Weak Among the Strong: Grand Prix Goblins, Part II

One of the things I think is often lacking in Magic articles is honesty. I’m not talking about people giving inferior lists so they can protect their tech, although that certainly happens. I’m talking about people not being honest enough with themselves to be honest with us about what they did and why. Today I will be fully honest about exactly how well my Goblin deck performed at Grand Prix: Boston, the mistakes I made with it, and the modifications I feel are necessary to make it even more competitive in this crazy environment.

[If you have not read part 1 or need a refresher, you can find it here.]

One of the things I think is often lacking in Magic articles is honesty. I’m not talking about people giving inferior lists so they can protect their tech, although that certainly happens. I’m talking about people not being honest enough with themselves to be honest with us about what they did and why.

With honesty on the stack, how do I explain my rather “odd” sideboard? Partly it was due to limited preparation time, which in turn meant very little in the way of sideboarded matches played. Partly it was due to not having any idea what the environment was going to be like. And partly it was due to leaving roughly a third of the cards I meant to bring with me at home.

As we were finding random cards for our decks, the random scouting reports said that there was a lot of Red Deck Loses, a lot of Life and a lot of Affinity. Affinity was hated out with Pulverize and Overload, with the Overloads being nice to bring in against Red and various other decks with Moxen, Medallions, Vials, etc. Against Life it seems you have only two choices if you’re playing Goblins. Either you board in a ton of cards (mainly Cursed Totem or Sulfuric Vortex) or you hope that they slow themselves down by a turn by bringing in lots of Disenchants while you stick to your plan and don’t bring in anything special. I went with the latter approach. The rest of the sideboard was somewhat random, with the extra-random Gamble there to help me find what I needed.

Round one: Timothy Kenda, GAT

Timothy is at his first GP and is a bit nervous. We joke about how I undoubtedly have the most lifetime PT points of anyone playing in round one. Nothing like a bad last tournament followed by a sabbatical from Magic to make sure you don’t have byes.

GAT is a pretty cool deck, and one that is on my list to test – both because I might like to run it and because I think it will gain in popularity as the season goes on. At this point, however, I only have a basic idea of what it does, and in round one you never really know how far your opponent will stray off the normal plan.

Timothy leads with a Quirion Dryad, which I can swing into but will get wrecked if he has a cantrip. I decide not to get wrecked, since the odds are good that he has it and because a lone fattie isn’t such a big deal. Instead I play to kill it by getting out enough Goblins that either Sparksmith or Gempalm can do its evil work. Goblin Matron comes out when the Dryad is a 3/3 and fetches a hasty Sparksmith, but when Sparky tries to kill the Dryad he Stifles it. Timothy said afterwards that of course he should have Stifled the Matron’s ability, but this might have been worse because I had a Gempalm with enough mana to use it and that would have tapped him out so I could have killed the 3/3 before it became a 4/4.

At some point Timothy apparently had a window to cast Armageddon, but instead put out a Tog, which in turn let me get too far ahead on the board. He played Engineered Explosives for three to clear away some Goblins (and his Tog), but Ringleader card advantage overwhelmed him.

In game two Timothy kept a hand with Island, 2 Daze and Mox Diamond, along with some other goodies. He Dazed my first Goblin but then didn’t draw lands and got swarmed.

Round two: Jason Patterson, Reanimator

Game one sees a speedy Rorix, via Reanimate. As is often the case, Reanimate and his pain lands did too much damage to him, especially with me on the play. After the game he commented that he thinks he would have won if Rorix had been Akroma, but I was at 8 when I killed him and Akroma would simply have forced me to kill him a turn later when I would have had ample damage even with him blocking a Piledriver.

Game two Jason is on the play, which is naturally quite bad. He reanimates Akroma on turn 2, and on the play that’s just too fast. At least I get to go first in the deciding game.

Game three I lead with Aether Vial, which he meets with turn 1 Chill. I figure that’s probably okay, since I have the Vial and it’s likely that his hand doesn’t have all the pieces but was a keeper because he hoped to buy time with the Chill. On turn 2 he Exhumes Akroma. That’s right, he didn’t even take 8 from Reanimate.

So you lost, right? Holy Pikula!

No wait, I did lose that one.

Round three: Jeremy Kunkel, Black Control

Jeremy and Jason were friends, so he knew what I was playing. Frown. He was with mono-Black control. Smile. One of the things that got me hooked on Goblins was the card advantage it demonstrated while utterly demolishing my own MBC deck, so as soon as I knew what Jeremy was playing I felt like a big favorite.

Game one played out according to plan. I played guys. He killed them. I played out more. They died too. At some point one of them died to Corrupt. Then they stopped dying and it was Jeremy’s turn. Jeremy made things a bit easier by forgetting to bring back his Nether Spirit for a couple of turns, or at least I think he forgot. After the match it seemed that he was hoping to get me to overcommit for a Mutilate, but in my opinion the best way to achieve that would be to bring back the Spirit so I have to overcommit to get through.

Game two Jeremy brought out Culling Scales. This was the best answer I came up with for Sulfuric Vortex and Jeremy had the same thought, although we differed in that I decided it wasn’t good enough. The problem with the Scales is that they are just too slow – and some of my best Goblins cost plenty of mana. Jeremy was also mana-shy this game (I think the Scales hit on turn 4 because he missed his third land drop), and in any case I ran over him.

Round four: Chris Jarmak, Life

Life. Frown. In one game Chris is stuck on two lands and I have an active Port. Sadly for me, his first play was Aether Vial and one of his lands is a Starlit Sanctum, so I still lose. In another game (two, I think) I manage an excellent beatdown draw and combo him out. In game three he is on the play and has a good draw and there’s simply no way I can race that.

At this point I’m 2-2 and almost certainly out of Day 2. That’s sad, but I’m not too unhappy for two reasons. First, I knew in advance that I was below the learning curve for where I should be to be qualifying. I can get away with that sometimes in Limited formats, but don’t expect to in Constructed. So basically my main goals in this tournament are to learn my deck and get a better feel for what’s out there so that I’ll be better-positioned for future tournaments. The other reason is that I’ve played four different decks in four rounds and three of them strike me as tier one or very close. There are ample other tier one decks out there. That’s amazing for any Constructed environment.

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Round five: Jim Davis, Rock

Good old Rock. Nothing beats Rock. Except Goblins. (Okay, and quite a few other decks.)

Once again, my opponent knew in advance what I was playing, as I found out when he led with turn 1 Cabal Therapy on Goblin Warchief. I actually don’t think that’s the right Goblin to name at all – what beats the Rock isn’t your speed but your card advantage. The Goblins to get rid of are Matron and Ringleader.

Game one plays out by the plan. Jim blocks and gets land. He plays and blows a Deed. And gradually my Goblins put out more threats than he can handle. When each Ringleader has seven possible cards that can lead to another Ringleader it’s very hard for a deck that mostly kills one-for-one to keep up.

Game two, Jim decides to name Piledriver instead of Warchief, and naturally I have a Piledriver but no Warchief. He comes out a bit stronger than in game one and starts hitting me with Kokusho. I get out enough of an army to keep him back, but only because we both had the same brainfart. Jim still has a Cabal Therapy in his graveyard and I’m at ten life, so all he has to do is swing for five and then drain me out.

In any case, the defensive plan is doomed and a turn or two later he dies to a swarm. We play a third game for fun and despite Jim being on the play he can’t keep up with the Goblins.

Round six: Kevin Folinus, Affinity

Kevin wins the roll and gets one of those great Affinity starts. I manage to kill his artifact men, but am a bit low on life and facing two Atogs. For a while it looks like I might come back and take over the board if he doesn’t have a Fling, but he does and he kills me with it.

Kevin boards in Absolute Law and plays it in a situation where I’d be dead next turn if I didn’t have Pulverize. Pulverize is somewhat better than Absolute Law in this matchup.

In Game three I get a good beatdown draw, but with no sideboard cards. I kept, and think that this is just a simple error on my part. I’m at a clear disadvantage on the draw and with him possibly having sideboard cards, whereas a hand with Pulverize almost can’t lose, and even a hand with an Overload would be helpful. I don’t remember too many details, but I know that I lost. Frown.

So now I’m 3-3 and have played against six completely different decks, so everything I wrote above is still true but moreso.

Unfortunately my notes are a bit blurry at this point, and I’ve mixed up my round seven and eight matches. I know my opponents were Alan Race and Anthony Bledsoe, running Red Deck Loses with Tangle Wire and Blue/Green Madness, but I don’t remember which is which.

Red Deck Loses with Tangle Wire:

In game one he “locks” me with multiple Tanglewires, but that’s just dandy with me, since he doesn’t have out a Slith Firewalker which is about the only thing that could be a problem. (Anything smaller I’d kill with a Fanatic and/or Incinerator.) I play an Aether Vial and take some small beats, tapping the first creature or two I Vial in so that I can keep mana open and force him to use his Ports rather than add threats. Gradually the Wires fade away, leaving me with enough life and plenty of resources, and I push him off the table. I don’t remember too much about game two, but again I don’t think it was terribly close. Tangle Wire has to be really lucky to be good against Goblins; most of the time it just magnifies the card advantage that typically wins this matchup.

Blue/Green Madness:

This is one of my best matchups, and really wasn’t terribly hard. Once a swarm of Goblins comes out, it’s virtually impossible for him to race and it’s absolutely impossible for him to play for board control. He gets down to three cards in hand with Wild Mongrel and Aquamoeba in play and I play a fourth Goblin. He discards Logic to the Mongrel (as I expected) and in response to the discard I cycle Gempalm. Since the Mongrel will still be a 2/2 when the Gempalm resolves, he has to pitch his whole hand (Deep Analysis and Circular Logic as it turns out) to “save” it, at which point I let the Gempalm resolve and finish it with a Fanatic, leaving him with just a 1/3 in play and Deep Analysis in the yard, facing two Goblins and three cards in my hand. Of course, it’s not much better for him if he keeps the cards, since his Aquamoeba will die to Fanatic the moment he discards anything and he’s still way behind on the board.

I think in game two he kept a bad draw (mana-light?) and got crushed, but I don’t really remember. The Goblin deck has to get a really bad draw for this match to go poorly. Blue/Green was described as a bad version of Affinity and I think that’s about right, except that in addition to it not having quite as much raw power or the ability to drain someone out, it also lacks Vial tricks and Fling. A bit of permission and flying doesn’t come close to making up for that.

Round nine: Thomas Buck, Enchantress

First of all, that’s nine rounds and nine different decks – not just a little bit different, but completely different archetypes.

Game one was probably my favorite game of the tournament. I’m on the play and get a bit of pressure down, but not enough to race Thomas who has enchanted two lands with Rampant Growth and Fertile Ground (one each) and has an Enchantress in play. Fortunately for me, I’ve got two Ports and an Aether Vial. Unfortunately I only have one Mountain. From the turn where Thomas enchanted the second land onwards, I attack for a bit of damage and then sacrifice a Goblin (to Prospector) during his upkeep to pay for the second Port. First it was a Matron, then the Ringleader she summoned and then finally the Vial was on five and I was dropping Siege-Gang – he died a turn after that.

Game two I have an okay draw and unsurprisingly he combos me out. One recurring theme of the tournament is that the pure races are somewhat fair when mono-Red Goblins goes first but pretty horrible if you’re on the draw.

Game three I mulligan into an okay hand with Vial, Flunkies, Warchief and a Port. I draw lands for my first three turns and things aren’t looking too good since my clock is going to be a turn or two too slow when suddenly Thomas concedes. He explains that he forgot to sideboard out an Enchantress he’d wished for in game two and thus presented me an illegal deck.

Every now and then this happens and I think the people who are honest enough to do it deserve real credit. Of course we weren’t playing for Day 2 or anything tangible at stake, but Thomas is officially on the list of good guys – a list that isn’t as long as it ought to be, but is probably much longer than most cynics think.

As it turns out, my next draw was going to be a Piledriver, meaning I would have attacked for ten on turn 4 which might well have been enough, along with the Port. Thomas wasn’t sure and we shook hands and agreed we were looking forward to playing again in another tournament.

6-3 is a hard result to judge much by, even putting aside the fact that the N of nine is too small anyway. Rather than judging the overall result, I think some things can be said about the deck for those considering taking it to a PTQ.

First, I think you’ve got an edge against every other creature deck out there, including other versions of Goblins, Red Deck Loses, U/G Madness or Threshold and, with the right sideboard, Affinity and White Weenie. You have comparable speed to any of those decks other than Affinity, and your card advantage and tutoring power are superior to theirs.

White Weenie is supposedly a nightmare matchup, but I played against one in the Day Two PTQ and our match would suggest the opposite. In game one you actually have inevitability, since even an active Sergeant usually can’t keep up with the Matron/Ringleader engine. Moreover, while Mother of Runes does a decent job of defense, she can’t really be used offensively since she’ll die the second she taps. My opponent got in some damage with bears until I whipped out a 6/6, at which point he stayed home while I built up an army and blew him off the table. In game two he slapped down Absolute Law and won, but in game three I had the answer in Thran Lens. It shut down his Crusade and would have repealed the Law if he’d drawn it – instead it just meant that all my guys were better than his, so I killed him. (The match was close to a draw on time, but not on the board.)

The problem the deck has is that it’s too slow to race combo and there are a lot of good combo decks out there. You’re not helpless – my combo matches tended to be 2-1 affairs, and I managed to 2-0 Aluren despite mulliganing to five cards – but you’re definitely the underdog. Mana suppression (Ports, Gempalms and Overload) can help but this is a real weakness if your local area has a lot of combo. My next avenue is to sigh and follow Mike’s advice about Chrome Mox. My fear is that losing a creature will hurt too much, but perhaps the Matron/Piledriver engine is simply too strong for that to matter. See more on this below.

Sideboarding thoughts:

For the PTQ the next day my sideboard was a bit less random:

3 Pulverize

3 Overload

2 Keldon Vandal

2 Thran Lens

1 Goblin King

1 Scroll Rack

1 Sparksmith

1 Goblin Goon

1 Cave-In

Thran Lens is actually a lot more versatile than I thought. I went up to two copies for the PTQ because of Affinity boarding in Rule of Law and the high number of U/W Desire decks. As it happens I second-guessed myself and didn’t board it in vs. Desire, which flat-out cost me the match since it would easily have killed him as he hid behind Sphere. It’s also quite good against Aluren, since it shuts down gating and makes it possible to kill Champion, both of which make their life a lot harder.

Rack 'em up

Scroll Rack deserves a very serious testing – so much so that I’m going to look at maindecking one in the Moxen version, where the deck may be fast enough to support it and where it could singlehandedly reverse the impact of having to imprint a Goblin. Scroll Rack has always been busted with effects that let you shuffle and/or draw a certain type of card. The most notable use was with Land Tax, whereby you would Rack all the basic land in your hand onto your deck in exchange for new cards and then Tax the land back into your hand. Matron/Ringleader isn’t quite that powerful, but it’s still potentially insane – put four Goblins and a land on top of your deck during your opponent’s EOT, then untap, draw the land, Ringleader for four and, if needed, repeat. During game two against White Weenie the Rack and Matron let me look at about fifteen extra cards in search of a Lens that might have made that match 2-0; fifteen extra cards to find your silver bullet will kill a lot of werewolves.

I also think that Scroll Rack should be looked at closely by those who (whether for Cabal Therapy or FtK) have diluted their Goblin engine but gained other advantages.

Keldon Vandals (I sideboarded two for the PTQ) are also even better than I thought. It’s very sad that they aren’t Goblins, but being able to blow up an artifact and put a 4/1 on the table is pretty exciting. The removal delay (compared to something like Overload or Shattering Pulse) is something I worried about at first, but it isn’t as bad as I feared. Against Red Deck Wins you’re not really in a hurry to blow up their artifacts, and against the combo decks turn three is fine as long as you’re on the play – they tap out to play a Medallion and you tap out to kill it and play a 4/1. Beatdown decks that sideboard in a lot of control stuff often find that they can’t put on enough pressure so their controlling proves insufficient; for this reason I think a mix of Vandals and Overload is probably the right way to go.

Goblin King never really got a chance to shine, and I’m torn on whether he’s worth a slot. Very few people boarded in Plague against me, and given the lack of high Goblin finishes at the GP (and in PTQ Top 8s in general) I don’t think that’s going to change. He might just be better as another Goon, or perhaps a Pyromancer.

Another card that seems to have no place in Extended but could actually be the best sideboard card against Desire is Boil! Basically, Desire decks have very little permission (often just one in the board), routinely tap out to play stuff, run lots of basic Islands, and have all learned that Chill isn’t a good sideboard card against Red decks. Between Ports and removal of their mana-enhancers, and their own tendency to bring in Sphere of Law to slow you down, there may often be a good window for a one-sided Armageddon. Completely untested, but worth a look.

Other thoughts

Anyone looking at my list will notice a very surprising card missing – Goblin Sharpshooter! Since this is one of the defining cards of the deck and can do an absurd amount of damage, surely I should be running one as a tutor target?

The reason I cut him is that in all my testing I never once tutored for him when it mattered. There were situations in which he was good, even great, but never once did I play a game where he would win it for me and where otherwise I was losing. Instead there were games where I was winning anyway and he would have made the win flashier. In situations that mattered I Matroned for Warchiefs, Ringleaders, Flunkies, Piledrivers, Incinerators, my Goon, my Siege-Gang, my Sparksmith and surprisingly often for Goblin Matron, but never for Sharpshooter. That could just mean that I’m bad at Magic, and even now I keep asking, “If I could tutor for Sharpshooter would that turn this game around,” but so far the answer has never been yes.

The other interesting thought has to be Vincent Chow, who finished among the undefeated decks on Day One, running three Chrome Mox (and a Land Grant) but no Aether Vials. Vincent ran two Sharpshooters (increasing the odds that I simply don’t appreciate this card enough, although the Sharpshooter naturally fits better with his creature mix) and made up for his lack of Vials with a lower curve, including three Goblin Sledders and no Goon. Vincent also maindecked Goblin Pyromancer, a very interesting card that can either play Wrath of God in the mirror or turn his low curve into a lethal Alpha Strike, e.g.:

Turn one: Mountain, Mox, Piledriver

Turn two: Land, Warchief, take five.

Turn three: Land, one of Sledder/Fanatic/Prospector/Sparksmith, Pyromancer, take roughly one million.

It’s worth noting that this particular turn 3 kill doesn’t rely on having the Piledriver/Warchief combo – either one will do if the rest of your draw is perfect. For example:

Turn one: Mountain, Mox, Sledder, Prospector.

Turn two: Land, Warchief take 4

Turn three: Land, Sledder/Fanatic/Prospector/Sparksmith, Pyromancer, take 22.


Turn one: Mountain, Mox, Fanatic, Sledder

Turn two: Land, Piledriver, one-drop, take two

Turn three: Land, Pyromancer, take 18 plus one from the Fanatic. (If you’re really good they actually took 19 in combat because the Sledder ate the Pyromancer.)

Of course these hands are fairly ideal, but they give you an idea of what is possible, and turn 4 kills are much less demanding on the deck. Since my own experience shows that my list has enough gas to manhandle (or Goblinhandle) most creature strategies but lacks speed vs. combo, I’m quite taken by an approach that yields kills on turn 3 and 4. Goblin Pyromancer is also a one-turn answer to Sphere of Law, but often one turn is all you need.

Success is always a good place to look for ideas. Vincent finished in 12th place despite having only one bye – quite a success, and one I will be looking at very closely as I test further innovations in Goblins. [Check back tomorrow for Vincent’s report. – Knut, who wanted to publish it Wednesday but got sidetracked]

Hugs ’til next time,


P.S. Special props to savaj_cheetr on the StarCity forums for his many lucid and well-thought out posts on how to build and play Goblins. I drew a lot of inspiration and good ideas from his contributions to the various Goblin threads and look forward to learning more from him as the season goes on. If you’re looking to play Goblins, he’s on the short list of people to listen to about how to build and play them.