Historic Gruul Aggro Deck Guide: Face is the Place

Hello everyone! Today I’m talking about the premiere SMORC deck in Historic: Gruul Aggro. Historic is a cool format as it spans so many sets throughout the course of Magic’s history. With the size of the format, there’s a lot of cool and interesting interactions that can be explored and new decks being discovered day by day. A lot of people, including me, love exploring these cool decks to see where they lead, however, sometimes there’s nothing more satisfying than jamming Gruul and turn 4’ing some people who are getting too cute.

I consider Gruul one of the gatekeepers of Historic as your deck needs to be able to race against the immense pressure Gruul puts down. If you can’t win or interact by turn 4, you’re probably dying to Gruul which makes the deck so menacing. Even decks that are considered to have good matchups against Gruul can easily die if they stumble in any capacity. Before I laud my love for Gruul more, let’s get into the list I’m working with today.

DECKLIST

NOTE: The Gruul list Dany used was an older version of the current list. The newer one has the same main deck and a slightly different sideboard.

(H) Gruul Aggro 

Creatures (35)
2
Kazandu Mammoth
4
Llanowar Elves
4
Pelt Collector
4
Burning-Tree Emissary
3
Scavenging Ooze
4
Voltaic Brawler
4
Ahn-Crop Crasher
4
Bonecrusher Giant
4
Gruul Spellbreaker
2
Questing Beast
Artifacts (4)
4
Embercleave
Lands (21)
4
Cragcrown Pathway
4
Forest
2
Hashep Oasis
3
Mountain
2
Ramunap Ruins
2
Rootbound Crag
4
Stomping Ground
Cards (60)
Sideboard (15)
2
Grafdigger's Cage
4
Magma Spray
2
Rampaging Ferocidon
2
Chandra, Torch of Defiance
3
Collected Company
2
Ox of Agonas

OVERVIEW

I like this list a lot as it’s straight-forward and no frills. You play 35 creatures, you play Embercleave, and you smash the opponent’s face in. It’s a time honored strategy that is solid in the worst of times and amazing in the right metagames. 

Your curve starts turn 1 with either Pelt Collector or Llanowar Elves. If you have both in hand, always start with Elves as you can accelerate into better turns later, but starting with a Pelt Collector is quite good as well. There’s a common misconception that you can’t keep hands without a one drop and I wouldn’t say that’s entirely false, but you can have amazing hands without a 1 at all.  How is that possible? Burning-Tree Emissary.

Burning-Tree is such an interesting card in Historic as it was brought into the format with the very first Historic Anthology, banned for being too strong, then eventually brought back. If that doesn’t speak to how powerful the card is, I don’t know what will. In most scenarios, it’s a 0 mana 2/2 on turn 2 which is good, but when combined with cards like Pelt Collector or Embercleave, that free body quickly becomes more and more relevant. When Burning Tree was banned, your insane starts always involved Llanowar Elves at the beginning (they still can), but now you can also curve Pelt Collector into Burning-Tree into Voltaic Brawler for 8 power on turn 2! That being said, Voltaic Brawler was a great addition from Kaladesh Remastered as a functional 4/3 trampler for 2 mana! It’s pretty rare you need to attack more than twice with it which makes the energy draw back extremely marginal.

Past the early game, we have a large amount of options in the late game. We start with Kazandu Mammoth which is always an MVP as it can either be a large attacker or a land in a pinch. Scavenging Ooze, although a 2 drop, shines later in the game when it can come down and eat a few creatures that fell before it. Ahn-Crop Crasher was another incredible addition this time from Amonkhet Remastered as a way to circumvent annoying blockers. Matchups like Selesnya and Auras can be such issues since they’re really good at establishing strong blockers, but Ahn Crop can completely change the dynamic of the matchup when timed right. We have Bonecrusher Giant for interaction then a body (or reach in the late game), Gruul Spellbreaker for a great hasty threat or a big 4/4 wall, and finally Questing Beast for an annoyingly large threat to deal with that’s also amazing against Control. To round everything out, 4 Embercleave gives the deck the extra reach it can sometimes need if curving out simply isn’t enough. 

This deck may seem straightforward since it only has one game plan, but knowing when to time your spells and combat math are absolutely critical for piloting this deck successfully. As fun as it is to curve out and easily roll the opponent, make sure you’re playing each spell at the time it’s the most effective. I know many people think Gruul is an easy deck, but with aggro decks, since you’re trying to end the game quickly any misplay is amplified by a significant margin. If you’re trying to end the game by turn 4 and you make a mistake game 2, it means functionally 25% of your decisions were wrong. If you want to play this strategy, make sure you really think through your early turns which can seem easy but may be deceptively hard. This also explains why I went through all the functions of each card, even when it may seem obvious. If you mis-evaluate what each card is good for, you may make a minor sequencing error that can cost you the game.

MATCHUPS AND SIDEBOARDING

Burning-Tree Emissary Art by Izzy
Burning-Tree Emissary Art by Izzy

AURAS

INOUT
+4 Magma Spray-2 Scavenging Ooze
+2 Rampaging Ferocidon-4 Gruul Spellbreaker

As someone who’s played both sides of the matchup extensively, this matchup is BAD for Gruul. Not impossible, but not good. You need either an insanely fast start to kill them before they get anything going or a fast start that’s backed up by some interaction. Just keeping a slow, but interactive hand is extremely unlikely to work as a good Auras player will be patient along with you. Pray for good hands and hope you can smorc em.

GW COMPANY

INOUT
+2 Rampaging Ferocidon-4 Pelt Collector
+3 Collected Company-1 Scavenging Ooze

This matchup can be very tough as they have a lot of good blockers and interaction, but Embercleave cures all ails. The best plan you have is to build a big board and then swing with an Embercleave at an opportune moment. This matchup is prone to going late so Ferocidon and Collected Company are both invaluable to help you grind. It’s a shame to board out Pelt Collector, but it’s between that and Gruul Spellbreaker. My logic is that the games go late enough that any Pelt Collector not played really early can be rendered useless pretty easily and it’s such a good Skyclave Apparition target. If you want to preserve your curve more, board out the Spellbreakers instead.

MIRROR

INOUT
+2 Chandra, Torch of Defiance-2 Voltaic Brawler
+3 Collected Company-2 Questing Beast
-1 Embercleave

Like many other aggro mirrors, trying to go slightly bigger in the post board games is generally a good strategy. Curving out then topping it off with a Chandra or a Collected Company is a really easy way to win those mirror games. You board out an Embercleave as drawing multiples is so bad, but it is awkward as the first copy is very helpful. You could board out an additional Brawler instead, but then I think you’re hurting your curve a little too much and you’d have 9 pieces of top end which can easily clunk up your hand.

DIMIR ROGUES

INOUT
+3 Collected Company-3 Ahn-Crop Crasher
+2 Ox of Agonas-2 Embercleave

This matchup is great for you as Rogues doesn’t do well with a lot of pressure coming at them quickly. Both Collected Company and Ox are insane against them as well as it gives you immense pressure and inevitability. As long as you don’t play too hard into Crippling Fear or their hand isn’t insanely good, you should generally be winning the match.

TAINTED PACT COMBO

INOUT
+3 Collected Company-3 Scavenging Ooze

This matchup may feel like you’re facing a Control deck, but in reality it’s a race. You need to pressure them so you can kill them before they can set up the combo so our board plan reflects that. Scavenging Ooze is pretty slow overall so I think that’s the cut, but I can see something like Bonecrusher Giant also not being where you want to be. Do your best to put enough pressure that you threaten lethal, but not so much you crumble to one board wipe.

CONTROL DECKS

INOUT
+2 Chandra, Torch of Defiance-4 Pelt Collector
+3 Collected Company-2 Embercleave
+1 Ox of Agonas

This is rather general boarding but there’s still a lot of flavors of Control. Gruul is excellent at putting pressure early to keep the opponent off balance then slamming a high impact spell after they start to stabilize so keep that plan in mind. Although I like Pelt Collector here, it’s such a liability in the late game and it’s really hard to make it relevant with all the interaction the opponent presumably has. Similarly, you don’t want too many Embercleave as it can be really hard to resolve and you don’t want to be stuck with multiple copies if you can avoid it.

TIPS AND TRICKS

Voltaic Brawler Art by Raymond Swanland
Voltaic Brawler Art by Raymond Swanland
  • Don’t be afraid to play out Kazandu Mammoth as a land if it makes your curve better. Curve is king in Gruul.
  • I mentioned this prior, but if you have a choice between playing Llanowar Elves or Pelt Collector first, it’s functionally always Llanowar Elves. The only scenario I can conceive that you want to play Pelt Collector first is you need to kill the opponent as fast as possible and Llanowar Elves makes your clock slightly slower.
  • Most players want to cast an additional spell off of Burning-Tree Emissary which makes sense, but if you have to play it as a Grizzly Bear, you do what you have to do to preserve your curve.
  • I try to avoid running out Scavenging Ooze early as you really want to eat something the turn it comes down, but if it help your curve, definitely play it.
  • You’ll almost always use the energy when attacking with Voltaic Brawler, but if you believe both that the game is going to go long and Brawler is unlikely to die (or you have multiple copies), you can hold onto the energy for a better turn. This doesn’t come up often, but most people just always use the Energy as soon as they can and it isn’t always correct.
  • Ahn-Crop Crasher is generally played and exerted immediately, but it’s actually at it’s very best when you don’t need to exert the first time and you threaten it for future turns. That being said, I like hiding the Crasher in matchups where you need to get a good attack in one turn so a very common line on board stalls is to play Crasher, swing with a bunch of creatures and putting an Embercleave somewhere.
  • Bonecrusher Giant is great because it helps keep your curve and it’s a great body, but a lot of players don’t think to hold it for 2 damage to the face later. If you have a bunch of other plays, I like holding Bonecrusher as long as possible to potentially deal the last few points of damage, but of course if you’re running low on plays it’s fine to run it out. With that, you don’t need to Stomp every time before playing Bonecrusher, it’s nice and all, but that’s a mindset from Standard many ported over to Historic.       
  • There’s no hard and fast rule, but against Control you should almost always give your Gruul Spellbreaker haste and in creature matchups a 4/4. This changes if the opponent plays stuff like Skyclave Apparition, but then it’s a case by case basis.
  • Both Bonecrusher Giant and Questing Beast negate any effects that prevent damage (Questing Beast only affects combat damage) so this circumvents Fog effects and Protection.

Thank you for reading!

DoggertQBones

Robert "DoggertQBones" Lee is the content manager of MTGAZone and a high ranked Arena player. He has one GP Top 8 and pioneered popular archetypes like UB 8 Shark, UB Yorion, and GW Company in Historic. Beyond Magic, his passions are writing and coaching! Join our community on Twitch and Discord.