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By: Lobster667, Marcus Bastian Hensing
Mar 08 2013 12:32pm
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As the series of guild weeks runs on, we take a look at the Red-Green guild of Gruul in Gatecrash limited. Considering how "simple" the guild seems to be, one can sure learn a lot by analyzing it; what are the key cards that make Gruul tick? What cards look like they belong somewhere else, but are really Gruul in their heart? Let's find out!

When designing the ten guilds of the Return to Ravnica block, Wizards decided that each deck needed a "slow" and a "fast" plan. Many guilds easily panned out this way; in RTR, Selesnya either prioritized pump spells and quality low-cost creatures or a slower overwhelming token strategy. Rakdos either went all-in aggressive or over the top with its humongous Spawn of Rix Maadi-shaped fatties, and Azorius kept its opponents hands tied whether it was to enable its Azorius Arresters time to get in or in order to get to the late-game where (Isperia's Skywatch), Soulsworn Spirit and perhaps a well-timed counterspell or two would end up deciding the game.

This trend has not been as visible in Gatecrash, but there is a reason why the three guilds I mentioned above where the ones with the most consistent performances in RTR; the increased versatility within those guilds meant that more of the cards could be used to better effect. While this article is primarily about Gruul, I want to briefly flesh out what I perceive to be the commonly accepted ideas of the Gatecrash guild decks - because most of them seem limited to one of the two "plans" of the guild, almost always the "fast" one, at least in draft (I'll discuss Gatecrash draft versus sealed next time, don't worry!). It would stand to reason that finding the "other" plan in these guilds would significantly improving your chances at succeeding in the format.

As I see it, the Gatecrash guilds are perceived like this; Orzhov is a deck looking to take down an opponent through a mix of Extort triggers and nibbling with evasive creatures, while keeping back the most aggressive decks in the format with cards like Dutiful Thrull and Gutter Skulk. It does not really play for the long game but has great lasting capability as long as it does not have to trade away its extort creatures. The key cards in the deck are Basilica Screecher, Kingpin's Pet, Smite and Basilica Guards, supported by strong uncommons like (Vizkopa Guildmage) and Knight of Obligation. This is the "fast" plan of Orzhov: the slower, more controlling and less popular plan in the guild is arguably less powerful (or, less explosively powerful, at least), but can take better advantage of slower uncommons like Vizkopa Confessor and Guardian of the Gateless - as well as being a much better home for expensive rares like Sepulchral Primordial, Merciless Eviction and Luminate Primordial. It still wants every extort creature available, but as it needs more defensive cards early and draw the game longer, the priority between them changes; Basilica Guards outshine both of the two-drops in this archetype, unlike in the "fast" version, and the marginal Purge the Profane and Contaminated Ground become enough worse in the deck that I would strongly advise against including them.

Purge the Profane Merciless Eviction Dutiful Thrull

Moving on, I think most people have realized how well the aggressive Boros deck can work. Perhaps it dawned on us already the moment we saw Boros Elite and Skyknight Legionnaire in the spoiler along with a plethora of good two-drops, or perhaps it didn't seep in until the first game where you realized that "if he has Martial Glory, I just lose". That situation comes up often - and the "fast" Boros deck (it really is fast!) is perhaps one of the most popular decks of the format, sometimes prone even to overdrafting. If you find yourself without any good two-drops other than your first-picked Sunhome Guildmage, but on the other hand with a couple of White-Red removal spells and a couple of late-picked Knight Watch that you had thought to top out your aggressive curve with, perhaps it's time to consider a plan B - the "slow" deck?
The problem with this deck in Boros is that a lot of its early creatures just cannot contend if the game goes long, as it is bound to do sometimes if you do not hit a critical mass of them; Battalion effects like those on Bomber Corps and Daring Skyjek seem a whole lot less exciting once that opposing Crocanura has hit 4/6 and is accompanied by a Scab-Clan Charger and a Cloudfin Raptor that has had the time to get three counters on it. This is where you'll be happy if you changed plans in time, kept only the most important two-drops (and the ones that can help keep you alive - Daring Skyjek trades excellently on defense) and instead loaded up on stuff like (Towering Thunderfist)s and Fortress Cyclopses that the faster decks only reluctantly pick even late in a pack, as well as the removal that is sometimes too slow and clunky for them - cards like Angelic Edict and Homing Lightning which an aggressive deck can't really play in multiples. Borrowing white cards like Basilica Guards, Smite and Knight of Obligation from Orzhov also bolsters this deck a lot. On the other hand, the early battalion cards and high-risk auras like (Madcap Skills) lose a lot of their value when they are not closing out the game in short order - not all Boros decks want a Firefist Striker!

Basilica Guards Knight of Obligation Smite

Next in line is Dimir, the second Black guild and another guild that - in popular opinion, at least - doesn't want the game to go very long, yet still doesn't really qualify as an "aggressive" deck. This format is very much about tempo, and the "fast" Dimir deck is the epitome of this. It prioritizes cards like Metropolis Sprite and Deathcult Rogue fairly high considering their mediocre stats and is not afraid to borrow a few Simic Cloudfin Raptors or Orzhov Basilica Screechers; even the unimpressive Shadow Alley Denizen has a place in the deck.
All of this, of course, because of Cipher. I think most people - like myself - were initially repelled by how unattractive the Cipher cards look, but Dimir has certainly proven that it can get there if you know how to build around it. Locking down an opponent by encoding a (Hands of Binding) turn four onto your turn three Deathcult Rogue, perhaps even following it up with a turn five Shadow Slice, spells doom to a lot of even very good decks unless they find an answer. While this deck does appreciate removal (in particular, Grisly Spectacle and Killing Glare), some of the conditional or otherwise second-tier removal in the guild colors such as Death's Approach, Devour Flesh and Dimir Charm find an even more welcoming home if you turn your eye to the long game; in Dimir, this often means less creatures, and less Cipher (since that requires creatures and invests more resources in the same asset - an asset that might get removed), though commons (Last Thoughts) and Shadow Slice might still make it as victory conditions, along with the uncommon Call of the Nightwing and rare (Undercity Plague) and Stolen Identity.

Shadow Slice Deathcult Rogue Hands of Binding

A non-marginal part of the creature base should be creatures that can close out a game by themselves; ideally bombs like (Consuming Aberration), but big dorks like Sapphire Drake can do in a pinch. The deck does want some creatures that can block and trade early on (such as Gutter Skulk), but would prefer removal or counterspells - (Psychic Strike) shines in the deck. The deck also appreciates a card like Mortus Strider more than the tempo deck (since a 3-mana 1/1 is never a good tempo proposition), especially if paired with Undercity Informer - a decent blocker with a built-in way to close out a game. (Mind Grind) can end games out of nowhere in this deck, too.

As a quick aside: one of my pet cards, Beckon Apparition, is a lot better in the "fast" versions of all these guilds; it is often right to include in the fast versions even in multiples but should almost never make the main-deck of the "slow" versions of at least Boros and Dimir. Orzhov having extort makes it a little more tolerable, but whenever you have to take a decision concerning Beckon Apparition, ask yourself which plan you are on. I find that I pick and play the card too often without this reminder; you might be in the same situation.

Finally, before moving on to the guild of the week, let us take another look at Simic; I've had the chance to play both with and against Simic decks in draft since then and I am a little more in the know now. First, the reason that most people initially disliked Simic strikes me as being a direct product of the way it played in sealed, which is very much like the "slow" version of the deck in draft; a gradual upgrade that took time and resulted in a very powerful board presence, but had very little interaction - something which left it dead in the water to a lot of the decks in the radically different draft environment (again, I have a lot to say about the sealed vs draft issue - next time!). While this deck can still be viable with a healthy dose of Crocanuras and a few Verdant Havens, I have come to realize where the true power of Simic and evolve lies.

Cloudfin Raptor Experiment One Shambleshark

The "fast" Simic deck doesn't come together as often as most of the other fast decks, but when it does, it is veritably unstoppable; the deck really wants to open up on a one-drop evolve creature (Cloudfin Raptor at common or Experiment One at uncommon) and follow up on turn two with either another two one-drop evolve creatures (Raptor into Raptor, Experiment being the optimal curve) or a two-drop like Shambleshark or one of the blue 1/3s. On turn three, Crocanura is still a really great card although Drakewing Krasis takes the prize at common. The deck wants multiples of all the creatures and is looking to keep the curve low, but Scab-Clan Charger is a phenomenal four-drop in the deck since it does well at evolving earlier creatures and can also be used as a trick in a pinch - Slaughterhorn works like this, too. Depending on your number of Drakewing Krasis, you could put in a few (Burst of Strength)s too, and Wasteland Viper also interacts well with the 3/1 trampler with evasion. The next draft you open in green or blue where a Cloudfin Raptor or a Drakewing Krasis makes it to you pick five or six, try moving in; you might just end with the most powerful breed of Gatecrash draft deck possible!

Scab-Clan Charger Wasteland Viper Slaughterhorn

With that out of the way, let's dive into Gruul!
Gruul is in a weird place in terms of the "fast" and "slow" division; while there are definitely cards that belong primarily in either the "fast" camp (Scorchwalker, Madcap Skills) and in the "slow" camp (Ruination Wurm, Verdant Haven), Bloodrush means that there is a larger overlap between the cards of the two decks; what this means is that most Gruul decks will not be as all-out aggressive as Boros decks (although they can "burn" an opponent out fast through the use of its 5-power, 3-mana bloodrushers at common) - on the other hand, it has a lot more relevance. If you're stuck on three lands, you can still get a ton of mileage out of cards like Zhur-Taa Swine and Rubblehulk - and in the late-game, your cheap spells like Skinbrand Goblin and Slaughterhorn can help save exactly those larger creatures from trading unprofitably in combat through the pump-spell use they come with once they are outsized on the battlefield themselves.

Zhur-Taa Swine Ghor-Clan Rampager Rubblehulk

With that said, there is some difference between what cards the deck needs depending on where it falls on the "fast-slow" scale. Here are some of the cards that are significantly more important in the faster decks:

Ember Beast Skinbrand Goblin Mugging

All of these cards are cards that most respectable Boros decks would also find adequate - if not absolutely ideal - and that is no coincidence; Ember Beast is actually perhaps more at home in a fast Gruul deck than in a fast Boros deck, but it does require you to play a certain number of two-drops (so it can attack on turn four), such as (Skinbrand Goblin). Mugging is perfectly fine in the slower decks, too, but really does shine in the decks that can put an opponent on their heels from the early turns; its Panic ability can be very relevant in getting a creature through to convert Bloodrush to burn - or to make your two-drop accompanying your Ember Beast attack profitably. Another card that finds decent use in the faster decks is the cheap and effective Burst of Strength; making your early drop larger and having it survive an attack makes it a more formidable threat and makes any Bloodrush on it later in the game more relevant.

On the other hand, we have the cards that are significantly better in the slower decks:

Greenside Watcher Homing Lightning Pit Fight

(Greenside Watcher) is a fine two-drop for merely deterring attacks by cards like Syndic of Tithes or Wojek Halberdiers, but can also serve an extra function of propelling you to the late-game a turn faster if you don't have to trade it (and you have a guildgate, obviously); Pit Fight works a lot better with large creatures (though again, Ember Beast in the aggressive decks fight pretty well, too)) and the "slower" decks do, by definition, require more answers to problem creatures in the form of removal - Homing Lightning is another variant hereof that is just a little too expensive to be at its best in the faster decks. A slower Gruul deck also really appreciates a copy or two of Ivy Lane Denizen to give it an even more powerful lategame. Apart from the multi-colored Bloodrush cards pictured in the beginning of this section, there are also a few other cards that are almost universally useful in Gruul, the most important being Disciple of the Old Ways.

Crocanura Disciple of the Old Ways Scab-Clan Charger

While Crocanura and Scab-Clan Charger both have great defensive capacity mixed with a very nice endurance on the offensive, I've found that one of the absolute cruxes of the deck whether it leans to aggression or a little slower is Disciple of the Old Ways. Its threat of activation makes it a great attacker with an aggressive start and a perfect enabler for Ember Beast - as well as a great target for both temporary pumps from Bloodrush and +1/+1 counters from Ivy Lane Denizen and (Burst of Strength) (which can lead to some great blow-outs too, by the way. Untapping a 3/3 first-striker after attackers have been declared almost always allows you to eat an attacker alive if your opponent tries to race). It also carries Madcap Skills well if you have to risk a little to pressure the opponent completely off their heels.

While Gruul as a guild might look a little too unexciting and perhaps like a "blunt instrument", I assure you it can be both fun and rewarding to draft - go try it out the next time you see a late (Disciple of the Old Ways) (or an early Ghor-Clan Rampager.

I leave you with a tiny tidbit of my usual guild philosophy - as is fitting for Gruul, it is short and to the point:
It is crucial that you can trust your own judgment. It is imperative that you choose the path that feels right. This applies as much in life decisions as it does in draft decisions - remember that!

I hope you enjoyed the read - I'm aware that my last article was both a little too short and a little too hurried, and I hope to have made up for that with an article that I am both proud of and feels like it contains a ton of content and information. Let me know if you agree (or where you disagree) in the comments or on Twitter.

Sincerely - and until next time, where it's time to compare the sealed and the draft format,
Marcus / @Lobster667