Dragon’s Maze: Gruul Siege Review (Part 1 of 2)
When we began our coverage of Return to Ravnica, we focused on a number of themes and mechanics that gave the set a sense of cohesion from the original to the latest iteration. One of the greatest of these wasn’t a particular mechanic so much as it was a much more fundamental innovation- the very guild system itself.
As we noted while reviewing Golgari Growth, the guild system itself was something of a masterstroke. Mark Rosewater has referred to the time after the original Ravnica’s release as feeling like they had “captured lightning in a bottle, with the guilds giving players something exciting to latch onto and identify with. “Ravnica… gave players an easy way to self-identify with what colours they preferred to play,” we observed. “To that point, players had identified themselves with their colours alone, ‘I’m a Green mage,’ or, ‘I like Blue/Black.’ Being able to give a guild and name to each twin pair gave a great many players a way to deepen their emotional involvement in the game.”
The Gruul straddle the intersection between Green and Red. Notes Rosewater, in his 2006 look at the guild,
Red and Green are the two colors that least value thinking. Red follows its impulses. It lets its emotions and its guts guide it. Green is driven by its animal instincts. Green doesn’t reason things out. Green just does what comes naturally.
In short, Red and Green are about acting in the moment. They figure out what they want (albeit in different ways) and they, quite simply, go for it. Red and Green aren’t particular subtle, especially when they get together. But then, they don’t have any need to be. They don’t bother hiding things. They just do what they do.
This tendency makes Red/Green the least organized of the guilds. Most of the other two-color combinations are trying to achieve some higher goal. Red/Green shoots much lower than that. They get an inkling that they want something and they go for it, with no holding back.
Given that one of the benefits of the guilds are getting players to more deeply identify with facets of the game, one wonders how well this mentality goes over. After all, Magic is a game of thought and strategy- you might well assume that such a demographic would skew more heavily towards the more “contemplative” colour pairings.
You’d be right.
When Wizards introduced the “Planeswalker Points” rewards program in 2012, it was only natural to try and integrate the guilds into it as Return to Ravnica approached. Players were encouraged to cast their lot with one of the ten guilds, and players could help advance the guild’s achievements through different tasks and objectives in playing organised Magic. As of this writing, over 100,000 players have signed on. The Gruul’s share of the pie? A very humble (and humbling) 5%. Meanwhile, a full 50% of players signed on for one of the four guilds that have a Blue component, and they make up the Top Four (in order of prominence, Azorius, Izzet, Dimir, and Simic).
Luckily for Borborygmos and his cohorts, life is not a popularity contest, and the broad side of a club is a great social leveler.
The Rage of the Beast
There’s little subtle about Gruul Siege, and the guild wouldn’t have it any other way. Their signature mechanic, bloodush, makes its return- but what does the deck look to do for the Gruul’s encore performance?
It opens with a trio of Zhur-Taa Druids, mana dorks with a wicked twist. Though they come down a turn later than the classic Llanowar Elves model, the Red mana in their casting cost ensures a fiery kick. Every time they are tapped for mana, they ping each of your opponents for 1. WIth mana burn now removed from the rules of the game, there’s little to hold you back from activating them at the end of each of your opponent’s turns, whether you can use the mana or not. A trio here also gives you a leg up in mana development, though as we’ve seen these decks don’t necessarily need the help with their high land counts and Cluestones. That said, a little extra ranged damage is always welcome.
That said, the deck’s other two-drop, the Kraul Warrior, is just the place to stick all that extra mana later in the game. Activating at a hefty six mana, the otherwise unassuming 2/2 Warrior becomes a much more robust 5/5. The over-saturated manabase of the Dragon’s Maze decks has been a disappointment, though the decks do give you places to use it outwith just casting spells, such as this fellow or the Frilled Oculus.
Moving up to the deck’s three-drops, we find a pair of Feral Animists. Another solid mana sink, these double their power for every three mana you sink into them. Though their lack of trample and brittle toughness, however, mean that they can easily be dealt with on the opposing side of the table. Still, the deck packs enough tricks to make the Animist relatively unpredictable, and a solid addition to the Gruul arsenal. We also find our first familiar face here in the form of the Slaughterhorn, a 3/2 beater with bloodrush. The Slaughterhorn is as simple as it gets here, offering a no-frills almost-Giant Growth effect for one of your attackers.
The deck bulges as we hit the four-drops, with a full ten of its creatures slotting in here. A trio of Rubblebelt Maakas offer a slightly-worse Red version of the Slaughterhorn. Although you get the full +3/+3 from the Maaka, the extra point of toughness comes at the cost of an extra mana, contrasting the efficiencies of Green (more efficient) neatly against Red (less so). Additional bloodrush options included here are the Viashino Shanktail, which offers first strike in addition to its pump, and the Ghor-Clan Rampager. The Rampager is particularly brutal, as it extends trample to its beneficiary, and both of these are carry-overs from Gruul Goliaths.
Just as we’ve seen with the Guttersnipe in Rakdos Revelry and Bazaar Krovod in Orzhov Power, another “crossover critter” appears here in the form of the Cobblebrute. The last time we saw these they were in Izzet Ingenuity, but they’re an even better fit with the Gruul thanks to their asymmetrically high power. Bloodrushing the Ghor-Clan Rampager means that for just two mana, the Cobblebrute becomes a 9/6 trampling juggernaut- look out! Although the 2 toughness isn’t especially durable, the removal-light preconstructed format does give it a bit more longevity. In more constructed formats, your mileage may vary.
Finally, we find some additional Dragon’s Maze offerings in the Saruli Gatekeepers. As part of the Gatekeeper cycle, these bestow an additional effect if summoned with two (or more) Gates under your control. While others in the cycle let you draw a card or get a free Disfigure, the Saruli’s effect is a bit less exciting as it’s just lifegain- though a fairly large dose of it, to be certain.
Moving on to the top of the curve, we find a murderer’s row of massive closers. A Zhur-Taa Swine is the cheapest of these, a five-mana 5/4 with bloodrush. It’s brought along a few of its friends from Gruul Goliaths in the form of the Ruination Wurm and Ripscale Predator. The Predator in particular can pose some difficulties for your opponent, since it has a thorny blocking restriction that prevents it from being effectively chump-blocked. The Wurm has no such bonus, but does tack on an extra point of power and toughness.
Last up are the deck’s two rare cards. The Skarrg Goliath is from Gatecrash, and is a towering 9/9 with that all-important trample. Its bloodrush cost is only one mana less, but it hits like a bus: +9/+9 and trample. And we thought the Rubblehulk hit hard! Then there’s the deck’s premium rare, Ruric Thar, the Unbowed. A six-mana 6/6, Ruric Thar is the Gruul’s maze-running champion. Although compelled to attack each turn, Ruric Thar’s vigilance and reach make him just as useful on defense. In addition, he punishes any player who tries to sidestep creature combat by smashing them for a hefty 6 points of damage each time a noncreature spell is cast. Of course, this includes you as well, though this symmetry is bent somewhat by the creature density of the deck. It may hurt, goes this rationale, but it will hurt your opponents worse.
Heart of the Wild
The noncreature support suite for Gruul Siege is fairly narrow in scope. Most notable is the removal package, which consists of four cards. That’s enough to appear reliably, but not in numbers, so you’ll want to choose your targets carefully. A pair of Ground Assaults play well in this land-rich environment, and can take down far larger creatures than you’d ordinarily expect to for only two mana. Of course, it’s at sorcery speed, so the inclusion of an instant-speed Pit Fight and Volcanic Geyser is most welcome. While Pit Fight is limited to the size of whatever creature you’ve fielded, it’s relatively cheap for what it does. Volcanic Geyser, as an X-spell, is a bit more open-ended, but comes at a cost in mana.
Bloodrush as a mechanic is all about making the red zone an uncomfortable place for your opponent on defense, and Gruul Siege only adds to that with a pair of Gruul War Chants. Costing the same as the classic Orcish Oriflamme but doing so much more, these turn all of your attackers into Ripscale Predators. It’s a huge advantage, as it effectvely cuts down the number of blockers your opponent has available. Armed // Dangerous is also quite useful here, giving you either a sorcery-speed combat upgrade or a Lure effect. Both of these are useful, and when fused together they can make a gameending combo where your smallest creep draws the attention of the blockers while your largest gets the bonus and double strike. For those keeping score at home, that means if you have a Zhur-Taa Druid and Skarrg Goliath on the board and your opponent is at 20 life, fusing these will win you the game.
Finally, there’s a Predator’s Rapport for some extra lifegain- another card that makes the Goliath an irresistable draw. We seldom give much credence to lifegain in non-dedicated strategies, but three mana for 18 life? Seems good.
As with the other decks, there’s a full playset of Gruul Guildgates here, and a pair of Gruul Cluestones. As our last Intro Pack from the set (and the block) we’re looking forward to going out in style! We’ll be back in two days with the results!