Of all of the decks you can end up with in Gatecrash Booster Draft, perhaps only Boros can compete with Gruul as the most straightforward. It doesn't have any cipher tricks that require you to carefully select your targets to carry the spell. It doesn't require you to properly order the sequence in which you play your creatures to maximize their evolution. It doesn't slowly whittle you to death with extort triggers.
These masters of the pugilistic arts are more than the simple, rage-fueled brutes we have come to expect. No, just as the heavyweight boxer relies on a flurry of jabs and lightning-quick footwork to set up a crushing haymaker, the Gruul clans can embody both speed and power. I spoke to two of the Clan's most fervent supporters: Team SCG's Tom Martell and Reid Duke. Neither player is a stranger to the rush of blood that comes from stepping into the ring against a worthy opponent, though their preferred toolboxes show the variety of techniques available to the mighty, yet technically proficient, Gruul.
Currently sitting in the welterweight division, but with the skill and moxy required to earn himself a championship trophy, Tom Martell relies heavily on his speed to win his matches.
"I really want to be aggressive," he told me as he rested after a pitched battle. "I want to overload my deck with two drops, cards like Disciple of the Old Ways, Skaarg Guildmage, and Skinbrand Goblin. I also want a lot of cheap tricks. The Goblin isn't the best of them, because only increasing toughness by one doesn't make creatures any more survivable. Instead, I like to snap up the obviously insane Ghor-Clan Rampager, the underrated Zhur-taa Swine, and Slaughterhorn. I am definitely the person in our group that values Slaughterhorn the highest. I wouldn't be too disappointed if it was my first pick."
Cards like these are the bread and butter of the aggressive Gruul deck, and are important for applying early pressure on your other opponents.
Just as any championship fighter can tell you, speed doesn't win matches without endurance. If you come out with a flurry in the first couple of rounds, but can't make it through a ten-round affair, your career isn't going to be a long one.
"Gruul can simply push through damage better than Boros can," Martell explained. " Battalion is an inherently fragile mechanic, where you end up losing your worst creature in most attacks, constantly whittling away your forces and keeping you struggling to maintain your battalion. Without battalion, your army is just weaker on average. With Gruul, your creatures are bigger and your tricks allow you to come out on the winning side of combat. It interacts favorably with blocking, while Boros interacts negatively with blocking."
Perhaps the best thing about being Gruul is the fact that you are constantly being underrated.
"If Gruul is open, you are going to get a large number of first-pick quality cards coming around very late. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to gauge whether or not the deck is available," Martell warned. "Cards like Slaughterhorn, Mugging, and Ember Beast are good in multiple decks, so it can be tough to rely on them to tell you what's going on. Yet for some reason, cards like Ground Assault, which is basically Terminate, and Zhur-Taa Swine will take trips around the table. If you see these around picks five or six, you know that you're right to move in."
The first key to winning the belt is to visualize it.
"I want to ignore the one drops, pick up seven or eight two drops, some Swines, and some random other tricks to even things out," Martell diagrammed. "The curve should be very low, and I should have the support necessary to make sure that I can punch through and finish the game off."
Reid Duke isn't one to worry about simply punching through. As one of the biggest heavyweights in the game right now, he is making a name for himself punching with such overwhelming power that no defenses are enough to stop him. A student of the Big Gruul school of fighting, Duke understands the necessity of speed and mobility to winning a fight, but he understands that these are useless without finishing power. His fights are going to go long, and he knows that as things drag on, the advantage his big guns provide him only increases.
"I treat this Draft format like Sealed Deck; I want all of my individual cards to have a high power level," Duke explained. "Most of the other people want to treat this like Constructed, they want to build a guild deck. Because of this, they tend to decide that there are a number of powerful cards that don't work well within their scheme. I'm talking about powerful cards like the Primordials, Gruul Ragebeast, and Giant Adephage. People also tend to shy away from cards like Guildgates, which are essential to this deck to help fix its mana. Since no one else wants them, I'm more than happy to scoop them up and play them."
While the typicaly low-curve Gruul decks don't want behemoths like these, Reid Duke does. He prioritizes the cheap Gruul cards like Ground Assault, but picks up the big monsters later in the picks and drafts enough guildgates to support big-mana splashes.
One of the major reasons that other fighters tend to eschew these powerful packages is their cost. Gatecrash Limited is a very fast format. As such, many people are worried about their chances to get to use these cards, thus they abandon individual strength for team synergy and support. Duke, meanwhile, has adopted a strategy similar to that of judoka or practitioners of aikido: he is defending and then using his opponents' own desires against them, giving him plenty of time to wind up for the knockout punch.
"Early on, I'm fighting for the same cards that traditional Gruul decks are," Duke revealed. "I'm looking for the same cheap removal spells and occasional efficient creatures that they are. I want early Muggings, Ground Assaults, Arrows of Justice, and even Killing Glare. I want Zhur-Taa Swines and Ghor-Clan Rampagers. But once they start looking to fill the rest of their deck, I start looking elsewhere."
Elsewhere, for him, is to the finish line, the final bell.
"I don't want to be taking these powerful, expensive cards early," Duke explained. "They'll come around later, and I have to spend my early picks taking the cards that others are going to want. Fortunately, once that phase has passed, near picks seven or eight, I can start to take a stab at picking up a powerhouse. This lets me coexist with other Gruul decks, sharing one part of the deck, but diverging with the rest."
Defense is hard to come by, however, especially in a Clan known primarily for being offensive.
"Cards like Verdant Haven and Greenside Watcher are great cards to pick up late in packs because they serve a double purpose. They serve to add a bit of defense if we need it, either gaining life or a creature that can trade if needed, and they both act as mana acceleration. I don't mind playing other early creatures, like Disciple of the Old Ways or Skaarg Guildmage, but they are more in the deck to defend against other decks' early rushes than anything. Cards that are only useful in aggressive decks, like Ember Beast, don't really have a place in this deck."
With the defense set in place, all that matters is holding on for the right moment and then letting an opponent have it. Visualize, then release.
"Ideally, the deck prioritizes early removal first, mana fixing and acceleration second, and win conditions third. They will come around. Just grab those early Muggings, keep an eye out for Gates and Keyrunes, and then pick up something to kill your opponents with when it comes around."
Words from a master. Although, as I'm sure the Gruul would attest to, actions speak louder than words. Give either of these strategies a try the next time you crack a Gatecrash pack.
And don't forget to smash.