Thoughts on Grim Flayer in BGx

Modern is in constant flux with various old and new decks exchanging punches, but good old ThoughtseizeTarmogoyfLiliana of the Veil curve is still fighting for its place. Some may say that Mardu Pyromancer stands on the top as the best Thoughtseize deck (black based midrange/control), but I’m here to argue that you can still wield green and be successful, albeit the days of reign may be over.

I started to play Modern in August of 2014 and my journey took me from aggro Goblins to Merfolk, followed by fringe decks like Skred Red, UB Faeries, Bubble Hulk and Black Moon, before settling on BGx as my primary deck. I always wanted to play something that isn’t popular and well known, but little did I know that I liked the playstyle best represented by grindy BGx decks. I had no concerns writing about fringe decks like Goblins, Skred and Bubble Hulk, as there is much to discover, but with Jund and BGx decks, I felt like I knew too little and lacked experience to write anything meaningful and worthy of reading. However, after one year of playing Jund and Abzan with some decent but not spectacular results, I can finally write my thoughts without hesitation. I had my ups and downs, but all in all I can say I know how to play the deck above average. I also read a lot about midrange decks from various authors like Jadine, Reid Duke and other masters of the craft, as well as followed primers on MTGSalvation and Discord discussions, and that helped me greatly.

Today, I’m going to tackle the topic of Grim Flayer and try to explain why I like playing with it. I’m not arguing that everybody should play it, just trying to explain why I came to terms with fielding 2 of them in my main board. They might not necessarily make my deck better, but with my play style and mentality, I find them to be the next best thing to Goyf, Bob and Ooze. I’m leaving BBE out of this statement because its a value 4-drop. Ooze is also not a true 2-drop, but sometimes it is, especially with multiples in hand.

Modern is becoming faster and more volatile than ever. Sometimes, the game goes long and Ooze takes it home, yet in other games, you lose before you are able to play your fourth land. Decks like Bridgevine and Hollow One are quick and hard to deal with in game 1. If and when they stumble, you have to take advantage and win as fast as possible. Combo and big mana are similar, you have to disrupt and present a clock. Creature decks like Spirits and Humans are resilient, and so is Scales Affinity. Against control and midrange decks, every card, permanent, and hit counts.

With all that being said, we went over the basics that most of regular players already know. Now I can start writing about why I like Grim Flayer as a 2-of.

This is nothing new, but I feel like in today’s Modern, you have to spend mana thoroughly. On turn 2, you should generally seek to deploy a threat after using disruption on turn 1, be it removal or discard. I also prefer to have 2-mana threats since it enables disrupting and deploying a threat on turn 3. Sure, Flayer dies to Push, Bolt, Terminate, Path and Liliana of the Veil, but so does every other threat we have (except Goyf to Bolt). What Flayer does is filter draws, plays nicely along Dark Confidant, sets up BBE cascades, starts the beating early, grows as the game progresses, and tramples over chump blockers. The last part can be important; I had two games that I won thanks to the set up provided by Flayer as it attacked into an ineffective chump blocker in Sakura-Tribe Elder from my Titanshift opponent. Against non-interactive decks, you are usually able to stick a Flayer and grow it by turn 4, which is good when you draw relevant interaction every turn due to its filtering ability.

Grim Flayer is also good when both players are topdecking on an empty board, which is not that uncommon when playing a deck like Jund or Abzan. If he hits once, you are getting further ahead, and if he hits twice, you should be able to outgrind your opponent. Sometimes, its only a 2/2, but it remains relatively effective with opponent’s Rest in Peace in play, and continues to offer card filtering. In that case, Flayer is in fact better than Goyf and Ooze.

Art by Justin Murray

I’m one of those BGx players that likes to be as fast as possible. I play 4 Bolts whenever I can afford to, and I prefer lower land count (23 before BBE, 24 with BBE, for example). If we go back to the very beginning of the article, the disruption-Goyf-LotV is usually the best curve, but sometimes you have a good hand but lack a 2-drop (Ooze is not that effective for fast beatdown), and Grim Flayer increases the count of turn two creatures, which means you can keep more hands when you need that disruption into threat opening. Goblin Rabblemaster is another card that I have tried, but somehow it didn’t fit in the mainboard that well. It is fast, demands an answer and goes wide, but it costs three and it dies to most removal, much like everything else. I did like it from the side, but gone are the days when I found a slot for it. Tireless Tracker is slower and while I love to draw cards off of lands, I deem it too slow in today’s metagame.

So after the unbanning of Bloodbraid Elf and the rise of fast decks, I went from

  • 4 Tarmogoyf
  • 4 Dark Confidant
  • 3 Scavenging Ooze
  • 4 Bloodbraid Elf
  • to

  • 4 Tarmogoyf
  • 3 Dark Confidant
  • 3 Scavenging Ooze
  • 2 Grim Flayer
  • 3 Bloodbraid Elf
  • Not only did I lower my curve and self-inflicted lifeloss while maintaining the creature count, I also smoothened the hole left by playing only 3 Bobs and BBEs with another must-remove threat. When I double blocked with Flayer and Goyf in dire situations, my opponents almost exclusively choose to get rid of Flayer and not Goyf.

    The biggest con of Grim Flayer even at 4/4 is when facing Hollow Ones, Vengevines, Anglers and Tasigurs. While Goyf and Ooze can outgrow almost every Modern playable creature, Flayer’s ceiling is merely a 4/4. With all the removal in BGx decks, that is not an always-present issue, but it can be, which is not optimal. Another downside is that it has to connect in order to offer something, unlike Bob and Ooze, yet it at least has trample to make it easier.

    Art by Raymond Swanland

    I consider my Grim Flayers to be 5-6 Goyfs and 4-5 Bobs. It may not be as good as other creatures when playing from behind, but is able to pull ahead even when facing chump blockers, which is not to be overlooked. I don’t play cards like Nihil Spellbomb, Tarfire or Collective Brutality as a way to fasten the growth to 4/4, but it gets there and demands an answer. I think that playing those cards as a 1-of because you have only two Grim Flayers in the deck is a mistake, since the math is not on your side. However, if your metagame is full of graveyard decks, sure, go ahead with the Spellbomb. For Abzan decks, Brutality is not a bad choice since you are already playing Lingering Souls. If we are talking about 3 or 4 Flayers, that’s a different story, but I’m not going there yet.

    Its ability to dig for lands, answers and threats is unique. You could argue that BGx already has good topdecks, but Flayer can set up discard against combo, control and big mana, as well as dig for answers against the likes of Humans, Elves and graveyard decks. It cannot stop nut draws from fast and non-interactive decks, but the same is true for other creatures in our deck. It also dies all the same as Goyf, Bob and Ooze. Grim Flayer is an odd mix of Goyf and Bob. It has synergy with Bob, Goyf, BBE, Grim Lavamancer and even Ooze. It might be better in Abzan due to Lingering Souls, but it is good at searching for Ancient Grudge against KCI and Affinity (not that much against Ensnaring Bridge, sadly).

    Art by Aleksi Briclot

    I feel like with Flayer, you can play 6 discard spells and still ditch them in mid and late game. Your BBEs become better, not only because of the set up, but because hitting a Flayer is not that worse than an Ooze or a Goyf, and on occasions it can be better. I feel that if Jund has to cut Bobs and BBEs to 3, then Grim Flayer is an effective way to do so without missing them too much. Flayer also bins Leylines in sideboard games, and is able to make Dark Confidant better.

    There are games where Grim Flayer is a bust, but the same can be said for Ooze and Bob. Interestingly, we side out Bobs and Oozes against decks like Burn and Ad Nauseum respectively, but in my experience I never sided Flayers. In game ones, it imitates a Goyf while offering some Bob-alike ability, and in games two and three, it helps to dig for sideboard cards.

    I mentioned Abzan, and while Grim Flayer is a must-have in Traverse lists, I have yet to play that deck, so I cannot really comment other than what was already said. What I can do is suggest that you try playing Grim Flayer in Jund and “centralized” Abzan decks to form your own opinion. You don’t have to experiment on PPTQ, GP or any other important events, but for a regular FNM or MTGO league, there is nothing to lose but a few matches.

    TL:DR

    This article was all over the place, so I’ll sum it up: I like Flayer as an additional 2-drop that can grow and dig for answers or threats. It helps pulling ahead and plays nicely along the likes of Bob and BBE. It offers something on turn 2 as well as in a topdeck war. It might not be the best draw when playing from behind, but its not the worst blocker with active delirium. It slots decently into the curve of disruption-threat-Liliana (or another disruption plus threat) while setting up future draws when it connects. Don’t overthink about delirium with cards like tribal spells or mainboard artifacts and take it for a spin.

    Ever since the rise of Humans with Bugler, KCI and Bridgevine, I had more feelgood moments with Flayer than feelbads. It might be just me, but you’ll never know if you don’t try!

    All images courtesy of WotC.

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