GrimGrin: Grin or just Grim?

November 16, 2011

This entry is part 3 of 7 in the series Crossover Month

By OWEN aka ZIMAGIC
Zimagic is the curator of The Crazy 99, a generalist blog about Commander. You can find deck lists, format politics, and even some research over there. Owen’s crossover partner this month is CommanderCast’s Max of Peasant Rebellion fame. You can see his half of the crossover here.

Dear Reader,

Read this first.

Thank you for your patience.

When Max and I sat down to hammer out our crossover, I was very happy when he started rambling on about Zombies. I love Zombies in Magic.

Then he dropped the bombshell: Max announced that he was championing Grimgrin, Corpseborn against Thraximundar at the head of a Zombie army!

I know, right?!

I was a little bit dubious about his chances of success. He was adamant about giving it a go, despite my friendly slanging that he was backing a dead, non-zombie horse. My thoughts then, and now, were simply that anything you build around Grimgrin’s abilities in a Blue/Black shell can be easily improved upon in a UBR shell. I set to my own task of thinking about building a deck for Thraximundar separately from all ideas about Grimgrin but I kept coming back to the fundamental flaw in Max’s plan: Grimgrin is just better in Thraximundar than he is by himself.

That, and the fact that I didn’t want to write about Thraximundar.

Max came back to me to offer the opportunity to “deck doctor” what he came up with. I demurred because just shooting holes wouldn’t make for a hugely interesting article, especially if my overriding point of view was essentially going to be 1.) start with a completely different general and 2.) add or subtract a color.

That all said, there are a couple of real gems in Max’s approach to building a Grimgrin deck, even if his initial aim of making it Zombie tribal were ultimately a failure. The core difficulty with going for a tribal centric deck and adding all the great ideas that Max (and Cassidy, whose excellent article inspired Max to tackle the problem in the first place) came up with is that the more you dilute the tribal-creature content of the deck, the less reason you have to include those tribal elements at all.

When you start with all the cool combinations you could work around Grimgrin – rather than the mass of zombies that you could surround him with – a choice has already been made that will shape your deck away from Zombies and more towards finding value engines that only care about Zombiness very rarely, if ever. While Cloudstone Curio and Rooftop Storm make a cute couple, you’re looking at building a multiple permanent, multiple card type engine that is expensive and fragile. Worse still, unless you’re slavishly dedicated to that particular combination, which would be boring for everyone, all the elements need to be useful independently and recoverable in the face of disruption which is far from the case here.

Rooftop Storm is a blank page of flavor waiting for something cool and flavorful to be done with it. The only real stumbling block is that it does absolutely nothing. If you already have the other elements in whatever combo you want to build, adding the Storm only makes it finish the game right now instead of, say, in 2 minutes. There’s very little that’s going to get in your way if you have the other elements available anyway. The “free” element is deceptive too as you really need to get free things when you have no mana, not when you have at least enough to pay 6 for an enchantment. What zombie costs so much that you need it to be free on turn 7? Oh, you’re playing a combo! Sorry, carry on.

Just off the top of my head, changing the minimum number of cards in the Grimgrin deck to support Red also allows you to add things like the hugely advantageous Anathemancer to your Cloudstone Curio loops and I’m sure that repeatably hitting target player(s) for 10 for just 3 mana is one of the less abusive things you could do now that you have some loopy combo going on.

Max concedes that Grimgrin is a key element in a Thraximundar Zombie deck much more than he is a truly viable general in his own right but decides to give us a shell for his Gattling Gun deck with the surprising Surestrike Trident combination. Yet even here, when going through his list there were two obvious issues (outside of the mentioned inability to interact with artifacts that Red would obviously address): making enough tokens to fuel his combo and generating the mana to run the combo.

He makes a good fist of it, listing some of the better token makers available in his colours but there’s really no substitute for Mana Echoes & Elemental Mastery in these slots. In fact Elemental Mastery makes it so that you don’t actually need to add anything else being a two card combo with Grimgrin all by itself. Mana Echoes with any sort of Zombie board presence and the aforementioned Cloudstone Curio provides all the equipping mana that the Trident combo could possibly need. However, even with these additions, we’re still firmly in the realm of combos and advantages engines that have really only a passing connection to Zombies and all that they represent. We’re also not helping the fragility of the majority of these interactions by increasing the card type count, the complexity of the mana base and the mana cost.

Ultimately, when building a deck like this, a choice has to be made: to Zombie or not to Zombie?

Bouncing around like Beebles and throwing tridents like Merfolk? Is this what the proud Zombie Nation has been reduced to? Dupes and pawns in the hands of cackling mad scientists assembling doomsday machines?

No, that is not a zombie.

Where is the creaking of coffins, the endless ranks, the rotting legions, the feasting on brains and entrails? Where is the dread, the incessant moaning, the endless hunger, the mindless hunt? How can you seriously play Zombies with no idea whether the restless dead will remain so or if you’ll be tripping up opponents with an unexpected, funk-stained hand reaching out through the loam to grasp at their ankles as they turn to flee the shambling horrors that you have called forth to do your bidding?

One of the few things that Zombies have that almost no other tribe shares is a Vorthosian sense of something more. Zombies have that ghoulish side that ties in mechanically with zones within the game like no other tribe. Actually Goblins have that extra something too; Goblins are goofy idiots which ties in well with the guys who play them: they allow you to be splashy & goofy and to give in to the subservient “lackey” side of your personality, a bit like Ib Halfheart, Goblin Tactician. But I digress.

Zombies allow you to play around with your graveyard in a flavourful manner in addition to having no shame in owning the CD of the 100 Best Monster Movie Noises (which you get to play during your games!) and a penchant for guttural malevolent laughter interspersed with the odd threatening groan and some inadvertent drooling.

The other thing that Zombies bring you is a real appreciation for the colour Black and brings into question whether you need to actually play any additional colour if your deck is a dedicated Zombie deck (Hint: You don’t!). You’re already holding yourself back with a tribal restriction, why would you add an extra handicap by forcing yourself to fix your colours as well?

We just need to clarify here a little, I run a Zombie themed deck myself. Now, when I say “Zombie themed” that entails not a single non-zombie creature outside of Grave Titan who himself spawns a zombie army. Hell, I even cut Vampiric Tutor because a “vampire” card has no place in the deck (though I haven’t yet decided if “Demonic” will get the same treatment. Eventually it will when WotC prints a Zombie tutor. I mean, why not? Mercenaries have one!). When I commit to a tribe, we’re talking real exclusivity: card holding, printed/oracle tribe-members only, no Conspiracy-type wannabes.

I also commit to a flavor and, as mentioned, no zombie worth his dangling stripes of putrid flesh would dream of going through a game without a few trips in and out of the graveyard. When you start at that point, the rest of your plan starts to fill in extremely quickly: Cards to get creatures into your graveyard; cards to get creatures out of your graveyard; some mana; and some necessary additions to shore up holes that being mono-black entails.

Oh yes, I forgot to mention, we’ve officially taken that step away from sketchy mana bases and towards just getting on with the rest of your plan. It may not be one of the more amazingly original plans out there but it does have things going for it: It is really powerful, easily repeatable and you have a huge amount of redundancy in your colour. Your general, Balthor the Defiled, is a Patriarch’s Bidding on a stick that benefits from the peculiarities of the Command Zone rules in Commander to transform from a one-shot trick into the Magic equivalent of AMC executives resigning The Walking Dead for a record-breaking 15th season. [Please make it happen! Pweeeezze!!]

The speed and aggression with which you can get an army of zombies into play can be quite impressive if you’re willing to dedicate yourself to the strategy and you’re not afraid to make a few different card choices: Mesmeric Orb, Basalt Monolith, Songs of the Damned, [card]Charmed Pendant (over another mana rock), Yawgmoth’s Will & Shared Trauma are the directions you’re looking to start going. You also get to enjoy the benefits of underused cards like the quite cool (but unfortunately screwed by the oracle text) Gate to Phyrexia, knowing that whatever you sacrifice to it’s effect wont be gone away for very long.

Or will it?

However you build it, your mono-black zombie deck, while positively dripping with moaning, groaning, shuffling and other typical zombie flavour, does have a couple of unfortunate glass jaws: you don’t have many ways to gain life outside of Escaped Null *shudder* or Abattoir Ghoul without adding off-themed cards specifically for that reason. Nuts to that, I say! We’ll have to get creative with that problem and look at bringing in effects like Repay in Kind to bring everyone down to our level for a zombie coup de grace.

The other, rather larger, issue is graveyard hate.

If someone has repeatable or “full” graveyard hate that they can access easily, especially if it’s a permanent type that you have difficulties interacting with like Enchantments, there’s really not a huge amount you can do apart from either bringing in multiple Disk effects to blow up the table or just holding your breath and hoping you can squeeze through a win. Your first target in any game is always, always the deck that has the capacity to interfere with your graveyard in any capacity.

For reference as to what I mean by going all in on graveyards, here’s the current iteration of my Balthor Deck:

Commander:
Balthor, the Defiled

Land:
Stripmine
Thawing Glaciers
Bojuka Bog
Leechridden Swamp
Volrath’s Stronghold
Dakmor Salvage
Unholy Grotto
Phyrexian Tower
High Market
Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
Cabal Coffers
Deserted Temple
Crypt of Agadeem
22 Swamps

Zombies
Carrion Feeder
Rotting Rats
Shepherd of Rot
Yixlid Jailer
Cabal Interrogator
Withered Wretch
Lord of the Undead
Death Baron
Cemetary Reaper
Undead Gladiator
Nantuko Husk
Zombie Master
Breathless Horde
Rotlung Reanimator
Fleshbag Marauder
Phyrexian Ghoul
Soulless One
Skinrender
Vengeful Dead
Abbatoir Ghoul
Viscera Dragger
Grave Defiler
Undead Warchief
Gravedigger
Grotesque Hubrid
Corpse Connisseur
Corpse Harvester
Noxious Ghoul
Grixis Slavedriver
Twisted Abomination
Gravespawn Sovereign
Geth, Lord of the Vault

Non-Zombies
Adaptive Automaton
Grave Titan

Spells
Entomb
Buried Alive
Damnation
Grand Finale
Skeletal Scrying
Patriarch’s Bidding
Living Death
Beacon of Unrest
Yawgmoth’s Will
Army of the Damned
Songs of the Damned
Dark Ritual
Shared Trauma
Reanimate
Demonic Tutor
Repay in Kind
Ghoulcaller’s Chant

Enchantments
Tombstone Stairwell
Grave Pact
Phyrexian Arena
Gate to Phyrexia
Zombie Infestation

Artifacts
Cursed Pendant
Basalt Monolith
Mesmeric Orb
Skullclamp
Oblivion Stone
Sol Ring
Sensei’s Diving Top
Memory Jar

But, bear with me here for a minute, what if there was another way?

Just before my short segue into my beloved mono-black Zombie territory, I extolled the superiority of Thraximundar over Grimgrin, essentially trampling the latter’s usefulness as a general into the mud. If we were to take a similar shell to the mono-B graveyard deck and run Grimgrin over Balthor, using blue for the specific purpose of protecting our graveyard, we could shore up the graveyard-hate “hole” somewhat. The advantage of this is a slightly more controlling build that can stockpile until it’s ready to unload knowing that Interdict, Squelch [Sigh! Yes, there is a card that sounds like you’ve just stepped in dog-shit. Of course it’s blue.], Stifle, Trickbind, Null Rod, Voidmage Husher etc. are waiting to stop that Tormod’s Crypt, Relic of Progenitus activation or the one Scavenging Ooze activation that you absolutely cannot allow to resolve.

The obvious disadvantage of this plan is that you’re vastly reducing the number of mass-reanimation effects by not running Balthor out of the Command Zone. This in turn leaves you much weaker to counter magic for your other mass-reanimation effects. My personal issue with the direction this strategy is moving is that it’s the top of a very slippery slope; you start skewing your deck to account for one issue and another presents itself which you either accept you are soft against or you need to change your deck again. As you’ve just moved into Blue, the temptation is pretty big to just keep going and soon you’re back to the original situation of wanting to build a zombie deck and getting a Blue/Black combo or control deck with a few zombies in it. We’re back to seeing if we’ve room for Rooftop Storm, in short.

Though, if you do decide to build in this direction, Blue does give you Brainstorm. What Zombie wouldn’t be overjoyed at a storm of brains, I ask you?

Ok, this isn’t going to work. I just can’t allow myself to finish with a serious recommendation to try running Grimgrin as your Zombie Tribal General, however much I’d like to do it for Max. I have to point out that a much, much better solution exists in the Black/Green zombie combination (Glissa the Traitor obv., Skullbriar is just bloody shrubbery, I’ve no idea what they were thinking there!). You’re probably going to have to move outside the tribe for a couple of effects but the idea of giving a Zombie deck access to Ground Seal seems to me like an extremely good idea. You also get Bind, Rust, Repopulate and the two Ouphe’s if you really have an issue with Crypt effects. Some of these will also allow you to protect the board against Disk effects and, should the worst happen and your Vengeful Dead, Noxious Ghoul etc. get exiled, running a Riftsweeper though the graveyard a couple of times is not the worst thing you could be doing given the importance of the pieces it’s protecting. And let’s not get started on what giving a Zombie deck access to Fecundity could do for you.

Sorry Grimgrin, you’ve been outclassed by an elf.

The shame.

Zimagic (Owen to the uninitiated) runs a blog. If your thing is random and infrequent ramblings on Zombies, Portcullis, Magical Flavor and/or Broccoli (which, funnily, has nothing to do with flavor!), take a quick trip to the Crazy 99. You may occasionally be surprised.

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