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The Other Side of Gruul


Standard has seen some recent success from Gruul Aggro:

Alex Majlaton made Top 8 of the Pro Tour Mythic Championship in my hometown of Cleveland with a Red-leaning Gruul deck. This is essentially a Red Deck with just a couple of Gruul-splashing (not even Green-splashing) sideboard cards.

But what about a “real” Gruul deck?

A deck that plays mechanics like Riot? A deck of good creatures and a little support? What might that look like?

I got the idea for this deck way back at Grand Prix New Jersey. I was watching my friend Paul Jordan play in the main event in-between my Modern PTQ rounds. Paul had skillfully opened Domri, Chaos Bringer and looked completely unstoppable. Every guy he played was either bigger than whatever guy the opponent had on the battlefield… Or, starting off bigger, entered the battlefield sideways. Every game involving Domri, Chaos Bringer seemed totally lopsided. Rather than bringing Chaos, these games seemed utterly ordered and predictable.

Why aren’t people playing this in Constructed?

Part of the reason had to be the Mono-Blue deck. I mean having a bunch of clunky midrange creatures - or relying on a clunkier do-nothing 4-drop Planeswalker - seemed like a good way to lose to the relentless tempo of the Mono-Blue deck.

Except Standard gives us a pretty good secret weapon:

Kraul Harpooner

You probably already know about the free wins that Kraul Harpooner can produce. 1/1 flying creatures like Mono Blue’s Siren Stormtamer (and Healer’s Hawk in another context) are particularly bad against Kraul Harpooner. Harpooner can rip them out of the sky while leaving its perfectly serviceable body. But that’s not all! With only a little boost, Kraul Harpooner can take down even the mighty Tempest Djinn in a clear one-for-one… A kind of Green Cast Down that you’re very happy to not generate card advantage with. That boost can come a couple of different ways, and in such a way, even, that the Harpooner might survive.

What was really interesting to me, though, was the total synergy that I could potentially get out of Kraul Harpooner. The Insect Warrior often gets a big short term buff… That doesn’t go anywhere. Okay, okay; all of a sudden you have 8 power… But so what?

Riot seemed like a perfect add-on for Kraul Harpooner. Sometimes you would get enough +1/+1 action to live through a nasty initial fight. But more importantly - especially against Control decks - you could swing in for enormous short term damage.

Add on a little inability to be countered from Domri’s Riot twin, and all of a sudden we might have some plausible resistance to Mono-Blue. In any case, I decided a hasty Kraul Harpooner was an angle I wanted to explore in Standard.

So that’s how the idea of the deck came together. There are a lot of overlapping synergies here. One of the things I like about the deck is that most of the cards start off pretty good… But almost every card gets extra value by being in the deck, playing off of other synergistic cards.

Rhythm of the Wild and Domri, Chaos Bringer

Having so many copies of these cards allows us to build with Riot in mind. Not only for Kraul Harpooner, but with “free” +1/+1 action that can be exploited by our Simic visitors.

Rhythm of the Wild gets the nod as a four-of over Domri for a couple of reasons: Llanowar Elves helps get the enchantment out on turn two; plus Domri has diminishing returns when you draw multiples.

That said, I was surprised at how effective it was to have multiple copies of Rhythm of the Wild in play; or both the enchantment and the Planeswalker. Why choose between +1/+1 and haste… When you can have both?

Riot, Adapt, and Explore

Like I said, there is a lot of +1/+1 action in this deck. One of the most compelling examples is the interplay between Riot and Adapt.

I played a game against Esper Control earlier where I drew a lot of copies of Rhythm of the Wild. Going pretty long, I was kind of already thinking about how I might want to sideboard. Then I drew a Growth-Chamber Guardian.

“I sure hope he doesn’t have a Cast Down,” I said to myself.

I played the Growth-Chamber Guardian and gave it two +1/+1 counters as well as haste. The +1/+1 counters triggered the Elf Crab Warrior’s search ability. A moment later I was attacking for twelve. Did he have an Absorb? It wouldn’t have mattered much because of Rhythm of the Wild (wow that other ability!) … And because he did not, in fact, have the Cast Down we were quickly then shuffling up for Game 2.

You lose some of Growth-Chamber Guardian’s ceiling when you Riot out a +1/+1 counter instead of using its actual Adapt ability, but you gain back substantial speed. That is, you save 2g but get to draw an extra card (or three) anyway.

Ditto on Incubation Druid. You don’t need to Adapt it in order to get its Black Lotus ability online. For example, if you have a Rhythm of the Wild in play but summon the Druid with Domri’s [+1] you can immediately net mana. Oh, and it’s not like the opponent can Counterspell your mana-netting Elf Druid. Again, you’re lowering the ceiling on Incubation Druid… It’s never going to be a 3/5 this way… But the Lotus ability can be very useful in deploying all the extra cards Domri has filled your hand with, or kicking the odd Fight With Fire.

Draw the Right Half of Your Deck

I can imagine this deck being severely challenged by Mono-Red. If you get the wrong draw (i.e. one very reliant of Llanowar Elves) you can get run over by Goblin Chainwhirler. Also I didn’t put an overabundance of removal in the deck; so if the opponent plays a problem threat… It might just stay there until the end of the game.

That said, you can combat this dastardly problem by just drawing your Wildgrowth Walker and a bunch of Explore guys. This isn’t the most in-the-driver’s-seat plan… But at least you will be unbeatable some percentage of your games. You just won’t be able to tell when ahead of time. Domri can help you again, though; by putting extra copies of one or the other into your soon-to-be unstoppable hand.

Haste is Good Against Removal; Grinding is Good Against Card Advantage

One thing I was super surprised by testing this deck is how solid it was against Control.

Just having options to attack immediately is really powerful against decks that defend themselves with Kaya’s Wrath or Planeswalker activations. It’s pretty easy to get the opponent on the defensive. I think my favorite game was the one where Teferi was forced to [-3] against Kraul Harpooner. That game actually dragged on another two turns, but I think we both knew how it was going to end.

I’ve been broadly surprised that people are pointing Mortify at guys more than enchantments. But, among other things, that makes sandbagging a Kraul Harpooner that much more effective. For one, you still have a Rhythm of the Wild in play to give it haste later on; plus, all its dead compatriots help elongate that one-shot spear. Initially I thought Kraul Harpooner was one of the creatures you should sideboard out against Control, but I’ve come to realize it’s a very valuable card that you wait on to play, after the opponent has loaded you up with Kaya’s Wrath, or you’ve filled your own graveyard with Explore guys. Not that it’s not full-on “okay” on its merits… A 3/2 for 2 mana is pretty effectively “Watchwolf” if you grok; but the possibility of an eight-or-so point swing + some free Thief of Sanity resistance makes this an awesome sideboard keep.

Which is not to say we don’t need to make room! When I initially built the sideboard, I hadn’t yet fully appreciated how good haste was going to be against Esper. But that said, the biggest threat in the main is probably Domri, and there are no legitimate battlecruiser Dragons or world-rocking Wurms in the main. Carnage Tyrant is less than it once was, but if you can get the opponent to discard a Kaya’s Wrath on some lesser creatures (and you can) the idea of a hasty 7/6 hexproof Dinosaur is about as horrible for the opponent as it sounds.

I’m also quite enamored of Cindervines, but that card’s effectiveness is going to vary a lot with how the opponent sideboards. It’s still okay against their Chemister’s Insights, and I’m happy to have it against Search for Azcanta, but it’s nowhere near the four-of status it earns against Nexus of Fate decks across the table from Esper.

The Mountain is there as a cheat against Settle the Wreckage. Settle has fallen hard in value due to Kaya’s Wrath, but one Mountain doesn’t hurt too much, and truth be told… There might not be enough red mana in the main.

That said…

Gruul Guildgate Really Sucks

I presume this is just a product of small numbers, but I’ve never opened on Gruul Guildgate without a Llanowar Elves right next to it in my starting seven. Not once.

The mana is surprisingly awkward… But the combination of Stomping Ground and Rootbound Crag has been pretty fantastic. This deck really appreciates the ability to make G on turn one.

… But its long game is also solid.

We’re approaching a brand new kind of set; where Planeswalkers are going to be more common than ever before. I kind of chuckled at the thought of this when testing this Gruul, Domri and Vivien next to each other with Cindervines also in play.

“What about some kind of Shock?” I asked myself. It might, in fact, want some way to become defensively quicker, for both Mono-Blue and Red Decks. I’ll let you know if I figure something else out.