Weak Among the Strong: Who Needs Spells?

We now return to our continuing saga of Chad Ellis, the young…well, the not old…okay fine, he’s really old, former Pro Tour player. Extended season now beckons – the format that took Chad to his first Pro Tour ever. Will he be able to continue his streak by winning GP: Boston? Will he even make Day 2, or will he have to try his luck at the Day 2 PTQ? Read on, and see things from Chad’s own perspective, as he writes both before and after the event.

We now return to our continuing saga of Chad Ellis, the young…well, the not old…okay fine, he’s really old, former Pro Tour player. Back from his German adventure, in which real life conflicted with playing Magic, Chad now publishes his own games for a living and is working his way back onto the Pro Tour.

In our previous episodes, Chad won the Boston prerelease tournament for Champions of Kamigawa, only to be told that it was actually a PTQ and he was now qualified for Pro Tour: Nagoya. Sadly, being self-employed and raising a baby girl made travel to Japan impossible. Then, after some false starts and cliffhangers (including a mulligan to four against an opponent who cast a turn 5 Dragon…and winning that game!), Chad’s team Succession won a late-season PTQ, qualifying our young (ahem) hero for Atlanta.

Now Extended season beckons – the format that took Chad to his first Pro Tour ever. Will he be able to continue his streak by winning GP: Boston? Will he even make Day 2, or will he have to try his luck at the Day 2 PTQ? Read on, and see things from Chad’s own perspective, as he writes both before and after the event.

Goblins. I never thought I would play Goblins in Extended.

Extended is all about spells. Swords to Plowshares. Force of Will. Duress. Cursed Scroll. Oath of Druids. Pernicious Deed. Intuition. Sure, creatures have their place, even an important place, but without the spells you rarely have anything good. Even Secret Force depended on spells ranging from Natural Order to Choke to Tsunami to win its matches.

Once upon a time, Goblins was sort of like that. Even if it was, in theory, a bunch of little men, it could act like it was a deck of spells. Goblin Recruiter plus Ringleader plus Food Chain meant that a single Goblin Matron could turn into an army out of nowhere. Goblins could also play “combo deck” with a possible turn 3 kill and not-uncommon turn 4 kills.

Even today, Goblins can play like a deck with spells. Cabal Therapy is a spell, and then it turns any Goblin into a spell. Burning Wish is a spell that lets you cast another spell! That’s two spells! Then there’s Living Death or Patriarch’s Bidding, which are spells even if their job is to get you your creatures back.

So why did I run this?

Chad’s Goblin Raiders

4 Aether Vial

3 Skirk Prospector

4 Mogg Fanatic

4 Mogg Flunkies

4 Goblin Piledriver

1 Sparksmith

4 Goblin Matron

4 Goblin Warchief

4 Gepalm Incinerator

4 Goblin Ringleader

1 Goblin Goon

1 Siege-Gang Commander

4 Rishadan Port

18 Mountains

Sideboard (not decided until the morning of the GP):

1 Gamble

1 Thran Lens

1 Goblin King

3 Pulverize

4 Overload

1 Cursed Totem

1 Wasteland

2 Sparksmith

1 Goblin Goon

First of all, let’s go back a bit. Like many players, I seem to be physically unable to approach a format without trying to break it myself. Who cares if there was a Pro Tour with eight decks to test? Surely the best deck is something I’ll come up with, right?

First I started with a strange U/G deck – one that had nothing to do with either Madness or Theshhold. The inspiration was rather boring – Exploration, Intuition and Accumulated Knowledge have a lot of synergy. If you had both Exploration and Intuition in your opening hand you could have six land in play and many cards in hand by turn 3. Add in Aether Burst and Eternal Witness and you could do some pretty gross things, including auto-winning against U/G Madness, Reanimator and many other creature-based decks. Cunning Wish let you Stifle Mind’s Desire and have a number of ways to go infinite from out of nowhere, especially with the deck’s one copy of Aluren. It was interesting and fun, but ultimately I just didn’t believe it could be the best deck at GP: Boston, so I stopped playtesting it fairly early on.

Then came control Black. I liked the idea of MBC because the things that make it bad don’t seem to be around at the moment. MBC is a bad deck because it loses to what Zvi called “real” control decks, i.e. those with Counterspells. MBC is also a bad deck because, unlike Red Deck Wins for example, it can’t get any use out of its creature removal when playing against a creatureless deck.

At the moment beatdown decks are pretty popular, counterspells are pretty unpopular and the combo decks need creatures to go off!

So I built my control Black deck and squared off against Red Deck Wins. And crushed it. Powder Keg is a massive beating, none of their creatures can stay in play, and typically it only took one Corrupt before I was safely out of burn range and could win with Haunting Echoes or Yawgmoth’s Agenda.

Next up was Affinity, and again I had the edge. Powder Keg was at worst a one-sided Armageddon, and I had enough removal to keep them from doing much and make sure that Enforcers were locked away safely where they belonged.

Life, meanwhile, promised to be a good matchup for much the same reason that it was good for the Rock. Assuming I could Extract Test of Endurance before they could get it into play, I could win at my leisure. Just get a copy of Living Wish into the yard and cast Haunting Echoes and then use Agenda to recast Cranial Extraction on Serra Avatar.

Going into testing U/G Madness, I was feeling pretty optimistic. After all, Keg can kill their madness outlets or deal with Roar of the Wurm. They had guys and I had things that killed guys, and then I would crush them with Echoes and/or Agenda, right?

Wrong. U/G did what it does best – grab tempo and run with it. Keg was sometimes good but usually just too slow – and instead of every enemy permanent costing one, I’d be facing a Rootwalla, Aquamoeba and Arrogant Wurm. Between Deep Analysis and Intuition, the U/G deck would keep the gas coming, with me always struggling to catch up and usually failing.

Still, I figured that I could probably tweak the removal base to be able to handle U/G without weakening the other matchups much, and I’d be able to sideboard Slay (usually better than Perish in that matchup, although Perish is naturally better against decks like Elves) and other goodness, while no one in their right mind would be bringing in Compost against me.

Oh, right, that’s the other reason that MBC is a bad deck: Compost destroys it. Does anyone expect to see a single sideboarded Compost in the Top 8 of any PTQs?

Then Jackie, a young YMGer, came over for a playtest session. I encouraged her to try out Goblins, which at that point was my backup deck. Our first game was super close and clearly should have been mine. I killed off her entire team and then used Skeletal Scrying to draw seven new cards. No Corrupts and just one Vamp Tutor. So I Vamp for Corrupt and go up above ten life with her close to dead and with no cards in play or in hand. She draws gas and kills me before I can find another Tutor, Corrupt or Agenda. So we play some more… and none of them are close. It’s like the RDW matchup only an even bigger blowout.

Oh yeah, and one other difference. This time I’m losing.

Goblins always go out in a hail of fire and guts, the only question is whether they take you with them.

The Goblin deck just never ever ever ran out of gas. Every turn there was more pressure and then more and then just when things seemed under control it would explode.

Meanwhile, another playtest session confirmed a fear of mine – RDW is much harder after sideboarding, due almost entirely to Sulfuric Vortex. Sure, you can Duress it, but that’s a Duress that isn’t taking a Cursed Scroll or a burn spell. Moreover, if they draw one before you’re in complete control the game is over. That means that you have to Cranial Extract for it instead of Cursed Scroll or Blistering Firecat (the other problem cards in the matchup). I think in nine games I only lost one directly to Vortex but I lost a lot because my opponent had a card that I had to deal with instead of a stupid Lavamancer that otherwise never did a point of damage to me in its life.

So I started trying out the Goblin deck. I started with one of its supposedly mediocre matchups, the Rock, playing against Darwin Kastle (who has had considerable success with the Rock and knows how to play it). Blocking with card advantage and the board-sweeping power of Deed should be good against a deck with no spells, right? Nine games later we agreed that my 9-0 record couldn’t really be an accurate matchup percentage, but I was feeling pretty comfortable. Game after game I’d keep him on the defensive with early aggression combined with Rishadan Ports so that if he got a Deed into play it was too late. (What often happened is that he’d be forced to blow the Deed and then I’d follow up with a Ringleader.)

Next up was Red Deck Wins. We who play mono-R Goblins call it Red Deck Loses. Their only real problem card is Cursed Scroll, and even that isn’t nearly as great as in times past. We even had games where RDW had two active Scrolls and couldn’t keep up.

Reanimator was mixed and often came down to the die roll. Reanimate often does too much damage for Akroma to race, and you simply play the control game if they get out Phantom Nishoba, whittling it down in size until it’s nowhere near worth what they invested in it. Rorix is usually insufficient, since your ability to counter-attack usually means you can race him, and sometimes you play control, dropping three Goblins (including Sparksmith) and killing him with Smith plus Gempalm Incinerator.

That brings up an important point about Goblins – it is both a control deck and a beatdown deck, with considerable scope to adjust itself to whichever role is appropriate. Sometimes your Matrons grab Piledrivers or Flunkies that hit play that turn (either because it’s turn 3 and your Vial is on two or because you have a Warchief in play) and swing hard. Sometimes they get Ringleaders to refill your hand and outlast an opponent’s removal. Sometimes they get Sparksmith or Gempalm Incinerator or Mogg Fanatic to kill your opponent’s stuff. Sometimes they get another Matron so you can keep putting things in the way of your opponent’s stuff. And sometimes enough is enough and they get Siege-Gang Commander so you can move on to the next game.

The power of flexibility is directly related to the concept of the Scarce Resource. If Akroma’s in town, your scarce resource is time and you have to set up a lethal attack, which in turn means you really want to have two Piledrivers. You can’t be the control deck, so you have to be the better beatdown deck. If it’s Phantom Nishoba, you simply can’t be the better beatdown deck (very few decks can race a seven-point Drain Life every turn), so you go into control mode and your scarce resource is things that damage Nishoba. Matrons can fetch Fanatics (each Fanatic deals damage twice and is thus very effective at shrinking a Nishoba) and are good for a chump-block themselves, so a single Matron easily gives Nishoba -3/-3.

The ability to shift between beatdown and control was also important against Affinity. Again I was scoring a positive record, albeit against a non-Fling version (so Mike Clair’s article claiming that Fling was amazing vs. Goblins made me nervous). In any case, your scarce resource against Affinity depends massively on what their draw is, in particular on whether they have Disciple of the Vault. In one game I came out a bit too slow and found myself in chump-block mode against two very large Ravagers, with my opponent (Anthony “the Machine” Shaheen) at double-digit life. I had no creatures left, and if I didn’t block both Ravagers every turn from that point on I would simply lose the game – nor did I have any realistic way of ever killing them.

So you lost, right? Holy Pikula!

With the help of Aether Vial I was able to put two Goblins into play the next turn – a Matron and a Ringleader. That let me block and put Siege-Gang Commander into play on the following turn. From that point on I played two Goblins every turn, chumped with both and threw one at my opponent while swinging back with the Commander, until suddenly I said, “You’re dead” and brought out some hasty goblins to finish him.

The last time I played an Extended deck that was this good at switching between control and beatdown, my fetchlands came into play tapped but could snag dual lands, and my bears each gave each other special abilities like untargetability, bouncability and you’renotabearyou’reahillgiantability. Goblin Matron is no Demonic Consultation, but she sure feels like it, and Mogg Flunkies are already Hill Giants that cost two mana.

The only deck that was slaughtering Goblins was the mutant version of Cephalid Breakfast developed by Shock Boy (known to his parents as Daniel O’Brien). Shock Boy started out by realizing that if Aether Vial made every creature deck better and helped out with awkward mana, it should probably be maindecked in Cephalid Breakfast. This helped the deck against its nightmare matchup – Red Deck Wins – a deck I think we can all agree is a poor choice for one’s bad matchup. Along the weeks of testing and tweaking, Shock Boy realized that there was no reason to limit himself to a single creature-based combo and added in the Life combination as well. After all, he already had en-Kor to target his Cephalid Illusionist and more tutoring power than Sylvan Learning. The final creation was faster than any combo deck and could play Life vs. beatdown decks if that seemed better than just Ghouling them out, while having additional victory paths like Squee/Sanctuary.

I wanted very much to play this deck, but aside from uncertainty over whether I could get all the cards in time, I simply had no time to test it. My prediction, however is that it puts three YMGers into Day 2 and either one into the top 8 or two into the top 16.

In any case, I was feeling pretty good about my deck. Then I talked to Mike Flores.

In his first installment of White Weenie, Mike referred to some Goblin tech and a particular Goblin that was just insane – but he didn’t say what it was. Since I knew the assignments for the “10 Decks in 10 Days” I assumed his silence was on behalf of Michael Clair, who would be covering Goblins, but Michael’s list included the usual Goblin suspects. So finally I just emailed Mike and told him not to be a punk – I wanted his secret Goblin. Mike, in turn, needed cards for RDW, since apparently his entire crowd felt that RDW was the right choice, if not technically the best deck.

Mike was shocked that I was playing mono-Red, and then chastised me for not running Flametongue Kavu. The secret Goblin, as we all now know, is Kiki-Jiki – the obvious card in terms of power and not having “Mogg” or “Goblin” in its name, but one I bet against (in the forums) because surely everyone already knew it was a Goblin. Mike began extolling the power of Kiki-Jiki combined with Aether Vials and Matrons, describing the turn from his article when against WW he used two Vials and a Matron to create an absolutely massive army and kill his opponent from a previously empty board. He also pointed out the rather obvious truth that Kiki-Jiki plus Flametongue Kavu would be fairly hard for many creature decks to deal with.

Now sometimes Mike is just wrong. He thought that Flea Market should use Artificer’s Intuition instead of Trinket Mage, and went so far as to call that enchantment “the Mirrodin Block equivalent of http://sales.starcitygames.com/cardsearch.php?singlesearch=Survival of the FittestSurvival of the Fittest.” That was wrong.

But sometimes Mike is right. Moreover, despite (like me) having a small baby and a wife, Mike manages to do considerably more playtesting than I do. So when he told me that I was wrong not to be running Chrome Mox, wrong not to be running Kiki-Jiki, wrong not to be running Flametongue Kavu and wrong not to be splashing Black for Broken Cabal Therapy, I took him seriously.

Even worse, Mike totally disagreed with me over who wins the Goblins vs. RDW matchup, saying that he has a great record vs. Goblins and wondering if I was playtesting against someone who really knew how to play RDW.

Every now and then someone will tell you that RDW (they’ll probably call it Sligh) is an easy deck to play – even a stupid deck. These are the people against whom you want to play Magic for money, as anyone who thinks that RDW isn’t highly skill-intensive is horrible at Magic. So when someone from a playtest group that really understands RDW says that it has a good matchup against something, one shouldn’t dismiss them too quickly just because your own testing suggests otherwise.

So why didn’t I run Mike’s list?

A few reasons. First, even if one list is better than another it can be a worse choice to play if it’s different from what you’re used to. I’m not worried that I won’t figure out how to abuse Kiki-Jiki, or which of my opponent’s creatures to target with Flametongue Kavu, but there’s more to Magic than playing what’s in your hand. I’ve got a pretty good idea of how various hands can play out and what to set up and what to Matron for, and that will be lessened if I go to another list. Similarly, while I think I can do an okay job at naming spells with Cabal Therapy, I won’t do an optimal job because that hasn’t been part of my playtesting.

Another thing is that Mike’s deck makes some considerable sacrifices in order to run cards that are neither lands nor Vials nor Goblins. Regarding Flametongue Kavu, he says:

You play with this card Goblin Ringleader, and he is awesome, but sometimes he turns over Flametongue Kavu and that is very bad. It is bad because Flametongue Kavu is the best creature in your deck, and now he is suddenly the worst bottom card of your library that you could think of having. Therefore you need the maximum number of Flametongue Kavu because especially during your turbulent turns 3-6, when you first ramp then leave your Aether Vial on four counters, intent on pumping out both 2/2 haste FoFs and angry 4/2 FTKs, the Invasion Block is at war not only with your opponent, but in your deck itself.

Is Flametongue Kavu really the best creature in your deck? In the abstract, it may well be. Only Mogg Fanatic can even enter the same tournament with Flametongue in terms of overall impact on Constructed. But is Flametongue Kavu the best creature in your deck?

I suspect not.

Whenever Goblin Ringleader turns over Flametongue Kavu, it isn’t simply putting a good card on the bottom of your deck where you’ll never draw it. It’s also not turning over whatever Goblin you took out to make room for Flametongue – it’s costing you a creature. The same thing is true for Cabal Therapy.

I'm a little creeped out by this one, to tell you the truth.

My deck has 34 Goblins. That means that my Ringleaders turn over an average of 2.67 goblins when they hit. In other words, it’s roughly equivalent to a 2/2 with haste for four that reads, “When this comes into play, flip a coin. If you win the flip, reveal cards from your deck until you draw three creatures. Put them into your hand, and the rest of the revealed cards on the bottom of your library. If you lose the flip reveal cards until you draw two creatures instead.” I have less than a 4% chance of missing completely, and about a one in ten chance of hitting four Goblins.

Mike’s list has 26 Goblins. His Ringleaders turn over an average of 1.73 Goblins when they hit – almost a full spell less. That’s like turning Concentrate into Deep Analysis without Flashback, only it’s worse because you’re losing a spell not a card (and at this point land isn’t likely to be a scarce resource, so a spell is better than a random card) and of course the change from 2.7 to 1.7 is bigger than the change from 3 to 2. Mike has about a ten percent chance of missing completely.

This is a massive difference. Goblin Ringleader isn’t just a card-drawer, he’s a card-drawer you can tutor for – and often do. Thus, the difference between 2.7 and 1.7 Goblins will come up very often – I’d say there are more games where I cast two Ringleaders than only one. It’s also a tempo loss because you often cast a Ringleader with mana available and really want to put out a cheap Goblin on the same turn.

So let’s look at the “missing” Goblins. Putting aside one-ofs for the moment, Mike’s army and mine differ primarily in that he has Therapy and Flametongue where I have Flunkies and Gempalm Incinerator. How good are these Goblins? Pretty good, I would argue.

It’s easy to look down on Mogg Flunkies. Sure, he’s a Hill Giant that costs like a Bear, but Red Deck players learned long ago that he’s problematic against other Red Decks, since they can often strand him by killing off other creatures. Surely it would be worth giving up half a card when playing Goblin Ringleader to replace this second-stringer with Flametongue Kavu?

The thing is, my playtesting suggests that Mogg Flunkies is one of the best creatures in the deck. He hits as hard as Wild Mongrel or Aquamoeba without discarding a card. When your Matron fetches a Warchief the Flunkies can come out with him next turn and swing for five. He has tremendous synergy with Aether Vial and a deck with eight haste creatures, since your opponent never knows when they will suddenly go from alone to active. And there’s one more thing: they are good against Red Decks.

I first saw this in action years ago, during the Top 8 of a PTQ, as a Goblin deck squared off against a Sligh deck. (Red Deck Wins was called Sligh back then.) The Sligh deck had Scroll lock in place and looked to be in good shape to take the game, despite his opponent’s high life total. Then his opponent played Goblin Recruiter and put four Mogg Flunkies on top of his library.

Suddenly it was obvious. One was bad, but multiple Mogg Flunkies was a nightmare. The Red deck could easily hit them for two, but three required topdecking more burn. Suddenly two Hill Giants were on their way over and then three… and the Red Deck lost.

Now even more than then, the typical Red deck is the best deck in the world at dealing two points of damage. Three is a bit harder. Thus, while Flunkies can’t hit as hard as Piledrivers, they are much harder to remove. When there’s only one and the other creatures are coming at a modest pace, that’s fine. But when you can tutor for them or flip them with Ringleader, and when you are easily capable of putting out multiple friends that either have haste or get Vialed into play EOT, they are much harder to handle.

Next up is Gempalm Incinerator. Once again, it’s easy to see why some people don’t like him. He’s primarily a two-mana removal spell in an environment where Shock isn’t considered playable that can double as a truly mediocre Gray Ogre. How good can that be, even if it’s a cantrip and even if sometimes it’s a free spell from Ringleader or you can tutor for it with Matron?

Pretty darn good. First of all, cantrip removal that you can tutor for is actually a pretty good thing to have, even in Extended. Incinerators are often capable of taking down fatties like Arrogant Wurm or Ravenous Baloth, or putting the finishing touch onto a Ravager after you’ve just hit it for four or five with Sparksmith. But putting aside its quality in the abstract (as we did with Flametongue Kavu) we realize that it’s even more important in the deck as a whole. Without the Incinerator your only sources of removal are creatures with one toughness. That means that unless you have a Warchief out they have to come into play and get over summoning sickness (giving your opponent either time, a heads-up, or a window to use removal) before they can do anything. It also means that a single Engineered Plague has the potential to turn you from a Red deck into a Green deck, incapable of killing anything. Finally, it’s worth bearing in mind that most Extended combo decks today actually involve some potentially fragile creatures (e.g. en-Kor, Cephalids or Faeries) and having an instant-speed, uncounterable way to kill them is quite useful.

Mike and I spoke again in the middle of me writing this article and we discussed his choice not to run Blistering Firecat in RDW, since it’s so bad in the mirror. Mike commented that it was really good against Goblins, since short of Vialing out a Fanatic it’s almost impossible for me to keep something out that can kill it and seven damage is a lot. (It’s no accident that Michael Clair cited Firecat as a good target for Cranial Extraction to reduce the “Oh look, I topdecked the win” potential of RDW.)

With Gempalm Incinerator you only need one Goblin in play to turn their 7/1 attacker into a free draw for you. And if what you really need is another creature to make your Piledrivers lethal, this cantrip burn spell can do that too.

I think this also explains a lot about why Mike’s and my playtesting suggests such different things about the matchup between Goblins and RDW. We’re using the same names but talking about different things.

Mike’s list has fewer Goblins, which translates into substantially fewer creatures when the Ringleader factor is considered. In my playtesting, the problem RDW faces is typically that there are just too many creatures, with too much haste, to keep them under control. Mogg Flunkies are an important part of this equation, and having eight non-burnable ways to keep Grim Lavamancer from getting active instead of four is fairly important as well.

If RDW can’t control the Goblin deck, all that’s left is to race it. Normal burn spells have a hard time doing that, since creatures keep hitting – that’s why RDW’s normal plan against decks with creatures is to kill the creatures in the first few turns while swinging with a 2/1 until such time as the opponent’s life total gets low enough or until it has Scroll Lock in place. Blistering Firecat is a big help in shifting that battle, and the Incinerator’s ability to kill them (as well as the dangerous weenies) makes it better than either Flametongue Kavu or Cabal Therapy would be.

That just leaves open two questions: is Kiki-Jiki powerful enough a tutor target to mandate running one, and should I trade in some of my Mountains for Moxen? At the moment, my instinct is no on Kiki-Jiki and undecided on Chrome Mox.

The thing with Kiki-Jiki is that he looks an awful lot like a win-more card. Look at Mike’s example: he had out two Aether Vials set to three and five and had tutored with Goblin Matron for a five-drop. That sounds extreme, but it really doesn’t have to be – you could just have one Vial set to five and a Goblin Matron in play for pretty much the same effect. Kiki-Jiki can also do some gross things without copying a Matron, e.g. ongoing Ringleaders or just an extra hasty Piledriver. There’s no question that Kiki-Jiki is extremely powerful in the abstract…but once again, how powerful it is in the abstract is the wrong question. The right question is how often he will be an important tutor target that wins games that you would otherwise have lost, and how often having an extra five-drop will be a game-costing mulligan against decks you might otherwise beat.

There’s a cost to running a five-drop – you may draw him in matchups where you don’t want to. Against RDW, Kiki-Jiki has to be mediocre. He’s going to die the moment he hits play, so at most he’s going to give you a temporary copy of another Goblin, and at worst you don’t have any other good Goblins because you aren’t already winning the game. How often will Kiki win when Siege-Gang won’t?

Against the combo decks, a five-drop is simply too slow. You might win an occasional game where a Warchief makes Kiki only cost four and he in turn makes the extra Piledriver you need to kill Desire, but again (assuming you tutored for Kiki) you could win that game by having tutored for Piledriver directly (or a second Matron which then gets the second Piledriver, all for just three mana).

So basically I’m going to start testing Kiki-Jiki to see if it’s as good as Mike thinks or whether in my build it tends to win more in games I’m already winning. But for now, neither Kiki-Jiki nor Flametongue Kavu nor Cabal Therapy (with all the evil lands it requires) makes the cut.

On the other hand, there do seem to be some matchups where Flametongue Kavu is nuts and where Kiki-Jiki would be nuts too. If I board some Flametongues, it seems pretty reasonable to board in Kiki-Jiki too.

That brings us to sideboarding, and the candidates are:

Artifact removal

Overload, Shattering Pulse, Meltdown, Pulverize are the obvious candidates, but given the importance of maintaining a high creature count, Keldon Vandal is another interesting possibility. The Echo problem is reduced by Aether Vial, since you can bring him out to block, and against decks where you pay the echo he’s a 4/1 that comes out on turn 3. He also can’t be countered if you’ve got a Vial out. If only he were a Goblin. Viashino Heretic is another creature that can provide ongoing artifact removal and thus looks great – in the abstract. He’d be great vs. Affinity if post-sideboard games were expected to last long enough.

The choices come down to what it is that you’re afraid of. On one side are powerful single targets, like Isochron Scepter, Chrome Mox, Cursed Scroll, Aether Vial and (after boarding) Ensnaring Bridge. On the other is Affinity, where your goal is to blow up the universe.

The singletons strongly argue for Overload. Overload in hand means that even on the draw you can blow up an opposing Aether Vial before it does anything. It’s more mana-efficient than Shattering Pulse against Cursed Scroll, at the cost of hitting only one target.

Against Affinity you’ve got Meltdown and Pulverize. I’m still attracted to Meltdown for its flexibility – it can serve as a bad Overload while Pulverize is all or nothing… and expected. But some Affinity decks (incorrectly, IMO) sideboard Chill, which has the potential to make Meltdown insufficient – to say nothing of the fact that Melting Down Frogmites and Myr Enforcers is quite difficult. I’m leaning towards something like 3 Overload, 1 Keldon Vandal, 2-3 Pulverize, but won’t decide until I walk the floor of the GP and see what people are sleeving up and what the dealers are sold out of.


I haven’t tested it, but in theory Goblin Welder is a great one-of that can be the nail in the coffin against Affinity. (In theory it would also be great vs. “Teen Titans” – the reanimator deck featuring artifacts – but the author’s plan vs. Goblins is to pull his own Welder and run multiple Engineered Plagues, and it’s reasonable to think other people will follow this plan as well.) There are some matchups where Goblin Goon is just unfair. Mike suggested Goblin Assassin as an answer to Reanimator. The Assassin’s power looks very much worth a lone sideboard slot, since you’ve got a fifty-fifty shot of taking out Akroma when she hits play (assuming you’ve dealt with any Putrid Imp) and if you miss, you can almost certainly kill her the following turn with a swarm. The problem is his cost: five mana might be one too many. You can still get him out on turn 4 with a Warchief or a Prospector, and if you’ve got Aether Vial you might be able to play an additional Goblin on turn 4 as well, but I’m uncertain if he’s good or just better in that matchup than Siege-Gang Commander.

Kiki-Jiki is another obvious candidate, for all the reasons given by Mike – especially if Flametongues are also in the board. Zo-Zu the Punisher looks only modestly interesting, and in the current metagame I can’t think of any deck I’d want to bring him in against. Finally, Goblin Pyromancer could be interesting if Goblin decks become more popular. He can either turn your alpha strike into an ALPHA strike or play Wrath of God.

Goblin King

The King’s ability to Crusade your team is cool enough in the abstract, but what makes him interesting is that he counters Engineered Plague. My testing agrees with Michael Clair – one Plague isn’t as good as its reputation, but a second Plague is often game over. With a King out they need to get two Plagues to be annoying and three to end your dreams.

Thran Lens

I’m always leery of sideboards that counter opposing sideboards, since they may not draw (or even play) the spell you’re countering, but sometimes it’s worth doing anyway. Thran Lens shuts down Sphere of Law, Absolute Law and Circle of Protection: Red, as well as turning Mother of Runes into the silly vanilla 1/1 you want her to be. (And yes, she’s a 1/1 even if Crusade’s is out…)

Flametongue Kavu

He may not be the best creature in the deck, but he might well be the best in the sideboard. Some post-board matchups aren’t about Goblin Ringleader, and FTK is as good as he ever was at beating up other creatures.

Cursed Totem

There are a lot of decks out there with creatures and special abilities. Cursed Totem shuts off Madness outlets, although I doubt you’d board it just for that (already wonderful) matchup – you should be able to beat them honest. It also stops Ravagers from eating artifacts, but again it’s not clear that you’d board them in this time because you want to beat them by cheating (i.e. Pulverize). The Totem gets more interesting against other decks, like Life and Cephalid Breakfast, where it forces them to find an answer before they can go off. And, if you’ve got Gempalm Incinerators, you can even kill off their guys as they play them out.

Goblin Bombardment

You’ve got a lot of creatures, and so do a lot of other decks. This makes it a lot harder to lose randomly to Firecat or Cranial Plating, and makes your guys that much better in combat or at chump-blocking. Moreover, it makes it virtually impossible for Desire to Snap a Cloud of Faeries, and makes it much less likely that Cephalid Breakfast can use Vial tricks to get out an en-Kor and an Illusionist.


I’m not normally a fan of this card, but the sideboard is obviously fairly stretched, and has a fair number of cards you don’t want multiples of and that can’t be Matroned for. Gamble is a risky way of packing an extra of any sideboard card, as well as being capable of turning into a Goblin of choice or even a land if that’s what you need. Just don’t be unlucky and discard what you tutored for!

Scroll Rack

In many matchups, Goblins is a control deck with a card-drawing engine whose power is determined by what happens to be on the top of your deck. In any sort of long game, a Scroll Rack would let you shuffle away dead cards with Matron and set up perfect Ringleaders, with your larger hand size then enabling you to dig for your sideboard pieces.

Chalice of the Void

If you think RDW is tough, this is still a fantastic answer, and if you’re on the play against Reanimator it can even work there, although (as noted in my article on cards to consider) it’s much better if you follow Mike’s advice and run Chrome Mox.


I don’t think it makes the cut, but if the modified YMG Cephalid deck does as well as I fear it may, cards like Wasteland and Overload (for Vial) are going to be highly important.

As I’m typing this, it’s Friday afternoon at around 4pm, and this is where I stand. I haven’t finalized my sideboard by any means and probably won’t until I’ve done some scouting on the GP floor, but these are the cards I’m looking at. Normally, of course, I would like to have not only a nearly-complete sideboard (I still believe in tweaking on the day based on intelligence gathered), I’d like to have a clearer picture of how many cards I want to bring out in each matchup. Something to think about as I sleep.

Post Script

Well, I’m back from the GP and anyone watching knows that I went 6-3 on Day One, which was at least one win short of Day 2 (especially since I had no byes). In the next chapter I’ll go through the matches, what I learned about the deck, and where I’m looking to make (or at least test) changes in the future.

This is a bit of a strange way to do an article – writing about what I’m going to play, even though I’m publishing it after the tournament. The idea is to go through every aspect of thinking behind a particular deck choice – both good aspects and bad – and thus to be an open book about my approach to the season. When possible, I’ll be writing these before PTQs as well. I don’t want to tell people exactly what deck I’m playing at any given event – that’s just giving out way too big an advantage to potential opponents. But that doesn’t mean I’ll be holding any secrets back since my plan is to have multiple possible decks that I’m comfortable with. You’ll know what I’m doing, and why, and where I’ve made good plays and where I’ve screwed up. I hope you enjoy the story, and that it helps you win a local PTQ.

Just try not to beat me in the process.

Hugs ’til next time,


Technically you’re only doing something “for a living” if you can actually live off of the income, but let’s be optimistic!

2 OK, let’s be optimistic AND let’s take every chance we get to remind people about our games!

3 To be fair, the mulligan problem is less of an issue in builds with Chrome Mox, since you can simply imprint it if it’s in your opening hand, reducing the problem to what happens if you draw him (or what happens if it’s game one and you have to decide what to imprint without knowing whether or not Kiki is a bomb or Slowy Von Slowerson).