Magical Hack – Goblin Lore

Read Sean McKeown every Friday... at StarCityGames.com!Friday, February 29th – The Goblin tribe in modern Extended is an unusual beast. Recent printings have given Goblin players new tools if they want to use them… but change is always a contentious thing for some, and thus we see decklists with numbers like “1x Frogtosser Banneret” or “2x Frogtosser Banneret.” People like what they are comfortable with, and tend to not respond well to change… even changes for the better.

The Goblin tribe in modern Extended is an unusual beast. Recent printings have given Goblin players new tools if they want to use them… but change is always a contentious thing for some, and thus we see decklists with numbers like “1x Frogtosser Banneret” or “2x Frogtosser Banneret.” People like what they are comfortable with, and tend to not respond well to change… even changes for the better, sometimes. For a deck that wasn’t even on anyone’s radar at the start of the PTQ season, save perhaps for those irrepressible diehards who were just going to play Goblins whether it was any good or not, it’s suddenly rocketed up onto everyone’s metagame radar as something to really pay attention to.

The reasons for that are somewhat simple, though I shall try not to oversimplify to the point of uselessness. In a world where the best decks in the format are adept at answering the traditional aggressive swarms of creatures with Counterbalance lockdowns or just weather the early storm and play bigger monsters and gain life too, finding a good aggressive deck is hard to do… but the Goblin tribe is surprisingly resilient, able to solve practically any problem by just throwing more Goblins at it. They combine speed, card advantage and redundancy in a way usually not seen in aggressive decks, allowing it to almost play as a beatdown-based combo deck, as you’ll note if you’ve ever seen the ridiculous Warchief into multiple Piledrivers play that can swiftly drop a player from twenty to dead in an eyeblink of time.

We have focused somewhat narrowly on the Goblin tribe in the past two months, putting the spotlight on this deck at the very beginning of its growth in the metagame and walking through some of the changes that come with the addition of Morningtide. The plan for today, then, is to focus entirely upon the Goblin tribe… providing a primer on the deck, both in its design and its implementation… so that from here on out we can just lay off the Goblins and talk about the Extended format as a whole.

… Well, maybe we’ll lay off the Goblins. It’s an idea, not a promise.

Goblins, n.
Plural of Goblin, a green-skinned and idiotic creature of the highland warrens of Dominaria. “Years of attempts have brought the goblins no closer to growing a sausage tree.”

Goblins, v.
The act of throwing Goblins at the opponent regardless of the situation, to defeat a rational opponent with often-irrational creatures. “Nice deck. Goblins you.”

Assembling the Deck —

Some portions of the Goblin deck are obvious and design themselves. The resilience of the deck comes from the ability of Goblin Ringleader to recruit new friends to the party; the consistency of the deck comes partially from the existence of generally interchangeable parts, but also due to the good work of both Goblin Ringleader and Goblin Matron finding more cards or the exact right card for the situation at hand. Experience playing with the deck will teach you what is important and where you can shave the numbers, but the following is generally accepted as absolutely inviolate: altering this core construction takes away from the power, resilience and consistency of the Goblin deck to always do what it wants to do, over and over and over.

4 Goblin Warchief
4 Goblin Ringleader
4 Goblin Matron
4 Skirk Prospector

The first is obvious. Goblin Warchief is clearly the addition from Scourge that pushed the deck over the top, as he is effectively like a Goblin Time Walk each and every turn he is allowed to live. Instead of casting spells today… and by the way, he makes those cheaper… then having to wait to attack tomorrow, you get instant gratification on each and every Goblin played on the table. His inclusion is non-negotiable, for anyone who doesn’t want to be openly mocked and ridiculed. You would play five if you didn’t think the judge would notice you had something up your sleeve.

Goblin Ringleader and Goblin Matron are likewise inviolate; if the Warchief is the man that allows you to finish comboing off, cutting costs and granting everything Haste so you can finish the game right now instead of next turn, then these two are the enablers that allow you to begin comboing in the first place. Ringleaders get on average two new friends to the party, and can often recruit three or even four anonymous idiots off the top of the deck… the kind of rough treatment that most decks can’t easily survive, given that you got four fresh bodies and a hasty 2/2. Goblin Matron is effectively a better Demonic Tutor for the Goblin tribe; sure, she’s limited to Goblin spells only, but she provides a body alongside this effect, which often costs 2 or even just 1 mana. End-games of Warchief into quad Matron plus a Piledriver are messily lethal and only require two cards: a Warchief, and a Matron. Well, two cards and enough mana and/or time… but it is because of this potential that the Goblin deck is a dangerous opponent, able to bounce back from a wide array of disruptive efforts to stall their game-plan.

Skirk Prospector is the one that is hardest to understand as an inviolate number you just don’t change; it is only in context of everything else that is going on that this makes the most sense. This is the deck’s Prosperous Bloom, letting you ‘combo’ by trading resources of one type for resources of another: dead creatures equals mana. Fortunately the Goblin tribe has a lot of creatures it doesn’t mind throwing under a bus when the time is right, to get the explosion of mana it needs to end the game right now. Card advantage is not quite as important as dead opponent advantage, and Skirk Prospector is the combo enabler that allows the deck to convert spare Goblins into a jump ahead in the time-advantage department to advance to the Floresian “stage three end-game” where the right Goblins crash into the red zone to remove the last remaining life-points in one frenetic swing. Prospectors also enable Gatling-gun action with Goblin Sharpshooter and can sneak the last few needed damage out with Siege-Gang Commander, because it doesn’t matter if you sacrifice your last Goblin, if your opponent is dead.

In addition to these Goblins, people think long and hard before digging into the slots generally warranted to these Goblins:

Mogg Fanatic
Gempalm Incinerator
Goblin Piledriver

Mogg Fanatic is a valuable one-drop in a deck that otherwise tends to focus more on the two- and three-mana stars of its tribe, and is one of the most effective one-power one-mana beatdown creatures ever printed. Considering that the deck tends to include just mana sources and Goblins, and thus interacts very little at Instant speed at least on the face of things, Mogg Fanatic is important as another way to respond to the opponent’s plays on their own turn… as you’ll note the first time your opponent blunders and doesn’t kill your Fanatic before sending a Blistering Firecat pointed your way in the Red Zone. It also serves very nicely in the early-beatdown role, helping to provide consistent pressure in the early game… and throws a little bit of splash damage at Bridge from Below, making the Dredge matchup more passable than most decks tend to have for game one.

Gempalm Incinerator breaks that “no Instants” rule right in half, and does so by providing a removal spell that can frequently scale big enough to kill offending copies of Tarmogoyf or Doran the Siege Tower. This removal spell also says “cannot be countered” and “draw a card”, so even if it takes a little work through the judicious application of Goblins to the board beforehand to get it working, the benefits for doing so are high and hey, that’s the kind of Goblin-think we were all about anyway. When you don’t need a removal spell, it’s still not a dead card… as-printed he’s a 2/1 Goblin for 3, and thus can attack like any other Goblin instead of crap up your draw against an Enduring Ideal deck, for example.

And Goblin Piledriver… this is a Goblin that does not attack like any other Goblin. Where the rest of your Goblins swing for 1 or 2 at a time and even a critical mass of one- and two-power idiots can swarm down the opponent in remarkable time, connecting with a Piledriver to the opponent’s face effectively gives each attacking Goblin +2/+0 and thus swinging with Piledrivers are the ‘combo kill’ motion very frequently that knocks the opponent down for good. Just because you Tutor for these with Goblin Matron at least as frequently as you actually play one out of your hand doesn’t mean you should skimp on these, even though you can. You also can concede to your opponent at any time, but frequently don’t because it would be the wrong play.

Presuming these truths to be self-evident, we have now locked in 28 slots in our Goblin deck with things that are very healthy to have four copies of. From there the exact composition of the deck starts to blur a little more; you can finagle with these last few and find you still have a reasonable deck, even if you make grave errors like removing your one Goblin Sharpshooter from the list entirely.

Goblin Sharpshooter
Siege-Gang Commander
Mogg War Marshal
Frogtosser Banneret
Goblin Pyromancer
Goblin Sledder
Earwig Squad
Goblin King
Mad Auntie
Wort, Boggart Auntie
Sensation Gorger

And the Goblin spells:
Fodder Launch
Nameless Inversion
Warren Weirding
Boggart Shenanigans

Goblin Sharpshooter and Siege-Gang Commander are the non-attack-phase combo pieces, and have a variety of amazing applications across numerous matchups that more or less require their inclusion at least as a one-of that we very effectively reach 30 slots, not 28, before we try and find room for the rest… and there is no shame, either, in having more than one of either, as they are in fact excellent.

Mogg War Marshal and Frogtosser Banneret are the two new additions… well, relatively speaking of course, compared to the Goblins from Onslaught block… who happen to fight a lot for the same space. Mogg War Marshal is effectively an army in a box, albeit a small army of 1/1 creatures. It has excellent synergy with Skirk Prospector, being effectively a Goblin Dark Ritual with a Warchief and Prospector out, as well as synergy with the critical Incinerators and Piledrivers that we spoke so lovingly about above. Frogtosser Banneret fights with War Marshal mostly because of their comparable size and cost… when we pay attention to mana-curve issues we note that we can only afford so many two-mana 1/1s, regardless of how special they can be… and they are often conflated with each other because War Marshal + Prospector can look an awful lot like the cost-reducing powers of the Banneret.

One of these two is resilient to removal and provides a second body on the table for Piledrivers and Incinerators; the other does a surprisingly passable Warchief impersonation, where the most damning words I hear spoken about him are “he doesn’t give everybody Haste”. Frogtosser Banneret gives you a critical mass of cost-reducing spells, avoiding the expensive and clunky draws you will sometimes see if you draw too much high-end and not enough quick stuff and “only” have four Warchiefs. For me at least it isn’t close… I favor zero of the former, and four of the latter… but as a new card, Frogtosser Banneret is taking time to be fully adopted into the Goblin tribe.

Goblin Pyromancer, Sparksmith and Goblin Sledder are “sometimes” inclusions, throwbacks to Onslaught Block Constructed decks that put these Goblins to good use. Sledder is effectively outdated by Mogg Fanatic, as about the only truly relevant thing he does is let you sacrifice a Goblin on demand at no cost and sometimes pumps the toughness on a Piledriver so that it can live to fight another day. Sparksmith is still a board-dominating nightmare, but room is critical and the best arguments for playing Sparksmith all seem to work with the notion of playing him as a four-of; as a Tutor target, if we wanted a use of a Sparksmith why wouldn’t we get an Incinerator instead, draw a card, and not take a bunch of damage? Or why wouldn’t we get a Sharpshooter and cause some real mayhem? Largely he has fallen out of use, though he does still show up from time to time. Pyromancer is a “silver bullet” tutor target that allows you to combo-kill the opponent seemingly out of nowhere, even moreso than an explosive Piledriver draw; however, this function is largely unnecessary and easily covered in utility by the inclusion of Piledriver himself. Additionally, the “need to race you before you kill me” aspect is more commonly found against non-creature decks, where the next new inclusion to the list truly shines…

Earwig Squad. Some have gone so far as to say that this is my pet card, and dismiss him out of hand. While it is true that he is awfully hard to deploy against another aggressive deck… for the most part you’ll want to pay full price for him, unless you’ve somehow been given an avenue to cast him in the first few turns, because you might have to make some bad attacks to turn Prowl on otherwise… it is absolutely trivial to deploy against non-aggressive decks, and a vicious beating while he is at it. Combining Phyrexian Negator size on a Goblin with a significant disruptive effect, this is an excellent catch-all tool for combating any deck that wants to play unfairly… and, after sideboarding, “playing multiple copies of Engineered Plague” counts as ‘playing unfairly’. He strips tools from the opponent’s deck, often in lethal fashion against the least-fair decks around, provides near-perfect information as to the contents of your opponent’s hand… he even finishes you off right after a backrub if you pay the Prowl cost. Or so I’m told.

There are times when you want four of this guy after sideboarding. Respect him accordingly, and give him the sideboard slots he needs. Personally I split these two main and two sideboard at the moment, to allow me to have a small but nonzero chance of drawing him more frequently when I want him game one but more importantly to allow me access to all the tools I really want in my sideboard without spilling over the fifteen-card limit.

Goblin King and Mad Auntie are reasonably interchangeable; Goblin King grants an evasion ability that is occasionally relevant or even maybe something you can take advantage of, while Mad Auntie can maybe keep your Piledriver alive no matter what it runs up against in the Red Zone. Neither is a necessity, but they do have their uses.

Wort and Sensation Gorger both have one critical problem in my book, the latter of which is even worse due to being uncontrollable: they require you to give the opponent an additional turn before they begin to work their mojo. Wort gets back a spent Goblin card, which is fine… but she takes a turn to do it, and that’s not fine, Goblins are impatient and don’t like to wait and neither should you when you are playing their deck. Sensation Gorger has that exact same sin as a black mark against it, and worse yet, you get to that upkeep and it might just do nothing. That… that is unforgivable.

For the spells… well. Fodder Launch is generally frowned upon as being awfully clunky, while Nameless Inversion is too limited; it doesn’t even really answer much in the way of problems that an Incinerator wouldn’t do better. Tarfire is good at face value but again runs into the problem of not really being special, despite being an Instant… if you want to do 2 to your opponent’s face, fire across a hasty Goblin; if you want to deal damage to the opponent’s creature, Incinerator does it better and draws a card.

I do however find Warren Weirding different enough from the other removal spells that it is worthy of consideration. Weirding can take down an Akroma or just be the most economically savvy solution for the job, when that Tarmogoyf is just too big to contain with the number of Goblins you have in play. Boggart Shenanigans is like a poor man’s Sharpshooter, and about the only thing you can really give it credit for is that it works around an Engineered Plague. That might even be good enough for some, but given the option to tutor up a Shenanigans or find an Earwig Squad to deploy against an opponent bearing Plagues, I don’t reach for the goofy Enchantment.

For non-Goblins, we don’t usually see many inclusions besides lands and Chrome Mox. Some diehards favor Dark Confidant in their Goblin deck; I posit that these slots are better spent on Goblin spells, as the Goblin card-advantage engine works so well together and only does so as long as you don’t waste space diluting the deck with non-Goblin cards. Dark Confidant is still a pretty vulnerable creature to drop on the table and rely on, so I don’t tend to agree with any reasoning that suggests a Goblin be cut from the deck to find room for this particular Human Wizard under the concept that it strengthens the deck’s advantage-growing engines. It doesn’t, so don’t try and make me believe otherwise.

Two other, more frequent additions are Blood Moon and Patriarch’s Bidding. Blood Moon is why Goblin King earns the star, above… cute tricks turn any nonbasic land not just useless into a liability, as whatever you have managed to put into play now cannot block. Most of the arguments I hear for Blood Moon, however, do not answer its detractors… being a non-Goblin, an obvious sin, and worse yet not even attacking or blocking. Clearly Magus of the Moon is worse at the Blood Moon job since it is more readily taken off the table, and thus does the Blood Moon job worse… but all the decks where Goblins could gain an advantage by crippling a nonbasic-heavy manabase, in my experience are matches where you don’t need to cripple their mana-base to win and can just apply other Goblins correctly to the job. Thus I see this as a clear folly in the main-deck when it can be such an obvious liability… regardless of the counter-argument of “you can stick it on a Chrome Mox”, because that is true of basically any nonland card in the deck… especially in a world where Red beatdown and burn decks are starting to re-emerge.

Patriarch’s Bidding, however, is both special and worthy of serious consideration for inclusion. If Goblins are designed to include some combo-kill potential, by means of their self-sacrificing nature, then Patriarch’s Bidding abuses that self-sacrificing nature to massively amplify their combo potential. Sharpshooters suddenly deal double-digits damage in a single turn, blowing the opponent out of the water; just when the opponent thought they had you dead to rights with their mass-removal spell, you come out of nowhere and literally kill them.

Personally, I advocate excising it from my decklist, as again I am heavily biased against any card that doesn’t count as a Goblin. I have found the deck already possesses the critical mass of combinatory power to wipe the opponent off the map without needing a non-Goblin sorcery to do it, and diluting the deck of its maximum Goblin content just starts to hamper its overall peak efficiency. More importantly, my experiences have taught me that a single Ringleader is all you need to reverse an opponent’s mass removal spell, because conventional card advantage is not the terms in which this deck operates.

The manabase is less contentious, with the key questions being “how much Black do I want to support” and “how many colorless Lands can I afford to have.” The more Bannerets you add to your deck, the less you can really abide having too many colorless lands; the more double-Black stuff you have in your deck, the further you have to stretch to make the mana work, meaning multiple Blood Crypts and then starting to look at Sulfurous Spring and Graven Cairns somewhat seriously… the latter of which especially can be a slightly-finicky Red source that happens to produce double-Black off a single land. You want at least some Fetchlands to thin future land draws and thus potentially bulk up your Ringleaders by a perhaps-meaningful albeit small percentage, they have proven time and again to be worth their slight loss of life in many a Red deck even when they just search up basic Mountain.

The deck requires between 22 and 25 mana-sources, though the number can trend towards the lower end there if you start having a critical mass of Warchief effects by leaning on your Frogtosser Bannerets. It can generally afford as many as four colorless lands, one of which is often regarded as worth spending on Pendelhaven because of its ability to protect one-toughness Goblins like Sharpshooter from the predations of Grim Lavamancers and Mogg Fanatics.

Personally I have reversed my opinion on this split and now have zero copies of Pendelhaven, as I am now a fan of the full four copies of Mutavault. I have found them to be most excellent in a world that aims to be better-prepared for the Goblin tribe. Against Next Level Blue, I had one downright ludicrous game in which I cast exactly one spell in the first eight turns and forced my opponent into inaction on his turn because tapping mana threatened to leave me windows to drop Goblins he could not control… and one Mogg Fanatic plus two Mutavaults is a surprisingly effective clock against dedicated control decks such as that, as he was at one life when he stabilized on that eighth turn. Having used Pendelhaven far less frequently than I have Mutavault, of late, I believe the full four slots should be dedicated to Mutavault and thus Pendelhaven removed from the list of lands as you really start to hurt for colored mana after that. Chrome Mox is another automatic four-of, and Auntie’s Hovel is literally free to add at no cost or pain to the mana-base… from there you just have to find the right mix for you of basic Mountains, fetchlands, and a Blood Crypt or two to get Black mana on demand out of those fetchlands.

Sideboarding is anyone’s game, because again you can make a lot of decisions with where you want to craft yours. There is a lot of overlap between some cards, like Leyline of the Void, Extirpate, Offalsnout and Tormod’s Crypt, and while I believe there are right and wrong sides to each of those arguments I find it is hard to go wrong so long as you pack the right quantity of stuff, even if I personally feel there is a right card for those selections. Let us look now at my example decklist, which has been evolving one or two cards at a time for several weeks now:

To have an effective primer on how to play the deck, you need to know what to play it against. Overall it is an aggressive deck that aims to put on lethal pressure very quickly, as you would expect of an aggressive deck, but also one that morphs to accept the controlling role against other beatdown decks because it is the deck with tutoring and card advantage… you shouldn’t aim to make it a straight race, because your “pure race” ability is reliant on the survival of Goblin Piledriver More curious still is how it sometimes mutates into a Goblin-based combo deck, such as when your opponent plays down Form of the Dragon but has not yet found Solitary Confinement, as the entire point of the game now is to deal five damage outside of the attack phase.

This isn’t the “stock” Goblins list, by far at this point… but as time goes on I’ve found more and more people agreeing with things here and hewing closer to its tenets, such as through their adoption of Earwig Squad and Frogtosser Banneret. There are worse base decks you can start with, either for testing against Goblins or testing with Goblins, so we will use this as the “worst case scenario” as this is the Goblin deck packing the most anti-combo disruption and best at harassing opponents that are reliant on countermagic to blunt your offensive.

We will examine the play philosophy and sideboarding shift of the following commonly-seen archetypes:

1. Goblins Mirror
2. Mono-Red Burn
3. Red Deck Wins (R/g with Tarmogoyf) / Domain Zoo
4. Affinity
5. Doran Rock
6. Death Cloud
7. Enduring Ideal
8. Dredge
9. Next Level Blue / Previous Level Blue
10. R/G Loam

1. The Goblins Mirror.

This is about the strangest sort of race you will ever have to wrap your head around… and basically the tempo and card-advantage rules are very, very fluid. The goal is basically to be the one who gets to do everything first… and often this means controlling your opponent’s Warchiefs, and picking the card advantage fight with your own Ringleaders. This is an intricate dance for position… except, of course, when it is not, and one player is just battering the other with an early aggressive start that lets them more or less ignore the card-advantage fights that come up in the mirror to try and take advantage of an early lead won with fast Piledrivers.

For playing the matchup, you need to be wary of exposing yourself to bad situations, like getting hit with a Piledriver or your opponent successfully activating a Sharpshooter in your general direction. You also need to not be too much of a wimp, as your path to victory is generally the attack phase and there is a grinding game of attrition that is made somewhat easier by knocking your opponent’s life total down.

Sideboarding: Well, we don’t have any real magic bullets to bring in against the mirror, but we do have some very specific cards we want to take out. Earwig Squad is all but useless in the mirror, as it should by all rights be impossible to land at a time when it won’t cost you more than it is worth to get a Prowl off, and its considerable size is still not actually special enough that it’s worth getting double-Black for. Warren Weirding’s best use in the mirror is generally targeting yourself, so it gets sided out… alternately, I sideboard out a Chrome Mox on the draw and keep it in on the play, bringing in the one Goblin King and either two or three copies of Cabal Therapy out of the sideboard depending on how many slots I have to fill. I like being on the draw and having three copies of Therapy… but that is probably because it means I won the last game, more than anything else. The Therapies are there to pick off Matroned cards or things revealed with Ringleader, thus putting a damper on the opponent’s explosive potential to use these best sources of advantage. Therapy is not intended as a turn-one play here, as you really want to get something out of their hand with each and every cast and thus it is worth waiting a little for in the first few turns of the game… but there are worse things you can do than blindly naming Warchief turn one, and I’m generally content to Therapy naming Ringleader the turn before they would be able to cast one.

2. Mono-Red Burn.

This is a tricky one… but mostly because they are trying to be so non-interactive. If you can force them to interact, they can’t kill your creatures and burn you out from 20, so the trick to this matchup is two-fold: one, never take a damage you don’t have to, so never ever is it worth fetching that Blood Crypt untapped because the life will matter and should be the difference between winning and losing, and two, make them care. Card advantage is wonderful but Piledrivers and Warchiefs earn burn spells before they die to them, so present as many opportunities as possible to put these cards into play. And yes, when I say never take a damage you don’t have to, chump-blocking a Keldon Marauders when you are at 19 is the right play, so long as it isn’t a Warchief or Piledriver doing the chumping… we want those to earn real burn spells, and not blocking with them further signals that they have to burn them. Even at that, I’ve blocked a Marauders with a Piledriver at 19, and didn’t bat an eyelash at it… any opportunity to have to make them deal damage to a creature instead of to you is an opportunity well worth taking.

Sideboarding: -2 Earwig Squad, -1 Warren Weirding, -2 Gempalm Incinerator; +4 Cabal Therapy, +1 Goblin King. After sideboarding, be aware of the fact that the opponent may have Pyroclasm, so budget your resources accordingly. Cabal Therapy around turn three or so can be absolutely devastating, especially if you have a decent read from watching your opponent’s plays as to what they might have in their hand, but this is rather hard since for the most part the cards are completely interchangeable. With a little luck and careful thought about what they might have in hand, you can at least nab something, then flash it back to mop up the rest… and if you don’t have a ‘read’, just name Shrapnel Blast because it’s the thing you least want them to keep. Again, make them direct their burn at your creatures instead of your face and you have already won, because they can’t do that and take you from 20.

3. Red Deck Wins / Domain Zoo

These two get lumped together mostly because they share Kird Ape, Grim Lavamancer and Tarmogoyf, though after that things get sketchy. Against both you want to use Mogg Fanatic to keep Grim Lavamancer off the table, as that guy will mess with your ability to do anything, but after that… keeping a Mogg Fanatic alive is much more important against Red Deck Wins, for example, to ward off Blistering Firecats, while against the Domain Zoo decks you want to use Mogg Fanatic as a sorcery that kills Dark Confidant if you don’t have another especially great use for it. As a rule they will get ahead early but if you consider yourself the control deck and minimize the impact of their creatures you will be able to catch up in the mid- to late-game and “win the race” despite being at an early deficit and them having more player-targeting burn than you do. Domain Zoo can be even more dangerous because of cards like Tribal Flames and Gaea’s Might, so keep in mind that your life total in chunks of five is how close you are to dead and plan your blocks accordingly.

Each of these becomes a lot more straightforward on the play than on the draw, as you would imagine, but you can’t treat the game as a race because then you die. Goblins are terrible at blocking, but that is what you have to do, and worse yet I’ve even gone to the liberty of making the deck even worse at blocking by removing the War Marshals. Still, blocking is what you have to do even if it’s just losing a goblin to not get hit with a five-power Tarmogoyf for a turn, so card advantage is key… it’s much better to do that with a Goblin Matron than with anything else.

Sideboarding: -1 Earwig Squad, +1 Goblin King. You aren’t specifically disadvantaged against any of the Red decks, and thus you do not really need a sideboard card against them… but it is kind of nice to lose a clunky card for a card that may just end the game in surprising fashion if your opponent isn’t paying attention, as you Mountainwalk your way back from behind to claim victory. You are still the control deck, so don’t forget it.

4. Affinity

Game 1 you are at a disadvantage, but you can do a few things to keep yourself around as you work on their board and maybe succeed at getting a Sharpshooter active, which is pretty devastating for them. Early Arcbound Ravagers hate Gempalm Incinerators, as even when it’s right to keep the Ravager around that significantly stunts their development for stuff like Myr Enforcer and Cranial Plating. Your mission should you choose to accept it is to keep the Ravager from eating whatever it wants in a truly profitable fashion, and try and make sure you never actually get hit by anything with a Cranial Plating on it. Their goal is likely going to be growing a huge Ravager and transferring the counters to an Ornithopter or Blinkmoth Nexus; if you have the means to stop that, by all means do try and make that what the game is being fought over. You are not a game-one favorite but you can still batter them if they stumble, and fighting over their Ravager to prevent a flier from growing to huge proportions is a critical way to make them stumble.

Sideboarding: -2 Earwig Squad, -1 Warren Weirding, -1 Goblin Ringleader, +4 Shattering Spree. Welcome to Game 2, the game where they have to face not just Ancient Grudge like maybe they are expecting… after all, it’s not uncommon out of Goblin decks… but Shattering Spree. Your goal is to demolish their early development with Shattering Spree, as in “be 100% willing to blow up their first two Lands if you can”, as that early tempo advantage can be absolutely killer… and if possible you want to strand Thoughtcasts in their hand to exacerbate the fact that they only play so very few lands, two of which you just dropped in the grumper. More importantly perhaps is that some of them aim to deploy Engineered Plague which will be a significant problem, so Shattering two lands before they can get a third mana for the Plague can be game over.

If you draw Shattering Spree in multiples, it’s like game over. Not only are you blowing up their first two lands, leaving them a small threat in play, but you’re also blowing up whatever few lands they managed to cobble together after the fact, and cleaning up those threats too. Spree them as hard as you can as fast as you can, even if you have to imprint valuable things on your Chrome Mox or sacrifice goblins to Prospector in order to do it. They are too dangerous if you let them get to three mana, as either Engineered Plague or a recent trend towards Fatal Frenzy should point out adequately.

5. Doran Rock

Doran Rock is one of the matchups I’m very happy to see, as most of my reasoning behind choosing Goblins in the first place was based on the fact that it is the one big aggressive deck you can choose that actually does well against the Rock-type decks. Thankfully here you are the merciless aggressor… you want to KO them as fast as you can and send in swarms of goblins just to get some damage across even if none of their blockers will die… well, except for whatever blocks your Piledrivers, because those kill anything in their way. Your method of dispatching them is to control their board development with Mogg Fanatic or even getting an active Sharpshooter to control Dark Confidant, though you do really want a Mogg against their Birds of Paradise if they have one and shouldn’t let Bob live a turn to maybe get Sharpshooter active if you can Fanatic him now. You just want to keep the way clear and the Goblins coming, so push everything out of your way with your creature removal and hit them.

Sideboarding: -1 Chrome Mox, +1 Earwig Squad. If you are certain your opponent has Engineered Plagues… which you might grow suspicious of if they don’t guard from showing you how many sideboard cards they have… you might want to deploy the fourth Squad regardless of whether you are on the play or the draw, and might want to reconsider that Chrome Mox and cut some 1/1’s instead. If I suspect I’m going to have to face Plagues, I look at the matchup differently and sideboard -2 Frogtosser Banneret, +2 Earwig Squad, and the goal becomes to Squad them as fast as possible to prevent them from shutting you out of the game with multiple Plagues.

But then, I tend to win Game One and over-compensate in Game Two, with the plan of making a point of deploying the Squad so I have an accurate sideboard read. Usually landing a Squad is a sign of being in good straits anyway, so it’s not like we are throwing away the second game on a fact-finding mission, but if they have no Plagues to bring in then the main-deck configuration is just fine and you don’t need to sideboard even a single card.

6. Death Cloud

This match is pretty simple. They have lots of cards that are bad at controlling Goblins, like Death Cloud, and tons of slow do-nothings. Game one they tend to die mercilessly because they can’t really stop you. That’s that. They may try and contain you, but relentlessly attacking them (with the caveat of remembering they do have mass removal, so you do want to prioritize Ringleaders) will see them dead.

Sideboarding: -2 Gempalm Incinerator, +2 Earwig Squad. As with Rock the name of the game is land an Earwig Squad, but here it will be much, much easier to do because it’s not like they have a considerable early-game defense to stop each and every Goblin from sneaking through. Landing a Squad will prevent them from locking you out of the game with Plagues if they even have them, and tell you what cards they have in hand to play around… and give you five power that can’t be Smothered. They are still weak on defense but now have access to effective mass removal like Damnation, so you don’t want to over-extend and leave yourself nothing for the second wave since you will likely need a second wave. After sideboarding, Mutavaults are an especially precious tool, as they are threats that are very hard for them to destroy with stuff like Damnation… so you may want to think twice about exposing a Mutavault to an early Smother.

7. Enduring Ideal

This one is the odd one. It took me some time to learn how to play against Ideal, mostly because I was having brain farts and hadn’t yet at the time figured out how to effectively combo off against Form of the Dragon… in embarrassing fashion, after the fact. Here is where the game-one Earwig Squads shine, though it’s worth noting that on the play you are generally too fast for them and might just beat them to death with a Warchief/Piledriver draw while their Lotus Bloom is on suspend and all their lands come into play tapped. However, given the opportunity to land an Earwig Squad, you should in fact do so. Your mission should you choose to accept it is to make it so they cannot cast Enduring Ideal and get Form of the Dragon, as it is especially hard for them to cast two different seven-mana spells and once they commit to Ideal they can’t play a Form from their hand. Your mission, then, is to land an Earwig Squad and that is the entirety of the game in a nutshell: your success or failure is largely dependent upon this disruptive Goblin changing the rules about how their deck plays out. This is notably easier, I’ll add, with more than one copy and more importantly with redundant (and cheaper) Warchiefs to make Goblin Matron cost less than a full turn’s worth of mana.

If you can completely remove all copies of Form of the Dragon from their deck, they are either locked out of winning the game (no victory conditions besides maybe decking you) or are reliant on casting a Form before they cast Ideal. If you can completely remove all copies of Solitary Confinement, better still, because you can kill the opponent around a Form but not around Confinement… the trick to that one is you can’t be 100% sure how many copies they have, and casting Confinement out of their hand then following with Ideal is much easier for them to accomplish than Form followed by Ideal. Most will have two Confinements and three Forms, so you can use that information as you see fit to choose your plan… either way, landing an Earwig Squad will necessitate them doing more than just casting Enduring Ideal and winning the game, so that is the new rule of the game: land Squad and you can beat them.

Sideboarding: -4 Gempalm Incinerator, -1 Warren Weirding, -2 Goblin Ringleader; +4 Cabal Therapy, +2 Earwig Squad, +1 Goblin King. The name of the game is the same as before… land a Squad, change the rules of engagement and cut off the simple supposition that “casting Enduring Ideal = Game Win”. Cabal Therapy is much more effective on the third turn than on the first, letting you clear both Burning Wish and Enduring Ideal the turn before they are generally ready to cast it, but cannot be considered 100% effective if they have a Divining Top in play. Your main goal is to land an Earwig Squad, period. You can of course disrupt them with Cabal Therapy and have that be devastating too, but if you successfully Squad their deck you completely change the rules of engagement. The Goblin King is just to race a little better, cutting a four-drop for a surprise three-drop that can perhaps bump that crucial race math up by a turn. It’s nothing special, but so long as it is there it is a tool that you might as well deploy correctly.

8. Dredge

Ah, Dredge. So simple to play against, because we both want to do the same thing every game. With eight one-drop accelerants and the ability to contain either Akroma or Golgari Grave-Troll with Warren Weirding, this is actually a much less scary matchup than it is for most people facing Dredge. Presuming for some reason you know they are Dredge game one, mulligan to turn-one self-sacrificing creatures and apply pressure via the attack phase and for the most part they will fall apart from there even when their game-plan is working. Unfortunately you won’t always know that your opponent is playing Dredge and many hands without a one-drop are quite keep-able, so game one can be spotty as you end up caught by surprise.

Sideboarding: -4 Gempalm Incinerator, -4 Goblin Ringleader, -1 Siege-Gang Commander; +4 Tormod’s Crypt, +2 Earwig Squad, +3 Shattering Spree. This is generally over-sideboarding, but you don’t want to walk into the games where it is not with extra useless Goblins in hand and no Shattering Sprees if you happen to want one for their Pithing Needle or Chalice of the Void. To your advantage goes the fact that they likely aren’t sure whether you are packing Crypts, Leylines, Offalsnouts or Extirpates, as there is plenty of debate on these salient points even among people playing all the same deck. Offalsnout is useless because it is vulnerable to the exact same cards your Fanatics and Prospectors are, Leyline of the Void, while Leylines very negatively impact your mulligan decisions and are completely negated by a bounce spell targeting them… leaving your two better options as Crypt and Extirpate. Personally I favor Crypt because you don’t have to keep mana up for it, allowing you to play your own game and more importantly deploy your Earwig Squads without getting in the way of your other sideboard card that makes them “play fair”.

Earwig Squad has a lot of fun targets, starting with Dread Return and going to the good Dread Return targets like Akroma or what-not. Personally I find you cannot advocate a single overarching plan because everything depends on what has already come up with their Dredging, though I would remind you that being a little clever in your application of Squad can go a long way: one game was saved by pulling Bridges from Below when my opponent had me under a Leyline, while another saw my opponent decimated when I pulled the three remaining Narcomoebas and thus ensuring my opponent would need to take another turn to bring back Ichorids before he could actually kill me… a turn it turned out he never actually got to take.

If you successfully Squad them and see neither Pithing Needle nor Chalice, feel free to take the Sprees back out and put more Goblins back in. It’s one thing to be careful of the whole hate/counter-hate interplay that can be used to stop your sideboard cards from being effective, and another to wastefully hurt your pure racing ability by having cards you now know to be useless.

9. Next Level Blue / Previous Level Blue

This isn’t exactly a “cake-walk” for Goblins, but I have found especially for Next Level Blue they have significant issues with not being able to counter the three- and four-mana spells with the Counterbalances they are reliant upon. Always worth noting is not to just randomly play spells and let your opponent frustrate and pick off spells with Counterbalance; things work better if you can try multiple spells of different costs in the same turn, and when facing Counterbalance-Top it is generally best to lead with a one-drop as countering that may mean they can’t counter anything that follows. Ringleaders will resolve unless targeted with an actual hard counter, which should provide plenty of fodder for breaking through Counterbalance with as needed… and Mutavaults will carry the day if you let them. I’ve found a solid strategy to be playing creatures so long as Counterbalance isn’t established, then refusing to cast anything and leaning on your Mutavaults and whatever is in play to grind your opponent to a more manageable life total. Either way, with correct play the game one matchup favors the Goblins, and riding the situation as is appropriate for the moment will have the most benefits… which includes clamming up and keeping relevant threats in your hand where they will eventually do some good, if you are facing Counterbalance-Top but still have the ability to get across profitably for damage.

Sideboarding: This is another matchup where you can do two things, depending on whether you expect to get hit with Engineered Plague. Against Plagues you want to leverage your Earwig Squads, so generally you want to lead Game Two with -2 Gempalm Incinerator, +2 Earwig Squad and leave it at that. This is generally difficult on them anyway, since Squads are basically immune to Counterbalance and can cut off their long-game survivability by taking things like Miren, Academy Ruins, or Engineered Explosives to counteract their ability to out-grind you over the loooooong game, or just pulling Shackles and making them somehow survive with the rest of their cards. Note that you don’t want to take too many Incinerators out in case they bring in Sower of Temptation, just because it’s better than some otherwise awful card like Threads of Disloyalty that may be junking up their deck.

If it is very clear they do not have Engineered Plagues, you’ll want to cut 1 Earwig Squad and those two Incinerators for three copies of Shattering Spree, which can be used to absolutely decimate Shackles and maybe even their mana-base, all in an effectively uncounterable form. Replicate going on the stack and making copies of spells does not trigger Counterbalance save for the Counterbalance on the actual spell itself, which is especially precious if you know that fact and your opponent does not.

10. R/G Loam

This is a bit of an oddity, that has been having a local resurgence thanks to a team centered around Ty Dobbertson… recently similar concepts have been appearing through independent think tanks, and can make this at least a little bit difficult. Their plan is to abuse Loam and punish you with Devastating Dreams; your plan is to not let them do that. Only one of you will win this clash of wills, but your Earwig Squads are especially effective in the first game at protecting you from such things as you will generally have the time to use them and the ability to push at least some damage across the Red Zone. This is a weird Red on Red card-advantage fight, but Squadding them can be surprisingly effective just to cut out their most dangerous cards like Seismic Assault around which you basically cannot really win. Be mindful to keep lands in hand instead of wasting extra ones in play, and put added value on your Chrome Moxes as you will be needing them later. You are not at the advantage for the first game, overall, but there is plenty you can do to change that over the course of the game itself.

Sideboarding: -3 Gempalm Incinerator, -1 Siege-Gang Commander, -2 Frogtosser Banneret, +4 Cabal Therapy, +2 Earwig Squad. The name of the game now is to constrain their ability to draw and deploy threats, if you cannot constrain the Life from the Loam engine by itself. They can do their worst to you for all you care, so long as you can keep Terravore, Countryside Crusher and Seismic Assault off the table, and the disruption package of Therapy plus Squad is especially good at that. Their game-plan likely hasn’t changed much, though it is possible it now includes Engineered Plague, which is literally incidental as your sideboard plans are good against their main-deck plan and the possibility of facing Engineered Plague out of the sideboard. Previously we saw Solitary Confinement as their sideboard plan of choice as it was more broadly applicable, and that can be controlled in interesting ways with Earwig Squad if, say, you take their only White mana source and kill every Birds of Paradise they play.

As with Game 1, you want to interrupt their ability to stop you from killing them, so control Burning Wish, Seismic Assault and Devastating Dreams and the rest is somewhat academic. This is generally too much to really expect out of Game 1… that’s some overtaxed Earwig Squads!… but in subsequent games you actually possess the proper tools to shut down their most relevant cards. Trying to bring in Crypts just because they are a graveyard deck would dilute your actual plan too much, which is still to attack them mercilessly but now happens to have some disruption thrown in.

They may respect the Crypts anyway, but that’s their loss; you are the beatdown deck, not the control deck, so you want to throw a spanner in the works as far as them blunting your offensive is concerned, not control every possible avenue of play when they vastly out-perform you in the card-drawing department. They can have the clear victory in the potential card advantage department, just don’t give them the extra time to use it and survive and it just won’t matter. Landing Earwig Squad is a great way to make sure they don’t have that kind of time, nor the luxury to go with it… but if you happen to see they have three Loams in their deck, it’s not exactly wasteful to pull it with the Squad and leave them Burning Wish as their only avenue of approach for actually using that advantage… as that leaves their Wishes overtaxed, between getting Loams and getting Devastating Dreams to mess you up with.

It’s not a match I’d be happy to sit down for, but it is certainly a winnable match if you can figure out what matters and learn to focus on only it.

And that is basically everything I’ve learned about Goblins in the last two months, in ten thousand words or less. Hopefully you have found this educational, either in your efforts to Goblins people or perhaps just from learning their perspective on your matchup, to learn for your own purposes how to play against Goblins and focus on what really matters.

P.S.: Goblins you.

Sean McKeown
s_mckeown @ hotmail.com