Mar 7, 20199659 views

Gruul SMAAAAASH!!!

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Well I never ever would have thought the day would come, but here I am writing an article about Constructed. Who am I?!?! I knew heading into Mythic Championship Cleveland that it was going to be a special one for me. Not only was it going to be the first MC, but I was super excited that it was going to be attached to a Magic Fest weekend. I remember attending Pro Tours way back in the day when there would be several other large tournaments, small side events, dealers, and artists to attract locals and give Pro Tours more of a convention feel. MC and MF Cleveland were a blast to be at because of the sheer number of Magic players in attendance and multitude of things to do! Another big reason MC Cleveland was special for me was that at the time it was the last PT/MC I was qualified for, and I was ready to accept falling off the train after a nice long ride. Being able to participate in these PTs/MCs for this long has been an unbelievable pleasure and opportunity. Luckily for me, I was able to overcome a poor 3-3 showing at the draft tables with a great standard record of 8-2 which qualifies me for one more MC. Yup, they can’t get rid of me yet! How I arrived at the Gruul Gates...
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This was a Tweet from the Gruul spoiler day way back in December. I remember being impressed by the Riot mechanic on Gruul Spellbreaker and Frenzied Arynx, and how R&D was continuing to push the power level of creatures. I was mostly joking that day, but I guess the joke was on me! From the start of our Mythic Championship Cleveland testing process, my testing group quickly became entrenched into three camps: Sultai Midrange, Esper Control, and White Weenie Aggro. I was very confident that with the talented players on our team, we would have extremely good MC decks for these three archetypes, but knowing myself I knew there was no way I could find success or comfort playing Sultai Midrange or any type of control deck. Which left me squarely in the WW camp. The SCG Baltimore Open was my first opportunity to really get in some good reps in the new standard format. I was able to get my MC testing teammate Andrew Elenbogen’s Azorius Aggro list and decided to register it for the event. The deck overall served me well, losing a win-and-in for top 8, but it just didn’t “feel” quite right in my hands. I never really felt confident that I was making the best plays or taking the right lines, and at times the deck just felt a bit mopey to me. Confidence in myself and my deck are very important to me, so I was quite disappointed that I had such a hard time with WW. Sometime during Sunday of the Open, I ran into my Open teammate Tommy Ashton and Baltimore local Kurt Spiess who had registered a Gruul deck for that weekend’s Standard Classic. The deck was full of quick aggressive creatures like Pelt Collector and Zhur-Taa Goblin along with big monsters like Rekindling Phoenix, Gruul Spellbreaker, and Skarrgan Hellkite, and just looked like it could completely bash an opponent into oblivion very quickly. Fast forward a few weeks later, I’ve completely forgotten about Kurt’s Gruul deck and I’m still a bit lost as to what to play. Tommy messages me saying he just went 4-1 in a MTGO league with a Gruul deck similar to Kurt’s. Since I’m pretty desperate I give it a shot and immediately fall in love with the deck. Here is the version of the deck I was settling in on around a week before MC Cleveland:
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I arrived at the above list, iterating from a few MTGO 5-0 lists that I had seen over the past few weeks. One of the original 5-0 lists I started from was created by fellow Massdrop MTG teammate Benjamin Weird Weitz. This aggressive version of the deck was capable of some very explosive starts and reminded me a lot of the Mono Green Ghalta decks I had been running a few standard seasons ago. I went down to only one copy of Legion Warboss in the main deck because it was so bad against any non-control or non-Nexus deck. I also felt Skarrgan Hellkite was much better than Siege Gang Commander as a 5 drop for several reasons – haste was better at immediately attacking planewalkers and combo decks, the 5/5 flying body is usually the biggest thing on the battlefield and blocks everything, and the 5/5 body also survives Finality. Sadly, I was the only person on my testing group working on the Gruul deck, so I wasn’t sure of my card choices given my rather poor history of Constructed deck tuning and results! Luckily there was still a weekend of RPTQ decklist data before MC Cleveland to draw from, and former Massdrop MTG member Scott Lipp qualified for MC London with a list that was very similar to where I had ended up:
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Sweet! So I was set. I had what I thought was a great deck, and it was confirmed with a great result from the RPTQ. Locked and loaded for the MC! All I needed to do was chat with Scotty about a few of his main deck and sideboard choices, and ensure my understanding of the various match ups gelled with his. Not. So. Fast. I hadn’t even been chatting with Scott on Gruul Aggro for a few hours when I get a Messenger request from Sam Ihlenfeldt asking about Gruul. Sam and I did not know each other and we were both testing with different groups, but he and Andrew Elenbogen were chatting and Andrew mentioned that I was the only person considering the deck on our team and that he should talk to me. I wanted to start the conversation with Sam on a clean slate, so we started at square one for the purposes of our Gruul theory crafting. We both agreed that Rekindling Phoenix was still very powerful, Cindervines was a key for Gruul to beat control and Nexus decks, and that Kraul Harpooner was very well positioned. The big question was “What kind of shell should we build around these pillars?” Since we knew we already had a pretty good aggro version of the deck, we started looking at other versions. That same day, Shota Takao placed in the top 4 at Grand Prix Memphis with a deck that featured a lot of what I thought were the important Gruul cards I wanted to play PLUS Goblin Chainwhirler! This seemed like a good place to begin investigating a more midrange take on the deck. Shota Takao
Grand Prix Memphis Top 4
Main Deck 2 Collision/Colossus 3 Dire Fleet Daredevil 1 Forest 4 Goblin Chainwhirler 4 Growth-Chamber Guardian 2 Gruul Guildgate 4 Gruul Spellbreaker 2 Lava Coil 2 Lightning Strike 9 Mountain 4 Rekindling Phoenix 4 Rootbound Crag 4 Shock 3 Siege-Gang Commander 4 Stomping Ground 4 Unclaimed Territory 4 Zhur-Taa Goblin Sideboard 3 Cindervines 1 Collision/Colossus 2 Fiery Cannonade 2 Karn, Scion of Urza 2 Kraul Harpooner 1 Lava Coil 3 Legion Warboss 1 The Immortal Sun Based on our experiences thus far with Gruul vs the various metagame decks, coupled with where we felt standard was heading, we made some changes to Shota’s list and started jamming MTGO leagues. In reading our discussion notes, I can say that we solidified the main deck changes very quickly. Zhur-Taa Goblin had been underperforming a bit for me and was often being sided out because it was the worst card in many match ups. We replaced the Zhur-Taa Goblins with 4 Kraul Harpooner at first as a test of Harpooner main deck, and they were so good they ended up staying there. Another reason we went with the full set of Harpooners was that we expected Mono Blue to be a large part of and a strong player in the MC Cleveland metagame. One of the Gruul deck’s worst match ups is Sultai, mostly because of the ability of Wildgrowth Walker to get out of hand from a creature sizing standpoint (all of Gruul’s removal is damage based) and Hostage Taker acting as a walking Control Magic. Because of these factors, we decided to run the full complement of Lightning Strikes and shaved the number of Shocks down to 2. Growth-Chamber Guardian was another good tool to have against Sultai, and is just a great addition to the deck. It allows the deck to have a source of card advantage and a mana sink, while still presenting a sizable threat on the battlefield. Lastly we swapped out the Siege-Gang Commanders for Skarrgan Hellkites with the same reasoning as I talked about above. Surprisingly all of these initial main deck changes that we made based on theory stuck, and it became clear that while the aggressive version of Gruul was powerful, the midrange version offered us a bit more in terms of flexibility and resiliency against the midrange decks while still being able to aggro opponents out. Unclaimed Territory – So in nearly all of my post-tournament chats with other players regarding the deck, the question on the manabase always comes up: “Three forests and four Chainwhirler? Why didn’t you run Unclaimed Territory?!” To be honest, I simply did not have time to do much testing with Unclaimed Territory from the time when we added Goblin Chainwhirlers in the deck (there were roughly 72 hours from when we started working on Takao’s list until decklists for MC Cleveland were due). During the handful of leagues I ran with the list, mana was only very rarely and issue. The same was true for me at the MC. Going forward I would not discount running Unclaimed Territory over the Forests, but it could affect some of the sideboard choices we made - namely the 2 copies of Vivien Reid may need to be replaced. Here is the deck Sam and I registered and played at MC Cleveland: Timothy Wu
Mythic Championship Cleveland
Main Deck 3 Dire Fleet Daredevil 4 Goblin Chainwhirler 4 Growth-Chamber Guardian 4 Gruul Spellbreaker 4 Rekindling Phoenix 3 Skarrgan Hellkite 4 Kraul Harpooner 2 Lava Coil 2 Collision // Colossus 4 Lightning Strike 2 Shock 2 Gruul Guildgate 4 Rootbound Crag 4 Stomping Ground 3 Forest 11 Mountain Sideboard 2 Lava Coil 4 Cindervines 2 Status // Statue 2 Vivien Reid 2 Legion Warboss 1 Karn, Scion of Urza 2 Shivan Fire
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How we arrived at the sideboard: We started with a baseline of 4 Cindervines (obviously) and 2 Lava Coils. Turn two Cindervines is one of the best plays vs both Esper control and Nexus of Fate decks. Making them pay a small damage tax for just operating their deck, as well has having a proactive answer to Search for Azcanta and Wilderness Reclamation is exactly where Gruul wants to be. The 3rd and 4th Lava Coils were additional answers to problem cards like Wildgrowth Walker, Hostage Taker, the usual CCC casting cost characters, drakes, and Rekindling Phoenix. Sam had been testing a few Status/Statue in a previous version of his deck and found Chainwhirler + Status to be one of the few ways Gruul can win in the long game vs Sultai. After doing some more testing with it, we also found the combo to be good vs WW decks since their creatures often grow way out of Chainwhirler range quickly. Status’s +1/+1 was also applicable in some corner cases for creature combat sizing and protection from damage-based removal, while deathtouch allowed tramplers to sneak in much more damage. I had previously been running 2-3 Fiery Cannonade in my Gruul Aggro sideboards because very rarely would any of my creatures die to it (Pelt Collectors were usually 3/3s by turn 3, and Zhur-Taa Goblins were always sized as 3/3s in the matchups where Cannonade was coming in). However, even though Cannonade seemed good on paper, it was rarely great in practice. Against Mono Blue they would either just Spell Pierce it and/or have a Tempest Djinn out and/or protect their Curious Obsession creature with a Dive Down. Against WW the timing needed to be near perfect, otherwise their creatures were often out of Cannonade range. And against Mono Red it was questionable whether to even bring in Cannonade because they have so few creatures it actually kills. Given all this, we decided that Shivan Fire was likely much more effective against these decks – we took a “KILL ON SIGHT” mentality when playing other aggro decks and wanted to have fast, efficient answers to every threat they played at every point on the curve. As a bonus vs Drakes and Izzet Phoenix, Shivan Fire picks off Pteramander and Goblin Electromancer, and later can nab a drake. We wanted to devote the remaining sideboard slots to control and midrange decks. While I wasn’t a big fan of main decking Legion Warboss, having a few in the sideboard to bring in against Esper control and Nexus decks was a nice “must-answer” to have against them. I would consider having up to three copies in the 75, but could not figure out where to fit the 3rd. Our final decision revolved around what planewalker package we should employ. Takao ran 2 Karn, Scion of Urza and 1 The Immortal Sun (who holds an honorary degree in planeswalking). We figured this was because of his Unclaimed Territory manabase. During my testing, Vivien Reid proved time and time again to be a difficult to answer, versatile threat and I was pretty determined to have 2 in my sideboard. Vivien does so much more than Karn versus so many different decks, and I wanted access to that kind of utility knife at the MC. Regarding the single Karn in our sideboard, we also considered The Immortal Sun and Domri, Chaos Bringer in this spot. I had very few data points on The Immortal Sun as it was a late breaking card we were trying, but 6 mana felt like a lot to spend on something that could be Hostage Taker’ed. In hindsight, perhaps Domri would have been a better choice than Karn as the golem planewalker was a bit mopey at times. I ended up finishing 8-2 with the deck at the Mythic Championship, while Sam ran into some bad luck and bad match ups and went 2-3. On day 1 I started out 4-0 with the deck beating GW Tokens, WW Aggro, Izzet Drakes, and Azorius Aggro before losing in the last round to Sultai. On day 2 I defeated two Simic Nexus decks, Mono Red, and won one and lost one versus Sultai. Going forward I would highly recommend trying the deck out unless there are lots of Sultai or Gates midrange decks in your metagame – those are easily Gruul’s worst match ups. I would also strongly suggest doing your due diligence (unlike me!) and test out the Unclaimed Territory manabase. It may prevent you from having access to Viviens in the sideboard, but smoothing the mana may be worth that concession. Below is the sideboard guide that Sam and I used for the MC, along with some match up notes that may or may not be correct, but it’s what I think you should do! Hope you enjoyed reading and this helps you SMASH! If you’re bored come check me out on Twitter @wutings. Sultai Midrange +2 Status/Statue, +2 Vivien Reid, +2 Lava Coil, +1 Karn, Scion of Urza -2 Shock, -2 Collision/Colossus, -3 Kraul Harpooner This can be a very tough match up. Save your Lighting Strikes to immediately target Wildgrowth Walker and Hostage Taker with its trigger on the stack. Incubation Druid is also likely worth spending a Strike or Coil on. A general rule is to save Dire Fleet Daredevil until you can target and cast a spell from their graveyard. Gruul usually wins through the air with Phoenix and Hellkite. We can grind with them for a bit, but Sultai will always end up out grinding Gruul in the long run. Simic Nexus +4 Cindervines, +2 Vivien Reid, +2 Legion Warboss -2 Shock, -2 Lava Coil, -4 Growth-Chamber Guardian As soon as you get a whiff that your opponent is on Nexus, choose haste for every Riot creature. I believe this to be a good match up for Gruul. Post board, Cindervines is one of the best cards to have against them. If possible, leave up the one mana for Cindervines activation if they can cast Wilderness Reclamation. My general rule is to kill Reclamation on sight, and kill Search for Azcanta right before they can flip it. White Weenie Aggro +2 Shivan Fire, +2 Lava Coil, +2 Status/Statue -2 Collision/Colossus, -3 Kraul Harpooner, -1 Skarrgan Hellkite Game 1 will depend a lot on who wins the die roll. WW can snowball as soon as turn 3 and make Goblin Chainwhirler look pretty dumb. If you have the luxury to do so, try to save the Strikes and Coils for Benalish Marshall. Gruul’s creatures outsize WW’s creatures without anthems, so many games end up in creature stalls. Gruul tends to win these games through the air once establishing a foothold on the ground. Mono Blue Tempo +2 Shivan Fire, +2 Lava Coil -3 Dire Fleet Daredevil, -1 Gruul Spellbreaker on the play / -1 Skarrgan Hellkite on the draw I was disappointed in not facing this match up at the MC since Mono Blue is one of the decks our list was designed to beat. Don’t get cute with trying to interact with Mono Blue because they are better at it than you. Fire off your removal when you can to try and exhaust their counter spells and Dive Downs. Gruul’s 4-power creatures are very difficult for Mono Blue to deal with. Esper Control +4 Cindervines, +2 Vivien Reid, +2 Legion Warboss, +1 Karn, Scion of Urza -2 Shock, -2 Lava Coil, -2 Collision/Colossus, -2 Lightning Strike, -1 Kraul Harpooner Play a few threats and make them answer them, and don’t over commit your creatures into a Wrath. Gruul Spellbreaker really shines here – if they can’t counter it, they are forced to answer it during their turn leaving them open to you casting more threats the following turn. Keep in mind that they often side into Hostage Takers so you may want to adjust the number of Lightning Strikes you side out depending on how they side board. Red Aggro +2 Shivan Fire, +2 Lava Coil, +3 Cindervines -2 Collision/Colossus, -4 Kraul Harpooner, -1 Skarrgan Hellkite The most important card in this matchup for Mono Red is Experimental Frenzy. Usually Gruul Midrange can stabilize at around 8-10 life, but if Mono Red can stick a Frenzy after their initial rush the game is usually over. It took me many matches of losing to Experimental Frenzy to realize Cindervines is needed here. It could be that bringing in all 4 is correct. Izzet Drakes +2 Shivan Fire, +2 Lava Coil, +2 Vivien Reid -2 Shock, -4 Lightning Strike This feels like a good match up, especially after sideboard where we get to trade in our Lightning Strikes for one-for-one answers to their drakes. Save your late game Harpooners for Niv Mizzet (or huge drakes) if the game is still at parity. Izzet Arclight Phoenix +2 Shivan Fire, +2 Lava Coil -4 Goblin Chainwhirler Versus the Arclight Phoenix deck you will want to max out on your Shock effects since Goblin Electromancer is a must kill. Vivien Reid is a bit too slow against them and very vulnerable against hasted flyers. Rakdos Midrange +2 Vivien Reid, +2 Lava Coil, +1 Karn, Scion of Urza -2 Shock, -2 Collision/Colossus, -1 Kraul Harpooner What happened to this deck? I feel like I played against it quite a bit during the week between GP Memphis and MC Cleveland, but I have not seen it since. I guess that’s a good thing because this was a difficult matchup for Gruul Midrange. Similarly to Sultai, Rakdos is much better at grinding than Gruul. Gruul has no good way to answer Treasure Map, and their Dire-Fleet Daredevil is almost always a 2-for-1. Selesnya/Bant Tokens +2 Shivan Fire, +2 Status/Statue, +2 Lava Coil -3 Dire Fleet Daredevil, -2 Collision/Colossus, -1 Kraul Harpooner This matchup plays our similarly to White Aggro, but I believe Gruul Midrange is not favored here as it is vs White Aggro. As with both matchups, it is difficult to come back if they start snowballing with a few anthems. But Selesnya Tokens has a powerful top end in March of the Multitudes which breaks up ground stalls very quickly. Gruul Midrange +2 Status/Statue, +2 Vivien Reid, +2 Lava Coil, +2 Shivan Fire -2 Lightning Strike, -2 Collision/Colossus, -2 Kraul Harpooner, -2 Shock I have never played the mirror before, so this sideboard plan is just an educated guess. If they are playing Siege-Gang Commander over Skarrgan Hellkite, leaving in the Shocks and Strikes might be better than leaving in Harpooners. Gruul Aggro +2 Shivan Fire, +2 Status/Statue, +2 Lava Coil -3 Dire Fleet Daredevil, -2 Collision/Colossus, -1 Kraul Harpooner This matchup can be a bit scary as their nut draws can be very difficult to manage, especially when Gruul Midrange is on the draw. I think picking off Llanowar Elf asap is correct. Both decks have lots of the same middle drops, but if you can survive until turn 4 or 5, your top end should outclass their side of the board. Esper Midrange +2 Shivan Fire, +2 Vivien Reid -2 Lava Coil, -2 Goblin Chainwhirler This is another deck I saw a lot of during MTGO testing leading up the MC Cleveland, but kind of dropped off the face of the earth afterward. Many of Esper Midrange’s creatures are must kills for Gruul – Hero of Precinct One, Hostage Taker, and Thief of Sanity – and this can be taxing on the limited number of removal spells we run. After side boarding, they often transform into a more controlling deck bringing in Kaya’s Wrath and Teferi. Gates Midrange +4 Cindervines, +2 Status/Statue, +2 Vivien Reid, +2 Legion Warboss -2 Shock, -2 Lava Coil, -3 Dire Fleet Daredevil, -3 Lightning Strike Wow this matchup is bad and it’s good that this deck is not widely played. Gruul has no good way to deal with Gatebreaker Ram once it becomes a 5/5 or bigger let alone a Gate Colossus, gets swept by Gates Ablaze, doesn’t have ways to deal with Guild Summit, and generally can’t overcome the life gain from one Archway Angel. Hopefully you always fade this matchup. Nexus of Gates +4 Cindervines, +2 Status/Statue, +2 Vivien Reid -2 Shock, -2 Lava Coil, -4 Growth-Chamber Guardian Similarly to Gate Midrange, fade this deck since it can just sideboard into the Midrange version and beat you in all aspects of the game! Mardu Aggro +2 Shivan Fire, +2 Lava Coil -2 Collision/Colossus, -2 Kraul Harpooner Gruul Midrange felt pretty favored versus the Judith decks during testing. Goblin Chainwhirler does a good job of blocking and negating some of the card advantage gained by Gutterbones. An early Spawn of Mayhem gets quickly neutered by Harpooners, Rekindling Phoenix, and Skarrgan Hellkite. 
(Edited by moderator Duncan)
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Awesome post. Gruul Aggro has always been my favorite in the arena draft, but I could never make a good variant for constructed. I will have to give this a shot for sure.