Fen Lane, East Berghold by John Constable (1817). Vivien Reid by Anna Steinbauer.
We’re all eagerly anticipating the Ravnica Allegiance prerelease next weekend. I’m looking forward to getting my hands on The Haunt of Hightower and I know each of the four other Commander writers here at CoolStuffInc.com have been thinking about the old decks they’ll be tweaking and the new decks they’ll be building with these spicy new cards.
Over the coming week you can look forward to Top Ten lists from myself, Bruce Richard, Mark Wischkaemper, Jason Alt and Abe Sargent. We’ve each picked a guild and will be writing about our favorite cards from Ravnica Allegiance from the perspective of our particular guild.
I’ll leave my fellow writers’ Guild assignments a mystery for you to discover as the week goes on. Will Jason take a walk on the wild side and explore Rakdos? Does Bruce have a mutant streak that will show up in a list about Simic? As you saw in this week’s title, I have drawn the Gruul straw.
The Gruul straw.
I can assure you that the Gruul straw is NOT the short straw.
It might in fact be the biggest, burliest straw of them all. Some people say that size doesn’t matter. Those people aren’t members of the Gruul clans.
My list of top Gruul cards from Ravnica Allegiance will be based upon the cards I’m going to be adding to my decks and cards that I feel make sense for a Gruul deck or a Gruul strategy. Most of those decks, if not all of them, won’t actually be Gruul decks but don’t let that fool you. I am actually very fond of games that are won and lost “in the trenches” throwing giant creatures at each other until one player is left standing. Sure, Gruul can do stax and like any other guild, Gruul can combo but at its heart I think of Gruul as being all about going toe to toe on the battlefield.
Before we leap into my Top Ten, I feel a need to include three cards that just missed the cut.
These three cards are ones I’m going to be putting into decks. They all happen to be Red, which certainly fits into the Gruul color combination, but they just didn’t feel like Gruul cards to me.
Cavalcade of Calamity is a cheap () enchantment that will do 1 damage for each creature you control with power 1 or less when it attacks. I’ve got a Naya Tokens deck led by Tana, the Bloodsower and Sidar Kondo of Jamuraa that would love to have another way for my 1/1 saprolings to bring the pain. My Najeela, the Blade-Blossom also likes to go to the red zone and is pretty good at making 1/1 creatures - though the White Warriors she creates tapped and attacking won’t trigger Cavalcade because they aren’t declared as attackers. Ultimately, I don’t think of 1/1 creatures as being very Gruul. This will be a great card, but not for this list.
Skarrgan Hellkite is going to go right into my Lathliss, Dragon Queen and might even be a reason to add in an infinite mana combo or two. Infinite mana can be pumped into Lathliss pretty nicely, but with Skarrgan Hellkite on the field you can simply kill the table. My O-Kagachi, Vengeful Kami deck that runs a Maze's End wincon may well get Gates Ablaze added to it. The deck is already full of boardwipes and having another way to clear the field as I inch closer and closer to having 10 Gates makes this 3 mana sorcery a tempting card to add into the mix. Gatebreaker Ram is another tempting card to add to my Maze's End deck, but let’s get into our top 10 list.
10. Gruul Beastmaster
I was torn between Gruul Beastmaster and Trollbred Guardian for this spot. Neither will likely go into any of my own decks, so the loser doesn’t even get an honorable mention. Trollbred Guardian has the Adapt ability and also gives trample to each creature you control with a +1/+1 counter on it. Trample is a great gift but you’d want to really focus on building around +1/+1 counters and I think of that as more of a Simic strategy than a Gruul one.
This 2/2 Human Shaman costs and has the Riot keyword, which means that when it enters the battlefield it can either get a +1/+1 counter or haste. Riot isn’t terrible but it isn’t the kind of gift that keeps on giving. In Commander I’m much more likely to care about abilities that are abusable, and Riot isn’t particularly easy to abuse.
Gruul Beastmaster’s second ability is where it shines. Whenever she attacks another target creature we control gets +X/+0 until end of turn where X is her power. There are a lot of ways to make a creature bigger prior to declaring attacks, and with Gruul Beastmaster you essentially will get double the pump. With enough power or just the right creature, this card should be able to help you kill someone every now and then.
9. Incubation Druid
In Gruul you’re generally dealing with big creatures, so you need to find ways to cheat costs or make lots of mana. This next card will help with that second part.
This 0/2 Elf Druid costs just and taps to make one mana of any type that a land you control could produce. Incubation Druid has Adapt 3, allowing you to pay to put three +1/+1 counters on it. If it has a +1/+1 counter on it, it will tap for three mana instead of one mana.
I’ll be slotting Incubation Druid into my Marwyn, the Nurturer deck, but it would also go well in decks that want mana dorks that can tap for a variety of colors. For Gruul, you want to be able to ramp up to the point where you can cast your big creatures and for a little mana you can do just that. If you think the cost of to Adapt is too high, keep in mind that when you tap her you’ll be making two additional mana, so you’re essentially getting two mana back and you’ll be tapping her for three mana from that point on. For a mana dork, that’s not bad, and for a Gruul mana dork, that can actually make a difference.
I am a fan of big dumb creatures and big goofy card combinations. I was happy to be reminded that I’m not alone in my weakness when I saw Mark Mahler of the Commandercast podcast post some cards from Ravnica Allegiance that he was looking forward to brewing with. One of them was this little fellow.
This pesky 1/1 elemental costs a whopping but he brings a pretty neat trick to the party.
At the beginning of your upkeep you reveal cards from the top of your library until you reveal a creature card. Until your next turn, Amplifire’s base power becomes twice that card’s power and its base toughness becomes twice that card’s toughness. The revealed cards get put on the bottom of your library in a random order.
Mark’s idea was to try to find a way to have Amplifire flop into Malignus, an Elemental Spirit with power and toughness is equal to half the highest life total among your opponents, rounded up. I’ll let you do the math, but I’ll add a cherry on top of this Elemental Sundae. You play Amplifire, you flop into Malignus and then you hit it with Chandra's Ignition.
One fly in the ointment is that you probably won’t be able to run any 0/0 creatures in a deck with Amplifire. It would stink to flop into a Hydra and lose this guy when he goes to zero toughness and dies. Another concern is that he doesn’t have any way to get damage through, but lots of other creatures don’t have evasion and we still find ways to win games with them, so maybe that’s not such a big deal.
7. Guardian Project
This next card is going to be a Commander staple because card draw is incredibly important, and because we’re a singleton format, so we never have multiple copies of cards in our deck outside of basic lands.
Guardian Project costs , which isn’t a ton but also isn’t cheap, and it does nothing on its own.
What it does is let you draw a card every time a nontoken creature enters the battlefield under your control if that creature doesn’t share a name with a creature you control or have in your graveyard. In Commander that means it will trigger every time you cast a creature spell or cheat a nontoken creature into play.
While this might not sound exciting, drawing cards is one of the most important things you can do in our format. Playing a game of Commander and running out of cards usually don’t bode well for either your chances of success or your enjoyment of the game. This might find its way into at least a few of my decks, especially the ones that like to cast lots of creature spells.
Gruul is a uniquely good color combination for big mana burn spells. With Green it becomes a lot easier to make huge quantities of mana. Red gives you access to spells like the old-school Fireball or the much better Comet Storm. I usually wind up casting Comet Storm off mana from a Mana Geyser, but I have a friend with a Gruul Wort, the Raidmother deck that is quite capable of using both colors to build up to a big mana burn spell. With Ravnica Allegiance we now have a new spell to put into our quiver of X spells.
This instant-speed burn spell will do X damage to any target and will then allow you to cast a card with a converted mana cost of X or less from your hand without paying its mana cost. What you’re essentially doing is mana-fixing for a huge spell and getting to do a bunch of damage as well. It can’t scale up to kill an entire table like Comet Storm, but it sure makes for a great spell to fork or to play in a Storm deck. I expect this card will go into a lot of Thousand-Year Storm decks. It will let you cast a free spell for every time it is cast or copied, as copies will have the same X value as the original casting of Electrodominance.
Getting back to Gruul - this is a fantastic way to deal out a little pain and drop a huge fatty onto the table. Gruul is known for dealing with big creatures, and Electrodominance will definitely shine when you spend 13 or more mana to dome someone and then cast a Worldspine Wurm. As I understand it, the free casting can be any spell so this will have the potential to make for big, game-changing plays.
5. Ravager Wurm
If you’ve noticed a lack of actual, bona fide Gruul cards so far, that’s not an accident. I wound up pushing my multicolored choices up toward the top of my list in part because they’re awesome but also because they’re just more quintessentially Gruul in their nature. With that in mind, let’s meet the first creature on my list.
This hefty Wurm costs has a power of 4, a toughness of 5, and comes with the Riot keyword so it will either gain haste or a +1/+1 counter when it enters the battlefield.
When Ravager Wurm enters the battlefield it will either fight target creature you don’t control or destroy target land with an activated ability that isn’t a mana ability. If there are no targets for your land destruction and the only available creature to target has deathtouch, you can choose for it to do neither of these things, as the text on the card reads “choose up to one”.
Land destruction might not seem very important, and Ravager Wurm’s ability might not let you blow up a Gaea's Cradle, but Commander tables are littered with lands that are headaches and that you might really want to destroy. If a pillow-fort player has been driving everyone crazy with their Maze of Ith, Ravager Wurm will be happy to send it to the bin. If an O-Kagachi player has been inching closer and closer to their lame pacifist wincon, you can turn their Maze's End into dust if you can catch them before it untaps and they’re able to bounce it back to their hand.
4. Domri, Chaos Bringer
In Commander I have the possibly bad habit of leaning away from running Planeswalkers. This Domri isn’t quite the game-ender that Domri Rade can be, but it still helps us out in a lot of ways that really matter for a Gruul deck.
This legendary Planeswalker starts with five loyalty counters and his +1 will give us a Red or Green mana. If that mana is used to cast a creature spell, it gains riot. That’s not an amazing ability in Commander but it’s not bad either. Haste or a +1/+1 counter isn’t a terrible choice to have to make and there will be times when it will let you swing after a boardwipe and before an opponent has played out blockers.
Domri’s -3 loyalty ability lets you check the top 4 cards of your library, reveal up to 2 creatures and put them into your hand. Card draw is pretty nice, though this ability will work better in a deck that’s heavy on creatures.
Domri’s “limit break” is a -8 ability that will give you an emblem that lets you create a 4/4 Red and Green Beast creature with trample on each end step. That means on your end step and on each of your opponents’ end steps you’ll be churning out these Gruul Beasts.
It’s worth noting that the recently reprinted Doubling Season is in Gruul’s colors and will let Domri use his -8 ability on the turn he enters the battlefield. That’s no accident. Wizards of the Coast has been carefully setting up planeswalkers so they usually can’t do that.
3. Rhythm of the Wild
One of the biggest headaches for Gruul is having to deal with players running a control strategy. When you’re willing to just duke it out on the battlefield it can be incredibly frustrating to have to look over at the Blue player’s open mana and wonder if there’s any point at all in casting the huge beastie that’s been sitting in your hand for turn after turn. You know you should probably just cast it to draw out the counterspell, but then they’ll probably just draw a bunch of cards and have another one available. If they don’t counter it, they’re probably sitting on a bounce spell or the dreaded Cyclonic Rift.
This next spell might not solve all your problems with control players, but it will definitely help.
This enchantment costs 1RG and will make your creature spells uncounterable. It will also give your nontoken creatures Riot, so they’ll either get haste or enter with a +1/+1 counter.
For comparison, for the enchantment Fervor gives your creatures haste. The creature Prowling Serpopard costs and will make your creatures uncounterable. For the same converted mana cost this enchantment will do both, and if you need +1/+1 counters instead of haste, you get the flexibility to choose that option instead.
The only bad news is that I still don’t have a good way for you to deal with that Cyclonic Rift. You could run Guttural Response, Burnout, or Red Elemental Blast. I run those in some of my decks, but they always seem to be at the bottom of my library when I need them most.
Ways to fight back against difficult strategies is important, and our next card will help us push back against players who are trying to storm off or cast a ridiculous number of spells on their turn. That’s not why it’s at number two on my list though.
Whenever an opponent casts a non-creature spell, Cindervines will deal 1 damage to that player. That will at least force the storm player to bounce this to our hand before they storm off, but this enchantment’s activated ability is where the real value lies. For one mana we can sacrifice Cindervines, destroy target artifact or enchantment and then deal 2 damage to that permanent’s controller.
A lot of game-winning plays are easily disrupted if you know what you need to blow up and when. More often than not, one of the key pieces in an opponent’s combo win is going to be an artifact or an enchantment. You can even save this for a voltron player’s Eldrazi Conscription, though you’ll do well to blow that hefty enchantment up before they go to combat just in case that attack and annihilator 2 trigger would end up pointed at you.
1. Nikya of the Old Ways
No Commander Top Ten list would be complete without at least one legendary creature, and it should come as no surprise to you that my top pick is Nikya of the Old Ways.
This legendary Centaur Druid costs , which isn’t cheap but also isn’t unreasonable. She has a decent body at 5 power and 5 toughness, but her ability is why she’s so great. When she is on the field, whenever her controller taps a land for mana, they add one mana of any type that land produced.
She does come with a drawback, though - you can’t cast noncreature spells.
Nikya is a fantastic leader for a big mana Gruul Commander deck. She reminds me of Zhur-Taa Ancient, except that big Beast would let every player make additional mana and Nikya benefits only her controller. Nikya actually makes me consider running Zhur-Taa Ancient, as ramping into Nikya and then Ancient will set you up to make some pretty explosive plays really early in the game.
If you run Temur Sabertooth as a way to bounce Nikya to your hand, you could find yourself dropping an Eldrazi Titan on the back of a big Electrodominance or just bringing the table to its knees with an old fashioned Comet Storm. You could even use your Electrodominance casting to just plop her back down onto the table again if that’s your best play.
If you do go with a creatures-only Nikya deck, definitely consider throwing in Primal Surge. You’ll wind up flopping your entire deck onto the battlefield, so make sure you’re running Concordant Crossroads so you can swing on the same turn, and make sure you have a way to get Nikya out of the way so you can actually cast Primal Surge in the first place.
Making enough mana is always a challenge. Games are often won or lost on the back of good and bad variance and the ability to cast your commander after one too many boardwipes. Nikya won’t solve all your problems, but I expect a well built Nikya of the Old Ways deck would be a lot of fun to play. I might even write about her in an upcoming column if none of the other talented Commander writers here at CoolStuffInc haven’t tackled her first.
Today’s column is just the first of five Top Ten lists of Ravnica Allegiance cards that will be coming out this week. Tomorrow Bruce Richard will take up the challenge of listing his Top Ten cards from his guild of choice, followed by Mark Wischkaemper, Jason Alt, and then Abe Sargent closing out the series this Friday.
After going through this list I’m seriously considering changing my prerelease guild choice to Gruul. There’s something wonderfully simple and yet very powerful about playing Gruul. If you are equally fond of big mana, big creatures and winning or losing on the battlefield - with the occasional big burn spell thrown in - maybe Gruul is the guild for you.
If my list is lacking any obvious choices, or if any cards got spoiled after this column got sent to my editor (a distinct possibility) I’d love to hear your thoughts in comments below. Should Domri have been higher on my list? Should Cavalcade of Calamity have pushed something else down into my Honorable Mentions despite my contention that 1/1 tokens isn’t a very Gruul strategy? Would you have included Wilderness Reclamation despite the fact that most Gruul decks focus more heavily on casting creatures and spells on their own turn?
What would your Top Three Gruul cards from Ravnica Allegiance be?
That’s all I’ve got for you today. Come back tomorrow for another Ravnica Allegiance Top Ten list and I’ll see you back here next Monday. Thanks for reading!