As Gruul as it Gets: May 13th Tournament Meta Breakdown

By Gaspump 14May2020

If you’d asked me how I felt about Gladiator a week ago, I would’ve told you that while I was generally a fan of Russel Crowe’s body of work it wasn’t my favorite movie he’d starred in. Now, with a tournament’s worth of experience under my belt in what I’d handily consider the best format available on Magic The Gathering: Arena, I can confidently say I’ve changed my tune.

Not about the film though, Les Miserables is a classic.

With the absolute surge in server population the G:AS discord server has seen since last weekend’s event (It’s almost at 3000, unreal!) It made sense to see an increase in sign-ups for the event on Wednesday the 13th, but with 92 total entrants it can’t be considered anything less than an overwhelming success. Not only did a ton of people show up to play, but there was an incredible amount of diversity in deck archetypes piloted by entrants who managed a 4-1 or better record on the evening. My aim with this pair of articles is to examine the fledgling metagame in Gladiator through these highly performant lists and try to convey what about these lists is worth looking out for as the format continues to develop.

There was a total of 17 players who managed a record of 4-1 or better, but only three who ran the full 5-0. That seems like a pretty good place to start, and it’s also where one of the most important developments of the tournament is centered: The relative dominance of Gruul.

5-0 Lists

Taking overall first place in the event is SpeedMTG’s Gruul Stompy list. Of the decks that went 4-1 or better, three of them were similarly constructed Gruul lists that looked to go under control and ramp packages to hit lethal hard and fast. Each of these lists has their own quirks, but the general idea is consistent across SpeedMTG’s list, mrpolyk’s list, and Thaige’s list. (Placing first, fourth, and fifth respectively.) Notably, Thaige’s list has the lowest top end with Embercleave and a handful of 5 drops, with mrpolyk and SpeedMTG opting for some higher ceiling bombs. This is especially true for mrpolyk, who’s packing a suite of potential haymakers at the top end with cards like Kogla, Thorn Mammoth and End-Raze Forerunners. Interestingly, SpeedMTG looks to have opted for creatures packing evasion and instant value to try and force wins through as fast as possible. Of these three Gruul lists, his also happens to have the fewest amount of tap and utility lands, running just his on-color guildgate and life-land. We’ve heard other players talk about the importance of punishing the slow mana bases of 3 color decks, and it looks like SpeedMTG has taken that to heart with some very well-deserved results.

I was able to get in contact with SpeedMTG and get some of his thoughts on his deck’s performance in the tournement, and he attributes much of his success to Gruul’s natural strengths in a metagame with a very slow multicolor mana base and must-answer low cost threats. Burn spells and favorable early trades paved the way through against most midrange decks, but his toughest matchup was against a list we’ll touch on later in this article, mono green stompy. If there’s one takeaway from this list, it’s the extreme importance of early removal options and the power of being able to stick even a single threat in this format.

Gruul Stompy  speedmtg

Gruul Stompy  mrpolyk

Gruul Aggro  Thaige

Right on its heels is what I’d consider the most surprising deck of the three 5-0 lists, at least from an outside perspective. Gladiator is a format with access to a great deal of removal, but Eingya’s Selesnya Enchantress list proved that you don’t have to be in bogles to get mileage out of your auras. Harnessing a fantastic enchantment based removal + protection suite and low to the ground curve to plow through any control deck unlucky enough to be caught in its way, this deck uses a similar read on the metagame to the above Gruul lists to quickly establish a board and close the game out as soon as possible. I think the biggest difference stylistically between the two comes down to the strengths of red vs white as secondary colors: Trading off some raw aggression for protection, sustained value and enchantment synergy with cards from Theros: Beyond Death. I spoke to Eingya about their matchups, and they outlined a couple of core components that ended up pushing the deck over the top even in matchups vs other aggro decks.

First, the deck can tempo extremely well with the cards in the deck that reduce the cost of enchantments. Card like Pacifism become potent weapons to lock down problem creatures, especially for the low, low price of a single white mana and the potential synergy payoffs the deck is loaded with. As if that weren’t difficult enough to deal with for other aggressive decks, Karametra’s Blessing, Shaper’s Sancutary, and Fight as One make it a nightmare to take out on-board threats with hard removal. The final component here is how the list harnesses its suite of mana dorks as potential threats: every bit of chip damage against an empty board helps, and doubly so if that Llanowar Elves is stacked up with an aura or two.

It strikes me that this Selesnya list has a not insignificant amount of overlap with the ideas we saw from  Horatius’ 4-0 white weenie deck last week, but taken in a unique and obviously still very successful direction. As the meta continues to solidify, I’m excited to see what part aggressive white decks have to play moving forward, and how other pilots will try and learn from the success of Eingya’s list in this event.

Selesnya Enchantress  Eingya

Rounding out the top 3 with the final 5-0 result is OddDirective with one of two Bant lists to break the 4-1 barrier. While Duke of York’s Big Bant list (Which we’ll cover in part two of this article) shares some similarities to the one piloted here by OddDirective, the biggest differences come from the full focus on ETB recursion via blink that this deck leverages to gain unbelievable amounts of value over the course of a game. Going to far as to run copies of cards like Master Splicer, Dungeon Geists, and even Meteor Golem, once this deck gets rolling the number of incremental advantages it can accrue from just a single set of blinked ETB triggers is quite frankly disgusting. I was able to contact OddDirective and he was kind enough to go in depth with his thoughts about the list for this article:

“Bant Blink is a deck about extracting as much value as possible from the creatures you play and your blink spells so that you can play more creatures to give you more value and eventually just steamroll over the game. You are a creature deck that doesn’t like creature matchups, but can win them anyways through careful use of your resources. “

Additionally, he offered up his thoughts on some of the key pieces of the deck and what he might look to retool with it moving forward:

Best card in the deck? “Yorion, Sky Nomad. The inspiration for me to begin this deck in the first place, this big incredibly smart bird acts as a force multiplier for value, if you have a couple thing’s you’re getting a modest return. If you have three or four things with good ETB effects, you’re either going to be stabilizing the game right there or basically winning the game right there. It’s in two of your colors so you can play it any time, and it’s also just a 4/5 flyer, and there aren’t many fliers that can beat that power and toughness. Runner up has to be Trostani Discordant, she’s turned the corner for me on so so so many games, and while it never comes up it disrupts Agent of Treachery and Mass Manipulation. If you see 4 soldiers from your Trostani’s, you’re probably doing really well. 2 Trostani’s on the field at the same time, that’s a recipe for a win.”

As well as some surprising cards: “On the good side, we have Lena, Selfless Champion. A lot of players never gave this girl a fair shake, and I disagree with the assessment that she’s terrible. In context, sure, the outrage around her was justified, just look at what all the other colors got, but this format is a clean slate. And there are a lot of decks that just can’t really deal effectively with a bunch of 1/1s that pop up because of a bunch of other not-that-great creatures are on the field. As for the other side, we have Gyruda, Doom of Depths, who I’ve noticed has underperformed, as much as a 6/6 demon kraken can underperform. There have just been times where you miss with it, and while I understand this format is singleton, you’d expect to at least get a dork. Now, the flip side of this is it’s still a 6/6 for 6 mana, which is never really bad, but it doesn’t turn the game around on its own, which is really a big thing you want.”

Interestingly, he was also willing to share some of the deck’s faults. “I added both The Great Henge and Guardian Project to the deck, because they turn every blink you have into a draw spell or better, but the more I play with them, the less I’m liking their inclusion. You don’t really like taking turn 4 off, and you need strong creatures to get a discount on Henge, at which point you’re already in the “win” portion of your plan. I also didn’t really see it, but Hanged Executioner could easily be cut for a better way to answer permanents. I also probably don’t need to play Wilt, since I have some good answers to artifacts and enchantments already, and you don’t like cycling for 2 in this deck. Best card I’m not playing is Cavalier of Thorns by several lengths. I’m already heavily Green, it helps find colors you’re missing, and it brings something back to hand when it dies, all of which are things I need. Plus, it’s a 5/6 with Reach, and I have a fair weakness to flyers.”

OddDirective’s deck is the only non-aggro list to have a perfect record on the evening, and it solidifies the notion that Gx decks are best in class in the current metagame in a variety of roles. This seems like a list that may have a high ceiling moving forward as more and more high value, on color ETB recursion targets are added to the game.

Bant Blink  OddDirective

4-1 Lists

With the top 3 players and their decks covered, we move down to the first of the 4-1 lists that aren’t Gruul Aggro decks. I think it’s important to emphasize here that each of the 14 lists that went 4-1 in this event is at the very minimum a dark horse contender and certainly capable of taking games off every deck in the format. Additionally, I’d like to mention the two Gruul Aggro players again before we continue; their deck archetypes are similar enough to SpeedMTG’s list that I don’t believe separate write-ups are appropriate for a tournament meta breakdown… but both mrpolyk and Thaige had fantastic performances, earning their spots at 4th and 5th place respectively. I’ll link each of those lists one more time before we continue:

Gruul Stompy  mrpolyk

Gruul Aggro  Thaige

Coming in at 6th place overall with a 4-1 record is a someone near and dear to my heart… Me. Despite haplessly bumbling my way into the format like the Titanic Toddler from Zombies Ate My Neighbors, I was carried to the finish line kicking and screaming by a modified version of Darrak’s 4-0 Sultai Lands list from last week, originally copied with no knowledge of the format from Ben Wheeler’s Streamdecker. The original version of the deck looks to grind value and play control versus aggressive decks until it can stabilize and looked to land a Scapeshift or a backbreaking Emergent Ultimatum pile, and this one is no different. The most major change I made was swapping out a couple of creatures I found to perform inconsistently (Multani, Yavimaya’s Avatar is a serious sticky threat but can’t get around some of the format’s best removal, Lazav, The Multifarious is often dead on board, and the deck already has an incredible amount of recursion) and replacing them with Omniscience and The Eldest Reborn.

The deck has a relatively small number of answers for indestructible creatures, and The Eldest Reborn can also serve as an enormous blowout if not handled before rifling through both graveyards for something to filch. Omniscience speaks for itself, but I think it’s actually at its best as a bait card in those ever important Emergent Ultimatum piles. I found a lot of success even in very difficult board states by taking Mastermind’s Acquisition, Scapeshift or Nexus of Fate, depending on if I had the 2GG for hard casting Scapeshift, and Omniscience. Virtually any resolution of that pile is game over; If they opt to put Scapeshift or Nexus back in your library you get to slam Omniscience and tutor up what you need and play it for free, or they get to deal with a fresh pile of a dozen or so zombies from your Field of the Dead and whatever other obscene value engine those triggers provide courtesy of something like a Tatyova, Benthic Druid.

Sultai Lands has a ton of avenues to stabilize versus midrange and outgrind control. With some of the best graveyard recursion in the format and an extremely diverse array of threats, your board can be virtually impossible to deal with once established. This does, however, come at a cost: It is extremely susceptible to the fast aggro decks in the format that are able to punish its downright glacial mana base. Every single game I played was at the very minimum competitive, even when I lost… with the exception of my games vs Eingya’s Enchantress list, which suplexed me directly into the dumpster with back to back five minute blowouts. With the success of highly aggressive decks in the past few events, it seems apparent that all slower decks will need to find ways to deal with quickly developing board states or face a very similar fate.

P.S.: Maindeck more graveyard hate you greedy goobers. Soul Guide Lantern makes me cry salty, salty tears.

Gaspump listlink

At number 7, BigGayJulia brings an extremely spicy list to the table. The final Gruul deck of the 4-1 or better lists, this one is very much unlike the low curve lists that followed the same basic game plan that SpeedyMTG took first with. Despite it’s namesake being totally nonexistent in the format, this “Gruul Hoof” deck follows an eerily similar game plan: run out early mana dorks so that you can start windmilling the biggest on-color donkeys you can possibly find onto the table, then run them over with a veritable tidal wave of 6+ CMC creatures with trample and/or self-pump effects. The level of Timmy/Tammy in this deck is legitimately mind-boggling, but the results certainly speak for themselves. The dream of untapping with a Mirror March and End-Raze Forerunners in hand with a full board is oftentimes a reality with this deck, and so many current lists simply aren’t expecting to deal with sixty points of trample damage suddenly heading their way.

That being said, this is also a deck without much in the way of recursion and pilots who are judicious with their hand attack and removal will likely be able to neutralize a lot of what this deck can do to. Still, having a list like this that’s capable of blowing out games requires the format not be too greedy with their low CMC removal to deal with the lower curve aggro decks. Go ahead and see how much Ilharg, The Raze-Boar and the Titanoth Rex it’s about to sneak out care about that Ritual of Soot you’re holding up.

I was able to get in contact with BigGayJulia about the list, and they were willing to offer some thoughts of their own about how the deck shaped up.

“To be honest, I kinda just threw all the cmc 3 or less mana dorks on arena into a deck that I had the wildcards for, and then filled it with every big red or green creature I have. Some key cards would definitely be Lukka, Coppercoat Outcast, because he can trade your dorks for big boys super early, and surprisingly, mirror march. Every game I got it out, I won. Hard to beat 3 End-Raze Forerunners. Also, one card that was super effective was Proud Wild-Bonder. It effectively makes all your trample threats unblockable; This was super relevant, as sometimes I just needed to kill a planeswalker through a wall of creatures… and often it just killed them by letting, say, an 11/11 with trample through.” As for how they approached closing out games as a pilot? “I considered the only important point of life of mine being the 20th. As long as my opponent was dead, that wins the game.”

Gruul Hoof  BigGayJulia

Finally, rounding out the top 8 is a list that shares a few thing in common with the previous entry, but takes the theme in a decidedly different direction. Rhaisteld served up a mono green stompy deck that’s looking to prioritize value and reliable mana to get value fast and go under control decks and grind  other aggro and midrange builds by creating massive board states with threats that must be answered before they snowball completely out of control. This list leverages a major+1/+1 counter subtheme to continuously grow trampling threats, runs multiple creature based card advantage engines with staples like Beast Whisperer and the Great Henge, and on top of that packs a surprisingly robust recursion suite to get key cards back into the hand and onto the board.

If there’s any apparent weakness to the list though, it’s the lack of instant speed interaction (o Veil of Summer, which is a huge surprise given the blowout potential inherent to that card) and with only a single way to gain life in the deck via Great Henge activations, all damage dealt to it is very likely to stick. The fact that a fair mono green list like this one is finding a significant level of success in an event is telling of a number of things: first and foremost, a large variety of well-constructed decks are finding purchase in a (so far) very healthy metagame. Secondly, that the tools traditionally used to handle extremely creature heavy midrange lists in highlander formats with larger card pools maybe absent from the current card format, and therefore in prime position to be exploited by smart deck builders and savvy pilots.

Rhaisteld was kind enough to share some thoughts about the deck for this article, highlighting the important of his mana dorks to accelerate their game plan and lay out multiple threats per turn. Growing threats like Yorvo, Lord of Garenbrig and Biogenic Ooze paired with his value engines like the Great Henge and Beast Whisperer heavily punished the relatively low availability of sweepers, and cards like Goreclaw, Terror of Qal Sisma served as finishers to push through crowded board states.

Mono-Green Stompy  Rhaisteld

With the top eight decks scoped out, I’ll be back in a couple of days for a part 2 write up of the 4-1 lists I missed out on in this opening article. See you soon!