Since the release of Guilds of Ravnica one deck has remained prominent in the top tier of Standard: Golgari Midrange. The deck has held its position as a tier 1 strategy through the new and ever evolving format and we haven’t even had the Pro Tour yet. It has had a big target on it in the lead up to Grand Prix Lille with people trying to figure out how to beat it or even how to break the mirror match.
In the lead up to the Grand Prix, I had also tried out both Esper Control and Mono Red Aggro. Whilst both felt excellent, the online PTQ showed a rise in the number of Carnage Tyrants that were played and I quickly dismissed the idea of playing Esper. My teammates Rob Catton and James Allingham however solved the issue which you can see in their feature matches from the GP. On the other hand Mono Red Aggro gave me a great win rate of around 70% despite me being about three weeks late in discovering the power of the card Experimental Frenzy. But I felt the deck lacked the ability to let me outplay people, a property it shared with the RB deck of last Standard season and something I was keen to get away from.
I finally settled on learning Golgari and preparing myself for the mirror match. Luckily, I ended up playing roughly 3 mirror matches in every league I played in preparation. Whilst my overall MTGO record wasn’t amazing, mainly due to constantly changing my list, in the end I learnt a lot and after several in-depth conversations with people and some last minute card choices (big shout out to Marc Purvis), I settled on the following:
Great image by Brad Nelson showing how most GB players felt
4 Llanowar Elves
2 Seeker’s Squire
2 Wildgrowth Walker
4 Merfolk Branchwalker
4 Jadelight Ranger
2 Midnight Reaper
3 Ravenous Chupacabra
2 Golgari Findbroker
3 Carnage Tyrant
2 Vraska, Golgari Queen
3 Vivien Reid
3 Find // Finality
2 Assassin’s Trophy
1 Vraska’s Contempt
4 Woodland Cemetery
4 Overgrown Tomb
2 Memorial of Folly
1 Wildgrowth Walker
1 Phyrexian Scriptures
1 Assassin’s Trophy
2 Vraska’s Contempt
1 Cast Down
1 Vraska, Relic Seeker
1 Doom Whisperer
2 Deathgorge Scavenger
At GP Lille I finished with a nice 11-4 record sneaking into cash at 63rd. I achieved a record of 7-1 in the mirror, despite throwing the last round after keeping a terrible six card hand in game 3. Amongst the eight mirrors, I managed to beat three respectable players: Fellow team mate Usama Sajjad, Goncalo Pinto and the recent MTGO PTQ Winner Elliott Boussaud.
My 3 general tips for playing the mirror
- Maximise the value of your cards
The mirror isn’t just about being luckier than your opponent and whilst some starts can just run over the opposing player, it really comes down to which player can maximise the value of each card they play. This includes things like remembering that your 2/1 Branchwalker isn’t just a 2 mana draw a land but that it can also fill a lot of roles from pressuring planeswalkers, defending your own planeswalkers, protecting against Edict effects like Plaguecrafter or The Eldest Reborn or even to help bring down a giant opposing dinosaur. Make sure your cards fill their purpose and maximise them in your overall plan.
- Don't just play like an ABC Robot
This one goes hand in hand with the paragraph above, so I’ll start with a great example which I discussed with a few people at the Grand Prix:
- You are on the play and you cast a turn 2 Branchwalker as a 3/2, you pass the turn.
- Your opponent does the same
- On turn 3, do you attack with your Branchwalker? Is it free damage? Do you want them to block?
I think a high percentage of players will attack and see either end result as good for them. However, you really need to understand why you are attacking: Look at your hand and assess if you need that creature to defend a planeswalker later by maybe chumpblock a bigger threat. Can you flood the board enough to pressure an opposing planeswalker? Especially something like a Vraska, Golgari Queen or even to hold back an opposing Carnage Tyrant? Or are you simply giving your opponent a good opportunity to get extra value out of Golgari Findbroker’s ability to block as a 3/4?
Understanding why you are making a play is important - you need to assess where you see yourself in 3-4 turns. Just because ABC Magic suggests the attack is free, that doesn't take into account how important that 3/2 creature might be later down the line, 2 or 3 damage might seem awesome but I turned around most of my mirrors at the Grand Prix when I was at a lower life total than my opponent because I consistently emphasised maximising the value I got out of each card and assessed how each card will play a part in the upcoming turns.
- Understand how to utilise Explore
Even now I still believe that Explore isn’t a great mechanic; however that doesn’t mean that it can’t be used to generate an advantage. This is especially true in a deck that not only contains a lot of air in the late game (Llanowar Elf, Seeker’s Squire etc.) but also features a number of ways to return creatures from the graveyard to hand.
My main tips for Explore would be to have an idea of what you want to see and what you don’t want to see before you explore, determining what type of card you are looking for (removal, threat, recursion etc.). This will help you make a quick decision once the card is revealed. Also remember that Jadelight Ranger can nicely stonewall a board of two power creatures if it becomes a 4/3, so if there is a spell on top it might be a consideration to explore it to the top once, before binning the Seeker’s Squire, for example.
Top 3 Cards in the mirror
- Carnage Tyrant
Carnage Tyrant is numero uno when it comes to the mirror, it can both stonewall the entire board whilst also winning the game by itself, not only does it dodge all of the opposing removal but it can also be recurred very easily via Memorial, Find and Findbroker.
The big dinosaur is maybe the best card not only for the mirror but also for the control matchups and I wouldn’t recommend anyone playing fewer than 3 of these in their maindeck right now.
This guy earned the nickname of Drago over the weekend - “If he dies he dies”
- Llanowar Elves
To all those currently disliking Elves in Golgari, I think this card is excellent. It allows you to push an early mana advantage against any deck in the format especially in the mirror where being the first to play a big powerful spell can really give you an early advantage. Whilst they can have downsides when you draw them late, they also allow you to play 23 lands, which is nice. I believe that Llanowar Elves pairs nicely with Vraska, Golgari Queen as she allows you to trade off Elves that turn up late to the party into another card.
- Vraska, Golgari Queen
What doesn’t this card do? It draws cards, it protects itself and also has a game winning ultimate! This card excels not only in the Golgari mirror but also against the aggro decks of the format, plus it can destroy a range of cards from Search for Azcanta, Sarkhan and sometimes even History of Benalia. On top of that, she also allows you to turn late game dead cards into a shot at real cards while gaining life which can be very relevant when paired against something like Mono Red.
Right now I think every version of this deck should contain 4 Llanowar Elves and 2 Vraska, Golgari Queen.
Could this be the next Jace, the Mind Sculptor?
3 cards that look good but are secretly bad in the mirror
- Wildgrowth Walker
In the lead up to the Grand Prix, fellow team member Autumn Burchett and I discussed if there is a chance that Wildgrowth Walker was secretly the mirror breaker after both losing to it on MTGO. After additional testing, we came to the conclusion that if your opponent was playing Vraska, Golgari Queen then they had enough answers to a big Wildgrowth Walker that it didn’t stretch their resources enough. However, playing the card for the mirror also means you have to leave in a lot of air such as Seeker’s Squire and some number of Branchwalkers, therefore I think Wildgrowth Walker is a trap in the mirror. However, I also believe that you should be prepared for your opponent to leave it in so don’t leave home without at least one copy of Vraska, Golgari Queen in your 75.
- Doom Whisperer
This card is huge. A 6/6 flying trample for 5 mana is an extremely good rate of return, however with more and more people playing 3 Vivien and upping the number of Contempts and Trophies, I think this card is a huge trap. This is exacerbated by the fact that the Surveil effect has to dig you into something pretty good (usually a Carnage Tyrant) in order to make up for trading your 5 mana creature for a Contempt or Trophy or even something like a Chupacabra or a Vivien activation.
I ended up playing one copy of this card in my sideboard for matches like UR Phoenix and some of the smaller creature aggro decks where it is just a giant stonewall.
- Vraska, Relic Seeker
This card is excellent when you are ahead but really doesn’t shine when you are behind. In contrast, Carnage Tyrant shines in both circumstances, while also being very good against the control strategies of the format. I ended up sideboarding a copy of Relic Seeker as an additional high-impact card to incidentally bring in in the mirror but she can also cover more random matchups due to her ability to close games out quickly with her ultimate, while also providing an answer to large creatures or enchantments.
My sideboard plan for the mirror
The part of the article that everyone wants to read the most, my strategy for the mirror was plain and simple, cut out the cards which produce more late game ‘air’ and replace them with more powerful effects.
-2 Wildgrowth Walker
-2 Seeker’s Squire
-1 Merfolk Branchwalker
+2 Vraska’s Contempt
+1 Assassin’s Trophy
+1 Vraska, Relic Seeker
If you get paired against versions of the deck that are playing cards like The Immortal Sun, you can swap out the Relic Seeker for something like a Doom Whisperer. Similarly, if you see Izoni, Thousand-Eyed you shouldn’t side in Plaguecrafter but perhaps tweak the numbers on Seeker’s Squires to Branchwalkers.
Overall I feel Golgari Midrange to be a solid choice coming up for any PPTQ or MTGO event, as it is extremely hard to go into a game being massively unfavoured with a deck like this, which is somewhere I like to be when playing Magic.
Just make sure you remember to sleeve up at least 3 maindeck Carnage Tyrants, because as I discovered the best way to beat a Carnage Tyrant is to have your own to block with.
About David Calf:
David began playing Magic at the Gatecrash pre-release after finding the need for a new hobby, having been a competitive Duelmasters player from the age of 15. He decided upon Magic after watching the Walk the Planes series and his intentions have always been to become a regular Pro Tour competitor, even from day one. During his 2018 season he hit Bronze Level Pro status to help bolster his Magic resume, which consists of 3 PTQ Top 8s, multiple GP top 32s, 1 Pro Tour Day 2 and multiple Regional invites. He has always tried to break barriers as they present themselves with the eventual aim to a win a Grand Prix. His biggest strengths are his ability to bring motivation to fellow teammates but he feels his biggest weakness is his current issue with consistency between events.