Of all the guilds in Ravnica Allegiance, Gruul is the one with the most straightforward game plan. But that doesn’t mean it’s an easy guild to draft. The guild that’s all about brute force requires a surprising amount of finesse to be successful.
The key to drafting Gruul is to make the best possible use of the fight mechanic, which comes primarily in the form of Titanic Brawl and Savage Smash. Knowing when to pick these cards and, more importantly, how to build your creature base to support them, can mean the difference between leveling cities or falling flat on your face.
Savage Smash is an absolutely premium removal spell that I’ve first-picked before. That’s not a super frequent occurrence, since I’d sooner take Lawmage’s Binding, one of the premium multicolored removal spells, or any of several dozen rares and uncommons over it. Nonetheless, Savage Smash generally winds up being better than Skewer the Critics in Gruul decks, and it’s a card you should be happy to 2nd, 3rd, or 4th-pick after you already have a red or green card. I’d play with any number of Savage Smashes that I could get my hands on, although once you have multiples, your deck should begin to warp around the card. You don’t want to casually throw four Savage Smashes into your twelve-creature midrange deck.
Titanic Brawl is a little bit more difficult to evaluate. It’s a good card, and in previous Limited formats, similar cards (like Pit Fight) have been high picks. But Titanic Brawl is held back by the fact that there’s already a better fight card at common. Anybody who’s ever been stuck with Titanic Brawl in hand and no creature in play can tell you that there’s a real risk of playing too many fight cards in a Limited deck. Since they have diminishing returns, and since you’re likely to pick up a Savage Smash or two whenever you’re drafting Gruul, you don’t need to spend high picks on Titanic Brawl. Instead, you should let the Draft develop, pick them up at low-cost opportunities, and maybe look for them in pack 3 if you’re short on removal/fight spells. (Note that Titanic Brawl is a very solid card in Simic).
I basically always want two fight cards in my Gruul decks, and I often want three. As mentioned above, I’d make an exception if I somehow wound up with 4+ Savage Smashes. But I’ll start cutting Titanic Brawls if I already have three other fight spells in my deck.
The more fight spells you have, the more you want a high density of creatures. And since fighting is a crucial component of Gruul, you should draft with this idea in mind, even before you start picking up fight spells. In particular, you want a high density of creatures with strong stats. Even more particularly, you want a high density of cheap creatures with strong stats. Wrecking Beast is a beefcake, but you usually don’t want to wait until turn 8 to fight your opponent’s Senate Guildmage.
So focus on a strong creature base, and on establishing board presence early in the game. In my last quick tips article, I said that Ravnica Allegiance isn’t a great format for Grizzly Bears. A Gruul deck with multiple Savage Smashes is the exception. You need to get on the board early, even if it’s just with Territorial Boar or Feral Maaka, and you want to start pounding them. Shoot for 5-7 2-drop creatures, but avoid weaklings like Spear Spewer and Tin Street Dodger.
What should the rest of your Gruul deck look like? Well, having all ground creatures and fight cards leaves you quite vulnerable to the deathtouch creatures of Orzhov and Rakdos. For this reason, a small number of Skewer the Critics, Scorchmarks, or Flames of the Raze-Boars can go a long way.
If you have 17 lands, two burn spells, three fight cards, and the 16-18 creatures you need to support them, that really doesn’t leave much room for luxury slots. In some decks, a single Rhythm of the Wild might be the only noncreature, non-removal card you can afford. Plan on limiting yourself to 0-2 pump spells.
Still, the pump spells in this format are all pretty solid, and close to one another in power level, so we should go over them just in case.
Gift of Strength is about the rate we expect for a common pump spell. Using pump spells on defense can open you up to blow-outs (since your opponent will often have all of their mana untapped when they’re attacking you), so I don’t love the plan of trying to block flyers with it. Still, sometimes you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do, and the reach is a nice bonus on an already-decent card.
Gift of Strength is pretty good if you find yourself with a few too many of the Feral Makkas and Territorial Boars. The stat boost is large enough to allow you to continue attacking with these vanilla creatures into the midgame. It’s also decent alongside Titanic Brawl, and it’s nice to sideboard in when your opponent is trying to fight your creatures.
Storm Strike is the most efficient of the pump spells, and pairs well with high-power creatures and trample creatures. This is the best of the common pump spells in the very good Gruul decks with lots of Frenzied Arynx. Ironically, however, the very good Gruul decks with lots of Frenzied Arynx often don’t want the common pump cards. Consider swapping a Titanic Brawl for a Storm Strike during sideboarding if your opponent’s main form of defense is blocking with deathtouch creatures.
Stony Strength is similar to Storm Strike in its efficiency, but it’s a little bit more difficult to win combat without the first strike part. Still, Stony Strength can pair well with highly-efficient cheap creatures like Zhur-Taa Goblin and Gruul Spellbreaker, since your opponent will become desperate to trade with them very early in the game. Stony Strength can deny them their trade, and make their next attempt that much harder.
Note that Stony Strength can be particularly good with +1/+1 counter stuff like Bolrac-Clan Crusher. Note also that Stony Strength is particularly bad with adapt creatures, since it will ruin your ability to adapt later in the game. Look to sideboard this in against Summary Judgment.
If I had to pick a favorite guild in Ravnica Allegiance Limited, I think it would be Gruul. I find it to be one the most consistent guilds due to its straightforward game plan, and I find it to be very deep in playable cards. I almost never end up with a bad deck when I draft Gruul, even in the cases where it’s not particularly open.
Cards like Savage Smash and Rhythm of the Wilds, and to a lesser extent Gift of Strength and Storm Strike, can allow you to spin straw into gold by repeatedly attacking weaker vanilla creatures into stronger, higher-value ones.
The worst case scenario when drafting Gruul is that you end up with what Tom Ross referred to as a “Ninth Edition Beatdown Deck,” AKA vanilla creatures and pump spells. That’s not even that bad! The best case is that you wind up with an absolutely brutal deck full of oversized creatures and punishing fight spells. Gruul is capable of pulverizing the other guilds so quickly and so badly that everybody fiddling with their Ill-Gotten Inheritances, Clear the Minds, and Spear Spewers will feel like they were playing the wrong game!