Pursuit of Knowledge – Gruul

(Gruul Guildgate | Art by Randy Gallegos)

Drinking the Gruul-Aid

Welcome back to Pursuit of Knowledge. In this installment, we will tinker with Gruul, using the extended Command Zone gameplay data to rank cards in each category and build an optimized deck around a Gruul commander. As with previous articles in this series, we will come up with a list of templates for each category that could be reused to build other Gruul decks.

An assortment of 26 Gruul commanders pilot 10,073 EDHREC decks. There are 54 games with a Gruul commander in the extended Command Zone gameplay data, featuring fifteen different generals. With nine decks, Xenagos, God of Revels has the most presence and also the best win-ratio in Gruul (44%). Xenagos is also quite popular on EDHREC, present in 1,498 decks as a commander, but also very popular in the 99, found in a whopping 9,658 decks, twice as much as any other Gruul generals! This is the commander we will feature in this article.

Oftentimes, Gruul is all about ramp and raw power. In the power department, Xenagos is king. A commander that can stick around, grant haste, and double the stats of any of our creatures on each of our combat steps at no cost, Xenagos brings a lot of value for five mana. Our main goal for this deck will be to take advantage of the ramp green provides us to bring big, stompy creatures into play, which, when powered with Xenagos, will bring our opponents’ life totals down in big chunks each turn.

This deck is all about value. We will select creatures that have favorable stats, with power larger than their CMC and sometimes with added abilities. Xenagos’s ability will amplify these favorable stats. The creatures we play will instill fear into our opponents. Playing big spells with an immediate impact on the board will also allow us to play more of a tempo style. Once we reach a critical mass, we can hold on the cards we draw to allow us for a quick recovery if our opponents start messing with our board.

Taking a look at the average Xenagos deck on EDHREC (see graph below), we see that there is a strong focus on creatures. We will keep a similar focus for our deck. The average CMC of a Xenagos deck hovers around 4.28, and we will also aim for something in that range for our deck.

After compiling the extended Command Zone gameplay data, I have been able to rank 649 spells and 138 lands. We will use this information to come up with the best cards that align with our core synergies: go tall, evasion and combat enhancers.

When writing previous articles that covered red (Rakdos and Izzet), I noticed that some of the top red creatures in the gameplay data were Dragons. Although Rakdos brings in all the tools to build a Dragon reanimator deck, I find that Gruul makes for a better Dragon tribal environment. Even though we have a good mixture of creature types in our deck, the Dragon theme fits well with our core synergies.

We will now take a look at the different categories to identify which cards works best for our deck. In addition to the Ramp, Card Advantage/Filtering, Disruption, Mass Removal, Standalone Creatures and Noncreature Spells and Lands, we have added three categories specific to this deck: Go Tall, Evasion, and Combat Enhancers. We will present the cards in tables, ordered by rank. Cards selected for our deck will have a shaded background. The rank will be listed beside each card name. We will use our best judgment to add relevant unranked cards to each categories. Unranked cards are cards that are not present in the gameplay data, either because that are too recent or not found often enough to reliably rank them.


Ramp

Ramp is fairly important in this deck, as the core of our creatures are high-powered, expensive spells. We went above the average ten sources of mana ramp recommended for a normal deck and leveraged green’s main strength to design a well-rounded ramp package.

Kodama’s Reach (1) Astral Cornucopia (17) Expedition Map (33) Thought Vessel (51)
Cultivate (2) Myriad Landscape (~17) Sol Ring (37) Farhaven Elf (52)
Skyshroud Claim (5) Nature’s Lore (20) Somberwald Sage (41) Savage Ventmaw (62)
Sakura-Tribe Elder (9) Fyndhorn Elves (22) Everflowing Chalice (42) Dowsing Dagger (70)
Explosive Vegetation (10) Phyrexian Altar (23) Nissa, Vastwood Seer (44) Selvala, Heart of the Wilds (110)
Blighted Woodland (~10) Rampant Growth (29) Verdant Confluence (46) Regal Behemoth (117)
Wayfarer’s Bauble (12) Mana Geyser (31) Solemn Simulacrum (47) Genesis Wave (384)
Harrow (16) Llanowar Elves (32) Wood Elves (49) Goreclaw, Terror of Qal Sisma

The best ramp spells (if not the best spells overall), Kodama’s Reach and Cultivate start off this list, and complement other classic green ramp spells, Sakura-Tribe Elder and Wood Elves. We also include Somberwald SageSavage Ventmaw and Goreclaw, Terror of Qal Sisma to help us bring bigger creatures quicker.

With our focus on big creatures, Selvala, Heart of the Wilds should produce a significant amount of mana in this deck.

Since 16% of the cards in this deck are not permanents, Genesis Wave has the potential to be backbreaking for our opponents. Not only can it provide us some additional ramp, but it can also cheat some pretty powerful creatures into play.


Card Advantage/Filtering

Since we are playing more expensive spells, our normal tempo will not require us to draw as many cards as our opponents. Nevertheless, our card draw package is comprehensive and should allow us to draw what we need when we need it.

Sylvan Library (3) Eldritch Evolution (26) Ulvenwald Hydra (58) Soul of the Harvest (90)
Eternal Witness (4) Sensei’s Divining Top (27) Chrome Mox (60) Regal Force (91)
Harmonize (8) Temple of Abandon (~27) Tranquil Thicket (~63) Alhammarret’s Archive (93)
Reliquary Tower (~10) Regrowth (30) Sanctum of Ugin (~75) Tamiyo’s Journal (94)
Skullclamp (11) Path of Ancestry (~32) Grapple with the Past (74) Imperial Recruiter (97)
Worldly Tutor (15) Greater Good (48) Rishkar’s Expertise (76) Tooth and Nail (100)
Praetor’s Counsel (18) Crop Rotation (54) Slippery Karst (~77) See the Unwritten (101)
Green Sun’s Zenith (19) Primal Amulet (55) Godo, Bandit Warlord (78) Genesis Wave (384)
Survival of the Fittest (21) Chord of Calling (56) Nissa, Voice of Zendikar (79) Domri Rade
Seasons Past (25) Greenwarden of Murasa (57) Wall of Blossoms (84) Beast Whisperer

We are going tall, and in that context, cards such as Rishkar’s Expertise and Greater Good bring excellent value.

Triggering Greater Good in response to targeted removal or a board wipe should allow us to easily come back full strength.

Rishkar’s Expertise played in the second main phase after Xenagos doubles one of our minion’s power should net us over ten cards, putting the best one among them right into play.

Domri Rade bundles card advantage, disruption, and combat enhancement in the same body. Sylvan Library increases Domri’s card draw effectiveness.

Not only will Ulvenwald Hydra provide us a big beatdown body, it also allows us to get the most appropriate land for our game situation, whether we need some ramp or mana fixing, need to clear the board of a land that impedes our strategy, or grow our creatures even bigger with Kessig Wolf Run.


Disruption

Our disruption package is a mixture of targeted removal, combat enhancers, direct damage, cheating permanent to play at instant speed, and thievery effects.

Krosan Grip (6) Comet Storm (43) Ghost Quarter (~105) Aggravated Assault (408)
Beast Within (13) Scourge of Valkas (65) Triskelion (111) Elvish Piper (426)
Yavimaya Hollow (~23) Frontier Siege (67) Song of the Dryads (123) Savage Beating (464)
Arachnogenesis (24) Zealous Conscripts (68) Hellkite Charger (176) Sunder Shaman
Nature’s Claim (28) Dualcaster Mage (69) Berserk (195) Domri Rade
Strip Mine (~31) Scour from Existence (85) Hellkite Tyrant (213) Rhythm of the Wild
Reverberate (34) Arcane Lighthouse (~99) Decimate (248) Shivan Wurm
Aetherflux Reservoir (40) Fork (102) Ruric Thar, the Unbowed (253) Dragonlord Atarka

Our targeted removal features spells such Beast Within, Krosan Grip, and Decimate, one of the most cost-effective multiplayer removal spells in the format.

Ruric Thar, the Unbowed punishes our opponents from playing noncreature spells, and is more difficult to deal with when Xenagos supports it at combat time.

Rhythm of the Wild and Spellbreaker Behemoth prevents opponents from countering our creature spells. Reverberate can play the same role, but could also be used to take advantage of our opponents’ best spells. Doesn’t it feel nice to copy Army of the Damned?


Mass Removal

Our mass removal arsenal will mostly deal with opponents attempting to go wide.

Chain Reaction (50) Earthquake (130) Pyrohemia (299) Wave of Vitriol (418)
Bane of Progress (64) Molten Disaster (199) Ugin, the Spirit Dragon (309) Balefire Dragon (443)
Blasphemous Act (87) Magmaquake (255) Walking Ballista (377) Shattering Spree (452)
Volcanic Vision (95) Mizzium Mortars (296) Contagion Engine (387) Fiery Confluence (457)
Ezuri’s Predation (116) Silklash Spider (298) Starstorm (404) Rolling Earthquake (466)

Molten Disaster should have less impact on our board state than our opponents’, sparing all of our flying creatures. Molten Disaster can also double as a finisher if our opponents life total gets under 10.


Core Synergy: Go Tall

Our first core synergy is to go tall. The taller we get, the more damage we deal to our opponents. Xenagos doubling a 3/3 creatures is an extra 3 damage, but doubling an 8/8 creature increases the damage to 16. The bigger the creature, the more effective Xenagos becomes.

Greater Good (48) Chameleon Colossus (244) Giant Adephage (455) Ghalta, Primal Hunger
Ulvenwald Hydra (58) Ruric Thar, the Unbowed (253) Hydra Omnivore (468) Deus of Calamity
Rishkar’s Expertise (76) Primordial Hydra (280) Chandra’s Ignition (480) Savageborn Hydra
Selvala, Heart of the Wilds (110) Terastodon (360) Pelakka Wurm (600) Impervious Greatwurm
Pathbreaker Ibex (115) Xenagos, God of Revels (364) Managorger Hydra (637) Spearbreaker Behemoth
Berserk (195) Etali, Primal Storm (409) Arbor Colossus Hunter’s Insight
Malignus (222) Balefire Dragon (443) Colossus of Akros Shivan Wurm
Rubblehulk (233) Life’s Legacy (449) Dragonlord Atarka Goreclaw, Terror of Qal Sisma

In a ‘go tall’ deck, attacking with Pathbreaker Ibex can be a game finisher. With a creature attacking each opponent, one of which has its power doubled by Xenagos, each creature will get an additional boost of power of between 10 and 16. The creature that Xenagos enhances will effectively have its power at least quadrupled after Xenagos’s and Pathbreaker Ibex’s triggered abilities resolve.

With Xenagos, Chameleon Colossus can grow big, fast, and with built-in evasion, this 4-CMC Shapeshifter (which also counts as a Dragon!) can give headaches to some of our opponents.

Shivan Wurm has some pretty interesting stats for a 5-CMC creature. It comes with a drawback, forcing us to bounce one of our creatures when it comes into play, but this could be used to our advantage if we target a creature with an interesting ETB ability. All in all, with its trample ability and potential for Xenagos to double its power, this Wurm could act as a giant 14-damage fireball for a mere 5 mana.

Dragonlord Atarka is another value creature. An 8/8 flyer for 7 mana that deals 5 damage as it enters the battlefield and ready to swing for 16 with Xenagos, this Dragon could put a serious dent into any of our opponents’ life total.

Malignus has the potential to bring down an opponent each time it attacks, especially if it gets trample. Spearbreaker Behemoth protects our bigger threats for a mere 1 mana, providing some resiliency to our board. All these big critters make Rishkar’s Expertise and Greater Good amazing source of card draw, allowing us to draw solutions to any board state.


Core Synergy: Evasion

Our second core synergy ensures our opponents cannot avoid taking damage from our creatures, either attacking with flying creatures, using effects that force our opponents to take combat damage, or giving our creatures trample.

Triumph of the Hordes (7) Pathbreaker Ibex (115) Overwhelming Stampede (203) Ezuri, Renegade Leader (283)
Atarka, World Render (45) Craterhoof Behemoth (121) Hellkite Tyrant (213) Thunderfoot Baloth (293)
Overrun (59) Eldrazi Monument (125) Skarrg, the Rage Pits (~238) Rancor (294)
Savage Ventmaw (62) Smuggler’s Copter (142) Chameleon Colossus (244) Domri Rade
Scourge of Valkas (65) Tyrant’s Familiar (147) Whispersilk Cloak (268) Mage Slayer
Knollspine Dragon (66) Champion of Lambholt (156) Primordial Hydra (280) Dragonlord Atarka
Siege Behemoth (73) Rhonas the Indomitable (168) Kamahl, Fist of Krosa (281) Goreclaw, Terror of Qal Sisma
Utvara Hellkite (114) Scourge of the Throne (193) Hoarding Dragon (282) Shivan Wurm

Siege Behemoth forces our opponents to take full damage from all of our attacking creatures. Mage Slayer, combined with Xenagos’s enhancing effect, quadruples the effective damage that a creature with evasion could deal to an opponent.

Like Shivan Wurm or Utvara Hellkite, a good portion of our creatures come with some form of evasion. In addition to potentially hitting our opponents each turn, Utvara Hellkite brings in more Dragons to the board every combat step.

A couple of spells provide evasion to all of our creatures: Pathbreaker Ibex, Goreclaw, Terror of Qal Sisma, and Nylea, God of the Hunt.


Core Synergy: Combat Enhancers

Combat enhancers is our last core synergy. Spells in this category turn our horde into unstoppable, fearless warriors, instilling hastiness, giving them trample or double strike, pumping their power, or providing multiple combat steps each turn.

Kessig Wolf Run (~42) Scourge of the Throne (193) Surrak, the Hunt Caller (279) Charmbreaker Devils (369)
Atarka, World Render (45) Berserk (195) Kamahl, Fist of Krosa (281) Dictate of the Twin Gods (389)
Siege Behemoth (73) Hall of the Bandit Lord (~209) Ezuri, Renegade Leader (283) Aggravated Assault (408)
Godo, Bandit Warlord (78) Malignus (222) Bow of Nylea (324) Savage Beating (464)
Craterhoof Behemoth (121) Purphoros, God of the Forge (226) Furnace of Rath (329) Domri Rade
Hanweir Battlements (~139) Rubblehulk (233) Relentless Assault (354) Sunder Shaman
Hellkite Charger (176) Vigor (251) Garruk Wildspeaker (362) Goreclaw, Terror of Qal Sisma
Sarkhan Vol (183) Gratuitous Violence (260) Xenagos, God of Revels (364) Rhythm of the Wild

Combined with Xenagos, Atarka, World Render gives most of our Dragons the ability to deal lethal damage to any of our opponents. With Atarka World Render, Utvara Hellkite and Dragonlord Atarka deal 32 points of damage to their target. According to the extended Command Zone gameplay data, Atarka, World Render is the best available Gruul creature.

Gratuitous Violence has similar effect as Atarka World Render as far as performing damage to our opponents or their permanents.

Sarkhan Vol, Rhythm of the Wild, and Goreclaw, Terror of Qal Sisma buff all of our creatures, but more importantly, they provide our creatures haste or trample. Sarkhan Vol may also be used as evasion, using his minus ability to steal the most important defender, opening a breach in an opponent’s defense.

Aggravated Assault and Hellkite Charger let us perform multiple combat phases each turn, with Xenagos doubling any of our creatures each time.


Standalone Creatures

Standalone creatures are creatures that do not fit in any of the above categories, but complement our core synergies, bringing more value to the board.

Avenger of Zendikar (14) Caller of the Claw (105) Krosan Tusker (170) Magus of the Wheel (209)
World Breaker (36) Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker (108) Skullwinder (172) Stuffy Doll (211)
Scavenging Ooze (38) Metallic Mimic (109) Courser of Kruphix (173) Bramble Sovereign (224)
Hermit Druid (39) Dragon Mage (133) Guttersnipe (177) Myr Retriever (229)
Mycoloth (71) Young Pyromancer (146) Genesis (178) Hangarback Walker (234)
Rampaging Baloths (89) Forgotten Ancient (155) Wolfbriar Elemental (180) Lovisa Coldeyes (241)
Moldgraf Monstrosity (104) Verdant Force (164) Loaming Shaman (182) Joraga Warcaller (242)

Moldgraf Monstrosity gives us some recurrence, comes up with built-in evasion, and fits the ‘go tall’ theme really well.

For a mere 2 mana, we can get twice the benefit of playing any of our big (nonlegendary) creature spells with Bramble Sovereign.


Standalone Spells

The majority of the best ranked standalone spells from the card pool center around a token strategy. Since we are going tall, we’ll leave these out, but I’ll still list them here for reference for anyone making a Gruul deck that requires a more token-oriented approach.

Farseek (35) Nissa, Vital Force (112) Rude Awakening (136) Second Harvest (192)
Spawning Pit (61) God-Pharaoh’s Gift (118) Wheel of Fortune (163) Coat of Arms (204)
Beastmaster Ascension (77) Dragon Tempest (119) Increasing Vengeance (165) Phyrexian Processor (214)
Primeval Bounty (81) Sprout Swarm (120) Clock of Omens (169) Harvest Season (218)
Panharmonicon (82) Paradox Engine (127) Helm of Kaldra (185) The Chain Veil (219)
Doubling Season (99) Altar of Dementia (128) Parallel Lives (186) Tempt with Vengeance (220)
Sneak Attack (103) Wildest Dreams (135) Nim Deathmantle (188) Hardened Scales (231)

Lands

For our land base, we set aside roughly ten lands that provides mana fixing, and three lands that produce extra ramp.

Forest (1) Scavenger Grounds (9) Wooded Foothills (17) Sanctum of Ugin (25)
Command Tower (2) Yavimaya Hollow (10) Kessig Wolf Run (18) High Market (26)
Blighted Woodland (3) Temple of Abandon (11) Kazandu Refuge (19) Slippery Karst (27)
Reliquary Tower (4) Scalding Tarn (12) Forgotten Cave (20) Spire Garden (33)
Stomping Ground (5) Mountain (13) Temple of the False God (21) Jund Panorama (35)
Verdant Catacombs (6) Strip Mine (14) Misty Rainforest (22) Mosswort Bridge (68)
Myriad Landscape (7) Path of Ancestry (15) Khalni Garden (23) Spinerock Knoll (129)
Polluted Delta (8) Arid Mesa (16) Tranquil Thicket (24) Sheltered Thicket (130)

As far as utility lands are concerned, Yavimaya Hollow provides protection to our creatures, Kessig Wolf Run helps our creatures connect with our opponents with some added punch, and Mosswort Bridge and Spinerock Knoll provide us a cheap way to cheat some of higher-cost permanents. Finally, Reliquary Tower allows us to keep larger hands if we ever play Rishar’s Expertse or activate Greater Good.


Putting It All Together

With Xenagos’s ability to make our creatures’ amplified presence felt right away, and with the right pieces in place, our creatures can connect with our opponents and inexorably bring their life total down each turn.

Although the deck we built around Xenagos forces us to adopt more of a linear strategy, we need to make many choices during the course of a game. Should we attack with the creatures already in play and trigger Aggravated Assault, then take another combat step, or should we bring a new creature on board, attack with it this turn, limiting us to a single combat step? How many creatures should we commit to each attack, and how many do we need to keep behind to protect ourselves from our opponents’ attack? The challenge is to make the right choices, to move us into the exact board state where our opponents must face the inevitable and get stomped all over. We do not want to commit too much, both to keep our options open and just in case our opponents disrupt our game plan.

As we built our deck, we came up with a list of templates that identify the best ranked cards for Gruul in different categories. We can use these templates to help us build many more Gruul decks.

What is your favorite Gruul commander? When you play against Gruul, what do you find most challenging?

In our next article, we will take a look at Dimir. I would also like to take reader requests for a Boros and Selesnya commander, preferably one that has not been covered on EDHREC.

Resistance Is Futile

Commander (1)
Creatures (34)
Artifacts (4)
Instants (7)
Sorceries (9)
Enchantments (6)
Planeswalkers (2)
Lands (37)

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Martin has been playing Magic since Fifth Dawn. He has explored many formats over the years and his favorite one is Commander. Curious by nature, Martin enjoys deckbuilding as much as playing the game. He likes to experiment new deck archetypes, explore new synergies and learn about crazy combos.