By Dom Harvey
I’m excited to write about the most impressive strategy I’ve found in Modern recently. It’s strange to think that Eldrazi wasn’t the most broken thing going on in a format, but I genuinely believe that was the case. First, though, we have to set the stage.
Goryo’s Vengeance is the most dangerous unrestricted card in Modern, and I fully expect it to be banned at some point. The card allows for blisteringly fast kills that violate the spirit of the format as laid out by WotC, and it gets better and better as more powerful legends are printed. It was only a matter of time until somebody broke it in half, and Bob Huang (via Shintara Kurata) succeeded at GP Charlotte last year:
The deck has hovered around the edge of the format, and Bob continues to put up good finishes, but it hasn’t become as popular as many of us expected after that event. The deck is more resilient than it appears but also has a high failure rate – you often can’t find the pieces you need when you need them. In particular, the weakness of the Through the Breach + Worldspine Wurm backup plan in a lot of matchups – Affinity/Infect/Merfolk can take the hit and kill on the backswing, decks with white have Path to Exile, and combo decks can win with the turn that Wurm gives them – means you’re overly reliant on Griselbrand. The aggressive decks put a lot of pressure on your life total and can sometimes interact with Griselbrand, making it hard to combo without a perfect sequence of draws. When Grishoalbrand is firing on all cylinders, it resembles the scariest Legacy decks; it has the highest ceiling of any deck in the format, but also a low floor.
In all the heated discussions about the Twin ban, it was easy to overlook its implications for Goryo’s Vengeance. Vengeance + Emrakul was the most powerful interaction in Modern that never saw any play, due mostly to the best deck trumping it easily with Deceiver Exarch. Twin also wanted to play Dispel anyway, which happens to be the most efficient and reasonable answer to both Goryo’s Vengeance and Through the Breach. With Twin gone, and no obvious blue control deck to fill its shoes, not many decks can fight you on the stack – and if Griselbrand ever enters play, it’s usually game over.
Kentaro Yamamoto made the most of this change, playing a Kenji Tsumura creation to an 8-2 finish at Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch: http://www.mtggoldfish.com/deck/371303#online
This deck trades in the speed of the all-in Vengeance decks for greater flexibility and interaction. Lightning Bolt is excellent against the decks that want to outrace you and ensures that an Emrakul hit is lethal. All modes of Izzet Charm are very useful, with the draw + discard option shining in a deck that needs specific pieces in its graveyard at certain times. The synergy between Vengeance and littlest Jace is absurd, allowing you to ‘cycle’ a Vengeance (especially useful when your hand is Vengeance + creature but you have no other discard outlet) while giving the deck more staying power. The issue with Jace previously was that it was a little too slow against the fast decks and the slower decks had otherwise dead removal that would tag your Jace before it could do anything. Cards like Lightning Bolt and Abrupt Decay are at an all-time low in the format, but that may change now that the Eldrazi menace is gone.
Vengeance is at its absolute best in this deck, with 8 game-ending monsters to target and Jace to gain value in the midgame. Unfortunately, Griselbrand is at its worst here. You can put Griselbrand into play, draw fourteen cards, and still die because your hand can’t beat the board; you can’t convert the extra cards into a win as easily. Other Griselbrand decks can live dangerously by paying a bunch of life because they know they can finish the game that turn; this deck has to be more conservative. This is a big problem if you’re relying on Through the Breach into Griselbrand, especially since you don’t have much acceleration.
These two decks share some cards but they try to do different things in different ways. With that in mind, questions like ‘why is the Grixis deck better than Grishoalbrand?’ or vice versa don’t make much sense. However, it’s natural to look for connections between decks and want to fix the problems a list has while keeping the aspects that drew you to it in the first place. I knew I wanted to explore Goryo’s Vengeance in as much detail as I could, but none of the decks I saw felt quite right.
While the main plan of Vengeance -> Griselbrand is excellent, you need some amount of redundancy for the deck to be consistent enough. For the same reasons that Vengeance is so good, it’s a unique effect; nothing really compares to it. Both Grishoalbrand and Tsumura/Yamamoto’s deck can Through the Breach in other creatures – Worldspine Wurm or Emrakul respectively – but this was hard to rely on when UW Eldrazi – the best and most popular deck – was naturally strong against it thanks to Eldrazi Displacer and Drowner of Hope. Breach also needs the creature to be in your hand, but you want the freedom to use your Looting effects early to dig for your missing pieces. If you have a Griselbrand but neither of Vengeance/Breach when you Loot, you cut off half of your outs wherever you choose to put Griselbrand. If you keep it in hand for Breach but then draw Vengeance you now have to spend mana to pitch it, negating the efficiency of Vengeance. Most Grishoalbrand lists don’t run many actual Looting effects so finding a way to pitch it isn’t trivial; the lists that splash blue are a little better here, and Jace gives the Japanese deck even more outlets. Gerry Thompson recommended Tormenting Voice with dredgers to bin Griselbrand more consistently and dig for Vengeance but didn’t pursue the idea further.
This problem is amplified in Grishoalbrand because Worldspine Wurm doesn’t work with Goryo’s Vengeance; you only get to make the most of Vengeance when you also have both a discard outlet and Griselbrand. That’s common enough that the deck is still terrifying, but you still want more targets. The deck typically runs two copies of Borborygmos Enraged, but a ‘natural’ Vengeance on Borborygmos is rarely good enough thanks to the deck’s low land count.
My first experiment tried to fix this problem. I’m dissatisfied with the Breach-Wurm package but still need something big to pitch to Shoal, and I want more legends for Goryo’s Vengeance. Running enough lands and other support cards to make Borborygmos a legitimate target kills two birds with one stone: I can still gain enough life (though there’s a meaningful difference between 8 and 11, especially when multiple Shoals are involved) while increasing the number of fast kills. Breach would become even weaker here, so I would need a different backup plan to make this sensible. I remembered a list that did well at a SCG Classic about a year ago:
Necrotic Ooze was perfect! It was just cheap enough that you could cast it quickly without too much acceleration, it let you transition seamlessly into winning the game without having to find another Vengeance/Breach, and it evaded common sideboard cards like Spell Pierce and Dispel. It also has useful benefits in some weird corner cases. It doesn’t target anything in your graveyard, so a Scavenging Ooze can’t fizzle it outright if you have more legends than they have green mana; you can get around Relic by playing Ooze and then Axe discarding Griselbrand, letting you activate it before they ever have a window to disrupt you. It ignores Pithing Needle on Griselbrand or Borborygmos so your opponent has to gamble on what to name; if they get it wrong, it costs them the game. It tracks both graveyards, so you can turn their cards against them: I’ve used Ooze as Wall of Roots against Abzan Company to get a crucial boost in mana, as Spellskite against Infect, and as Grim Lavamancer against Burn to lock them under their own Eidolon. When all else fails, it’s a 4/3 attacker against opponents that will often side out their creature removal for more effective cards. None of these applications are common, but between them they win you a surprising number of games.
There were other nice features of Garett’s list. Lightning Axe was a card I always wanted to play more in Grishoalbrand, which didn’t have room to spare. Here it was the cheap discard outlet you needed that conveniently dealt with Scavenging Ooze and bought time against decks that were forced to race you; the ability to discard a Borborygmos at instant speed off a Spirit Guide was surprisingly relevant when going off with Ooze. With Ooze in the deck, Grisly Salvage could dig for both sides of your combo while letting you hit your land drops and digging for Spirit Guide if you need to go off soon. I had Time of Need in an early build because of how crucial it was to find Griselbrand, but Grisly Salvage was good enough that it no longer seemed necessary.
With extra discard outlets and Salvage, the Dredge idea became more appealing. I wanted at least one Grave-Troll as a way to dig deep for Griselbrand and on-demand fodder for Nourishing Shoal. I also tried a Life from the Loam as a way to pad my hand for Borborygmos and offer mid-game strength against attrition decks. Without much testing, I registered this at the Taunton series event in March:
4 Lightning Axe
4 Faithless Looting
4 Grisly Salvage
1 Zombie Infestation
4 Goryo’s Vengeance
4 Necrotic Ooze
1 Noxious Revival
4 Borborygmos Enraged
4 Nourishing Shoal
1 Life from the Loam
1 Golgari Grave-Troll
4 Simian Spirit Guide
I went 5-2, losing to Grixis and Kayure Patel on UW Eldrazi (just like everyone who’s played him in the past month!), beating Jeskai Ascendancy, Kiki-Chord, UW Eldrazi, Elves, and Merfolk.
The core of the deck felt very strong, but I quickly regretted some of the card choices. Zombie Infestation was intended as a way to immediately convert cards from Griselbrand into a board presence in games where you can’t combo fully as well as an extra discard outlet that you can pay for in advance, but it was unimpressive unless everything was already going well.
Nourishing Shoal was weak too. I assumed I would need the lifegain to make going off with Ooze possible since I couldn’t gain back life by attacking, but it didn’t help when your life total was under pressure since they would just fight over the first activation. Despite the Grave-Troll cuteness, it was hard to have something good to pitch reliably, and the card often sat in your hand doing nothing if you weren’t going off. It was the first card I shaved in sideboarding too; it didn’t feel essential. Cutting Shoal freed up space and helped make the deck more smooth.
Loam was great though! It gave me something productive to do when the game slowed down and made Borborygmos kills very consistent. The synergy with Faithless Looting was impressive and the mana requirements of the deck became a little easier. Hardcasting Griselbrand or Borborygmos was surprisingly common, and Loam with Cavern of Souls meant you were sure to force through Necrotic Ooze if given enough time.
When I found Mortuary Mire, it seemed I could rebuild the deck around Loam: now, Loam could also ‘find’ Necrotic Ooze while dredging towards Griselbrand/Borborygmos, and do it in a way that was largely resilient to discard and counterspells. It was reminiscent of what made Amulet Bloom so busted: you could go toe-to-toe with any deck on speed while outclassing them in the late game. Loam also made Ooze for Borborygmos much better: even if you couldn’t go off that turn, you could wipe the board and threaten the same on every subsequent turn.
The deck still had a fail rate and – like most combo decks – you could easily lose to pressure backed up by disruption, but it felt very good. Here’s the list I took to the Top 8 at the Axion Win-A-Crate event:
4 Goryo’s Vengence
1 Noxious Revival
3 Life from the Loam
4 Lightning Axe
4 Grisly Salvage
1 Tormenting Voice
4 Faithless Looting
4 Simian Spirit Guide
4 Necrotic Ooze
4 Borborygmos Enraged
2 Copperline Gorge
1 Blackcleave Cliffs
1 Cavern of Souls
2 Mortuary Mire
1 Overgrown Tomb
1 Stomping Ground
2 Blood Crypt
4 Bloodstained Mire
4 Verdant Catacombs
2 Wooded Foothills
2 Inquisition of Kozilek
4 Abrupt Decay
2 Ancient Grudge
1 Cavern of Souls
1 Life from the Loam
I cut the 24th land for a Tormenting Voice just before the event and was happy enough with that change. Simian Spirit Guide places an awkward tension on the deck: if you run enough lands to make Vengeance -> Borborygmos consistently lethal, you end up with too many mana sources. I’ll explore a way of fixing this problem below. 23 felt like enough, and it’s possible you could go down to 22.
I wanted a ninth ‘action card’ but there’s nothing else that properly mimics the function of Vengeance or Ooze. Garett had Unburial Rites, which was interesting but clunky and demanding on the manabase; if you play Rites, it’s worth dedicating yourself to it fully. Noxious Revival returns a Vengeance that was milled/dredged and is great for letting you fight through countermagic by casting Vengeance multiple times in one turn cycle. It’s also, for my money, one of the most underrated cards in Modern. Phyrexian mana was an egregious design mistake and Noxious Revival compounds that with an extreme version of the Pulse of Murasa question: why on Earth can this target things in opposing graveyards? In my time playing the card I’ve used it to fizzle countless Snapcaster Mages, counter Unburial Rites and Goryo’s Vengeance, and act as a 0-mana Time Walk against opponents discarding to hand size by forcing them to draw the same card next turn. It’s not the kind of card you can just cram into a deck but, in decks that do want it, it’s very good.
The sideboard isn’t aimed at anything at particular, but that’s part of its appeal. Some combo decks need a certain quantity of cards to function as intended, so you can’t dilute your deck with reactive cards too much. This deck can go off from a low base – one reanimation effect in hand and a Griselbrand in the yard – so you can afford to play the efficient answers available in Modern. Thoughtseize and Inquisition are excellent against any combo/control decks, and Inquisition is key against Burn and Delver variants, while Abrupt Decay hits the most common hate cards and can always hit an attacker in a pinch. A card like Pyroclasm is subtly very strong in a deck like this: opponents have to dump their hand on the board to win before you get your combo going, so they can’t afford to play around it and have to walk into a blowout.
I won’t go into the tournament in much detail, but here’s a brief summary:
R1: 2-0 vs Blue Moon
Game 1 was a little dicey as I took a risky line with Necrotic Ooze that left me dead to multiple burn spells, but he didn’t have them and I cleaned up next turn. Game 2 was comical: after using discard to leave him with only reactive cards, I made my land drops every turn thanks to Loam and started hardcasting legends. Eventually Griselbrand stuck, followed by Borborygmos, and it turned into a weird game of EDH.
R2: 2-0 vs Affinity
R3: 2-0 vs 8-Rack
R4: 2-1 vs 4C Jeskai Ascendancy (Matt Gregory)
Matt’s been playing this deck for a long time, and I think it stands to gain a lot from the bannings. In Game 1 he takes a ton of damage from his lands and a Gitaxian Probe, so a Turn 2 Vengeance on Borborygmos is lethal.
This match highlighted the strength of the deck’s sideboard: I was facing another combo deck that’s roughly as fast as mine, but I had access to the disruption that makes Jund such an irritating matchup for Ascendancy.
R5: 2-1 vs UW Eldrazi (Joao Choca)
R6: 2-0 vs UW Control (Matt Light)
Game 1 sees my best draw of the tournament, with Griselbrand and Borborygmos both attacking on Turn 2. In Game 2 his hand of double Dispel and Negate matches up comically badly against Cavern -> Ooze. This anti-Eldrazi version of UW was an excellent matchup; I expect the UW decks to look a lot different now, but you should still be favoured.
R7: 2-0 vs UW Eldrazi (GP Bologna champ Kayure Patel)
T8: 1-2 vs UW Eldrazi (James Allingham)
This match, and the entire tournament, came down to a mulligan decision in G3. My opening seven is:
Thoughtseize, Lightning Axe, Noxious Revival, Griselbrand, Borborygmos Enraged, fetchland, fetchland
This hand has a lot going for it. I have Thoughtseize as an answer to Rest in Peace or just to slow him down, Axe can buy time and discard Griselbrand, and Revival can act as backup copies of important cards in a pinch. On the other hand, I need to find Vengeance or Ooze soon and I don’t have a Looting or Salvage to make that easier. It might have to be specifically Vengeance, as I only have two lands, and I’m going to be taking a lot of damage early so there’s no guarantee I can activate Griselbrand more than once. I chose to mulligan and still don’t know if it was correct, but James’ draw was good enough that I would have been in trouble regardless unless I ripped Vengeance early.
It was a frustrating loss, since my matchups after that point would have been great, but it was nice to have some degree of validation for the deck.
After writing the first draft of this I played in the Modern side-event at GP Barcelona. The competition wasn’t as tough but I wanted to see how the deck would hold up in a more varied field:
R1: 2-0 vs Wu Emeria (basically the best possible matchup)
R2: 2-1 vs UWR Control with AV and Resto/Kiki
This was a very complicated and interesting match. I should have won all three games, but I made some careless mistakes to throw Game 2; I narrowly won Game 3 despite an ideal start from his side. The matchup felt good but you have to plan carefully; Lightning Bolt makes going off with Ooze a much riskier proposition.
R3: 0-2 vs Abzan
R4: 2-1 vs Soul Sisters
R5: 2-1 vs UW Thopter/Sword
This matchup is considerably easier than UWR, but that can change depending on their Gifts/Rites targets and choice of Tolaria West/Muddle bullets. Loam + Cavern + Ooze really shines here.
The biggest lesson I’ve had to learn so far is to be very aware of your life total and how that affects your sequencing. Its importance for this deck is directly apparent: one mistimed fetchland can cost you seven cards from Griselbrand and hence the entire game. The manabase is a delicate balance between having enough fetchlands for Loam, enough targets for those fetchlands – including enough basics that you can fetch without further pain consistently but without hurting the deck’s consistency, Scars lands, and utility lands. I’m not confident the manabase is correct, and seemingly small errors in deck construction or sequencing can have a large impact on the game. Suppose you’re still at 20 against UWR; you play a land without thinking much about it, because why would it matter? A few turns later, you have to crack a fetchland for an untapped shockland in order to have the right colours because you played the wrong land earlier. Now you’re at 17 and if you draw twice with Griselbrand you’re dead to Lightning Bolt. If those seven cards make the difference, you’ve thrown away a winning position because of a seemingly inconsequential decision at the start of the game. Maybe you played in such a way that you had to play a land instead of using a Spirit Guide, so now your Borborygmos has to find a land instead of offering a certain win; this comes up frequently if you fetch Blood Crypt + Forest instead of Stomping Ground + Swamp, as now your Looting/Axe ties up your black mana that you need for Vengeance.
Faithless Looting/Tormenting Voice, Grisly Salvage, and Life from the Loam all force you to think about how to manage your resources. Make realistic assumptions about how much pressure you’re under and whether you can afford to wait to extract the most value or pad your hand so that you don’t have to discard certain cards to Looting or Axe. You also need to identify what your priorities are and how to use your cards most effectively to achieve them. Maybe you’re just looking for Griselbrand or Borborygmos and have to work out how to order Looting, Loam, and something else over the next two turns to mill the most cards; maybe you’re drawing to Vengeance or Ooze and need to maximize your chance of finding one while keeping your life total or land count high enough that you can still win if you hit.
Sideboarding sometimes involves maximizing speed and cutting the slower cards (such as Life from the Loam against Burn or fast combo) but more often I slow down the deck to support interaction. In the Ascendancy matchup I cut Spirit Guides even though it’s a combo mirror because I want to make room for the discard and Abrupt Decays, which should extend the game and make the speed offered by Spirit Guide unnecessary, and I don’t want a disjointed draw where I have Spirit Guides and interaction but no action to reward that speed; the same goes for Infect, which has Dispel or Relic of Progenitus to frustrate early combo attempts but can’t easily plow through a wall of interaction.
There’s a lot of room to experiment with this shell. The deck is currently structured as a Vengeance/Ooze combo deck with an incidental Loam engine. What if you reversed that? Loam decks have always floated around the fringes of Modern without sustained success; reasons include an over-reliance on Loam and an inability to close the game quickly or come back from behind. A Vengeance package lets you win games without ever finding Loam and steal games from seemingly hopeless positions. A deck that can out-grind the grindy decks while randomly killing on Turn 2 or 3 has a good sales pitch. An early sketch:
4 Borborygmos Enraged
4 Goryo’s Vengeance
4 Unburial Rites
4 Faithless Looting
3 Lightning Axe
4 Life from the Loam
1 Raven’s Crime
25 Land (inc. some number of Dakmor Salvages?)
This is more of a thought experiment than a tuned list, but there’s a lot of powerful stuff going on here. You have a bunch of cards that give you free wins against different parts of the field: some decks can’t beat a Darkblast, and even more can’t realistically overwhelm it before you put a massive legend into play. There are some decks, and some draws in every deck, that struggle immensely against a Smallpox. When all else fails, you can still pick up wins with a quick Vengeance.
Alternatively, we can double down on the Loam-Borborygmos interaction with Seismic Assault, which has done good work with Loam for a decade now. It’s another way of making a ‘partial’ combo with Griselbrand lethal and a solid plan in its own right: an active Assault makes life hell for Infect, Company, Affinity, Elves, and many more. The Gitrog Monster is a possible Vengeance target that does silly things with Dredge and lands and goes infinite easily with Assault. There’s a lot to explore here.
As I write this, the ban list has just been updated and the implications for Modern are still unclear. In the Eldrazi metagame, Goryo’s Vengeance decks of various stripes were roughly even against Eldrazi but very strong against anti-Eldrazi decks like Elves and Living End as well as staples of the format like Abzan Company. If these are pushed out and replaced by tougher matchups, life becomes much harder. The Thopter Foundry decks that will spring up should be fine matchups but their presence might lead to the adoption of ‘hard’ graveyard hate like Leyline of the Void and Rest in Peace that’s tough to beat; the Japanese deck with its Breach-Emrakul backup plan looks better in that context. Blue decks have to adapt to this new reality in ways that could help them against Goryo’s Vengeance – Spell Snare is likely to become more popular, and the Thopter Foundry decks might sport Muddle the Mixture. The overall effect on the metagame might be negative for us but, when the format is open and changing, you want a deck with a strong and proactive gameplan that doesn’t have a target on it. Goryo’s Vengeance fits the bill perfectly.
I highly encourage you to try out these decks and experiment with your own lists. If Modern is an amusement park with something for everyone, Goryo’s Vengeance is the rollercoaster that’s blatantly unsafe and offers a dangerous thrill. Enjoy it while it lasts!
Thanks for reading!