I really love Tarmogoyf. I think he’s the best creature in the Modern format. A lot of people don’t love him – for some, Goyf is “just a vanilla beater.” These players often prefer creature-based strategies revolving around synergy, or the interesting ways cards interact with each other, to dumb muscle.
It’s true that Goyf “only” attacks and blocks. But he does so well enough to slot into even synergy-based decks, a trend we saw before Modern existed as the Lhurgoyf ascended from his humble bulk-box beginnings to inclusions in synergy-based aggro decks like Merfolk and Goblins. In this article, we’ll explore how Tarmogoyf also fits into Modern’s synergy decks by delving into an old brew of mine: Grisly Vial. First, the list:
1 Vault of the Archangel
1 Gavony Township
1 Horizon Canopy
2 Twilight Mire
2 Razorverge Thicket
4 Verdant Catacombs
2 Marsh Flats
1 Overgrown Tomb
1 Godless Shrine
1 Temple Garden
1 Shambling Vent
2 Kitchen Finks
1 Lingering Souls
3 Stony Silence
2 Ray of Revelation
2 Tidehollow Sculler
1 Thalia, Guardian of Thraben
2 Aven Mindcensor
From a synergy standpoint, this deck has it all. Even the most hardened Goyf-basher has something to love. Let’s explore some of the interactions:
The glue that holds this mess together. Grisly Salvage both finds and grows Tarmogoyf, making sure we always have the biggest creature on the table. Aether Vial, Nameless Inversion, and Liliana of the Veil all pump Tarmogoyf in uncommon ways (outside the traditional instant, sorcery, creature, land) when we mill them with Salvage, and enchantments like Choke and Stony Silence from the sideboard make him even bigger. Dumping Haakon or Lingering Souls provides accidental card advantage. Finding dredge effects with Salvage gives us some added versatility. But my favorite thing about this card is that it also finds our lands, allowing us to run a miserly 20.
We can either cast this guy from the graveyard, or tap Vial to put him straight into play. Once on the field, Haakon allows us to machine-gun creatures with a binned Nameless Inversion or build an army of dead Knight of the Reliquary.
Knight asks us to run a small toolbox of utility lands, but they definitely pull their weight. The least exciting of the bunch, Horizon Canopy simply cycles a spare land. The Battle for Zendikar sleeper, Shambling Vent, lets Knight improve our assault. Gavony Township grows our team, including those surprisingly deadly 1/1 Spirit Tokens and ensures we win Tarmogoyf duels. After siding, the Township turns Kitchen Finks into a living/undying nightmare. Vault of the Archangels proves especially lethal with Lingering Souls, which now produces lifelinking clocks that trade with serious threats. And let’s just call putting lifelink on a 7/8 Tarmogoyf… fruitful.
These dredge cards are great to mill, since they offer us on-command removal for small creatures or land drops, respectively. Darkblast can singlehandedly mangle creature-based strategies like Elves or Affinity, and is excellent against mana dorks. Life from the Loam keeps our hands full and retrieves powerful utility lands milled with Salvage.
Grim Harvest is a superb recursion effect in a shell like this one. Once Grisly Salvage mills it to the graveyard, it returns to our hand whenever a creature dies, even a 1/1 Spirit. Then, we’re free to turn that Spirit into Tarmogoyf or Knight of the Reliquary, rinse, and repeat. So long as we keep up some mana, which Aether Vial helps us do, we’re guaranteed to never run out of threats. For her part, Eternal Witness becomes a veritable Demonic Tutor with a full graveyard, and Harvest can even return her to our hand if we badly need that Path to Exile or sideboard bullet.
The Vial Curve and Creature Suite
Building with Aether Vial has always given me mixed results. My faith in decks revolving around Vial is shaken by the same principle that keeps me from playing too many Noble Hierarchs: if Noble gets bolted, his deck becomes much slower than it should be. With Vial, the problem is slightly different. Few cards can stop a turn-one Vial (although well-timed Disrupting Shoals and Abrupt Decays do a fine job), so it’s less a matter of not having it countered or destroyed and more a matter of actually drawing it. Nothing prevents deckbuilders from packing seven or more mana dorks to maximize the chances of opening one. Aether Vial, like the dorks, gets infinitely better in an opener – but we can only play four copies, meaning the odds of opening one without a mulligan are roughly 33%. That’s hardly a statistic I can get behind!
Fortunately, this deck has plenty of game if it doesn’t open Aether Vial. Grisly Salvage notably helps us find land, ensuring we can cast our creatures – three-drops are actually pretty costly in a 20-land deck. Inquisition of Kozilek, Shambling Vents, and even just fetching out a tapped shock land are all fine opening plays, and we’re unlikely to have nothing to do on turn two.
Grisly Vial plays eight high-impact two-drops to get the game going on the second turn, at the latest. We know from Jund’s success that an unanswered Dark Confidant wins the game on its own. Lightning Bolt is indeed everywhere in Modern, but we have so many juicy targets and recursion effects that Confidant biting the dust hardly means the end of the game for us.
Tarmogoyf, the world’s greatest funeral procession, follows a dead Bob like nothing else at ¾ or bigger. Like Confidant, he also perfectly succeeds Inquisition of Kozilek, which ensures the grave is stocked and an opponent’s hand stripped of potential answers to the jolly green giant. Plus, Goyf only gets scarier as the game goes on. Most decks max him out at 4/5, but Grisly Vial caps Goyf at 7/8 mainboard and 8/9 in games two and three. For those counting, that’s two Goyfs for the price of one. Thanks to Abrupt Decay, Darkblast, Nameless Inversion, Gavony Township and Vault of the Archangels, our Goyfs are the ones surviving, not our opponent’s!
We’ve established that life isn’t so glum without Aether Vial. So what about when we have it? I wasn’t alive in the 60s, but I’ll assume it’s something like taking home and turning on a color TV for the first time. Resolving Aether Vial lets us channel our mana into noncreature sinks like Liliana of the Veil, Lingering Souls, Haakon in the graveyard, and utility lands. With Grisly Salvage, this game plan becomes particularly attractive, since Salvage adds to the power of our threats. We can play Vial on turn one, cast Salvage on turn two and then start slamming enormous Tarmogoyfs, making Spirits, dredging back Darkblast, and zombifying Knights… at the same time!
Another Modern deck that uses Aether Vial to tremendous effect, Merfolk, spends almost all of its mana on creatures. Grisly Vial has the luxury of instead funneling that mana into disruption, cards and utility spells. While Merfolk struggles with annoying permanents like Ensnaring Bridge, Grisly Vial just Decays them while continuing to develop its board state. Merfolk also requires multiple creatures to train a respectable army, while Grisly Vial gets by on just one. A 7/8 Tarmogoyf or 9/9 Knight of the Reliquary is nothing to scoff at, especially paired with removal spells and manlands.
Notes on the Sideboard
Sideboards should always be adjusted to meet the needs of a specific metagame, but my example above contains a bunch of useful options and is a fair launch pad for those wishing to try out the deck. The creatures here are all “searchable” via Grisly Salvage and the enchantments take Tarmogoyf to new heights.
Let’s look at the choices:
Aven Mindcensor: “Counters” Scapeshift, Summoner’s Pact, fetchland activations and joins up with Spirit tokens to lay the smack down in the air.
Kitchen Finks: A Burn and Zoo hoser with relevance in attrition matchups like Jund. Insane with Gavony Township and Grim Harvest.
Thalia, Guardian of Thraben: Puts a serious dent in any spell-based strategy, including Delver, Storm, Ad Nauseam, Twin, and Amulet Bloom. First strike is relevant in a number of matchups, including Burn.
Tidehollow Sculler: A searchable Thoughtseize on legs. Fights with Confidant for precious Lightning Bolts and grows Goyf an extra point when he dies.
Choke: Shuts down blue midrange strategies like Twin and Grixis. To Choke’s benefit, these decks can rarely remove enchantments.
Stony Silence: The greatest Affinity hate card in these colors. If it works for Abzan Midrange, it can work for us!
Ray of Revelation: A concession to Blood Moon, one of Modern’s disruptive cornerstones. Just fetching a Forest is usually enough to defeat a Moon plan, since Salvage digs closer to Revelation, which we can cast from the graveyard. Also randomly beats decks like Bogles and Pillow Fort and can come in against decks leaning on Courser of Kruphix or Splinter Twin.
Lingering Souls #3: Two is never enough! Souls provides immense value, and helps defeat Modern’s bogeyman, Affinity.
The Format of the People
Modern is a deckbuilder’s paradise. If you keep the format’s pillars in mind, you can build anything. Personally, I really dig Tarmogoyf. Some friends of mine love synergy decks. Grisly Vial bridges the gap and gives us something we’ll all enjoy.
Until next time, may you dredge with success!