Gatecrash: Gruul Goliaths Review (Part 1 of 2)
As we’ve seen both in Gatecrash as well as Return to Ravnica, Wizards felt in some cases that designing new mechanics for the guilds was a chance to do justice to some that may have gotten the short shrift in the first go-around. While there were some obvious hits, such as convoke for the Selesnya and replicate for the Izzet, there were also some that fell somewhat short of ambition. The Azorius Senate’s forecast was deliberately underpowered, the Golgari’s dredge was dancing on the line between fair and broken, and radiance for the Boros was “the big miss of Ravnica block” according to Mark Rosewater. But guild mechanics weren’t the only things getting a second chance.
Just like mechanics, not all Theme Decks were created equal. Azorius Ascendant and Code of the Orzhov were the block’s runaway hits. Meanwhile, the hapless Gruul Wilding and Rakdos Bloodsport languished in the basement, a victim of their own poor design. Though we enjoyed the evocative hellbent mechanic, the Rakdos were saddled with poor card choices that ran counter to the aggro deck it wanted to be (hello, Torpid Moloch). Meanwhile, the Gruul tried to be all things to all people, lumping together elements of three different archtypes- auras, bloodthirst, and fatties. It was a hodgepodge mishmash, and in the end earned them a well-deserved spot at the bottom of the list.
This time around, though, the Gruul seem to have rediscovered what makes them one of the most ferocious and fearsome guilds in all of Ravnica. Bloodthirst was a very strong and well-balanced mechanic, such that it was picked to return in Magic 2012, but it was the deck that let them down. This time they’re back with bloodrush, a mechanic which- like bloodthirst- directly rewards an attack-minded strategy. By turning certain creatures into potential combat tricks, an opponent must be on their toes at all times when assigning blockers, knowing that the deck has far more than a couple of Giant Growths to protect its creatures.
Unlike some of the new guild mechanics which were largely selected early in design thanks to the fruits of the Great Designer Search 2, bloodrush was a later creation. Initial designs tended to center around the fighting mechanic, pitting a creature against an opponent’s. As related by Rosewater, the first version of this was called rowdy, and triggered whenever a creature with the ability dealt combat damage to an opponent. That creature could then get into a fight with an opposing creature, giving the Gruul a certain ‘saboteur’ character. This proved problematic for a number of reasons, not least because it was too powerful an ability to be granted to common cards.
The next iteration was “kickboxing,” a variation on the kicker mechanic used in Invasion and Zendikar. With kickboxing, a creature could be summoned with an additional cost, and doing so allowed it to fight another creature straightaway. This still didn’t address the issue of cards at common rarity, for as Rosewater has often stated, “if your theme isn’t at common, it isn’t your theme.” Development challenged design to create something that didn’t involve fighting, and a sub-team was created to deep dive into creating a flavourful mechanic for the Gruul. The result was bloodrush.
Gruul Goliaths is an attack-minded deck designed to take advantage of this new mechanic. Can it redeem them from the failure that was Gruul Wilding?
The deck begins with a singleton Arbor Elf, an extra dose of mana ramping in a deck that has a few options for this- and, judging by the mana curve above, can make good use of every last one. It’s a bit of an odd inclusion as a singleton, as this is a card you usually want to see early rather than late. Still, even then it’s welcome (four 5-drops, four 6-drops, two 7-drops, and an X-spell). You also have a Foundry Street Denizen, a small creature that carries a power buff every time you play a Red creature. Although many of the deck’s creatures combine Red and Green and thus trigger the buff, a full nine of the deck’s twenty-four beaters are mono-Green. Taking on-board as well the deck’s steep creature pricetag, and you won’t often see the Denizen rise to great heights- this simply isn’t the deck to help him reach his lofty potential.
Moving to the two-drops, we begin with a pair of Disciples of the Old Ways. A strictly-better Grizzly Bears, these are an on-curve body that have the option for first strike. It’s the kind of ability that’s almost as effective in its potential as in its actual activation, since with a Mountain up your opponent will have to assume you’ll do so when running the mental math on the profitability of any attack. Next up is the Skarrg Guildmage, the Gruul entry in this very useful cycle. Like many, the Guildmage’s abilities synergise with another, turning one of your lands into a 4/4 beater for three mana, and giving all of your creatures trample for two. Both are valuable, with the latter all the moreso given the nature of the deck. Thanks to bloodrush, your creatures can get sizable in a hurry, but for the most part they’re spent once they run into one of your opponent’s creatures. Thanks to trample, every bit of extra damage will be put to proper purpose.
The last two-drop on offer here is in fact the deck’s first bloodrush creature, the Skinbrand Goblin. If the Disciples trump the Grizzly Bears, these Goblins are a step up from the classic Goblin Piker. The bloodrush bonus isn’t much, being +2/+1, but it will certainly increase in value later in the game, when having another 2/1 body is less appealing. Moving up to the three-drops, we find our next such offering, Slaughterhorn. For one mana more- and a shift in the colour pie- we find a creature one rank up in power and toughness. For added volume and efficiency, we also have a pair of Centaur Coursers here, vanilla 3/3’s. They’re not the sexiest of cards, but they are the most solid bodies in the deck thus far for sheer efficiency.
The four-drops are where things start to get really interesting, because for the first time we find bloodrush creatures that give more than just a static stats boost. The Viashino Shanktail, for instance, conveys +3/+1 and first strike, taking it beyond mere combat trick and putting it firmly in the realm of ersatz removal. The deck gives you a pair of them. In addition, the Ghor-Clan Rampager is a delightfully-efficient beater that can boost a creature +4/+4 and trample. Naturally, both are very solid here when cast as creatures as well, as they put any bloodrushes you endow them with to good use for the same reason that they make good bloodrushers to begin with.
Somewhat less sexy is the Scab-Clan Charger. A 2/4 is a typically defensive-minded body, while the Gruul’s strategy is predicated on relentless attacking, using bloodrush to overcome any and all obstacles. This means it’s not a particularly intimidating offensive threat, but it can shore up the back-line while your better attacking options put in a few shifts. The hefty toughness boost also can greatly add to the survivability of an attacker n the red zone. Finally, we find a Primal Huntbeast, an addition from Magic 2013. The Huntbeast is a 3/3 with hexproof, which protects it against one of the inherent weaknesses of combat tricks or enchantments. Bloodrush is great for pumping up a beater, but a removal spell in response can end up two-for-one’ing you, putting you behind in cards to no appreciable benefit. It’s a risk you’ll always have to run in this deck, but at least with the Primal Huntbeast you can avoid that sort of blowout.
The top of the deck’s mana curve contains the lion’s share of Gruul muscle, with a number of very robust- if pricey- options for inflicting grievous bodily harm upon your opponent’s life counter. The Fire Elemental is a card from the very dawn of the game, but has gone for a long span of time without reprinting. Now it’s back in Magic 2013, and is a nearly on-curve option for Red as a five-mana 5/4. It brings nothing else to the table, but is a very sturdy option. Take out a Red mana and stick in a Green, and you end up with the Zhur-Taa Swine. Also a 5/4, the Swine comes equipped with bloodrush, providing one of your creatures with a seismic boost for only three mana.
Not enough? Let’s throw another mana into the mix and see what we get. First is a pair of Ruination Wurms. These six-mana bruisers are plain vanilla, letting their intimidating power and toughness do their speaking for them. A Ripscale Predator is slightly smaller (though still a nasty 6/5), but makes up the difference by being much harder to block. The Predator is chumpable, but to stop it your opponent is going to need to offer up two or more creatures.
Finally, the deck’s foil premium rare appears here as the Rubblehulk. The Rubblehulk’s power and toughness are derived by the number of lands you control, which means that it will most often be a 6/6 when summoned (though it can potentially be as small as a 3/3). Notably, its bloodrush costs the same as the Zhur-Taa Swine for approximately the same boost, but the Swine’s is static while the Rubblehulk’s gets bigger as the game goes long. This makes its bloodrush ability not unlike a direct damage X-spell, and can finish off a wounded opponent on its own.
The last two creatures here cost a hefty seven mana: Gruul Ragebeast and Duskdale Wurm. The Duskdale Wurm costs one more mana than the Ruination one, and all you get for the extra mana is an extra point of toughness. Given the amount of time it can take to hit that seventh land drop, in most cases you’ll simply be better off running Ruinations over Duskdales, but this being preconstructed you have to make the most of what you get. More encouraging is the 6/6 Gruul Ragebeast, which can provide a trmeendous amount of value as your creatures can fight your opponent’s as they enter the battlefield, winnowing away at the weaker ranks of the opposing army. It also effectively turns each of your creature spells into removal, and is a worthy inclusion as the deck’s second rare.
Perilous and Unpredictable
With so much of the deck given over to creatures, there’s only a little bit of room left to go around for the noncreature support suite. Traditionally Red/Green beatdown decks will have a fair sampling of combat tricks, but as you might expect given that that base is well covered by bloodrush there are none to be found here. Instead, we get a small removal suite, some ramp, a creature augment, and- perhaps surprisingly- some lifegain.
The ramp comes in the form of a pair of Gruul Keyrunes, which double as extra 2/2 bodies with trample. Thanks to bloodrush these are especially relevant in a way that most Keyrune bodies aren’t, with the possible exceptions of evasive models like the Azorius and Dimir. In addition, there’s a copy of Ranger’s Path. While expensive at four mana, it does offer you the gift of two Forests, which can accelerate you right to the top of your mana curve at a stroke. Just as in Return to Ravnica, there’s a cycle of land enchantments in Gatecrash as well, and the Green one- Verdant Haven– is included here. Essentially a Fertile Ground that gives you 2 life in return for costing one mana more, this isn;t a card you’ll always feel great about playing on turn three when you’d rather be summoning creatures, but it’s worth noting that the deck has few three-drop creatures to begin with. A turn-4 Zhur-Taa Swine is a lovely thing.
For removal, you have a few cards that are either slow or conditional. Ground Assault can deal massive damage for only two mana, though it’s better later in the game and at sorcery speed. It’s also restricted to a creature, so you can’t hammer your opponent with it. Pit Fight is an instant-speed version of Innistrad/Magic 2013’s Prey Upon, costing one more mana. Interestingly, the restriction that the second creature must be one that you control is lifted on Pit Fight, opening the door to having two of your own creatures fight one another. Why you would want to do this in Gruul Goliaths is beyond us, but certainly there are a few Johnnies out there who might find some way to put that to use. Finally, a Volcanic Geyser offers a torrent of instant-speed damage that can rain down on a creature or an opponent, which is very welcome. The Gruul are all about the red zone, but having the reach of a finishing spell is never unwelcome.
The last two cards are a pair of miscellaneous effects. There’s a pure lifegain card in Predator’s Rapport, which will always be hit and miss. Certainly given the size of some of the deck’s creatures this can give you a ton of life, but like all lifegain cards it does nothing to change the board state of the game, and is close to a dead draw when you’re ahead of the game. There surely exists somewhere some relative point where a dedicated lifegain card would be snap playable. Who wouldn’t play a three-mana sorcery that said, You gain 100 life? On the other end of the spectrum would be Healing Salve without the damage-prevention effect, a simple lifegain card that would be virtually unplayable given the small return. Although Predator’s Rapport is closer to the latter over the former, there will be times that this thing steals a game for you if you’ve managed, say, a Duskdale Wurm.
Finally, there’s Alpha Authority. An unusual creature aura, the card offers a pair of augments that wouldn’t ordinarily be worth a card on their own- though even together are perhaps a little suspect. The first ability makes your creature hexproof, which conveys the benefits discussed above with the Primal Huntbeast. The other ability is a touch more intriguing- it makes your creature unable to be gang-blocked. That boils each attack into a one-on-one contest, which you should have the edge in considering how many combat tricks your bloodrush cards give you access to. Overall, it helps reinforce the notion that blocking any Gruul is a dangerous and unpredictable thing.
As with the other decks, you do get a Guildgate here as well. Next time, we’ll be giving the Gruul a run through their paces, to see how the deck plays itself out. See you then!