Deep Analysis – Four Ways to Skin a Goblin

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Thursday, April 24th – The official Shadowmoor release is mere days away, and with it comes a Bright and Shiny new metagame for Standard. While it seems Bitterblossom is still the card (and strategy) to beat, one of Magic’s oldest tribes gets a much-needed shot in the arm… Are the dreaded Goblins back, and do they have what it takes to bring down the Tier 1 decks?

As we’re looking at a brand-new format, now seems like a good time for me to take a break from my Spectral Visions project (whatever gauntlet I test it against will be invalidated in a week or two) to explore some of the new archetypes that Shadowmoor will bring to the table…and the more I got to browsing Shadowmoor’s cards, the more I started to notice that there are some seriously strong new Goblins in the set.

Which Goblins, you ask? Let’s have a look.

Tattermunge Maniac does not have quite the same role in a Goblins deck as he does in, say, Red Deck Wins. In a more aggressive Red strategy, his purpose is to get as many hits in as possible while the deck’s burn arsenal clears away blockers. Even if he gets in a hit or two and then dies, he has still contributed to putting the opponent in burn range. A Goblins deck is much more of a midrange strategy, and will generally contain much less blocker-killing burn. This means that the value of Tattermunge as an early beater against decks that present blockers (which is pretty much all of them right now) is diminished because the favorable interaction with a stockpile of burn is not there. Instead, the value of Tattermunge is that he is an aggressive one-drop that can be a reasonable late-game topdeck due to interactions with power-pumping Goblins and Siege-Gang Commander. While a hyper-aggressive Red deck will topdeck Tattermunge and have no way to productively play him (due to, say, a Garruk token on the other side of the board) until more burn arrives to make him part of a one-for-two removal package, or enough creatures arrive to make him part of a swarm. Goblins, on the other hand, can pair him with Mad Auntie, Goblin King, or Siege-Gang Commander to make him a considerably more useful topdeck. All in all, even though his early-game value is not maximized because of the Goblin deck’s lack of burn, it is still quite high; they won’t always have blockers, after all, and if you have enough Goblins on the table before they present one, Tattermunge can take one for the team in order for the rest to get more hits in.

Intimidator Initiate brings back fond memories of Frenzied Goblin, but his ability is, unfortunately, much narrower in potential. Still, my impression is that he compares favorably to Mudbutton Clanger; even if your deck is packed with Goblins, he’s only a 2/2 about 50% of the time. As it’s not always clear what to put alongside the expected Mogg Fanatic and Tattermunge Maniac, I think Intimidator Initiate may be a good third-place candidate, especially when you’re not running Black and Festering Goblin is not an option.

Hungry Spriggan is pretty much terrible against a burn deck and pretty much huge against everything else. As 4/4 trampling attacker, he’s a monster in the attack step; all other times, he trades for a Mogg Fanatic and generally declines to block so much as a Llanowar Elf. In an aggressive deck like Goblins, the bet is that you will almost never want to use him for blocking, and that you can bait out the Mogg Fanatics with your many other x/1 creatures before committing him to the board.

Boggart Ram-Gang is not as exciting against Bitterblossom as Spriggan is, but he is more resilient to burn, sometimes easier to cast (he doesn’t ask that you put Green in your Goblin deck, but does ask for 100% colored mana), and quicker to bring the damage. The Wither ability doesn’t impress me at this point; unless the format changes to include a good deal more large monsters than it currently has, a 3/3 with Wither will not be very much different from a 3/3 without Wither. Most combats right now that involve a 3/3 generally see the other creature dying outright, with the few exceptions of things like Mistbind Clique, Tarmogoyf, Chameleon Colossus, and Doran. Still, three for a 3/3 Haste Goblin? I’m interested; as long as the colored mana requirements don’t get in the way of Mutavault and/or non-Red (and non-Green) basic lands, this guy seems very strong.

Boartusk Liege is an interesting proposition. On one hand, he doesn’t pump all your Goblins – especially relevant in the B/R archetype, where you often have straight Black goblins like Frogtosser Banneret, Mad Auntie, the Harbinger, and so on – but on the other hand, he pumps guys like Tattermunge Maniac and Boggart Ram-Gang +2/+2. Better yet, he Tramples, which will remain an invaluable quality in a large creature as long as Bitterblossom remains dominant. I’m excited to see which decks will fit this guy.

Murderous Redcap is, as Dan Paskins recently pointed out, quite good at killing dorks. In a Goblin deck, unfortunately, he is rather tough on the curve; you already want to include Siege-Gang Commander, and in a deck that gets its mana exclusively from raw land count and the fragile Bannerets (alas, there’s no Skirk Prospector in Standard), it’s not clear what the optimal mix of Redcaps and Commanders is – though I doubt it will be four of each.

Okay, but how do these new cards work out in decklists?

I’ll start with an update of the Ol’ Faithful archetype.

B/R Goblins

This is a very “safe” approach to B/R Goblins. The one-of suite is a full-blown cop out, but would let you do the most experimenting with what works and what does not in the Goblin tribe. You play a healthy 24 lands and a full set of Siege-Gang Commanders, giving you late-game punch at the cost of some clunky early-game draws that will likely be auto-mulligans. Is this “safe” approach the best way to go with the tribe? Perhaps, but I’ll present a spicier alternative in a second.

I chose Festering Goblin over Intimidator Initiate because I just don’t think this deck has the Red spells to make the Initiate worth it. Counting other Intimidators (but not Siege-Gang, since I’d need six mana to cast him and activate the Initiate), running 4 Intimidator would give me 17 total Red spells; I don’t see that yielding enough activations to put him ahead of Uncle Fester’s two-for-one potential.

An alternate version I have considered trims two lands and two Siege-Gang Commander in favor of maximizing the pump Goblins – that’s four King and four Mad Auntie – and a full set of Redcaps to go with them. A Redcap that deals three or four to target creature or player when it comes in is extraordinarily powerful, and maximizing this interaction may well be worth omitting the utility spells and Tarfires.

Mono-Red Goblins

Now more so than ever, mono-Red goblins may have a shot at viability. The question is how to build them such that they do something better than the B/R alternative.

I struggled for awhile on the inclusion of Ram-Gang in this list. I figured I had two options, broadly speaking: play a low land count, 4 Ram-Gang, and 0 Mutavault, or cut the Ram-Gangs, add back in Mutavaults, and go up to 23 lands or so to add a Boartusk Liege or two in the four-drop slot alongside the expected Murderous Redcaps.

The next fundamental question is what to do with the top end of the curve. I eventually decided to hone in on the aggressive angle, with only 20 lands, Ram-Gangs, and Flame Javelins (they always cost three when your manabase is 20 Mountain), and nothing above the three-mana mark. I went with this based on the fact that the best mono-Red Goblin two-drops are all about aggressively pushing in damage as early as possible, and that pushing down my curve would give me more consistent opening draws while allowing me to trim lands and increase my late-game business spell concentration. After making this decision, I didn’t even bother with Vexing Shusher; in a 20-land deck, when am I going to have a spare mana with which to protect my spells? He might still make the sideboard, but he is much narrower in this archetype than in others.

In order for Mudbrawler Cohort to be reasonable, you need to be very close to mono-Red. A 2/2 Haste Goblin for two mana is a solid follow-up to a Tattermunge Maniac or Intimidator Initiate start, but a 1/1 Haste is a far cry from that. Bloodmark Mentor packs a serious punch; especially against Faeries, a horde of first strike Goblins is immensely problematic against a deck that relies on one-toughness creatures to hold off aggressors. First Strike also makes Ram-Gang’s Wither ability a lot more powerful, as it allows him to go head-to-head with anything up to a 5/5 and live to tell the tale.

I briefly debated between Incinerate and Shock (not Tarfire; that card has no synergy with any card in this deck, and pumps opponents’ Tarmogoyf), but felt that the higher damage was more important to this hyper-aggressive take on Goblins.

Finally, I strongly considered Keldon Marauders for this deck – and he might honestly be better than Incinerate. The Marauders are incredibly potent in any aggressive strategy, and pairing them with fully-powered Intimidator Initiates seems like a perfect match. I went with Incinerate because of his ability to clear the biggest blockers out of the way of the deck’s many small beaters, but the Marauders may prove a very strong sideboard card in matchups where the blockers aren’t quite beefy enough to require Incineration.

G/R Goblins

This deck can make the best use of Boartusk Liege by a mile. With Tattermunge Maniac, Tattermunge Witch, Boggart Ram-Gang, and other Boartusk Lieges getting the +2/+2 pump, and every other creature in the deck still getting +1/+1 (even Treetop Village!), the 3/4 trample can do a lot of pumping here.

The G/R approach is less aggressive than the mono-Red list, and lacks the utility of the B/R strategy’s Bannerets, Harbingers, and Mad Aunties, but it makes up for these deficiencies with fat. Tarmogoyf, Hungry Spriggan, Treetop Village, and Boggart Ram-Gang are each beefcakes in their own right, and the full sets of Tattermunge Witches, Goblin Kings, and Boartusk Lieges make even the deck’s small fry formidable opponents.

To me, the biggest selling point of this deck is its laundry list of tramplers. Hungry Spriggan, Boartusk Liege, Treetop Village, and Tattermunge Witch each make the Bitterblossom on the other side of the table look less and less impressive, and that card is Public Enemy Number One in this format.

At the same time, I am concerned that the deck’s exclusive focus on beef may be its undoing. Aggressive Red beatdown strategies like the mono-Red Goblins list above can pull out victories from nowhere simply by being too fast for the opponent. B/R Goblins has a lot more utility that allows it to invent broken situations from out of nowhere. R/G Goblins just has the fat, and has to hope that it’s sufficient to handle whatever the opponent brings to the table… but who knows? If the deck brings the fat consistently enough, maybe that’s all it will take.

B/G Goblins

As the title of the article implies, there are now four different ways to skin a Goblin: mono-Red, R/B, R/G, and… B/G? Sounds crazy, I know – but it’s a curveball that has certain quirky merits. Have a look.

While fairly off-the-wall, this deck is filled with powerful cards and interactions. The focus is not solely on Goblins, but rather on minor synergistic interactions like Mad Auntie pumping up (and, often more relevantly, regenerating) the majority of the deck’s creature base, Earwig Squad being a consistent 5/3 for three (Bitterblossom tokens enable its Prowl as well, as they are Rogues) with a built-in Jester’s Cap, the Harbinger providing a scalable Flametongue Kavu role with Nameless Inversion or Murderous Redcap (or just a two-for-one with an extra creature, or a souped-up Defense Grid via Shusher). Backing that up are Tarmogoyf, Bitterblossom, and Garruk, each of which plays into the deck’s strategies in their own right.

I debated back and forth between Tattermunge Maniac and Frogtosser Banneret; ultimately, my concern with the Maniac was that he would not be adequately supported by the rest of the deck, and may simply crash into a bigger creature after getting in a couple of points of damage, in a deck where damage is not so important as creature superiority. The Banneret allows for some sick turn 3 plays, such as Harbinger and Spriggan or Earwig Squad, and can hold back on attacking if the time is not yet right.

I think it’s too early in the new format for sideboard speculation, but this deck is among the best for anti-Faeries sideboard cards, with both the traditional Cloudthresher and the hot new Firespout available as part of its arsenal.

I think the two questions that will determine this deck’s success are: one, how much the format will care about a curveball midrange beatdown deck, and two, how successful it will be at playing that role. I didn’t even bother including Thoughtseizes main because I doubt this will be fast enough to race combo (give or take Earwig Squad being randomly crippling) even with a Thoughtseize thrown in the mix. Instead, the deck’s strength lies in presenting a variety of attack vectors. On the one hand, there’s the ubiquitous Bitterblossom. On the other, there is the stream of undercosted fatties – Tarmogoyf, Hungry Spriggan, and Earwig Squad. If none of those approaches work, there is the swarm of Goblins; Frogtosser Banneret allows for chained of Harbingers across a few turns which can culminate in a Mad Auntie. If your defense against all this is countermagic, there’s Vexing Shusher. Finally, there’s even a planeswalker – the most successful one, no less – to add one last attack vector. Can all of these varied, powerful attack patterns combine to present a real threat to the format? We’ll have to wait and see.

It’s an exciting new time for Goblins. Will they finally cross the hill and become a Tier 1 deck? Playtesting will determine that, but one thing is certain: their arsenal of deadly weaponry just got a lot bigger with Shadowmoor’s release.

See you next week!

Richard Feldman
Team :S
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