Deconstructing Constructed – Thorny Goblins in Vintage

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Since I still get e-mails off and on asking what happened to the Vintage articles, and since the next major Vintage tournament is this weekend, I figured I may as well share some thoughts about Lorwyn and Goblins. Steve’s been too busy talking about his Invitational experiences to really go into depth about any of this stuff, so I can understand why there’s a particular lack of Eternal material going around.

Right now is an odd time for me, since I write a Constructed format column, yet for many people Constructed will be a non-factor save for those interested in the Eternal formats. Thankfully with all the States and GP: Krakow information, Standard on MTGO should get interesting in a few weeks, but until people can get their hands on the cards and the premier events kick into full swing. Unfortunately I won’t have access to the GP dataset yet, so I‘ll be going over that sometime in the next week or so. So there won’t be any Standard discussions or tech this week.

Since I still get e-mails off and on asking what happened to the Vintage articles, and since the next major Vintage tournament is this weekend, I figured I may as well share some thoughts about Lorwyn and Goblins. Steve’s been too busy talking about his Invitational experiences to really go into depth about any of this stuff, so I can understand why there’s a particular lack of Eternal material going around.

Lorwyn in general has brought almost nothing new to Vintage… basically, we got Duress 5-8 if GAT felt the need to run it, a new Meddling Mage clone which isn’t even that good, and a new Sphere of Resistance in Thorn of Amethyst. That said, the new Sphere creates a lot of interesting possibilities for a deck like Fish or Goblins, in which the normal Sphere of Resistance would cause mana issues on both sides of the coin. Add to this the current metagame, in which most manabases are ripe to being destroyed via a few Strips and a Sphere effect on the board. In addition, even the deck that people most likely assume has the most to gain from the new Sphere is hamstrung by its own mana issues. Simply put, Stax manabases are just as weak, if not moreso than the decks they hope to attack.

I’ve tried a number of decks recently in hopes to get out of the Gush slump I’ve had towards Vintage, but almost all of them came up short in the face of the GAT juggernaut. It may sound a bit silly, but I still care much less about Empty Gifts or whatever you want to call it, compared to a normal GAT deck. Why? Because I expect a bunch of Workshop decks to show up at Chicago and for there to be a huge backlash from players who can’t play GAT and instead choose to play the “answer” to the best deck. Unfortunately for Empty Gifts player, the win conditions which may be better in most matches come up short way more often against various Shop builds post-Lorwyn. By changing the win conditions, these decks effectively cut off the option of laying a turn 1 Quirion Dryad or Tarmogoyf and riding it to a win.

If you look at the most recent tournament results on TMD then it’s easy to note the backlash against Gush decks of every sort. It makes sense of course, but one has to wonder why people are choosing such a stop-gap solution, as hating a deck based around Gush only works until people adapt the deck. It’s a concept based around having superior draw and search power at any stage of the game, and then translating that into a mana advantage and a win. For those older Extended players, trying to compete against Necropotence plus Demonic Consultation Trix decks is a fair comparison. You’re basically are at a disadvantage no matter which part of the package you choose to attack.

However, assuming you still aren’t playing a Gush deck for whatever reason and aren’t settled in to either Stax or some odd Fish variation…

If you won’t believe in your own luck, or trust in your ability…

You might be interested in this. Here’s Goblins post-Lorwyn:

The deck is pretty simple in both its construction and play-style. There are no Wrath effects to worry about game 1, so all you have to do is focus on laying a turn 1 mana accelerant and riding that to victory against Fish-esque decks. For the rest where there’s an actual game, you have to weigh how good your disruption is against whatever you perceive their opening hand to be. A one-land hand with Goblin Lackey and essentially any other men is perfectly keepable against Stax, but something like Flash you’d mull as far as you could to hit Leyline of the Void or Thorn. Against GAT a hand consisting of Aether Vial and Strips is most likely quite good, but will still lose you the game in some cases.

Goblins lives and dies on opening hands. You have to have a good insight into your matches to maximize your chances in games 2 and 3, especially if you choose to board in more disruption like Red Elemental Blast or if you choose a transformational disruption sideboard.

The one-drops haven’t changed from the last build. You still want Mogg Fanatic against Flash and Fish, and it’s not the worst spell ever against GAT. That said, it’s one of the most expendable Goblins in the deck, because it just isn’t as powerful as any of the core Goblins and it can’t kill larger creatures in a pinch. As for the core Goblins, the key 20 are there – Lackey, Piledriver, Matron, Warchief, and Ringleader – while the remainders of the creature slots are dedicated to a small toolbox. Stingscourger and Incinerator can both be invaluable when removing Tarmogoyf or Quirion Dryad from the way, and the singleton Hooligan has saved me a number of games versus Illusionary MaskPhyrexian Dreadnought decks… and even against Stax in a pinch.

Leyline of the Void is your Force of Will effectively. If it hits play, decks like GAT and Flash will lose three to five turns on average dealing with it game 1, and it’s minimally dead in other matches. Although having such a seemingly random card in the maindeck is less optimal than being able to run counters, it’s simply more consistent and less detrimental to your own mana curve than relying on Duress / Cabal Therapy / Thoughtseize in the maindeck. Post-board Leyline loses some value, but just because the opponent gets a few more answers doesn’t necessarily mean that you won’t gain a couple of turns off the card anyway. Considering you can goldfish on turn 4 or 5 while using Strips or not completely tapping out (Which means REB consideration post-board), that bodes well for you.

Thorn of Amethyst is the big addition to the deck, and it isn’t difficult to see why. Goblins is practically the perfect fit for the deck, considering it already runs 26 creatures and 19 lands for 45 unaffected cards in the deck. To top this off, almost all the remaining cards in the deck are one mana or less, leaving only extra Thorns or Leyline (which were never meant to be hardcast anyway) as the cards that feel a true detriment. Meanwhile it doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to see the effect a one-sided Sphere has against Gush decks of all kinds, especially when backed by a clock. All it takes is a Lackey or Vial on turn 1 followed up by a Thorn on turn 2 to truly disrupt a Gush player. Kick in a Wasteland or Leyline of the Void and you can quickly push an opponent over the edge while they try to jump-start their game plan.

Even against decks like Stax, Thorn can still be very useful, as the amount of free mana they have to use on colored spells is constantly limited… especially when they need to get cards like Smokestack and Tangle Wire down early to have any effect at all against you. Flash obviously will have problems, and you lose very few maindeck percentage points against other decks by running four Thorn in the main.

Aether Vial is still very strong in the current metagame, with a lot of its usefulness coming from the fact that Shops are making their presence known again. Combined with Goblin Lackey, you have eight potentially game-ending cards against Stax before you go to sideboarding. This means you have a ridiculous game 1 advantage unless they take special precautions against aggro decks. Meanwhile you enjoy the benefits of dodging Mana Drain and other counters, while still maintaining the mana producing capabilities you can leverage against other aggro decks.

Lands & Artifact Mana
I run nineteen lands as my bare minimum since you still want to hit RR on a consistent basis and keep your basic land count high enough to not get rolled by a lucky Wasteland. Barbarian Ring has won me a number of long games as an extra few points of damage to force through, and its damage drawback is negligible considering the number of free creature effects you have and the low amount of ways you have to hurt yourself. The artifact mana is at the bare minimum, because off-color Moxen are of questionable value after turn 2, and there simply isn’t any room leftover for Simian Spirit Guide.

Sideboard Options
Sideboard options are pretty simple, but at this point in time present an interesting challenge considering the state of flux the metagame is in. At the moment I see six main sideboard options that I’d give serious consideration. Duress and Cabal Therapy deserve a look because they can be effective against Gush combo and Flash, but on the flip side they take up precious slots in the deck. They don’t necessarily give you the oomph you’re looking for in a sideboard card and are an annoying splash color, but when played at the right time they can be huge sources of information.

Next up is the artifact destruction package. You can either go with good old Artifact Mutation or Tin-Street Hooligan. Both have their various merits, Hooligan being fetchable and giving you an early threat if you choose to use it on a Moxen or something similar early on for the mana denial effect. Meanwhile, against larger creatures and artifacts like Tangle Wire, Crucible of Worlds, and Darksteel Colossus, you obviously want Artifact Mutation for instant impact. Of course, the flip side is you get the same amount of power or less versus cards like Illusionary Mask and Phyrexian Dreadnought. At the moment I’d probably take a split simply to surprise the opponent, but otherwise I learn towards the instant speed aspects of Artifact Mutation.

The final slots are dedicated slots to just be “anti-whatever” cards. Red Elemental Blast specifically for Gush decks, and Gempalm Incinerator, Stingscourger, or Umezawa’s Jitte versus aggro of sorts. All these cards have been covered previously, so I leave it to your imagination to come up with a configuration for your local metagame.

Alternatively, if you run Blue in the maindeck, you can add Stifle to the sideboard as a valid option to help the mana denial options against Gush while providing incidental support in other matches.

I’m not going to go into specific percentages or anything silly like that. I’ll merely be sharing what it seems should happen from my testing. I’ve always maintained that Goblins has an even to slight edge against GAT decks, and since the addition of Thorn to the maindeck I’ve had a slight edge against practically all Gush combo. Post-board stays close to the same because you typically have REB to constrain what they want to do on turn 2, so you don’t have to risk running an unprotected Thorn against them. Alternatively you can also afford to keep riskier Vial hands, since many GAT decks will be relying heavier on Snuff Out / Smother as an answer to Goblin Lackey, since it dodges REB. You should still only have to deal with a singleton Echoing Truth from most builds.

Flash is just fanning out opening hands… if you make it past turn 3, you’ll nearly always win the game. The key is just getting down what hands “get there” disruption-wise and what hands fail. I can’t really explain it better than suggesting you practice 20 post-board games.

Fish and other sorts of aggro can actually be a serious pain in the neck if they run Tarmogoyf, since they can outclass all of your creatures and the maindeck removal has been cut back. Take advantage of your numbers and force through damage when you can, while looking for alpha strike opportunities if they leave Goyf unprotected against a tutored-for Incinerator or Stingscourger. If they run cards like maindeck Jitte and get them online, odds are you’ll be forced to scoop and move onto post-board in short order. After sideboarding, simply make sure Dark Confidant doesn’t live, and play to buy time until you can get a trump like Jitte online. If you’re merely running more Incinerators, then the plan changes to getting 3-4 creatures in play and then pressing the advantage as much as possible. Piledriver dying is not a big deal, as you don’t need to win big in this match. Running them low on creatures and riding a small board / life advantage to victory is giving you the same W in the column at the end.

If you want a more explosive aggro deck that benefits from the new Sphere, then you may want to look at the old favorite of Crusher. I’m not saying that the rebirth of Affinity is necessarily the new hotness, but the ability to consistently hit a turn 1 Sphere and easily play around it is huge. Having a Thorn in play with this deck while also having a few artifacts, Cranial Plating, and a dork all on turn 1 is rather scary to just about any Vintage deck. Although I’m not 100% between having six or seven Spheres, you definitely don’t want the full set, and Chalice of the Void has been ridiculously useful when set at one. Sometimes you forget how good certain disruption cards can be when they haven’t seen play in a long time.

The other major advantage of playing this deck is the surprise factor. Even with Stax on the rise, cards like Oxidize and Hurkyll’s Recall hurt this deck far less than the traditional prison builds. To top it off, Fish isn’t running Null Rod to completely ruin you, and an 8/8 Arcbound Ravager or Arcbound Crusher has fewer Goblin Welders to deal with than before. In the sideboard you’d definitely want an answer to Ichorid in Tormod’s Crypt and possibly Leyline, along with Pithing Needle for the Welder issue. Still, it seems as if Workshop Aggro has fallen by the wayside, and I think a specialized build could show up and clean house. Here’s a rough list I had been kicking around for fun that posted some surprisingly pleasant results.

Good luck to those attending Chicago, and especially to my teammates that are playing. Next week I’ll likely take a in-depth look at Standard and where we stand now, so until then, never give up.

Josh Silvestri
Team Reflection
E-mail me at: joshDOTsilvestriATgmailDOTcom