Exploring Vial Goblins in Modern

Disclaimer: this article was written before the B&R announcement that introduced Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Bloodbraid Elf to Modern. With an uncertain metagame ahead of us, it is hard to say how this affects the deck. However, since I really like the idea of Modern Vial Goblins, I decided to post the article nonetheless.

Playing Goblins with Aether Vial in Modern was and still remains one of my favorite pet projects. Idea came from Legacy Goblins, but that deck cannot transition into Modern since all but a few of its core cards are not legal in the format.

That, however, did not stop me from trying. It was way back when Twin and Pod decks ran around but I remember going 2-2 and 1-3 with a random pile of goblins imitating Legacy counterparts, including but not limited to Boggart Harbinger, Warren Instigator and Wort, Boggart Auntie. Sometimes I managed to tutor for Krenko and setup a nice hasty kill, but more often I was left stranded; either facing near infinite life or just losing to countless tokens. Even when facing Tron decks, I ended up being too slow on more than one occasion, so I shelved the deck.

Not long ago a decklist posted on reddit by a fellow Goblin enthusiast caught my attention and reignited my desire to play Vial Goblins. It was a 4-0 decklist from GP Kyoto 2017 side event and to my excitement, it included four Metallic Mimics and Frogtosser Bannerets. I was instantly sold and with only Mimics missing, I bought into the deck.

I did some more digging and found this decklist, also from Japan (4-1-1 in Hareruya), and that cemented my decision to try this deck as hastly as possible. This is what I packed for our Modern Monday event:

Vial Goblins (3-2) by treach

Creatures (31)
Frogtosser Banneret
Goblin Chieftain
Goblin Guide
Goblin Piledriver
Goblin Rabblemaster
Krenko, Mob Boss
Legion Loyalist
Metallic Mimic
Mogg War Marshal
Fanatical Firebrand

Spells (9)
Claim // Fame
Goblin Grenade
AEther Vial
Smuggler’s Copter
Lands (20)
Auntie’s Hovel
Blackcleave Cliffs
Blood Crypt
Bloodstained Mire
Cavern of Souls
Mountain
Mutavault
Swamp

Sideboard (15)
Thoughtseize
Relic of Progenitus
Blood Moon
Collective Brutality
Fatal Push
Lightning Bolt
Kolaghan’s Command
Fanatical Firebrand
Claim // Fame

A closer look at the deck shows Modern Vial Goblins are not aggro-control like in Legacy, but more of a tribal beatdown with some reach and no evasion.

I lost my first and second round to Infect and Lantern (came unprepared and underprepared, respectively), but ended up going 3-2, winning against a Mono Black Tron brew, BG Aristocrats and Tribal Death’s Shadow. Truth to be told, those are not typical decks even for our metagame, but I came to some conclusions nonetheless.

The Goods

The beating duo of Goblin Piledriver and Goblin Rabblemaster. I never would have thought that they can be so impactful in a Modern Goblin shell, simply because of the target on their backs. But this deck is capable of playing multiple high priority threats over the course of a few turns and relying only on spot removal might not be enough for opponents. Metallic Mimic also proved relevant despite its non-bo with Frogtosser Banneret, which is doing the heavy lifting in this decks and is the engine of it.

Art by Matt Cavotta.

Frogtosser seems like the least important target among the mentioned ones, but it enable so many things, including turn 3 Chieftain and Piledriver for the beatdown plan, or triple Mogg War Marshal if needs be. Together with Vial, it lets you vomit your hand and win fast.

Mogg War Marshal also plays an important role, which is to clog the board and produce goblins. It only gets better with Chieftain or Mimic on board.

Goblin Guide might look out of place and that was my doubt exactly upon seeing the deck for the first time. However, it turned out good enough to warrant the inclusion. the_cobra, creator of the original MTGSalvation RB Vial Goblins primer, used to say that we are still an aggro deck and have to put pressure. That was back in time when a small number of Vial Goblin fans talked about whether or not to play Goblin Guide or just stick with Spike Jester. The core has changed with Frogtosser, but the plan has stayed the same.

Legion Loyalist went M.I.A. for the most part of my Monday evening, but his Battalion is just game-ending with Piledriver, Rabblemaster; or both, tapped and attacking. It helps adding early pressure, enables good attacks and provides a hasty body.

Guide and Loyalist gave us an important lesson about haste, so when deciding between Fanatical Firebrand and Mogg Fanatic we ought to have that in the mind. Yes, we have four Goblin Chieftain, but sometimes we don’t and still need a hasty creature to pump our main beaters (Rabble and Pile, but you should know that by now I assume).

The Meh

Sweepers remain our worst nightmare and a well timed Anger of the Gods or Damnation is more crushing to this deck than 8-Whack variety of Goblins due to the longer setup. Smuggler’s Copter was the card I sideboarded out the most and will look to completely change both of them for additional interaction, but that could end up a mistake since sideboarding is dependant on the match-ups and my sample is very small. Irony here is that I wrote about removing Copter altogether while discussing the problem of sweepers in one breath, and we all know the usefulness of Copter when facing sorcery speed mass removal. I might reconsider before ending this article.

Speaking of interaction.. this deck lacks it immensely. Apart from sorcery speed Goblin Grenades, it had next to nothing in the mainboard but a single Fanatical Firebrand, which was rendered useless due to its low count.

Claim // Fame was a win/lose-more for the day, but the sample is again so small that I cannot make strong conclusions. It still seems like a powerhouse against grindy decks and gives you a graveyard toolbox of Piledrivers, Loyalists, Mogg War Marshals, Mimics and Frogtossers.

Rabblemaster was mentioned as a good beater, but we cannot overlook its downside of goblins must attack clause, which can end up helping our opponents. Against creature heavy decks, I opted to side out Rabbles for some spot removal, but there were some scenarios when its just devastating if left unanswered.

Land base was decent and I only really struggled and lost because of it once against infect, when I was stranded on a Mountain and Mutavault with Thoughtseize and Collective Brutality in my hands. I had Vial and all, just couldn’t cast meaningful interaction spells. Next time I would go down to 3 Cavern of Souls and add another Blackcleave Cliffs since we want to cast black spells early on, but even that might not be enough to consistently cast Thoughtseize on turn 1. According to Frank Karsten, you need 14 black sources for that, and we are only at 12. Upping the number could improve our match-ups where we need consistency with casting our black spells like discard and spot removal.

The “Theory”

With so little games under my belt there is no way to start making real conclusions, but I can draw a line and say that this is the best Modern Vial Goblin deck I have played and while it’s not the second coming of Humans, it can achieve decent results in a semi-competitive environment. Knowing your deck and playing something out of the ordinary definitely adds up to your odds, especially against inexperienced players.

I wrote a long paragraph about various match-ups and how to approach them, but much could change with the unbanning of Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Bloodbraid Elf, so I felt the text wasn’t needed anymore.

Generally speaking, we are good against decks slower than us so we have time for the setup. In match-ups where Mogg War Marshal is good and one of our value two-drops can survive, we are at least even. We know how to go wide, chump block, alpha strike and chip in for a few per turn. We also beat single target removal that is not backed up by a fast clock. However, we lose to combo and have to rely heavily on our sideboard if we even hope to stand a chance. Sometimes they lose to themselves, but most of the time they don’t and we lose. It’s that simple. Playing Earwig Squad in the main could improve Game 1, yet how effective can a 1-of really be? Midrange and control decks are probably favored to even in Game 1, but it can all go south fast after a few Lightning Helixes and Electrolyzes, or Inquisition into Goyf, backed up by double removal. After sideboarding, you can expect sweepers and lifegain (with the latter not that effective against us), so play accordingly.

Deck is fun and playing it feels smoother than it looks on paper. However, it has flaws and a ceiling related to the current viability of Blood Moon aggro decks.

The Future

While writing this article, I made another search and found out that yet again, a Modern Vial Goblin deck was successful in Hareruya (3-0, 22 players, 5th of Feb 2018). It seems that the pilot Shidou Kazu came to similar conclusions regarding interactions and swapped out both Copters for two Lightning Bolts. The inclusion of Earwig Squad is powerful if the metagame has combo and that seems to be the case in Japan. He also shaved Krenko and a Rabblemaster for two copies of Mad Auntie, a grindy card with an anthem effect.

Without Goblin Matron and Goblin Ringleader, we don’t have to be extra careful about the number of non-Goblin cards in the deck, but having Aether Vial still constrains us to play as many creatures as possible. With that in mind, I find Fanatical Firebrand and Mogg Fanatic interesting choices for the deck. Similarly to Cursecatcher and Mausoleum Wanderer, it offers a turn 1 body with the possibility of interacting. They get bigger with lords, can attack, even ping to the face; all that while being a relevant creature type and buffing Piledrivers and Rabblemasters.

Art by DiTerlizzi.

There is a fine line between being fast enough to get under big mana decks and being resilient in order to overcome attrition match-ups. Add aggro decks to the mixture and you must be able to shift to controling role as well. Sure, you can beat Zoo, Stompy and GWx creature decks with Krenko or an alpha strike that includes activated Loyalist and a few Piledrivers or Rabblemasters, but it is hard to outrace Infect, Affinity or even burn without some kind of an interaction. That is why I like Fanatics since it helps you race while adding the control factor against decks with important 1 toughness targets.

Ember Hauler was one of the cards that could potentially be viable, but the casting cost of RR might be too much since cost reduction from Frogtosser does not affect it. It may look like a small detail but RRR for 2 damage is not worth it, even with Aether Vial in consideration.

Another card that struck out is Warren Instigator. Modern has too much removal and too many decent blockers for it to be reliable. Even if it connects, it has to be something like Krenko and Chieftain to be really back-breaking.

As it stands, faster aggro and combo decks look like the toughest opponents for our Vial Goblins, but both issues can be addressed in the sideboard. Red and black offers enough removal spells, so we have that covered, and for combo we can wield discard and extraction spells. We still lack card advantage and if needed, we might have to add a few grindy cards like black draw spells or the likes of Outpost Siege, but we should be able to overcome midrange and control decks in game 1 at least (Mogg War Marshal really shines in those games). Blood Moon remains one of the strongest sideboard options for our deck, especially since we can close out games fast.

Needless to say but I am really into this deck and will look forward to play it again. I don’t know if Metallic Mimic sparked the viability of the deck, or the the combination of Rabble and Piledriver, but when this deck clicks, it’s awesome.

Vial Goblins (3-0) by Shidou Kazu, 5th of February 2018, Hareruya

Creatures (31)
Frogtosser Banneret
Goblin Chieftain
Goblin Guide
Goblin Piledriver
Goblin Rabblemaster
Legion Loyalist
Mad Auntie
Metallic Mimic
Mogg War Marshal

Spells (9)
Lightning Bolt
Claim // Fame
Goblin Grenade
AEther Vial
Lands (20)
Auntie’s Hovel
Blackcleave Cliffs
Blood Crypt
Bloodstained Mire
Cavern of Souls
Mutavault
Snow-Covered Mountain
Snow-Covered Swamp

Sideboard (15)
Earwig Squad
Fatal Push
Smash to Smithereens
Claim // Fame
Shattering Spree
Blood Moon
Rain of Gore
Nihil Spellbomb
Cards to consider
Mad Auntie was used in the latest deck from Hareruya and aside from going 3-0, we know next to nothing. However, it acts as lord 5-6 and gives a small inevitability against creature decks without evasion where you can chump block while building your board. Good against removal but could end up slow. We can dream about vialing it in to regenerate Goblin Chieftain, and once active, it becomes a priority target for all but Path to Exile, Terminate and alike.

Wort, Boggart Auntie is another card that excels against grindy decks where if left unchecked, it can add incremental advantage that is hard to overcome. We could also go with Tarfire and other Goblin tribal spells to shift focus from aggro to aggro-control, but all in all it seems too slow. For four mana, active Krenko wins games while Wort only pushes the clock.

Mogg Fanatic and Fanatical Firebrand are cards I would like to incorporate to the deck. Somewhere between two and four seems about right in case we need interactions while retaining the Goblin count. I’m still on the fence about Fanatic vs Firebrand debate so a split is possible.

A sideboard option at best, Slavering Nulls brings discard on Goblin body. Yes, its bad, but attacking on turn three against combo decks is not the worst scenario you could be in (if you survive that long). It has some value against control decks; if nothing else, they waste a limited removal on it. I can see it being too cute and doing nothing, but it might be worth a try if you face many combo, control and Tron decks. The biggest drawback is that even when it works, a smart opponent can play around it with discarding dead cards or excess lands. Probably a no-go.

On surface, Goblin King plays well with Blood Moon, but that’s not always the case. First of all, most of the games where Blood Moon is good, you really don’t want mountainwalk over haste (Chieftain). The other way around is true as well; when you would like to have mountainwalk (which is kinda rare), Blood Moon is not where you want to be. One of the exceptions are Humans, where evasion and Blood Moon come in handy. Regarding evasion, note that Legion Loyalist can pass by tokens.

Art by Franz Vohwinkel.

Without Lackey or Instigator cheating it in, Siege-Gang Commander is a bit slow. However, I could see it included and can be devastating on turn 4 with Chieftain and Frogtosser on the field. Adds reach and bodies with a total power of 5 while remaining the best curve-topper next to Krenko. A deck that wishes to run SGC should consider upping the number of lands, but before doing so, consider your local metagame and other options.

Boggart Harbinger enables toolbox of various Goblins, but other than grabbing Krenko or a lord with an EoT Vial, Modern cardpool offers little options in that regard. There are no Goblin Sharpshooters, Goblin Ringleaders, Goblin Settlers and Goblin Warchiefs. Decks with Boggart Harbinger could opt for Tarfire and Warren Weirding, but since the card is put on top of the library, this is best done at the end of the opponents turn. Having two power is not bad, but it remains an underpowered option for rare Modern Vial Goblin players.

Boggart Mob is a conditional and slower but stronger Krenko. Problem is that Fatal Push is a thing and getting the exiled creature back is not useful if you ate a token. If the metagame is filled with Lightning Bolts and little to no Fatal Push and Path to Exile, by all means play this 4-mana bomb. Most of the time, however, Krenko seems like a better choice since it has a much higher ceiling.

It is hard to image Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker side-by-side with Goblin Guide. They might be similarly tall Goblins, but their usage is so different that it’s comical. Copying Piledriver, Rabblemaster, Chieftain or Boggart Harbinger sounds awesome, but Modern is no EDH. Kiki-Jiki is an overkill and you are better off playing Kiki-Moon if your sole desire is to use the Mirror Breaker.

There are many more options for the deck but this article is already long enough. Let me just say that I hope Dominaria brings many playables (Shatter, Duress or Thalia Goblins anyone!?) for no-lord, 8-Whack, and Modern and Legacy Vial decks.

Art by Scott Kirschner.

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