Grishoalbrand Primer Part 1 – a Guide to Turn 2 Wins and Ignoring Your Opponents


Hello everyone! I’m Jonathan Zhang and I’m excited for my first article with and doubly excited to write about my favourite deck in Modern – Grishoalbrand! For those who don’t know me, I have been grinding with the deck on Magic Online under the username Finalnub to moderate success (Modern Challenge win with several other top 8s) as well as in paper as well to reasonable success, most recently in GP Toronto with a 3rd-4th place finish. Having played the deck for the better part of last year, I believe that the deck is heavily underplayed relative to its power level and fun factor, so I hope to shed some light on its true potential and address common misconceptions.

Grishoalbrand at a Glance

Grishoalbrand is fundamentally a A+B combo deck that aims to cheat in a Griselbrand into play with Goryo’s Vengeance or Through the Breach, chain Nourishing Shoal pitching Worldspine Wurm or Borborygmos Enraged to gain more life, draw more cards, and eventually cheat in one of your two Borborygmos Enraged and burn down the opponent with Borborygmos Enraged and the lands that you’ve drawn. Plan B is playing a Through the Breach for Worldspine Wurm. Plan C encompasses all other nonsensical win conditions, which includes Simian Spirit Guide beatdown (which actually did happen in my round 15 win-and-in match in GP Toronto vs. Jon Rosum) and hard-casting Griselbrand or Borborygmos Enraged.

On the plus side, the deck is capable of some busted draws, most notably the classic opening of turn 1 Faithless Looting discarding Griselbrand, turn 2 Goryo’s Vengeance for the win (this happens around 10% of the times, which creates a floor on how bad a given matchup can be. The deck is also more resilient than at first glance, being able to fight through discards well (Goryo’s Vengeance is a one card combo) and permission (abusing the splice onto arcane mechanic will often allow you to outlast the resources of a control deck). However, the deck often loses to itself. It’s not uncommon to have dug 30 cards deep with Faithless Looting, Cathartic Reunion and Night’s Whisper, only to never find that one combo card that you need. In aggregate, however, I believe the positives comfortably outweigh the negatives, resulting in an archetype with one of the highest power levels in Modern.

As an aside, you can actually achieve turn 1 kills (see above for a game I played the night before GP Toronto), though extremely rarely. In my one year of playing the deck, I’ve achieved the elusive turn 1 kill exactly twice. I was unsure about Grishoalbrand in the week leading up to GP Toronto, but if that wasn’t a sign to play Grishoalbrand, I don’t know what is!

Deck List

Here is the list I played to a 3rd-4th place finish at GP Toronto:

Grishoalbrand by Jonathan Zhang

The Main Deck

The main deck cards fall into these rough categories:

• Card Draw (Faithless Looting, Night’s Whisper, Cathartic Reunion): These all dig towards the combo pieces that you need. Faithless Looting is one of the best cards in the deck, as it costs 1 mana, does everything you want, and is repeatable. Cathartic Reunion is a debatable inclusion. It’s unclear whether it’s better than Tormenting Voice, because there are many spots where you are holding onto multiple key pieces, and Cathartic Reunion forcing you to commit two cards rather than one card is often a real cost. I could see myself playing Tormenting Voice or even more Collective Brutality over Cathartic Reunion • Combo Enablers (Nourishing Shoal, Through the Breach, Goryo’s Vengeance): These effects are mostly self-explanatory. I would advise you to become familiar with the Splice onto Arcane mechanic, as you can gain real percentage points by knowing the Splice interactions where your opponents are not. In short:
– Splicing Through the Breach lets you cheat on one mana, but requires an additional red mana
– Splicing Goryo’s Vengeance costs one more mana but lets you save the Goryo’s Vengeance. This play has two corner-case pitfalls. One is that when you splice Goryo’s Vengeance an arcane spell (for example onto Nourishing Shoal), Nourishing Shoal now has a target, and therefore the spell can now fizzle and cause you not to gain life if the Goryo’s Vengeance target becomes removed by something like Surgical Extraction. Two is that splicing a targeted arcane spell like Goryo’s Vengeance on Magic Online will crash and restart the game that you are in
• Big Fat Monsters (Griselbrand, Borborygmos Enraged, Worldspine Wurm): Some of the biggest and baddest monsters in the history of Magic: The Gathering is here. Make sure that you work towards a Griselbrand combo kill against decks with Path to Exile. Also, do not rule out a natural Borborygmos Enraged as well. I’ve had games where I flooded with lands and my Burn/Jund/Death’s Shadow opponents were liberal with their life totals, allowing me to kill them on the spot with just one Borborygmos Enraged.
• Fast/Augmentable Mana (Simian Spirit Guide, Desperate Ritual, Manamorphose): These guys work overtime in this deck. These guys enable some of the most broken lines, such as comboing off at instant speed when control decks tap out or comboing off with no open lands with Goryo’s Vengeance when resources are scarce. Note that splicing Desperate Ritual onto Nourishing Shoal is one of the most common lines that nets you one red mana.
Temple of Malice: This land deserves special mention. Some have suggested cutting this, but I would advise against that. We only have the four Faithless Looting as our other turn 1 plays. That and the fact that we are a A+B combo deck are reasons enough to play the Temples. Sure, you’ll lose some games because you need a live mana source and draw your Temple, but the benefits outweigh the costs.
• Flex Spots (Lightning Axe, Collective Brutality): In the current metagame where creatures and combo are everywhere, I prefer to include these cards over extra Cathartic Reunion or Desperate Ritual. Lightning Axe has overperformed and kills all of the relevant beaters and hatebears (ranging from the two-drops in Humans to the delve brothers in Grixis Shadows). Collective Brutality is a very flexible card that I knew I wanted at least two of in my 75, and I deemed it to have enough utility to include in the mainboard. The floor is very high as a discard outlet with three relevant modes

The Sideboard

Some of the sideboard cards may look strange to you and calls for some explanation:

• Chalice of the Void/Blood Moon: When your plan A is inferior to the opponent’s plan B, commonly because they are either faster (Storm, Infect) or because their entire deck is more or less designed to beat you (Shadows with Stubborn Denial, Lantern), you need to shift gears and turn into a bad Rakdos prison deck with a combo finish.
Pact of Negation: These are for blue decks as well as Burn (Deflecting Palm, Skullcrack, Atarka’s Command and Path to Exile are all common and troublesome cards)
• Collective Brutality: Excellent against Burn, great against blue decks and combo decks. One of the most common swaps that I do is to side out the Cathartic Reunions for my Collective Brutality and Pact of Negation.
Bontu’s Last Reckoning: These can be anything from Anger of the Gods, Pyroclasm, Kozilek’s Return to Engineered Explosives. Bontu’s is me showing respect to the rise of the Humans and the Eldrazi Menace.
Engineered Explosives: Also a nod to the Humans, as all of their two-drops are devastating for you. EE also has random utility against most of the graveyard hate (Grafdigger’s Cage, Relic of Progenitus, Pithing Needle, Sorcerous Spyglass, Rest in Peace)
Shattering Spree: So that those meddling Affinity and Lantern players can’t have nice things. I also like to bring these in against lists that are known to play the Relics and the Cages of the world (Gx Tron, Eldrazi Tron, Valakut)

Other Common Sideboard Suggestions:

Boseiju, Who Shelters All: This used to be a common tech against control. However, the UWx decks have recognized their weakness against big mana decks and have responded with Field of Ruins, Ghost Quarters and Spreading Seas. Additionally, Blood Moon and Chalice of the Void are acceptable inclusions in these matchups. Because it enters the battlefield tapped and there are other acceptable cards for the control matchups already, I don’t believe Boseiju makes the cut
Emrakul, the Aeons Torn: It’s hard to come up with too many matchups where Emrakul truly shines where neither the wurm nor the cyclops does. Decks needing a critical mass of permanents to win (Ad Nauseam, KCI combo) may be it. Path to Exile can be beaten with Borborygmos Enraged with not much extra effort.
Shatterstorm: In my opinion this is way too slow, even with SSGs and Rituals. Killing a few engine creatures or a Cranial Plating vs. Affinity is generally good enough. Same logic against Lantern. Shattering Spree is the more flexible and mana-efficient option of the two, and the Sprees have the added benefit utility vs. decks with light artifact splashes like Gx Tron. In that example, you can easily see yourself firing a Spree for one on their turn 1 Expedition Map or the turn 2 Map+Relic, spots where your Shatterstorm would be embarrassing.
Sudden Shock: A relic from the days of when the Infect and Affinity menaces run amok. If Infect ever picks up again, this will improve the matchup win rate from 20% to 23%.
Thoughtseize: The two life is a real cost, especially in this metagame. Collective Brutality covers most of the things that you care about (save for RIP), and sweepers/Lightning Axe can cover the hatebears.
Read the Bones: I’ve never felt the need to have a grindy card like this, but worth mentioning because of the JTMS and the BBE unbans.

Common Misconceptions About the Deck

1) The Deck Is Inconsistent: Yes, there will be games where you durdle for ten turns without drawing your combo and die a horrible death. There will be bias towards this conclusion for those who have experienced it, because it’s much easier to selectively remember the few times where the deck failed horribly than the other times where the deck crushed the opponent on turn 3. Also, do note that the deck plays 4 Faithless Looting, 4 Night’s Whisper and 2 Cathartic Reunion. So while it’s not as consistent as Ad Nauseam that has actual tutors in additions to cantrips and scrylands, Grishoalbrand is not that far off.
2) The Deck Instantly Folds to Graveyard Hate: Yes, Rest in Peace and Leyline of the Void are powerful effects against the deck. However, what I’m most afraid of aren’t those, but fast pressure plus light disruption. I’ve beaten plenty of RIPs, Cages and Relics in my time. You simply need to be aware of all of the remaining win conditions, decide on which one to work towards, and act decisively (be it Through the Breach, hard-casting your fatties or SSG beatdowns). Here’s a fresh, though not direct, example of this: In my win-and-in match in round 15 vs. Jonathan Rosum on Jeskai Control, Jonathan resolved a Runed Halo on Griselbrand, Runed Halo on Borborygmos Enraged, and Cliqued my Worldspine Wurm, leaving me with just mana monkeys and cantrips. I won that game by immediately recognizing the race (vs. Clique), his resource base (he only had a few cards left in hand), and the general sideboard strategy for Jeskai post-board (likely to be less Lightning Bolts and Lightning Helixes to kill my SSGs). My two SSGs were able to race his Clique for the win.
3) This Deck Is a Worse Version of Storm/Infect/[Insert Degenerate Combo Deck]: There is some actual truth to this, and I personally believe that Storm is a more well-rounded degenerate combo deck. However, I would not use the word worse, because these decks do well in different metagames. For example, though both are weak to graveyard hate, I believe Grishoalbrand would do better than Infect and Storm in a metagame where decks have slowed down and greedy three color midrange/control decks (and by extension, more Bolts/Paths/Pushes) are running rampant in the metagame. By the way, it’s my belief that this could very well be the case with JTMS and BBE being reintroduced.
4) Playing This Deck Won’t Help you Make New Friends: OK, this is sort of a joke, but not really. Actually be prepared to face a lot salty, disinterested, and upset opponents who just look at you blankly whenever you combo off and storm off as soon as the match slip is signed.

Hand Selection

If you remember that you are predominantly an A+B combo deck and mulligan accordingly, you will do well for yourself. Also remember that two to three lands are generally enough for you to cast most of your spells, and you only really need more lands/mana once you’ve established that Breach is your preferred win condition for the game. Whenever you are evaluating a hand, try to imagine the ideal first three turns given your opening hand. If that ideal case doesn’t come close to comboing off, you probably should mulligan. Remember, all the deck realistically needs is a Faithless Looting plus either Griselbrand or Goryo’s Vengeance so to me, aggressive mulliganing is acceptable, especially if you know what your opponent is playing.

It is also relevant to note that one of the best ways to enable your Goryo’s Vengeance is by discarding to hand size (especially on the draw), which mulliganing disrupts. I realize that the last two points run counter to each other, at which point I’d refer you back to the exercise of imagining the ideal first three turns for a particular hand and see if that’s good enough against the current Modern metagame.

Matchup Analysis by Archetype

Good Matchups

• Big Mana: These decks durdle for the first four turns or so, and not all of their payoffs matter to Grishoalbrand (Valakut for 18, turn 3 Karn/turn 4 Ugin)
– Examples: Gx Tron, Valakut, Eldrazi Tron
• Blue Control: Fortunately for us, Force of Will does not exist in Modern and all of the counterspells in Modern are either expensive or conditional. The pressure these decks present is very slow and the fact that these decks must always respect our ability to combo off at instant speed means we are sizable favourites vs. blue control in general. We frequently win game 1s by overloading their resources on their end step with a duplicate spell or a spliced spell, untap, and win on your turn.
– Examples: Jeskai Control, UW Control, Blue Moon Breach/Kiki/Madcap, Blue Tron
• Slower Combo Decks & Miscellaneous Decks: I’m using the word ‘combo’ liberally here to indicate linear decks needing to assemble certain things to win. For miscellaneous decks, I am referring to any deck that doesn’t necessarily fit into a broader archetype group but nevertheless trying to execute a game plan at a slower pace than us (RG Ponza, Emeria Control, Enduring Ideal). These decks are generally favorable as their fundamental turns are slower than ours by a full turn or more.
– Examples: Dredge, Elves, RG Ponza

Bad Matchups

• Clock+Disruption: The natural predator to most A+B combo decks. You can still cheese them out with a turn 2 or 3 combo while they try to set up shop, but generally speaking they are consistently disruptive and aggressive enough to make you the underdog.
– Examples: Humans, Death’s Shadow with blue, Grixis Delver, Affinity
• Faster Goldfish: Very rarely is your combo-wombo, on average, just not fast enough. Given that you don’t have much interaction, it’s natural that these guys are favored against you. These guys are also likely to be more consistent than you as well.
– Examples: Infect, Storm, Vizier Company
• Mix of Disruption from the Right Axes: These decks attack from just the right angles and make life difficult for you for one reason or another.
– Examples: Lantern, Merfolk

Hopefully this provided everyone with a good primer for how to get started with the deck. In the next part I will look to explain the sideboard plans for the most common matchups, outline some deck-specific tips and common pitfalls, and touch on where I think this deck will be in the expected metagame.