Magical Hack – Goblins Of The World, Unite!

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With some solid ideas under my belt last week, my mission should I choose to accept it was to learn what to do with the modern Goblin tribe. We are all pretty used to seeing the goblins of Onslaught in action, but these new kids on the block raise a lot of questions and keep yammering about their aunties when we try to peg their role in the scheme of things.

Years of attempts have brought the goblins no closer to growing a sausage tree.

With some solid ideas under my belt last week, my mission should I choose to accept it was to learn what to do with the modern Goblin tribe. We are all pretty used to seeing the goblins of Onslaught in action, but these new kids on the block raise a lot of questions and keep yammering about their aunties when we try to peg their role in the scheme of things. Last week’s review of Morningtide showed us a few Goblins added to the mix that might actually have an impressive effect, and I practically gushed over the opportunity to start playing with Earwig Squad in that particular format. When we last left off, I was putting forward the following design in hopes of getting my feet wet with playtesting Goblins:

Now, this is all pretty easy to understand. Goblins do as goblins do, and we’ve added exactly seven cards from the new set to the deck: a one-of Goblin Edict to tutor up, four lands that happen to attack as Goblins, and two copies of the illustrious Earwig Squad. So seeing how 53 of the other cards basically form the ‘normal’ Goblin deck we should recognize if we stepped back a few years to when this was openly acknowledged as a good choice across multiple formats, or perhaps just ported ourselves back to Legacy and ignored the lack of Lackeys… well, the larger portion of the deck is nothing new under the sun. Goblins are always quirky… never did a horde of 1/1’s do more working together than these Goblins do, what with seventeen of these creatures fitting that illustrious power level (often for more than the industry-standard one mana for that size) and four copies of a card bringing more 1/1’s to the fight! After all, a 1/1 Goblin is a good thing, and sometimes you just have to look at Mogg War Marshal and say, “Needs more cowbell!”

My mission should I choose to accept it… and with looming deadlines, I had little other option really… was to bash these goblins enough to figure out what could change. The deck plays in anything but a straightforward fashion, and prior to Earwig Squad you’d be hard-pressed to find a creature with native power greater than two anywhere near it. Somehow, some way, these Red things add up to twenty, and you can just tell they had to take off their socks and drop their pants en masse just to be able to count that high. Scaly green men are far from smart, but they don’t have to be smart to attack for 20. You, however, do… and because this can take such a complex understanding of how to play the Goblin deck to do right, I hardly felt comfortable taking things out to put in the new Warchief heir, Frogtosser Banneret. Putting in a few new lands into the mana base is easy. Taking out other peoples’ non-Goblin cards, their Blood Moons and Dark Confidants, to just put in more goblins… that, too, is easy. Goblins favor their own, and cutting non-Goblin cards makes your Ringleaders happier and better at what they do.

But to really learn how to do what I wanted to do, I needed to understand not just the goblins we know, but also the ones we don’t know. It’s all well and good to look at this list, see the familiar and say “That’s probably pretty good”. It’s another thing entirely to step away from the comfortable and try and learn with it, so after some significant bashing around with the good Goblins I decided it was time to pick up and play The League of Extraordinary Second Stringers.

4 Auntie’s Hovel
4 Mutavault
4 Bloodstained Mire
4 Mountain
4 Chrome Mox
1 Swamp
1 Blood Crypt
1 Pendelhaven

4 Goblin Matron
4 Goblin Warchief
4 Goblin Ringleader
4 Goblin Piledriver
4 Mogg Fanatic
4 Skirk Prospector
4 Frogtosser Banneret
4 Earwig Squad
4 Gempalm Incinerator
1 Boggart Mob

The idea was not to get the exact same cards as the Goblin deck we knew we wanted, but instead to try and see how good the Banneret and Earwig Squad could be. While I was being silly, hey, why not throw in a Boggart Mob and see what happens? The idea wasn’t to build a good deck… the idea was to learn from its mistakes, and to do that we needed to bash some stacks of cardboard into each other and see what happened. Pretty clearly, things have to be going really right for Boggart Mob to be significant… he screams ‘win more,’ instead of just being an obvious source of additional resources that you can use to replace the slain goblins crushed at the feet of such Tarmogoyfs and Siege Towers as your opponent controls. If I wanted to search for him at all, ever, I wanted to find out now. Mostly though I wanted to try running the full four Bannerets and see what gelled, as we try and figure out how to build the best Goblin deck. I also wanted to see what a build with four Earwig Squads felt like, as I am pretty sure I want to at least have access to four Squads after sideboarding, and thus an idea of what post-sideboard game-plans would feel like so I could sense if that felt right. While I was at it, I took the Warren Weirding out, to get an idea of how critical it was to the deck by having to suffer its absence. Likewise I cut the Goblin Sharpshooter not because it’s not a good card but because it’s too good of a card… I wanted to learn how these guys win, and that wasn’t going to happen as much as I’d like if I had the good old Sharpshooter to lean on. If Arcbound Ravager is Affinity’s fairy godmother, come to rescue you from any number of SNAFUs that by all rights should have lost you the game, Sharpshooter is the same thing for the Goblin tribe. No matter how bad your position, or even how bad the rest of the contents of your deck are, Fairy Godmother comes with her cobbled-together Gatling gun and takes on the opponent’s life total far too readily to learn from our mistakes.

The worst thing was that I couldn’t really tell I was playing a substandard Goblin deck. That Boggart Mob hides quite well when you don’t want to see him, and there are a lot of ways to assemble a successful turn 2 Prowl of your Earwig Squad. Earwig Squad is big. No really, bigger than that. He’s approximately Negator-sized and does something downright meaningful even against ‘fair’ matchups that aren’t immediately crippled by getting Capped. Everyone who’s looking at him as a jumbled mix of things that don’t make sense or work terribly well together needs to wake up and catch the news: this thing is for real. Huge size for low cost is a critical thing in Extended, and potent disruption also usually goes at a premium. Here you have a creature big enough to put a dent in any creature war, we’re talking takes-down-Tarmogoyfs size for the most part, and people are complaining and calling the body ‘unnecessary’ because they’re looking at it as just the Jester’s Cap effect. What it is is actually a delicious mix of power and disruption. He can disrupt the opponent enough to make it much harder to win if you’re playing unfair, turning your game clock from short-term imminent victory to long-term requiring work, all while putting five power into play to ensure that your opponent doesn’t get the kind of time they now need to somehow put it all together. Add to this the fact that looking at your opponent’s deck can give you a very reasonable assessment of what is in their hand. This can be a wonderful mix with Cabal Therapy while we’re looking at post-sideboard plans. I find it hard to imagine why he’s getting such bad press.

When your opponent is playing an unfair deck, Earwig Squad can force them to have to play fair by attacking key resources left in their deck that change their game-plan entirely. It also gives you a four-turn clock in and of itself, to make sure they don’t get the kind of time they need to assemble a new plan for victory.

When your opponent is playing a fair deck, you get a huge man, near-complete information as to the contents of their hand, and the ability to cut off the worst possible cards for you out of their deck on a longer-term basis. Pulling the cards that will allow the opponent to punish you in a long game allows you to play for that long game, if the early win isn’t readily secured.

To be fair, this requires some set-up. You must successfully attack with a goblin early in the game, and have three mana to spend on this guy. Less, actually, with Bannerets and Warchiefs… Prowl is a casting cost that is reduced by other effects, so you can get your 5/3 + Cap for as little as one Black mana if things are going at their best. Sure, it takes work… but nothing you have to go out of your way for, all things that the Goblin deck wants to do anyway. I found it was very easy to deploy the Squad by turn 3 at the latest against a variety of those so-called ‘non-interactive’ decks, just because I was running four of them and an absurdly redundant number of Warchiefs to crank the mana-acceleration aspect of the deck through the roof. I was sure that I craved them… and with the absurd frequency with which my Ringleaders cost just two or even the one Red mana, avalanching my way towards victory was readily enabled by the little Banneret.

Something had to go, though… and it wasn’t so clear-cut as a one-for-one trade, four of one card for four Bannerets. What seemed the clearest lesson from all that testing, though, was that 23 “lands” was unnecessary in a build with four Warchiefs and four imitation Warchiefs, and that Mutavault was the weakest land as drawing multiples really made playing spells difficult. The deck wants its colored mana and it wants it pretty consistently, having ultimately nothing to do with a colorless mana once the first few turns are through. It existed to enable mana in the early game and then maybe attack, and like Chrome Mox you really are loathe to draw more than one in the early game. I was unsure about it from the get-go, as it seemed an obvious card to want but not necessarily the “automatic four-of” it appears to be. Excessive colorless cost reduction really does turn this land into one that doesn’t actually tap for mana far too quickly, and perhaps does so before you’re ready for it to graduate to the next stage in its life cycle by being useful in the attack phase. If a land has to go, it’s one of these… and dropping one Land when adding four Bannerets seems to be very reasonable, as we try to make room.

Additionally, my new toy got taken away from the build and I found I really, really missed it. I’ve been chiming in about the value of Warren Weirding for some time now, and the fact that you can clear the board of the smaller men with Fanatics and Sharpshooter and deal with problems with Gempalm Incinerator makes the Weirding a rather unique card. These things all deal damage, and while it’s true that your Incinerators can get very big there are just some cards you can’t target or can’t economically deal with via these means. Warren Weirding cares naught about targeting restrictions or size, merely that it catch you alone and unawares, making it a perfect silver-bullet one-of to complete a solid array of removal. Tarfire and Nameless Inversion were always things you felt you had to think about but all too often didn’t really care about, because they didn’t really do anything terribly special. Warren Weirding does… and thus is the first non-Creature Goblin card to make it into the deck as an absolute certainty, because this new addition fits so well with just one slot used up.

This build is really heavy on the mana… 23 dedicated “lands,” plus eight Medallions for Goblin spells and four Skirk Prospectors to amp the mana as needed. I’d honestly expected to want to cut some of this out, that I could theoretically find room for one of these Bannerets I wanted to add by removing a Skirk Prospector, but as seems inevitable when one tokes on the Goblins too hard I found I didn’t want to compromise on the Prospectors. If room needs must be found, we already know some of what we can do to push things into place properly, and one thing I truly expected to find awkward was that the League of Extraordinary Second Stringers had cut Mogg War Marshal. War Marshal is excellent against “decks with attackers,” buying a lot of time while you ramp up to critical mass, and happens to pump Piledrivers like nobody’s business. It also can function as a Rite of Flame if you have Skirk Prospector out, or better than Rite of Flame if you have Prospector and a “Warchief”, either original or Volume 2 – Electric Boogaloo. But as good as he is I found he was the moving part that was least vital to continued success, and thus the Goblin I would feel least bad about cutting into to make room for new additions.

Having battled for hours with an intentionally sub-standard deck, I gathered my wits about me and put together a list I dare say I am rather content with: the fruits of many hours of bashing Goblins into things.

And so in one week’s time I feel as if I have gone from under-prepared for the post-Morningtide PTQ and GP season to feeling as if I have a firm grasp on reality; Goblins is a powerful deck that just got a shot in the arm with Morningtide (now with a whopping 9 Morningtide cards main-deck, a full 15%, and 20% of the sideboard space as well!) and is one of the few aggressive-style decks that actually have a decent chance against the drivers of the metagame. If you must play something aggressive, and I’m not entirely sure that Doran Rock counts, there is another option to a mana-base of 12 fetch-lands and 8 shock-duals that actually does well against the huge yet inexpensive threats we see growing dominant in Extended.

Playing things out, you’ll see that the deck’s synergy works very, very well together. Costs on your spells plummet downwards as a critical mass of Goblins are deployed, allowing you to absolutely explode with a chain of Matrons into Ringleaders and so on… the name of the game isn’t card advantage but goblin advantage. Damage-dealing potential likewise spirals upward as you can play more and more spells a turn, all of which leave some sort of sizable creature in play and many of which recruit more friends to the party… oh, and we add Haste to the mix too, allowing us to rest the game squarely on Goblin Piledriver’s firm shoulders to act as some bizarre Storm spell that deals two damage to your opponent for each Goblin cast and still in play. Chrome Mox was a card I was wavering on, with Bannerets cutting costs even further and those awkward hands where you draw two being just miserable for the deck… but from a more rational perspective, playing four Bannerets is an excellent reason to play all four Moxes, not some wishy-washy justification to cut one because sometimes you draw two and cringe.

Post-sideboard, you add disruption to taste. Shattering Spree is intended not just against Affinity decks but also against Shackles-based decks because Replicate makes it very difficult to effectively counter, or to clear the way against Dredge’s counter-sideboard plan of Pithing Needles and Chalices of the Void intended to stop your Crypts from working. It’s the cheapest card for the job and the hardest to counter, in addition to scaling the largest of all your options short of Shatterstorm when you just need to smash a bunch of stuff against Affinity. Tormod’s Crypt is obviously an effective hoser against Dredge, but gets the nod here over other options like Leyline of the Void and Extirpate because it is the easiest of such options to bend towards another use as well. To attack the opponent on multiple angles if they are a Dredge deck, we also have Earwig Squad to add if we want it; it shines especially brightly in application as a combo breaker, and being able to cherry-pick necessary cards from your opponent’s deck to push their kill clock back turns and turns is a potent ability indeed. It’s not a sideboard card against Dredge, though so far all three cards named have a potential interaction in the matchup as we play the hate / counter-hate / counter-counter-hate game and fight a rather peculiar battle if we so choose… Earwig Squad makes life difficult for anyone who is playing less-than-fairly, from Tron decks reliant upon an incredibly small number of victory conditions to Enduring Ideal decks playing only a very small number of ‘things that matter’ like Form of the Dragon or Solitary Confinement to as-yet unknown decks like Flores’ kooky BioRITHm deck that would find it had a hard time actually killing the opponent without that quirky Green sorcery.

And then, of course, we have Cabal Therapy. Goblins are all about the Cabal Therapy in the right time and place, and coupled neatly with four Earwig Squad post-sideboard we will find it hits with machinelike precision time and time again. In short we take a deck aimed with maximum explosive potential and point it at our opponent… and if that doesn’t work and we have to actually disrupt the opponent because they are trying to be unfair, we brain them with the proper rocks picked up out of our sideboard and call it a day. It is possible that we would see an improvement in our overall strategy if we tried to fit in Cabal Therapy in the main-deck, but given a healthily-balanced metagame only moderately sprinkled with the sorts of “problems” that truly require a dedicated suite of non-creature-based disruption I feel that for post-Morningtide Week 1 we want the deck packed as full of Goblins as we can jam it and the devil take the consequences; the deck got quite a bit faster with the addition of Frogtosser Banneret and racing the opponent to the kill (or to the Earwig Squad, if you have a Matron to tutor with) seems an acceptable first plan.

It doesn’t hurt that the main deck to be feared, Dredge, isn’t exactly happy to see a deck with eight one-drops that suicide on demand and the ability to handle Akroma, Angel of Wrath at its whim. Goblins back in the bad old days faced reanimated turn one Akromas and raced the opponent to the kill with multiple Piledrivers on an eerily regular basis; Dredge’s non-Bridge-reliant plan doesn’t deploy Akroma quite as quickly, and can’t bring her back for a second try with anything approaching “ease”. It also doesn’t hurt that the card in question isn’t especially useful against that particular ‘unfair’ matchup, and everyone else is slower enough that racing is a realistic option. More importantly to my mind at least, I think the Therapies stay in the sideboard for use “as needed” because the metagame is predominantly fair and thus they are not needed. That which dilutes the Goblinishness of the deck makes each other Goblin that little extra bit worse, as every piece working together fires the deck as a whole, and thus I would anticipate needing to see rather a significant shift in the metagame before feeling Cabal Therapy was needed enough main-deck to outweigh the price of putting him there.

The only significant question left unanswered by the deck or sideboard is the Engineered Plague question. Admittedly, Earwig Squad does two very important things: it potentially strips the opponent’s deck of Engineered Plagues, and lives through the first one and even the second one too. Engineered Plague may start to develop in the metagame as Goblins are on the up-turn and Tribal-based decks are starting to appear more readily as well with Elves and such poking their heads up from time to time. I don’t currently anticipate having to fight off multiple players with “enough” Engineered Plagues to make me reach for the sideboard, and I suspect if such does become the case then we shall have to re-negotiate the sideboard space to add in things like a Goblin King or Mad Auntie to tutor for and Dralnu’s Crusades to make up the difference. In the face of what I currently expect to be only light plague-bearing, Earwig Squad is your go-to guy to strip copies from the opponent’s deck and pairing him with Cabal Therapy to force them out of their hand does give us a reasonable plan of action against this particularly potent angle of attack even absent true ‘dedicated’ sideboard cards against the problem.

After all, we do have to respect the fact that 23 of our Goblins outright die with Engineered Plague in play and one is a very unhappy Siege-Gang Commander, even if it is currently a 0% component of the metagame. Things change over time, and that which does not evolve… dies.

Those pesky Goblins, ever evolving, every which way but smarter. It seems they might just be good again.

Sean McKeown
s_mckeown @ hotmail.com