Unlocking Legacy – Tarmogoyf Deckbuilding

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Without a doubt, Tarmogoyf is the best creature in Legacy. Unsatisfied with current Threshold decks, Kevin presents several ideas on how to best use the Goyf. He also looks at ways to build around and play around Counterbalance.

“I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.”
Thomas Jefferson

It’s official: Threshold is the deck to beat in Legacy. I have spent the past few weeks building and theorizing about how to beat Threshold. Threshold’s main weakness is that it is too general: it relies on being quick and flexible enough to beat any deck. The deck to beat Threshold would focus on one or two areas (like creatures, or draw spells) and focus on beating the deck there. You cannot hope to have better removal, better counters, better draw, fliers and better ground creatures than Threshold, but if you found some way to consistently land Plated Slagwurm, for example, you are going to win fights on the ground. I feel that the reliance on a few creatures that use the graveyard opens Threshold up to getting wrecked by Jotun Grunt and creature enhancements, and the reliance on cheap cantrips lets opposing decks blow it out with superior draw and tutoring.

Tarmogoyf is the most powerful creature in Legacy right now, and I think it compares favorably to the best creatures ever, a list that includes Goblin Welder, Psychatog, Wild Mongrel, and Morphling. I approached the past few weeks of deckbuilding with two goals. The first goal was to build the most powerful deck I could that abused Tarmogoyf, and the second goal was to build a deck that could win Tarmogoyf fights with U/G/x Threshold. To a certain extent I succeeded, but none of these deck skeletons I will present are tournament-worthy. When I build a deck, I examine the top tier of decks and tune the strategy to fight one or more of these. In this case, I considered the top tier U/G/W Threshold and TEPS/Belcher. I believe that in the post-GenCon world, U/G/W Threshold is at an advantage. It has Swords to Plowshares to win Tarmogoyf fights and Meddling Mage to fight against combo. For all their supposed resistance to counters, Meddling Mage is still the hardest card for the combo decks to fight. They can try and goldfish around counters but to beat Mage they have to find removal or bounce, which gives you a bottleneck to focus your counters on. The decks, especially the Aether Vial build, are too focused on the top tier and will lose out in a general field without significant tuning.

I have been spending a lot of time working on how to win Tarmogoyf fights. The baseline Tarmogoyf deck is U/G/W or U/G/R Threshold with 4 Tarmogoyf and some way to kill or steal your Tarmogoyfs. If you want to beat them, you need to do some of the following 1) Find more Tarmogoyfs, 2) Resolve more Tarmogoyfs, 3) Kill/Counter their Tarmogoyfs, 4) Make your Tarmogoyfs bigger, 5) Make their Tarmogoyfs smaller, 6) Protect your Tarmogoyfs from their removal.

Find more Tarmogoyfs. I hate the cantrip base that Threshold runs. I think Nihil explained it best when he called it a necessary evil. Obviously Brainstorm is ridiculous because it has the ability to take bad cards from your hand and replace them. I really have issues with the rest of the cantrip base Threshold traditionally runs. Those spells are decent at helping to filter away bad cards, but they are generally pretty poor. If Threshold were not tied to the one-mana spells, they could accomplish more. Dark Confidant, Sensei’s Divining Top, Thirst for Knowledge and similar spells all seem much better if you can afford them. I think one of the ways to win here is to go up to the pricier but more dependable spells like Dark Confidant and Sensei’s Divining Top. As I look at later in the article, you can also tutor up Tarmogoyfs with Green search like Worldly Tutor, Eladamri’s Call, Summoner’s Pact, and Survival of the Fittest.

Resolve more Tarmogoyfs. There are two ways to take care of this. You find ways to run more counters, or you make your men uncounterable. 4 Force of Will is automatic but beyond that, counterspells have a diminishing utility. I like Counterbalance as a way of protecting my Tarmogoyfs, but I think the best tool is Aether Vial. Vial is immune to Spell Snare and comes down before Threshold has optimized their hand. Plus it works well with Dark Confidant.

Kill/Counter their Tarmogoyfs. The absolute best tool here is Threads of Disloyalty. If you had byes at GenCon and could have predicted the number of Threshold decks turning out, Threads might even have been a good maindeck card. Otherwise it is a bomb out of the sideboard. The other ways to kill a Tarmogoyf like Swords to Plowshares are already known. Spell Snare and Counterbalance are both very good here. Nekrataal is an interesting threat in some matchups because it first strikes later to kill Meddling Magi and Dark Confidants, neither of which see tremendous amounts of play. Unfortunately, I think Flametongue Kavu’s day in the sun is up, since it is not reliable enough to kill Tarmogoyf and Goblins is on the decline. Sure, the Kavu still kills Werebears and Grunts aplenty, but the card is nowhere as exciting as it used to be.

Make your Tarmogoyfs bigger. Keep Thrill of the Hunt in the back of your mind. Thrill of the Hunt is one of the best ways to win Tarmogoyf fights since you can do it twice for almost no cost, but if the format comes to that, there is something wrong. The best permanent ways to win Tarmogoyf fights are Rancor and equipment, namely Sword of Fire and Ice and Umezawa’s Jitte. I prefer these methods in fighting Tarmogoyf because they often let your lesser creatures like Jotun Grunt trade up. If you want a temporary boost, there are two cards I personally like. The first is Giant Growth; it especially does nasty things with Boros Swiftblade. Probably the best instant to fight Tarmogoyf is Stonewood Invocation. For four mana you get enough of a boost that any bear can kill Tarmogoyf, uncounterable. It also grants shroud, which means it can also be used to counter Swords to Plowshares or Threads of Disloyalty. The problem is that it is four mana and decks that need to fight Tarmogoyfs with creatures often run twenty or fewer lands.

Make their Tarmogoyfs smaller. I included this category with the sole intention of talking about how good Jotun Grunt is. The great thing about Grunt is that you can run both it and Tarmogoyf in the same deck, and depending on the board state, you can use Grunt either to make Tarmogoyfs smaller or to maintain their size. It can quickly shrink a Tarmogoyf and even race one.

Protect your Tarmogoyfs from their removal. This is part of the reason why I like Stonewood Invocation, because it counters a piece of their removal. The interesting thing is that none of the good ‘Goyf removal spells are vulnerable to Spell Snare: they primarily come at 1 and 3. Consequently Counterbalance is a good way to keep your Tarmogoyfs around. If you are desperate, Avoid Fate will counter removal at your Goyfs, but a general counter is probably better. Also Sword of Fire and Ice can stop Threads of Disloyalty or accumulated points of burn from U/G/R Threshold. If you are worried about it, the inferior Sword of Light and Shadow can stop Swords to Plowshares and also regrow Goyfs. I do not think we are to the point where Raise Dead on a creature is better than Shock and a card, but it might be possible soon. The problem is that if Swords to Plowshares is the primarily removal, the Raise Dead effect of SoLS is less useful.

In all my creature-based decks, I like to start with 4 Tarmogoyf and 3-4 Jotun Grunt, but the potential interaction between these two cards is the main point of contention for many people. With Jotun Grunt in your hand about to come into play, there are three situations: #1) You are ahead on board. Generally this is because you have a Tarmogoyf and they don’t. In this case, you can simply hold back Jotun Grunt and wait for them to deal with the Goyf. It is also a safe bet that there is some redundancy in the graveyards: multiple instants and lands generally litter the ground in duals, in which case you can easily sustain the Grunt a few turns without affecting your Goyf. Even so, in many of your matchups feeding the Grunt would weaken your Tarmogoyf, but it will weaken your opponent’s Werebears and Nimble Mongeese more, and you get a 4/4 out of it. #2) You are behind on board. Put Grunt out, sap the strength of your opponent’s Tarmogoyf, and laugh maniacally since Grunt can easily race Tarmogoyf over a few turns. #3) The board is even. Depending on the creatures in play, Grunt is going to push you out ahead since it is a 4/4. Generally what Grunt does is get in for some damage and either trade with a creature or die. After Grunt dies, the board state is exactly the same as it was before, except your opponent doesn’t have Threshold and they are 8-12 points of life lower than they were before. He’s like Lightning Bolt, except orders of magnitude better. Even if you just do not play Grunt when you are ahead on board, the upsides to Grunt are far better than the potential downsides.

The first of the two deck skeletons is R/G/W Zoo. I originally wanted to focus on Boros Swiftblade as an alternate beatstick to Tarmogoyf, but it was just too fragile. Swiftblade is too vulnerable to removal and requires too much pump to be good. The problem with pump is that it is worse than the direct damage we have available in every circumstance but creature combat with Tarmogoyfs and with Boros Swiftblade. All too often, turn 2 would be spent making a bear. The other card this highlights is the card I consider one of the most powerful Red cards we have right now: Price of Progress. It can easily deal six or eight damage, which is just above and beyond more powerful than anything else available.

Nihil from the Source suggested adding Dark Confidant and moving to a four-color aggro build. A build splashing Black opens up Duress and Cabal Therapy as well as Bob, which helps solve the combo problems. The downside is that, because of space requirements and life total considerations, you have to choose between Dark Confidant and Price of Progress, and PoP is just an amazing card.

Rancor and Stonewood Invocation help fight Tarmogoyfs. The great thing about fighting Tarmogoyfs from the other side is that it is easy to get them to 3/4 or 4/5, but getting them above that level takes work. It is possible to get Rancor on a Grunt and be able to kill or race an opposing Tarmogoyf. The other nice thing is how Mogg Fanatic forces some poor blocks. Not only does Fanatic let you trade up (nice Werebear; have a Fanatic and an Isamaru!), but he can also team up with a Tarmogoyf to kill an opposing Tarmogoyf. Really the choice is between Kird Ape, Mogg Fanatic and Savannah Lions; Mogg Fanatic helps kill Tarmogoyfs when your creatures are going offensive as well as holding them back, so I settled on the Goblin.

The most frustrating card in the deck is Scab-Clan Mauler. When Scab-Clan works he is one of the better cards in the deck, especially since he is the only creature that tramples. When he sits in your hand, he is frustrating. He should probably either be a four or a zero; right now I am still tweaking things trying to find where things fit. Overall this style of beatdown deck is interesting to me, but it is not the kind of deck I can follow all the way through from idea to finished product.

So that is one way to use Tarmogoyf. The other deck I built went radically in the other direction, using almost all the control tools I listed above.

Anyone else notice that White cards really suck in Legacy? The only White cards I run in basically any deck are Swords to Plowshares and Jotun Grunt, with some combination of Abeyance and Orim’s Chant out of the sideboard. I have worked on maybe a dozen decks, all with just those White cards in them. I guess it is better than Wrath of God and Swords to Plowshares, but it sure seems like we’re missing some gems. Also poor Jotun Grunt; the Grunt had its time as “The Best Creature in Legacy” cut short by the printing of Tarmogoyf, even when Goyf made the Grunt more necessary. It seems like Legacy White cards are primarily damage prevention/redirection, neat Sorceries and rules-setting Enchantments that are one mana too expensive for the format, and weenies that simply cannot compete with Tarmogoyf. I think Wizards is trying to print interesting, non-typical cards in White and Green (Grunt, Goyf, Watchwolf, and Isamaru are all evidence of this), but it is difficult. Honestly it’s not a huge deal to me; I play with the cards that exist and not the cards I want to exist. I just think this is an interesting topic. Then again, a while ago we maligned Black, but it now provides a solid core in the Flash and post-Flash world, so maybe the problem isn’t the White cards, but deckbuilders.

So this deck does many things I think are interesting and cool. The one fault I find with it is that the power falls off rapidly; after the 4 Tarmogoyf and 3 Jotun Grunt, the rest of the creatures hardly count. Aside from Nimble Mongoose, which is fairly unexciting when you have access to four colors, there seem to be very few interesting and good creatures. Are there any creatures I have missed? Lightning Angel, Serendib Efreet and Sea Drake might be considerations over Meddling Mage in the main. Ideally that slot would do something other than beat down, but I think you might need some help just beating down.

People are still denigrating Aether Vial, and I cannot figure out why. It gives your creatures immunity to counters and even Counterbalance, which eliminates one of the main ways Threshold wants to fight Tarmogoyf fights. It fixes your mana and even makes your equipment better. Considering how many three- and four-color decks try to cheat on mana, Aether Vial is a format staple.

I have covered most of the elements of the deck earlier. The entire maindeck is basically set up to win matches against Threshold. It was even more lopsided when I had Threads of Disloyalty main, but the average Legacy tournament is far too random for that. If you had byes at GenCon or a Grand Prix, Threads might be a good choice though. There is no worse feeling than seeing a turn 2 Exalted Angel and staring at triple Threads of Disloyalty.

If you could run any number of Tarmogoyf, how many would you run? You can start with the 4 natural Tarmogoyfs and branch out into Summoner’s Pact, Eladamri’s Call, and Survival of the Fittest. If you want to go a different route, Muddle the Mixture, Shred Memory, and Dimir Infiltrator all tutor for Survival and Tarmogoyf.

In many Tarmogoyf decks (and in fact, in both the decks I presented) you have a few options in terms of good creature tutoring. The first option is of course, Green beatdown Survival of the Fittest. To complement the Tarmogoyf, I suggest Black for Bone Shredder and disruption, and some sort of solid plan against Landstill. MattH on The Mana Drain, Survival player extraordinaire, often ran Blue in his Survival decks and transmuted creatures into utility spells; this is a great way to get rid of Humility. Dimir Infiltrator can find Survival, Umezawa’s Jitte, and Naturalize, and Drift of Phantasms can find Krosan Grip and Sword of Fire and Ice, among other tools. They add more potentially dead or situationally weak cards but they are both ways to remove problem permanents like Humility.

Don’t like Survival, or want to try a different approach? Both Eladamri’s Call and Summoner’s Pact are a way to find more creatures. The Call is more flexible, but it forces you into White. If you are in White, I think you prefer the Call. In addition to finding extra Tarmogoyfs, it can find non-Green creatures like Flametongue Kavu (goodbye Sea Drake), Bone Shredder (goodbye Tarmogoyf), Jotun Grunt (goodbye Threshold), and even Chimney Imp (goodbye credibility). If you do not run White, Summoner’s Pact is probably better, but I simply cannot imagine not running White in a Tarmogoyf deck right now. The goal with making an Eladamri’s Call deck is to make it as consistent as possible. You want your deck to handle most problems so you can mainly use Eladamri’s Call to win the game instead of to get Kami of Ancient Law. This seems to suggest U/W/G, possibly with Black as a splash. You would also want some number of Mystic Snakes, and possibly even Momentary Blink to dodge removal and re-use Snakes and things. You could also try to take advantage of Venser, Shaper Savant as extra counterspells or bounce. After all, if Peter O. could win GenCon Legacy packing a singleton Rushing River, why not Venser with a full set of Calls to fetch it? Plus perennial all-star Exalted Angel does a fine job of racing Tarmogoyfs.

The last way I would suggest using Tarmogoyf is akin to the Vintage Merchant Scroll + SS decks. I do not have a better name to describe them, but they are built around card advantage creatures and using Merchant Scroll to keep Force of Will stocked. Why not use Merchant Scroll in Legacy? Merchant Scroll can easily tutor up Force of Will, Misdirection, and Spell Snare to help you resolve and protect your Tarmogoyfs. It seems bad, but Merchant Scroll as Force of Will #5-8 presents a near-insurmountable wall for the opposing player to break through, since they know that your hand is full of counters for their responses. You could also touch Mystical Tutor/Lim-Dul’s Vault and get Avoid Fate (finally a good way to use it?) and Eladamri’s Call/Summoner’s Pact as a way to find more Tarmogoyfs. In all the Tarmogoyf-focused builds, make sure you have redundancy and answers to Extirpate.

The main risk with a Tarmogoyf-focused deck is that the Llurghoyf is everywhere; even some combo decks are splashing 4 Tarmogoyf as a backup plan. This means that you cannot afford to invest all your resources growing your Tarmogoyf in order for your opponent to play one and piggyback your advantages. I think Tarmogoyf is a useful sub-theme and worth tweaking some card choices (like Seal of Fire in the Zoo list above), but not worth building completely around. You can guess that it is going to naturally be a 3/4 or a 4/5 in most matchups, which is enough to win without spending extra effort. When I build Tarmogoyf decks I look for sub-themes that work differently from Tarmogoyf. Aside from Grunt, because it helps win Goyf fights, I shy away from pairing other graveyard creatures with Tarmogoyf since it basically turns Jotun Grunt into cheap mass removal. Also expect Iggy Pop with maindeck Leyline to become prominent again in the Meddling Mage-less world, since Leyline of the Void is good against Grunt and Goyf. Speaking of which, congratulations to Iggy creator Mike Bomholt for his Top 16 finish at GenCon!

Expect Iggy, TES, and Belcher to show up; not every combo deck is going to be vulnerable to Swords to Plowshares the way Cephalid Breakfast is. You need anti-combo disruption; this takes the form of either Duress and Cabal Therapy, Orim’s Chant and Abeyance, or Force of Will and other counters. This means that you have to pair Tarmogoyf with a color that lets you beat combo (in addition to some sort of Empty the Warrens answer in the sideboard like Engineered Explosives). Black disruption is good not just against combo, but also many other decks. Consequently I think there might be merit in some sort of Black Tarmogoyf deck that uses 6-8 maindeck disruption spells. Many players have tried to splash Tarmogoyf into B/W Confidant, B/r Sui and similar decks, but what about dropping the high-end elements for a full set of Therapies and even Jittes? Something possibly even more aggressive than Doug’s deck from two weeks ago. I love Gerrard’s Verdict, but most of those cards rely on beating Threshold through tricks rather than power. At least when I play with 2/2s (all too frequently), I pair them with equipment.

The final question would be whether Tarmogoyf is a good addition to Tog. Several articles ago (okay, five months) I looked at a player (Kyle Dargan) who Top 8ed The Mana Leak with Loam Tog because he correctly predicted that he could beat anything in the room but Goblins and prepared to take advantage of the low Goblins turnout. Well, now Goblins has started to fall from the format. Assuming players don’t take advantage of the metagame gap and play Goblins in large numbers, Loam Tog might be seized for a comeback. I used to run Nimble Mongoose in Tog as a backup, since the Mongoose could simply walk past the fields were Togs go farming and beat down. Tarmogoyf is not untargetable, but it wins the game much quicker. Plus Tog can selectively eat from the graveyard to shrink Tarmogoyfs and beat them in combat. You get Pernicious Deed, Vedalken Shackles, Intuition, Togs, Nimble Mongoose, Tarmogoyf, and counters. Is this good? I’m not sure; my reservations about monolithic Blue-based control hold, but the Loam engine might be another way to get an edge against Threshold’s cantrip engine. You could also build Tog in a Counterbalance-Top shell the way the old Extended builds did. In general, I just think that while Tarmogoyf is a good creature for aggressive decks, it is an even better tool for control and combo decks.

Speaking of Counterbalance, that card is everywhere. It turns out when every deck is almost identical, Counterbalance provides an easy way to win the mirror. All the aggro-control decks, even the ones that are different colors, have about eighteen lands, four cards that cost 5, zero to two cards that cost 4 and the rest of the deck is a split between cards that cost 1 and cards that cost 2. This means that you have a decent chance to counter an opponent’s card blind, and Top almost guarantees you can counter any 1 or 2. The best way to beat Counterbalance is to diversify. Of course every Blue aggro-control deck is going to run its share of Force of Will and Brainstorm, but many of the lists only run win conditions that are cost 2, and are therefore extremely vulnerable (as an aside, this increases vulnerability to Spell Snare too). There were four Threshold decks in the GenCon Top 8; all four ran 4 Nimble Mongoose and 4 Tarmogoyf. Two of the decks ran some number of another 1G creature, either Werebear or Quirion Dryad. What about another creature, one that is not vulnerable to Spell Snare as well? In U/G/R Threshold Serendib Efreet used to be in vogue as a supplemental beater. The option seems very attractive since it is immune to Spell Snare, Lightning Bolt, Threads of Disloyalty, and it is harder to hit with Engineered Explosives or Vedalken Shackles. Fledgling Dragon was always another option Threshold players used pre-Tarmogoyf; both the Dragon and the Efreet fly to avoid getting caught in a Tarmogoyf-inspired ground stall. You could even splash White into your U/G/R Threshold decks; you would keep Red Elemental Blasts to fight Landstill, but you would gain Swords to Plowshares (if you wanted it) and Mystic Enforcer to fight the mirror. The White splash has another upside: now that Meddling Mage has fallen out of favor, combo has stopped being as vigilant in fighting it. The Cephalid Breakfast deck in the Top 8 has no maindeck answers to a Meddling Mage, and only 2 Echoing Truth and 1 Crippling Fatigue in the sideboard. Sure, the fatigue flashes back, but Mage presents them a problem they have to answer before they can win. They have to be confident they can beat your counterwall and fight over Crippling Fatigue before they start to combo off, and it costs them extra mana.

There is not really an excuse to have your Krosan Grip countered by Counterbalance, especially if they have Sensei’s Divining Top. It is amusing that it is actually easier to beat Counterbalance with Grip if they have Top. Since Grip has split second, in order to be able to beat Grip with Counterbalance the opponent has to continually “float” a three casting cost spell on top of their library. If they draw that spell, they are out protection, so sometime before they draw they have to activate Sensei’s Divining Top to put another card on top. All you have to do is Grip the Counterbalance after that. If both players know how the stack works it becomes a game of chicken, but one where the player with the Krosan Grip will always win. All you need to do is wait until they move the Grip and hit Counterbalance. Now, the opponent may know this and try to fake you out by using Top but leaving a three on top to draw out Grip. Don’t be fooled. You want to fight this battle on the opponent’s own upkeep. The way priority works, the opponent gets priority first in their upkeep. This is their last chance to move the card away. If you pass priority (play no effects), they immediately move to draw the card in their draw step, without another chance to play fast effects. This means, once you have Grip and the opponent has Top + Counterbalance, one of two things happen. If the opponent left their three casting cost spell on top you can force them to draw it, and if they move it, you can remove Counterbalance. The trick here is telling which is which. If you get into a habit of manually passing priority, the opponent will get into a routine and not try to bluff you (as long as you don’t let them know you have Grip). It is important not to shortcut this. If things get muddled, it will become difficult to sort through, since the other player will try to claim they never passed priority. Once Counterbalance hits the table, I would actively confirm things in the end step and upkeep. You lose a little of the element of surprise, but it will help hide Krosan Grip; if you do not be consistent the opponent will tell when you drew Grip from when you start walking through phases (although this could be a useful bluff). Don’t have access to Krosan Grip? At least position Engineered Explosives correctly. You can make EE cost 3 or 4 to dodge Counterbalance, and this is another easy way to deal with the problem enchantment. Merely cast it for UUG or UUUG; you get the bonus of avoiding Spell Snare. Just do not go overboard finding a weird casting cost and run yourself into Daze.

One last card to mention, and I’m including it at the end because it really needs to stand or fall on its own merits: Slaughter Pact. I know it gets the disadvantage of being lumped into the same category as the other Pacts, which tend towards the expensive side of things. Slaughter Pact is really useful though, and I think it deserves more play than it is seeing. It is the second most flexible removal spell, after Swords to Plowshares. For decks that can support it, Slaughter Pact allows you to deal with troublesome creatures right away. Slaughter Pact first jumped on the radar in Standard and Block because you can tap out for a mana rock on turn 2 and still have access to the Pact (and 3 mana on turn 2). Here it is a good way to double up on removal. It leaves all your mana open for killing and removing creatures, and it is unexpected. As long as you do not walk your only Black source into Wasteland, it seems better than things like Smother that get thrown about. Plus, as a zero casting cost spell, it is more problematic for Counterbalance than Swords to Plowshares or Smother. I think this is a card that could stand to see more play. That said, Swords to Plowshares is the better card in almost every situation, so Slaughter Pact is only recommended as Swords to Plowshares #5-8.

Kevin Binswanger
[email protected]

Thanks to Doug Linn and Rich Shay for originally cluing me in to this use of Eladamri’s Call and Summoner’s Pact.

Congratulations to all the Legacy writers: this marks Unlocking Legacy #30. Good work guys, and thanks for reading everyone!

And finally, sorry about the length. The #1 request I get when I ask for feedback is to explore things outside the top tier decks. Amusing, the #2 request I get is to focus on the top tier decks. I think this article matches my style; after I get an idea of what the top decks like to do and how they approach matchups (and I like to get a lot of feedback on this), I look at them from an outsider’s perspective. How do I beat Goblins/what does Goblins not want to see? In this case, it was “How do I beat Tarmogoyf and Counterbalance?” If you can beat the best cards in Threshold, you can beat the worst.

Doubly finally, please send me any ideas or thoughts you may have: positive or negative. I want to write better articles that serve the community better, so I welcome feedback.