While the only match I won was a game of cribbage against Jacob Wilson after Day 1, I played the following deck at Grand Prix New Jersey:
I tested a lot with this deck leading up to the Grand Prix, and while the format is new and exciting, the metagame is changing as fast as I’ve ever seen it. I played a bunch of Magic Online Leagues in preparation for the event, and went 4-1 in all of them regardless of the changes I made. Still, I felt like I was slowly creeping toward what I wanted my deck to look like.
I finally went 2-3 in my first League the night before the event, losing to everything that wasn’t a mirror. Warning bells went off in my head but I had already gone down this path, and was still relatively confident despite some reservations about playing the targeted deck. Over the past few years, the targeted deck could have a huge target on its back and well, it didn’t matter. I thought Golgari might be resilient enough to fade the hate, but I was wrong.
Golgari decks look similar to Temur Energy and R/B Aggro from last season—a curve of threats that at the top end turn into a mix of threats and answers, and planeswalkers and creatures that come down and affect the battlefield immediately, allowing you to slowly tempo and grind out the opponent all at once.
The problem is, Golgari’s threats aren’t as sticky. You have the ability to recur all of your threats, but there are no creatures like Scrapheap Scrounger, Whirler Virtuoso, or Bristling Hydra that are so difficult to deal with. Not until you get to 6 mana anyway, when you get Carnage Tyrant.
Carnage Tyrant has been making waves these last couple of weeks. Golgari decks seemed to be adopting more and more copies of the 6-mana hexproof threat because it was sticky and could rule the game on its own. Mirror matches circled around combat with Carnage Tyrant.
Personally, I found that playing defense against Carnage Tyrant wasn’t as difficult as advertised, and I didn’t want my game plan to be all about Carnage Tyrant, so I mixed in copies of Vraska, Relic Seeker for decks like Mono-Red, Selesnya, and Boros, where Carnage Tyrant wouldn’t be as effective. Setting up boards with Carnage Tyrants staring each other down, or a couple of creatures threatening to double- and triple-block Carnage Tyrant, was effective enough for me in mirrors.
Vraska still does good work in the mirror, but is much easier to interact with via Vraska’s Contempt, a card that is on the rise in the face of the variety of Phoenixes running around.
I noticed a lot of players leaning heavily on Carnage Tyrant. I hate to say it, but everyone knows it’s coming now. The jig is up, and they’re prepared for our Carny Ts. I saw more Settle the Wreckage, Star of Extinction, and Cleansing Nova. Even Deafening Clarion copied by Expansion // Explosion is enough. I saw much less Justice Strike and Lightning Strike than usual. This was a bad week for your plan against Jeskai to be “cross your fingers and hope Carnage Tyrant sticks.” Generally, you could bring back your Tyrants with Memorial to Folly, Golgari Findbroker, and Find // Finality, but that plan was often slow or ineffective against Settle the Wreckage.
Some Jeskai decks would just play a game of protect the queen, and win by playing and protecting the Drake, which could kill in one or two hits, out-racing Carnage Tyrant.
Of the three matches I played and lost, my first two were to Mono-Blue, a matchup in which I knew I was an underdog and did not expect to play against much. My other was to Jeskai Control, and I felt I was playing right into their hands with my deck list. My deck was too reactive both pre- and post-board. I had no cheaper threats that could combine with Carnage Tyrant to make life difficult for my Jeskai opponents. They would simply Deafening Clarion away my cheap plays and I would try to play a grindy game with Findbroker, Memorial to Folly, and Find // Finality, but that isn’t nearly as effective in these games as cards like Expansion // Explosion, Teferi, Hero of Dominaria, and Chemister’s Insight. My card engine, Vivien Reid, was too clunky and easily answered by counterspells, and my early pressure was too anemic and susceptible to Deafening Clarion. Once Jeskai figured out how to combat Carnage Tyrant, I fell behind in the matchup.
Midnight Reaper would help, and I knew that going in, but didn’t really like it outside of this matchup. It’s solid in the mirror and good against Jeskai’s sweepers, but not a very good creature against Mono-Red, Mono-Blue, or Boros where you’re often on the back foot. Jeskai can simply use spot removal on it before a sweeper, and I found it doesn’t leave them in an awkward position often enough. Maybe I was wrong as I saw several strong players, such as World Champion Javier Dominguez, include the card in their list (Javier also had an additional copy in his sideboard at Grand Prix Lille).
I found Find // Finality underwhelming in the current metagame. It’s often not enough to grind out these control decks, it’s not great against the Arclight Phoenix Drake decks, and it’s often too slow against the full-on aggressive decks like Mono-White and Mono-Red with Rekindling Phoenix. I initially registered three and woke up the morning of the event and changed my third to a second Vraska, Relic Seeker, as Vraska is just such a powerful card against decks playing on board.
Find // Finality is a big part of the mirror games that come down to Carnage Tyrant battles, and I would leave in my one copy of Plaguecrafter against Carnage Tyrant heavy decks. I hope to find it with Vivien Reid when the game stalls and someone is setting up a Carnage Tyrant into Finality turn. All in all, this proved successful in mirrors.
Brad Nelson’s 2nd-place deck had a full four copies of Tocatli Honor Guard, a card that’s anemic in most matchups, but potentially backbreaking for Golgari players. Players from CFB were playing Selesnya decks with The Immortal Suns, chosen to shut off the variety of planeswalkers Golgari decks lean on in the late game. Eli Kassis played a Teferi, Hero of Dominaria deck that also included the card, presumably to shut off the powerful late game of Golgari Midrange. Everyone was out to get Golgari this weekend, and it worked.
The existence of these two cards made me want to include more copies of Assassin’s Trophy, more copies of Cast Down, and to rely more on Vraska’s Contempt at 4 mana than Ravenous Chupacabra. The problem with this is that Chupacabra is so good in the deck with Find // Finality and Golgari Findbroker that you take away from the late-game engine of the deck.
I had almost no success against Mono-Blue in testing with Golgari, and as we saw in Lille, the sixth-best player of all time Gabriel Nassif piloted the deck to a 2nd-place finish. Mono-Blue was a solid choice this weekend, simply because of how well positioned it was against Golgari Midrange . Golgari could probably fix this matchupwith a bunch of Dead Weight, Cast Down, and other cheap removal while leaning on Carnage Tyrant, but the cost is simply too high against the rest of the field to make this a worthwhile endeavor. I was comfortable with this as a bad matchup, and I paid the price, losing to it twice. Those kinds of things will happen in Magic, though. You make calculated decisions and sometimes you hit the bad side of variance, and that’s OK.
Golgari was ultimately pulled in a bunch of different directions this week. Everyone was out to get it, and with such a huge percentage of the field willing to play the deck, it had quite a poor showing in New Jersey. Matt Nass played 74 of the 75 I played and had an undefeated Day 1, but then crashed and burned Day 2, finishing 3-4 on the day.
Is Golgari Midrange a bad deck? No, I don’t think so. Golgari had the target on its back this weekend. I believe Golgari can be built to beat a couple of decks in a metagame at once, but it won’t be able to beat everything at once. Trying to beat white aggro decks, red aggro decks, Izzet Phoenix Decks, and Jeskai Control decks, while also cannibalizing itself, left Golgari vulnerable everywhere. Fixing one leak springs two more. Once some pressure is alleviated from Golgari, it may have the opportunity to shine. If the metagame evolves into more control decks, Golgari can become more threat dense and attack from different angles. If the format is defined by creature decks, it can play more answers and less threats, and play the control role. We now know Golgari simply struggles to do both effectively in its current form.
This Standard format has been a never-ending puzzle that keeps evolving, and the second we see something rise up, it’s immediately reacted to and dispatched. Mono-Red was everywhere, then Wildgrowth Walker Golgari decks put it in its place, then Golgari was punished by Brad Nelson’s Boros Angels deck, Jeskai Decks, and Mono-Blue. We are seeing a diverse Standard format with constant evolution, which is a fresh change of pace from where we were in Kaladesh Standard formats, but at the same time I’m scared when there’s no “safe choice.” On any given week I could show up with a deck I feel confident in while others are just one step ahead of me, but I guess that can be a beautiful thing.
With the Pro Tour coming up, I’m as lost as ever, but you’d better believe I’ll spend the next week and a half leading up to the Pro Tour with the rest of Team ChannelFireball trying to find the solution to this puzzle. Of course, if you know the answer, I’m all ears.