Commander Showdown — Gisa and Geralf vs Grimgrin
Commander Showdown is a series that compares and contrast two similar commanders, analyzes differences in strategy and deck construction, and evaluates how those differences are represented by the data here on EDHREC.
The Planeswalking Dead
In the wake of Pro Tour Amonkhet, zombies have begun shambling their way through the Standard format. With new toys like Lord of the Accursed, Liliana's Mastery, and even the new Liliana, Death's Majesty herself, there’s a lot out there to help our brain-eating friends. Luckily, Standard isn’t the only format that gets to enjoy all that zombie goodness. EDH has its share of cards that create, buff, and synergize with the undead. So, for this week’s Commander Showdown, we’re going to take a look at two of the most popular zombie tribal commanders.
In the first corner, live in the flesh, we have Gisa and Geralf! And in the second corner, not alive, but definitely in the flesh--of another person, probably--it’s Grimgrin, Corpse-Born!
Before Shadows Over Innistrad, Ghoulcaller Gisa and Stitcher Geralf were separate cards. Now, though, the petulant brother-sister duo joined forces to make Gisa and Geralf, a 4/4 Human Wizard that lets you cast one zombie from your graveyard on your turn. They even mill a handful of cards from your library when they enter the battlefield, to help you get the ball rolling.
Grimgrin, Corpse-Born hails from the original Innistrad block, and his design is much less straightforward. Rather than letting you cast zombies, Grimgrin actually takes them away, sacrificing your creatures to untap himself. He doesn’t just take away your creatures, though, because he also destroys a creature each time he attacks. He gets stronger with every creature he culls, adding pieces of the dead to his body to create the ultimate zombie katamari.
Both commanders are natural fits to lead the helm of zombie decks. Gisa and Geralf obviously care very specifically about zombie cards, while Grimgrin is a zombie himself, and directly benefits from the power boosts of zombie lords such as Death Baron and Lord of the Undead. Plus, since zombies are famous for returning from the graveyard, they serve as excellent sacrifice fodder for Grimgrin.
Still, these commanders have their differences, and that’s what we’re here to analyze. How do their individual differences affect their gameplay? What changes do their abilities have on deck construction? To answer these questions, we need some data.
Venn Diagram Time
I’ve put together a quasi-Venn Diagram below, using the Top and Signature Cards for each commander. This helps us see which cards they have in common and (more importantly) which cards they don’t. I’ve done this trick for several articles now, but this particular diagram is pretty unique. Take a look:
This is practically just a single column. Each commander only has three or four unique cards! Venn Diagrams are supposed to be two overlapping circles, but these overlap so much that it’s almost just one circle!
This is probably par for the course for a tribal deck. Many of the cards in the ‘Both’ column are zombie lords that power up your undead horde, such as Diregraf Captain, Cemetery Reaper, and Undead Warchief. There’s also a smattering of cards that create zombie tokens, such as Grave Titan and Army of the Damned, which are obviously valuable for any zombie deck.
So instead, let’s turn our attention to the cards these commanders don’t have in common, and see what they can tell us about the differences between these two commanders. Let’s start with Gisa and Geralf.
Only three unique cards show up in the siblings’ column: Prized Amalgam, Unbreathing Horde, and Forgotten Creation. Prized Amalgam makes sense, since it can come back for free every time you use your commander’s ability to cast a zombie from your graveyard. Unbreathing Horde is a good inclusion as well, since it gets bigger for each zombie you control, and Gisa and Geralf clearly like putting zombies onto the battlefield. Finally, Forgotten Creation helps fill up your graveyard, giving you more options for zombies to cast.
So why doesn’t Grimgrin run any of these cards? For starters, he doesn’t need the large graveyard Forgotten Creation provides. Since Grimgrin routinely sacrifices creatures, that Unbreathing Horde probably won’t get very large, either. He also can’t naturally cast zombies from the graveyard, so Prized Amalgam is more difficult to trigger. These are all still good cards in Grimgrin decks, but not as crucial to his strategy.
Night of the Vengeful Dead
Call to the Grave is an excellent pick for Grimgrin, removing enemy creatures but never destroying your zombie commander. This is much riskier in a Gisa and Geralf deck, given their Human creature type, and would therefore fall victim to this deadly enchantment.
Grave Pact is also a nice choice for Grimgrin, since he sacrifices creatures. I’m not convinced this card doesn’t belong in a Gisa and Geralf deck too, since they’re a creature-based deck and can benefit from the effect even by accident. Grave Pact is pretty nasty when you can continuously recast your Fleshbag Marauder, after all. Still, it is much easier to trigger in a Grimgrin deck, so I can see why it only shows up in his column.
Continuing down the list, Undead Alchemist is absolutely delightful in a Grimgrin deck. It doesn’t do much for the human duo, since they’d rather deal damage than mill cards. Grimgrin, however, has other plans. Since he naturally powers himself up, he can become a pretty heavy hitter, but he needs a steady supply of creatures to keep attacking. Undead Alchemist provides those creatures, converting Grimgrin’s attacks into more zombie tokens, which he can then use to power himself up again and attack for even more damage, thus milling even more cards and creating even more zombies. Then, when Grimgrin becomes powerful enough to take out an opponent with commander damage, he can just sacrifice the Alchemist, so his damage goes through.
The real star of Grimgrin’s column, though, is Vengeful Dead. This monster is fine for Gisa and Geralf, dealing some incidental damage here and there, but for the big zombie brute, it’s an absolute powerhouse. Here’s why:
If you play enough EDH, you quickly become acquainted with the power of sacrifice outlets. Ashnod's Altar and High Market are perhaps the most famous examples. Sacrifice isn’t only useful for Meren of Clan Nel Toth; the ability to remove your own creatures from the battlefield can help you avoid blowouts like Insurrection, or an unfriendly Darksteel Mutation. They can also lead to some terrifying combos; just look at Breya, Etherium Shaper. Sacrifice outlets carry with them a secretly scary amount of power.
Well look alive, (or perhaps a little undead) because Grimgrin is a sacrifice outlet, and he has a powerful combo up his sleeves.
Rooftop Storm and Gravecrawler are the two most popular Signature Cards for Grimgrin, and for good reason. Rooftop Storm reduces the cost of your zombie spells to zero, while Gravecrawler is a persistent little ankle-biter that can be cast from your graveyard as long as you control another zombie, like Grimgrin, for instance. Combining these cards lets you sacrifice and recast Gravecrawler an infinite number of times, giving Grimgrin as many +1/+1 counters as he desires and generating an infinite number of death triggers.
This is why a card like Vengeful Dead can be such a powerhouse for Grimgrin. If you can’t break through an enemy’s wall of creatures, you can finish the game with an infinite life-loss combo instead. The new Plague Belcher from Amonkhet and the old favorite Diregraf Captain also work here, providing additional support for the combo. It’s not just death triggers that matter either--Diregraf Colossus creates infinite zombie tokens with this combo, and Noxious Ghoul becomes a Plague Wind on a stick.
This is the most crucial aspect of Grimgrin decks. There are certainly plenty of zombie goodness to utilize, but there’s also probably a combo lurking beneath the surface. In fact, it’s not surprising at all to see some Grimgrin decks that are devoted entirely to infinite combos, rather than zombie tribal at all.
Others still will suit up Grimgrin as a voltron, taking advantage of his ability to power himself up and destroy any blockers in his way. Cards like Reassembling Skeleton and Bitterblossom aren’t zombies, but they provide Grimgrin with untap fodder each turn. Alternatively, enchantments like Freed from the Real can untap him without requiring a sacrifice. Since Grimgrin basically exerts himself every turn, like an EDH version of Glorybringer, giving him vigilance isn’t such a bad idea either. A card like Sword of Vengeance fits the bill quite nicely. After that, use blue counterspells to keep him protected from removal, and you’ve got yourself a seriously scary zombie.
In a word, Grimgrin, Corpse-Born is a bit more flexible than Gisa and Geralf. It’s harder to know what to expect from a Grimgrin deck, because his combo potential and ever-increasing power help him go in multiple directions.
This isn’t to say that Gisa and Geralf are inflexible or less creative, of course. They’re just more committed to zombie tribal. Zombies themselves are actually super flexible. They can bend their limbs in all sorts of crazy angles… because their limbs aren’t actually attached to their bodies.
Rather than creating a single powerhouse attacker or arranging an out-of-nowhere combo, Gisa and Geralf instead offer the quintessential zombie plan: slowly but surely amass an unkillable horde that overwhelm opponents by sheer size. Their game plan is more gradual, and notably resilient against board wipes, since they can recall their favorite friends back from the grave. If you’re caught between building Grimgrin and building Gisa and Geralf, ask yourself how you’d like to win the game. If you want a wall of zombies, Gisa and Geralf may be able to help you out a bit more. If you like the horde but also enjoy the occasional combo, or one giant face-bashing monster, Grimgrin may be more your style.
Think of it this way: Gisa and Geralf represent the genre of slow, shambling, but inexorable masses of zombies from Night of the Living Dead, while Grimgrin, Corpse-Born is more akin to the zombies from 28 Days Later, able to take you down with remarkable speed if you’re not careful.
Cards to Consider
Now that we’ve taken a look at the cards these commanders are running, let’s take a look at some cards they aren’t running, but probably should see more play.
Gisa and Geralf
- Agent of Erebos. Only you get to have a graveyard.
- Noosegraf Mob. This card looks a little durdly at first glance, but it’s actually amazing. This is six mana for five zombie tokens, which is a good deal. Then, when it dies, you can just cast it again, for a whole new round of zombie tokens! They don’t even enter the battlefield tapped! This sees play in 46% of decks, which is a lot, but with the repeatable value this card provides, I think that number should be closer to 100%.
- Custodi Lich. Bringing the monarch mechanic into the game is fun, but getting to claim the monarchy from your graveyard at any time is even better. Add the fact that you force enemies to sacrifices creatures, and this card is gold.
- Urza's Incubator. Rooftop Storm isn’t the only cost-reduction card out there. As long as you’re casting zombies every turn, you might as well make it cheaper to do. I’m really shocked that this only sees play in 11% of Gisa and Geralf decks.
- Perpetual Timepiece. This is a weird one, but hear me out. Graveyards are fragile. Many players now routinely run graveyard hate in their decks: Bojuka Bog, Rest in Peace, Relic of Progenitus, Scavenging Ooze… your dead cards are incredibly valuable but incredibly unsafe. It’s a good idea to be prepared for the worst, and the Timepiece can rescue the cards you don’t want exiled. Plus, in the meantime, it also puts a few more cards in your graveyard, which is almost like drawing extra zombies for Gisa and Geralf’s ability.
- Bontu's Monument. This little legendary artifact doesn’t look like much, but if you’re running a Rooftop Storm + Gravecrawler combo, it’s one more way to close out the game. Plus, most of your zombies are black, so it’s likely to easy the mana cost on most of your creatures.
- Arena of the Ancients. This card is really just dumb, and Grimgrin loves it. This gives every other player’s commander Grimgrin’s same ‘doesn’t untap’ restriction, but unlike him, they don’t have a way to untap themselves. This can eliminate a few more blockers, or perhaps put a stop to aggressive commanders like Rafiq of the Many. On a related note, check out Meekstone.
- Pemmin's Aura is a handy enchantment that can serve double-duty for Grimgrin, both by untapping him and by giving him instant-speed shroud. It doesn’t show up on Grimgrin’s page at all, and that just seems plain wrong.
- Speaking of untapping, Fatestitcher. That’s right, I’m having a Josh Lee Kwai moment and recommending that you put Fatestitcher in your decks. It taps down enemy creatures, it untaps your lands, it gets Grimgrin ready to attack, and it can even revive itself for one mana to do it again. You can even sacrifice it to Grimgrin, too. The versatility the card provides is always underestimated, but it really shines in this deck, and should see a lot more play.
- Grave Betrayal. This is one of those cards I think should go in just about any black deck, but it’s particularly powerful when you’re playing a commander that destroys other player’s creatures. They even come back as zombies, to fit right into your tribal strategy. Opponents always have to think twice about playing Wrath of God with this on the table.
With all the new zombie cards from Amonkhet, it’s never been a better time to be a necromancer. Whether you’re playing Standard or EDH, zombies have a lot of exciting gameplay to offer. No matter what your genre of zombie or your genre of Magic: the Gathering, the undead are here to lend a helping hand. Just make sure you keep your brain in a safe place they can’t reach.
Til next time!