red and kill opponents on turn 4, preventing them from executing their game plans.
3. Modern has brutal hate cards like Blood Moon or Stony Silence to turn off entire decks. (The legality of autowin cards like the ones mentioned above plus Choke, Leyline of Sanctity are what make Modern an awful format.)
4. Vintage Stax plays a bunch of cards that ruin the game and then some sort of Lodestone Golem or Slash Panther or Triskelion nonsense.
5. In Modern you can play a degenerate combo deck and kill an opponent on turn 2. (Lord of Atlantis? You're dead now. Get that 2/2 for 2 outta here.)

I hate Modern. It's full of non-games and tournaments are decided by matchups and the presence or absence of brutal sideboard cards rather than individual playskill. On top of that, Modern is a popular format in Kingston for some reason and my job prevents me from playing weekly Modern tournaments. My goal going into the WMCQ was to play as little actual Magic as possible. Here's what I piloted.

I Don't Understand What This Deck Does

The primary objective is to get a Griselbrand onto the battlefield. The easiest way to do this is turn 1 Faithless Looting discarding Griselbrand into a turn 2 Goryo's Vengeance. It is also an option to make no play and discard Griselbrand to hand size, especially on the draw. Griselbrand will often kill the turn it comes out or set up a kill for next turn. It is also very possible to Through the Breach or even hardcast Griselbrand.

1. Once Griselbrand is out, pay 7 life to draw cards.
2. If able to do so, pay 7 life to draw 7 more cards. Be wary of going to 3 life or less against untapped red mana. Play around Lightning Bolt!
3. Play an alternate cost Nourishing Shoal exiling a big green spell to gain life. A Nourishing Shoal exiling Worldspine Wurm is 11 life for zero mana! If possible, pitch Simian Spirit Guides to splice a Desperate Ritual onto the Nourishing Shoal to float mana.
4. Use the extra life to draw more cards. If you draw more Nourishing Shoals, cast them to continue the process (and splice Desperate Rituals for more mana). If you have to, attack with Griselbrand.
5. Eventually splice or cast Through the Breach or Goryo's Vengeance on Borborygmos Enraged. With all the cards you've drawn, throw lands at the opponent's face until death occurs. If you haven't attacked, you can also swing with Borborygmos Enraged.
6. If the opponent doesn't seem to know what' s going on, throw lands at the opponent's creatures too for the rub-in.
7. If you fizzle, discard down to lands and a way to cheat Borborygmos Enraged into play for the kill next turn.
The backup plan for Griselbrand combo is Worldspine Wurm beats. Through the Breach can jam a 15/15 hasty trampler onto the battlefield. Against decks with painful manabases this can be an immediate kill. If not, the three 5/5 Wurm tokens finish the job the next turn. (Please do not try to Goryo's Vengeance a Worldspine Wurm; it is not legendary. Reading cards is tech!)

Card-by-Card Analysis

4 Goryo's Vengeance - Lets you get 8-drops out for 2 mana. Pretty good!
4 Through the Breach - Lets you get 8-drops and 11-drops out for 5 (sometimes 4) mana. Can't complain.
4 Griselbrand - If this gets onto the battlefield you can draw half your deck and kill.
2 Borborygmos Enraged - Can pitch to Nourishing Shoal, but ideally is cheated into play and kills immediately by throwing lands at the opponent. Can also attack for big damage as a 7/6 trampler and grab more lands/fill up the graveyard.
4 Worldspine Wurm - Pitches to Nourishing Shoal but also doubles as a win condition via Through the Breach.
4 Nourishing Shoal - You can cast this exiling Worldspine Wurm, Borborygmos Enraged, or Manamorphose (in an emergency) to gain life without spending mana to continue fueling Griselbrand. It can also keep you alive versus aggressive decks.
4 Simian Spirit Guide, 3 Desperate Ritual - These give you extra mana to do fun things faster.
4 Faithless Looting, 4 Night's Whisper, 3 Manamorphose, 1 Tormenting Voice - These find you your combo pieces. If you can't combo off, cycle the Manamorphoses for digging. Faithless Looting and Tormenting Voice also let you discard Griselbrand and Borborygmos Enraged.

How to Beat Removal

It looks like a kill spell might disrupt the combo, but that is not always true. Most of the combo pieces are instants. If you play properly it is very possible to win through removal by killing in response to it or by allowing it to resolve and rebuilding.

(For those of you who play against this deck, the best time to cast a removal spell is in response to the first 'pay 7 life' activation.)
Worldspine Wurm is resilient against spot removal like Terminate, but far less effective against Path to Exile. Play around Path to Exile unless you have no other choice.

How to Beat Countermagic

Countermagic can be beaten by casting Through the Breach or Goryo's Vengeance on your opponent's end step followed by casting another one on your turn. Failing that, Splicing onto Arcane multiple times often lets you grind through counterspells.

ASIDE: How Splicing Works

Splice onto Arcane is an additional cost paid when casting an Arcane spell. It requires paying the splice cost and revealing a card with Splice onto Arcane from hand. If the spliced spell resolves, you get a copy of the original spell with the text of the spliced card written onto the bottom.

What is important to understand is that splicing keeps the spliced card in your hand. This allows you to keep trying to Goryo's Vengeance or Through the Breach by splicing onto other Arcane spells until the opponent runs out of countermagic.

Goryo's Vengeance, Through the Breach, Nourishing Shoal, and Desperate Ritual are all Arcane spells that can be spliced onto each other. A hand with these cards might be able to grind through multiple counterspells by splicing over and over.

Note that Through the Breach costs 4R to cast but only 2RR to splice. Nourishing Shoal splicing Through the Breach actually costs less than hardcasting Through the Breach, allowing for some disgustingly early fatties.

Splicing does not change the converted mana cost or name of a spell. (You can beat a Meddling Mage naming "Goryo's Vengeance" by playing a Nourishing Shoal splicing the Goryo's Vengeance).

How to Beat Variance

Despite running a bunch of uncastables, the deck is not as inconsistent as it looks. The two-colour manabase is very stable with 17 black sources and 15 red sources. On top of that, the deck runs four basic Swamps so it can play through Blood Moon. Amulet Bloom, the other degenerate combo deck in Modern, rolls over and dies to Blood Moon. This deck is able to run Blood Moon, improving many post-sideboarded matchups dramatically.

There are terrible opening hands where this deck will have three lands, three 8-drops and an 11-drop. Those hands are mulligans. The bad hands are balanced out by the potential for a nut draw that kills on turn 2 or 3 (and the deck does this a lot).

A good hand generally involves having at least one of Faithless Looting or Night's Whisper, at least one of Goryo's Vengeance or Through the Breach, some mana, and at least one win condition. Do not keep a hand that does not have a plan to win unless it has multiple card draw spells.

Temple of Malice, Faithless Looting, Manamorphose, Night's Whisper, and Tormenting Voice filter out nonsense cards and redundant combo pieces while looking for missing pieces. Most hands with a castable turn 1 Faithless Looting are keepable, and most hands with multiple card filtering spells are also quite reasonable.

Matchups and How to Sideboard

Modern has enough viable decks that there aren't any hard and fast rules for sideboarding. In general, Manamorphose is the most cuttable maindeck card. Faithless Looting can be shaved in anticipation of graveyard hate. Night's Whisper and Through the Breach can be shaven against any decks that are very fast (Burn, Affinity or other degenerate combos). Desperate Ritual and Tormenting Voice can come out against countermagic (getting Tormenting Voice countered is very bad).

Against countermagic, Boseiju and Pact of Negation come in.
Against aggro decks, Pyroclasm and Lightning Axe come in.
Against sketchy manabases, unexpecting opponents, Amulet, and Scapeshift, Blood Moon comes in.
Against Affinity and Lantern Control, Shatterstorm comes in.
Inquisition of Kozilek is reasonable versus countermagic or other degenerate combos. I often didn't have room to bring it in though.

Overall, the deck matches up extremely well against decks that don't have a fast clock such as Tron and slow control decks. Jund is good but Abzan is much harder just because of Path to Exile. Fast decks like Affinity and Burn are trouble matchups but they are winnable with god draws and Nourishing Shoal. The worst matchups are decks that present both a clock and disruption (Merfolk and Infect). That said, any matchup is winnable with a turn 2 or 3 combo kill.

Very Loose Round-by-Round Breakdown

Round 1: Andrew Robinson (Grixis Delver)

Andrew plays a turn 1 Delver of Secrets that never flips, then gets stuck on two lands while I combo him out.

Game 2 starts with me getting Thoughtseized for my Through the Breach, followed by a Surgical Extraction on Through the Breach. I get a Blood Moon onto the battlefield and settle in for a garbage game. I discard Griselbrand hoping to Goryo's Vengeance it but it is lost to Snapcaster Mage + flashback Surgical Extraction. How do I win now? A discarded Borborygmos Enraged and a Goryo's Vengeance are lethal because Thoughtseize, Gitaxian Probes and Surgical Extractions have left Andrew at low life.

Andrew lost because he didn't desleeve his Delvers immediately after playing them. Desleeved Delvers always flip!

1-0 (2-0 games)

Round 2: Devon Giles (Grixis Control)

Devon has no idea what I'm doing game 1 as I combo him out.

In game 2 I get a Blood Moon out and this locks Devon to one basic Island. I then play like an idiot and try to Goryo's Vengeance a Griselbrand while Nihil Spellbomb is on the battlefield (I never said I was good). The game drags on and after some failed splices, I eventually resolve another Goryo's Vengeance and win anyway. No justice!

2-0 (4-0 games)

Round 3: Michael Daye (Some W/u Grindy Control Deck with Aether Spellbomb and Emeria, the Sky Ruin)

Neither of us knows what the other person is doing, but Michael's deck seems to be really slow. I cheat Griselbrand into play and activate it. Michael responds with Aether Spellbomb to bounce my Griselbrand. I respond with another Griselbrand activation and Michael Path to Exiles my Griselbrand. I cast a Nourishing Shoal, pay 7 life again, then let my Griselbrand die. The 21 extra cards let me rebuild and win.

Game 2 I play a Blood Moon and Michael has to Ghost Quarter himself to have a basic. This leaves him locked on one land. I don't have anything much to do either but I eventually go off while he is helpless.

3-0 (6-0 games)

Round 4: Andrew Gordon (G/W Tron)

Andrew mulls to 4 game 1 but shows Tron pieces and white sources (!) as I combo him off helplessly.

In Game 2, Blood Moon sets Andrew back several turns, buying enough time for a combo kill. Tron variants are an easy matchup.

4-0 (8-0 games)

Round 5: Hunter Platt (Temur Scapeshift)

Neither of us know what the other person is doing. We trade games 1 and 2, and in game 3 I have a god draw where I get Griselbrand into the graveyard and have 2 Goryo's Vengeances in hand. I cast the first one on Hunter's end step and he taps out to counter it, then I untap, cast the second Goryo's Vengeance, and kill him.

5-0 (10-1 games)

Round 6: Vincent Thibault (Merfolk)

Vincent wins the die roll and leads with Cursecatcher and Silvergill Adept. Then he dies. I Goryo's Vengeance a Borborygmos Enraged into play (pitching Simian Spirit Guide to pay for Cursecatcher), attack for 6 through the Cursecatcher, reveal two lands with the Borborygmos Enraged trigger, and throw five lands at the face for lethal. Turn 3 kill, easy game.

In game 2 I am on the draw. Vincent has no turn 1 play. I draw my card and discard Griselbrand to hand size instead of playing land. Vincent plays Lord of Atlantis on turn 2, and on my turn 2 I Goryo's Vengeance Griselbrand and kill him. Easy game.

(In all seriousness, Merfolk is a bad matchup for the Griselbrand combo deck. However, when your plan involves killing on turn 2 or 3, how bad can your bad matchups really be?)

6-0 (12-1 games)

Round 7: Ben Winokur (Bant Aggro)

In game 1, my opening seven is:

Faithless Looting
Goryo's Vengeance
Nourishing Shoal
Worldspine Wurm
Worldspine Wurm

Which is to say that I topdeck my second land (a Mountain, of course) on turn 4 or 5 just before dying horribly.

In game 2 Ben's deck is not fast enough or disruptive enough and I combo him out.

For game 3 my deck lets me down and I can't draw any combo pieces. I get smashed by Voice of Resurgence, Tarmogoyf and Geist of Saint Traft. (Sweet deck!)

6-1 (13-3 games)

Round 8: Ryan Sandrin (R/G Tron)

For my probable win-and-in for Top 8, I am relieved to see Ryan play a Tron piece. He is horrified to see what I am playing, as he has piloted Griselbrand combo previously and knows how bad the matchup is. I win two brutally easy games.

7-1 (15-3 games)

Round 9: ID with Jon Stern (Grixis Twin)

6-1-1 (15-3 games)

After the final standings are posted, I'm in 4th and will be paired against Felix Tse the next morning. I look up the MDSS coverage to see what's likely in Felix's deck and see that his R/G Scapeshift list has maindeck Relic of Progenitus, but no way to deal with Worldspine Wurm.

Top 8: Felix Tse (R/G Scapeshift)

In game 1 Felix plays a turn 1 Relic of Progenitus, so I Through the Breach a Worldspine Wurm on turn 3 and the game is over.

In game 2, Felix leads with Search for Tomorrow and Khalni Heart Expedition. I am stuck on two lands but I have Through the Breach, Worldspine Wurm, Blood Moon, Desperate Ritual, Simian Spirit Guide. I decide that the safest thing to do is blow the Desperate Ritual and play a turn 2 Blood Moon. This ends up paying off as Felix has no immediate answer. He decides to race with Sakura-Tribe Elder and Fulminator Mage (choosing not to sac and kill one of my lands). Unfortunately I've drawn two more Simian Spirit Guides and I pitch three to Breach in a Worldspine Wurm off of two lands. Felix has no outs.

7-1-1 (17-3 games)

Top 4: Hunter Platt (Temur Scapeshift)

Game 1 was sadly not on coverage. Suffice to say I probably throw it away. Having played against Hunter already during the Swiss, I know I have to kill him relatively quickly because I am dead to Scapeshift. I cast a Night's Whisper and three Faithless Lootings and can't find a Goryo's Vengeance or Through the Breach. All I have is two Nourishing Shoals, a Worldspine Wurm and a Borborygmos Enraged. Seeing that I'm at 17, Hunter Scapeshifts for Valakut + 6 Mountains for 18 damage but I Nourishing Shoal to stay alive. The game drags on and I get a Griselbrand out, but I am terrified of another Scapeshift. I get greedy and pay down to 2 life holding Nourishing Shoal and Manamorphose. Hunter Lightning Bolts me, I Shoal for 2, and Hunter Bolts me again in response. Whoops!

Games 2 and 3 were both on coverage.

Important part of Game 2 -

End of Game 2 and Game 3 -

In game 2 I have a slow hand against and Goryo's Vengeance out a Griselbrand on turn 5 to start the combo. Hunter tries to Cryptic Command the Goryo's Vengeance but I Pact of Negation it and Griselbrand starts its dirty work. I draw 14 cards, Shoal for 11, draw 7 more cards, Shoal for 11 again, draw 14 more cards, then look at my hand. I have Nourishing Shoal and no green cards except for Borborygmos Enraged. I have no Manamorphoses left in my deck (boarded them out). I have one Desperate Ritual but it's still in my library. I only have 6 cards left in my deck so I can't activate Griselbrand. I have all four Simian Spirit Guides but I can't splice Through the Breach because I can't pitch Borborygmos Enraged and Breach it in at the same time. The line I come up with is to set up a kill next turn. I swing with Griselbrand to put Hunter to 13, pitch one Simian Spirit Guide to Faithless Looting to dig one more time (finding a Worldspine Wurm there - too late), then play a Blood Moon to turn off Scapeshift. I discard down to Borborygmos Enraged, Pact of Negation and five lands. Hunter doesn't do anything threatening and on my next upkeep I respond to my Pact Trigger with a Goryo's Vengeance with Pact of Negation backup, getting back Borborygmos Enraged for lethal.

Sadly, the story ends poorly for me as I mulled a zero-lander into a weak six for the third game. I cast a bunch of card draw but am nowhere near comboing off when Hunter kills me.

7-2-1 (18-5 games)

My deck let me down in the semis but it did very well to get me there in the first place. I think that the Griselbrand combo deck is seriously underplayed and is a definite contender in Modern. It is not extremely difficult to play and it has good matchups versus the field. On top of that, many players will have no idea what the deck is doing until it is too late.

I would absolutely sleeve up this deck again for another tournament. I played poorly and didn't playtest much but still won games effortlessly against superior players. The biggest issue I have with the deck is that Simian Spirit Guide, Goryo's Vengeance and Griselbrand are all worthy of banning.

If you're aiming to not play Magic, I heartily recommend sleeving up Griselbrand combo for Modern!

Facebook: Andrew Ting-A-Kee