The Road To Columbus #1: The Goblins Versus Threshold Matchup

Take a look at any Legacy Top 8 and you’ll see the Big Three show up over and over again; these decks are Goblins, Threshold, and High Tide. At any event, one must be prepared to play each of these decks several times, and for a new deck to function well, it must beat these decks. Good luck on that. The Big Three are format-defining, and in some ways, distorting. This series will focus on the matchups between these decks in the coming weeks.

With the Grand Prix in May announced in Columbus being the Legacy format, I found this a perfect motivation to get back into the action. My name is Doug Linn; I’ve been a member of Team Meandeck for several years now and I have an enthusiasm for the Legacy format. My team is most well-known for its work in the Vintage format, but we also have a strong hobby interest in Legacy. Last year’s Legacy champ Roland Chang is a member, along with Legacy veterans Mike Herbig and Rian Litchard. In this series I will be exploring the format and calling on my bright team members to give an accurate portrayal and commentary of the Legacy format for veteran and beginner alike.

Take a look at any Legacy Top 8 and you’ll see the Big Three show up over and over again; these decks are Goblins, Threshold, and High Tide. At any event, one must be prepared to play each of these decks several times, and for a new deck to function well, it must beat these decks. Good luck on that. The Big Three are format-defining, and in some ways, distorting. This series will focus on the matchups between these decks in the coming weeks.

First, let’s take a look at the Threshold versus Goblins matchup. Let’s have some decklists for something to look off of:

The Early Game: Mulligans and Beyond For Threshold

Threshold’s strategy here is to land cheap, efficient creatures and cantrip until you get threshold. The biggest early threat out of Goblins’s arsenal is a Goblin Piledriver. These guys let them combo you out and you must be willing to trade creatures with them. The problem is, your creatures are smaller than theirs until you reach threshold, so a correct strategy would be creature > cantrip > counter. Nimble Mongoose is a notoriously hard creature to kill, so you can afford to take some early damage from attackers to make sure your Mongoose gets big. They cannot Mogg Fanatic or Gempalm Incinerator it, so it’s your best bet for holding down early defenses. Getting it to threshold means that Goblins cannot kill it except with a traded Piledriver, so it forces their attacks into attrition wars. Devote turns 1-4 to finding and playing several creatures and then work on reaching Threshold and answering Goblins.

Key is realizing what threats really hurt Threshold. Goblin Lackey is at the forefront. Mulligan any hand you open that cannot stop him, through Force of Will, Swords to Plowshares, or Nimble Mongoose. Lackey hitting is baaaaaad news. He brings a lot of cool friends out that cheat tempo or card advantage and just bury you. Lackey is Goblins’s Black Lotus. Next up the list in the early game is Goblin Warchief. Stop him if you can or you will again get avalanched in quick, aggressive Goblins. It’s important to realize that Goblins can keep pretty much any hand they draw and still have plenty of game versus Threshold; that the latter must mulligan into an answer to Lackey procedurally means that Goblins has a tactical advantage before the game even begins.

I advocate Threshold decks with Pithing Needle main in some quantity. Goblins, on a long enough timeline, will have Aether Vial in play and eventually will get it to four or five counters. That means the deadly duo hits without you getting a say in it. If you have a hand full of cantrips in the midgame or you’ve got the board stalled, cantrip aggressively into a Pithing Needle or two and pre-emptively set it for Vial. Your goal is to make Goblins play on your level. This is a close match so you must make every card in your deck effective; this means making sure your Forces and Counterspells work for the future.

Later in the game, hold counters for Goblin Ringleader or Siege-Gang Commander. Both cards can explode Goblins ahead in a stalled board or topdecking war. Any other threat you can reasonably trade guys or Swords with, but the nature of those two goblins means that if they resolve, you will not be able to get a 1-for-1 parity out of cards. Countering these is crucial.

How Goblins Will Kill You One Way Or Another

From the Goblins side of the table, you must be aggressive from the start and never stop. Ideally, you’ve landed a Lackey or Vial on the first turn; if you’ve done this without resistance, you’ve probably won. The thing to remember is that quickly, their creatures become better than yours across the board. You need to be attacking in all the time to get damage here and damage there. Because you have more creatures, you can leverage this against Threshold, which has usually around ten creatures. They have to cantrip into more where you just find them with the draw step. Sacrificing several Goblins to deal a couple points of damage is not a bad trade because Threshold can rarely attack back without opening them up for very dangerous counterattacks after around turn 6 or 7. Your biggest threat after the first few turns is Ringleader and Siege-Gang Commander. Bait out counters, Swords, or whatever you can do to force them through. Both of them make the attack step far less necessary for victory. Goblin Piledriver is one of your biggest bluffs; it will always at least one-for-one Threshold. When the game goes long, start thinking about how you’ll Siege-Gang or Sharpshooter them out if the board gets chunky. Your Incinerators will blow through everything but Mongeese, so you’ll be able to continue attacking.

Plan on never letting Threshold have a breath to recover. Keep the damage coming, keep them making decisions. Your Incinerators will likely be more valuable when cast versus in the hand during the early and midgame (in the late-game you can probably start killing Werebears with it). The more choices an opponent has, the more chances they have to screw up and this will really win it for you. Leverage your aggressiveness and the fact that you know what your hand is and they do not. Threshold isn’t going to be crippled by your mana denial like a control deck would, but it will be slowed. Slowed by another cantrip. Another attack phase. Another few points of damage. Another win for you.

When Good Board States Go Bad

Since neither Goblins nor Threshold has board sweepers, you’ll end up in a ground stall where both of you are sitting on a few creatures, unable to commit to attacking for risk of losing several creatures in the process for no real gain. Goblins can make attrition attacks more readily because they can eventually just kill you with Sharpshooter or Siege-gang Commander if the board fouls up. They can attack for several points of damage and lose a goblin or three in the process if it gets you closer to zero; their deck has 30+ creatures in it so eventually they can just attack you out. This means that Threshold has to be careful about the quantity of Goblins on the board as well. A nice tactic is to swing through with a Werebear, giving the Goblins player the options of taking four or losing several Goblins in a trade with the creature. Each result is fine. After the attack, play another creature to sit on defense and shake the opponent. This is pretty elementary advice but it bears repeating.

(As an aside, if you’re a Vintage player exclusively, go and read some stuff on the combat step – Ted Knutson Academy on the Wizards site is a good reference. At one Vintage event, I had to call a judge twice in the same step of the attack phase because I’m bad at attacking and so are you. Don’t be bad.)

The Turn-to-turn Flow and Sideboarding

The matchup is very tight, so eventually Goblins will land Ringleader (the Red Fact or Fiction), or Threshold will drop Mystic Enforcer and evade for the win. I don’t like making match percentages, but I think this one is at least 60/40 in favor of Goblins; their late-game is just a lot better than Threshold’s. They have plenty (10+) of creatures to draw to put Thresh under (Ringleader and Siege-gang, and Matron finds both), where Thresh has only 1 or 2 – Enforcers.

However, I feel that this match, more than any other, really goes to the better player and the more prepared one. The question of “who is the beatdown” changes through the course of the game, interestingly enough. This following part surprised me a lot after I noticed it in the course of the match – if one were to graph the power of Goblins, it would look like the letter U with the dip starting around turn 4 and returning near or after turn 6. It is in this window that Threshold can leverage its power best, and it makes sense. On turn 4, you have 3/3s and 4/4s and Goblins will have one or two smaller creatures. This window is the best chance Threshold has for taking control of the game and holding onto it. Past this point, Goblins gets sufficient mana to cast its big threats. If Threshold can put Goblins on the defense, even for a turn or two, it has won the game.

Neither deck has much to sideboard in, usually only Red Elemental Blast or Blue Elemental Blast, but sometimes focused tech like Tivadar’s Crusade or Ib Halfheart, Goblin Tactician. These specialized cards don’t impress me; they don’t swing the match strongly enough for one player to recover from a setback. Thinking beyond the turn you are in, things like proactive Pithing Needles or holding back Goblins for a surprise alpha strike, are the real game-breakers.

Few American Threshold decks run Worship on the board, one of the few cards that really scares Goblins when there are Mongeese involved. If you suspect Worship from the Goblins side, bring in Tranquil Domain or Naturalize, whichever one you have on your board. That said, Threshold’s board is usually too tight to squeeze in Worship so I wouldn’t be too concerned. Threshold should be far more concerned about Chalice of the Void than Red Elemental Blast coming from Goblins. If you have won the first game as Threshold, figure out how concerned you are that Goblins will be landing Chalice set at 1, which turns off literally half of your deck.

Goblins can count on a long game here so it can board out some of its smaller, more tactical creatures. It’s perfectly fine to decrease your count of Mogg Fanatics and/or Gempalm Incinerators for some REBs or Chalices, but really I don’t think you need to bother with REBs. There are no Blue spells from Threshold that really scare you; Chalice, however, is a fine play to board in. Threshold can consider boarding Dazes out if it is on the draw; it can also selectively cut cantrips, but not creatures, from the maindeck. The peculiarity of the match is such that both decks seem like they’re better unsideboarded because their central strategies are what gives them the edge and it’s best not to dilute your raw power.

A Review of Tactics and Strategies

Threshold’s goals:

  • Have an answer for Goblin Lackey in your opening hand
  • Concentrate on early creatures and then reaching Threshold
  • Leverage your creature advantage while you still have it
  • Understand that the threats from Goblins changes over the course of the game – Lackey and Warchief early, Ringleader and Siege-Gang Commander later
  • Know that as the game goes on, your chances of winning decrease dramatically

Goblins’s goals:

  • Use mana denial to pull yourself into the late-game when you are casting your card advantage Goblins
  • Don’t be afraid to sacrifice creatures for points of damage
  • Set up for the long game; Piledrivers are bait, Ringleaders are far more important
  • Attack, attack, attack. Put constant pressure on Threshold

Thanks for joining me! In my next article, I’ll be looking at the Goblins versus High Tide match, the results of which are actually quite surprising. You won’t want to miss the analysis!

Doug Linn
Team Meandeck
Hi-Val on the Internet