We just had our first paper weekend of the new Standard, along with a massive Arena challenge this weekend. For Arena, it’s harder to draw any real opinions from at this stage, but in the paper realm we have a clearer picture. That picture features about 40 Zombie tokens covering everything else you might have seen. I’ll cover that in the future, but right now I’ll leave it to others to recap the Golos domination seen at SCG Philly. Of course the Classic featured the opposite with only a single Bant Golos and five Edgewall Innkeeper Adventure decks dominating the Top 8.
Meanwhile back for the Arena challenge–NorCal Magic grinder Noah K. posted a Gruul list which he used to win the Win Every Standard Card challenge, going 12-1. For those not familiar, it was an open challenge where it was a Bo1 setup with anyone with 12 victories won all the cards in Standard, however it was single entry and two losses meant you were out for good. As you may imagine just by sheer variance, the majority aren’t going to make it through that gauntlet, but those that did seemed to be playing something low to the ground or going over the top. Here was Noah’s deck.
4 Pelt Collector (GRN) 141
10 Forest (ELD) 269
3 Paradise Druid (WAR) 171
4 Zhur-Taa Goblin (RNA) 215
9 Mountain (ELD) 265
2 Bonecrusher Giant (ELD) 115
4 Gruul Spellbreaker (RNA) 179
4 Questing Beast (ELD) 171
4 Skarrgan Hellkite (RNA) 114
2 Embercleave (ELD) 120
4 Once Upon a Time (ELD) 169
3 Shock (M19) 156
3 Domri’s Ambush (WAR) 192
4 Stomping Ground (RNA) 259
Based on his success I built a copy and played it in the Bo1 queue for a bit to get used to it and see what matchups I’d likely be playing. In general, the Bo1 queue skews aggro-wise, although there’s still a reasonable amount of Simic and Golos floating around. After about 20 practice games there, I went ahead and tweaked it a bit, played a few normal matches and loaded it up for the challenge. I ended up going 7-2 in the Win a Standard, here’s my deck and matches:
10 Forest (347) 9 Mountain (343) 4 Stomping Ground 4 Pelt Collector 3 Paradise Druid 4 Zhur-Taa Goblin 4 Gruul Spellbreaker 4 Questing Beast 3 Skarrgan Hellkite 2 Shock 4 Once Upon a Time 3 Collision/Colossus 3 Domri's Ambush 3 Embercleave Sideboard 3 Bonecrusher Giant/Stomp 3 Cindervines 1 Domri's Ambush 3 Legion Warboss 1 Skarrgan Hellkite 4 Veil of Summer
- Simic Midrange
- Bant Golos
- Rakdos (L)
- Rakdos Midrange
- Mono Red
- Bant Midrange
- Bant Golos
- Bant Golos (L)
My loss to Rakdos was pretty typical of the G1’s you’ll lose with Gruul–take a mulligan due to awkward mana and being on the draw and not find a chance to catch back into the game. Turns out Domri’s Ambush isn’t that great on the backfoot. My other loss was to Bant Golos and that was 99% a punt where I didn’t kill Teferi on a turn I could’ve to force through another 5 damage. This bit me in the butt later when I couldn’t setup Embercleave to play around Realm-Cloaked Giant. While I would’ve lost the damage, it also meant I didn’t have to commit extra to the board and would’ve had Embercleave–Questing Beast as a backup win con. Live and learn.
I jammed more of the deck in the normal queues and found myself more and more impressed with the overall power of the deck. I said last week I thought the mana was the biggest weakness of the deck and while that hasn’t changed, I think I simply underestimated how big the additions of Questing Beast and Embercleave were. The deck has a ton of finishing power that it lacked before if it lost board control. Even just chaining endless haste creatures is a legitimate strategy against decks spending resources trading with you. You just have to mulligan more aggressively than with other aggro decks, though Once Upon a Time and the London mulligan makes up for a bit of that lost value.
Why Play Gruul in Standard?
The metagame seems quite friendly to the deck at the moment if you run under the assumption you have a favorable match against Golos. If you don’t, well… Play Golos. I don’t think it’s a slam dunk by any means, but I think game one Gruul is favored and post-board Golos doesn’t have that much room to maneuver. Lists are even shaving Grazer and Realm-Cloaked Giant for mirror trumps, giving you an even easier time in game one. Embercleave alone threatens lethal from a variety of positions and makes Questing Beast into one of the scariest cards in the format. Any time they leave the card alive and you have open mana, you can threaten at least 9 damage (remember, deathtouch + trample + double strike is quite the combo against blockers!).
Against Fires of Invention–which is the other big over-the-top deck–they really need Deafening Clarion to slow you down significantly or you can consistently roll the deck before it gets going. If that isn’t enough for you, post-board you can leverage Cindervines against them for a bunch of free dings and a kill spell for Fires of Invention. The Grixis build gets an even worse rap because Veil of Summer hits them so hard and makes all their trades card and mana-negative.
It isn’t all sunshine and bloody battle though–the worst match feels like Simic Midrange decks which are currently are likely the second or third most popular deck. The mix of acceleration, Oko, good blockers and big finishers is hard to beat. It’s not hard to get them low, but if they turn the corner then prepare for 5+ turns of misery as you come oh-so-close to pulling the game out while they gain more life and generate more blockers. There’s a silver lining in these results though! Assuming Golos is just the deck to beat, then we should be seeing less of the deck or it being tweaked to disrupt Golos decks.
As for other aggro decks, while I think the Mono-Black Aggro decks can be rough if you don’t draw interaction (Priest of Forgotten Gods is a heck of a card), for the most part you’re just bigger and better than other aggro strategies. One thing riot helps with is getting you back on your feet when you’re on the draw. Making 3/3’s and 4/4’s forces opponents to either spend removal or mana to deal with your board effectively since Gutterbones and friends can’t do anything. Meanwhile, you can win races with Questing Beast and Skarrgan Hellkite since they only have so many Murderous Riders.
Red decks have the first three turns to go significantly under you and punish any mana or curve stumbles you have. After that you’re just doing way more impressive stuff and Embercleave means you only need to sneak a little bit of damage through before any attacker represents 10 damage. Of course, most of the time you’ll win the old-fashioned way by just committing a few big attackers and eventually shutting them out. Obviously if you expect more of these types of decks then Shock and Bonecrusher Giant go up in value.
Mono-Black & GB Adventures
While I’m not 100% about sideboarding out Pelt Collector on the play, on the draw it’s been absolutely atrocious. It takes too long to grow into a suitable blocker and often it’s used as fodder for Priest of Forgotten Gods. Your one-drop just doesn’t have nearly as much value in this match as theirs and it takes a while to give it trample to make it an effective attacker. I prefer simply playing for a longer game and leveraging my removal on Knights and Priests early. Outside of those cards, your creatures are brick walls and usually only Rotting Regisaur and Spawn of Mayhem are major concerns.
If you’re having issues, then on the play I don’t mind leaving in Pelt Collector and some number of Collision and just playing a faster game, shaving Hellkites and Once Upon a Time instead. Collision is a clean answer to Spawn and if you’re remotely close in racing the trample can be game-ending. GB Adventures is the same concept, with the threats shifting a bit. They have a better long game, but Foulmire Knight is also a million times better at brickwalling your early attackers, especially with the threat of Order of Midnight recursion. Again, Rankle can be a legitimate threat so leaving in Collision isn’t the worst idea over the Hellkite and a Once Upon a Time.
You can also shave Collision/Colossus over Ambush if you prefer, as both answer Grazer cleanly and can power through any early blocker and kill a ticked-up Teferi/Oko. I like leaving in Collision/Colossus because it’s a clean answer to Hydroid Krasis and can enable some sick kills with Embercleave or Questing Beast, even once the board gets clogged with a couple of Zombies. Otherwise this is a straight race for you and I prefer my build because pump spells are better than Shocks here.
Remember that Embercleave is vulnerable to Teferi, Deputy and Oko if you’re playing it early to not commit into sweepers. Questing Beast + Embercleave can blow through any number of Zombies and huge blockers and enable kills, so if you have either one in hand or on board, don’t throw in the towel even if the board gets clogged. Also don’t be afraid to force the Bant player to have fifth untapped land + Giant–sometimes you just have to roll the dice and see if you get there.
Jeskai Fires of Invention
Deafening Clarion is the only sweeper you need to play around that aren’t massively telegraphed, so use riot appropriately. They don’t have much early interaction to punish your good openers and they often have to telegraph their future plays. Cindervines is an obvious amazing punish against them and can deal with Fires (which itself is often game-ending). Against Grixis builds, bring in Veil of Summer and laugh as all their removal besides Ritual of Soot gets completely blanked.
This is the match I’m most unsure of, because I’m coming around to the idea that Shock is actually trash here except for killing that Honking Goose. Bonecrusher Giant does the same thing and a 4/3 at least trades with an Elk or Questing Beast. Embercleave has also been a consistent embarrassment for me due to Brazen Borrower, Aether Gust, Wicked Wolf and Oko making it hard to get value out of. Domri’s Ambush on the play is by far your most powerful option on turn three and often backbreaking depending on their board.
Collision / Colossus seems like a reasonable cut, but it lets you overwhelm an early wall to take out Oko, kills any reasonably sized Nissa-powered Krasis and absolutely blows out any Borrower block. Again, I’m not 100% here and the match as a whole is quite difficult so I just haven’t figured out how best to leverage aggression here.
If you’re looking for an aggressive option for the current format and Adventures isn’t up your alley, this is one I recommend giving a try.