Leaving A Legacy: Goblins Are Great But Haters Gonna Hate

Kenny Dungar won the SCG Legacy Open in Minneapolis last weekend with Goblins. He tells you why it’s his deck of choice and breaks down his list.

For years people have treated Goblins in Legacy as a deck for people without skill or money. The money part I agree with, but skill part I don’t. Goblins is one of the strongest decks in the format that doesn’t require a huge commitment to dual or fetchlands. It’s an aggro deck that can combo kill on turn 4 or out-card advantage a control deck. It may not be the flashiest 75 cards out there, but it can bring a world of hurt to any opponent.

Although I’ve been playing Magic for eighteen years, I only got into Legacy a few years ago because I started dating a girl who was big into her local Legacy scene. I ran a hastily assembled Goblins deck because it was the easiest to throw together with the cards I had on hand. Four years later I’m still playing Goblins and that girl and I are married.

I started playing Magic around Fallen Empires in elementary school. As a kid I was always obsessed with G/B, which is still probably my favorite color combination. I played on and off for about eight years before getting deep into Onslaught block, and I’ve been playing consistently ever since. Oddly, I didn’t like Goblins during Onslaught block because I thought they were too powerful; it took a while for me to warm up to the little green men.

Over the years I’ve gravitated towards older formats. I really enjoyed playing Extended around Mirrodin block (after Skullclamp was banned). When I began to play Legacy, I really liked it right off the bat because the large card pool allows for a lot of latitude in deck design. Although I’ve played Goblins at most major events, I’ve spent a lot of time playing Jund and Junk as well. I find myself playing creature-based decks because I’m too jumpy to play straight control and find combo monotonous.

After playing Goblins for a few years, I had a good finish last year at the StarCityGames.com Legacy Open in Minneapolis, where I piloted Goblins to a Top 4 finish. The maindeck featured Thalia, Guardian of Thraben and was pretty similar to what I played this year. The primary difference is due to the printing of one card:

Deathrite has had a huge impact on Legacy, appearing as a mana engine in four-color decks, a kill condition for control and aggro players, and even a potential combo piece in Elves. It’s really a powerhouse card. Playing around Deathrite became the biggest challenge for Goblins in the past year. Before Deathrite Shaman if you hand had a turn 1 Goblin Lackey on the play, it was an instant keep. Now a Lackey only opener is a much riskier play unless you have some removal to clear a path. Any non-Deathrite one-drop only has one toughness and a Lackey with a Gempalm Incinerator can take them out, but the extra toughness on Deathrite Shaman means you need to find a different solution.

Deathrite Shaman really shifted the emphasis of the deck from turn 1 Lackey to turn 1 Aether Vial. Without any information from your opponent, keeping a hand that hangs entirely on Goblin Lackey in game 1 is a huge risk. Sometimes you are paired against a combo deck and Lackey is awesome, but just as frequently your opponent drops a Deathrite Shaman and completely ruins your day. Leading with an Aether Vial pushes aggro and control players into the midgame, where Goblins’ card advantage engine kicks in.

The biggest change from my decklist last year is Tarfire. Tarfire is a really potent card. Now, Shock is a hysterically underwhelming card in Legacy. Even worse, it’s a Shock that pumps Tarmogoyf. However, being able to find Tarfire with Goblin Matron or Goblin Ringleader is a totally different story. Although Gempalm Incinerator yields card advantage, it’s more difficult to activate, and your opponent can often remove a Goblin or two and ruin the effect. Sometimes you really need a creature off the board right now, and Tarfire does the job. Depending on the metagame, I would consider adding another Tarfire. If there’s a lot of Delver of Secrets, Dark Confidant, Deathrite Shaman, or Stoneforge Mystic being played, Tarfire can really screw up your opponent’s opening play.

Traditionally Goblin Lackey is viewed as the most explosive and seemingly most dangerous card in the deck. While that is true against combo and some control decks, Lackey is one of the cards I sideboard out frequently. If you are on the draw for game 2, Lackey is a terrible card in almost any matchup that involves creatures. There’s a wide variety of super powerful one- and two-drop creatures that render a Goblin Lackey no better than Mon’s Goblin Raiders. Gempalm Incinerator generally isn’t helpful in those situations and Tarfire helps against some of two drops, but a Tarmogoyf will completely shut down the Lackey plan. In those matchups, move Lackey to sideboard when on the draw and put it back in if you are on the play.

Aether Vial is another really critical card for gaining tempo on your opponent. If your opening hand contains both an Aether Vial and Goblin Lackey, I tend to play the Vial on turn 1 and push towards the midgame. It’s a slower play, but it keeps you from losing tempo to a piece of removal and allows you to add counters to your Aether Vial faster and get to your powerful creatures.

Thalia, Guardian of Thraben may look out of place in a deck filled with all Goblins, but she really is a huge asset to the maindeck. In game 1, Thalia is really the only card that gives you any chance to prevent a combo deck from going off. Against control decks, Thalia completely ruins their math and makes the first few turns a nightmare for them. Control decks tend to kill Thalia at the first possible chance, which reduces the amount of removal left for your more dangerous Goblins.

I have seen people using Thorn of Amethyst for a similar effect, but the ability to make Thalia uncounterable using Aether Vial or Cavern of Souls is invaluable. Worst-case scenario Thalia is a 2/1 first strike for two mana. That’s still a reasonable threat in most matchups and can do a ton of damage in the mirror match just because of first strike.

The other cards in the deck break down into three categories: the core gang, critical mass, and utility players.


The core gang is pretty simple and doesn’t really require much explanation. These are the cards that make the deck function. You can have as many Goblin Lackeys as you want, but without the core gang you aren’t going far.

Goblin Warchief and Goblin Chieftain are really similar. Five total lords seems to be the right number. I erred on the side of an additional Goblin Chieftain over Goblin Warchief because the additional +1/+1 allows all of the normally 1/1 Goblins to push past Deathrite Shaman.

Goblin Ringleader is what makes this deck run in the midgame. It’s a card-advantage engine on legs. The only real piece of advice I have is to keep track of what cards are on the bottom of your deck and think about that before you shuffle your deck with a Goblin Matron or a fetchland.

Goblin Matron can get every non-Thalia creature in your deck plus Tarfire thanks to tribal. What to get with Matron is very case specific. When in doubt, get Goblin Ringleader. Getting a Warchief or Chieftain is a pretty common play to enable a big turn. Warchief is good because it allows you empty out your hand after a good Ringleader. I’ll get to when you want the other creatures later.

Critical Mass

Critical mass means cards that get better the more Goblins you have or help you get more Goblins on the battlefield.

Mogg War Marshal is one of my favorite cards in this deck. He often blocks a Tarmogoyf and still leaves a pair of 1/1s behind. In general my build of Goblins is midrange, and War Marshal is what makes that possible. It helps you stay alive against aggressive decks and keeps the Goblin count high to enable all kinds of other shenanigans.

Goblin Piledriver is a staple of Goblins; however, players often overvalue the need for him. I played two copies in my deck. Piledriver suffers from the need to have a good-looking board before it has any real effect. Don’t get me wrong, turn 3 Goblin Warchief with double Piledriver has won me a ton of games, but without the Goblin Warchief that board is really unexciting. Over my time with Goblins, I’ve found that although Piledriver ends games it rarely does anything in the early or midgame. A Goblin Piledriver without any other Goblins is perhaps the worst position the deck can be in. Also, Protection from blue is super powerful against Merfolk and occasionally allows Piledriver to slip past a critical blocker.

Krenko, Mob Boss is one of my favorite cards in the deck and tends to serve a similar position as Goblin Piledriver. Krenko often comes into play and turns a board of three or four Goblins into an unstoppable force within only a turn or two. There have been numerous games where I’m totally against the ropes but a hasted Krenko reverses a dire position into a total blowout. The biggest weakness of Krenko is how much he needs Goblin Warchief or Goblin Chieftain to be effective. I’ve considered adding another Krenko, but generally he doesn’t come out until the late game when you need to push damage through and increasing the count would cause you to draw him at inopportune times.

Gempalm Incinerator is the last of the critical mass Goblins. There’s not much I can say about Incinerator other than uncounterable removal that draws you a card is really awesome. Always be aware of your Goblin count and avoid getting blown out by your opponent removing a Goblin—that’s where Tarfire can be a lifesaver. Also, Gempalm Incinerator counts all Goblins on the battlefield, not just yours. It’s not super relevant but can be effective against Mutavault, Goblin Guide, or in the mirror match.


The utility cards are where you can add or remove cards based on the metagame. Here are the ones I ran and a few that just missed the cut.

Goblin Sharpshooter is a potentially devastating card, although at #SCGMINN it was never relevant. Like Krenko and Piledriver, Sharpshooter is a card that without haste is pretty toothless. I think Sharpshooter still deserves a spot because if you get stuck in a standoff with Mother of Runes, it gives you a potential route to remove the Mother.

At last year’s Open in Minneapolis, I ran Skirk Prospector to go for the combo kill. I did not play Prospector this year, and there was never a situation where I wished it was in the deck. Running more removal is a better plan for dealing with Umezawa’s Jitte than trying to rely on Skirk Prospector to buy time.

Stingscourger is primarily in the deck to provide a game 1 out to Reanimator and Show and Tell. At the same time, it’s really good at bouncing a blocker to get in an early hit with Lackey or setting back your opponent’s tempo. Generally, if you’re not playing against Reanimator or Show and Tell, it gets boarded out.

The most notable exclusions from my list are Tin Street Hooligan / Tuktuk Scrapper / Goblin Tinkerer. I’ve played with all three and found each to have major problems. Tin Street Hooligan’s effect doesn’t trigger when played through an Aether Vial or when Goblin Warchief is in play. Tuktuk Scrapper is very slow and has a difficult time sneaking up on a Batterskull. Goblin Tinkerer can potentially get multiple artifacts over the course of a game or force your opponent to keep bouncing Batterskull. But it is mana hungry, and unless there is a way to give him haste, your opponent can remove it before you destroy any artifacts.

Of the three artifact killers, I find Tuktuk Scrapper to be the most effective. As a four-drop, he is at the top of your Aether Vial, and dropping him in as an instant can be really powerful. Scrapper is also the most consistent. As long as you have one red source, it doesn’t matter what else is on the battlefield. It’s a sad sight when you need to get rid of an Umezawa’s Jitte but your Goblin Warchief is preventing you from triggering your Tin Street Hooligan.

I’ve been asked a few times about the lack Siege-Gang Commander in my decklist. Frankly, Siege-Gang Commander is not a card Goblins should be playing anymore. As a five-drop, Siege-Gang requires that you have a ton of lands or turn your Aether Vial to five and throw it away. Keeping a Vial at four means you can use it on at least five creatures in your deck, but Siege-Gang Commander is the only remotely playable five-drop. The interplay between Goblin Matron and Goblin Ringleader means you often go from having an empty hand to playing three creatures in one turn. Turning your Vial to five, even in the late game, expends a valuable resource just to get a creature that’s subpar.  

A quick note on the lands. Rishadan Port deserves mention because it’s one of the only cards played in Legacy that can deal with basic lands. In conjunction with Wasteland and Aether Vial, you can keep the board almost totally empty for the first few turns while still ramping up using Vial.

I’m comfortable with the cards I had in my sideboard, but if I had to change something, I would add more anti-combo cards.

My artifact removal was entirely based on Wear // Tear. Wear // Tear is a great card, and I would consider going up to a full set in the sideboard. The truth is that artifacts tend not to wreck Goblins as much as enchantments do. Humility, Moat, and the combination of Energy Field plus Rest in Peace are all game-ending effects. In the past, Disenchant commonly filled this spot, but Wear // Tear is always easier to cast than Disenchant and can create card advantage.

The instant speed of Wear // Tear’s artifact destruction played a role in my finals match against Jake Xu. I kept my mana open in case Jake played two Lion’s Eye Diamonds or made a mistake. Jake was a nice guy, but his sequence error gave me a window to Shatter his Lion’s Eye Diamond before he was ready to activate it. It was a lucky sequence of events for me and playing the Goblin Matron would have helped my clock, but I’ve learned to fear double LED turns from Storm decks.

Ethersworn Canonist is a reliable card. Like Thalia, it’s a Human, so you can play both using the same Cavern of Souls. Against combo, running your first Cavern on Humans prevents a random Force of Will from ruining your sideboard plan. Canonist prevents combo players from casting a bunch of cantrips to try to dig for an answer or set up for one big turn. The downside of Canonist is that it’s much easier for your opponent to remove it during your end step, cast an instant or two, and then combo off on their turn.

Ethersworn Canonist is also responsible for my favorite play of the tournament. My opponent was playing Omni-Tell, he had four islands in play, and I had an Aether Vial on two. During his main phase, he cast Gitaxian Probe to check and see if it was safe to Show and Tell (fearing I had Angel of Despair or Oblivion Ring). In response, I Vialed in Canonist and effectively ended his turn. In a deck with a clock as strong as Goblins’, you really only need to waste combo’s time for one or two turns before they’re dead.

Pithing Needle is a universally useful card, but I found it strongest against Sensei’s Divining Top in U/W decks. U/W Miracles relies heavily on Terminus, but Pithing Needle on Top makes it way harder for them to set up a miracle and really limits their choice in card quality. For the most part, Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Counterbalance aren’t that scary for Goblins as long as your opponent can’t land a Terminus.

Pyrokinesis is another one of those cards that seems to only appear in Goblins lists. I used it mainly against Merfolk, but it’s backbreaking against Combo Elves as well. Trading two cards and no mana for two to four of your opponent’s creatures is an incredible way to pick up tempo and card advantage. The Goblins mirror match often comes down to two things: who can destroy their opponent’s first Aether Vial and who draws Pyrokinesis. Everything else is just building to those moments.

Rest in Peace is super useful midrange graveyard hate. Against a deck like Punishing Fire Jund, it deals with ten-to-twelve cards in one shot. Even if they Abrupt Decay it, the triggered ability leaves them way behind. Against Goblins, Punishing Fire is totally reasonable when being played as a two-mana Shock, but without being able to recur it, Jund is in rough shape. Keep in mind that Rest in Peace is not the best answer to Reanimator or Dredge since you rarely get a turn 2 on the draw against them. Surgical Extraction or Tormod’s Crypt can be a bit more effective in those matchups.

Given time to get to the mid/late game, Goblins typically beats fair decks and control by drawing a million cards and ruining math with haste. Combo is a weak spot. Canonist and Thalia may keep your opponent from going off, but getting to two mana can be a monumental task against combo decks. Being comboed out on turn 1 with a Thalia in your hand is demoralizing (it happened to me at least twice). The miser’s Mindbreak Trap can potentially help this, but it’s not there to be reliable. Attacking their lands with Wasteland and Rishadan Port is also not a reliable strategy, but sometimes you only need to keep them off of one more land.  

The truth is the best plan against combo is to hope they sideboard in too much removal. Often ANT will bring in four-to-six pieces of removal or bounce at the expense of combo pieces and draw effects. This will slow them down by a turn or two, giving you a window to attack with Goblin Lackey and ramp into extra damage, which limits their ability to draw cards with Ad Nauseam. If they slow down a turn, your Wastelands and Ports become more useful as well. High Tide based Storm is a bit of an easier matchup because they don’t usually combo on turn 2 and you can make your anti-combo creatures uncounterable.

Reanimator and Omni-Tell are trouble. The sideboard cards I ran aren’t terribly useful, and both decks are capable of turn 1 combos. There are more specific sideboard options, like Angel of Despair and Oblivion Ring, if you feel the metagame is moving in that direction, but if that is the case be prepared for a hard fight.

In all cases Goblin Lackey is critical against combo because it puts pressure on them and with a good hand can become lethal very early. If all you have is Thalia and Canonist without Lackey, your opponent will usually have enough time to set up a combo and find removal. Pressure is the name of the game.

Some players think Legacy is a format where the person willing to spend the most money is going to dominate the tournament. Goblins is a deck that is often underestimated, but frequently its greatest strength is catching opponents off guard.

Kenny Dungar