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INTO THE ARENA: Gruul Runnings

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Feb
24

Welcome back friends, Ravnicans, planeswalkers! Enter the Arena has had a great month running down the guilds of Ravnica Allegiance, but all of that has come to an end. We will end our guild builds with that guild which builds nothing… the guild of smash and crash, fire and blood, crazy for the End-Raze and here to bring it about – the GRUUL CLANS. Strap your war-pigs in and burn some trees for the emissaries, we’re going in!

In last week’s take on the stuffy blue-white guild, the Azorius, I reflected on the history of those colours as being typecast for control decks in their card selection and mechanics (not without reason). The Gruul, being Ravnica’s wild red-green representatives, have the opposite “problem”. When it comes time to work out their mechanical identity for a new Ravnica set, WotC’s development team pretty much go “alright haste, tramplebeefy stats on the creatures, hate on noncreature spells, destroy noncreature permanents” and call it a day.

And you know what? That’s just fine, actually. Ok, you could call me a hypocrite after I made such praise of the more aggressive Azorius elements for breaking the mold, but red and green don’t need to be complicated to be fun. In fact, simplicity is half the point – we all have a bit of Timmy in us, as evidenced by how many players flock to a “RG Monsters” deck when one is viable in Standard.

That time could well be upon us again – Riot is one of the best aggro mechanics ever, with tons of choice involved and plenty of potential tricks when considered alongside the +1/+1 counter shenanigans Gruul can access through the colour overlap with Simic. Riot-based aggressive decks are bursting out to take advantage of a metagame reacting to midrange and tempo strategies, and are due for a big tournament win soon.

But for our Guild Builds, as usual, we like to take a somewhat deeper cut – and today it’s a build around which, while not hailing from M19, fits so well with the splashy “big numbers” Gruul attitude that I couldn’t not make it our centrepiece…

 

 

THE UNSEALENING

 

Sarkhan’s Unsealing is an awesome Magic card. I really mean that, it’s properly awe-inspiring for anyone who plays the game enough to understand the rules text. It has a flavourful name, evocative art, and offers an impressive payoff to play cards which are themselves already game-ending threats. What’s more, the nature of this payoff helps to shore up one of the weaknesses of such “haymaker” spells, offering the kind of on-cast guaranteed value which has made Hydroid Krasis such an instant staple. It’s a Timmy card, but designed by Spikes.

The challenge then is to balance the list around making enormous creatures (we want to be triggering the second clause of the Unsealing early and often), the accelerants we need to play them, and enablers which help ensure their value (including Unsealing itself).

 

Getting the routine out of the way first, here’s Standard’s (maybe Magic’s?) most ubiquitous 1-drop. Llanowar Elves is the best way to start skipping up the curve to our big nasties as well as rush out an enabling enchantment when the punishment for “taking a turn off” is not so painful. There are other dorks and ramp spells in standard, but only this costs 1. We’d play 8 if we could.

 

Incubation Druid is Llanowar Elves after they move away to college, experiment a bit, and grow into more interesting people. As a 2 mana 0/2 which taps for multiple colours we would likely already play it; the “free” late game mana sink/relevant combat body or accelerant synergy with Rhythm of the Wild pushes this way over the top.

 

Drover of the Mighty has somewhat fallen through the cracks of Standard – along with the entire Dinosaur tribal archetype – but when the lack of Elf typing isn’t relevant it sticks out as a very playable mana dork. While we do have the dinos to feasibly have this attacking as a 3/3 into our opponent’s empty, post-Unsealing board, the most important reason to play this card is it produces rainbow mana. Our double-colour costs can be tight on the wrong draw, and these guys help steady the ship. It may even be right to shift the split of these and Incubation Druids more in Drover’s favour.

 

Alright, we’ve eaten our greens and now we can serve up dessert! Steel Leaf Champion and Rekindling Phoenix are both well-known elements within Standard at this point, and both are especially potent when accelerated out by the tools this deck can muster. Steel Leaf is the cheapest creature to both trigger the Unsealing and be worth playing on its own – an important rule for me when choosing fatties. Phoenix is taking up slots I originally had marked for Gruul Spellbreaker, but I value the density of 4+ power creatures highly and Phoenix gives us at least some presence in the air to slow down Drakes, Thief of Sanity and Mono Blue.

 

Instead, our other 3 drop is a familiar enchantment to those who have been following Enter the Arena since our first Guild Build; while this deck is not as heavily focused on +1/+1 counters as that Simic list, making our gigantic creatures hasty and uncounterable is reason enough to include it again here. One of the first problems to address when building around an effect as unique as Unsealing is “what will I do when I don’t draw it” – because even with 4 copies that will inevitably be the case in some games. For this deck, the answer is “don’t play creatures which are bad in a vacuum” and “include a backup enabler card”. Rhythm has very different rules text to Unsealing, but the function is the same – guarantee some amount of damage from each fatty in a way which bypasses countermagic or the need to untap with them.

 

Sunder Shaman is only a 2-of, but it’s the perfect role-player here for a Bo1-focused list. Removing certain key enchantments is a recurring goal in this format; whether that’s a Wilderness Reclamation or an Ixalan’s Binding on your Unsealing. Hasted Shamans are much better than not-hasted, and makes their ability to remove these problem permanents far more reliable. And of course, they trigger Unsealing’s first ability, getting us closer to the win.

 

Ahhh, Big G and Carny T – the dino-namic duo are the first choices when it comes to building a sweeper out of Unsealing. Ghalta is as reliable a cast here as it is anywhere, while Carnage Tyrant is maybe the platonic ideal of a green curve-topping threat. Casting these while either Rhythm (for haste) or Unsealing is out will be devastating; with both out they’re game-ending.

It’s worth mentioning the other 7+ power creatures which were considered for the slots; Gigantosaurus, Aggressive Mammoth, Rampaging Brontodon, Pelakka Wurm and Gate Colossus were all momentarily in the list. Gate Colossus in particular strikes me as a great get due to the inevitability it brings through the recursion clause; but even counting the fringe benefit of playing Gatebreaker Ram, straining the manabase further with lands which come in tapped or don’t produce green is hard to stomach. But there’s still another haymaker we can play…

 

Torgaar might be the Incarnation of Famine, but here he’s a feast for the eyes! Castable off 2 black lands and some mana dorks, he can set our opponent’s life to 10 (or ours, occasionally useful against burn) to reset any pesky lifegain and set them up for a finishing blow. This is invaluable on slower draws where we might not be able to stick an enchantment, and while it doesn’t really combo with Unsealing (which triggers first, meaning one of the two will be irrelevant) it definitely combos with Rhythm of the Wild. Who doesn’t love reducing somebody’s life total from X to 3 in one card?

Anyway, that’s our final Standard guild build. I found Torgaar to be shockingly fun in these sorts of strategies, but if he’s not worth the strain of black mana to you there’s certainly some slight tweaks to make this list straightforward green-red, or gates-based, or Naya with Dinosaur tribal, or wider with mana dorks and the Gruul-tastic End-Raze Forerunners. No doubt the Clans would encourage you to pursue your individual desires and strengths. Now get out there and unseal those unspeakable forces of evil!

 

BONUS BUILD: SUPER HOT CALZONE 

 

The Gruul in Ravnica Allegiance are on the warpath, led by upstart planeswalker Domri Rade. Their mission is to destroy and trample the immoral, dysfunctional city and return Ravnica to a barely-remembered wild past. No strategy in Modern aligns its goals with Domri’s crusade more than Ponza, a RG Midrange deck with heavy land destruction and mana denial to ease the way for its monstrous threats. Since RNA’s land destruction spells are more tame than those which terrorised past Standards, we can only do so much to tinker with the list, bu there’s definitely some changes to try.

 

Domri has been a contentious choice in Standard, and is still something of a risk in Modern; his second ability rewards you for playing an aggressive deck very heavy on creatures, but the extra creatures are often competing for space on the curve with Domri himself! Ponza gives Domri a bit more room to breathe due to its tendency to create slow games – you spend your cards to stop them playing theirs, and while Domri won’t beat your opponent down alone he will be able to dig for more threats as well as enable some scary plays with the ones you have. His main competition for Planeswalker slots in the deck is Chandra, Torch of Defiance, and it’s very hard to argue he’s the stronger of the two. But a deck named after a pizza dish needs some spicy salami, so here he is as a 1-of to give the deck some new tricks.

 

Previous versions of Ponza often include some number of Pia and Kiran Naalar; it offers a decent rate of stats across multiple bodies, along with an ability to pick off utility creatures or snipe at the life of opponents past cards like Ensnaring Bridge which would trouble the deck’s other combat-based threats. Skarrgan Hellkite does allow your opponent the chance to cleanly answer it with Path to Exile, and costs an extra mana, but otherwise the upside is tremendous. Not only is your opponent forced to alter their plays when low on life to respect the potential hasty flier, but the Hellkite can better supplement a grindy gameplan with continuous Forked Bolt activations.

 

Cindervines sneaks into the sideboard as a dual answer to both troubling noncreature permanents as well as Storm. The effectiveness of the card as a Seal of Primordium is what pushes it into the deck, but how useful the damage component will be depends on how much of a clock the other threats can present around it. In a best case scenario, this card might even be a tempting inclusion against control strategies as an alternate pressure on their life and on cards like Detention Sphere.

 

Honourable mentions go to Biogenic Ooze and Gruul Spellbreaker. Slots are at a real premium in a deck like this; particularly in this build, where there are additional curve restrictions to follow to ensure Bloodbraid Elf‘s Cascade trigger performs as expected. But the heart of the Ponza strategy is the mana acceleration and the land destruction, so I could easily imagine a build with a different curve playing these strong Gruul creatures and favouring their unique advantages.

 

NEXT WEEK… WHAT NOW?

Well, with the Gruul decklists in the bag we have completed our journey through the guilds of Ravnica Allegiance… the set has turned out to be one of the best in recent memory, Standard is healthy and varied, and Arena is flourishing as a new engine for deck innovation and competitive play. So where will our attention turn next, in this space for all things MTGA?

As I write, the world’s best players are attending the first ever tabletop Mythic Championship, the launching point for WotC’s new era of competitive Magic structured around Arena. There’s plenty to look at from the perspective of the esports futurist as well as that of the Arena grinder, so next week’s column will be running down the biggest takeaways from this weekend’s competition. Until then, enjoy the brews and chase that Mythic ranking!