Last weekend there was a large Standard event on Magic Online, and it was dominated by two types of decks – Izzet Arclight Phoenix decks and white aggressive decks. These results are a sign that Golgari, which immediately after rotation was looking like the clear best deck, continues to struggle. Golgari, which typically finds itself on the losing end of these matchups, was very poorly positioned in this event. White aggro first emerged in the metagame when Golgari was public enemy #1, because the fast strategy is inherently strong against the slower Golgari decks and their expensive removal spells. Golgari also had a hand in the rise of the Izzet deck, because it has few ways to deal with Arclight Phoenix and isn't fast enough to race it. Still, I believe Golgari can adapt to take on this metagame and any other, and will inevitably prove to be a key pillar of this Standard format.
Golgari is classic midrange deck, meaning it has a flexible gameplan and the ability to adjust to whatever the opponent is doing. Golgari has a ton of tools at its disposal, and I propose that it can deal with decks like Izzet Arclight and Boros Aggro if it just plays the right cards and uses them the right way. I've heard multiple jokes and conversations recently making light of how many great cards Golgari has – like that you could make a 120-card deck and it wouldn't be appreciably worse than 60 – and that you could make a singleton deck and win, and that playing Golgari this season means bringing a box of every black and green card to every tournament and then picking the best 75 for that day.
There's truth to all of those statements. What they really mean is that the deck is both infinitely adaptable and that it has a tremendous pool of cards to choose from in terms of quality and depth. This is especially important for the secret weapon of every midrange deck: its sideboard.
Midrange decks don't confront opponents with threats that are imperative they stop like combo decks and aggressive decks do, but they are well-suited for stopping whatever the opponent is doing. Midrange decks will often be at the mercy of their opponents game one, but after sideboard will be converted into a well-oiled machine perfectly designed for dismantling their opponent. It's no surprise that when a midrange deck like Golgari faces a control deck and is able to sideboard out some useless creature removal for Duress, a Legacy-playable piece of disruption, the matchup gets much better in the second two games. Golgari can take advantage of its incredibly deep pool of cards, which contains answers to disrupt any conceivable strategy, to craft the perfect weapon against the metagame.
Fighting against the metagame also means building the correct main deck, where special considerations must be made for the opposition. When certain opponents are common enough that you can expect to play against them a large percentage of the time, then it's important that your main deck cards line up well against them. This is especially important when opponents start to play cards specifically against you, like how white decks often include Tocatli Hono Guard to hose Golgari explore creatures, which forces Golgari to have main deck answers or fold to the hoser.
Despite it appearing to be outclassed by other decks recently, I've stuck with Golgari in an attempt to figure out how to beat the metagame. Maybe it's stubbornness, or maybe it's because it's the deck I stuck all of my Wildcards into on Magic Arena and have no way to jump ship, but I think Golgari has what it takes. It's also the deck I'm most qualified to talk about today, so I want to share my thoughts on the archetypes, detailing the specific card choices I've made and how I believe the deck should present itself against this metagame.
First, my decklist:
My first major realization with Golgari was that Assassin's Trophy – which was heavily hyped and heralded as the second coming of Abrupt Decay – felt unplayable in Standard. Destroying anything sure sounds great in theory, but giving the opponent a free land feels unconscionable in practice. Not only is it a bad deal in terms of card advantage, it's also a tempo loss because it gives them a land to leverage against you. One important aspect of removal is that it helps you keep pace against your opponent, buying time for you to utilize your other cards like planeswalkers, but giving them a land just pushes them ahead. This makes Assassin's Trophy almost uncastable in the early game, and while the utility is great in the late game, I've also found that the flexibility is hardly necessary. Killing creatures is the primary use of the card, and the deck has plenty of ways to deal with other permanents.
Not being able to destroy planeswalkers is a small loss, which comes up against Jeskai, but in reality Vraska's Contempt has proven to be sufficient for dealing with Teferi, Hero of Dominaria, and even more so once Duress is added into the equation. Golgari can handily deal with artifacts and enchantments with its planeswalkers, so Assassin's Trophy is really just a creature removal spell, and in that role there are much better options.
Instead of Assassin's Trophy I've turned to Cast Down, which kills nearly all of the important creatures that Assassin's Trophy does, but without the unpalatable downside. It's a clean main deck answer to Tocatli Honor Guard, which the deck desperately needs, and helps give the deck a high density of removal against all of the other creatures in white aggro. Against Izzet, it stops Goblin Electromancer on curve, and it makes short work of Enigma Drake and Crackling Drake, which also makes it key as protection against Maximize Velocity. It feels just like Terminate in most situations, and the other removal spells in the deck, including Ravenous Chupacabra, make sure any legendary creatures won't easily slip through the cracks.
On that topic, I can't speak highly enough about Vraska's Contempt. This card was a staple of black midrange decks last season, but started losing respect once Hazoret the Fervent and The Scarab God left the format. To me it feels that the card is as good as ever and has been key in many of my victories with Golgari. It's still a clean answer to Rekindling Phoenix, which is in Boros Angels, some Mono-Red and even some Jeskai decks, but it's also Golgari's cleanest answer to Arclight Phoenix. Spending four mana to remove a creature the opponent cast for free doesn't feel great, but the Izzet deck only has so many threats, and getting rid of one goes a long way towards beating them, especially when backed by two life. It's also the best answer to planeswalkers, which is important to have without Assassin's Trophy in the deck. I've been very happy with three copies in the main deck, with one relegated to the sideboard only because the deck already has so many other great four-mana cards in the main deck.
Another realization I had was that Llanowar Elves is essential to the deck. This isn't really news to anyone, and all of the successful lists recently – like those from the Top 8 of GP Lille – contain a playset, but in the first weeks of the format the card was often absent. As it turns out, accelerating into planeswalkers and Carnage Tyrant can be very effective, and the ability to play Jadelight Ranger on turn two isn't something to be left off the table. Golgari has plenty of card advantage available, so sinking a card into mana acceleration is more than acceptable. Llanowar Elves is simply the best green card in Standard, and there's just no good reason not to play it in a green-based midrange deck like Golgari, especially not when Mono-Red with Goblin Chainwhirler has been in steep decline. Some Golgari decks even include Druid of the Cowl, which gives it the underpinnings of a mana ramp deck, just without such a large top-end and instead more of a planeswalker focus. I've haven't actually tried it yet, but there's something to be said for turn three Carnage Tyrant or Vraska, Relic Seeker. Still, in theory like a more balanced approach, using just the most efficient mana acceleration, and leaving the two-drop slot for value-generating explore creatures and Wildgrowth Walker.
It is planeswalkers that are one of the biggest selling points of Golgari decks. With the tools to accelerate into planeswalkers and then protect them with blockers and removal, midrange is the natural home of planeswalkers, and Golgari takes advantage of an assortment in Standard. Vivien Reid offers the perfect crossover of power, efficiency, and flexibility, and has become a marquee card for the deck. Vraska, Relic Seeker is even more powerful, but at six mana does share space with Carnage Tyrant, which is starting to replace it in the main deck. That said, the current move towards white aggro does mean that Carnage Tyrant can be a liability, so the pendulum is shifting against it, so the bulk of them are better off in the sideboard.
I've been very impressed by Vraska, Golgari Queen. I initially discounted the card because its +1 ability didn't offer true card advantage, but in practice it has been very effective. It feels a bit like Chandra, Torch of Defiance in that it has a potent -3 ability that can leave the opponent creatureless and facing a planeswalker – a terrible position to be sure – plus a conditional form of card advantage and a game-ending ultimate. It also happens to be an answer to Tocatli Honor Guard, so at this point multiples in the main deck is a consideration. It does compete in the four-drop slot with Karn, Scion of Urza, which has also impressed me. Its high loyalty and ability to protect itself by making a blocker make Karn, Scion of Urza difficult to deal with, and its slow and steady card selection allow it to take over a game within a few turns. Seth Manfield went so far as to include three in his deck, and while I prefer a more diverse mix of planeswalkers, I'm confident that Karn, Scion of Urza should be included.
One of the flex slots in the Golgari deck is at three mana. Plaguecrafter started as a staple but completely fell off at the Grand Prix and online. Instead, Midnight Reaper has become commonplace. Card advantage is the name of the game for Golgari, and Midnight Reaper supports that plan. The deck has plenty of expendable creatures and readily trades them in combat, and can even sacrifice them to Vraska, Golgari Queen. Midnight Reaper demands that the opponent deals with it, which in most cases means killing it and triggering it, so at worst just trading with a removal spell and drawing a card makes it very effective. I was reluctant to play the card at first, but it has proven itself time and time again.
Another consideration at three is Thrashing Brontodon, which Christoffer Larsen had a pair of in his Top 4 list. It functions as a Naturalize effect, but Golgari has plenty of these with its planeswalkers so I am not sure that it's necessary. I think the real appeal is its large body, with four toughness in particular making it great against Lightning Strike and Deafening Clarion. It feels solid in this metagame, where the toughness makes it robust against Izzet and White aggro, where Midnight Reaper can become a liability. I think there's also some value in the one-of, which the deck can actually use more than once with its various Raise Dead effects like Golgari Findbroker, Memorial to Folly and Find // Finality. This ability to reuse creatures has also impressed me when combined with Plaguecrafter. I'll admit that the card hasn't felt fantastic lately I don't think it really should be in the main deck, but it has done some great work taking down multiple planeswalkers against control and is something to consider for the sideboard.
One card I do consider essential for the sideboard is Golden Demise, which is a devastating sweeper against White Aggro. Golgari suffers against Knight of Grace – with no real answers – but Golden Demise takes care of it, along with being a great way to sweep up both tokens from History of Benalia. White aggro decks beat Golgari by overwhelming them with a swarm of creatures, especially one-mana creatures and token generating cards that punish one-for-one removal, and Golden Demise flips that plan on its head. To go even further, I've included a copy of Ritual of Soot, which can also destroy larger creatures, including Benalish Marshal, two of which will turn off Golden Demise.
In a metagame filled with white aggro, it's also important the sideboard maxes out on Wildgrowth Walker. White aggro plays out similarly to red aggro, and it makes Wildgrowth Walker very effective. It's a bit easier for them to remove, but otherwise it stops any of their creatures and its lifegain is key for stabilizing and taking over the game. I've actually bumped the usual two main deck to three because it's strong against white aggro and even Izzet Arclight Phoenix, which usually just comes down to a race.
A set of Vraska's Contempt in the 75 really does help against Izzet, but beating Arclight Phoenix convincingly means going further. Deathforge Scavenger nabs copies from the graveyard and can clean up jump-start cards like Radial Idea and Chemister's Insight, so it does a lot to disrupt the Izzet deck. It's also a large threat, and because the matchup boils down to racing them before they assemble too many copies of Arclight Phoenix, attacking for four every turn really puts the pressure on them or at least demands a removal spell.
Here's a sideboard guide for the list I've suggested: