If you are a moderately experienced tournament player, you probably have a tendency to play “automatic” Magic using a particular set of nevertheless unconscious operating rules. Among these rules is the idea that you want to use as much mana per turn as possible, or alternately to tap out every turn, elements of clean play that you were taught by lords Sligh and Necro nearly a decade ago, handed down by nine years of Hahns, Taylors, and Mowshowitzes. Now in the abstract this makes sense for many reasons which I will not bore you with here, but as we approach more and more precise levels of interactive Magic, we have to acknowledge that standard operating procedure sometimes has to be questioned, even eschewed, in favor of the actual game win. In no deck that I have ever played has that become more apparent than the modern Extended Goblin deck, particularly a new hybridized version developed most recently via Messrs. Clair, Fabiano, and Sadin…
I am perhaps getting a little ahead of myself.
When someone brings up Extended Goblins, the version that probably pops into your head, as if by reflex, is Oliver Ruel’s b/R Red Army from the Top 8 of PT: Columbus. During the Canali semifinal match, Osyp and I gave Ruel’s deck a bit of the short stick during Top 8 commentary. After actually testing, I think that Ruel’s deck is actually a lot better against Affinity than we had originally realized (Clair calls the matchup “highly favorable”), and it bears noting that Ruel beat Canali in the Swiss. That said, as other writers have already covered this version, I am going to move on to other lists.
Due to its pedigree, Ruel’s deck was the first one that I, too, went to in terms of Goblin investigation. You may recall from Mike Clair’s article that I sent him a deck with Vampiric Tutors and a couple of different ideas. Clair ran with some and was more conservative with others. Though he failed in his first outing with the deck, Mike was ultimately quite successful with it, going undefeated in a New York Grand Prix Trial before handing the byes to Brian Stroh. The deck that I had Mike testing to begin with was a bit different from the one that he actually played:
The Vampiric Tutors make up somewhat for the lack of maindeck Living Deaths in that they give you Burning Wish redundancy. In addition, the list has four Gempalm Incinerators. This synergy is quite deliberate. Notice the Volrath’s Stronghold; think about the fact that you can Vampiric Tutor for it. Come mid-game, Volrath’s Stronghold allows this version of Goblins to demolish a creature deck with Gempalm Incinerator (basically, you draw a cantrip-Terminate every turn, an interaction blatantly stolen from one of Kai’s articles last year).
I think that if you are playing in a metagame of all aggressive creature decks – U/G Madness, Affinity, and so on – this version of Goblins is quite strong. You have an uncounterable creature kill two-for-one that you can play every turn, and should have access to three additional Sparksmiths out of the board. In testing many games with Clair from the U/G side of the table, I can confidently say that that sort of middle game creature deck has no chance; in any game U/G gets ahead, it ends up losing to Cabal Therapy + Perish, and is held back the majority of the games by Sparksmith. U/G doesn’t have any creature kill or reach, so if Goblins controls the board with Sparksmith, it may win the game on one life… but it will still win the game. As good as we found this version of Goblins, our group eventually moved on to decks utilizing more blatantly explosive elements.
The most unusual versions at Columbus were those played by Gerard Fabiano (and his teammate Antonino DeRosa) and Akira Asahara. Gerard’s deck plays the most powerful card in Standard – and quite possibly a contender in Extended – Aether Vial, while Asahara’s deck has more crazy innovations than I could have easily predicted. [Asahara is gas. – Knut, slowly becoming aware of rocking Japanese players]
4 Goblin Warchief
4 Mogg Fanatic
4 Skirk Prospector
4 Goblin Piledriver
4 Goblin Matron
3 Gempalm Incinerator
1 Akroma, Angel of Wrath
1 Siege-Gang Commander
1 Platinum Angel
1 Goblin Ringleader
Gerard will tell you that the removal of the Red Army Burning Wishes allowed him the space to play Mogg Flunkies and Goblin Goon to have a more consistent beatdown… but from my perspective those cards aren’t what makes Gerard’s Goblin deck special. Sure he has a nice beatdown, but from a pure beatdown perspective, there are better choices than Mogg Flunkies on two and faster decks overall than Goblins. The defining card is Aether Vial. This is the deck that showed me just how powerful Aether Vial is. While that might seem like an odd statement given how successful Aether Vial decks have been since PT Kobe last year, almost all the Tier One Aether Vial decks to date have been Affinity decks and have left their counters on one, even deep into a game.
Asahara’s deck is a crazy contraption as befuddling as it is thought provokingly exciting. When I first saw the deck, my eyes kind of opened wider than normal as I began to grasp just how strong Pattern of Rebirth must be in a deck with Mogg Fanatic, Skirk Prospector, and Siege-Gang Commander… But I still managed to miss the real innovations, despite watching Akira dispatch Neil Reeves in the cutoff last round of Columbus’s Day One. Neil took the first game as his White Weenie deck performed as advertised against a Red mage. However, the sideboard showed Asahara set up Flametongue Kavu and Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker to completely lock Reeves’s tiny creature board. On top of being able to use Pattern of Rebirth to set up Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker, Asahara’s deck had a stack of trumps a foot tall. He could automatically beat any removal poor deck with Platinum Angel or play Reanimator with a quick Akroma, Angel of Wrath. That said, what really stuck in my mind was how devastating Asahara’s Flametongue Kavu + Kiki-Jiki combination was, and I immediately went to the drawing board.
I mentioned Asahara’s listing to Mike Clair at the same time Clair was getting into Goblins testing himself. He liked a lot of what the deck could do, but ultimately said he preferred Ruel’s take because “Asahara doesn’t have Cabal Therapy.” You see the mentality from our cadre, Red Deck Wins stalwarts almost to a man, is if we make the jump from one Red Deck to another, there has to be a concrete reason. Asahara’s deck is nice, it is capable of unparalleled devastation to the poor opponent’s board, but it doesn’t really do anything that Red Deck Wins isn’t already capable of. Red Deck Wins can steal games with burn similar to how Asahara steals them with Akroma or Platy, and itself has a quick beatdown. Ruel Goblins, on the other hand, can rip a Worthy Cause out of Life’s hand the turn before an unlucky Task Force goes the way of the dodo (actually typed “dojo” there the first time, no lies) for its, you know, Worthy Cause; Red Deck Wins would love to be able to do that while maintaining threat pressure.
About a week into messing around with the new Goblins version with Flametongue Kavu and Kiki-Jiki, Josh randomly asked me, “Does your Goblin deck run Kiki-Jiki?”
I responded in the affirmative, that I played two in fact, but that I never drew them.
That’s when Josh informed me that – gasp – Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker is a goblin. Now I’m sure that after my article teasing about Jon Sonne, many of you busted out Gatherer or perhaps ran an Apprentice search for format=Extended and card type=Goblin and figured the five-drop out yourselves… but to us, this revelation changed the entire direction of our Goblin testing. When I saw Kiki-Jiki in Asahara’s deck, I naturally grouped the singleton with Platinum Angel and Arc-Slogger rather than with Siege-Gang Commander and Goblin Matron. Once I found out Kiki-Jiki’s creature type, two things happened: 1) I cut his numbers by half, and 2) I started drawing him five times as often.
Clair, Sadin, and I had dinner with Gerard after a disappointing Vs. 10K event, and Mr. Fabiano talked to us about his deck. He thought it was one of the best decks of the Columbus Pro Tour, but he was unlucky in having to play against both Gabe Walls and Jelger Wiergsma in Columbus (both losses). I took Gerard’s analysis and combined his deck with the best elements of Asahara’s and with what Clair and I had learned in testing Ruel. The result:
4 Aether Vial
4 Chrome Mox*
4 Cabal Therapy
4 Flametongue Kavu*
4 Goblin Matron
4 Goblin Piledriver
3 Goblin Ringleader
1 Goblin Sharpshooter
4 Goblin Warchief
1 Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker
4 Mogg Fanatic
1 Siege-Gang Commander
3 Skirk Prospector
The sideboard obviously isn’t final but I wouldn’t touch the Sparksmiths. One card we considered over Cranial Extraction is Phyrexian Negator, which is kind of like a more synergistic Cranial Extraction against combo that works with both your fundamental beats and Aether Vial advancement.
Anyway, I understand the numbers seem odd, particularly in regards to the Flametongue Kavus and Chrome Moxes. Here’s the thing: You play with this card Goblin Ringleader, and he is awesome, but sometimes he turns over Flametongue Kavu and that is very bad. It is bad because Flametongue Kavu is the best creature in your deck, and now he is suddenly the worst bottom card of your library that you could think of having. Therefore you need the maximum number of Flametongue Kavu because especially during your turbulent turns 3-6, when you first ramp then leave your Aether Vial on four counters, intent on pumping out both 2/2 haste FoFs and angry 4/2 FTKs, the Invasion Block is at war not only with your opponent, but in your deck itself.
That said, the Chrome Moxes might seem puzzling as well. Specifically, many players were critical of my playing both Aether Vial and Chrome Mox in the White Weenie deck from last week, not realizing how mana hungry a deck of all one- and two-drops can sometimes be. In this deck, I like to explain the Moxes thusly: Sometimes you get turn 1 Goblin Piledriver and turn 2 Goblin Warchief and, especially on the play, your opponent has not a shot. This came up over and over again in testing Dan Paskins Sitting Dead Red for Regionals last year, and this deck can play the exact same synergies. More than that, your deck plays the maximum number of Flametongue Kavu and, while they are the best card in your deck other than Aether Vial, they are awful in certain matchups. Those matchups happen to be the exact same ones where a beatdown deck has to “jump the curve” as it were; combo decks that can beat Goblins on pure speed, but having a mana Time Walk can be the difference between first and second place in that race. More important than either of these is that this Goblin deck packs a deceptive amount of card advantage. Anyone who tested Bests circa 2003 knows that the deck looks like a Red Zone or Fires-esque fatty deck, but that, especially against dedicated removal, it can wear away on the opponent with Anurid after Anurid, Call, and Beast Attack punishing over and over from the graveyard, matching any number of Concentrates, easily exhausting Innocent Blood and Chainers’ Edict.
In the same way, this Goblin deck has card advantage that stems from its awkward drops. There is the board position stuff, the 2/2 five-drops that obviously set up more threats. More than those, there are the Goblin Matrons and Goblin Ringleaders that give the deck velocity. These are the cards that allow you to Sculpt the Perfect Hand, let you take a turn 7 that your opponent never saw coming.
Sculpting the Perfect Hand was a technique taught to me by my old writing partner Justin Polin, handed down to him by then the greatest deck designer in the world, Rob Dougherty. He illustrated this to me with the Odyssey Block Limited matchup of G/R v. U/W. Played in a straight up fight, U/W would consistently win against G/R due to its ability to defend early, follow up with cards like Second Thoughts, and end the game with common flyers. Even the best G/R draft decks had problems in fair fights… unless they played patiently, picked their spots, then went for the entire game all at once.
Despite a G/R deck’s inherent vulnerabilities, it had the best common in the Block in Wild Mongrel, and on that Savage Bastard’s back could lie the entire game. He was a one-stop shop for damage, tempo, and threshold. He could set up normally inoffensive Springing Tigers or blow a long game wide open with Anger or flashback. One threat at a time, Second Thoughts and Chastise were gold against G/R, but the deck could try to overwhelm defenses, or bank on Reckless Charge. Many times reversing a game like this was similar to the “swindles” that Dan Paskins has talked about. You have to give the opponent just enough bait that he’ll go for the play that lets you win the game… But without the swindle? Your back is up against the wall anyway! When you can’t win a fair fight, you have to lure your opponent into a back alley, where it’s dark, where he might not see what’s really important.
In the same way, the Goblin deck requires an excruciating amount of discipline to play properly. It is not the kind that you can just pick up and play well, and I’m actually having trouble putting together good examples. Sure, you will get the draws with turn 1 Piledriver, turn 2 Warchief and beat your friends in testing. You will get the draws with turn 1 Aether Vial that allow you to devastate your opponent with Cabal Therapy, build your board, and reload over turns 3 and 4 when he has nothing. You will get the draws where Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker and Flametongue Kavu are in play on your fourth turn and your opponent has less than no chance… But those are not the games that test your ability with the deck. What’s worse is the hands that look like the perfect beatdown hands, the teases, the girls at the bar that test your resolve to sit still and do nothing but add counters to the Vial.
When I was testing against the White Weenie deck last week, I had a board that seemed completely locked. Goblins had two Aether Vials in play (one on three and one on five), some lands, and nothing else. White had a ton of creatures in play and a healthy life total – probably close to 20.
At the end of turn, I tapped the three counter Vial to make Goblin Matron, fetching Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker. Noting that “at end of turn” effects had already been put on the stack, I put Kiki-Jiki into play, then copied Goblin Matron to get Siege-Gang Commander and untapped (leaving the second Matron Token in play).
On the next turn, I played the fifth land. At this point I tapped the three-counter Vial for Goblin Warchief and the five-counter Vial for Siege-Gang Commander. Kiki-Jiki copied the Siege Gang Commander. Then I tapped three of my lands for Goblin Ringleader (remember I had Goblin Warchief in play), turning over some Goblins. Either I already had them or I just got them (it didn’t matter), but down came one-mana Goblin Piledriver and Skirk Prospector. Now from a position where I previously had no creatures, this was my board:
Everyone but Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker attacked and Goblin Piledriver went to more than 20 power. Prior to blocks, I sacrificed all the Goblins to kill the White blocking staff because really only one thing mattered: hitting with Piledriver. This two turn sequence would have defeated an active Exalted Angel even after two successful hits, and probably would have been able to bust through double Mother of Runes (I don’t really remember the other side, just that the defenders were formidable). It is the kind of play that you will only be able to develop if you sit and work through the deck methodically, whereas deploying the creatures earlier or trying to get into trades against the superior white combat creatures would have been a complete failure.
A similar “nothing in play” board (again with three-counter and five-counter Vials) yielded Kiki-Jiki, double Goblin Sharpshooter (via Kiki-Jiki of course), Matron, Siege-Gang Commander, and Skirk Prospector. This board was pretty easy to assemble over the course of the game, despite having three singletons. In this game, I just managed my life total by chumping with a bunch of Matrons and Ringleaders, filling my hand with the cards I needed to win while not dying. If you do the counting, you will see that even if I had forgotten to actually use the Siege-Gang Commander’s ability (and just fooled around with the Prospector) I would still have been able to go lethal against most decks that use Ice Age or Onslaught dual lands; then again I could have just copied for a third Sharpshooter and just ignored using the SGC for anything other than twelve damage worth of a mana engine, but at that point, it was pretty academic.
These “waiting game” boards come up game after game, which is why I said that the deck is difficult to pick up and play. You have to look forward and stretch your life with chump blocks in anticipation of the turn you see five turns down the line.
Aether Vial performs a very strange function in this deck, something that, to my knowledge, it has never been asked to do before. Typically we see Aether Vial in decks like Affinity, where it sits on one and advances to two (or in sideboarded games three) only if it has reason. In the White Weenie deck I posted last week, the mana curve was entirely one- and two-drops, making Aether Vial extremely redundant; if you draw two, you usually leave one on one and one on two and break Cursed Scroll or Sergeant or Whipcorder with your actual mana. In the Goblin deck, Aether Vial actually advances to higher and higher mana positions, even when there isn’t necessarily any relevant drop. The reason is that you are playing for that perfect sequence down the line. You can exploit natural progressions, like a Vial on three for Goblin Matron, advancing to four for Flametongue Kavu, and finishing on five for the Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker you fetched (all while leaving your operating mana base untouched for whatever else you want to do). Vial can give you a faster early beatdown, like turn 1 Vial, turn 2 Piledriver, turn 3 Warchief + a second Piledriver (hopefully with a one-drop somewhere in the mix). A lot of the players I work with on a regular basis, like Brian David-Marshall and Steve Sadin, say that Aether Vial is even more busted in Goblins than it is in Affinity. Notice in the two examples I talked about, above, two cards generate 16 mana, and could easily generate more. Is it the least bit surprising that a Fireball erupts soon after?
The only analogy that I can bring up for figuring out what plan is the correct route is Jon Finkel playing Napster. In the first game of his Top 4 matchup against Frank Hernandez at U.S. Nationals 2000, Jon played a first turn Duress into Frank’s first turn Wild Dogs + Vine Dryad. Oddly, that told Jon that the right play was to go Dark Ritual into Phyrexian Negator. Against a deck with a ton of 2/x creatures and pump, in a matchup where he had long game inevitability with Perish and Yawgmoth’s Will, Jon correctly went beatdown with a threat designed only for fighting Replenish because, using the information he had via Duress, that he could not only race, but steal the Wild Dogs with a minimum danger of Giant Growth. I can only hope that in the same situation I think I would also have won… albeit several turns later; the Vial Goblins deck plays the same way, with radically different paths both available starting with turn one.
As Clair has pointed out, Goblins is a control deck. While almost all decks have to jockey between beatdown and control roles depending on the matchup, Goblins is almost purely a control deck in the beatdown matchups. It can play a superior aggro game itself, but possesses true resource advantage due to its mana acceleration, library manipulation, and utility creatures. In matchup after matchup, this puts it in a position of inevitability; when Goblins loses to another creature deck, it is usually because the deck’s ability to control the board is stymied.
At the same time, you cannot minimize the ability of this deck to actually play beatdown. Draws like turn 1 Mox into Piledriver, turn 2 Warchief (attack for five), turn 3 Matron into Piledriver, Piledriver, potentially lethal attack.
These kinds of draws are not just possible, but occur on a regular basis due to redundant card drawing enabled by mana acceleration.
If you practice with this deck, I think that you will find it a powerful weapon for the Extended PTQs… but prepare to be frustrated in the early going. Winning match after match is about striking a balance between beatdown and disruption to patiently Sculpting the Perfect Hand and picking the spot where you want to commit all of your resources, almost as a solitaire deck. Goblins can force through the Piledriver like I showed in the first example, or it can play for Prospector + Siege-Gang Commander + Sharpshooter Critical Mass. It can play traditional beatdown, mimic Suicide Black with Duress and Cabal Therapy backing up threats, or make threat removal the relevant resource.
Lastly, I’d like to thank you for reading this. I know that now that StarCityGames.com has gone Premium, you had make a personal commitment to be at this point in my article (either that or you are a dirty scumbag, or it’s six months from now and this article is no longer topical). I will endeavor to continue to bring the same level of articles that you have come to expect from me (if you like me, and if you don’t, I’ll endeavor to write exactly like John Rizzo). I hear the other guy they are posting today is pretty good as well.