An Aggro-vating Start
When Standard rotated in early September, I immediately built a low-curve Gruul Aggro deck and took into the best-of-three MTG Arena ladder. While I love Mono-Red Aggro (and Mono-Red Burn even moreso), there’s something about the reach that green provides aggro decks that I really enjoy, and in the current Standard format, green feels like an almost necessary addition to aggro archetypes.
It didn’t take long to realize that the meta was extremely hostile to low-curve aggro decks. From most decks maindecking three to four copies of Cut Down in the early format, to the prevalence of The Meathook Massacre, Infernal Grasp, Sheoldred, the Apocalypse and a sea of 1/1 chump blockers created by Oni-Cult Anvil and Wedding Announcement, I was having trouble – to say the least – climbing the ranked ladder.
In a haze of frustration and with my Platinum IV ranking endlessly mocking me, I decided to go a little bigger with the deck, swapping out some of the one-drops for some bigger creatures; more specifically, bigger wolves and werewolves.
I certainly had more success with this than I did with the lower-curve aggro version, as I was now playing more of a midrange game with Brutal Cathar and some fight spells to clear the way for my other wolves, and a usually game-winning turn five play that cheated out a Tovalar’s Huntsmaster or an Avabruck Caretaker
Still, the deck was soft to Grixis Midrange (which was the most-played deck at the time) and any good Esper Midrange player. I found myself winning a lot of game ones, only to lose to full playsets of Infernal Grasp, Meathook Massacre, Essence Scatter and a couple copies of Burn Down the House in games two and three.
A few days into grinding the ladder with this deck, I named “wolf” with Secluded Courtyard, and couldn’t cast my Brutal Cathar off of it (Brutal Cathar is a Werewolf). I deleted the deck from my Arena client.
The Bo1 ladder was a whole different ball game. While still dominated by Mono-Black Midrange (which was running two or three Meathook Massacres, two or three Sheoldreds and up to four Liliana of the Veils), its playrate was not nearly as high as the combined playrate of the three midrange decks that were pushing aggro decks out of contention on the best-of-three ladder, on MTGO and in paper Standard.
I was actually able to go back to the lower-curve decklist above for awhile and had good success with it from the lower-to-middle Platinum tier. Mono-Black was almost a guaranteed loss, as between The Meathook Massacre and Sheoldred, the Apocalypse, Mono-Black was able to stabilize far too easily and slowly gain back the life I had worked so hard to take away. As I’ve mentioned in both of the Standard Meta Guides I’ve written, Mono-Black Midrange was really representing the control deck of the format, keeping aggro players like me at bay rather effectively.
Still, I had a 68% winrate against non Mono-Black decks. In Gruul, I was able to stabilize and turn the game around against Mono-Red Aggro by turn five, bolt a Delver of Secrets out of Mono-Blue Delver on turn one, and trample over some of the Wedding Announcement-based decks that I saw a lot of in my climb.
Anyway, for whatever reason, I ended up trying a bunch of terrible jank brews for a week, tanking my rank back to Platinum IV. I do this at least twice per season and my therapist hasn’t gotten to the bottom of this impulse yet, but we’re working on it.
Then, a wonderful thing happened.
Off the (Meat)Hook
Meathook Massacre was banned from Standard on October 10th, 2022. While it took three days for the ban to become effective on Arena, I could feel it coming in my soul. I didn’t wait for the ban to take effect to rework Gruul Aggro a bit, and I spend three days extensively playtesting and tweaking the deck, evaluating the matchups as if every Meathook Massacre cast on turn three was actually a Graveyard Trespasser or Liliana of the Veil, Massacres cast on turn four were Sheoldreds or Sorins, etc.
I ended up with this list, which is the version I am still playing today.
I realize I have written 750 words before getting to the deck breakdown, but my family and friends grow tired of hearing about my adventures with Gruul Aggro and I need to tell somebody.
Anyway, being in Gruul (as opposed to Mono-Red Aggro) gives us access to four 2/1 one-drops, eight more quality two-drops, a mid-game boost in Halana and Alena, Partners and, of course, Boseiju, Who Endures. Written this way, it may not sound worth the less-consistent (and sometimes slower) mana, but the cards that green does add also fundamentally change the deck’s underlying strategy.
While Mono-Red is strictly a bash-face aggro deck with burn spells to provide some reach, Gruul Aggro has an underlying “modified creature” synergy, enabled by Ascendant Packleader Quirion Beastcaller, Halana and Alena, Partners and Kumano faces Kakkazan, and paid off with Thundering Raiju, Radha’s Firebrand and Halana and Alena, Partners themselves. This allows the deck to max out on Thundering Raiju as a win condition, while Mono-Red typically plays two copies as a curve-topper alongside Atsushi, the Blazing Sky
Let’s break down the cards in the deck before we move on to a gameplay and mulligan guide!
Kumano Faces Kakkazan
A fantastic aggro card on its own, Kumano also contributes to the modified creature synergy by putting a +1/+1 counter on your creature drop the following turn. Often, this will put the creature you play out of Cut Down range, which can be crucial. With 16 cards to play on turn two following a turn-one Kumano, it is very likely that you’ll have something in your opening hand to play out or draw into it if you don’t.
There is no reason to play anything other than Kumano on the play on turn one if you are able to, no matter how tempting the Ascendant Packleadermight be. On the draw, the only consideration to not playing Kumano on turn one is if you can Play With Fire an opposing Evolved Sleeper, Phoenix Chick or Ascendant Packleader– but even this depends on the rest of your hand, which I will get into later on.
This little baby is the best one-drop haste creature in Standard. Reinforced Ronin may be a 2/2, and Rabbit Battery may be able to grant haste to other creatures, but Phoenix Chick flies and can recur itself as a (notably, modified) 2/2! Phoenix Chick’s ability to fly over Sheoldred, Graveyard Trespasser and the format’s many 1/1 Human Tokens is critical, and can be the difference between getting two damage in or doing nothing for an entire turn.
Phoenix Chick also plays very well with Kumano Faces Kakkazan, as a 2/2 haste flier on turn two can put in some serious work until it is dealt with – if it ever is. Often, you’re putting so much pressure on your opponent that they can’t waste time dealing with a recurrable Phoenix Chick, and it just chips away at your opponent’s life total turn after turn.
Reinforced Ronin and Rabbit Battery are terrible with Kumano, as Ronin returns to your hand and wastes the +1/+1 counter and Rabbit Battery doesn’t grant the +1/+1 boost to the creature it is reconfigured onto, effectively also wasting it.
Play With Fire
Not much has to be said about Play With Fire in Mono-Red decks or burn decks, but it does need some explanation here, because Kami’s Flare would feel better a lot of the time, as we are essentially running a modified creature deck.
The times where Play With Fire does feel better than Kami’s Flare, though, is because it won the game on the spot. By turn four, when your opponent is at one or two life and plays a Sheoldred onto an empty board, you’ll be much happier to draw a Play With Fire than you would have been with Kami’s Flare. The versatility of being able to turn Play with Fire directly to face is, in my opinion, better than the extra one damage that Kami’s Flare offers for one more mana, as Play With Fire hits Tenacious Underdog, Blootithe Harvester, Evolved Sleeper, and Delver of Secrets.
Depending on how the meta evolves over the next week, it is very possible that up to four of these become Kami’s Flare, as the ability to destroy Ledger Shredder, Llanowar Loamspeaker, Raffine, Scheming Seer and Reckless Stormseeker could quickly prove more valuable than the one-mana cost, the ability to target face and the scry.
In most games, Ascendant Packleaderwill deal four damage and then trade for a Tenacious Underdog or Bloodtithe Harvester, which is great for one mana. At its worst, it eats a Cut Down or becomes blocked forever by a turn-one Concealing Curtains. In the case of a Concealing Curtains or turn-three Graveyard Trespasser, you just have to leave it back until a four-drop or a Reckless Stormseeker buffs it, then it’s off to the races again.
Rhadha’s Firebrand is a strong addition to the Gruul “modified” archetype, and is a great target for Reckless Stormseeker to grant haste to (and buff!). Firebrand is one of the few ways the deck has to swing through an early Bloodtithe Harvester, Tenacious Underdog, Ledger Shredder or Llanowar Loamspeaker without losing a creature in the exchange. Later in the game, a pumped-up Firebrand can push lethal damage through an opposing lifelink creature, Sheoldred or even a Titan of Industry, Sanctuary Warden or Ao, the Dawn Sky The ability to pump itself can also be enough to just win games.
Off of a Kumano buff, it enters out of Cut Down range and can swing into two 1/1 tokens, which is nice, but it doesn’t inherently have haste and doesn’t do a ton to affect the board or apply significant pressure, so I’m down to two copies for now. I could see a world where I go up or down on copies of Firebrand – up against a meta driven by Mono-Blue Delver and midrange decks, and down against a go-wide token meta, which I believe is a likely step for Standard post-ban.
One of the stronger pulls to green in the deck, Quirion Beastcaller just gets big, and the distribution of its counters upon death is very powerful and well worth the rare wildcard it costs.
Opponents also tend to not consider the impact this counter distribution upon death can have. Just an hour ago, I had a 2/2 Phoenix Chick and a Beastcaller with three counters on it. My opponent had a Sheoldred down and played out a Liliana and downticked it, having me sacrifice a creature. I sacrificed the Beastcaller, turning the Phoenix Chick into a 5/5 that could fly over Sheoldred on my turn for lethal.
The gameplay and deckbuilding considerations around Quirion Beastcaller were the considerations most punished by Meathook Massacre, as Beastcaller really wants you to play some amount of small creatures and (over)commit to the board to allow it to swing through your opponent’s turn-two blocker. Now that we’re off the Hook, Beastcaller’s demand for a wide board can be answered rather safely.
The third card I’ve discussed so far from Dominaria United,\ Yavimaya Iconoclast is ideally a 4/3 haste trampler for three (which becomes a 3/2 when the turn ends), but can also be a good turn-two play after a turn-one Kumano Face Kakkazan in a pinch.
Unfortunately, neither the +1/+1 nor haste are counters, so the Yavimaya Iconoclast is not actually modified by its own Kicker ability. Still, this is one of the better aggro creatures on rate, and is played here over the Riveteer’s Requisitioner we see in this slot in Mono-Red Aggro decks.
While we’re not intentionally triggering nighttime the way I was in my Gruul Wolves deck above (Stormseeker is the only card in the deck that starts the cycle), Reckless Stormseeker is great in the daytime too, and can incidentally find itself under a full moon if you (or, more likely, your opponent) happen to trigger it.
Curving from a turn-three Reckless Stormseeker into a turn-four Halana and Alena, Partners can be devastating, as Stormseeker will pump up the Partners, who will in turn pump the Stormseeker or something else based on Partners’ power. (Arena automatically stacks this interaction properly).
While many of the creatures in the deck already have haste, playing the Stormseeker out on turn three and giving itself haste and +1/+0 is usually a fine play. Again, though, these pre-combat buffs are not modifications and do not fuel Thundering Raiju’s attack trigger.
Squee, Dubious Monarch
Squee can be good onto an empty or tapped-down board on turn three, and is recursive, but it’s not super great into a Bloodtithe Harvester, Tenacious Underdog or Graveyard Trespasser. Since it’s legendary and not good enough to risk having a single dead draw for, I’m running one. In a Mono-Red Aggro deck, I could see playing more.
Thundering Raiju is the big payoff for all the work we did modifying our Quirion Beastcaller, Ascendant Packleader and whatever we played the turn after out Kumano Faces Kakkazan. It’s important to remember that Raiju also puts a +1/+1 counter on a creature upon attack, and factor that into the math for your swing. Raiju itself attacking can be pretty important (to get the attack trigger), so putting the counter on itself to allow it to swing into a three-power creature could be the right play.
As opposed to most Mono-Red lists, we’re running four copies of Raiju, as the first four turns are much more likely to result in modified creatures than they are when playing Mono-Red.
Halana and Alena, Partners
My favorite card in the deck and more than half of the reason I am not playing Mono-Red, the Partners allow us to build up a fat board to stabilize against aggro decks, pump up enough to swing through blockers that Mono-Red never could, and create interesting decision points that a lot of aggro decks notoriously lack.
When Halana and Alena, a Thundering Raiju and a Reckless Stormseeker are down, the math can get complicated. There’s the Stormseeker buff to consider (usually on the Partners), then the Riaju counter, then the Partners; buff, then the Raiju attack trigger face damage. You could count it out before your combat phase – or, you could just swing and see what happens. You probably just win at that boardstate, and math is for blockers.
Note: in all seriousness, against an empty board and assuming all three creatures start the turn at base stats and it’s daytime, that’s 14 face damage.
When it comes to mulliganing this deck, there are going to be times when you really wish you were playing a Mono-Red or a Mono-Green deck. Whether your only lands are Rockfall Vales and you can’t play your one-drops on turn one or you are missing a color in your opening hand, there will be pain. Just mulligan and carry on.
Allegedly, the Bo1 hand smoother built into MTG Arena doesn’t care about colors of lands – only the number of lands – so it will be of no help here. Also allegedly, the hand smoother does not apply on the second seven you draw after a mulligan, so be careful.
Sometimes, the Gruul gods will smile on you, and you will draw an untapped red source, an untapped green source, a Rockfall Vale and some spells.
You have 16 one-drops in your deck, but it’s not the end of the world if you don’t find them in your opening hand. Though, you never want to keep a hand where your first play is on turn three, and unless you have a Kumano Faces Kakkazan in your opening hand, you should mulligan as if Yavimaya Iconoclast is a three-drop.
Unlike how I would mulligan some versions of Mono-Red, I would never keep a one-land hand with this deck, even if the other six cards were all one-drops. This just isn’t that type of aggro deck. Thanks to the hand smoother in best-of-one, though, this is almost never a consideration I have to make.
Two lands, on the other hand, is very keepable on the play and the draw depending on the other five, but even if two of them were three or even four-drops I would keep it. We are running 23 lands, which is quite a bit for an aggro deck with a hand smoother at play. The likelihood that your next draw is a land is 39%, which increases about 1% every turn that you don’t draw one.
Three lands on the play is really the sweet spot (isn’t it always?) and the chances that those three lands are accompanied by a one-drop and a two drop are pretty decent at 38%. While we’re an aggro deck looking to have fast starts and apply early pressure, the deck shines when this early pressure is backed up by mid-game buffs and bigger haste creatures. In short, we’re not looking to win with a Phoenix Chick and an Ascendant Packleader We would love to play them on turns one and two, but not at the cost of keeping a hand that doesn’t bring us into the mid and late game.
All of that said, a four-land opening hand on the draw really needs the other three cards to be absolutely perfect to consider a keep. Like, Kumano, Beastcaller, Stormseeker good. Five lands is a no go always.
When mulliganing, play close attention to how your lands are going to sequence. Two Rockfall Vales is almost never keepable, and one Rockfall Vale and one untapped land can be rough depending on the rest of the hand. Having to play your Vale tapped to play the only one-drop in your hand can completely ruin your curve.
Tips and Tricks
- There is no reason to play out your Kumano Faces Kakkazan pre-combat. If you go into combat and your opponent plays a Wandering Emperor and downticks it to one to exile one of your creatures, a post-combat Kumano will destroy the Wandering Emperor. It’s good to remember that it pings planeswalkers in general, as a one-loyalty Liliana of the Veil or Wandering Emperor are very common, and pinging a two-loyalty Sorin, the Mirthless after it created a 2/3 with lifelink will make it unable to create another one without ticking up first.
- Swing your Ascendant Packleaderinto an opposing unflipped Concealing Curtains every time. There are times when they will block and you will have a Play With Fire to kill it (usually worth it), or they will let the two damage through expecting that exact scenario to happen.
- When mulliganing, it’s usually not a good idea to look at three lands and three Play With Fire and count on the scry you’ll get before your turn-two draw to rescue your hand. Just mulligan.
- Against Mono-Red, you are not the beatdown. You need to prioritize holding back creatures and buffing them to create a wall they can’t penetrate until you can swing in for lethal. You will know you are playing against Mono-Red Aggro and not Rakdos or Gruul if you see a Bloodthirsty Adversary on turn two or a Crystal Grotto played alongside basic Mountains.
- Arena will stack the interaction between Halana and Alena and Reckless Stormseeker properly, even if it looks like it’s skipping the Stormseeker trigger. (See below)
Gruul and Best-of-One Standard, Partners
That’s it! The PlayXNetwork’s first-ever best-of-one deck guide, featuring Gruul Aggro: the deck that got me out of my three-week Platinum rut and solidly into Diamond. I have a good feeling about this deck, and am currently 14-4 on the ladder with it (!). The deck is now fast enough to beatdown Mono-Black Midrange before it stabilizes, while having the ability to leave back a fat board of blockers when necessary to stabilize against the format’s other aggro decks.
As the meta evolves and aggro decks like this one start to try to take advantage of the Meathook-less meta, we could see other decks adapt and its current raw power deteriorate. Until then I will be racing up the ranked ladder with this list, and might give it a shot in best-of-three once I climb back up to safety in Mythic.
Have fun, remember that Reckless Stormseeker grants trample at night and thanks for reading!