Raise your hand if Goblin Piledriver was your favorite Magic Origins reprint. What about favorite Origins card? What about favorite reprint period since Modern’s birth (sorry Scavenging Ooze)? Goblin Piledriver is that rare card which inspires current spikes, old Magic veterans, and newer players who have heard legends of tribal Goblins in action. Wizards’ inclusion of Piledriver is a clear tribute to Modern, and although it’s not clear yet if Goblins has what it takes to smash Modern tournaments, Piledriver is a great start. If anything gets Goblins started down the path to glory, it’s the mean, lean, chokeholding, pro-wrestling machine.
We’ve had three Nexus articles touching on Piledriver’s Modern impact, including my Origins review, Jordan’s Day’s Undoing-powered brew, and Trevor’s prototype Goblins list. Of course, as any red mage knows, it’s one thing to theorize about Goblins in Modern and another entirely to smash face with them. In that spirit, this article covers three recent Goblin successes in real Modern events. These lists showcase three different ways to Piledrive, Bushwhack, and Grenade your way to the top, and can serve as a great starting point for Team Goblin fans everywhere. In each section, I’ll breakdown the list, identify some key strengths and weaknesses, and suggest a few improvements to bring that list to the next level.
List #1: RG Atarka’s Goblins
When I think of Goblins, I think of a giant pile of green men backed by lord effects and burn spells. Modern Goblins has always derived some of its strength from its ability to go wide (with cards like Mogg War Marshal and Dragon Fodder) and its ability to deal a lot of damage in one fell swoop (see Goblin Grenade and Goblin Bushwhacker). Pejanovic Tomo took this approach to heart in his RG Goblins build at PPTQ Udine, finishing first at the 37-player event (even beating Twin in the Finals!). His list is below:
RG Atarka's Goblins, by Pejanovic Tomo (PPTQ Udine 2015, 1st Place)
You may have already read about Tomo’s finish in an article he published a week ago. If not, take a look at the article for his matchup report and larger deck takeaways. In looking over the decklist myself, and reading through his article, I see a few strengths and synergies that need to be highlighted.
- Burn gives you interaction
Goblins can feel a bit too fair in Modern, like a Merfolk deck without any Cursecatchers or Vapor Snags. Burn spells shore up those weaknesses, allowing you to interact with problematic creatures before they win opponents the game. Mogg Fanatic is huge here, blowing up mana dorks, making combat math unfavorable for blocking opponents, and removing targets before they become problems (Blighted Agent, Inkmoth Nexus, Pestermite, etc.). Add Lightning Bolt to the mix and you can threaten a huge variety of targets. Fanatic even combines with Bolt to give you a maindeck solution to those four-toughness Deceiver Exarchs. As we’ll see in the other lists, all of the successful Goblins included maindeck interaction. If you can overlap your burn spells to both kill targets and provide reach (see the next point), that’s deck efficiency in action.
- Burn gives you reach
One of the big dangers in creature-based aggro strategies is running out of steam. No one wants to be the chump who gets his opponent to 1-3 life when the opponent stabilizes behind blockers and removal spells. Enter your burn spells, which give you some added reach your creatures might not provide. Cards like Goblin Guide, Legion Loyalist, and Foundry Street Denizen are quickly outclassed by turns 4-5 (or turns 3-4 against some decks), which often forces you to sneak in those last points of damage outside of combat. Goblin Grenade is massive here, especially when most Modern decks are effectively starting at 17 life due to shockland and fetchland damage. Bolt, Fanatic, and Command also support Grenade in the damage race, giving you a bunch of extra firepower to punch through a wall of Goyfs, Tasigurs, and removal spells.
- Always go wide
If you are already using creatures like Goblin Bushwhacker to alpha-strike, your Dragon Fodder token-makers become a lot better. Even on their own, these cards give you a lot of ways to dodge efficient one-for-one spot removal and large blockers. With the exception of RG Tron and its Pyroclasm, tier 1 Modern decks usually aren’t packing sweepers in the maindeck. They are, however, full of spot removal. This can put your shiny new Piledrivers in an awkward position, but makes those Mogg War Marshals a lot more attractive. Goblins has always distinguished itself from other aggro decks by going wide with its tokens and creatures, and that’s a strength other Goblin brewers shouldn’t ignore in their own versions.
When identifying strengths for an up-and-coming archetype like Goblins, it’s important to look for those unique to the deck. Or, more precisely, a combination of strengths that is unique to the deck. Other lists can burn you to death (Hi, Burn), others can go wide (BW Tokens), and others have bursty two-drops (Affinity). RG Goblins finds its strength in combining those three approaches, something no other deck can do in quite the same way. That said, this unique combination doesn’t necessarily make Goblins the best choice in a metagame. Burn is probably going to be more consistent if for no other reason than its lower creature count: it’s easier to count to 20 with spells than with creatures. Similarly, Affinity is going to be burstier because it’s hard to beat Cranial Plating and Arcbound Ravager in a damage race. This lets RG Goblins excel in metagames where opponents are heavily prepared for Burn (packing cards like maindecked Dispel) and Affinity (lots of Stony Silences and Ancient Grudges in boards).
In improving this first list, I am struck by a quote from Tomo’s article:
“As far as Goblin Piledriver goes, it’s a real beater that… puts additional pressure when he hits the field. However, I usually went for any other two-drop… when I had a choice, since losing Piledriver to Bolt/Decay/Terminate is a tempo loss, so I used him as a finisher.”
Pre-Piledriver Goblins was basically unplayable in Modern at the competitive level, and I worry that any strategy not leveraging Piledriver is too similar to those older, worse versions. Increasing the Piledriver count to three helps emphasize this unique strength. I’m also upping the Marshal count because the card is just too strong with all those Bushwhackers and Commands. Although I like Frenzied Goblin in some matchups, there are enough top-tier decks where the effect isn’t as relevant: cutting one of them helps make room for the more important cards.
List #2: RB Blood Goblins
Back in the Patriarch’s Bidding days, RB Goblins was the name of the game. We might not have Bidding in Modern, but we have a number of other interesting RB cards that play nicely with red’s iconic tribe. This includes the grindy lord Mad Auntie, the anti-combo bullet of Earwig Squad, and general RB staples such as Kolaghan’s Command. Duma Cristinel recently took 7th at a 30-player PPTQ in San Giovanni in Perscieto with his own RB take on Goblins. Here’s the list:
RB Blood Goblins, by Duma Cristinel (PPTQ San Giovanni in Perscieto 2015, 7th Place)
2 Mad Auntie
3 Goblin Rabblemaster
3 Goblin Piledriver
3 Mogg War Marshal
2 Goblin King
2 Goblin Bushwhacker
3 Earwig Squad
4 Goblin Guide
2 Purphoros, God of the Forge
2 Krenko, Mob Boss
3 Goblin Chieftain
3 Blood Moon
4 Lightning Bolt
4 Goblin Grenade
4 Blood Crypt
4 Cavern of Souls
4 Bloodstained Mire
1 Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
1 Tormod’s Crypt
2 Hero’s Downfall
2 Anger of the Gods
3 Kolaghan’s Command
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Although Cristinel’s list has some overlap with Tomo’s RG build, the decks have a lot of differences in their gameplan. Cristinel goes for a grindier Goblins build with early aggro options, combining the aggression of Guide, Bushwhacker and Grenade with the mid and lategame finishing power of Goblin Rabblemaster, Purphoros, God of the Forge, and Krenko, Mob Boss. Following that approach, here are some key deck strengths in RB Goblins.
- Goblin grinding
Sometimes you want your Goblins to win on turn three or four, riding a wave of Bushwhacked tokens to victory. Other times, your opponent blows up all your answers early and stonewalls you with a Tarmogoyf and Lingering Souls. That’s bad news if you were relying on a finite supply of 1/1s to finish the game, but much better news if you have endless tokens courtesy of Rabblemaster and Krenko (not to mention regeneration from Auntie). These cards are particularly nasty when paired with Purphoros’s enter-the-battlefield trigger, pinging your opponent for two every turn or even blasting them for six or more. Add your lords to that and even the smallest threats become capable of finishing games and punching through removal, especially with Goblin King mountainwalking your Goblins through Jund’s, Twin’s, and Grixis’ defenses.
- Non-traditional interaction
As longtime site readers know, I’m a huge fan of Blood Moon in Modern. It randomly obliterates a bunch of tier 1 and tier 2 decks, even screwing with decks that are supposed to be Moon-proof when they aren’t expecting it (Grixis and Jund). Maindecking Moon gives Goblins an edge that other tribes like Merfolk and Elves can’t match. It’s a more proactive form of interaction than removal like Bolt and Fanatic, but it’s still the kind of interaction which will save you against decks like Amulet Bloom. Speaking of which, Earwig Squad is some nasty Goblin tech that is increasingly relevant in metagames full of Collected Company/Chord of Calling decks. Twin decks can get locked out of their primary win condition through timely Earwig prowls; even RG Tron hates this. Similar to Moon, the Goblin Rogue team isn’t conventional interaction like Terminate, Decay, and Thoughtseize, but it’s a form of interaction which gives Goblins some added flexibility in diverse metagames.
One thing I like about RB Goblins is how deliberately it tries to distinguish itself from other aggro decks. It’s grindier than almost all the other aggro options in Modern (except some Zoo variants), but still packing the burst you would expect of a Burn or Affinity strategy. And unlike Zoo, you still retain the going-wide option you see in many other Goblins versions.
A key area for improvement could be Kolaghan’s Command. This card is easily one of the best in the format and I have no idea why this list doesn’t include them in the maindeck. Goblins generates a lot of casualties, which means you are almost always using the recursion mode on Command to maximize the card’s value. Command also gives you a ton of interaction options you wouldn’t otherwise have in a Goblins deck, plus some damage for added reach. I’d trim down some of the other higher-curve cards to include it. Also, the sideboard has a lot of bizarre inclusions which I’d also want to clean up.
List #3: RW Ranger of Goblins
Magic Origins hit MTGO this weekend, which means you can expect Dailies packed with players trying out their Goblins, Merfolk, and Day’s Undoing lists. Sunday saw a very interesting take on Goblins, with t00yot splashing white in their deck to fix some of Modern Goblin’s historical problems. This includes Path to Exile for hard removal and the exciting Ranger of Eos as a substitute for the Modern-absent Goblin Ringleader. Here’s t00yot’s 3-1 list from yesterday’s daily:
RW Ranger of Goblins, by t00yot (Daily 7/26/2015, 3-1)
4 Goblin Bushwhacker
4 Foundry Street Denizen
4 Goblin Chieftain
4 Goblin Guide
4 Goblin Piledriver
2 Goblin Rabblemaster
2 Grim Lavamancer
2 Mogg Fanatic
4 Mogg War Marshal
4 Ranger of Eos
4 Aether Vial
2 Path to Exile
4 Arid Mesa
2 Cavern of Souls
4 Sacred Foundry
2 Windswept Heath
1 Path to Exile
2 Blood Moon
2 Burrenton Forge-Tender
2 Forked Bolt
1 Magus of the Moon
1 Rending Volley
2 Rest in Peace
2 Shattering Spree
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One of Legacy Goblins’ claims to fame is its effective use of Aether Vial, so any Modern deck which is able to effectively leverage that card is going to draw our attention. This is a very aggressive Goblins list with some midgame synergies that distinguish it from the more conventional RG approach we saw earlier.
- Refueling with Ranger and Vial
It’s unfortunate Goblins didn’t get Ringleader in Origins (stupid Elves and their Sylvan Messenger), but until we get the Goblin staple we are going to have to make do elsewhere. Ranger of Eos is very strong here because many of Goblins’ one-drops are actually some of its best creatures. Just grabbing double Bushwhacker sets your opponent up for a huge beating next turn. Or grab a Fanatic, Guide, or Denizen for easy Vialing in off your classic artifact. In these ways, Ranger gives Goblins both some finishing power when you need to close out a game, recovery power if you got hit by Anger of the Gods, or refueling power if you are stalemated against a wall of Anglers and Tasigurs. Vial serves a similar function, but with the added bonuses of virtual mana acceleration and letting you hold up mana to threaten a Path. I’m a little nervous about Ranger’s four mana pricetag in a format where four mana buys you Splinter Twin, but I think it’s okay here if your one-drops can finish the game next turn.
- All-in aggression
The other two lists we saw today ditched some of the more classical aggressive elements, like a playset of Goblin Chieftain, for more range with tokens or more grindiness with Krenko and Auntie. They also weren’t running full Piledriver playsets. Not t00yot though, who pulls no punches with running the full playset of Goblins’ most aggressive staples. I like this approach in a slower metagame where you only need a few Goblins to connect to end the game, or when opponents don’t have enough removal spells to answer everything one-for-one. It’s also strong in races against decks like Burn and Affinity: you don’t want to screw around with turn three Earwig Squad when your opponent already has you at 8 life. This approach seems very fitting for MTGO, a venue which has historically rewarded linear decks in low-round events. If your opponent missed a beat on their removal, you can bet the turn three Chieftain is ending the game on the spot.
One concern I have with this deck is the lack of interaction. Some aggro and combo decks don’t need to care too much about interaction because they can win races if not respected. This includes Infect, Affinity, Grishoalbrand, Amulet Bloom, and a variety of other linear Modern strategies. Modern Goblins, however, doesn’t really fit in this category. The earliest your strongest draw can win is on turn three, and that assumes zero interaction of any kind from your opponent. Compare this with the other decks listed above, all of which have a several avenues to turn three wins. This makes Goblins a turn four aggro deck like Zoo or Merfolk, and although Goblins has some strengths these other decks don’t have, it still needs to play by their rules. Both Zoo and Merfolk distinguish themselves from faster aggro decks by running lots of interaction points, and Goblins should probably be doing the same even with Piledriver now in the mix. Path is a great start here, as are those awesome Lavamancers, but I’d up that count instead of just hoping for the best.
The Future of Modern Goblins
There’s a lot of space for Modern Goblins to improve, and a lot of tech worth trying. Collected Company is an obvious go-to in this department, as are old fallbacks like Lead the Stampede. With Battle For Zendikar coming up and a possible Goblins theme in store (c’mon reprinted Goblin Guides), there’s still hope to see cards such as Matron and Ringleader come our way. We might even get something totally new! The future is bright for Goblins, and I’m excited to see where the little guys go from here.
What other successes have you seen with Goblins in Modern? Any lists you are testing or think show promise? I’ll be testing some Goblins list in the coming weeks (Day’s Undoing + Goblins is too cool to ignore), and I’ll report back with some findings of my own. Until then, keep up the Piledriving and don’t let those other aggro players forget who puts the “G”s in “aggro”!
Sheridan is the former Editor in Chief of Modern Nexus and a current Staff Author. He comes from a background in social science data analysis, database administration, and academia. He has been playing Magic since 1998 and Modern since 2011.