Shards of Alara: Grixis Undead Review (Part 1 of 2)
Our next stop in our tour of the shards of Alara is the world of Grixis, a bleak and dystopian world where the dead both outnumber and hunt the living. Vast bonescapes cover the terrain, fields littered with the remnants of those too far deteriorated or scattered to be reanimated or repurposed. Small pockets of humans and other races band together in pockets, hiding from the horrors about them. If it helps, think of the humans in the Terminator series in the future where machines hold sway. In a word? Grim.
In more concrete terms, Grixis describes the shard ruled by the colour Black, alongside its two allied-colours Red and Blue. In keeping with the set’s theme, Grixis has its own unique mechanic in unearth. A creature with unearth has a limited second live, a recursive “two-and-out” that lets you recast them from the graveyard once they’ve ended their initial lifespan on the battlefield. This second go-round is, to repurpose a phrase, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. Put another way, once you trigger their unearth, they rocket from the crypt with haste and are removed from the game if they die again or at the end of turn. With this in mind, we now turn our attention to the inhabitants of Grixis.
Hatred of the Living
As with Primordial Jund, the creature curve of Grixis Undead shows that it looks to come into its own in the midgame. It all but forfeits the early game, having a single two-drop, but then packs in the three- and four-drops.
That early creature gives us our first taste of unearth in the form of a Dregscape Zombie. A lowly but reasonably-costed 2/1, it can add another beater in the red zone later for a discounted rate.
From there we enter a heavy midfueld filled with utility creatures. The full glory of tri-colour Grixis is revealed in the Kederekt Creeper, a 2/3 deathtouch body with a blocking restriction your opponent will likely find quite unpalateable. The Creeper will likely spend its early time as a Phantom Warrior, waltzing through for damage, before either drawing removal or taking two of your opponent’s creatures with it (remember, with deathtoch you can spread the pain around, 1 point to each blocker). You also have an edict-on-a-stick in the form of the Fleshbag Marauder. While if cleverly played your opponent’s choice can be a painful one, you are less likely to feel the agony of indecision knowing that your unearth creatures can always return for an encore performance.
Then there’s the Weatherlight reprint, Hidden Horror, an aggressively-costed 4/4 body with a drawback again somewhat mitigated by unearth. Finally you have a pair of pingers, the Blood Cultist and the Vithian Stinger. The Stinger is your straightforward pinger who has traded his (typically useless) point of power for the ability to unearth himself for one more point of damage down the road. The Cultist is a more nuanced creature- she can only target creatures, but if she pings something that dies in the turn, she gets a +1/+1 counter. It will be best to use her as a sniper early on, pinging creatures that will die anyway to snare some easy counters. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking your best targets are your opponent’s! Any of your creatures on their way out (from the Fleshbag Marauder, for instance) are just as good.
Moving into the four-drops, we have a few intriguing options there as well. A pair of Incurable Ogres offer an interesting study. Typically creatures with greater toughness than power are “defensively-minded,” while those with a higher power seem better suited for offense. At a certain point, though, the scales of an unbalanced creature can tip in the other direction. Who wants to send in a 5/1 beater that costs four only to see your opponent trade it out with one of the token creatures he netted from a Dragon Fodder. The lopsided Ogre exhibits precisely that sort of tension, and having a 5-power blocker is no joke. On the upside, if your opponent finds themselves vulnerable to attack, you can always swing for heavy damage. That’s not to say the Ogre is a great creature- he’s as fragile as rice paper- but the cyclical nature of asymmetrical creatures is an interesting one.
Continuing the theme we find a pair of 4/2’s in the Fire-Field Ogres, but equipped with first strike these are a far hardier breed. These Ogres beg to be sent into the red zone, and will need to be blocked by a 5-toughness creature to make such an attack unprofitable. They too have unearth, and will be a constant menace sitting in your graveyard. Your opponent will need to ask themselves each turn if they are prepared to have one of them springout for one last attack, and this may slow their assault on you.
The final creature here is a natural fit, the core set zombie Gravedigger. A reliable workhorse in the intro decks, it gives you the ability to go fishing in your graveyard for a creature deserving of another chance. Moving on to the top of the curve, we find two last creatures, the Dreg Reaver and the Vein Drinker. The Reaver is nothing special, a 4/3 vanilla beater for five mana (about as good as it gets in Black). The Vein Drinker, though, is your decks’ foil premium rare, and she’s a gem. Although expensive (six mana for a 4/4 flyer), she has the ability to trade damage with another creature (this is called ‘fight’ in Magic R&D). While this can leave her vulnerable to being burnt out by a follow-up Shock, after plucking a few low-hanging fruit she’ll be well out of range of most burn (remember that Lightning Bolt wasn’t reprinted at this time). Of course, that’s assuming your opponent either has flying defenses or creatures worth killing- left unchecked, your Drinker will be just as happy to feast on your opponent instead.
A Greater Power
Unlike most creature-heavy decks, the noncreature spells included in Grixis Undead go beyond mere creature support and removal, and indeed are of such quality that some of these have even found their way to be constructed-playable. There’s a very robust and flexible removal suite here, for one. A singleton copy of Bone Splinters offers unrestricted killpower at a deeply discounted rate, with the caveat that you’re losing a creature as well. The inherent card disadvantage present in such a trade is naturally mitigated by unearth (and the Gravedigger), so choose your sacrifice carefully. For removal without that drawback (but with a few restrictions), there are a pair of Terrors– the original Black removal staple.
Agony Warp pulls double-duty for only two mana. It can either kill a 3-toughness creature or weaken a larger one, and blunt the power of another creature. Under the right circumstances, this can essentially act as a Fog and a kill all in one, and the deck includes two of them. Finally, there’s an Essence Drain, which although slow (it’s a sorcery) gives you the added reach of being able to hit your opponent.
You also have some solid reach in a pair of Blightnings, that oft-hated sorcery that was an auto-include in many constructed Jund decks for so long. Although there’s no Bloodbraid Elf to cascade into it here, it still remains a card of tremendous power. Stronger sill is the deck’s non-premium rare, Cruel Ultimatum, though it carries the pricetag to match. Costing a brutal seven mana- all of it coloured- it’s a puzzling inclusion here. While there’s no denying that it’s often a game-ender if it goes off, it’s hard enough to play in a constructed deck (and I’d know, as Cruel Control was my favourite Standard deck archetype), let alone one with a nearly all-basic mana base (two each of Crumbling Necropolis and Grixis Panorama being the only exceptions). It’s a glorious aspiration, but likely to be the subject of a great deal of frustration. It’s saving grace is that preconstructed games can tend to go long, giving the Grixis pilot some time to establish the requisite mana sources. Giving a small dose of hope to the dream is the Obelisk of Grixis, a mana-fixing artifact that will be of some help in sorting out the deck’s colours.
Grixis Undead is a deck that looks to play aggro-control. It wants to land some threats, then sit back a bit and lock down the game through disruption and removal while its bruisers grind away at the opponent’s life total. Should its threats die along the way, in many cases that’s hardly an impediment as they’ll unearth right back for another round. Getting off the virtual instagib of Cruel Ultimatum will just be icing on the cake. Or flesh on the bone, as it were.