Last week on our new What We'd Play feature, four of our seven contributors recommended playing some form of Golgari for last weekend's Standard tournaments. Four out of seven is a strong recommendation, so strong that I started to worry that we were slipping into some form of groupthink. Surely Golgari wasn't actually that far ahead of the rest of the field, right?
Well, turns out that as far as the Magic Online PTQ was concerned, Golgari Midrange was in fact that far ahead. Farther actually, as our four recommendations pale in comparison to the six copies of Golgari Midrange that placed into the Top 8 of that event. If you were playing Standard last weekend, Golgari Midrange was the place to be.
Will that be the case going forward? Maybe, maybe not. Despite Golgari Midrange's dominant performance last weekend, I do not personally believe that it will be Standard's 'best' deck for very long. We've only scratched the surface of what is possible in Guilds of Ravnica Standard and my best guess is that the format will settle into a shape wholly unrecognizable to us right now, two weeks after the set's release.
Still, Golgari Midrange not being a lock to be Standard's best deck doesn't mean it isn't going to be a perennial player in the metagame. To the contrary, I think Golgari Midrange has proven itself to be a real deck and I expect it to stick around in some form or another throughout this Standard format. As such, it behooves us to learn how to play it.
Lucky for you, that's what I'm here for. I've spent untold hours playing and tuning the Golgari Midrange deck over the last couple weeks and today I'm going to share everything I've learned about how to play the deck against the most popular strategies in Standard. Here's the list we're working with:
- 2 District Guide
- 2 Golgari Findbroker
- 4 Jadelight Ranger
- 4 Merfolk Branchwalker
- 3 Plaguecrafter
- 4 Ravenous Chupacabra
- 4 Seekers' Squire
- 1 Wildgrowth Walker
This list is the product of all my work on the Golgari Midrange deck. Autumn Burchett piloted it to a Top 8 finish in the Magic Online PTQ last weekend, and I'm confident the deck was well-constructed for the Standard metagame as of last week. There's lots of ways to play Golgari Midrange though, and as good as I think my list is, I wouldn't dream of telling you it's the only way to go. I'll keep the matchup strategy applicable no matter what the details of your list look like.
Let's start with the deck that dominated the Standard portion of #SCGCOL, Mono-Red Aggro. Here's a look:
- 4 Fanatical Firebrand
- 4 Ghitu Lavarunner
- 4 Goblin Chainwhirler
- 2 Rekindling Phoenix
- 4 Runaway Steam-Kin
- 4 Viashino Pyromancer
- 22 Mountain
In the abstract, I believe Golgari Midrange is slightly ahead in this matchup. Indeed, that's one of the big draws to Golgari Midrange in this Standard format: you get to be naturally good against Mono-Red Aggro without devoting a lot of attention to it because your cards just match up well against theirs. You can still lose the matchup, of course, and there's two types of games you lose against Mono-Red Aggro: games where you get overwhelmed early and take a lot of creature damage, and games where Experimental Frenzy gets out of control.
Let's start with the creature games. Getting in with its creatures early is a critical part of the red deck's game plan. All its other spells get much better when it's able to connect for some chip damage early. Lightning Strike and Wizard's Lightning look much better when their three points of damage represent half of your life total rather than a seventh. Risk Factor becomes Ancestral Recall with flashback when your life total gets low. All in all, the red deck is much scarier if its early creatures deal damage.
And so it stands to reason that your primary goal should be to stop them from getting in early chip damage. The sooner you manage to stabilize the battlefield, the better. The best way to stabilize the battlefield is to play creatures of your own. The easiest way to lose to Mono-Red Aggro is to not have a creature to play on both turn two and turn three. Prioritize having these early creatures with your mulligan decisions once you know the matchup and use the card selection of the explore mechanic in your favor.
Experimental Frenzy games are another matter. If you let the game go to the super late game, Experimental Frenzy with nine Mountains will beat whatever battlefield you've assembled. Casting four spells a turn is the expectation, not an outlier, and you can't beat that kind of engine. Luckily, we have tons of answers to Experimental Frenzy in Assassin's Trophy and our five- and six-mana planeswalkers, so we're not just cold to the card.
But even with a reasonable density of answers, sometimes you just don't have one and once Experimental Frenzy gets going you don't get a lot of time to find one. This is why it's important to turn the corner as soon as possible and start turning your creatures sideways. I know I preach getting aggressive pretty often, so I won't go into too much detail, but remember that the second you stabilize the battlefield is also the second you should start thinking about going on the offensive. Sorry, you don't get to take a breather.
Our goal while sideboarding is to maximize our ability to stabilize the battlefield while preserving our ability to answer Experimental Frenzy. If Experimental Frenzy were not a concern, I would snap cut all the Vivien Reids and most of the Vraska, Relic Seekers and lower our curve as much as possible. Indeed, against lists that lean heavier on The Flame of Keld than Experimental Frenzy, that is exactly what I do.
The main difference in sideboard games is that now that you know what you're up against, you can and should mulligan to hands that have plenty of early action. You need to affect the battlefield every turn starting on turn two. Past that, the Mono-Red Aggro decks have a variety of plans against us after sideboard. Some will minimize their aggressive potential in favor of lategame card advantage engines and Rekindling Phoenix. Make sure to adjust your play and sideboarding dynamically for what their plan is; attack more aggressively if they're playing to a long game, stay the defensive course if not.
If you want to improve this matchup from the Golgari Midrange side of things, the easiest thing to do is play Dead Weight and more two drops. Our biggest pressure point in the matchup is not having a single card that costs one mana, leaving us very far behind when on the draw. If you expect a lot of Mono-Red Aggro, lower the curve of your deck.
Tips and tricks:
- Rekindling Phoenix can be a huge headache if they're playing it, and you might need to get creative to beat it. Look for opportunities to combo-kill it with Ravenous Chupacabra and Deathgorge Scavenger.
- Seekers' Squire is the best explore creature in the matchup because it never dies to Goblin Chainwhirler. Be mindful of Chainwhirler when sequencing Merfolk Branchwalker and Jadelight Ranger.
- Don't just jam your Wildgrowth Walker on Turn 2. It's okay to miss out on a trigger or two in order to protect your Walker from a Lightning Strike.
- Using Assassin's Trophy, Vivien Reid, or Vraska, Relic Seeker to destroy The Flame of Keld before chapter two triggers is a huge swing in your favor.
- Remember that Deathgorge Scavenger can exile Risk Factor and prevent it from being jump-started.
- Runaway Steam-Kin is the most important creature they play. Prioritize dealing with it, even if it means making an unfavorable trade or taking more damage than you otherwise would.
Moving right along, let's talk about Jeskai Control. Here's the list that took 6th in the PTQ:
Like everything else in this Standard format, the Jeskai Control lists are far from set in stone. That's important, because the details of the Jeskai Control build dictate who is favored in the matchup. As a rule of thumb, the more creatures played in the Jeskai Control deck, the more favored Golgari Midrange is. More Expansions means the matchup is better for Jeskai Control, while overloading on spot removal swings it back towards Golgari Midrange.
Basically, the Golgari deck has a very easy time handling creatures played by the Jeskai deck. Niv-Mizzet, Parun and Crackling Drake are both liabilities in the matchup. Rekindling Phoenix is the only exception, but that card is far from a mainstay in Jeskai Control lists at this point. Teferi, Hero of Dominaria is a great win condition for the Jeskai lists, but Plaguecrafter means he can be answered by Golgari. Something else is needed, and if that something else is creatures, Jeskai suffers in the matchup. If it's Explosion, Golgari falls far behind.
The Golgari Midrange plan in the matchup is relatively straightforward: curve out with mopey creatures and put Jeskai on the back foot. Force them to react to your battlefield, then use the window you've created to jam a planeswalker onto the battlefield. The Jeskai deck has few ways to answer resolved planeswalkers, so getting one onto the battlefield is your best path to victory game one, and second only to Carnage Tyrant in sideboard games.
This is a pretty common plan for midrange decks against control decks, but the Golgari Midrange decks enact a cool variant of it: the Golgari deck gets to overextend into sweeper effects. Because it plays cards like Golgari Findbroker and Find, the Golgari deck can recover from sweepers very easily, which means it can afford to overextend into them. The result is that the Golgari deck is better at forcing the Jeskai Control deck onto the back foot and thus better at creating windows for its premier threats to resolve than other similar decks have been against control strategies in the past.
Carnage Tyrant is the most effective weapon I've found against the Jeskai Control deck. It's a card I've always hated against control strategies in previous formats because I thought it was too expensive for a threat that could be answered with a simple sweeper but Find and Golgari Findbroker really heighten its ability to end the game. Even if your opponent finds a Cleansing Nova you can still count on being able to use that same Carnage Tyrant to close out the game. It's very easy for you to end up casting more Carnage Tyrants than they have answers in their deck. If Settle the Wreckage starts becoming commonly played, this will change, but for now I'm very excited to jam Carnage Tyrant for this matchup.
One of the major things to watch out for while sideboarding is to not overdo it on answers to Teferi, Hero of Dominaria. This sideboard plan leaves two copies of Vraska's Contempt and a copy of Assassin's Trophy on the bench, and I think that's fine. You want to answer Teferi, but you'll lose games due to drawing too much interaction and not enough pressure just as easily as you'll lose to them having a Teferi you can't answer. Plaguecrafter goes a long way, and since it can be rebought, is the best Teferi answer in your 75.
Other than that, the sideboarding is pretty simple. Cut expensive cards that don't do anything valuable in the matchup like Ravenous Chupacabra and Vraska, Golgari Queen, bring in cards that matter. There's more cards to bring in than we necessarily want to cut, so we trim on our creatures that provide the least pressure in Seekers' Squire and take out the synergy dependent Wildgrowth Walker against the deck that can easily disrupt our synergies. If your opponent is heavy on creatures, you should leave in a couple copies of Ravenous Chupacabra.
If you want to be better against Jeskai Control, the first place I'd look is at the fourth Carnage Tyrant. If Settle takes off or you don't like Carnage Tyrant for some other reason, Arguel's Blood Fast is the next option. I don't like Blood Fast in Golgari Midrange anywhere else, but it is good against the control strategies.
Tips and tricks:
- Have a plan for your Duress. If you're trying to protect a planeswalker, cast it the turn before you'd cast the planeswalker. If you're trying to hit a Teferi, Hero of Dominaria cast it on turn four. In general, taking Teferi or an Explosion is better than taking a piece of countermagic to protect a play of yours, but context changes everything.
- Vivien Reid and Vraska, Relic Seeker can destroy Search for Azcanta. Assassin's Trophy can as well, and can also destroy Azcanta, the Sunken Ruin.
- Fire off Find in spots when it will resolve, even if the targets aren't optimal. Getting back any two creatures gives you significant pressure and is generally better than waiting to rebuy double Golgari Findbroker or whatever pipe dream you're envisioning.
- It's very rare that you want to use the Burglar Rats mode on your Plaguecrafter. Save it for one of their threats, it's not like the Jeskai deck plays any that aren't good. When you do use Plaguecrafter, always sacrifice it to itself. You want it in the graveyard to rebuy later should the need arise, and that possibility is always worth more than having a slightly bigger creature on the battlefield.
- Every commonly played non-creature permanent in the Jeskai deck is scary. We're familiar with the power of Search for Azcanta from last Standard, but a transformed Azor's Gateway turbo charges Explosion and steals games. Prioritize getting these threats off the battlefield.
Last but certainly not least, it's time to talk about the mirror. In terms of sheer numbers, this is probably the most important matchup in the format right now, simply because Golgari Midrange appears to be the most played deck.
The first thing to understand about the mirror is that the creatures don't matter. It's virtually impossible to be far ahead enough on the battlefield to actually put your opponent on the back foot. Attempting to press a temporary battlefield advantage is a fool's errand and will result in you losing the game. Planeswalkers are the path to victory through the inevitable battlefield stalls, and that fact is the main reason I think the planeswalker-centric build of Golgari Midrange is the best.
There are, of course, other schools of thought. Izoni, Thousand-Eyed is another commonly played top-end of the deck that serves in a mirror-breaker role. If you're used to playing against lists without Izoni, it's very easy to be surprised and lose the game to it, but if you're prepared I don't find Izoni to be very scary. Once Izoni itself is dealt with, it's very hard for the undergrowth count to be high enough for the Insect tokens to create profitable attacks. Looping Izoni is the biggest concern and what you need to watch out for but can be answered with Finality.
The Eldest Reborn is another popular strategy, one that in theory should be good against my planeswalker heavy plan. In practice, I don't find that to be the case. Careful play ensures you always have plenty of creatures on the battlefield no matter what your opponent does, which means you'll never have to sacrifice a planeswalker to chapter one. The biggest danger is them rebuying your planeswalkers with chapter three, but it's relatively easy to either keep your graveyard empty of them with Golgari Findbroker or to use one of your planeswalkers to destroy The Eldest Reborn before chapter three ever goes off.
The early game in the mirror can be rather boring. Attacking is rather bad, so both players just build out their battlefields and stare at each other. Use your explore triggers aggressively and skip past all the replaceable creatures to guarantee you find the cards that matter as soon as possible. Never waste an Assassin's Trophy on a creature, the game isn't about your 3/2s attacking past their 3/2s. Overpower your opponent first, then press the attack.
After sideboarding, we have three main goals: preserve our ability to defend our planeswalkers, maximize our ability to answer planeswalkers outside of the combat step, and maximize our Carnage Tyrant count. Plaguecrafter is miserable in the matchup, always trading one-for-one with their worst creature and letting them load their graveyard with whatever they want. Wildgrowth Walker is the weakest creature in our deck to Ravenous Chupacabra. From there we trim on irrelevant creatures, and Seeker's Squire gets the nod over Merfolk Branchwalker on the virtue of 2/3 being a better body in the matchup than 3/2.
As a rule of thumb, I don't like Deathgorge Scavenger for the simple reason that it dies to Ravenous Chupacabra without leaving any value behind, unlike every other creature you play. However, if your opponent brought different tools to the table and is looking to rebuy The Eldest Reborn, Phyrexian Scriptures, or Izoni, Thousand-Eyed with Golgari Findbroker, Deathgorge Scavenger gains a lot of value and should be played.
Pre-sideboard games in this matchup feel wildly different than pre-sideboard games, and the reason is mostly because of Carnage Tyrant. Tyrant is impossible to answer and is very threatening. It's also one of the few things that is very good at dealing with your opponent's planeswalkers in the combat step, and that matters a lot.
When playing to a Carnage Tyrant in sideboard games, you're much more incentivized to trade with your opponent than you were in game one. The smaller the battlefield, the harder it is for your opponent to successfully multi-block Carnage Tyrant.
If you're interested in having an edge in the mirror match, consider Llanowar Elves. Elves comes with a whole host of deckbuilding problems but turn one Elf in the mirror generates a tempo advantage that can be hard to overcome. I've lost more games of the mirror to turn one Elf into turn three Vraska, Golgari Queen than anything else, and I don't think that's an accident. It's not pure upside though, as Ritual of Soot becomes excellent against you if you're playing Llanowar Elves.
Tips and tricks:
- When considering potential attacks and blocks, always be mindful of both your need and your opponent's need to fill the graveyard. Your graveyard is a resource, so you want to keep your opponent's most valuable creatures like Ravenous Chupacabra and Golgari Findbroker on the battlefield while getting yours into the graveyard. Easier said than done, but it's something to think about.
- Find is much better than Finality in the matchup. Because Finality gives your opponent the first chance to rebuild their battlefield with all their mana and the one big creature you're left with is easily dealt with, it takes very specific and rare battlefields for Finality to actually get you ahead. 90% of the time you want to be casting Find instead.
- The best answer to Carnage Tyrant is another Carnage Tyrant. Finality is a way to make your Carnage Tyrant beat theirs in combat, and that can be very important.
- Be very mindful of Plaguecrafter when defending planeswalkers. Never trade off your last creature when they alpha your planeswalker; if you do, you're just opening yourself up to a main phase two Plaguecrafter to force you to sacrifice it. It's okay to let your planeswalker take a little damage, turtling up next turn is easy. If you can't defend your planeswalker while keeping a creature alive, don't deploy your planeswalker yet.
- Addendum to the last tip: when they get to seven mana, always make sure to play around Ravenous Chupacabra plus Plaguecrafter by keeping two creatures on the battlefield.
- Using Assassin's Trophy to destroy Memorial to Folly in the late game can shut down your opponent's Golgari Findbroker loops and leave you with a sizeable advantage.
And All the Rest
Alright, that's all the time I have to discuss matchups in detail, but I've barely scratched the surface of the format. I'd feel bad leaving without sharing more, so here's a few more matchups in brief, just sideboarding guides and a few short sentences. Hopefully enough to get you on the right path.
VS Mono-Blue Aggro
This matchup is surprisingly bad for Golgari Midrange. If you have a sweeper in your sideboard, this is one of the places you want it, along with a third copy of Duress to help punch it through. Keeping Curious Obsession creatures off the battlefield is your first priority, killing Tempest Djinn is your second. Plaguecrafter and Ravenous Chupacabra are your best cards. They are very good at disrupting your attempts to manage their battlefield, so you'll often find yourself on plan B: racing. Your creatures are bigger, so this is easier and more viable than it might appear. Deathgorge Scavenger and Wildgrowth Walker do a lot to help you win these races.
VS Selesnya Tokens
We are behind in this matchup. Plaguecrafter is very bad against the tokens deck and is our first cut. Assassin's Trophy isn't something we're excited about but is a necessary evil against the likes of Tocatli Honor Guard and The Immortal Sun. Duress is surprisingly good against Selesnya Tokens for a deck so dependent on the combat step. This is another matchup where not having access to a sweeper really hurts us, and March of the Multitude will often end the game on the spot if we don't have exactly Finality right away. Keep their battlefield as small as possible to minimize the power of their synergies. Our gameplan is to protect our planeswalkers and match their tokens with real creatures, which is weirdly possible thanks to how powerful Vivien Reid and Vraska, Relic Seeker are.
VS Boros Angels
This is a very good matchup. The Boros Angels deck has a very hard time beating Ravenous Chupacabra, and we play four and then some. Add in the fact that our planeswalkers double as Angel-killing machines and the percentage points really start to add up in our favor. The main way we lose involves very aggressive starts with Knight of Grace, which is why I trim back on Seekers' Squire and thus black permanents, replacing them with Wildgrowth Walkers.
VS Mono-White Aggro
This matchup is fine for us. Tocatli Honor Guard is a huge concern, and the only reason we play every piece of spot removal we have access to in the 75. We just want to stay alive and we'll eventually win the game, so we can trim on our top-end planeswalkers. Accept trades aggressively, play to the battlefield, and trust that Find and the planeswalkers left in your deck will win the lategame.