Hello, today I will be presenting a deck tech from The Gladiator Games: Kamigawa Neon Dynasty that took place on March 5, 2022. The deck that I used was a red/green aggressive deck taking advantage of the new Modified matters cards from Kamigawa Neon Dynasty. I piloted this list to a 4-1 record. With some lucky breaks, I finished in 7th place.
Constructing a Plan
When building a deck, one of the factors to consider is “support” vs “payoff.” These concepts can take many forms. Looking at Gruul, support often comes in the form of mana creatures such as Llanowar Elves, interaction for opponents game plan like Arni Slays the Troll and Lightning Bolt and cards that stop your opponents from stopping you like Snakeskin Veil. Payoffs are often powerful creatures or planeswalkers that can take over a game like Questing Beast or Glorybringer. Some cards can fill both roles: The Great Henge, Bonecrusher Giant, Nissa, Who Shakes the World, and Thrash // Threat are great examples of cards that can support your plan and kill your opponent.
Both of these styles of cards need to be taken into account when constructing your deck. Playing all mana creatures and no large threats or vice versa can lead to struggles. Something to note is that the optimal balance of these types of cards is not based on having the same number of cards in each category. A Storm deck will not have the same amount of support spells in the form of draw and mana like Opt and Pyretic Ritual as payoff in Storm cards like Grapeshot.
Aggro vs Midrange
Looking at the concepts above; how do you decide between whether your deck wants Ahn-Crop Crasher or Thrashing Brontodon? Crasher is looking to accelerate the pace of the game with haste and the removal of a blocker. It also can speed up your opponents plan as it will not be able to block after Exerting. Conversely, Brontodon slows down the game due to having more toughness than power and removing a permanent for both players. While not a true dichotomy, decisions like this can help nudge your deck towards certain play patterns that help clarify your strategy and ensure your cards are working towards a common goal.
Midrange decks often dip further into the pool of support style cards with ramp creatures such as Ilysian Caryatid and Gilded Goose in order to get access to larger payoffs such as Quartzwood Crasher, Craterhoof Behemoth, or Ugin, the Spirit Dragon. Midrange’s approach is often to sacrifice some early power for a more overwhelming board state in the later game. This approach can be less stable as more parts need to come together to function, which in turn makes variance and opponents’ disruption more impactful.
Aggressive strategies are more focused on payoffs that do not need as much support to function, but have a lower maximum impact on the game. Phoenix of Ash and Ahn-Crop Crasher will not end a game as dramatically as Craterhoof, but they do not require as much setup to impact the game. This helps to insulate the deck from variance and targeted removal from opponents at the cost of petering out in the face of a larger board states.
Practical Application: Modified
Looking at the new cards offered to us in Neon Dynasty and Alchemy 2022, there are some powerful aggressive options available that fit into many of the existing themes of Gruul. Parallels can be drawn between some of the new options such as Invigorating Hot Spring and Thundering Raiju with some powerful existing options like Rhythm of the Wild and Hellrider. These cards offer some redundancy in threats that give this deck a nice boost. Looking at Thundering Raiju in particular, it offers support to our theme by having a 3/3 haste stat line for four mana while also modifying our creatures with +1/+1 counters. It also acts as a payoff as it can attack for a large amount of direct damage with the trigger.
Cards that Support the Theme
As mentioned above, the Modified theme fits well with a lot of what we are trying to do already and covers a wider variety of cards than one might think of when initially considering their options. Vivien, Monsters’ Advocate and Nissa, Who Shakes the World both can create a steady stream of Modified creatures. Riot and Explore on cards such as Gruul Spellbreaker and Merfolk Branchwalker provide early sources of counters. Ranger Class, Domri’s Ambush, and Snakeskin Veil provide additional utility with some incidental +1/+1 counters.
Reflection on the Tournament
Over the course of the tournament I faced five aggressive strategies. Three were Mono-White strategies, two Aggro and one Death and Taxes, and the other two were Mardu Humans and Mardu Vampires. I went 3-0 in matches and 6-3 in games against Mono-White. The match I lost was to Mardu Humans. Despite the close record, I felt generally favored against Mono-White. The higher-toughness cheap creatures gave the deck the ability to block early. When combined with many lists’ lack of removal and sweepers, this allowed the deck to develop pretty freely until I had a large enough presence to force favorable trades.
The new card that impressed me the most was Jugan Defends the Temple. This card provides a lot of value and longevity for the cost. It offers us a mana creature when it enters the battlefield. It then grows two of our creatures the following turn. Then it flips, giving us a 2/2 flying body that can grow larger and a mana sink that turns all of our follow-up creatures into significant threats.
Some other standouts from the new sets were Kodama of the West Tree, Tenacious Pup, and Kura, the Boundless Sky. Kodama can provide some explosive starts with cards like Pelt Collector, Zhur-Taa Goblin, and Merfolk Branchwalker. This allows you to pull out lands to dump your hand quickly and apply a lot of pressure to your opponents while providing trample to your board. Tenacious Pup is a nice speed bump that can do some scary things both early and late by pushing two drops such as Thorn Lieutenant out of Lightning Bolt range while providing trample and vigilance or making Glorybringer truly terrifying to opposing creature decks. Adding vigilance to a creature with Exert removes the downside of Exerting as the creature avoids becoming tapped in the first place! Kura is an evasive deathtouch threat that can trade with most cards and often leaves a large reach creature behind, which helps a lot with aggressive strategies and fliers. This deck does not have many utility lands to grab with the other option, but Sokenzan, Crucible of Defiance, Boseiju, Who Endures, and Den of the Bugbear or Lair of the Hydra are options worth keeping in mind.
Thrash // Threat continues to impress me as a flexible, easy to cast removal spell with the fallback of a four mana 4/4 with trample. Both sides of this card come up a lot and the option to remove a planeswalker at instant speed becomes better with each new set.
The Not So Good
Goro-Goro, Disciple of Ryusei did not have as much impact as I had hoped and falls a bit short when compared to its Dragonkin Berserker cousin. In the tournament, the first strike from Berserker felt much better than the option to give haste from Goro-Goro, allowing me to apply a bit more pressure with attacks. The necessity to attack with a modified creature didn’t feel overly restrictive, but was an annoyance when it did come up. Also, the cost reduction from Berserker is sorely missed on our new Goblin friend.
Mana was a bit of a thorn as our options on Arena for allied color decks are limited. If you are looking to mitigate this risk further, there are a couple of options you can utilize. The first would be to remove some of the early color requirement dense spells for options that use more colorless or the deck’s primary color. This would be taking out cards like Werewolf Pack Leader and Phoenix of Ash for options like Kraul Harpooner and Rampaging Ferocidon. Being more conscious of this decision can leave you with less powerful cards in some situations, but alleviates pressure on your opener and mana down the line.
The second option would be to add more duals that come into play tapped. There are a variety of lands that come into play tapped and provide various upsides that can be taken advantage of. These include Temple of Abandon, Rugged Highlands, Ketria Triome, and newcomer Forsaken Crossroads. Including too many of these lands can also cause early development stumbles and put the deck behind pace in some matchups. While not a true dual, Crossroads seems the most promising as it comes into play untapped if necessary roughly half of the time and can always scry if the mana is not needed.
Directions to Consider for the Future
With aggressive strategies taking a sizable portion of the current metagame, Gruul Aggro is in a pretty reasonable spot. The deck can fight for the board early with its larger twos and threes and turn the corner a bit faster than its Midrange counterparts. If you are expecting the continued popularity of Mono-White I would look to cards like Rampaging Ferocidon, Outland Liberator, and Garruk, Unleashed while removing cards like Goro-Goro and Vorinclex, Monstrous Raider. These cards offer faster development and ways to break through multiple smaller creatures. Liberator helps with some of the more problematic cards out of white such as Lion Sash, Shadowspear, and Eater of Virtue. If Mono-White starts slowing down and adding more removal, or, if slower, removal based strategies begin to take over, Blossoming Defense and Tamiyo’s Safekeeping gain value as cheap tools to protect our creatures.
If you are looking to get more aggressive, there are a variety of strong ones and twos available to really do some damage. Bonesplitter, Eater of Virtue, Longtusk Stalker, Falkenrath Pit Fighter, Fireblade Charger, and Kumano Faces Kakkazan are some options that utilize turn one more often than my list that further push an early advantage. Stalker in particular is a fun combo with cards like Halana and Alena, Partners. At the two slot, Earthshaker Khenra and Resilient Khenra can provide early value when including more one cost creatures while also helping in a longer game and are another set of cards that go great with Stalker.
When looking at the top end, there are some three and four drops that could go in over the slower five drops. Lupine Harbingers is another 4/4 with haste and trample to add to our expanding roster alongside Questing Beast and Ulvenwald Oddity. Shifting Ceratops is another powerful option that is at its best against blue decks, but the flexibility of keywords is a nice bonus in many matchups. If you are looking to give more of your creatures haste with some incidental protection from counterspells, Rhythm of the Wild can supplement Hotspring. If you want a bit more firepower, Quartzwood Crasher, Ilharg, the Raze Board and Terror of the Peaks are significant threats that put away games.
If you are looking for a proactive deck that looks to build to the board while having a bit of a higher floor, this is a great option to consider. Gruul has a dizzyingly large variety of options that allow some flexibility to slow down with creatures that can go toe to toe with any opponent or to really step on the gas.