Was Goblin Chainwhirler a mistake?
Now that the Pro Tour is over, we can see that the early results of red decks dominating Standard ever since the release of Dominaria was no fluke. In fact, there were seven decks with Goblin Chainwhirler in the Top 8 of Pro Tour Dominaria. I want to dig into the Pro Tour results, and talk about if there is a way the format can answer the dominance of red.
It is really tough to sleeve up a deck full of one-toughness creatures with this many Goblin Chainwhirlers running around. Goblin Chainwhirler was designed to keep cards like Llanowar Elves and Glint-Sleeve Siphoner in check. It certainly does answer those threats nicely, but does it do too good a job? Would a deck like Black-Green Constrictor become too strong without the existence of Goblin Chainwhirler? These are reasonable questions to ask. By taking away Goblin Chainwhirlers, it is very possible that Llanowar Elves would become too strong.
Green decks with Llanowar Elves were a significant part of the Pro Tour metagame – in fact I believe Llanowar Elves is the single card I played against the most over my 10 Constructed rounds. These decks are still popular and arguably have pretty decent matchups against the red decks. While I don't think that Black-Green Constrictor has a particularly strong red matchup, there are big creature Stompy decks that are well-positioned against red, like this list.
Even the red decks that splash black aren't typically packing the full playset of Unlicensed Disintegration. That makes it pretty tough to actually deal with a creature like Territorial Allosaurus once it is on the battlefield. The deck bears many similarities to the other decks that play Steal Leaf Champion, as it contains almost all creatures. The blue splash allows for a couple of Commit // Memory, which gives the deck some more play. Control decks with sweepers like Fumigate are the reason a deck like this hasn't been popular, but that could quickly change.
Control decks are on the decline, and this deck has access to countermagic to combat the most problematic cards it might see. The other major factor here is there is only a single one-toughness creature in the deck. This is okay, as it means you aren't going to be completely wrecked by Chainwhirler. There are also other mana fixers besides Llanowar Elves, as we see the Servant of the Conduits here.
This sort of green deck can sport a reasonable matchup against Red, but even though the green deck has many creatures that are tough to deal with, the games can still be quite competitive. There is no deck that straight-up squashes Goblin Chainwhirler decks. This is a major issue, and often how a best deck is created. Think back to the Temur Energy days when it was the clear best deck – there also was not a deck that handily beat it.
During testing, Brad Nelson referred to Black-Red Aggro as "Jund." This made a lot of sense to me, as the deck plays many powerful cards and can switch gameplans easily after sideboarding. One of the decks that previously gave red decks problems were the token strategies. Cheap lifelinking tokens are pretty tough to beat when racing. Rampaging Ferocidon even got banned to help token strategies, while also hurting the red decks. Red decks were still very strong after the latest round of bannings, but they reached the next level with the printing of Goblin Chainwhirler.
Ramunap Ruins and Rampaging Ferocidon exited the Standard format not too long ago – it is easy to forget that. When you ban cards from a deck, inherently that means trying to hurt a specific deck or strategy. It is not a good idea to then print a card that is better than the cards that were banned. Goblin Chainwhirler is straight-up stronger than Rampaging Ferocidon. I get the idea of wanting to print powerful cards that can go into tier one decks, but there must be a line drawn at some point.
Don't expect to see Goblin Chainwhirler banned. I don't believe that would be a good idea. Rotation is coming relatively soon, and that will provide a good shakeup. The fact that Goblin Chainwhirler costs three mana of a single color should make it so that it won't easily fit into some amount of the red decks after the rotation. It just so happens we are living in an environment where there are a ton of one-toughness creatures.
This is a good question, and I'm glad there is no easy answer, otherwise the format would essentially be solved. This decision must be based on the metagame. For example, if the format is chalk full of Goblin Chainwhirler decks, Bomat Courier suddenly looks much less appealing. On the other hand, if control is popular then Bomat Courier becomes the most important card in your deck. I decided to play a build of Black-Red Aggro that is well positioned against control, as we expected a metagame with more control than there actually was.
This deck isn't that different from many of the other black-red decks at the Pro Tour. I didn't want to play with Heart of Kiran, as getting hit with Abrade and the inability to be able to crew it sometimes made it feel not quite good enough. Ahn-Crop Crasher ended up filling a last-minute flex slot as a way to push through large blockers the opponent might have. The three copies of Kari Zev, Skyship Raider did become awkward, so I might cut one.
Overall, this deck is solid. The discard package is one of the most important reasons for having the black cards – having perfect information is key to beating the control decks and their Settle the Wreckage. Since most of my testing team ended up playing White-Blue Control, that is a matchup I have become quite familiar with and believe that the Black-Red Aggro side is favored. On the other hand, if you want to go straight Mono-Red, the control matchups become worse.
Still, it turned out sacrificing your control matchup a little bit was okay for the Pro Tour, especially when it is in exchange for having a better matchup against aggression. It turns out that the simplest deck can also be the best one. I tested with Pro Tour Top 8 competitor Thomas Hendriks before the Top 8, and it is no fluke that Wyatt Darby won the Pro Tour. Mono-Red Aggro having its lands always come into play untapped and putting Hazoret the Fervent into play early and often is why it is so strong.
Playing three Bomat Courier is a strange number, but the deck feels silky smooth. It does lose some of its creatures to opposing Goblin Chainwhirlers, but you can sideboard those creatures out easily. The deck has lots of cheap cards, which makes it the scariest Hazoret the Fervent deck in the format. If you want to try to get an edge against the black-red decks then this is probably the best option.
How relevant is the fact that Goblin Chainwhirler deals damage to planeswalkers? It is very relevant when the best planeswalkers in the format include Chandra, Torch of Defiance and Teferi, Hero of Dominaria. Oftentimes these planeswalkers come into play and immediately use their -3 effect, which puts them at one loyalty. The best possible response at that point is always going to be a Goblin Chainwhirler to get that planeswalker off the battlefield.
This creates a guessing game when playing with cards like planeswalkers – oftentimes it is correct to hold back Goblin Chainwhirler to get more value from its trigger rather than running it out on turn three.
This interaction of putting counters on all the opponent's creatures with a Soul-Scar Mage in play is kind of stupid, and I'm not confident it was intentional from a design perspective. Soul-Scar Mage had been falling out of favor, but of course now that Goblin Chainwhirler is in the format an argument can be made for it being the best red one-drop. This is an interaction that becomes even better if the opponent has a Winding Constrictor in play.
I think the timing of the printing of Goblin Chainwhirler is the real mistake here. It likely should have been printed after the next Standard rotation when red will inevitably be weaker without many of the key staples. Red decks had been dominant already in Standard, and was a bad idea to add another really good red creature into the mix. I get wanting to have a card that answers one-toughness creatures like Llanowar Elves, but there was almost certainly a better way of doing that.
We will be living in a Goblin Chainwhirler world for the next few months, and we will see a bunch of slightly different takes on red aggro. When a format becomes about making small changes to an established deck rather than having a bunch of different decks to choose from at a similar power level, a format can start to get stale. There are other alternatives to playing red aggro, and we will need to continue to explore other avenues more.
Unfortunately, the Pro Tour was a while after the release of Dominaria, which didn't leave as much room for innovation. The players that did try to innovate – in the case of the Green-Blue Karn deck – did get squashed. This is discouraging, as if a bunch of pros couldn't beat red decks in a tournament where it was obvious that red aggro would be the most popular strategy, there might not be room for as much innovation as we would like.
Thanks for reading,