1. Why Play Gruul?
The Standard metagame has been very dynamic since the introduction of Kaldheim, with multiple decks being well-positioned in a given day or week. Recently, the metagame has somewhat stabilized with Mono Red Snow as the top performer, followed by other aggro decks.
In a way, the first level of this Standard metagame is about attacking. Every other day during our test a new card would appear in the meta and promptly be nicknamed it “the new 《Embercleave》”, including:
In our testing for MPL/Rivals League weekend, we figured out a way to build Gruul for it to be favored against Mono Red Snow, while at the same time having good sideboard plans against the decks that are also trying to prey on it.
2. Deck List
In the past, Gruul was considered the best deck in Standard, and all it needed was to switch a few cards here and there to overcome the next most popular deck in a given week. But we can’t think about Gruul that way anymore.
Gruul’s maindeck can be designed to beat either the slow 《Yorion, Sky Nomad》 decks, or the aggro decks, but it’s tough to do both. You need your sideboard for that, or a little luck combined with open decklists to let you aggressively mulligan (if you are not playing in a tournament with open lists, note that you can still safely mulligan based on your opponent’s companion. Yorion means control, and no Yorion means Aggro or Adventures, with the occasional but less popular Rakdos. 《Lurrus of the Dream-Den》 is the tricky one as it can be both Rogues or Cycling).
So a specific build of Gruul can be a good deck for the right metagame, but it’s not a dominant strategy anymore. This is still fine. You can always steal matches against the bad matchups due to the strength of some of your proactive hands.
It’s almost as if Gruul is a bigger version of Mono Red. They are both curve-out decks with 《Embercleave》. Mono Red’s untapped lands, 《Faceless Haven》, and lower curve make it better against slower decks, while Gruul is stronger against other aggro decks.
The biggest decision in playing Adventures is if you want to stay straight RG or if you want to add a second color. In our testing, we found that the three-color version of Adventures wasn’t too good against aggro, so we stuck with the more consistent mana base. However I think the of the alternatives, the Temur deck seems the strongest against aggro and maybe it’s possible to better tune for it to be a balanced deck.
3. When Not to Play Gruul?
I like the Gruul list above as long as you expect Mono Red to be popular. Moving forward in Standard, it also pays off to be proficient in a second deck, so you can alternate between them when the metagame shifts. For me, that secondary deck would be Rogues as its good matchups are generally the opposite of the list above.
The main problem with Rogues is trying to beat the red Escape cards – 《Ox of Agonas》 and 《Phoenix of Ash》. I tried many plans in trying to overcome them, including 4 《Zareth San, the Trickster》 and 《Weathered Runestone》, but I always fell short. But Rogues is incredible in every other scenario, including beating Mono White Snow and 《Giant Killer》 decks-quite comfortably.
4. Card Choices
Anyways, back to Gruul. Let’s go through some of the card choices.
Against Mono Red, all you are trying to do is not let your opponent have a board where they can threaten to attack for lethal boosted by 《Embercleave》 or 《Torbran, Thane of Red Fell》. If tapping out for a creature would let you be dead in such a scenario, consider bluffing a removal spell instead (but be aware that this will not always be correct; you need to weigh if your follow-up play is good enough to bring you back in the game, otherwise it’s better to risk getting your shields down).
It’s mostly OK to be in a position where you would take a 《Embercleave》 hit as long as you don’t die to it because you play enough big creatures, haste threats, and your own 《Embercleave》 to threaten to kill your opponent in the swing back.
The reason why 《Scorching Dragonfire》 and 《The Akroan War》 are so good is that they let you deal cleanly with 《Anax, Hardened in the Forge》, and without 《Anax, Hardened in the Forge》 they have a lot of trouble setting up 《Embercleave》 or 《Torbran, Thane of Red Fell》. You can deal with the rest of their creatures through blockers and 《Bonecrusher Giant》, generally.
I tried lists with 《Fire Prophecy》 and a smaller number of removal spells overall, but nailing down the perfect removal suite is what made the matchup very good instead of just slightly good.
《Goldspan Dragon》 is a great card when you have instant speed spells to use with the Treasure mana, so it could be a consideration given that we want to play 4 《Scorching Dragonfire》 and other cheap instants in the sideboard.
However, we’ve found that 5 manas is simply too much when playing against aggro and I’d see myself passing the turn without a play while holding it in my hand. Instead, you could be playing……
This is the most polarizing card in Gruul lists, and players are all over the place in the numbers.
I have found 《Questing Beast》 to be extremely important when you build Gruul to maximize 《Embercleave》, not only because it’s obviously awesome when equipped but because of the play patterns it enables. If you are always chipping in damage early, any other creature with an 《Embercleave》 later in the game will be lethal in a single attack.
《Questing Beast》 is also doing a lot of small things well in the format, including demanding two removal spells from Mono Red, dodging 《Shadows’ Verdict》, making 《Extinction Event》 awkward and setting up a big attack the turn after a 《Doom Foretold》.
《Giant Killer》 is always going to be great against Gruul adventures, and since giving it zero targets is not an option, the next best thing is to overload it. In those scenarios, 《Questing Beast》 is actually a reasonable card against it, due to haste. If you can play 《Questing Beast》 when they are tapped out, they will find themselves in a position where they have to cast 《Chop Down》 right away, which means you can push more damage with your other creatures or an 《Embercleave》 somewhere else. Or maybe they leave 2W open to kill your 3-mana creature, then you cast 《Questing Beast》 and make sure you dealt damage that turn anyways, setting up future 《Embercleave》.
In other words, given infinite time and mana 《Giant Killer》 and 《Chop Down》 will get the best out of you, but if you are pushing through damage every turn as they cast their removal spells, maybe they’ll die first. So we build our deck with 4 《Embercleave》 and as many haste creatures possible and hope for the best.
One of the tricks to execute this plain in-game to be mindful to cast your big creatures when they are tapped and cast your removal and small creatures when they have mana open. Sometimes you can also try to attack with a 3/3 《Kazandu Mammoth》 for extra damage instead of pumping it with landfall.
《The Akroan War》 is a massive beating against 《Questing Beast》, no doubt, but most versions of Adventures are now opting to play 《Showdown of the Skalds》 and 《Goldspan Dragon》 at the cost of a maindeck 《The Akroan War》.
Another important role of 《Questing Beast》 is against 4-Color Cycling. They plan to delay your attacks game 1 with tokens and try to get you post-board with sweepers, and 《Questing Beast》 is excellent against both tactics.
One of the breakthroughs from our playtesting is when we realized we could afford to play 《Redcap Melee》 in the sideboard. Clearly, it’s the best interaction possible against Mono Red as it deals with otherwise tough threats in 《Torbran, Thane of Red Fell》 and 《Goldspan Dragon》, while also being an option for an early play.
In past versions of Gruul, the sideboard slots for removal were stretched as you also wanted some removal against Mono White, Rogues, and Mirror.
However, with our version, we already have 4 《Scorching Dragonfire》 in the maindeck to cover those matchups. Against Mono White, we realized we didn’t need that many removal spells and instead would rather focus on attacking back with a full set of 《Embercleave》.
This is another important card in beating aggro. It is often amazing against Mono Red due to being an additional answer to 《Anax, Hardened in the Forge》 and protecting you from their best cards in 《Embercleave》 and 《The Akroan War》 (which is also important in the mirror).
Against Mono White, the instant speed effect makes it very dangerous for them to exile a big creature with《Glass Casket》 or attack with an equipped creature against possible blockers. I wouldn’t even mind playing the 4th 《Wilt》, since it’s so good against Mono White.
This is mainly against Rakdos and Rogues, but it also does work against Yorion decks as it is a threat you can add to the board the turn before they’d want to cast a sweeper.
It is also surprisingly good against Cycling (since they also want to bring sweepers, and it slowly weakens their 《Zenith Flare》) and you can bring a copy against some versions of Mono Red.
Often, Mono Red will sideboard in a lot of removals and may try to sequence their spells in a way where they can have mana open to kill a 《Kazandu Mammoth》 or 《Bonecrusher Giant》 on your turn 3. Adding 《Klothys, God of Destiny》 in those scenarios is a way to punish them for those play patterns. But if they don’t play passively post-board, it can be a liability.
Those slots in the sideboard are interchangeable in theory, with Arni being a much better card against Yorion, while 《Phoenix of Ash》 is a hedge against Rogues. We found that going below 2 《Phoenix of Ash》 (like we did) does make the Rogues matchup significantly weaker.
This is not a new card, but it’s worth highlighting that it’s a good threat against versions of adventures that overload on 《Giant Killer》 and 《Goldspan Dragon》, so it’s well-positioned again. It’s also very good against Rakdos. I tried cutting it at various points but Marcio Carvalho quickly realized the holes it left against the 《Giant Killer》 decks.
《Garruk, Unleashed》 does a lot of small things post-board, helping against sweepers but also against decks that rely on chump blocking to race you (like Cycling and Mono White).
5. Matchups and Sideboard Plans
On the ladder, I had a massively favored record against Mono Red even when Gruul wasn’t well-tuned for the matchup, beating it dozens of times to climb from low percentages to a consistent top 10 ranking. It was tempting to conclude from those results that we simply crushed them.
However, we learned from internal testing that you really needed the actual good cards to beat a player that knew what they were doing, and for that I want to thank my testing partner Thoralf Severin. Our games showed the importance of exiling 《Anax, Hardened in the Forge》 and having clear answers to their x/4 creatures, but also that we needed to keep 《Questing Beast》 and 《Klothys, God of Destiny》 in the deck to maneuver around versions of Mono Red that overloaded on removal spells and tried to play a more passive game.
《Klothys, God of Destiny》 is more of a gamble; you want it in case your opponent is playing too passive because it’s a play you can do when they leave mana open early, but it’s a risk against their very proactive hand, so it’s a card that’s probably better on the play than on the draw.
Overall, I think we are very here, and expecting Mono Red to be popular is one of the reasons to play our Gruul, but the games are not always blowing outs and the skill of the Mono Red player can go a long way in making the matchup closer.
In all honesty, our version should have one more dedicated card here, like 《The Akroan War》, 《Soul Sear》 or 《Wilt》. 《Ox of Agonas》 is an option that you can bring over 《Questing Beast》 because sometimes it lines up well against some of their hands that are heavy on removal, so it’s worth the bet even if such games are not very common.
《Garruk, Unleashed》 does a similar role, except it is much better when the game comes down to racing due to trample since a common play from them is blocking with a 1/1 and sacrificing it to give Protection/Indestructible to a second blocker.
I don’t mind playing the matchup, but some of the games feel hopeless from either side, so it’s hard to evaluate.
The main disadvantage of 《Questing Beast》 is 《Thieves’ Guild Enforcer》, which can trade for much less mana. Here is one tricky play you can try against it (although it’s more cute than good): when you don’t have 《Bonecrusher Giant》 in hand, but do have 《Questing Beast》, tap out in your first main phase and then attack with your less important creatures, like 《Brushfire Elemental》. This might tempt your opponent to cast the 《Thieves’ Guild Enforcer》 for a block, since you are no longer threatening to kill it with 《Bonecrusher Giant》, thus increasing the odd of 《Questing Beast》 surviving in a later turn.
Keep in mind that hands with two red sources are extremely important post-board. Since we only have 3 Escape creatures, I can’t recommend mulliganing every hand without RR, but I’d definitely send back weak hands with only R and every hand with no red sources.
《Embercleave》 is better against the Ultimatum decks, while 《Ox of Agonas》 is better against decks that are just a pile of removal like 《Doom Foretold》. 《Embercleave》 is also generally better on the play than on the draw, so feel free to adjust accordingly. Sometimes I keep all 4 《Embercleave》 on the play, for instance, as it’s better to plan for them stumbling than to hope to match their game plan when they draw perfectly.
While our maindeck is not optimized for those matchups, we found that having dead cards didn’t matter that much against the Ultimatum decks. The pre-sideboarded games are short, so it’s not like you’ll get punished too much for having 1 or 2 useless cards in hand. In any case, you should mulligan very aggressively when seeing a Yorion companion. I have beaten them more often than I lost on testing, but it’s always scary, especially the 《Doom Foretold》 decks (or any version that is just a million removal spells), which tend to be much tougher.
Against Temur, we are focusing on trying to keep the curve low to avoid getting out-tempo by 《Brazen Borrower》. However, if you get too low to the ground then you’ll lack enough power to overcome their late game. I’d say this matchup is unfavored overall, but not that much. When they draw perfectly you’ll have no chance, but they do stumble often.
Gruul w / 《The Great Henge》
Another option is to take out more 《Questing Beast》 to bring in 《Ox of Agonas》 if their sideboard plans include a lot of spot removal or 《The Akroan War》. If they don’t have 《Goldspan Dragon》 you don’t need to bring in 《Redcap Melee》, and instead can have more 《Embercleave》 and 《Garruk, Unleashed》.
We want all 《Questing Beast》 and 《Embercleave》 against them to be able to punish an investment of mana in 《Showdown of the Skalds》. This plan does make you clunkier, but it’s a risk we need to take. Basically, assume you should be playing like Mono Red in the matchup, where attacking is a bigger priority than dealing with their threats, so you should only have a minimal amount of interaction.
We are overall disadvantaged against the Naya versions with 《Giant Killer》. However, it’s not an awful matchup by any means as you can always get in a quick kill in the first game and even out their card advantage engines with 《Vivien, Monsters’ Advocate》 after board.
We also expected the multicolor versions of adventures to drop significant percentages against Mono Red, which hopefully would discourage too many others from playing them, but they are also the kind of strategies that tend to remain popular regardless of metagame considerations and inconsistencies.
The First game is rough, but this sideboard plan is strong, so I like the matchup overall. Izzet Tempo seems to have disappeared lately, so I hope you appreciate my commitment to providing in-depth content by still taking the time to type out this plan.
It isn’t much you can do to improve further against Rakdos, and the lack of 《The Great Henge》 is an issue against both versions, although 《Vivien, Monsters’ Advocate》 and 《Klothys, God of Destiny》 help a ton. Overall it will matter more how much they want to beat you than anything you can do on your own end unless we are massively changing our maindeck.
I really like this matchup as 《Questing Beast》 and a full set of 《Embercleave》 is excellent against them. On the draw, I want to keep all 4 《Scorching Dragonfire》 to avoid getting blown out by the 《Flourishing Fox》, but on the play I sometimes take out a couple for an extra 《Arni Brokenbrow》 and a 《Phoenix of Ash》, to maintain the pressure against sweepers.
6. Final Thoughts
Gruul is a fun deck to play and if you know how to tune against the metagame, it remains powerful. I realize that this might sound like I am underselling the deck, but the reality is that I was happy and confident during playtesting as it became clearer that Mono Red was a very strong deck and likely be popular for the weekend, as a metagame shaped by Mono Red is exactly where Gruul wants to be.
Lucas Esper Berthoud (Twitter)