Practical Legacy – Where Have All The Goblins Gone?

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Thursday, August 13th – Goblins was one of Legacy’s defining decks. In the past, it was both very successful, and usually had a large presence at many of the larger tournaments. Recently, not only has its success become more limited, but so has its appearance at tournaments, especially on the East Coast of the United States. This decline did not occur overnight, but much can be learned from why it was successful in Legacy, and why it is no longer winning.

Goblins was one of Legacy’s defining decks. In the past, it was both very successful, and usually had a large presence at many of the larger tournaments. Recently, not only has its success become more limited, but so has its appearance at tournaments, especially on the East Coast of the United States. This decline did not occur overnight, but much can be learned from why it was successful in Legacy, and why it is no longer winning.

One of the ways to understand why Goblins did so well is to look at how it dealt with different archetypes in the past. Against aggressive decks, Goblins was packed full of creature removal and could answer early threats. These threats were usually answered by Mogg Fanatic and Gempalm Incinerator. In addition to its removal, Goblin Lackey was an enormous threat which always had to be answered or virtually every aggressive deck would lose the game. Its creature removal made it more likely that Goblin Lackey accelerated into play its game-ending threats, like Siege-Gang Commander. Aggressive decks had to gain quick board against Goblins, and try to overwhelm it in the early game. If this strategy failed, Goblins would win almost all of the other games because its mid and late game cards were much more powerful. It had card advantage spells and tutoring effects to get out of top-deck mode. It had access to direct damage via Siege-Gang Commander if the board state was roughly even. On top of all that, Goblins had access to land destruction that could stall an opponent long enough to allow Goblins to let its more expensive and powerful spells enter play. Wasteland and Rishadan Port, combined with Aether Vial, were a toxic combination that could out-tempo any aggressive deck.

While Goblins still has access to these cards, and a few new ones, it largely cannot accomplish this strategy against aggressive decks. Modern Zoo decks have much better threats than they did before, in the form of Tarmogoyf and Wild Nacatl. These cards are not susceptible to Mogg Fanatic, and Gempalm Incinerator requires too many Goblins in play to really handle these creatures in a timely fashion. Many goblin decks did adopt Warren Weirding as a way to handle Tarmogoyf and other large creatures, but against aggressive decks this usually means the weakest creature will be sacrificed, and Goblins will still be behind on the board as it spends its turn trying to answer the weakest creature. Qasali Pridemage even answers Aether Vial, which can put the goblin player in a position where he must draw enough lands to play his or her much more expensive spells. If Goblins can survive into the mid and late game, then its strategy of winning late can still work, but this is less likely to happen because Zoo’s threats do more damage and are harder to remove.

This problem is not limited to just Zoo decks, but extends to Suicide variants, Elves, and others aggressive decks. Suicide variants utilize Tarmogoyf and Tombstalker, which usually overwhelm a Goblin player’s creature removal. Along with the disruption and land destruction that these decks play it can be difficult enough to even cast a Warren Weirding, and even then it is sometimes not enough. Elves can have almost all of its creatures answered by Goblins’ creature removal, but the real problem is that Elves can play so much mana acceleration that it can simply get into play its better spells much sooner than Goblins can answer them. The Lords (Elvish Champion, Imperious Perfect, and most recently Elvish Archdruid) pump the Elves and make them harder to remove, and the mana acceleration allows the deck to abuse Survival of the Fittest, or even Natural Order into Progenitus, which puts the Goblin player into an almost hopeless position.

Aggressive decks were one of Goblins’ better matchups, and now this largely not the case. Goblins inability to answer large undercosted threats gives it problems with virtually every deck playing Tarmogoyf and other efficient monsters. Tarmogoyf is one of the cards that Goblins has yet to address in a satisfactory manner. Playing Warren Weirding is simply not enough because the card sometimes is not drawn, and even if it is there is no guarantee that it will destroy a Tarmogoyf. Tribal decks like Elves use to be fine matchup for Goblins, but Lords and the ability to abuse both Survival and Natural Order makes this matchup very difficult.

In the past, the relationship between Goblins and Threshold was a topic of much debate. Who was favored, and by how much, was hard to determine. What is likely true is that this matchup was quite close, and depended to a large degree on the particular builds that were played by either player. The Goblin player had the advantage in the early game and in the long game, but the mid game could become difficult as threshed Mongooses and Werebears would overwhelm a Goblin player’s defenses.

This is no longer really the case. Whether you look at the Canadian Threshold builds, or the more controlling CounterTop variants, both of these are quite able to handle Goblin decks. Canadian Threshold decks play plenty of removal in the form of Lightning Bolt and Fire/Ice. They are also able to attack Goblins’ manabase by Stifling fetch lands and Wasting dual lands. Tarmogoyf and Mongoose can easily overwhelm a goblin player very early in the game. All of these reasons make it difficult for the Goblin player to win this matchup. The CounterTop decks are very different and they usually cannot make much use out of Counterbalance in this matchup, but they have the best ways to find the most relevant spells like Tarmogoyf and early countermagic to really put the Goblin player in precarious situation. Connecting with Goblin Lackey is even more rare now than it was in the past as these decks have plenty of answers to it. While Aether Vial can be very strong against these decks, it can still often be too slow to deal with multiple Tarmogoyfs.

This even or slightly favorable much has become much more difficult. Goblins cannot reliably expect to win this matchup. Tarmogoyf is again a major problem for Goblins here. Not only is Warren Weirding its only answer in the early game, but against these decks this spell is not likely to resolve, whether its Force of Will, Spell Snare, Daze, or even a Counterbalance.

Goblins was always vulnerable against combo decks because it had very little in the way of disruption, but sometimes it could win by using a first turn Lackey and having a third turn win especially when on the play. It also had the option of boarding cards for this matchup since many of its other matchups were much better. Goblins is still weak against combo decks, but this weakness is even more severe than it was in the past. Decks utilizing Ad Nauseam win much more often on turn 1 and turn 2 than the combo decks in the past. This means that Goblin Lackey’s chances of winning the game for the Goblin player is much lower than it was. Goblin decks also have much more limited sideboard space since they must focus on the myriad of other decks that they no longer have a natural advantage over.

Goblins was always a difficult matchup for control players, because unlike other aggressive decks it had both strong turn one plays and late game card advantage spells that could overwhelm a control player. The control player needed to survive in the early game and still find a way to answer the late game spells that Goblins would inevitably find and play. Some control decks in the past played cards just to trump Goblins strategy such as Humility and Lightning Rift. Goblins was favored against control decks unless they opted for very extreme measures and even then it had more than a fighting chance.

It is still strong against control decks, but depending on the control deck the situation may not be as favorable as it once was. Some control decks have adopted Tarmogoyf as way to stall opposing Tarmogoyfs and to win quickly after taking control. Goblins can usually recover from a sweeper, but facing down a Tarmogoyf after losing your board can be a difficult situation to come back from. Many modern control decks have answers for Aether Vial such as Engineered Explosives, Vindicate, and Pernicious Deed. There are very control decks that opt for specific anti-Goblin main deck cards because Goblins is not a central design constraint for making a control deck viable in Legacy.

Goblins has simply failed to adapt to the changing nature of Legacy. Whether it be threats like Tarmogoyf and Wild Nacatl or the increasing speed of combo decks or even the improvement of control decks it simply does not measure up to these newer decks. In many respects Goblins is very much the same deck from a few years ago. It has adopted a few new cards like Warren Weirding, but it has not undergone a major revision, and this is maybe part of the problem. Other decks in Legacy have adapted successfully to the newer cards, but Goblins has not. It is highly unlikely that Goblins can rise again without a drastic overhaul.

Anwar Ahmad

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