So Many Insane Plays – Tribal Warfare! Goblins versus Merfolk in Legacy

Grand Prix GP Columbus July 30-August 1, 2010
Monday, July 19th – Grand Prix: Columbus is fast approaching, and Legacy fans across the world are deep into their preparation. Today, Stephen Menendian tests a pair of Tribal decks that are sure to appear in force at the upcoming event: Goblins and Merfolk!

Grand Prix: Columbus is just around the corner. I’ve made my metagame prediction. In my opinion, a metagame prediction is the most important and critical information a competitor can use. Every decision flows from it.

The final StarCityGames.com Legacy Open before the Grand Prix was in St. Louis. The St. Louis metagame is a good indicator of what to expect at the GP, with the caveat that Mystical Tutor’s banning will shift some things around. I suggested precisely how I see the pieces shifting in my Guide to Grand Prix Columbus.

CounterTop-Thopter met Merfolk in the finals of the Legacy Open. But there were two Merfolk and two Goblins in the Top 5. Yet, oddly, these tribal decks never faced each other in the Top 8. And, according to Jared Sylva St. Louis Report, Goblins and Merfolk were 2-2 in the tournament. That’s a matchup I wanted to see.

Given that Merfolk and Goblins will be two of the five or so most popular archetypes, this is a matchup worth evaluating. Both decks use many of the same tools: Aether Vial, mana denial, Lords, and other tribal synergies. Conventional wisdom would suggest that Goblins stomps Merfolk, since it’s more aggressive and can just swarm Merfolk. Let’s test that theory.

Today, I pit Anthony Avitollo’s 4th place Goblins deck against Alex Bertoncini 2nd place Merfolk list. Here they are:

Let the battle begin.

Merfolk won the roll.

The Merfolk pilot opened this hand:

Lord of Atlantis
Merfolk Sovereign

One of the key threats for Merfolk is a turn 1 Goblin Lackey, which can lead to utter insanity if not immediately stopped. For example, an attack with Lackey can produce turn 2 Ringleader, Siege-Gang Commander, or worse. But, just as threatening is turn 1 Aether Vial. This hand has no answer to turn 1 Aether Vial. The plan here is turn 1 Cursecatcher, turn 2 Lord. If we can make our third land drop and get Sovereign into play, then I think this hand can compete with Goblins. We keep it.

Goblins hand is just as intriguing:

Scalding Tarn
Bloodstained Mire
Rishadan Port
Goblin Piledriver
Goblin Piledriver
Goblin Matron

Double Piledriver seems incredibly solid against Merfolk, but there is no acceleration here, and no one-drop, on the draw. Slow as it is, I have a hard time throwing this hand back with two Merfolk silver bullets. We keep it.

Turn 1:

Merfolk plays Island, Cursecatcher.

Goblins draws a Mountain for the turn, plays Scalding Tarn, and breaks it for a Mountain, and passes the turn. The Goblins pilot played and used the fetchland now to beat a possible Stifle.

Turn 2:

Merfolk untaps and draws Merfolk Reejerey for the turn, a third Lord.

A few possible lines of play are emerging. If Merfolk draws another mana source in the next turn, then the Sovereign and Reejerey can come down in the next two turns. As long as Merfolk draws another Island soon, the Merfolk creatures may just be large enough to win the tribal race. If not, the Goblins player will be able to deploy Piledrivers to buy time to mount a counter-attack. It all hinges are a couple of draws.

Merfolk plays the second Island and Lord of Atlantis, pumping the Cursecatcher. Merfolk attacks with the Cursecatcher, sending Goblins to 17.

Goblins untaps and draws… Goblin Matron. The Goblins player plays another Mountain and casts Piledriver, which resolves.

Turn 3:

Merfolk draws…. Aether Vial. It’s not the mana source we were looking for. The Merfolk pilot attacks with both Lord and Cursecatcher. Goblins blocks with a 1/2 Piledriver, but two more damage slips through.

Merfolk faces a non-trivial decision. Being stuck on two mana, should the Merfolk player play two Cursecatchers, doubling the power on the board, or play Aether Vial and a Cursecatcher instead?

If the Merfolk pilot doesn’t draw another land in the next three turns, the Vial will allow the Merfolk pilot to get more Fish lords onto the table. However, if the Merfolk pilot just plays double Cursecatcher, he will get two more damage in next turn.

The Merfolk pilot recognizes that the two damage may matter, but being able to Vial in Reejerey and Sovereign will be decisive. The risk of not being able to play those spells, conversely, is too great. Merfolk plays Vial and Cursecatcher and passes the turn.

Goblin draws Goblin Sharpshooter. Now it has a tough decision:

Sharpshooter seems like the weakest play, unless we can find ways to get additional triggers. The Sharpshooter can combine with the Piledriver to start killing men, but if another Lord hits the table, that plan won’t work. And it won’t stem the bleeding. What Goblins needs is a way to turn this game around more quickly. The second Piledriver isn’t a bad play here. It’s going to be a pest for the Merfolk pilot, an impenetrable wall for at least one creature. But is there a better play? Playing Matron seems like it could be the best play. But what would you find with it?

I’m interested to see what your poll responses reveal. I’ve always believed that Goblins is a far more challenging deck to pilot optimally than is generally believed, and a major reason for that is the tutor suite opened up with Matron. These cards aren’t just creatures, they are spells. Ringleader is a draw spell, a quasi-Fact or Fiction. Stingscourger is a bounce spell. Weirding, literally, is a spell. Siege-Gang Commander is a mix of targeted burn and bodies, a quasi Empty the Warrens for Mogg Fanatics. Lackey is a mana-cheat. And if you add cards like Goblin Vandal and the like, you can get all sorts of other targeted effects, like artifact destruction. Given that you can get card draw, bounce, removal, or mana, Matron is really just a Goblin Mystical Tutor. It finds anything you need. And when you combine cards like Aether Vial and Lackey, you can do all kinds of things with Matron, manipulating the stack, setting traps, and responding to opponent’s spells. There is a reason that Jon Sonne won the first Legacy GP with Goblins.

In this situation, Warren Weirding seems worse than Stingscourger. Weirding is removal, but the board is clogged with Cursecatchers. Stingscourger can bounce the Lord, and temporarily reduce the power of those Cursecatchers. But both options just seem worse than Goblin Incinerator, which doesn’t just bounce the Lord, but kills it, and generates another card in the process! Therefore, we can eliminate option 9 and 6.

Siege-Gang Commander, though, seems like another great option compared to Goblin Incinerator. Siege-Gang Commander can enter the battlefield, and for a single Red mana, we can start killing Merfolk. It will take two turns to play the Commander, however, and another turn to start flinging Goblins. At that point, the board state may be even more complicated. The Merfolk pilot can, in theory, drop two more Lords onto the table at that point. Then, it will take two Goblin sacrifices to kill these each Lord.

As between SGC and Goblin Incinerator the question, then, is one of speed and tempo. Next turn, Goblins can suck up 2 points of damage (we expect that the Merfolk pilot will not attack with Lord of Atlantis – since double blocking with Matron and Piledriver will kill it – and the Piledriver can block one of the Cursecatcher). Then, Goblins can untap and cycle the Incinerator to kill the Lord. If the Merfolk pilot plays another Lord, then the Goblins player can still kill one of them by playing another Piledriver and then cycling the Incinerator to kill the Lord of Atlantis. But the Merfolk will still all be large, and another answer will be needed. The Siege-Gang Commander provides that answer.

Simply put, the SGC versus Incinerator question has no clear answer. There are pros and cons to each. SGC provides a longer-term answer to multiple lords, but requires a lot more investment and more time. It’s not clear that the Merfolk pilot will give Goblins that time. If the Merfolk pilot can keep up the pressure, SGC will be too slow. Incinerator is a faster, more tempo oriented solution to a single lord.

Lackey can be ruled out, as the proliferation of Cursecatchers would prevent this from ever triggering. Also, enough mana is in hand or in play that Goblins doesn’t need this effect to cheat Goblins into play. Warchief can be eliminated for the same reason. Piledriver is also an intriguing option, but seems inferior to either Incinerator or SGC. Chieftain can boost the power of the Piledrivers, but killing opposing Lords does the same thing. That leaves one other attractive option: Goblin Ringleader. The card advantage from Ringleader can very easily produce other Incinerators, Matrons, or Ringleaders, which can find another Incinerator or the SGC.

That leaves three options then: Goblin Incinerator, Siege-Gang Commander, or Goblin Ringleader. All three options are not only attractive, but justifiable. The main difference is that they work on different time frames. Incinerator does its work now. SGC provides a longer-term solution, allowing the Goblins pilot to take control over time. The Ringleader isn’t a sure answer, but the rewards are potentially huge. I’m very interested to see what the polls reveal, and any forum discussion regarding this play. My Blue sensibilities incline me towards Ringleader, with the faith that card advantage here will translate into the resources and answers to win. My tempo urges incline me toward Incinerator. I have less faith in the SGC play, but it seems like the strongest, if it works.

The good news is that another Matron is in hand, so the decision is not decisive. For that reason, I decided to get Incinerator, and, if that didn’t work, have in place a backup plan to use the second Matron to find SGC.

Turn 4:

Merfolk adds a counter to Vial, and draws Force of Will!

The Merfolk player’s board is:

Island, Island, Aether Vial, Lord of Atlantis, Cursecatcher, Cursecatcher.

His hand is: Force of Will, Merfolk Sovereign, Merrow Reejerey, and Cursecatcher.

The question for the Merfolk player is how it can continue to maintain its tempo advantage. As this game has developed, it appears that Merfolk is settling into the role of the aggressor and Goblins into the control role. Force of Will is a critical tool for stopping any game-breaking play like Siege-Gang Commander. But what to do here? The Merfolk pilot has seen the Incinerator, and knows its coming. It will be two turns before Aether Vial can start pumping out more Lords, though. Being constrained at two mana will play into the Goblins plan, since Goblins has assumed a control role. It seems that the best thing that can be done now is simply attack with both Cursecatchers, sending Merfolk to 13 (since one is blocked), and pass the turn.

Goblins untaps and draws Goblin Warchief for the turn. The Goblins board is:

Mountain, Mountain, Mountain, Goblin Piledriver, Goblin Matron.

Goblins hand is:

Goblin Warchief, Incinerator, Sharpshooter, Matron, Piledriver, Bloodstained Mire and Rishadan Port.

The plan developed last turn was to play Piledriver and cycle Incinerator. Yet, Goblin Warchief has been drawn in the meantime. Playing Warchief and then Piledriver will actually allow Goblins to stunt the Merfolk attack next turn, since both Piledrivers can block the two attacking Cursecatchers. Warchief will then reduce the cost of all subsequent plays, making it easier to do more in subsequent turns, and seems like a worthwhile investment.

The Goblins pilot decides to play Rishadan Port, taps it and two Mountains, and casts Goblin Warchief.

The Merfolk pilot considers this play. He wants to save the Force of Will for Siege-Gang Commander, and possibly Ringleader or Piledriver. Warchief will also allow the Goblin player to build up and swarm to a massive alpha strike. This is a strong play, but it will have to be allowed.

Then, Goblins plays Goblin Piledriver.

This play is much more threatening. The pro-blue static ability is too annoying. The Merfolk pilot plays Force of Will, pitching Cursecatcher. The Merfolk pilot could pitch a Lord, and Vial in the Cursecatcher to get another few points of damage through, but Cursecatcher is worse than either Lord.

Turn 5:

Merfolk untaps, adds a counter to Vial, and draws another Force of Will. Merfolk attacks with two Cursecatchers. Goblins blocks one with Piledriver, and lets the other through, going to 11. Merfolk passes the turn.

Goblins untaps and draws another Gempalm Incinerator. Goblins then considers the situation. It knows that some 3cc spells are going to hit next turn. The worst card that it could face would be Kira. This is actually a statement about the strength of Kira. I would argue that Merfolk players should run at least three Kira, given its strength against both CounterTop decks and Zoo decks. Two is just too few.

Now Goblins has to decide what to do this turn. If Goblins cycles Incinerator, there is a chance that the Merfolk player could Vial in another Lord of Atlantis, which, though, would only pump the one in play to a 3/3, not large enough to survive the Incinerator, which will deal 3 damage. That seems, aside from Stifle, Merfolk’s only out. So, Goblins taps two Mountains and cycles Incinerator, targeting the Lord. The Lord dies, and Goblins draws a Goblin Ringleader!

The Goblins player faces another tough decision. He has two untapped lands, a Port and a Mountain, and a Bloodstained Mire in hand. The Goblins player’s two main options are this: 1) Port one of Merfolk’s Islands in its upkeep, or 2) Play Ringleader now. If Goblins plays Ringleader, it can also attack with a seven power Piledriver this turn! This, though, would symbolize a complete reversal of role, and remind us just how quickly role can change in Legacy.

Goblins plays Mire, and sacrifices it for a Badlands. Goblins plays Ringleader This card will generate tremendous card advantage. The Merfolk player can’t accept that, and surprises the Goblins pilot by playing another Force of Will, pitching Merfolk Sovereign!

Goblins attacks with Warchief, Piledriver, and Matron, dealing 8 damage, sending Merfolk to 10. The score is tied up. The game seems to be shifting in Goblins favor, but it’s not over yet…

Turn 6:

Merfolk untaps, and puts a third Aether Vial counter on the artifact. It then draws… Silvergil Adept. The Goblins player is at 10 life. Had the Merfolk pilot Vialed in that Cursecatcher, they might be at 8 life, or less, now.

The question is: what should the Merfolk pilot do? He can play Silvergil Adept and Vial in the Reejerey. He can attack for 4 damage, sending Goblins to 6. Then the Goblins pilot can untap with three creatures. If Goblins plays one more creature, then the Piledriver will have seven power. If the Goblins player can play two creatures, which seems likely, with five mana, a Warchief in play, three cards in hand and another draw step, then the Piledriver will have nine power, and will only need one other creature to come through to win the game. For example, only Matron has to be unblocked to win. With just the Adept and the Reejerey in play untapped, only two of the five creatures can be blocked. It appears that Merfolk’s best, and perhaps only, chance of winning is not attacking. That is unless Goblins can’t play two creatures next turn. In which case, the correct play is probably to attack.

There is a wrinkle. Merrow Reejerey has a unique and powerful ability. When a Merfolk enters the battlefield, the Merfolk player can tap or untap another permanent.

The Merfolk pilot Vials in the Reejerey, and announces an attack with one Cursecatcher, which sends Goblins to 8.

Then, the Merfolk pilot taps both Islands (which could have been tapped, had Goblins Ported one), and plays Silvergil Adept! The Reejerey triggers, and the Merfolk pilot untaps the tapped Cursecatcher. The draw trigger resolves, and the Merfolk pilot draws another Reejerey!

The Goblins pilot untaps. This draw will be critical. If it’s a mana, then the Goblins player can play both the Sharpshooter and the Matron, and cycle the Incinerator. If it’s a creature, and especially an efficient one, then another mana won’t be necessary to get the additional attacker needed to give Piledriver nine power.

Goblins draws… Aether Vial. One of the weakest possible draws at this point in the game. But the game is far from lost. In fact, there may be a way to win right here…

The Goblins player considers all of the myriad interactions at hand. He wants to cycle the Incinerator to kill the Reejerey and play Matron to find another Goblin. However, if he cycles the Incinerator, to kill the Reejerey, and plays the Matron, he’ll only have four creatures on the table, and the Piledriver will only reach seven power, and the other three creatures can be blocked by two Cursecatchers and the Silvergil Adept.

However, there is another possibility that occurs to the Goblins player. He might draw another land off the cycled Incinerator, and that land would allow him to play another creature! Goblins cycles Incinerator, killing Reejerey, drawing another Aether Vial.

Then the Goblins player realizes he made a mistake! He could have played Goblin Sharpshooter, tapped it to do one damage to the Merfolk pilot, since it would have haste because of the Warchief! Then he could have cycled the Incinerator, and killed the Reejerey, which would have triggered the Sharpshooter. At that point, the Sharpshooter can annihilate the entire Merfolk board! It can tap and kill the Adept, and then untap and kill both Cursecatchers, clearing the way for exactly 8 points of damage with attacking, and then one final point of damage at the players head with the untapped Sharpshooter! Exactly enough! But now it’s too late! The Goblins player didn’t see the interactions of Incinerator, Warchief, and Sharpshooter, against all of those one-toughness creatures to produce such a narrow win!

Reviewing the board state, once more, the Goblins pilot realizes that there is one more out. Do you see it?

The Goblins pilot taps both Mountains and plays Goblin Matron. He looks through his library, and finds it. Any creature will do. He has one mana available. With Warchief, he can find another Piledriver and play it. But even Goblin Lackey would be enough. He gets a Goblin (doesn’t matter which, as long as it costs 1 or 2 mana), taps the Badlands, and plays it.

Now he has five creatures in play: Piledriver, Warchief, Matron, Matron, and the new Goblin. He announces an attack with all five creatures, giving Piledriver nine power. The Merfolk pilot can only block three of the five creatures, meaning that at least one power of damage plus the Piledriver’s nine damage will come through, doing just enough to win the game.

In this matchup, Merfolk cannot afford to be the control deck. Goblins has so many tools at its disposal, from card drawing, tutoring, bounce, removal to selective answers for key threats. Goblins is like a mono Red combo deck, except that instead of playing with Dark Ritual, Fact or Fiction, Demonic Tutor, Diabolic Edict, Unsummon, and Shatter, it has Goblin Lackey, Goblin Piledriver, Goblin Matron, Warren Weirding, Stingscourger, and Goblin Vandal instead. Same purpose and effect, but these spells are all creatures.

Still, Merfolk had plenty of opportunity to win this game. It desperately needed to draw a third mana source, whether that was an Island, a Wasteland, or, best of all, a Mutavault. It needed to keep the tempo up, and deploy the additional Lords more quickly. Had it done so, it would have won this game.

At the same time, Goblins was fortunate to draw a nice mix of answers: double Matron and another Incinerator, naturally. Even though its Ringleader and its second Piledriver were countered, it still drew enough answers in the proper sequence.

Neither deck drew Aether Vial early enough, and it cost Merfolk dearly. The main difference in the game was that Goblins had the mana to curve out, and Merfolk didn’t. Had the situation been reversed, Merfolk would have won. That’s one of the key challenges with Aether Vial decks. When you don’t draw Aether Vial, you are mana hungry. Goblins not only had a very mana-heavy hand, but the Warchief gave it plenty of breathing room to do more with what it had A good argument could be made that Merfolk should have countered the Warchief to maintain its tempo advantage, which bled away in the two turns between turn two and Aether Vial hitting three counters. Countering the Warchief would have also weakened Piledriver. But, countering it, would have allowed the second Piledriver to resolve, and that would have been just as deadly, if not more so. Merfolk needed to draw mana on turn 3 or 4 to win this game, or have had turn 1 Vial.

Post-board, Merfolk has more tools, such as Blue Elemental Blast and Umezawa’s Jitte.

The burden of play, though, is undoubtedly on the Goblins player. There were many opportunities for the Goblins player to make a mistake. And in fact, the Goblins player made one here, but it ended up not mattering. Goblins features so many interactions that a great player – by cleverly manipulating the stack, various Goblin triggers, and Matron – can surprise and outplay opponents. Too few players appreciate what a great Goblins player is capable of, despite the fact that Goblins has been a Legacy staple since the first Legacy Grand Prix. Moreover, critical and game-decisive decisions await the Goblins every turn. Questions of about role and tempo arise, such as whether to play a creature or port a land. Whether to play for the long game, like tutoring up SGC or Ringleader, or the tempo play, such as tutoring up Incinerator. For this reason, many Goblins players even today are not fully aware of their deck’s capabilities. The best and most powerful interactions often surround using Aether Vial (especially multiple Vials) and Matron on the opponent’s turn for tremendous effect, such as Vialing in a Stingscourger or using an Incinerator found with a Matron on the opponent’s turn on that turn, to mess up their calculations and send them into a trap.

At the last Grand Prix: Columbus, I faced an excellent Goblins pilot, Chris Ripple, on Day 2. If you’ll recall, that was also known as Grand Prix: Flash. Of course, I was playing Flash, despite the fact that many decent players, like Tom LaPille, selected Goblins. Like Chris, Tom chose Goblins because in his testing he found that he could beat Flash. The reason was that most of the Flash pilots had switched from the more card intensive Disciple of the Vault + 7 x casting cost artifact creature kill, to the more compact Carrion Feeder, Karmic Guide, Body Snatcher version, which looped infinitely to generate infinite power. In testing, Goblins players found that they could disrupt that combo with simple answers like a Mogg Fanatic or a Tormod’s Crypt. Thus, I metagamed to the X-men version as a way of trumping those answers.

But even still, I found Goblins to be a tough matchup when piloted well. Chris was able to get me to 8 life within a very short time, by mixing it up with mana denial. When I went for the kill, he Matroned for Sharpshooter, and then Vialed in the Sharpshooter. The Sharpshooter had 6 triggers from the Protean Hulk and the 5 X-Men that came into and then left play while I was at 8 life. With all of that, he was able to send me exactly to 1 life in the decisive game 3, with lethal Disciple of the Vault damage on the stack, all aimed at him. Had I chosen to get all 6 X-casting cost artifact creatures, as I would have in most cases, I would have lost that game and that match.

Goblins is surging, and that means that it will be a presence and a force at GP: Columbus. Be prepared or get swarmed.

Until next time…

Stephen Menendian