Gruul Blitz – The Most Underrated Deck in Modern

Share Button

First off, a belated happy holidays and a happy New Year to everyone!  As I mentioned in my previous article about the Modern ban list, I have spent the limited amount of time I’ve had to enjoy Magic: The Gathering testing different brews in Modern.  Lately I’ve been going off the deep end trying to make Death’s Shadow work in Grixis Delver, have tried Knight of the Reliquary + Life From the Loam shells with Ghost Quarter, and have made every terrible Sultai midrange build possible.  What I keep coming back to, especially when I need to recoup lost player points on MTGO, is Gruul Blitz.  This style of deck is also known as “Little Zoo”  or “Green/Red Aggro”, but I feel Gruul Blitz best encompasses the feeling you get when stampeding over your opponent before they’re able to establish any sort of meaningful advantage.  Right now, there’s a very wide spectrum of playable red-based Naya strategies in the format.

The most commonly played Naya build is the much maligned burn deck.

Here’s a pretty straightforward, powerful version of the Naya burn deck.  It’s consistent, fast, and has several match-ups that are almost guaranteed wins in the format.  Despite its strengths, it is, in my opinion, one of the easier decks to hate out in the format.  When playing bigger Naya zoo decks or Abzan lists, every time I’ve resolved a Kor Firewalker, I’ve gone on to win the game.  Cards like Kitchen Finks and Voice of Resurgence put the burn list at a tremendous disadvantage.  When Jund can Inquisition of Kozilek to see if the coast is clear to Feed the Clan, the burn deck has basically just been 3-for-1’d.

As a way to combat the card disadvantage a more streamlined burn list faces, many players started adding more threats.  Most coverage commentators refer to the creatures in the lists as the “sources of renewable or consistent damage” as opposed to spells that simply trade for an opponent’s life points.  The most widely adopted threat has been Wild Nacatl to quickly eat three, six, or even nine life from the opponent.  The following list is an example that 5-0’d a Modern event recently:

On Christmas day, a highly refined list was posted by Brian Demars on ChannelFireball that eschews the widely adopted inclusion of Eidolon of the Great Revel

The iterations of burn decks that were widely popular a few months ago have slowly begun to adopt more creatures, looking to deploy multiple threats as early as possible. Many of the creatures dodge Pyroclasm by having three toughness and these decks have the capability to kill an opponent before he or she is able to cast a four mana sweeper.

I’ve been a big proponent of pushing the creature blitz strategy even further, cutting sacred cows like Monastery Swiftspear and Grim Lavamancer completely.  Currently, Anger of the Gods, probably the best card against a deck that looks to empty the vast majority of its hand by turn two or three, is seeing very little play right now.  There are sufficient playable cheap threats available to Gruul and so few ways to combat them.  Creatures also dodge a lot of the interactive cards that decks like Grixis Control, Abzan, and Jund looks to employ against a more spell-heavy version of Naya.  Dispel, Duress,  and Feed the Clan are all either very narrow or have limited effectiveness against an all-out creature rush.

Several of the creatures are not format staples and should be discussed.

Experiment One:  This is the ideal one-drop for the “nut draw” and obviously is what should be played on turn one for ideal sequencing.  In this list, there are multiple ways to push Experiment One to become a 4/4, making it the best rate for size in the deck.  It’s also very comparable to Wild Nacatl as it attacks fairly consistently for three on turn two.  Experiment One led me down a path of building this deck to optimize everybody’s favorite human ooze.  I didn’t want any creatures that would fail to evolve it, so it was a big reason for cutting Grim Lavamancer.

Vexing Devil:  I’m typically not a fan of this card.  Allowing your opponent to choose whether it is sacrificed or not is generally pretty bad, though its synergistic reasons for inclusion outweigh its potential drawbacks.  First of all, whether your opponent chooses to allow the devil to live or not is irrelevant in terms of evolving Experiment One and is one of the few ways to actually allow it to evolve to a 4/4.  Secondly, the damage rate on Vexing Devil (as most frequently, your opponent chooses to have it sacrificed) is amazing for the one mana investment.  Finally, with the inclusion of Domri Rade as the one way to build card advantage in a prolonged game, the fact that Vexing Devil is a creature helps to keep that count very high.  During the course of the game, you’ll be fetching lands and will generally have at least a fifty percent chance of flipping a creature with Domri’s +1.

Burning-Tree Emissary:  This is the highest variance card in the deck (as it’s usually one of the worst topdecks if the game runs long), but is the best card to include when you want to maximize your chance of having a turn three kill.  Playing a turn one Experiment One, turn two Burning-Tree Emissary into a Kird Ape and [/card]Wild Nacatl[/card], and a turn three Atarka’s Command will kill your opponent and nearly all of the one-drops in the deck are interchangeable so long as you have the Atarka’s Command, the Burning-Tree Emissary, and enough one-drops.

*On a side note, be wary of playing Burning-Tree Emissary into an untapped blue source on turn two.  One of the easiest ways to lose a tremendous amount of tempo and potentially the game is running Burning-Tree Emissary into a Spell Snare.  In those situations, I generally opt to play two one-drops on turn two and pressure the opponent into dealing with that board state and opening up the opportunity for another big tempo push with Burning-Tree Emissary into a Tarmogoyf or Flinthoof Boar.

Flinthoof Boar:  This pig is just big and fast enough to earn its keep.  Having the activated ability to give it haste allows this card to win when there’s a board stall or if both players are in topdeck mode.

Tarmogoyf:  Potentially the biggest single threat in the deck, though it is somewhat clunky and is generally a 3/4 until turn four or five.  By no means is Goyf needed to make this deck competitive, but it does edge out its competition to earn its place in what I would consider the optimal build.  Goyf is also generally the best topdeck in an attrition war.

**If your budget does not allow for Tarmogoyf, substitute either two Flinthoof Boar and a Ghor-Clan Rampager or one Vexing Devil, one boar, and one Ghor-Clan Rampager.  Goyf is only a modest upgrade from the testing I’ve done.

Ghor-Clan Rampager:  The Rampager really shines in this list.  The number of threats this deck spits out at the speed that it does forces your opponent’s hand.  This deck has such a speed advantage (even on the draw), that you can force your opponent to use his or her instant-speed removal before committing to Bloodrush.  Ghor-Clan Rampager is great as a topdeck, is a great combat trick that can be flipped with Domri, and is another way to continue evolving an Experiment One past being a 3/3.

So, what are some reasons to play this list?  It’s one of the most proactive decks in Modern, which is definitely a good thing.  I remember one day this last summer when I was watching Michael Jacobs streaming Jund in a Modern event on MTGO.  He was discussing various cards and strategies that the chat, myself included, were asking him about.  At one point he said “Stop talking about strategies that win on turn six or seven.  Modern is all about having a strong game plan and winning as quickly as possible.”  That stuck with me.  Despite a few rare exceptions, like Lantern Control, it’s been a perspective on the format I’ve adopted as well. You need to be fast.  You want to win quickly.  And this deck is among the fastest in the format.

GR ZooT3Kill


As I mentioned before, much of the hate that targets burn decks is far less effective against this list.  One observation that reaffirms my passion about this list is its threat density and the fact that its threats are just the right size to avoid being two- or three-for-one’d.  Historically, most all-out, pure aggressive strategies that aren’t able to win by turn four or five see their expected win percentage tank drastically by each passing turn.  This deck feels as though it strikes a beautiful balance of having strong removal, just enough reach, and such a massive number of threats that it can easily win a twelve turn game.  It’s very hard for many of the highly competitive decks in the format to truly stabilize against this strategy and turn the corner.

If you’re new to the Modern format, this is a list highly recommend.  It teaches good fetch sequencing, hones your ability to make mulligan decisions and rewards you for making good choices in that regard.  Gruul Blitz affords you the luxury of not needing to play around many of your opponent’s cards, but rewards you immensely when you recognize when it’s advantageous to do so.

As far as the sideboard goes, most of it is pretty standard, though there are exceptions.  There’s the typical Affinity hate in the form of  Destructive Revelry, Ancient Grudge, Kataki, War’s Wage, and Stony Silence, as well as a hidden gem I’ll discuss a bit later.  I like having a broad mix of hate in the match-up, as playing a Kataki, War’s Wage and then casting a Ancient Grudge after your opponent has paid the upkeep cost on his or her artifacts is back-breaking.  Since this deck relies on playing so many threats itself, drawing multiple Stony Silence is pretty abysmal and is an easy way to allow your opponent to turn the game around.

Many sideboard cards for Affinity are also brought in against Tron.  For that match-up, I tend to sideboard minimally and only look to add 1-2 Destructive Revelry and the single Stony Silence.  This deck is incredibly fast and Pyroclasm only kills a few threats out of this list, so it’s a favorable match-up.

For the Splinter Twin match-up, you have the ubiquitous Rending Volley.  Having three Path to Exile maindeck along with these bullets solidifies the removal base for the format’s most widely played combo deck.

Burn will always be a race for a strategy like this, and a race I hope to win.  During a recent StarCityGames Modern event, I saw a deck tech with Steven Long (whose list, along with other similar decks, was my jumping off point for testing and honing this final 75) and he had an interesting plan for the match-up.  Kor Firewalker is my favorite tool against burn and apparently it’s Long’s as well.  He also added a Plains to the sideboard to reduce the damage taken to fetch double white mana (and increase the total number of white sources in the deck) to pay for the Firewalker.  I’ve also adopted his choice to play the singleton Lightning Helix out of the sideboard for that match-up.

The last match-up, and potentially worst match-up, for this deck that I’ve allocated sideboard slots for is Abzan.  Kitchen Finks, Siege Rhino, and when it’s played, Voice of Resurgence are very difficult to beat.  Pillar of Flame is not the highest impact card in the sideboard, but it does offer a cheap way to deal with Finks and Voice.  Gruul Charm is incredible against Abzan.  It can sweep away Lingering Souls spirits or it can be a Falter, letting you bypass their powerful creatures.  I’ve also found Gruul Charm to be a great way to combat the nexuses out of Affinity and Infect, and another answer to Vault Skirge with an attached Cranial Plating.  I wish the third mode on Gruul Charm was relevant in the format, but the other two modes have been great in the right match-ups.

There are several other cards that could be added based on an expected meta.  Electrickery is another great choice for dealing with Lingering Souls and is also powerful against Timely Reinforcements.  It also has applications against Infect and Affinity.  Additional copies of Searing Blaze is great if you anticipate smaller creature strategies.  If the new Green/Black Infect deck continues to rise in popularity and replaces the Blue/Green Infect list in the metagame, some number of Dismember may be necessary to deal with Phyrexian Crusader.

I wanted to look at another possible addition to the deck; Reckless Bushwhacker. This freshly spoiled beauty from the upcoming Oath of the Gatewatch looks like it could be incredibly powerful in this shell. After goldfishing with it, it creates several new opportunities for turn three kills when combined with Burning-Tree Emissary. Whether or not it earns its keep in the deck after testing is still to be seen, but I can’t wait to test it out!”

There could easily be meta shifts that are less hospitable to a deck like this.  Until that time, I’ll happily continue to grind Battle for Zendikar packs on MTGO to fund my next trainwreck of a Modern brew.  If you have any questions about the list or want to discuss the Modern format in general, don’t hesitate to leave a comment.  I hope everyone has a great to start to the new year!

Share Button


Skip to comment form

    • Nick Anderson on January 8, 2016 at 2:56 am
    • Reply

    Why wouldn’t you use Magma Spray over Pillar of Flame? The same effect at instant speed.

      • Jared on January 8, 2016 at 4:04 am
      • Reply

      Pillar can deal damage to players.

    • Daniel Bjork on January 8, 2016 at 10:40 am
    • Reply

    I’d love to see this deck played in a modern event. Any chance you will post a youtube video playlist of an event with this deck??? I’m interested on the process of how the side board works.

    Thanks, Daniel

      • Jared on January 8, 2016 at 1:49 pm
      • Reply

      Unfortunately I do not have the ability to record and post MTGO videos at this time. I may be able to in the future.

    • Ben Collins on January 8, 2016 at 11:07 am
    • Reply

    I really like this list. It feels a lot like the Naya Zoo I fell in love with back when Kibler started the craze back in Future sight. Always interested in testing out a different Zoo, thanks Jared.

      • Jared on January 8, 2016 at 1:51 pm
      • Reply

      Glad you’re intrigued by the list. I’m still testing different configurations and cannot wait to try out Reckless Bushwhacker. It may lead to some significant changes to the deck, but I believe it offers a lot of potential for very fast wins.

    • Aaron Wheeler on January 9, 2016 at 12:53 pm
    • Reply

    I want to build this deck on MTGO but don’t want to buy the Goyfs right away. I plan on slowly buying into them as I can afford them. Maybe one per month or something. What’s the best budget friendly substitute? I thought maybe Leatherback Baloth, or maybe Hooting Mandrels. Any thoughts?

      • Jared on January 9, 2016 at 2:55 pm
      • Reply

      In the discussion of creature choices I covered budget options for Goyf, typically in the form of additional Vexing Devils, Boars, or Rampagers. A singleton Zurgo is not bad either, though it does make the deck slightly less resilient to Pyroclasm

        • Jared on January 9, 2016 at 3:37 pm
        • Reply

        I don’t hate the idea of 1 Hooting Mandrills, but I do not like Baloth at all. As you play the deck, you realize that generally you’re fetching Stomping ground T1 into Sacred Foundry T2. You want more red sources than green for the most part. You also don’t want threats that play poorly with Burning-Tree Emissary.

          • Aaron Wheeler on January 12, 2016 at 10:40 am
          • Reply

          Good info Jared, I built the deck on MTGO using your budget suggestions. I have yet to take it for a spin yet. Curious to know if you tried testing any become immense?

            • Jared on January 12, 2016 at 3:57 pm
            • Reply

            I have not tested Become Immense, though I have seen it as a 1-of in various lists that are quite similar. My thoughts (without having tested it), is that it’s simply fine. Here are the reasons I’m not overly enthusiastic:

            1) You don’t play a large number of spells, so you’re typically relying on using several fetch lands AND your opponent using removal on your creatures to fill your graveyard.
            2) I like keeping the creature count very high, as this deck’s ability to quickly flood the board and use an Atarka’s Command as an anthem effect is the easiest ways to steal wins.
            3) Relic of Progenitus is seeing an all-time high in terms of playability and popularity.
            4) Weakens Goyf.

            All that said, it’s still a very potent spell that can steal wins. I’d rather explore the downsides of playing Become Immense rather than tossing it in the list.

    • R on January 18, 2016 at 1:14 pm
    • Reply

    Hey Jared, this article talked me into picking up the last pieces for the deck. Where do you think reckless bushwhackers slots into the mix? Currently I’ve put it in the main in place of two path’s and moved them to the SB where rending volley was but that feels bad ..

      • Jared on January 18, 2016 at 8:54 pm
      • Reply

      I know a lot of lists like this don’t run Path to Exile in the main and I think that’s a mistake. I think there are enough creatures that survive 3 damage burn spells along with really annoying roadblocks like Voice, Kitchen Finks, and Wurmcoil Engine that the difference between winning and losing a match can be decided by that in game one.

      Where I think Reckless Bushwhacker fits in is in place of the Ghor-Clan Rampagers, which may go to the sideboard over Rending Volleys (as twin is now banned). Ghor-Clan has been underperforming as of late. I also think that with Bushwhacker, the deck could use a 19th land, since any draw with Bushwhacker but not Burning-Tree Emissary will require three lands to function. I’m not sure where that cut should come from. Without the Rampagers in the main, perhaps Domri gets the axe, though I need to test with Bushwhacker before making solid recommendations.

        • R on January 19, 2016 at 12:01 pm
        • Reply

        I agree that the paths seem right after testing. They slow the deck down a tiny bit but provide great long term benefits.

        Testing with Reckless Bushwacker it seems a bit lack luster when you don’t have the Burnig-Tree combo. I’m testing putting the Ghor-Clans in the side and replacing them with Mutagenic Growths..

        On Domri, I’ve used him as removal more than a few times and it has been great but I play vs infect a lot.

    • Will on February 23, 2016 at 8:47 pm
    • Reply

    I’m loving this deck with the Reckless Bushwacker.

    • Will on February 24, 2016 at 12:41 pm
    • Reply

    What are you thoughts on a 1-of Collected Company? Fits within the theme. What would you remove?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.