What I'd like to see:— Jim Davis (@JimDavisMTG) July 2, 2018
Ancient Stirrings banned.
Stoneforge Mystic unbanned.
Deathrite Shaman banned.
Gitaxian Probe banned.
It's nice to get what you wish for.
(Well, aside from Modern, but that's an issue for another article.)
Join me in saying " good riddance."
Wizards of the Coast finally had the guts to go after one of the most ubiquitous cards in the format not named Brainstorm or Force of Will, and Legacy looks fresh again. They also worked to erase another Phyrexian mana design disaster, as a world without Phyrexian mana is a better world to play Magic in.
So we've got a "new" Legacy format to reexamine, but considering "new" things aren't exactly at the forefront of the format we're better served at looking back to what Legacy looked like before Deathrite Shaman was printed. Sam Black has already retaken interest in his brilliant Bloodghast / Goblin Bombardment brews , Ben Friedman is gearing up for Griselbrand, Nimble Mongoose, and Mother of Runes , and I'm sure Shaheen Soorani has scribbled a dozen or so Esper Stoneblade lists in his deckbuilding notebook that are all exact copies of whatever version of the deck he played in 2015 - put simply, people are excited to dust off their old toys!
I'm no different, but also very skeptical. After all, I did declare Goblins dead over four years ago .
So, can Goblins make a comeback? Today we're going to look at four reasons why it can, and to counterpoint, three reasons why it will remain a relic of better days.
Why Goblins Can Be Competitive Again:
Goblin Lackey, once the most feared turn one play in all of Legacy, had fallen pretty hard.
That makes a lot of sense when the best one-drop in the format is inexplicably a 1/2 instead of a 1/1. Unless you're willing to resort to crap like Tarfire, Goblin Lackey has zero way to get in on turn two facing down a Deathrite Shaman, play or draw. And it's not even like you can just offer a trade by attacking and essentially forcing them to block like you could against something like Llanowar Elves or Mother of Runes; Deathrite Shaman just put up the brick wall and said no.
Furthermore, Deathrite Shaman would allow the various decks playing it to deploy threats at a much faster rate than they could do before. With blue decks getting on the battlefield ahead of schedule, your Goblin Lackey may have been looking to attack on turn two and was suddenly facing down a True-Name Nemesis or a Leovold, Emissary of Trest. Goblin Lackey looks to thrive in the early stages of a game when both players haven't deployed much yet, and Deathrite Shaman both helped to skip that stage while also playing excellent defense itself.
With Deathrite Shaman finally out of the picture, we go back to a world where the format's best one-drops can only hope to trade with Goblin Lackey. This means either you get a Mogg Fanatic and go on with your life, or you get to use Gempalm Incinerator and get your Goblin Lackey trigger; now your opponents must have the removal spell to guarantee no connection.
Decks must once again fear turn one Goblin Lackey.
2. Wasteland Starts to Look Great
Wasteland has been a defining card since Legacy's inception, but has been less of a fixture in the format for the last few years. Why? Well... have you ever wanted to Wasteland someone who has a Deathrite Shaman on the battlefield?
When almost every fair deck in the format is playing four Birds of Paradise while very often also playing Wasteland themselves, Wastelanding them starts to look much less appealing. It's still an important card in various Grixis Delver decks, but people have forgotten how important it actually is when mana isn't so easy to come by.
One of the biggest draws to playing Goblins is that it's the best Wasteland / Rishadian Port deck in the format. Being able to deploy a Goblin Lackey or Aether Vial and present threats while simultaneously messing with your opponent's mana is just awesome. Unlike Death and Taxes, the Goblin deck never runs out of threats.
3. Blue Decks Can't Grind As Hard
A byproduct of the fair blue decks losing access to both a multicolor manafixer as well as a mana boost and resistance to Wasteland, they can no longer lean as hard on powerful mirror-breaking cards that grind really well.
These sort of grindy cards allowed the blue midrange decks to keep up with Goblins on cards, which was something they were never able to do before. Deathrite Shaman gave them the mana and colors to cast these spells, and the prevalence of blue-based mirrors gave them the impetus to maindeck these cards in the first place.
Now both those elements are gone and it looks like blue decks will have to revert to more focused Temur or Jeskai Delver strategies or go fully big with something like U/W Miracles. This means they will either be lower in power level, therefore struggling to go long with Goblins, or low on closing speed, which gives the Goblins deck time to draw a ton of cards.
4. Cabal Therapy Gets Worse
Why does this matter as far as Goblins is concerned? Two reasons really.
One is that Cabal Therapy was an integral part of Storm deck's defensive plan. In conjunction with Gitaxian Probe, a card they already wanted to play anyway, they would get an essentially free Thoughtseize (or possibly more) that could either slow you down or strip away vital hate cards that would stop them from going off. Anything that makes Storm, a traditionally poor matchup, worse is a win for Goblins.
Second, Cabal Therapy was actually an excellent tool for fair decks to use against Goblins. Counterspells are naturally ineffective against Aether Vial and Cavern of Souls, but when Grixis Delver decks would sideboard in Cabal Therapy, things would get very difficult. Both Goblin Matron and Goblin Ringleader inform your opponent of what to name, and having multiple copies of cards stripped by a single Cabal Therapy was both common and backbreaking.
It's not as impactful as the exit of Deathrite Shaman, but Gitaxian Probe leaving the format is definitely a minor win for Goblins. Aside from making Cabal Therapy worse, it also weakens almost every chuckler all-in deck like Charbelcher and Oops All Spells, which always preyed on Goblins.
Why Goblins Will Continue to Fail:
1. Combo Combo Combo
There's no doubt that Grixis Delver was doing serious work in keeping the format's combo decks at bay. When the format's best deck contains a very fast clock, maindeck graveyard hate, Force of Will / Spell Pierce / Daze, Wasteland, and devastating sideboard cards like Cabal Therapy and Flusterstorm, playing combo can be rough proposition. Grixis Delver's ability to also play a great fair game with cards like Young Pyromancer and True-Name Nemesis are the big reason the deck was so omnipresent, and likewise the biggest reason that these bannings make sense.
It's just unreasonable to have a deck be good at everything.
Now when you build your disruptive Delver of Secrets deck, you're going to need to make an active choice if you'd like your deck to be better against combo or better in fair matchups; you don't get to have both for free. Finding this balance is both difficult and interesting from a deckbuilding standpoint, and makes life much easier for combo decks in general. Blue decks more focused on Stoneforge Mystic or Lingering Souls are going to be much worse against combo, while all in Temur-style Delver decks with Stifle and light threats are going to be much worse against fair decks.
We will once again see the format enter a cyclical state, where how well-positioned combo is will wax and wane week to week. As it stands, combo looks like it is going to be good and that is bad news for Goblins players.
2. They Haven't Printed a Good Goblin in a Decade
This is perhaps the biggest problem I have with Goblins, and was the main focus of my Funeral for a Friend article years ago when I declared Goblins dead.
Yes, I know people love their Krenko, Mob Bosses- It's okay to be wrong. I could write an article about why each of these cards doesn't belong in your Goblin deck unless you have a very specific reasoning (i.e. wanting Goblin Chieftain against -1/-1 effects), but I'll leave that for another time. The long and short of it is that each of these cards' niche jobs are just done better by another, more versatile card already in the deck that has a similar ceiling but a much higher floor.
The sad fact is that as new sets release, every other deck gets better and Goblins largely stays the same. Matchups that used to be very lopsided are now less so, to the point where you can lose to the fair decks you used to almost always beat much more than you'd like to. I always said back in the day that "when played excellently, Goblins only loses to combo and Engineered Plague" and I meant it, but as decks improve over time this maxim no longer holds true. Losing to fair decks makes those bad combo matchups feel all the worse.
I do want to take a brief second to talk about a new Goblin card that actually has a place in the deck: Goblin Trashmaster. It's probably only a sideboard card for Stoneforge Mystic and artifact-based matchups, but Goblin Trashmaster is a hell of a tutor target. This is one that should see a slot in the sideboard.
3. The Card Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite
B/R Reanimator was already a very scary deck, and that was in a format where the best deck played a ton of disruption as well as a Birds of Paradise that was a maindeck hate card and demanded you either answer it or win before it lost summoning sickness. With Deathrite Shaman gone, perhaps the biggest winner in the format is various reanimator decks.
These decks unequivocally destroy Goblins. Like, it's a joke. To call the matchup 90/10 would probably be generous, as the Goblin deck simply lacks any meaningful interaction besides maybe a maindeck copy of Stingscorger. Bringing back something like Griselbrand is bad enough, but once Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite hits the table the game effectively ends. The disruption Goblins does have, Wasteland and Rishadan Port, is almost worthless because all of their spells cost one or two mana, and the only hope is some sideboard cards and a prayer. Even then, something like Containment Priest or Thalia, Guardian of Thraben is likely too slow to matter, while cards like Faerie Macabre are super narrow and get tagged by Thoughtseize or Unmask anyway.
At least in the short term Reanimator is a natural winner from the bannings, and that bodes awfully for Goblins.
So Which Is It?
Legacy is a whole new world, and to be completely honest I'm not exactly sure where Goblins fits into that world yet.
The exit of Deathrite Shaman from the format is likely to make Goblins once again favored in most fair matchups, but there's still four years worth of new cards that Goblins never had to battle against added to the mix. Furthermore, there are many very scary possible combo matchups looming as well.
If I had to start somewhere, it would be here:
- 4 Gempalm Incinerator
- 4 Goblin Lackey
- 4 Goblin Matron
- 4 Goblin Piledriver
- 4 Goblin Ringleader
- 1 Goblin Sharpshooter
- 4 Goblin Warchief
- 3 Mogg War Marshal
- 1 Siege-Gang Commander
- 1 Skirk Prospector
- 1 Stingscourger
- 1 Tin Street Hooligan
They say you can't teach an old dog new tricks, but maybe if they ban enough cards the old dog's old tricks will be good enough once again.
This old dog hopes so!