One Step Ahead – Optimal

Caw-Blade has gone through the processor too many times; it’s time to blend some of the other decks that haven’t gotten as much love! Gerry puts the spotlight on Valakut, Goblins, and more.

A few days earlier, I detailed some of the lesser-known strategies in the format. I also talked a bit about why Caw-Blade was winning so much. To recap, I feel like it’s because Caw-Blade gets played week to week by some of the top minds in the game, whereas other decks like RDW and Valakut receive little attention.

Let’s give them the attention they deserve!

First up is Valakut. Once upon a time, it was the scourge of Standard. Stoneforge Mystic taught Valakut a lesson it won’t soon forget, but was it truly Mystic keeping Valakut in check? Some might say it was Sword of Feast and Famine backed up by counterspells, but if that’s the case, why do most Caw-Blade players profess their worst matchup is Valakut?

Is it a case of their “worst” matchup being a coin flip? Perhaps, but Caw-Blade players claiming it’s their worst matchup is still very powerful. It’s time to pounce!

I’ve told EdB, aka Shooter, aka Eduardo Borges, aka mini-PV, to write an article about Valakut. So far, he seems unwilling due to laziness or opposing the idea of helping his competition, but hopefully my calling him out here will change that.

He’s been killing Daily Events on Magic Online, and his list is nothing all that special. He’s just playing the best cards (sorry Jens) and has a plan for every matchup. Next week, when Tempered Steel starts disappearing, EdB will swap some cards. It’s just the kind of dude he is.

It’s clear that Oracle of Mul Daya is better than Solemn Simulacrum. There aren’t many ground-pounding creatures in today’s Standard, so you won’t get maximum value out of chump blocking. Typically, he’s a four-casting cost Rampant Growth that Shocks your opponent once or twice.

If those Shocks mattered, maybe Solemn would be a worthy inclusion, but Valakut doesn’t win by nickel and diming your opponent out. They win via direct damage, but they win big. You don’t side in Rest for the Weary to beat Valakut because that eight life you gain isn’t worth a card. Similarly, saying that Solemn attacks is a terrible argument for inclusion.

If Solemn can’t attack or block profitably, he is exactly what his rules text is—Rampant Growth for four mana. We can do better! Sure, Oracle is similar to Solemn. Four-drop 2/2 that puts land into play, but the fact that Oracle is more like Primeval Titan and less like Rampant Growth vs. most of the decks in Standard means that it should probably be in your deck.

I wouldn’t be opposed to playing Solemn in a different metagame, and I certainly wouldn’t be opposed to playing Solemn and Oracle in the same deck. However, one of them is good right now, and the other isn’t.

Step one is beat Caw-Blade, and Oracle does that well. They can’t Leak it for fear of Summoning Trap, and using Dismember or Oblivion Ring on it means that you get a turn’s worth of value from it. Granted, Summoning Trap is on the decline, but EdB plays a couple to keep his opponents honest.

If Oracle lives, then you have free rein. They will have to keep counter mana open for fear of you casting Primeval Titan, but if they do that and don’t advance their board, you can ramp up to nine mana and pay for their Leak. If they go aggro, hopefully you can kill their Sword before it destroys you.

EdB realized Oracle was awesome, and it made his matches a lot easier, but can we take that further? I’ve played some Valakut in my day, but admittedly I haven’t played much lately. Still, I think I have a good plan.

A few things:

  1. Yes, this list is slower. Someone once said you either want to be a turn faster or a turn slower than your opposition. I agree completely. Currently, Valakut isn’t the fastest deck. As such, it will struggle when you try to race anything. However, Valakut isn’t completely invalidated by these developments; it simply has to adapt.
  2. Rather than trying to be a turn-four Titan deck, I feel like Valakut is better off aiming for turn five with a disruption spell. This means playing more answers in your “combo” deck, but I feel like that’s okay.
  3. Yes, Timely Reinforcements is that good. Obstinate Baloth is cute, and cool, and has synergy with Green Sun’s Zenith. It’s no longer game over against red decks. Granted, Timely Reinforcements isn’t either, but it comes online earlier (most of the time), gives you more blockers and more life. Both serve to pad your life total against opposing Act of Aggressions, but having more Baloth effects is always nice.
  4. Typically, I’d play 10 Mountains and 28 land. However, with Oracle and Khalni Heart Expedition, I foresee this list killing manually (with Valakut) far more often than any other Valakut list would. With so much ramp, you aren’t necessarily reliant on finding and resolving a Primeval Titan. Oracle and Expedition require you to have plenty of physical lands in your deck (if you want them to perform at peak efficiency), and this list is venturing on 30 land territory.

    The more often you are manually killing them, the higher chance you will run out of Mountains, so there needs to be an eleventh.

  5. I’m playing the lightest Zenith package I could think of. You want something to Zenith for early; otherwise Zenith loses a lot of its versatility. If you are casting Zenith for a mana creature, it’s either because you’re short on lands, it just fits the curve, or you have plenty of Zeniths. Perhaps for those reasons, our Zenith target is better served as a Birds of Paradise instead of a Cobra. That would allow us to curve Zenith into Oracle as well.

    Zenith doesn’t have to be an ordeal. You can keep it simple and efficient. Sure, there are some games where you might want a Viridian Corrupter in game one, but it’s not likely. What about every other time you naturally draw the Corrupter? In a deck with 29 lands (and again, maybe it should be 30), you are going to want to get mileage out of every spell you draw. Finding a dead tutor target waiting for you in your draw step is going to drive you insane.

    You want a mana creature, a reasonable medium sized threat for control, and something to stop the bleeding against aggro. At the top end you have Primeval Titan and Avenger for when nothing else will get you out of the situation. For example, you are dead next turn to a swarm or they have a Leyline of Sanctity in play.

  6. The Slagstorms could be Pyroclasms, but I imagine that Emeria Angel will become more popular in the next week or so. While a sweeper isn’t the best thing in the world against Caw-Blade, it’s probably necessary to keep the Hawks out of your hair while you set up. They don’t always pressure you with Swords after all.

    Additionally, Slagstorm is better when your opponent has Tempered Steel in play, but as I said earlier, that deck should be dying relatively soon. At that point, maybe Pyroclasm can make the cut, but there’s still Emeria Angel.

  7. Ricochet Trap is a little better now. With Oracles and Expeditions, you are going to be ramping quickly. You should be able to play around Leak and Pierce if you’d like, but there’s always those sideboard Flashfreezes to worry about.

That’s all the tech I have for Valakut, but that’s how it should be—a no-nonsense deck with a plan.

I’m always ready for Goblins, but I feel like no one else ever is. There will always be creature decks, albeit different tribes like Goblins, Vampires, Vengevines, and Soldiers. You just have to adapt on the fly depending on what threats they present you. I guess I’m just used to it (probably because I’m so old), but everyone seems to ignore those aspects of tournament Magic.

Take advantage of it! Goblins has put up results here and there, but what’s the best list?

I don’t know. I do know there are two options:

  1. Be hyper-aggressive, possibly Aussie-style with Pyretic Ritual, and beat through Timely Reinforcements.
  2. Be mildly aggressive game one, but turn into a midrange deck post-board with plans to make their Reinforcements useless.

Of those options, I think number two is the best. The first one seems like it may be almost suicidal in a format where I feel like even Splinter Twin and Valakut should be splashing Timely Reinforcements. It’s easy to visualize you smashing your opponent by turning guys sideways. Being able to shift your beatdown deck into midrange in order to combat your opponent’s sideboard cards requires a bit more vision, but is highly rewarding. Still, I understand why players may choose option one over option two. I just caution you that it’s dangerous.

Regardless of your plan, this is the list of cards I would not be embarrassed to play:

Goblin Guide
Goblin Bushwhacker
Goblin Fireslinger
Goblin Arsonist
Spikeshot Elder
Grim Lavamancer
Stormblood Berserker
Ember Hauler
Goblin Wardriver
Goblin Chieftain
Hero of Oxid Ridge
Lightning Bolt
Searing Blaze
Goblin Grenade
Arc Trail
Pyretic Ritual
Devastating Summons
Shrine of Burning Rage


Cunning Sparkmage
Act of Aggression
Goblin Ruinblaster
Manic Vandal
Tuktuk the Explorer

If I’m trying to jam Plan A, I wouldn’t likely mess with cards like Shrine of Burning Rage, Dismember, or Spikeshot Elder. I want them dead, and those cards are either too slow or don’t deal them damage. However, if my plan is to fight through Timely Reinforcements, Kor Firewalkers, and sweepers while maintaining a threatening clock, those are all cards that I want.

All of our opponents should be somewhat prepared for aggressive decks, and they will have cards that are naturally good against our army of Grizzly Bears and Gray Ogres. Again, you’ll either need to be faster than they are or slow down to match them. Cards like Hero of Oxid Ridge or Cunning Sparkmage blow through Reinforcement tokens and Hawks. Manabarbs and Shrine don’t care much if they’ve gained six life.

Manabarbs is insane against almost every deck in the format if you’re on Plan A, especially when accelerated out with Pyretic Ritual. If you assemble any sort of board presence early, get in damage, and resolve Manabarbs, there is almost no coming back from it. If they are able to wipe out your board and put you on some sort of clock, suddenly Manabarbs is working against you. They’ll have shifted roles, at which point you’ll be unable to come back.

It’s a double-edged sword in that regard, but as long as you can fight off their piddly armies with Cunning Sparkmage, Manabarbs should always work in your favor. Hero of Oxid Ridge should allow you to race.

Honestly, Pyretic Ritual and Devastating Summons are probably not worth it. They are high variance, and with the format having so many playable cards, there’s no reason to dig into the dregs. Ritual is going to be great the times it works, but it will be a poor topdeck, and terrible if you ever mulligan. Additionally, Goblins probably has the fastest average goldfish in the format, so you don’t especially need an accelerator.

Summons is a whole other story. It used to see play in red decks in combination with Goblin Bushwhacker to steal games from tough matchups. Again, you have better tools at your disposal, and there isn’t a matchup where your main path to victory is luck-sacking them out. You can do better.

Dismember is probably a sideboard card, as there is nothing huge that you need to be killing in game one. LSV and the rest of the CFB crew dropped the Oblivion Rings from Caw-Blade for Dismembers and cut Jace Beleren for Azure Mage in, what I can only assume was, an attempt to make the Splinter Twin matchup better. From what I’ve seen, Splinter Twin isn’t a very big portion of the field, so you probably shouldn’t have to worry about defending against their nut draws.

Most of the time, they will have little resistance for your Goblin horde and will likely die before they can set up their combo. If that isn’t the case, and they do nut-draw you, oh well. You can’t plan for everything. Playing Dismember maindeck will actively hurt you in other matchups.

Goblin Grenade is awesome. There are a lot of reasons why Goblins is about to be the most successful aggro deck in the format, and Grenade is one of them. The others are probably because of the bannings, the move away from maindeck sweepers in order to combat Twin, Valakut, and Caw-Blade, the printing of M12 which gives red decks plenty of tools, and the fact that everyone is trying to fight aggressive strategies with 1/1 creatures.

Anyway, Grenade should be an auto four-of in the maindeck. I’ve heard talk of cutting them entirely, or shaving one because Mental Misstep exists, because it can suck if they kill all of your guys, or whatever, but that seems wrong to me.

I agree that it’s bad against decks full of removal, and it’s bad with Manabarbs and Hero in your deck. With both of those cards, you want things that can advance your board state or make theirs worse, and Grenade does none of that.

It’s a Lava Axe, and while awesome at what it does, doesn’t mesh with your plan well. Most decks aren’t loaded with removal because removal isn’t particularly good right now. Post-board is an entirely different story, as the matchup fundamentals change, and you shift from being a hyper-aggressive deck to being a tempo or board controlling deck. Reach becomes less important, and thus, you should probably side them out.

Searing Blaze is a fine card. It does what you want it to do, which is clear a blocker and deal them some damage, but two mana is a lot in this deck. I think you play the full four Bolts and Grenades before you even touch Searing Blaze, but maybe you want more of that type of effect.

If that’s what you’re in the market for, is there any reason it shouldn’t be Arc Trail instead? If you’re just killing a 3/3 blocker, then obviously Searing Blaze is what you’re looking for, but Searing Blaze is fairly miserable. Against a kicked Timely Reinforcements, Arc Trail is going to clear most of the tokens and allow your pair of 2/2s to keep swinging. I’d say that right now, Arc Trail is where you want to be. Maybe Chapin’s/MJ’s Forked Bolt is even better.

Everyone seems to disagree on which one-drops you want, but I think it might be preference.

Here’s what I’d play:

As you can see, I am committed to making Timely Reinforcements as embarrassing as possible for my opponent. I can either slow-grind them with Spikeshots and Lavamancers or bypass them with Hero of Oxid Ridge.

I’m only playing three of some of the one-drops because they are the ones I didn’t want to draw multiples of. Drawing a mix of them seems much better. Goblin Arsonist might be a little loose, but I think it’s better than Goblin Fireslinger, mostly because of its interaction with Goblin Grenade.

Wardriver doesn’t make the cut because battle cry isn’t very impressive. It’s an added bonus on Hero, but when Wardriver is only a 2/2 on his own, it’s hard to convince me to play it. If I wanted another two-drop, it would be Stormblood Berserker, but probably only as a three-of. Drawing multiples would probably be bad, and it’s not a Goblin. I think I can get away with Grim Lavamancer since he’s just that good, but Berserker isn’t that much better than the alternatives to justify playing it over a Goblin.

If I wanted to be greedy, the Tectonic Edge in the board could a Contested War Zone. Those Hawks and Soldiers scare me a bit, and I don’t know if I’ll always be able to keep all of them off the board. Post-board, getting to four mana and staying there is even more important, so I don’t want to risk my land being stolen, even if it isn’t likely.

Chandra, the Firebrand is very interesting, as it allows you to keep pinging away Hawks while also threatening to double Grenade your opponent. I think my other four-drops are better, but I could be convinced otherwise.

Gitaxian Probe might be something worth playing once everyone is playing more sweepers, but for now, I’d say that the information isn’t worth not knowing the texture of your opening hand. If you’re worried about sweepers, Tuktuk the Explorer seems like a better fit.

I wouldn’t be surprised if I could further improve on this list, but as a Caw-Blade player, this is the exact type of deck I feel like I have to get lucky against. They don’t have to do much work in order to overpower me, so the onus is on me to play tight and draw well.

Despite my own personal feelings about Splinter Twin (mostly that I don’t play it as well as other decks), I feel like it’s not getting the respect it deserves. Matt Nass has two deep runs in big tournaments out of two attempts with the deck, and it continually performs on Magic Online.

This is what I’d consider close to the optimal list:

In a world nearly devoid of deckbuilders, Tulio is a true hero. I’ve closely followed his work for years now, and I’m always impressed. He goes above and beyond the expectations of any deckbuilder and isn’t afraid to put his money on the line in order to figure out if he’s onto something. That said, he isn’t afraid to grab ahold of an archetype that he knows is golden and make a mountain of virtual tickets off it either. I have much respect.

The Mutagenic Growth maindeck is a nice touch, but the sideboard is something only he could love. I’m not a fan of the transformational sideboard with Splinter Twin, mostly because I assume they are going to be stockpiling removal against me anyway. That said, his maindeck looks awesome.

The last deck I would consider optimal or close to it would be Patrick Chapin and Michael Jacob No Combo RUG Pod.

I would consider updating the sideboard, but other than that, I am completely sold by everything that Patrick laid out in his article. Once again, he found a different way to attack the format, and perhaps now, the format will open up a bit.

Thanks to a recent hot streak in M12 drafts and the fact that everything in Standard is dirt cheap, I recently acquired most of the staples in Standard on Magic Online. In the future, I’ll probably be documenting my journey with non-Caw-Blade Standard archetypes on Magic Online. My Garruks, Phantasmal Images, and Heroes of Oxid Ridge are ready to do battle!