With 24 copies of Goblin Chainwhirler in the Top 8 of GP Birmingham, you'd be forgiven for thinking we'll be spending most our lives living in a whirler's paradise. While the Magic community's many Chicken Lickens and Henny Pennys will say the sky is falling because of the weekend's results, you'd do well not to listen to the opinions of raving chooks. Last week it was Teferi, this week it's old mate GCW – who knows what it'll be next week? Kamahl's Druidic Vow?
Probably not, in all honesty.
In any case, while the sky certainly is not falling – this Standard format has proven to be supremely self-correcting in these early days of Dominaria. There have certainly been a lot of chains whirling around, and a lot of one-damage pinging going on. Goblin Chainwhirler isn't the next Aetherworks Marvel by any means, but it will remain a staple of aggressive red decks throughout its Standard career – and for that reason, you've got to be ready to deal with it. Today, we're going to discuss the best ways to counter the impact of Goblin Chainwhirler and explore some actionable advice to improve your deck against the latest scourge of the format.
This may seem far too obvious, but even a basic deckbuilding change like this will have far-reaching consequences. Even a brief overview of Standard's all-stars reveals how dependent decks of all colors are on one-toughness creatures – there's Toolcraft Exemplar, Champion of Wits, Glint-Sleeve Siphoner, Earthshaker Khenra, and Llanowar Elves (not to mention the otherwise-guaranteed Standard overlord, Rat Colony). Sure, we've seen cards that punish one-toughness creatures in the past, but nothing like this. When you play these creatures against anyone wielding the Chainwhirler, you are giving them free cards.
To be clear - this situation isn't the same as running two-toughness creatures into Golden Demise, or three-toughness creatures into Sweltering Suns. There, your opponent plays their sweeper, gets their two-for-one, and moves on with the game. With Chainwhirler, your opponent is left with a 3/3 first striker - a very real card that will demand an answer of its own. A Chainwhirler destroying even a single one-toughness creature is a walking two-for-one – and one that will beat you upside the head for three a turn until you deal with it.
Even within the Chainwhirler-dominated Top 8 this weekend, there were some important differences between the ways the various Chainwhirler decks were put together in anticipation of the expected metagame. Both eventual champion Simon Nielsen and the patron saint of GP grinders everywhere Martin Juza opted to avoid playing X/1s altogether, denying free value from opposing Chainwhirler decks. Most significantly, this meant cutting Bomat Courier – a decision that came at a real cost, as it makes the entire deck worse against strategies like White-Blue Control where the Courier is the best way to reload an empty hand.
Still, in doing so, the potential impact of opposing Chainwhirlers was minimized enormously, as both Nielsen and Juza prevented their opponents from getting free cards – and you should make every effort to mimic their success this weekend. Examine your decklist and put those X/1s to the question – do they deserve their slot? Are they really good enough to make up for the fact that they eat it so hard to ol' Whirlyboi? So far, no-one has argued against the power level of cards like Glint-Sleeve Siphoner or Earthshaker Khenra. Now is the time to be asking those questions.
Goblin Chainwhirler naturally excels in any creature-oriented game, with both players playing to the board and looking to get ahead in combat. Quite aside from blowing up X/1s, Chainwhirler comes at a good rate for its cost and is difficult to block thanks to first strike. Further, if its pilot enters the darkest timeline and is forced to take a defensive posture behind it, Goblin Chainwhirler profitably holds off a good number of Standard's threatening cards. Generally speaking, Chainwhirler does an excellent job of contesting a busy battlefield.
Given the strength of the Chainwhirler is in creature-based matchups, how about just not playing any creatures? Leo Lahonen cut a swath of glacially-paced destruction through GP Birmingham playing White-Blue Control. This creatureless hard control deck was perfectly positioned to crush decks looking to make the most out of cards like Goblin Chainwhirler, by making Chainwirler negligible. Against Lahonen, Chainwhirler is little more than a Centaur Courser – even the first strike ability of the Goblin is essentially irrelevant.
Chainwhirler dies to just about everything. Seal Away, Cast Down, Abrade, a juiced-up Fatal Push, Lightning Strike – the list goes on. Additionally, all these answers come cheaper than the card itself and are able to easily answer the 3/3 before it can do anything remotely significant. Not only this, but Chainwhirler can and will die to sweepers for no value, unlike something like Walking Ballista or Glorybringer.
For these reasons, you should look for ways to play to the natural weaknesses of Goblin Chainwhirlers, just as Lahonen did in Birmingham. If you're going to play creatures, look for cards like Thrashing Brontodon – solid, defensive cards that will hold off a 3/3 first striker. If you're going to play removal (which is, I suppose, generally a good idea in the abstract), be sure to include some of the many cheap answers that will deal with a Chainwhirler. Alternatively, turn Goblin Chainwhirler into a difficult-to-cast Nessian Courser by playing creatureless control – and in doing so, prove yourself as a person of great taste and refinement.
Almost half of the Top 32 of GP Birmingham's Standard field was Black-Red Vehicles – there were 76 copies of Goblin Chainwhirler at the top end of the tournament. The deck is resilient and difficult to effectively attack, with many powerful, flexible threats that can win a game on their own. These threats are backed up with effective and efficient disruption, with its removal suite able to tackle almost any opposing game plan – the key word here, thankfully, being "almost."
It's immediately apparent just how readily Lahonen's White-Blue Control deck can crush Black-Red Vehicles. Various enchantment-based removal represents near-permanent answers to creatures (especially to Rekindling Phoenix), and Sorcerous Spyglass out of the board deals very tidily with both Heart of Kiran and Karn, Scion of Urza. More important than anything else, however, is the traditional weakness of four-drop sorcery-speed threats against two- and three-mana counters.
Further, there are anywhere between eight and 10 cards in the Vehicles list that do stone-cold nothing against this creatureless control deck; removal spells like Unlicensed Disintegration and Magma Spray are actual blanks in this matchup. Nielsen's victory against Lahonen was a real upset – White-Blue should, in most situations, have this deck dead six ways from Sunday.
Looking further afield, however, it's good to see there are other ways to meaningfully stand up to Black-Red Vehicles. Surprisingly enough, another Chainwhirler deck can really turn the screws on Vehicles – Mono-Red Aggro is a tough matchup for Black-Red for quite a number of reasons.
Despite its capacity for aggression, Black-Red Vehicles really isn't all that quick in comparison with Mono-Red, and its ability to race will become yet further diminished as Vehicles pilots get greedier and seek to go bigger to get a leg-up in the mirror. The more Vehicles slows itself down to win mirror matches, the better the raw aggression of Mono-Red becomes.
Specifically, Hazoret the Fervent poses a massive problem for Vehicles decks. Without main deck ways to remove her and no real hope of racing her, Hazoret continues to be one of the most important pressure valves in Standard – she's here to keep decks like these honest. While this deck does violate our first rule in going up against Chainwhirler – don't play X/1s – the matchup is still a good one, and could perhaps be improved by opting for more Soul-Scar Mages over Bomat Courier.
In any case, the message here is pretty clear – the best approach to beating Black-Red Vehicles is to either go under them with quick, aggressive starts, or to go over the top entirely by playing hard control decks against which Vehicles lists have very little game. Trying to win a midrange slogfest in the face of powerful threats, good disruption and value engines like Karn is a tough ask – it's not a good time to fight the Vehicles deck on its own terms.
Within the next few weeks - even within the next few days, really - we will see natural counterplay to Goblin Chainwhirler and Black-Red Vehicles develop, as this wonderfully self-correcting Standard format continues to be explored and investigated in the lead-up to Pro Tour Dominaria. In the meantime, make sure you're driving the pace of innovation forward by looking for more ways to keep the Chainwhirler down!
- Riley Knight