Feature Article – Would Legacy Be Better Off Without Tarmogoyf?

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Monday, December 28th – The latest banning/unbanning period has come and gone, leaving Tarmogoyf unscathed. But his days in Legacy could be numbered. The infamous undercosted fatty has steadily made an impact since his entry in 2007. Is he format-warping?

The latest banning/unbanning period has come and gone, leaving Tarmogoyf unscathed. But his days in Legacy could be numbered.

The infamous undercosted fatty has steadily made an impact since his entry in 2007. Is he format-warping? Well, he’s certainly format-defining. Much as Vintage players either wield Moxen or cards to shut down Moxen, Legacy players face the ever-present Goyf. He shows up in decks of every color, and why not? Just look at that flexible, bargain-priced casting cost: 1G for a beater with no drawback who’s often a 5/6 within a turn of seeing play.

Because he’s so powerful and splashable, his value has continued to climb. He’s currently commanding a $60 price tag.

Now, this isn’t a barriers-to-entry spiel, since we’re talking about an Eternal format, but many people have been surprised by Goyf’s preponderance, and some have called for him to be banned, saying he’s warping the format.

The points in Tarmogoyf’s defense are well-documented:

* He’s a vanilla creature (no trample, no evasion, etc.).
* He’s easily managed with removal. (Although this really should be clarified to read “with White removal” or “with Black removal” or “with my Tarmogoyf.”)

For the sake of argument, suppose Tarmogoyf was twice as strong. Suppose his text was “* x 2/* x 2.” Would the above defenses be any less valid?

Here’s another question: What does it take to merit a ban? From looking at past bans, we can conclude that it usually hinges on the “health” of a format. R&D Director Aaron Forsythe wrote this in 2004 about the pre-emptive ban of Skullclamp in Standard (“Skullclamp, We Hardly Knew Ye”):

“Skullclamp was banned in Standard, frankly, because it was everywhere. Every competitive deck either had four in the main deck, had four in the sideboard, or was built to try and defend against it. And there were a lot more successful decks in the first two categories than in the third. Such representation is completely unhealthy for the format. Your deck has to either have Skullclamps, or have Skullclamp in its crosshairs – a definitive case of a card ‘warping the metagame.'”

The key here was an assessment of the health of the format, with variety being an indicator of health and lack of variety being an indicator of a problem.

By this measure, Tarmogoyf is not quite as bad for Legacy as Skullclamp was for Standard. He’s not in every competitive deck, but he’s in a ton of them. Let’s look at the latest large-tournament data, from StarCity’s $5,000 Legacy Open in St. Louis. The winning deck ran 4 Tarmogoyfs. There were 8 Goyfs between two decks in the Top 4. There were 32 in the Top 16.

At the $5,000 Legacy Open in Philly in October, we can see a very similar breakdown: 32 Tarmogoys in the Top 16, and 8 in the Top 4, although Stax ended up besting Threshold to take the crown there.

So is 50 percent of the top tables too pervasive a showing for Tarmogoyf? What if it was 60 percent? 70 percent? What’s the magic number? Is there a magic number? Going by Forsythe’s logic, every player who sleeves up four Goyfs for a big tournament — and wins with them – is pushing the card closer to the banned list.

In a poll at The Source, “Most bannable card in Legacy? (not that they will touch it),” Tarmogoyf came in second, trailing only Sensei’s Divining Top. The Top was banned in Extended last year, with the explanation being that it (when combined with numerous shuffle effects) was causing too many rounds to end in a draw and was lengthening the time of tournaments. In a discussion of the ban, Bill Stark pointed out in his article “Behind the September 2008 B&R Changes” that, in earlier years, Shahrazad, Land Tax and Thawing Glaciers had gotten the axe for similar reasons.

Tarmogoyf obviously isn’t slowing games down, so he has that in his favor. Although, look back to 2003 …

In 2003, Goblin Lackey was banned in Extended. This was the DCI’s explanation:

“The Extended Constructed format has gotten too fast. One of the biggest culprits is the Goblin deck and Goblin Lackey is the most egregious offender. The introduction of the Onslaught block (and especially the Scourge set) has given Goblin decks some extremely high quality Goblins and the Lackey’s ability to put them into play for free is simply too good for a first turn play.”

Of course, with Ad Nauseam Tendrils threatening a Turn 2 combo kill in Legacy, a ban on Tarmogoyf over his speed would be unlikely. The fact he’s a creature is probably his best shield, as creatures are inherently interactive, and Wizards – and players – generally prefer games with greater interaction. Worldgorger Dragon and Hermit Druid made the list because they were combo-enablers. Metalworker made the list during the height of Tinker but was recently removed. The only other creature there, not counting the ante cards, is Goblin Recruiter, who combined with Food Chain to devastating effect. Tarmogoyf isn’t part of a combo; he’s just there to deliver the quick beats. And he’s good at his job. Maybe too good.

Because of how cheap Tarmogoyf’s casting cost is compared to the size of his body, he reduces decision-making in deck building, for he’s almost always the best answer. This is true whether he’s the only big creature in the deck (CounterTop) or a burly addition to a force of many creatures (Zoo). It’s true whether he’s backed up by discard (Eva Green), burn (Goyf Sligh), or classic tempo cards (Threshold). Even if you’re setting up a combo to throw land at your opponent’s head (Aggro Loam), there’s still room for a playset of Tarmogoyfs.

Even if you’re playing Merfolk – Merfolk! – there’s room. You’d think fins and scales would be a prerequisite for that deck, but some players have concluded that running Tarmogoyf is better than running four more fish, even though he can’t benefit from the deck’s many lords. One of these decks made the Top 16 at the Philadelphia 5K.

It’s telling how people talk about Tarmogoyf: about how he was an R&D mistake. They’re sure of it. A post last summer on MTG Salvation’s forums begins “everyone is always saying this, yet I can’t find WHERE that is. Does anyone have a link?” The thread eventually produces a YouTube video of episode 79 of “The Magic Show.” In episode 79, Mark Rosewater reveals that Tarmogoyf came about as a result of R&D’s efforts to make Green a stronger color. He notes that the hairy beast originally cost three mana and that he made the “wacky Lhurgoyf variant” for the Johnnys out there. Grinning and shaking his head, he says, “We did not know Tarmogoyf was Tarmogoyf, you know what I’m sayin’?”

Still, it’s surprising no warning bells went off. The mechanics of Magic are set up to maintain a balance: If there’s a powerful card at a low casting cost, there’s usually a condition that must be met or a state that must be achieved. Rogue Elephant, a 3/3 for G, requires the sacrificing of a Forest. Flesh Reaver, a 4/4 for 1B, has an eye-for-an-eye effect when it deals damage. (That is, it deals the same amount to its controller.) These are some of the creatures that strayed from the general mold of power, of 1/1 for 1 or 2/2 for 2.

There used to be a line between weenie decks and fatty decks. Whether you measured that with mana or with turns, the difference was that a rush of small creatures could overwhelm a deck that relied on behemoths to succeed. Likewise, the behemoths, if given enough time, could stomp their way to victory. That line has been shrinking for a while, providing subtle evidence of “power creep,” but Tarmogoyf has largely obliterated what was left of that line. How could Carnophage, a 2/2 for B with an upkeep drawback, ever hope to compete? How could Isamaru, Hound of Konda, a 2/2 Legend for W? How could Black Knight? How could Wild Mongrel? How could any cheap creature? Tarmogoyf has the power of a fatty at basically the speed of a weenie. In just a turn, he balloons in size, bellowing with laughter as he swallows Isamaru like a hot dog. Goyf gets bigger simply because you play the game.

Legacy has a massive card pool: 10,604, according to the Gatherer database. How many creatures does he elbow out? How many nongreen creatures does he hold back? Which decks is he critical to, and which are just using him like a free lunch? How many decks would stop splashing Green if he disappeared?

Would Legacy be better off without Tarmogoyf? Consider that at your next tournament.
He’ll be there.

Jeremy Edwards