In the last month, I've thought about Carnage Tyrant more than any other Magic card. If I'm being honest with myself, in the last month I've probably thought about Carnage Tyrant ten times as much as any other Magic card. This tyrannical Dinosaur is rapidly climbing my all-time most devoted thinking time list and shows no sign of slowing its ascent. The kicker?
I don't even like Carnage Tyrant.
I spent oodles of time thinking about Hadana's Climb after Rivals of Ixalan was released. Hadana's Climb was a design that appealed to me, and the thinking it inspired was enjoyable. I wanted to make the card good and was willing to do the work to make that happen. Carnage Tyrant is the opposite: I'm racking my brain trying to think of ways to avoid playing it and have yet to be successful. How did it come to this?
Time for a history lesson.
Golgari Midrange lists might look like a mess now, but they were way more of a mess right after Guilds of Ravnica released. The explore creatures have been a fundamental part of the deck from the beginning, but the top-end was completely up in the air. Izoni,Thousand-Eyed? Gruesome Menagerie? Doom Whisperer? Vraska, Relic Seeker? All these cards and many others were on the table as legit ways for Golgari Midrange to win the game in this Standard's infancy. You know what wasn't?
That's right, the first incarnations of Golgari Midrange saw neither hide nor hair of Carnage Tyrant. Those were the good old days, back when we were still figuring things out. The earliest Carnage Tyrants I'm aware of popped up the second week of the format in an online PTQ. It's kind of my fault, as three of the five Carnage Tyrants in that Top 8 were in Autumn Burchett's sideboard. If you're interested in the specifics of those early Golgari Midrange decks, check out my matchup guide for the list Autumn and I played in that PTQ.
The specifics aren't really important though, so if digging into the ancient history of a month ago isn't really your thing, don't sweat it. All that matters is that Carnage Tyrant is in no way a fundamental part of Golgari Midrange. It wasn't there at the beginning, and I have high hopes it won't be there in the end.
You see, Carnage Tyrant doesn't actually make any sense as part of Golgari Midrange. This Standard's Golgari deck is one of the dopiest midrange decks I've ever played. Find and Golgari Findbroker give the deck tons of inevitability, so in theory the deck shouldn't care very much about its top end win condition dying. Spending mana on hexproof and a 'can't be countered' clause is just not something that Golgari is inherently interested in. Incremental value engines like planeswalkers or even Izoni, Thousand-Eyed are just much more the deck's speed.
So then, if Carnage Tyrant doesn't line up with what the Golgari Midrange deck naturally wants to do, how has it become such a prominent feature of the archetype? The short answer involves some hand-waving and citing the ever-mysterious 'pressures of the format'. For the long answer, keep reading.
The Jeskai Matchup
There are two matchups in this Standard format that have made Carnage Tyrant an all-star in the Golgari Midrange deck: Jeskai and the mirror. I'm going to start with Jeskai, as that was the path I took to find Carnage Tyrant. Both matchups are important though, and I would bet that other groups of players realized that Carnage Tyrant was the truth in the mirror before ever touching it against Jeskai.
This is a list from a Todd Anderson article that was published right after that week two PTQ I mentioned earlier. The premise was talking about how to beat Golgari with control, and this suggested list of his is very typical of what Jeskai decks started to look like from then until the Pro Tour. The key:
Jeskai lists went on a big kick of relying on Explosion as their way to go over the top of Golgari Midrange. When the Jeskai player is casting Explosion for four or five, the Golgari player better be winning the game that turn as they won't be able to win for much longer. Unless of course, they have a Carnage Tyrant.
Carnage Tyrant changed the face of the game in the Jeskai matchup. Explosion was very good at taking Jeskai past the point where it could lose to any beatable card in the Golgari deck, but Carnage Tyrant was often not a beatable card. I touched on this briefly in the article I wrote last week about my Pro Tour preparation , but Carnage Tyrant in the matchup felt like a subgame that trumped the real game. It didn't matter how far ahead Jeskai was by every non-Carnage Tyrant metric, if they lost the Carnage Tyrant game they lost the actual game.
And of course, the problem wasn't that Golgari would sometimes cast a Carnage Tyrant. Lots of decks are capable of casting a Carnage Tyrant and Jeskai doesn't lose to slow monsters-style decks like that, even when the monsters are Carnage Tyrant. No, what Jeskai had trouble with was the fact that once Golgari found a Carnage Tyrant, it was very capable of having a Tyrant on the battlefield for the rest of the game through anything besides Settle the Wreckage. Memorial to Folly, Find, and Golgari Findbroker all worked together to ensure that Golgari got infinite mileage out of the first copy of Carnage Tyrant it found in a game.
It didn't take long for Jeskai players to realize that they had to have a plan to beat Carnage Tyrant if they wanted to claim a good Golgari matchup. It took a little longer to realize that accomplishing this was easier said than done. The initial response to Tyrant was to simply play a third/fourth Cleansing Nova / Settle the Wreckage, but that wasn't really good enough. It's impractical for Jeskai to play enough sweepers to reliably answer multiple Carnage Tyrants, but answering multiple Carnage Tyrants is exactly what Jeskai needs to do.
After it became clear that a few more Cleansing Novas weren't doing them any favors, Jeskai players started to go in a different direction to beat Carnage Tyrant. Check out Eli Kassis's winning list from Grand Prix New Jersey:
Having an answer for the first Carnage Tyrant can be plenty if the turn or two that buys you lets you transform your Azor's Gateway and cast a lethal Explosion before Carnage Tyrant ends you. Essentially, Jeskai realized it couldn't win the super long game against infinite Carnage Tyrants and started to make the necessary adjustments to have a proactive plan to win the game instead of planning to not die long enough to eventually win the game somehow. This approach has played dividends in the matchup.
This is, more or less, the current face of Jeskai. We're done with the whole Explosion thing, but we're not even kind of done with ending games. In his article yesterday, Ari Lax makes the case that Jeskai Control is actually a midrange deck. This is the approach that Carnage Tyrant has forced on Jeskai, and it's one that barely cares about Carnage Tyrant. This new list is down to one Carnage Tyrant answer, and it just doesn't matter. Crackling Drake and Niv-Mizzet, Parun can just end games where Jeskai is ahead before Carnage Tyrant can even come close to stealing them. Fun fact: Jeskai is very good at getting ahead of Golgari.
Hot take: Carnage Tyrant is no longer good against the best builds of Jeskai.
That takes us up to present day in the Golgari versus Jeskai matchup. Let's shelve that for a moment and go back to the early days of the Golgari mirror to see the other side of why Carnage Tyrant has become so important to Golgari.
The night before that Magic Online PTQ that Autumn Top 8'd, we added Carnage Tyrant to the sideboard because we figured it would be good against Jeskai. We were right. The morning of the PTQ, Autumn messaged me to ask if I thought we should be bringing Carnage Tyrant in in the mirror. I replied that I figured we should, that Carnage Tyrant probably wasn't good enough to merit inclusion just for the mirror, but since we had it for Jeskai anyway it was likely good enough.
I was wrong.
Carnage Tyrant was much better than that in the Golgari mirror. It only took us a few rounds in the PTQ to figure that out, and I spent the second half of my day back in the Magic Online leagues learning more about Carnage Tyrant while Autumn won a lot in the PTQ. The more I played with Carnage Tyrant in the Golgari mirror, the sadder I got. The games I was playing were being decided by Carnage Tyrant often and not in ways that made me feel like I had a lot of interesting decisions.
I like to think of the early days of Golgari Midrange builds as a kind of ill-defined hodgepodge. There were all sorts of takes on the strategy and the range of win conditions was as wide as the day is long. Eventually, planeswalker-oriented builds of Golgari emerged as the best of the bunch and became the standard way to build the deck.
There was still a lot of questions about how to build the lower end of the curve, but at least everyone knew that Vivien Reid and Vraska, Relic Seeker were the most effective expensive spells you could play. That truth endured for approximately three days.
That's right, you guessed it. Carnage Tyrant ruined our nice little best-version-of-Golgari paradigm and returned us to the dark days of there being no stock build of Golgari. The problem was that Carnage Tyrant wasn't particularly effective against the random hodgepodge Golgari decks, but was excellent against the builds winning with planeswalkers because of its ability to effectively pressure planeswalkers. Prior to the widespread adoption of Carnage Tyrants, planeswalkers were virtually unassailable on the battlefield in the Golgari mirror. The battlefield got so clogged so quickly that the only reasonable way to answer a planeswalker was with an Assassin's Trophy or a Vraska's Contempt. Carnage Tyrant changed that fact.
In the weeks leading up to the Pro Tour, Autumn talked to me a lot about their rock-paper-scissors theory of the Golgari mirror. There's the unfocused hodgepodge Golgari builds, with or without Gruesome Menagerie, that's your paper. Scissors is the planeswalker builds, and rock is builds heavily featuring Carnage Tyrant. The hodgepodge builds cluttered the battlefield even harder than the planeswalker builds and had no expensive value engines for Carnage Tyrant to attack but lost pretty hard to opposing planeswalkers. The rest of this analogy should make sense and created a true rock-paper-scissors intra-Golgari metagame. Kind of.
The problem with this rock-paper-scissors idea was two-fold. First, the hodgepodge Golgari decks were just worse than the alternatives against the field, and thus, were vastly outnumbered. When paper goes away, rock comes out to play. The second problem was that the Spock solution to this rock-paper-scissors game was obvious both to us and everyone else who was working on Golgari: play Carnage Tyrant alongside your planeswalkers and have the best of both worlds.
That wouldn't have been so bad if it weren't for the following fact: Carnage Tyrant makes the Golgari mirror miserable. I don't editorialize often and I don't want to be out here telling people what is and isn't fun, but I have never been as demoralized as I was after a three hour mirror session with Autumn in which every game revolved around Carnage Tyrant and we couldn't figure a single thing out to substantially increase our win rate in those games.
Apparently nobody else could figure out how to beat Carnage Tyrant either, as despite being extremely suboptimal in every matchup aside from the mirror and Jeskai, maindeck Carnage Tyrants became the order of the day. When one card is just better than the others in a matchup, the first thing to do is to play more copies of it. If it's a sideboard card and the matchup is an important one, play them maindeck.
This new trend created its own set of problems. Namely, that now Golgari had a stock maindeck card that was abysmal against the field. None of the aggressive decks care about your maindeck six-drop that only blocks one creature. Neither does Izzet Drakes. When your game one Carnage Tyrants are good, they're very good, but they're bad much more often. Carnage Tyrant forced the Golgari decks to cannibalize themselves, and I think that has a lot to do with the archetype's lackluster showing at Pro Tour Guilds of Ravnica.
Now that Jeskai has adapted to Carnage Tyrant, we live in a world where the only mainstream deck where Carnage Tyrant is good is the mirror. Golgari lists need to accept this reality and think carefully about their use of the Tyrant.
The Future of Carnage Tyrant
For me, the Holy Grail of Golgari Midrange builds is any list that accomplishes the following:
- Beats Carnage Tyrant in the mirror without playing its own
- Has a good plan to beat Jeskai that doesn't involve Carnage Tyrant
As soon as a build of Golgari emerges that accomplishes these two things, if it ever does, I believe the days of wildly different Golgari lists will be over. As of right now, there's nothing that could be called a "stock" list of Golgari Midrange. Everyone has a different idea of what's important and the archetype has a plethora of reasonable options available to it. Find a list that eschews Carnage Tyrant but doesn't lose points against the mirror or Jeskai, and I will be the first to hop on board and proclaim that the days of uncertainty are over.
This list is a start:
- 1 Carnage Tyrant
- 3 Doom Whisperer
- 4 Jadelight Ranger
- 4 Llanowar Elves
- 4 Merfolk Branchwalker
- 2 Ravenous Chupacabra
- 2 Seekers' Squire
- 4 Wildgrowth Walker
This list is, by my count, one mainboard and one sideboard card away from the list Brad Nelson suggested at the end of his article last week. It took second at Grand Prix Milwaukee last weekend. It played a 73-card mirror in the semi-finals. This list is for real.
It accomplishes a lot of the first bullet point. Doom Whisperer is kind of like a Carnage Tyrant that isn't awful against the rest of the field. It trading with Carnage Tyrant is a big deal. It dies to Ravenous Chupacabra and Vivien Reid, so the plan isn't foolproof, but you're still a lot better off against Carnage Tyrant with Doom Whisperer in your deck than without it. At the same time, this build drastically cuts back on planeswalkers, limiting the effectiveness of opposing Carnage Tyrants.
The second bullet point, on the other hand, is not accomplished at all. This build is one of the worst lists of Golgari for fighting current Jeskai I've ever seen, and it's not at all surprising to me that Jeskai beat this deck in the finals. It's still heavily reliant on the Carnage Tyrant plan and that just doesn't work in this day and age.
I think Doom Whisperer is a good start in the mirror. It lets you return your Carnage Tyrants to the sideboard and not play that card against the field, which is wonderful. Going further though, once you realize Carnage Tyrant has lost efficacy against Jeskai, the sideboard Tyrants start making much less sense. They're still necessary for the mirror, but one more piece of technology that's good against Carnage Tyrant will probably render it obsolete. Maybe it's time for the return of The Eldest Reborn?
I don't have a good answer to the Jeskai problem, but I do think finding that solution is going to involve reexamining everything we thought we knew about that matchup.
Carnage Tyrant forced Jeskai to become a midrange deck. Golgari needs to start treating it like one. Ravenous Chupacabra is actively good against the deck now, when it was awful before. I don't know what the best gameplan for the matchup is right now, but I'm quite sure no one else does, either.
If you're an aspiring Golgari player, here's your call to action: figure out how to win without Carnage Tyrant and win you shall.