Around this time last year, in the midst of the Magic 2014 spoiler season, Garruk Caller of Beasts was revealed. I wrote an entire article dedicated to the planeswalker, and it proved to be my most popular article of the entire year.
Well, last week it was revealed that Garruk is back as a planeswalker Magic 2015! Garruk comes with a whole new set of abilities, and he even features a new color. Garruk is back in black as a Golgari gold-colored card that shows off the darker side of the planeswalker. Meet Garruk, Apex Predator:
First seen in Lorwyn as Garruk Wildspeaker, Garruk showed his new colors (thanks to Liliana of the Veil) with Garruk Relentless in Innistrad. The planeswalker featured the flip mechanic and turned into Garruk, the Veil-Cursed, a Golgari-colored gold card that portrayed Garruk as a werewolf-like beast-by-night that summoned dark wolves to hunt with him by the moonlight. This sets the stage for Garruk, Apex Predator, a beastmaster sitting at the top of the Food Chain with ability to destroy any foe, creature, planeswalker, or player.
Coming in at 5BG and with a converted mana cost of seven, Garruk, Apex Predator sits at the top of mana curve just as it sits at the top of the Food Chain. It rivals Karn Liberated as the second most expensive planeswalker ever printed, but with the high cost comes a wealth of powerful abilities that will quickly Turn the Tide of a game. Its ability to directly impact the battlefield is high, and it comes with multiple ways to protect itself and its controller. This core strength is what separates the best planeswalkers from the mediocre, and it makes Garruk, Apex Predator a potential powerhouse. This is essential for a seven-mana planeswalker that is expected to take over the game.
Garruk, Apex Predator has a +1 ability that produces a 3/3 black beast with deathtouch. This is a huge upgrade from the 1/1 black Wolf Token with deathtouch made by Garruk, the Veil-Cursed, so clearly Garruk has improved his hunting skills since Innistrad. As a proactive +1 ability, beast-generation is the primary mode of Garruk, Apex Predator and a key aspect of its playability. It is certainly no slouch in this department and will steadily produce strong board presence. The token having deathtouch is also an improvement over the vanilla 3/3 created by Garruk, Primal Hunter, and it allows this new Garruk to protect itself much more efficiently. In harrowing board states against relatively large creatures that would otherwise require chump blocking, Garruk, Apex Predator can generate value and tempo. These tokens are of course quite deadly offensively, as with deathtouch they attack through all sizes of defenders. These 3/3 tokens pack a punch, and with the pack growing each turn, given just a few turns the planeswalker can take down an opponent from 20 life.
Garruk, Apex Predator does come with a secondary +1 ability, the ability to Hunt Down other planeswalkers. Clean and efficient, this Garruk can "destroy target planeswalker" for the low cost of +1 loyalty. This ability is even templated as the first and foremost ability, showcasing the card's incredible power. This ability seems relatively narrow, and it is, until it's not, because when it's relevant it's simply incredible. The tempo and card advantage gained from this exchange is impressive given how difficult planeswalkers are to deal with typically, and as a +1 ability it will lock out opposing planeswalkers indefinitely.
Garruk, Apex Predator comes with another destructive ability, and while coming with significant loyalty cost, it comes with huge impact. "-3: Destroy target creature. You gain life equal to its toughness" puts this planeswalker at the top of the Food Chain. It's important that this removal ability is indiscriminate and will destroy creatures from all spokes of the color wheel. Destroying creatures is a big deal, and on a planeswalker it will often be the go-to ability that cleans up a board state and turns the tide. While this planeswalker does protect itself in another way - by generating Beast Tokens - this -3 ability simply takes a creature off the battlefield, which deals with evasive and other non-traditional threats with ease. This generates tempo and card advantage, and after one rise in loyalty can be used a second time to further bury the opponent. The lifegain aspect of this ability is also huge, because as any player knows, life points are always in short supply, especially in the fast-paced, creature-dominated world of Standard. In some small way, this makes it another hate card against burn, and the ability could even be used on one's own creature in a pinch in the same manner as Devour Flesh.
The ultimate ability of a planeswalker is an important aspect of judging the planeswalker as a potential win-condition. A great planeswalker will quickly and decisively end the game after a few turns of being left in play uncontested. Garruk, Apex Predator has the ability "-8: Target opponent gets an emblem with "Whenever a creature attacks you, it gets +5/+5 and gains trample until end of turn." This ultimate gives creatures attacking the opponent +5/+5 and trample, which is clearly a lot of extra damage and, with a few creatures, will end the game immediately. The ultimate is naturally synergistic with the +1 ability that makes tokens. Once hitting play with five loyalty, it can make tokens for three turns before producing a massive Overrun on the fourth. If left uncontested this card ends the game three turns later. This combination of abilities is lethal synergy that will define its functionality and competitive lifespan as a reliable finisher.
Garruk, Apex Predator is directly comparable with Elspeth, Sun's Champion, which also produces three-power worth tokens for three turns before a massive ultimate that buffs creatures and provides evasion for a lethal alpha-strike on fourth turn. Also like Elspeth, Sun's Champion, Garruk, Apex Predator has the ability to remove opposing threats from play with a powerful -3 ability. Elspeth, Sun's Champion was the most powerful and important card in Theros Block Constructed, and it's among the most powerful in Standard. If that is any indication, Garruk, Apex Predator has all the makings of an all-star.Garruk, Apex Predator in Standard
Garruk, Apex Predator must be looked at with context, so let's see how the planeswalker stacks up in the Standard jungle. Garruk, Apex Predator would appear to thrive in Standard, which is defined by the creatures and planeswalkers that Garruk preys on. Standard is slow and interactive enough for a seven-mana card to see competitive play.
In current Standard, Garruk, Apex Predator would have a home in a few major archetypes. The card has clear potential in BG Devotion, a splash now more consistent than ever with Llanowar Wastes having been spoiled in M15. BG Devotion is controlling enough to play expensive spells and some versions even use Primeval Bounty. The deck has all the tools necessary to utilize and protect a planeswalker; most BG Devotion decks utilize Vraska the Unseen. Garruk, Apex Predator is a natural extension of the BG Devotion top-end curve and would serve as yet another tool for taking over the game.
Garruk, Apex Predator is a card-advantage engine in the mirror match, and I love the card as a trump for Elspeth, Sun's Champion against UWx decks. It's a nightmare for midrange green decks, which don't have a wealth of solutions to planeswalkers. I could see playing this card one-of in the maindeck if the metagame was slow enough, but it's certainly viable in the sideboard as well. Sideboard games in general are slower and more interactive than game ones, so a sideboard Garruk, Apex Predator could be brought in for a number of matchups. I could see the card excelling against Jund Monsters, for example.
On the subject of Jund, that's another clear candidate for playing Garruk, Apex Predator. The Jund Midrange deck uses plenty of acceleration and planeswalker already, so it has all the tools necessary to support Garruk, Apex Predator. As a source of removal and creatures, it fits the Jund game plan perfectly. I do wonder if it's a bit expensive for the deck, but it could always find a home in in the sideboard.
Another candidate for Garruk, Apex Predator is in Green Devotion, which is already a competitive deck in Standard. A while ago the world saw a Japanese version splashing black for Worst Fears, but more recently a full-on Green Devotion deck splashing black has been championed by Gerry Thompson, fresh off his job at Wizards of the Coast, and the deck seems better than ever given the recent metagame popularity of Boss Red. Aggressive red decks tend to fold to a board clogged with green creatures. With Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx and mana acceleration creatures, this deck is capable of producing a large amount of mana in the early game. This deck could realistically cast Garruk, Apex Predator on the fourth turn and start harnessing its power early in the game. This sort of start would be quite powerful in Standard and it also gives the Green Devotion deck a powerful trump and an answer to permanents that green has trouble dealing with.
There's another class of deck, BG Midrange, or even Jund midrange control, where Garruk, Apex Predator could be a star. I've tried to play decks that joined Underworld Connections and Courser of Kruphix, together which synergize into a perfect card advantage engine. My biggest problem is that while I could generate tons of cards, I wasn't doing anything meaningful with them. Without Gray Merchant of Asphodel I was doing nothing at the top-end, so I was amassing lands for no purpose. Primeval Bounty was powerful but the value came too slowly and too unreliably. With Garruk, Apex Predator at the top, the deck would have a decisive way to Turn the Tide of battle, so it could reinvigorate the archetype. These BGx decks seem better now than ever with the addition of Llanowar Wastes. This is much needed fixing for the color-starved Standard format, and it makes two and three color decks more consistent.
Here's an example list of the midrange BG deck I'm talking about:
DECKID=1205836The Future of Standard
Garruk, Apex Predator has the makings of a strong planeswalker. First and foremost it protects itself, and this Garruk protects itself in a variety of ways. This planeswalker also has a great +1 ability that generates impressive board presence by creating tokens. Even better is that the +1 ability synergizes with the ultimate to serve as a powerful, game-ending play. Garruk, Apex Predator also fits well in the context of the existing Standard format, where it has a clear home in a tier-one archetype and potential homes in many other decks.
I have particularly high hopes for Garruk, Apex Predator in Standard after rotation. Planeswalkers defined Theros Block Constructed, and Garruk, Apex Predator is particularly adept at defeating them. Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver, Kiora, the Crashing Wave, and most importantly Elspeth, Sun's Champion were defining creatures in the block format. As a trump to them all, Garruk, Apex Predator will sit at the top of the Standard planeswalker Food Chain.