A Gruuling Standard

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Every story has a villain. In my childhood, the reigning villain was Mumm-Ra, who led countless efforts to defeat the Thundercats. No matter what Mumm-Ra did though, he could not overcome the diverse group of threats presented by the Thundercats. Even when the whole team was captured, an unlikely hero (usually Snarf) would arise, free the team and again Mumm-Ra would flee in defeat. Even when Mum-Ra enlisted the help of other teams like the Mutants or the Lunitaks, he couldn't prevail.

The Thundercats are like the "best deck" in Magic, a seemingly unbeatable opponent who defeats everything thrown at him. This opponent can defeat you from any number of angles despite your best efforts. If we look at the Thundercats from a Magic perspective, they would be the villain for sure. Mumm-Ra and all his forces would simply be all of the tier two decks, trying to defeat the most overpowering opponent.

No matter what metaphor you are using, in today’s Standard, Junk Reanimator is the top dog. Week after week, tournament after tournament, this deck dominates top eights.

If Junk Reanimator is dominating so many events, what is stopping us from building a deck specifically to beat that one opponent? It seems that despite its overwhelming success, players still don't take it seriously. The metagame of a tournament is still so diverse such that a hate deck cannot exist. How are players are trying to beat the deck?

1. Be faster than them -- Both Naya Blitz and G/R Aggro try to win via this route. They suffer from inconsistent draws and higher overall variance than other decks. One big reason the format has not evolved to beat Reanimator is because these aggressive decks can win on turn four. Both of them play similarly, but G/R Aggro is less all-in than Naya Blitz. Here are examples of both of these decks from SCG Orlando last weekend.

Naya Blitz by Aaron Leblanc
1st Place at SCG Orlando

G/R Aggro by Arlie Silver
5th Place at SCG Orlando

Mugging is an interesting choice of removal spell for the Gruul deck. It functions similarly to Pillar of Flame but with the added bonus of Crippling Blight. As you can see, even bad cards that disable the opponent from blocking can be playable.

2. Be more controlling than them –- Not many players have found success using this strategy. I believe this is because Junk Reanimator can alternate between ramp and control strategies. It is difficult for a control deck to deal with all of the threats presented by Junk Reanimator. The deck has enough mana to hardcast all of its threats if the Unburial Rites strategy doesn’t work, so control is in for a rough match. The deck that does the best job of controlling our tier one opponent is Jund. Jund Control has the tools to beat all of the aggressive decks as well as have game against Reanimator. The version of Jund below did lose to Reanimator in the finals, but he beat three other versions along the way. Clearly Jund is an acceptable choice for fighting Reanimator.

Jund by John Cuvelier
2nd Place at SCG Orlando

3. Ignore them –- This option is not currently being utilized but there are a few ways to accomplish this goal. The first is to ignore everyone by playing a hexproof deck. The problem is that the aggro decks are probably just faster. The addition of Gift of Orzhova might help to race them, but it may not be enough. If combo were a part of the metagame, this is the part of the pie where it would fall. Unfortunately (fortunately?) there is no combo deck in the format at this time.

4. Beat the decks trying to beat the best –- Well, despite that being a mouthful, it is a strategy that many deck builders use regularly. I much prefer to beat the best deck, but if you have a decent game against the best deck, while having a favorable match against the rest of the field, you should be successful. This can be a difficult balance to attain though. In my opinion, the Aristocrats holds this position in the current metagame. Here’s an updated list.

The Aristocrats by Taylor Raflowitz
3rd Place at SCG Orlando

Which path did I choose? Despite my preference for a deck built to beat the best deck, my efforts in that area have fallen short. There are plenty of decks I could build that would post great numbers against Junk Reanimator, but maindeck Slaughter Games would only help me lose games faster against my aggro opponents. With that being true, I am left with option 4. If I can regularly beat the rest of my opponents and have a decent game against Reanimator, I should do well. Here is the deck:

Gruul Aggro/Midrange

Similar to the Naya Blitz deck, this deck has many great openings. The difference is, this version of Gruul also retains a late game strategy. Often the best line of play is turn two Gyre Sage and then turn three Burning-Tree Emissary plus another spell or two. I believe a turn four kill is possible with this deck, but it is not nearly as likely as with Naya Blitz. Winning on turn five is much more likely.

The goal is to proactively add to the board and pressure your opponent but not leave yourself open to dying quickly. Many cards in the deck help accomplish this goal. At the top of the list are the sweepers. Mizzium Mortars does function as a cheap removal spell but often it is better to hold it until you can overload it. If you have a good Gyre Sage draw, you can overload Mortars on turn four. Winning from there should be easy.

One major pitfall of the deck is its weakness to Supreme Verdict. Many decks that have a bunch of threats on the board can still untap and cast a board wipe spell. For example, I was playing against my friend’s UWR deck last week with this build and I did not consider that he would have maindeck Supreme Verdict. It was a one-of, but I still lost the game because I dismissed the idea too quickly. It’s exactly like this…

Han Solo: “Now don’t get jittery, Luke. There are a lot of command ships. Keep your distance, though, Chewie, but don’t look like you’re trying to keeping your distance.” [Chewie barks a question] ”I don’t know. Fly casual.”

Make it look like you are keeping the pressure on, but also have something in reserve so that you can recover if they do draw a wrath. Both Flinthoof Boar and Thundermaw Hellkite serve this purpose well. If it’s after sideboarding, Garruk Relentless // Garruk, the Veil-Cursed will also work fairly well.

Curious Card Choices

Skarrg Guildmage –- A 2/2 for two is commonplace in Standard today, so you don’t have to work too hard to make this guy playable. The first ability may not seem like much, but giving Thundermaw trample can be important especially, against Lingering Souls tokens. It can also help you force the last few points of damage in.

The animate land ability is the main reason to play the card, though. This ability is basically like being able to cast a four mana 4/4 with haste whenever you feel like it. You can also create a four mana 4/4 blocker, but that comes up less often than you’d think. This four-power threat is quite potent and can put any opponent in an awkward position and end the game quickly. In addition, I like playing him with six mana in order to get four damage in immediately.

Is this the best creature ever, no. It is a solid addition to the deck though. One final note about this new guildmage. If your opponent leaves mana open that could cast Restoration Angel, just attack with the 4/4 and not the actual guildmage. Then sit back and watch them struggle with what action to take.

Evolving Wilds –- There are a couple reasons for this inclusion. The first is obviously to fix the mana in a two-color deck that greedily asks for double- and triple-red. The other reason is to make your Domri Rade better.

While watching coverage of GP San Diego I took note of Brian Kibler’s Modern Naya deck. It stood out because he was running Domri Rade in Modern. After my loss to the card in my PTQ win-and-in, I had been thinking about how to make the card work in Standard. Evolving Wilds is one way to make the card more consistent. If you have one in your hand and don’t need it early for mana, save it for after you play Domri. When you peek and don’t draw a creature, shuffling away the chaff increases potency by a ton.

Gyre Sage –- In my opinion, this card has proven itself but in case you question it, play some games with it. Sage grants you a big mana advantage, but you have to work a little bit for it. I mentioned that often your Burning-Tree Emissarys come into play on turn three. By taking this line, you trigger your Sage’s evolve and produce additional mana to spend. This is a deck that can realistically trigger his evolve for a couple turns in a row and grow him quite large. By evolving Gyre Sage quickly, it allows you to cast your board wipe spells and land a Thundermaw Hellkite sooner.

Experiment One –- This is a great card in Naya Blitz, but I'm not sure if it belongs in this deck. There are only six ways to cast him on turn one, and that is about half as many as I’d like. The same reasons that make Gyre Sage powerful in this deck also apply here. Most notably, he is more likely to be a 3/3 or larger in this deck, whereas in a more aggressive deck, he will be a 3/3 some of the time and a 2/2 the rest. Still, this is the card I question the most in this deck.

Wrap Up

I really enjoy playing this deck and I think it can beat the majority of decks in the field. With both Mizzium Mortars and Bonfire, you have the ability to wipe your opponents’ board and whatever creatures you have in play can wrap up the game.

There are many powerful potential draws that put your opponent on a short clock. Your evolve creatures are better in this deck than any other I have played so far. This is also the best Domri Rade deck in Standard. The tools that Gruul has available can compete with any deck in the field. If you have suggestions on ways to improve the deck, please post them in the comments below.

Until next time,

Unleash the Gruuling Force!

Mike Lanigan
MtgJedi on Twitter

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