April was a good month to be a blue mage. If there was ever a time for Control to shine in Modern, it's now: with access to powerful card draw in Ancestral Vision, the Thopter Sword combo, a cheap threat that blocks early and ends the game quickly; and Tron having lost its notorious end game engine, Eye of Ugin.
Previously, I wrote an article about Blue Moon, a highly reactive UR Control deck in Modern that's known for locking the opponent out with Blood Moon. This was the natural starting place, but the thought of other grindy Ancestral Vision decks and Thopter Sword running around makes splashing black for hard removal and Kolaghan's Command appealing.
Although casting Blood Moon in a three color deck can be awkward, I'll never get tired of hearing the phrase, "I saw you fetching a lot of shocklands game one and you're playing three colors. Blood Moon, seriously?" Gets ‘em every time.
In order to get the best of both worlds, I've moved Blood Moons to the sideboard. What I'm left with is the same highly reactive, lean Control shell that boast a much more impressive end game due to Ancestral Vision and Kolaghan's Command. This style of deck is often called Flash.
Flash vs Tap Out
In this new Modern environment, I see many Grixis players building their decks in a way that reminds me of Corey Burkhart's list from GP Pittsburgh last year. This proactive form of Control is often called Tap Out. The general game plan of these Tap Out Grixis decks is to punch a hole in the opponent's hand with discard, kill anything that moves with a slew of removal, and two-for-one the opponent over and over until it drops a win condition. Ancestral Vision can pile on even more card advantage for Tap Out Grixis decks, and while it's probably just impossible to lose against a deck like Jund, there's more to Magic than card advantage. It's a sliding scale; while Tap Out has little issue against slow decks with lots of creatures, it suffers against Combo decks that can easily beat a Thoughtseize or two.
To contrast, Flash is a style that's among the most reactive forms of Control. Popularized in Modern with the advent of UWR Flash, Flash decks want to play on the opponent's turn as often as possible. There's no bomby win conditions like Keranos, Batterskull, or Elspeth, Sun's Champion here, the idea is that flash creatures like Vendilion Clique or Restoration Angel allow this strategy to drop a threat when most convenient and chip away at the opponent while countering anything that matters. The raw power level of Flash decks are much lower than Tap Out, but because the archetype is so reactive and the answers are versatile, Flash strategies are more well-rounded against an open field than Tap Out.
Building Grixis Flash
The most defining characteristic of Flash is that it most often lacks dedicated win conditions. While a Keranos is nearly impossible to answer and often wins the game on its own, it forces a Flash player to drop the shields for a turn. Instead, Flash likes to play efficient, flexible threats that can be deployed at instant speed, or early on in the game, before the opponent can cast anything too impactful.
The cards chosen to fill this role are Thing in the Ice and Vendilion Clique. Thing in the Ice is a powerful new tool for blue decks that helps me stabilize against aggressive decks, and can kill the opponent in just three swings against anything I need to race.
V Clique is the perfect threat for Flash. It's part Thoughtseize, part flying beat stick, and it has the namesake keyword: flash. Clique is most often cast during the draw step when lacking a counterspell, during combat if a favorable trade is available, or at the end of the opponent's turn when the opponent chooses to not to cast anything into open mana.
Ancestral Vision is the reason why this deck works. Treasure Cruise was the perfect way for an aggressive deck like Burn or Delver to keep jamming cheap spells, Ancestral Vision is best suited in a lean, Aggro-Control strategy like Flash that looks to trade cards with the opponent until it can turn the corner. While a powerful draw three already exists in the form of Painful Truths, Ancestral is more conducive to the Flash strategy because little to no tempo is lost by tapping out on turn one, while tapping out and paying 3 life on turn 3 is a huge loss of tempo and can give the opponent a crucial opening to resolve key spells. It's not even the worst top deck either; this style of deck has no issues stalling, and it can always be thrown away using Desolate Lighthouse or by targeting myself with Vendilion Clique.
Other ways to gain a leg up over the opponent are Kolaghan's Command and this deck's work horse: Snapcaster Mage. Both are two-for-ones that can be cast at instant speed, allowing this deck to use mana even if the opponent doesn't cast something worth countering during their turn. These get even better when they team up: Kolaghan's Command is often Disentombing a dead Snapcaster, and Snapcaster Mage is often flashing back a K Command.
This is a Control deck, right? Counterspells are versatile answers that stop troublesome cards from ever hitting the board. While Tap Out Grixis has the tools to out grind anything, it's much better to answer a card like Karn Liberated or Spectral Procession on the stack than on the battlefield, and many cards like Scapeshift or Ad Nauseam just spell game over if they resolve.
Spell Snare and Mana Leak are both simple, one-for-one answers. They can be a little narrow, but they're staples of the format for a reason. Remand and Cryptic Command, on the other hand, are more interesting cards which help stall, a good proposition in the Ancestral Vision, Thing in the Ice deck. While Remand is not a true counterspell, it's great at slowing decks down and gaining tempo. By contrast, Cryptic Command is the best hard counter in Modern. It's most often cast as a Dismiss, but tapping down creatures helps race or buy time, and bouncing tokens, troublesome permanents, or a friendly Snapcaster is a great option too.
This part of the deck, while relatively straight-forward, contains the most flexible cards. Hard removal hits just about anything, and burn, while limited to killing small creatures, does a good job of killing opponents too.
I have preferred a three way split on my hard removal spells to diversify their drawbacks. Terminate is difficult to cast at times in a base blue deck, but it's the most consistent. Go for the Throat requires just one splash color to cast, but it's a dead card against Affinity or a Wurmcoil Engine. Murderous Cut might eat away targets for Snapcaster and K Command, but it most often costs just one mana and it's stellar against cards like Eidolon of the Great Revel and Thalia. If you don't need to hunt down as many Lhurgoyfs as I expect, consider trading the Go for the Throat for a second Burst Lightning, a third Remand, or a flying Lava Axe.
As for burn spells, Bolt is so good I'm playing with five. Three toughness is rare in Modern, so the one Burst Lightning usually does a good impersonation, and late game it feels great against a random Spellskite, Kalitas, or an opponent at four.
There shouldn't be a whole lot of surprises here given the sideboard Blood Moons. Two Lighthouses might seem greedy, but it's just spectacular in this deck. What should be a recurring theme by now, if the opponent passes without doing anything, I can use otherwise wasted mana to fix my hand using the Loothouse.
The main things I'm considering here are this deck's weakness to Burn, Tron, and go-wide aggro strategies. Sideboards are very metagame dependent and often come down to personal preference, but I believe this is the most versatile set of fifteen cards to create a balanced 75. While there are no silver bullets, I know I'll at least be utilizing every slot in a large tournament.
Goblin Dark-Dwellers : If this card said Flash instead of Menace, I would be playing four, but tapping five mana on my main phase is best left for Grixis players who have their heart set on beating Jund and getting ranched by Scapeshift. Most felt Goblin Dark-Dwellers was too fringe before the Ancestral unban, but when the only way to live the dream is to cast one already or discard it with Loothouse, it's more cute than good.
"Put your resources towards winning more games, not towards winning games more. Decide on a winning game plan, and execute it with as few complications and distractions as possible." - Reid Duke, Win More and Lose Less
Tasigur, the Golden Fang : I heavily considered this card as it can be cast for as little as one mana late game and the ability works great with the deck's core gameplan. The issue isn't even that it gets bounced with Thing in the Ice, it's that there are so many duds to get back from his ability. The idea of getting a Spell Snares, late game Mana Leaks, and, you guessed it, Ancestral Vision, have me wanting a third Clique instead.
Jace, Vryn's Prodigy : I'm a big fan of this card, just not in this shell. By now, you probably have noticed the striking similarities this deck has with Twin, and the same reasoning applies for why you rarely saw it in Grixis Twin decklists: Jace's -3 promotes a sorcery speed gameplan. I could see playing some in the sideboard, but additional Pia and Kirans do a better job of not getting one-for-oned by removal in the matchups I'd want to bring it in for.
Thundermaw Hellkite : Similar to Tasigur, I would be playing one if I had to play 63 cards, but my last name isn't Hoogland. The Thunderdaddy passes the five mana sorcery speed test that GGD fails because you don't need to hold up countermagic when your opponent is dead. It's hard to race a 5/5 haste flyer, which explains its success in some versions of UWR Flash.
Maindeck Pia and Kiran Nalaar : One P&K is the only expensive sorcery speed card I'd consider tapping out for because it so heavily impacts the board. If I expect a lot of fair decks to be running around, I imagine I'd find a place for it, but my playtesting has shown there's enough ways to win the game in the deck's current configuration. It's worth mentioning that a turn four Pia and Kiran is awkward with a Thing in the Ice on the table, but it ends up being excellent in the late game given I can fire off some thopters and use TiTi to reload.
While I've been ragging on Tap Out Grixis a little hard, I hope it should at least make sense what this new approach offers. The Flash variant has me playing more games of Magic instead of playing against the pairing software, and would you just at look how much better the mana is?
Even if you don't believe that Grixis Flash trumps Tap Out Grixis, at least you can agree it caters to a beloved playstyle that many Twin refugees miss. Do me one favor though. I'm all for an ode to blue, but keep the "No"s that accompany your counters to a minimum. Thanks for reading.