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Red Aggro Will Rotate, but Chainwhirler Was Still a Mistake


Last week, at Pro Tour Dominaria, the biggest takeaway was that red aggro in general (including the questionably named RB Aggro and RB Midrange) and Goblin Chainwhirler specifically are the best things happening in Standard at the moment. When it was all said and done, red aggro took seven of the eight slots in the Top 8 of the event, and not only did Goblin Chainwhirler show up as a four-of in 87.5% of the Top 8 decks, but even more impressively, 47.5% of the decks that managed at least six wins in constructed (up from a Day 1 percentage of about 35%). 

Of course, this immediately led to a conversation about bannings, with Goblin Chainwhirler as the primary focus. The fact that this conversation happened isn't all that surprising, considering that when one of a handful of Lantern Control players won Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan, people started discussing banning that deck as well, which looks especially silly in hindsight, since Lantern Control isn't even a top-tier Modern deck anymore. 

The discussion over bannings and Goblin Chainwhirler basically breaks down into two camps, with one group arguing that, with rotation only 120 days away, we should just bide our time and wait for many of the good red cards to rotate, which will hopefully power down Goblin Chainwhirler enough that it won't be a problem. The other group focuses in on the fact that Goblin Chainwhirler pushes a lot of cards and decks out of the format merely by existing, which means even if rotation powers down red aggro specifically, you'll still have to think twice about playing your sweet token or Saproling deck for the next 14 months because even when you think it's safe, you'll never know when Goblin Chainwhirler will sneak up out of nowhere and ruin your day. 

Disregarding the question about banning Goblin Chainwhirler specifically, at least for the moment, it seems very likely that both sides are correct. It's quite possible that red aggro will be worse (and maybe even unplayable) after rotation but that Goblin Chainwhirler was still a mistake of design and development. 

The Death of Red Aggro

If you look at the typical red aggro deck, it's hard to argue against the fact that the deck will at the very least greatly change at rotation and might just straight up die when Kaladesh and Amonkhet blocks leave the format. Take the above build, for example. Of the 28 creatures in the main deck, every single one rotates except for Goblin Chainwhirler and two copies of Rekindling Phoenix. Of the spells, Chandra, Torch of Defiance, Abrade, and Shock will all leave the format, while nearly all of the sideboard (with the only exception being Fight with Fire) will rotate as well. All things told, only 10 of the 51 non-land cards in the deck will still be in the format after rotation. 

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This rotation problem isn't unique to Mono-Red. If you look at RB Aggro, you'll find that only 12 of the main-deck cards survive rotation (four Goblin Chainwhirler, four Rekindling Phoenix, and four Lightning Strike) along with three Angrath, the Flame-Chained in the sideboard. Meanwhile, the bigger RB Midrange keeps nine main-deck cards (four Goblin Chainwhirler, three Rekindling Phoenix, and two Karn, Scion of Urza) while faring slightly better in the sideboard, with six cards sticking around. Taken in sum, this means that no matter what build of red aggro you are playing, somewhere in the neighborhood of 70% of the cards in your deck will no long be legal in Standard when Guilds of Ravnica is released this fall.

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Of course, we have some replacements already in the format, especially if we're willing to delve into the Pirate or Wizard tribes. Daring Buccaneer, Fanatical Firebrand, and Rigging Runner are all reasonable one-drops; Captain Lannery Storm is a fairly good aggro threat; and Path of Mettle still offers a good payoff for the right build, but looking over the red cards that will remain in the format post-rotation, it's hard to imagine that the deck will be anywhere near its current power level, with some sort of Pirate Aggro deck seemingly the most likely replacement. This being said, we still have two sets yet to come into post-rotation Standard, in Core 2019 and Guilds of Ravnica, so it's possible that red aggro will get some more toys. 

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Perhaps the scariest possibility is that Goblins are heavily supported in Core 2019. It's possible based on the leaks we have seen, and with Goblin Warchief, Skirk Prospector (and several other one-drops like Fanatical Firebrand and Rigging Runner), and with Siege-Gang Commander already in the format, a handful of good Goblins in the core set could provide not just another powerful post-rotation mono-red deck but a deck that's even better suited to harnessing the power of Goblin Chainwhirler, thanks to tribal synergies.

All this is to say that all of the most popular red decks will die at rotation. They are simply too dependent on Kaladesh and, to a lesser extent, Amonkhet block cards to simply plug a couple of holes and keep going. It's almost impossible for a deck to lose 70% of more of its cards and simply continue to exist in its same format. However, just because the current best Goblin Chainwhirler shell will cease to exist in September doesn't mean that Goblin Chainwhirler is going away.

The Chainwhirler Problem

While Goblin Chainwhirler is extremely heavily played right now because the shell that supports it is so good, the real problem with Goblin Chainwhirler is that, simply by existing, it dictates which cards are and are not playable in Standard. While the "dies to Doom Blade" argument is always contentious, "dies to Chainwhirler" is a bit different because we're not usually talking about individual cards but entire decks. As long as Goblin Chainwhirler is in the format, there are a bunch of potentially sweet post-rotation decks that simply don't have a realistic chance to compete in Standard. What decks does Goblin Chainwhirler invalidate?

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Let's start with decks that are dependent on tokens. Saprolings were one of the most hyped tribes in Dominaria and are likely to get more support in our return to Ravnica, but you can't spend your days kicking Saproling Migration with Goblin Chainwhirler running around. The same is mostly true about Vampires, which haven't really taken off in Standard but might have a chance post-rotation based on their playability on Magic Arena before Kaladesh and Aether Revolt entered the format. Mavren Fein, Dusk Apostle and Call to the Feast are often important parts of these decks but are close to unplayable in Chainwhirler land. To a lesser extent, this is true of Merfolk as well, which not only has a light token theme but plays a lot of x/1s like Silvergill Adept, Deeproot Elite, and Merfolk Branchwalker. So, just based on reliance on tokens alone, this means Goblin Chainwhirler keeps down perhaps the most exciting tribe in Dominaria along with two of the four tribes of Ixalan block.

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Even beyond tokens, Goblin Chainwhirler is extremely punishing. Want to build a sweet Naban, Dean of Iteration Wizards deck? It's probably not going to work. Pirates? Too many x/1s. Thirty copies of Rat Colony? Good luck. Favorable Winds? If you don't have the namesake enchantment, Goblin Chainwhirler cleans up most of your early-game plays. And remember, Goblin Chainwhirler is a good card even when it's not just winning the game all by itself. Just picking off a Llanowar Elves while leaving behind a strong body is a huge blowout. 

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Now, it's very true that we want answers to go-wide decks and there should be a cost to being overly reliant on small creatures. Take a card like Pyroclasm, which serves a similar role in punishing decks that are looking to flood the board with small, cheap creatures or tokens, making it somewhat similar to Goblin Chainwhirler. The big difference between the two cards is that Pyroclasm comes with an opportunity cost. If you choose to put it in your deck, it will be great in some matchups (when you run into the go-wide aggro decks) but a dead card in others (if your opponent is playing control or a more midrange creature deck). Because of this, Pyroclasm is typically a sideboard card that might occasionally sneak into the main deck in small numbers if the format calls for it. 

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The biggest problem with Goblin Chainwhirler is that there is no opportunity cost. While it's the best card in Standard when you get a three- or four-for-one against a token deck and a great card when you get a two-for-one by killing a Llanowar Elves, it's still a fine card in its worst matchups, when you run it out against control as a 3/3 for three that comes along with a free point of damage. We saw a similar play pattern with the now-banned Rampaging Ferocidon. While it was absurd against token decks and great against creature decks, it was still fine as a 3/3 menace for three against control decks with very few creatures. While this undoubtedly makes for a powerful card, it's not the kind of power that makes for a fun and healthy Standard. 

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If you look at many of the most powerful cards in Standard, they are generically powerful cards. Karn, Scion of Urza and Teferi, Hero of Dominaria do a lot for a low mana cost. Verdurous Gearhulk, History of Benalia, and Steel Leaf Champion offer great rates for their mana costs. Unlicensed Disintegration, Cast Out, and Vraska's Contempt kill anything for a fair price. While all of these cards are better or worse in specific matchups (Unlicensed Disintegration isn't exciting against a control deck with few creatures, and Teferi, Hero of Dominaria can be too slow against aggro, for example), none of these cards specifically punish any one specific deck or play style. Meanwhile, Goblin Chainwhirler breaks the mold by essentially being powerful sideboard cards that target specific archetypes attached to a body so pushed that there is no downside to playing it in the main deck. The end result is that the decks you would normally sideboard in a card like Goblin Chainwhirler against are simply not playable at all, since the odds of being punished are too high, not just in games two and three but in game one as well.

The Solution

The end result is that both sides of the great Goblin Chainwhirler discussion are right. Red aggro will be crushed at rotation, but Goblin Chainwhirler was still a mistake—a mistake that is pushing a ton of cards and decks out of the Standard format, and considering that three of the four Ixalan tribes are fairly reliant on tokens or x/1 creatures, as are Saprolings from Dominaria, it will likely continue to push a lot of cards and decks out of the format even post-rotation. The best hope for Goblin Chainwhirler to become unproblematic would be for red aggro to not be a deck post-rotation, but considering the pieces already in the format and incoming Goblin support in Core 2019, this seems unlikely. While red aggro will probably be worse post-rotation, Goblin Chainwhirler and Rekindling Phoenix are enough of a payoff that people will figure out a way to make them work. 

This brings us to the big question: should Goblin Chainwhirler be banned. While ideally Goblin Chainwhirler wouldn't have been printed in the first place, that ship has sailed. Unfortunately, the banning question is a hard question to answer. As far as I can tell, the equation is as follows: Wizards can wait until rotation and hope that the format fixes itself. If Goblin Chainwhirler lacks a home and becomes unplayable, the cost of this option is a rough summer of Standard in which red aggro is by far the best deck in the Standard format and a lot of sweet cards aren't playable but the pain of a banning is avoided. On the other hand, Wizards could just ban Goblin Chainwhirler immediately based on the results of the Pro Tour and the card's similarity to the already banned Rampaging Ferocidon. This action would certainly be justified, but the cost is going through yet another Standard banning. 

There's also a third possibility, which is the worst possible outcome for everyone involved: Wizards chooses to wait until rotation and then ends up having to ban Goblin Chainwhirler anyway. Not only would this mean a potentially rough summer of Standard, but it would also be the most punishing option for players. If you're playing red aggro today, you're already preparing for the financial impact of your deck rotating, so losing Goblin Chainwhirler now—when you're losing your entire deck anyway in a few months—isn't nearly as painful as losing your entire deck to rotation, spending a bunch of money to build a post-rotation Goblin Chainwhirler deck, and then having that deck banned. 

So basically, Wizards can take a moderate amount of damage by banning Goblin Chainwhirler now or take a moderate amount of damage by having red-infested Standard all summer in the  hopes of rotation fixing the problem, but the second option comes with the possibility of taking a massive amount of damage by having to ban Goblin Chainwhirler post-rotation. From the outside, this makes banning Goblin Chainwhirler immediately the most logical outcome—if you're taking a moderate amount of damage each way, you might as well take that damage in a way that limits your long-term risk for more pain. This being said, Wizards has more information that we do. It knows what cards will be printed in Core 2019 and in Guilds of Ravnica. If Wizards has an extremely high level of confidence that Goblin Chainwhirler will not be a problem after rotation, then doing nothing could be correct. It's hard to weigh the downside of people grumbling about red in Standard over the summer against yet another banning. While both are bad, from Wizards' perspective, one might be significantly worse than the other. 

Conclusion

Anyway, that's all for today. What do you think? How problematic is Goblin Chainwhirler? How do you weigh the costs and benefits of waiting for rotation to see what happens against banning the card quickly to avoid long-term risk? Let me know in the comments! As always, leave your thoughts, ideas, opinions, and suggestions, and you can reach me on Twitter @SaffronOlive or at SaffronOlive@MTGGoldfish.com.


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