It seemed destined by fate that Emma Handy — who helped rally the Magic community around the “No TERFs on Gruul Turf!” slogan — would end up crashing the Top 8 of a Worlds-level tournament with a red-green aggro deck.
“Gruul Adventures was honestly the sort of eleventh hour audible you always hear about — but this time it worked.”
Emma and her teammates were the most electrifying story to follow through last week’s 2020 Grand Finals coverage. Not only did they register Emma’s rogue Gruul Adventures deck in defiance of a stifling Standard metagame, they did so against a merciless gauntlet of Magic’s elite!
It was an incredibly bold move for a player who doesn’t have an MPL player’s easy access to major tournaments; who had to earn her way into this event by riding Historic Goblins to another impressive finish at the Mythic Invitational last month. Emma was preparing for the Grand Finals knowing that her next opportunity to compete at such a level could be a while off – especially since it means passing up her chance to work the events as an in-demand caster.
“A lot of it mostly comes down to prioritization. The events that I have to play in by virtue of being in Rivals generally are the number one priority… I have to participate or I could effectively lose some amount of money or my spot in the league. Outside of these must-attend events, I’ll generally prioritize casting events, because it’s a job.”
“It isn’t exactly glamorous, but to me, Magic is my job, and I have to approach it accordingly. If something is my consistent source of income, I need to prioritize it over something like a CFB $10k.”
ATTACKING THE OMNATH METAGAME
On the battlefield, this Grand Finals was always going to revolve around Omnath, Locus of Creation. The latest tool for land-heavy ramp decks to abuse had escaped the first ban announcement of Zendikar Rising Standard, and with a Worlds-level tournament on the line, the many Hall-of-Famers and other luminaries attending simply resigned themselves to finding the best Omnath deck possible. Most settled on Four-Color Adventures, which mashed the explosive elemental into the already-powerful Temur Clover shell that broke out earlier in the year.
Emma had predicted this direction for the metagame in an article immediately following Zendikar Rising’s release. This theoretically put her team at a slight edge over others iterating on Adventures, but there was a slight problem: Emma didn’t want to register it.
“Ironically, I hate playing Adventures decks… I play my best Magic when the incentives of the gameplay are clear, and there are specific axes to prioritize. The snowball-y nature of 4c Adventures and the glut of resources and decisions it generates in a single turn cycle is hard for me to process, and I don’t think I would’ve been able to play it on the level I’d need to in order to be successful in that field.”
Instead, as Emma told Becca Scott on coverage:
“I thought well, if we think we have to beat Omnath, how do I build the best anti-Omnath attacking deck; because I think attacking is probably the thing in Magic I’m the best at.”
That kind of self-knowledge and comfort have historically been good reasons not to play an otherwise-strong deck, but you still need to come up with a viable alternative. Emma’s search was assisted by her usual partner Autumn Burchett, but also by the dangerous minds of Luis Salvatto and Piotr “Kanister” Glogowski.
“The testing with Luis and Piotr was more organized than what Autumn and I usually do. I really enjoyed it, and thought it was a nice change of pace. We actually tackled specific archetypes, scheduled playtesting (where others would watch the games) and we’d talk about how we felt about certain cards, their impacts in match-ups, and so on.”
Enlisting Kanister and Salvatto meant that whatever deck Emma put together to counter Four-Color Adventures would also have to pass muster with those two. To help, Autumn took responsibility for tuning the team’s Historic decklist, leaving Emma to chip away at the Standard side of things. And nine hours before submission, as other teams were locking in their final tweaks of Four-Color Adventures, Emma finally unearthed a strategy she knew could beat them.
“We were looking at various match-up matrices from the Red Bull and CFB events the weekend before submission, and realized that Gruul Adventures was favored against both Omnath variants. The biggest things it wasn’t favored against were matchups that we thought got creamed by Omnath Adventures. This led to me going a bit down a rabbit hole and convincing the team to help with refining the deck right before submission, and it feeling good enough to pull the trigger on.”
Autumn Burchett was able to expand on this origin story in their finals-day interview. The British MPL member beamed with pride as they colorfully described Emma trouncing their Omnath decks as a proof-of-concept, before working through the night to refine the Gruul Adventures list into its ultimate form. Their teammates awoke to a Discord log full of hourly deck revisions, making a shockingly good case against the four-color deck that common wisdom said would be a favorite. But Emma’s work was brilliant, and Gruul Adventures would finish the weekend widely praised as the strongest answer to the meta.
DON’T STOP BE-CLEAVING
The wisdom of repping Gruul Turf at Grand Finals soon became clear, as Autumn rocketed to a perfect 6-0 record on day one. Emma’s start in Historic was tougher, and she found herself leaning on her Gruul deck to battle back and stay in contention for Top 8. But through a series of intense matches — including one against her testing partner Kanister — Emma eventually prevailed, qualifying for the final day alongside her friend. And while their testing partners might not have made it all the way, it wasn’t the fault of their deck choice.
So, what were the secrets to Emma’s deck-building, which allowed her team to compete on even or better footing against a deck broken enough to catch an immediate mass-banning after the event?
To hear it from the coverage team, you would assume the deck’s game plan revolves around Embercleave. The irresistible equipment has often been the crutch for red decks through a series of hostile formats. And as the coverage team couldn’t help but remind us several times a game, the potential for a ’Cleave topdeck to kill on almost any board puts incredible pressure on how opponents play. While Emma makes no qualms about Embercleave being “the strongest card in the deck,” she emphasizes the deck-building effort needed to unlock that amazing potential:
“I think it mostly speaks to how much the deck was built to capitalize on a specific tool being able to win games that would normally be unwinnable for this type of deck.”
And it’s easy to argue that this is hands-down the best Embercleave deck yet to appear in Standard. The stompy-style curve means reaching the casting cost is rarely an issue, and the list is awash with big bodies that maximize the double strike and trample Embercleave offers. Kazandu Mammoth and Brushfire Elemental can spike a huge amount of bonus damage once that double strike combines with landfall triggers from Fabled Passage; the Elemental and Stonecoil Serpent are also each equipped with unusual but occasionally backbreaking evasion. Toss in the flexible boost of Gemrazer’s mutate and the open-ended scaling of Scavenging Ooze and you can appreciate how this deck can always be one Embercleave away from snatching a win.
But the deck-building that so impressed analysts extends beyond just the card Embercleave. Emma’s list is a packed list of over-statted creatures, but also features a ton of card advantage from the Edgewall Innkeeper package, as well as mana sinks that allow it to keep fighting a slower game when it has to. Gruul also has maximum flexibility in how it can sequence early turns thanks to adventure creatures and X-cost spells like Primal Might, which helps this aggro deck blunt the impact of all the taplands in the two-color mana base.
TO BE FAIR, YOU NEED A VERY HIGH IQ TO UNDERSTAND GRUUL
Despite being fundamentally a stompy deck — one of the most straightforward aggro strategies in Magic — the combination of a delicate manabase, modal spell-lands and adventure creatures, landfall triggers and the long game to set up possible Embercleave lethals make Emma’s Gruul build incredibly decision-rich.
To manage these unique facets of the deck while also facing down the usual choices of when to commit your creatures or offer trades is a daunting task… especially when you only settled on the deck the night before. The twin Top 8’s achieved by Emma and Autumn are a huge credit to their play skill as well as Emma’s deck-building, and there were any number of exciting plays to clip and re-share over the weekend.
Unfortunately for Gruul fans, the deck’s momentum petered out just as Emma and Autumn reached the Top 8 elimination rounds. Emma battled on to the last, singing and rocking out to her personal playlist as she went. Unfortunately, she was knocked out of the lower bracket by eventual winner Austin Bursavich, with Autumn becoming his next victim the round after. Despite both bowing out at the hands of Four-Color Omnath, they maintained a combined 5-8 games record against the boogeyman in Top 8 to make it close.
“I think that Autumn and I ran poorly, opponents ran hot, and so on. Everyone at the level of the Grand Finals Top 8 is obviously incredible at what they do, and sometimes it just comes down to the luck of the draw. I know I drew a few too many Innkeepers and a few too few Adventure creatures against Austin, but that’s what you sign up for with the high-variance aggro decks.”
Emma’s grace in reviewing the Top 8 is even more impressive when you consider the emotional rollercoaster she experienced during her final match against Bursavich. Having found a window and cards to start ramping up the assault in game two, Emma went to combat with a Brushfire Elemental holding up mana – as she later explained, to bluff holding one of her sideboard Ranger’s Guiles. This small but important bit of mind games required her to enter “full control” mode on Arena, but Emma then ended up clicking one too many times and passing through her second main phase with all mana up and a ton of creature cards still to play.
“I didn’t feel the eye of the camera most of the time. I felt it when I accidentally clicked through my second main phase against Austin, because I definitely would’ve burst into tears if I were “alone.” I jam out pretty hard whenever I’m playing games by myself (and trying to take them seriously) or have songs on loop whenever I’m just playtesting. It helps me focus.”
It was a brutal loss of tempo in a game where she was struggling for her tournament life. Already wearing her heart on her sleeve, Emma’s reaction on camera was incredible, inspirational and highly sympathetic to audiences at home. She steeled herself and recovered quickly to minimize damage and won that game to tie her match. Witnessing her hold back tears, slap her cheeks and play on under the chess clock in front of massive audiences was one of the truly great esports moments — regardless of the outcome of the match.
“The feeling was absolutely different than playing in paper. I think I’m pretty good about not having physical tells in paper, but being able to be expressive and focus on the gameplay, rather than body language and the like, helps me play sharper.”
Ultimately, Emma is just glad she pulled out the win for the fans. As a caster herself, she knows how important that kind of sympathetic scenario is for making Magic esports valuable to fans.
“To ultimately summarize my philosophy on coverage: it’s all a product, right? Magic is the kind of thing that people engage with and participate in to feel good about themselves. So milking a feel-bad moment, in my mind, largely serves to draw attention to something that the person already feels bad for, and is going to make some number of viewers uncomfortable.
Visible highs, on the other hand, are absolutely something that I want to showcase when possible. Showing the highs of the game, and how many good feelings someone can get out of a game, is part of what coverage is about in my mind.”
Tom’s fate was sealed in 7th grade when his friend lent him a pile of commons to play Magic. He quickly picked up Boros and Orzhov decks in Ravnica block and has remained a staunch white magician ever since. A fan of all Constructed formats, he enjoys studying the history of the tournament meta. He specializes in midrange decks, especially Death & Taxes and Martyr Proc. One day, he swears he will win an MCQ with Evershrike. Ask him how at @AWanderingBard, or watch him stream Magic at twitch.tv/TheWanderingBard.