Feature Article — Road to Regionals: Heezy Looks At Gruul

Get ready for Magic the Gathering Regionals!
In yet another Road to Regionals offering, Mark “Heezy” Herberholz — king of the Red/Green beatdown — shares his thoughts on the aggro deck du jour, with special reference to his recent ten-game set versus Mike Flores and the much-discussed Dredge deck. Aggressive strategies are an excellent choice for a diverse Regionals field, so get the top tech from the best in the game!

Would I have dubbed my article “Resident Genius Fight?”

No, probably not.

I’ll just assume it’s a good name, since if Flores can’t name an article, I certainly can’t. Yes, I know it’s been a long time since I’ve written. Actually, I just checked, and it’s been just under a year, so I’ll have to revise my statement and say it’s been a very long time since I’ve written. But I’m not here to talk about how awesome I am.

Actually, that’s a lie. Of course I am.

Hi, I’m Mark Herberholz, and I am somewhat of a big deal. Last year I won a Pro Tour with a Red/Green deck that ended up getting tagged with my name. This year, it is the default best aggro deck.

Okay, introductions are over.

Regionals are this weekend. I won’t be playing in them (see above.) You might be. I’ve heard stories from veteran Regionals players (Ravitz) about their length and difficulty. Nine or ten rounds of play, and then maybe another round to determine the Top 4… that’s not an easy tournament. The sheer stamina required dictates this to be the case. Even if you were playing against ten trained apes, it would still be hard. There’s a lot of variance. Things can go wrong, ships may need to be abandoned, etc.

Articles like this, and others, can help a great deal. Even if I don’t break the format like I usually do, I might give you insight to a matchup that your friends and forum buddies didn’t discover. This goes doubly if you’re intent on playing the “other side” of the matchup. For example, one poster – whose name I shall not repeat here – decided that the best course of action for Gruul, when faced with an early Stinkweed Imp, would be to kill the Stinkweed Imp every turn in order to presumably beat down for two or three points of damage. This course of action is something the Gruul deck should initiate as early as turn 1, according to him… and is undoubtedly correct, because without doing so you are invariably giving them too much extra time to set up with all the Blue 0/1s, 1/1s and 1/2s that exist in the format.

Now that I’ve written that out, don’t you feel silly? Of course it’s terrible, of course, of course.

You probably didn’t even have to think about it. Probably.


Here’s the deck I played.

The reason we chose this deck, and the version of Dredge that Mike played, is not because we are stupid, or drunk, or whatever other reason you can come up with. It is, instead, because these are average decklists. Someone could very easily copy either of these decklists and beat you with them at Regionals. It could happen… yes, even to you.

These decks proved successful in at least one arena already. Gruul took the StarCityGames.com 1K tournament, and Dredge did well at some British Regionals tournament. It’s important, in general, not to test your pet deck against another pet deck, or your crazy version of some standard deck — maybe even Dredge — against another pet deck or heavily-modified deck. This matchup generates results. Don’t get me wrong, and I’m not mincing words, but the pet deck matchups do not generate useful results. You’ll quickly learn that Pet Deck A beats Pet Deck B. This is not particularly useful to you unless you can quickly populate the Internet – and thus, the field at Regionals – with either Pet Deck A or Pet Deck B… and now you understand.

What did I think of this decklist? I don’t even know. I only tested it against one relevant matchup, in a field of many. I recognized the Tin Street Hooligans to be terrible in the matchup, and the lack of Scorched Rusalka to be offensive at best. Not because it would be great in the matchup, but because Dredge is a real deck in the format, and a card like Rusalka would be good to help your overall game 1 percentage — I think if you make that switch, it becomes tempting to include Pendelhaven in your deck. I’d want some good numbers on how often Pendelhaven must tap to make Kird Ape a 2/3 rather than the Forest it replaced doing so without the use of the tap function, but other than that I thought the maindeck was good.

You may have raised an eyebrow to Giant Solifuge, but you shouldn’t. Many of my opponents raised similar eyebrows to him in Hawaii, and we all know how that ended…

As far as the sideboard is concerned, I don’t think this is a very good example. It doesn’t even matter which cards I like out of those fifteen. If this is what sideboards look like these days, someone is clearly doing something wrong.

A sideboard like this, I can only imagine, dilutes your deck. I mean, Tormod’s Crypt is pretty unique in its function; there aren’t any creatures that can pretend to attack before they become finally useful in removing a graveyard from the game — so you must be careful of how many (and which) cards you take out to make room for some of these board options. I can’t even imagine some of the draws you could get with this bad boy, and in my day, I’ve imagined quite a bit. (One word: “hogbeasts.”)

Playtesting can reveal a lot about a cards abstract “goodness.” It only took me about three games to figure out how bad Tin Street Hooligan probably is in this format. I don’t pretend to be an expert, but do the math — if your opponents don’t have an artifact, this card is bad beyond words… these numbers should loosely dictate the contents of your deck, in the slots that are not mandated by the brutal efficiency of what should be the best cards. What I mean is that Kird Ape’s slot is not up for contention, whereas a much more questionable card, the Hooligan, is.


The ten Game 1s we played were roughly a blowout. Not that I wasn’t playing carefully or with purpose. I thought I could lose, but I also thought the Dredge deck sucked (and it does).

“If Bridge from Below is in your graveyard, put…”

The scope of this card is so limited, so easily disruptable, so mediocre, and so blah.

Mike’s descriptions of the games were very accurate, though neither of us was drunk. The games I lost were all similar – a bad start or a Tin Street Hooligan appearance, along with not enough business spells or removal. The types of draws that don’t beat anyone. To compound that… these were also usually mulligans.

Throughout the course of the set, only one thing became clear to me. Dredge is too easy to disrupt. Games that I wasn’t necessarily winning weren’t able to be won by the Dredge deck. Games that I was winning were never in the reach of the Dredge deck. Only games where I was definitely not winning… those were the games I lost. I know this sounds circular and redundant, but what it basically amounts to is that if I had any action at all, even a lonely Seal of Fire, that might be enough to beat the combo half of the deck. Golgari Grave-Troll beatdown doesn’t seem like a feasible plan, except in those very same games where the Gruul deck has puttered out and you are already winning, otherwise the games are faster and more furious. Dredge usually doesn’t get above three mana in play, meaning barring two Spirit Guides I don’t think the Troll will ever come out given a reasonable draw on the part of Gruul.

There is one more thing I learned that might be of use. If you have no turn 1 play and your hand is otherwise reasonable, and it contains Rift Bolt, and you somehow know your opponent to be running Dredge — and thus, probably Simian Spirit Guide — suspend the Rift Bolt. I failed to do this once, and lost to Magus of the Bazaar — well, I asked for a take-back, which was granted, but I still lost because Tin Street Hooligan, blah blah blah.

Suspending the Rift Bolt gives you another turn 1, essentially. Since your deck is favored in the matchup, this also favors you, it’s that simple. Most of the time they will eat it, going to 17, and this can turn on your Scab-Clan Mauler, and give you time to draw a Seal of Fire (a real nightmare for them, by the way) or some other action. This play is even better if they’ve played Gemstone Caverns, as it essentially destroys them.


Do I like this deck? Of course I like this deck! Do I recommend this deck? Of course I recommend this deck!

Regionals is still a pretty big hill to climb, taking an inconstant and easily disruptable deck (such as, I don’t know, Dredge) to combat certainly doesn’t bode well. A consistent beatdown machine like Gruul… well, who knows, you know? You can very easily get lucky seven rounds in a row and draw in (I got lucky fourteen rounds at a Pro Tour once, and yeah, now people know me, and never mind the leather-bound books, etc.)

But don’t get me wrong. The small mistakes you make while beating down can often be the difference between the win and the loss. People often get on their Blue high horses and say blah blah beatdown is so easy to play blah blah, and then they lose with their beatdown decks. That doesn’t have to be you. Practice, no matter what deck you’re playing. It’s good advice.

Finally, I am not just recommending a R/G aggro deck because of the special place it holds in my heart. I am recommending a R/G aggro deck because a beatdown deck is usually the best choice for a tournament with a lot of different and unique decks, which is what Regionals usually ends up being. Also, if I were to play R/G, I would probably change the Hooligans and Sulfur Elementals for 4 Scorched Rusalka, 1 Rift Bolt and 2 Volcanic Hammer. As for the sideboard, it totally depends on the metagame of your area… but I imagine you don’t need eight cards centered on graveyard hate.

Good luck!

Mark Herberholz
Herberheezy on modo