Building A Legacy – Beating Everyone With Mountains

Drew’s next focus is on another deck without Islands! How refreshing. Read his take on Mono-Red Goblins as well as why it’s well-positioned for the current Legacy metagame. Tune it for the St. Louis Open in a few weeks.

Tropical Island has reclaimed its spot as the best dual land in Legacy. For a while, Tundra and Stoneforge Mystic were beating the tar out of everyone, courtesy of Mental Misstep. Still, Legacy is a format that can learn. When too many Spell Snares and Swords to Plowshares made Tarmogoyf go away, Batterskull became the new Tarmogoyf. The thing about Batterskull, though, is that it only costs two mana if its Squire survives a turn.

Enter Lightning Bolt. If you don’t have to deal with Knight of the Reliquary or Tarmogoyf, Lightning Bolt is just as good as Swords to Plowshares on defense. Beyond that, it gives you the option of getting aggressive, since your removal doesn’t give them more time to find answers to your threats. Lightning Bolt is also red, which is the really relevant part in a blue mirror. To understand how Legacy has shifted since Baltimore, let’s review the U/W Stoneforge vs. U/R/x matchup in terms of removal and sideboarding:

U/W Stoneforge:

  • Removal: Swords to Plowshares, which kills every creature the opponent presents, but gives them a turn or two at the end of the game to peel an answer.
  • Sideboarding: Elspeth, Knight-Errant, which both sidesteps the Jace war and beats Jace heads-up. Notably, it’s your best threat that doesn’t get Red Elemental Blasted.

U/R/x Control/Tempo:

Red Elemental Blast is the real draw to Volcanic Island. The problem with playing a pure U/R Control deck in Legacy, however, is that you can’t really kill a Tarmogoyf. Dismember tries really hard, but sometimes you have to Spell Snare a Counterbalance and Engineered Explosives away another, in which case their Tarmogoyf is going to come down as a 5/6. Therefore, you can either play Stoneforge Mystic, Swords to Plowshares, and Grim Lavamancer, or you can play Tarmogoyf and Krosan Grip. You could try playing Dark Confidant and a ton of black removal, but that’s an article for another day.

So it’s pretty easy to see why U/R/x decks (whether they’re something like my Snapcaster deck or something like Alix Hatfield’s U/R/G Delver Counterbalance deck or Gerry’s Punishing Fire Counterbalance deck or David Thomas’s U/G/R Delver Tempo deck) are succeeding in a format where people insist on playing Stoneforge Mystic. Unsurprisingly, people have learned to stop insisting on playing Stoneforge Mystic. They’re content to play a deck that is nearly identical to old-school Canadian Threshold. After all, David Thomas has a deck that sports a three-power one-drop, Tarmogoyf, and cards that put an opponent’s manabase under duress just long enough to kill them. Do you know what David Thomas didn’t have in his deck?

Basic lands. Yup, it turns out that when you’re the one attacking other peoples’ manabases, you have to sacrifice a bit of stability yourself. So how can a man who wants to beat up on rich peoples’ manabases go about doing work?

May I suggest starting here?

Goblins has not gotten a lot of attention in recent weeks, but it’s a very real deck. Back in the day, it made its living off of beating up three- and four-color control decks with awful manabases. It was an aggressive deck, a control deck, and a combo deck all in one. It could have devastatingly fast starts with an unblocked Goblin Lackey, brutal midgame sequences involving two Goblin Warchiefs and a string of Matrons and Ringleaders, and grindy late-game wins involving four Rishadan Ports keeping an opponent off of the mana needed to cast their threats, all the while plinking in for one or two or three damage per turn. It’s a deck with a tremendous number of decisions that reward the well-prepared player. This list is what a well-prepared Goblins player would play. Here’s why:

The core of the deck (4 Aether Vial, 4 Goblin Lackey, 4 Goblin Matron, 4 Goblin Warchief, 4 Goblin Ringleader, 4 Wasteland, 4 Rishadan Port) is untouched. Some people like to trim numbers from this core because they want to play three colors (“so, you know, we can’t play all of our Ports”), or they think that innovation means cutting your best cards. No, don’t cut Goblin Warchief unless you like cutting Moxen from your Vintage deck. Goblin Ringleader is still the best draw engine in the format and one of the best ways to beat a blue midrange or control deck in the history of Legacy. You guys can figure out why you shouldn’t cut Lackey, Vial, Wasteland, Incinerator, and Matron.

The interesting part of building Goblins is just how much you CAN cut. Take Goblin Piledriver, for instance. On paper, he looks incredible. If he has two friends, he’s a 5/2 for two. That’s like, Tarmogoyf-level stuff, right? Well, it turns out that while he’s still great against Merrow Reejerey and friends, he’s less than spectacular against Tarmogoyf, Germ, Knight of the Reliquary, and Wild Nacatl. If matches nowadays are going to be long-term grindfests, why would I want to draw actual Squire? Granted, Piledriver is great against decks that don’t have blockers, but tell me how you’re doing against Tarmogoyf. He gets past Delver of Secrets and Snapcaster Mage, absolutely, but do you really need all four if you just want him against the blue decks?

While we’re on the subject of cutting sacred cows, I really don’t understand the obsession with including multiple Siege-Gang Commanders in a deck. I view the card as a sort of Tendrils of Agony—as long as you play correctly and don’t waltz it into a Stifle or something stupid, you should win the game very soon after you cast it. Why do you need two? So you can get to five mana, jam it into a counterspell, and let them untap their lands and play something you can’t beat? You play Wastelands and Rishadan Ports. If you want to play a red deck that just casts spells and doesn’t want to interact with opponents’ manabases, go play Burn. Goblins is a deck that can use its mana much more efficiently than “I have five mana, time to jam a Siege-Gang Commander!” If you build your deck so that your hand always has three five-drops, though, you’re not going to have many better options.

If we’re building Goblins to beat today’s metagame, we have to be aware of Dredge. Once upon a time, Dredge was just an Extended deck that people were trying to port into Legacy. Since this was before people really figured out Tarmogoyf and before damage left the stack, Mogg Fanatic was still seriously good and people played all four. In the Dredge versus Goblins matchup, the best thing you could do was Matron for a Mogg Fanatic—it removed their Bridges, it shot an enabler, and it was a cheap body. What’s not to like? If you have a ton of Noble Hierarch decks or Mother of Runes decks in your local metagame, it may even be correct to get all four back in there. Even just as a Scorching Spear, that can be good enough to make the cut. Given that Dredge is one of the least expensive decks in the format, there is a high likelihood of you facing off against Putrid Imp and Golgari Grave-Troll at some point. Mogg Fanatic is your best weapon against them.

A peculiar inclusion that might strike some people as odd is the full set of Mogg War Marshals. War Marshal serves two functions very well. The first function is to provide resiliency to removal—if they’re on all Lightning Bolts and Dismembers, they can’t really kill him. They’ll Bolt your Warchief and Dismember your Piledriver, but War Marshal is going to get in for a ton of damage just by being impossible to one-for-one. Even if people start adopting Firespout and Wrath of God, War Marshal leaves behind a token to continue getting in with.

The second function requires a bit of a story. One of my coworkers is Alex Majlaton, who 2nd placed Grand Prix: Charlotte in 2005, back in super old Extended. He was playing Affinity. As someone who enjoys to run his mouth a bit, he wasn’t shy at all about telling me exactly how he managed to win.

“Everyone thought that Red Deck Wins beat Affinity, but that wasn’t true. I figured out that people were just playing the matchup wrong from the Affinity side of things. RDW won by Lava Darting your Arcbound Worker, Lightning Helixing your Frogmite, and Charring your Enforcer. But if you just don’t play creatures for the first few turns—y’know, just  play Terrarions and Thoughtcasts and Platings and Spellbombs—and then drop, like, Worker and Worker and Frog and Ravager and Enforcer all in one turn, then they can’t beat you. So I just did that to Red Deck all tournament and crushed them.”

Mogg War Marshal buys you the time you need against faster, more aggressive decks to build your Voltron of Goblins. It blocks on turn two, turn three, and turn four. On turn five, you can Vial in a Warchief, play a second, play a Matron for a Chieftain, and play Goblin Chieftain, then attack for a ton of damage out of nowhere. If that doesn’t do the job, you can Ringleader into more Goblins and go back to square one. If you play your Goblins on curve and try to beat bigger decks in a fair fight, they’ll use their mana in a far more efficient way than you will.

Goblin Warchief and Aether Vial can be used more strategically than letting you say, “Oh, I can use all of my mana resources this turn, so I will do that!” Sure, you get discounts, but counters and flashbacked removal will pick you apart if you play a turn-by-turn game with decks that can outmaneuver you. Mogg War Marshal is so much more than Raise the Alarm. As you play with the deck more, you’ll learn how to use him as Flame Javelin, Moment’s Peace, and Reckless Charge. When applied properly, this two-drop can win games that no other card in Magic can win.

Since we’re playing all Mountains, we don’t have access to luxuries like Tin Street Hooligan. Our mono-red options are Goblin Tinkerer, which doesn’t kill Batterskull if they have a removal spell, or Tuktuk Scrapper, which does. I leave the decision to you, with the slight disclaimer that if you want to blow up a bunch of Aether Vials or Pithing Needles or Grindstones or other one- or zero-mana artifacts, then it’s worth looking at Goblin Tinkerer again. Of course, if you REALLY want to stick it to Grindstone decks, you could just play Goblin Welder. Since we keep it at least moderately sane around here, I prefer to Scrap, though you may find that Tinkerer is a better fit. For any Nervous Nellies out there worried about Batterskull getting defended by Stifle, cut it out. They play Spell Snare—which hits your Tinkerer—much more than they play Stifle. Even if they did play Stifle and they had Stifle in their hand, they’d Stifle your Ringleader or your Matron trigger, not your Tuktuk Scrapper.

The sideboard is where things get really interesting, though. Do you know what Delver RUG pilots will never, ever bring in against Goblins? Krosan Grip. You know how many spells they can cast if you have Blood Moon in play? Ten, none of which are going to kill you unless you’re at three or less. If you resolve Blood Moon against a three-color control deck and they don’t have two Tarmogoyfs in play, they’re probably just dead on the spot, even if they have mana up. I get that it makes your Ringleaders worse, but it makes your winning percentage better. If you want to talk about high-impact cards that are going to win you the game, this is about as good as it gets.

The Thorns in the sideboard are a nod to how historically unfavorable spell-based combo decks have been for Goblins. You want to buy a turn or two from Thorn, in which time you’ll be able to either beat them down or slow down their cantrip game to the point where you can jam Blood Moon and shut off their capacity to find a perfect hand (or play said perfect hand). It’s very possible that Chalice of the Void is better than Thorn of Amethyst, but I would definitely recommend playing some sort of artifact hate for them in your sideboard. Earwig Squad and Cabal Therapy are the red-black Goblin anti-combo sideboard cards of choice, but we’ll have to make do with Thorns or Chalices or Trinispheres and Blood Moons. We aren’t building this deck with the plan of playing against a ton of Dark Rituals. If we were going to be doing that, I’d advise investing in some Ancient Tombs and City of Traitors and going with Arc-Slogger. Since we’re gunning for fragile manabases and small blue creatures mixed with the occasional Tarmogoyf, it’s fine to be behind against combo. Besides, who would want to play a combo deck against Daze, Stifle, Force of Will, Snapcaster Mage, and sideboarded Spell Pierces, Surgical Extractions, and Pyroblasts?

A bit of a PSA: the Pyrokinesiseseseses are for creature decks ONLY. I’ve played against too many Goblins players with Tarmogoyf control decks that think Pyrokinesis is to kill Tarmogoyf and lose, then show me the Mogg War Marshals that they sided out to make room for their Pyrokinesises. It’s not. You are not interested in two-for-oneing yourself in sideboarded games. If your plan is to swarm around a big guy, that’s fine, just make sure the math works out for you first. But please, don’t bring in Pyrokinesis against Bant. That’s not what they’re there for. They’re there for Merfolk, Elves, Zoo, the mirror, Maverick, and Dredge. Think about it this way: is combat going to be more complicated than “can I profitably attack through his one or two big guys?” If the answer is “yes,” bring in Pyrokinesis. If the answer is no, figure out a plan that lets you attack profitably through his one or two big guys.

The Goblin Piledrivers are there so that you have ways to crush Merfolk when you want to and as a viable clock against combo decks. Don’t bring them in against decks that are going to grind you out with removal and non-blue blockers, since you’re going to end up with two Piledrivers facing off against a Tarmogoyf. Eventually, they’re going to draw another Tarmogoyf because they play Brainstorm and you’re going to draw some lands, so figure out how to get to a better endgame than “lose because I have an empty hand and two Piledrivers in play.”

One final problem that people run into with Goblins is what to sideboard out. Look, I’m not going to tell you exactly what cards should come out against which decks on the play and the draw. Play some games and experiment with a few different configurations. Remember, you’re building a coherent sixty-card deck every single time you set the other fifteen cards aside. Would you want to play a deck with three Aether Vials and three Goblin Warchiefs and two Goblin Ringleaders against anything? No? Then don’t trim numbers. It’s far better to keep things as-is in a deck like this than to start cutting too many essential creatures and end up with a diluted pile of mediocre creatures. Better than both of those, though, is to figure out how to sideboard against your relevant matchups. I hope this article gave some of you another dual land-free option, and I hope that this article gave all of you a bit of a different angle on thinking about building linear decks.

An Addendum

I’m writing this section to address Jesse Mason’s comment in last week’s article comments, since I feel that some criticisms are important enough that a simple reply is insufficient. Jesse’s comment is exactly the sort of thing that Magic writing needs if it’s going to improve. I’m not what I would consider a “good” writer, and so I love seeing comments like his, as they give me an angle of insight into how I can write articles that will teach people things and make them happy. After all, that’s (presumably) a large part of my job as a writer for StarCityGames.com and even more so as a writer that you pay for the privilege of reading. I’ve thought a lot about his critique, and I’ve included it below so as to more directly reply to the points he makes:

I usually love your deck breakdowns (I used the Faeries one as a positive example in a style guide to writing about Magic), but this one isn’t up there with your best work.

First, you go straight from “GW is better than you think!” to “here is what the cards in the deck do.” Your intro has me convinced that GW doesn’t auto-lose to Reanimator, and that’s great. I’m convinced of that. But you don’t take the next step and show me why GW isn’t just not bad, but actively THE deck I want to play. What decks in the metagame are out there that get their lunch money stolen by GW? You’ve told me that Mom and Mindcensor are good; I shouldn’t wait until the card-by-card rundown to find out “good against what.”

The meat of your article is the card-by-card rundown, and that just doesn’t seem like the best way to present this information. Any reasonable player can look at a top decklist and give good explanations as to why each card does good things in the deck, but only rarely do you talk about the opportunity costs: ie, what cards is this deck NOT running? You tell me things about Elspeth (most of which, honestly, I could have guessed by reading the card and making some logical deductions), but you don’t say why Elspeth is the BEST option. Why is this better than more green one-ofs? Why is it better than extra mana acceleration? Why is it better than some huge 4-drop creature? Etc etc etc.

You give some feedback on what you would change in Andrea’s deck, but don’t end it with how you would build it. I would have rather read about you building GW from the ground up, with step-by-step logical explanations of each element the deck needs to function instead of the current formatting. (And what’s up with the sideboard? I’m not a Legacy expert, so I have no clue what the role of Metamorph is. What does it do? What comes out for it? Why three? I’d like some discussion of that.)

Your overview of the matchups is a bit lacking, as well. You talk about you would change in different metagames, but how do the matchups play out? What are the important cards on each side against the big decks? I don’t come away feeling like I know GW’s role in the metagame, it’s just Some Cards.

So, to recap: you don’t convince me that GW is the deck to play at the moment; you don’t convince me that this is the correct way to build it; and you don’t tell me where GW fits in the Legacy metagame.

I’m still a huge fan of your writing, so keep at it. Hope this was at least a bit helpful.

Green-white is a deck that attacks the current metagame from a number of unique angles. The reason why Mother of Runes in particular is such a good card is that today’s control decks (Gerry’s Punishing Fire version notwithstanding) play four to six one-for-one removal spells and no sweepers. This makes an active Mother of Runes a guaranteed two-for-one if used conservatively and “just” a Flagbearer if used aggressively—that is, to protect another creature to get it past blockers.

This is a very difficult thing for modern control decks to beat and is compounded by the trend of control decks being U/R/x, meaning that they lack ways to kill Knight of the Reliquary in a card-efficient manner. Another commenter pointed out that Jace, the Mind Sculptor is a spectacular card against green-white, and I would agree with that but for Mother of Runes, which counteracts Jace’s -1 ability while also getting a crucial attacker past blockers to kill Jace. As a result, green-white is well-positioned against the three-color control decks of today’s Legacy metagame as well as the U/W Stoneforge decks of yesterday’s Legacy metagame.

Elspeth is the deck’s overall best four-drop because of her capacity to dictate the pace of the game. Thrun, the Last Troll provides a reasonable clock, but he’s brickwalled by any Tarmogoyf or Knight of the Reliquary or Batterskull-equipped anything or Sword of Feast and Famine-equipped anything. Elspeth, on the other hand, capitalizes on the format’s dearth of fliers and pushes through damage very quickly. The only other card that is remotely comparable to that functionality is Natural Order.

The reason why this deck doesn’t want Natural Order is that it can create a ton of advantages through all of its creatures. There’s no need to make the deck worse at grinding people out in exchange for the possibility of “free wins” via Progenitus attacks. If you ever draw the Progenitus, you both skip a draw step and make every subsequently drawn Natural Order worse. If you ever draw two Natural Orders and your Dryad Arbor gets killed, leaving you with a Mother of Runes, Aven Mindcensor, and Stoneforge Mystic, you’re in pretty bad shape. Elspeth gives you a ton of ways to jump ahead in a game that’s at parity while also buying you time when you’re behind by pumping out 1/1s and threatening to make all of your creatures indestructible. In a deck that wants to force other decks to fight on as many angles as possible, Elspeth opens up several more paths to victory that an opponent must simultaneously answer and find a way to kill your Elspeth.

Phyrexian Metamorph is in the sideboard as both a way to fight equipment wars (it can Clone an opposing Stoneforge Mystic or Batterskull, or double up on your own) and a way to kill off opposing Emrakuls or Progenituses). You can’t Show and Tell in a Metamorph and have it legend-rule something that they Show and Telled, though—Metamorph has to copy something that was already in play, so don’t make that mistake.

I mostly like Andrea’s list. My suggested changes would be to cut a Qasali Pridemage for a Stoneforge Mystic and adjust your sideboard to your expected metagame, taking into account that Sylvan Library is bad against non-blue, non-Swords to Plowshares decks and that Reanimator is on the decline, meaning that Faerie Macabre is very possibly not a worthwhile card. If you want another card against Dredge that attacks from an interesting angle, you could add a Sylvan Safekeeper as way to remove their Bridge from Belows. Safekeeper would also add value against combo as a way to protect a crucial card like Gaddock Teeg or Ethersworn Canonist beyond simply drawing a Mother of Runes and one of your hate cards.

I hope that this week’s article is formatted in a way that provides greater insight into my thought process. If it isn’t, I look forward to hearing how I can continue to improve both the way I think and the way that I explain my thoughts to everyone who reads my column.

Thank you for the help. I appreciate it. To anyone out there with similar critiques, don’t be afraid of posting them. Compliments are nice, but they’re a pretty poor teacher. Just like you, I’m here to learn.

Until next week,
Drew Levin