Shock and Awe: The Goblin Guide Story
- Gianluca Aicardi
Aggro has always craved ways to maximize early damage in order to start the clock as soon as possible, and red is the color that does it in the most consistent and effective ways. Let's revisit the time when Goblin Guide joined the blitzkrieg, his precursors, and his descendants.
It's all about that one-drop, the feat of immediately committing a permanent to the board, very likely a creature, capable of dealing as much damage as possible to the opponent's dome; the faster, the better. So, what about a one-drop creature with more than one power (otherwise you might well be playing Mons's Goblin Raiders) and haste? That's how Zendikar's Goblin Guide built his fame: he could bring the pain right at the outset, even if it potentially grants a slight advantage to the opponent.
Of course, it wasn't the first time a one-drop had two power, but a two-power one drop without haste would have to wait the following turn to try and connect, and who knows what could happen at that point. Maybe they'll have removal, maybe they'll answer our one-drop with one of their own with which to trade. Regardless, if our generic two-power one-drop does indeed connect, it means Goblin Guide would have dealt four damage by that point. That's hard to beat. A creature that drops for one and has power higher than two could come close. But do they even exist? Well, as a matter of fact, they do, but they all have some issue that makes them problematic, when it doesn't outright prevent them from hitting the battlefield on turn one.
Not counting creatures that are unable to attack when they first arrive (everything with defender until Assault Formation is active, Slumbering Dragon), we have 8 creatures with three power and a CMC of one. Spark Elemental deals three damage on turn one, but then it dies, which makes it something more akin to a burn spell than a creature. Sleeper Agent switches side with the opponent, and then deals two damage to them, but also three to us; if we quickly find a way for him to stop attacking, he'll become a decent clock, but it's also a whole different strategy than the one we're looking for. The remaining six require a secondary resource to be spent. Greenbelt Rampager asks for two energy counters, and it's hard to have them on turn one outside of Vintage (you'd need a play like Elvish Spirit Guide or Mox Diamond or Chrome Mox into Attune with Aether plus Forest into Rampager). Rogue Elephant and Scythe Tiger are simpler, they just want you to sacrifice a land. The Elephant saw play in its time, as it combos with Harvest Wurm, also from Weatherlight. Old-Growth Dryads accelerates the opponent's mana development rather than slowing down yours; it looks more harmless, but pros have weighed in, establishing the advantage given up on turn one is not worth a 3/3.
Finally, two black ones: Circling Vultures is the most powerful here, being a flyer, but it asks to remove creatures from your graveyard, so you need a series of cyclers, starting from your next upkeep. It doesn't seem sustainable for long. Kjeldoran Dead requires a single creature sacrifice right away, instead. It can be done with a 0-CMC creature, so this is probably the 3-power one-drop that has the smallest impact on your gameplan, but it still requires a specific set of cards and is, most likely, not worth it.
Wait a minute, you might ask, shouldn't zero-cost creatures be part of this analysis of turn-one aggression? They sure should, but there's only six of them without defender, and five have no power at all (the Kobolds from Legends, Phyrexian Walker from Visions, and the classic Ornithopter from Antiquities). The only one that's able to deal damage is Memnite, but you'd need multiples to stay on par with Goblin Guide, unless you add another resource to the mix on turn two, making the bigger. But that's another game entirely. Even just spending more mana changes the tune: Student of Warfare is a 3/3 at his first attack if you devote two mana to him on turn two (or do whatever you can come up with in order to flip Bushi Tenderfoot).
It looks like two-power dudes are the way to go, at least if we want to be consistent and not have to deal with a potentially crippling downside. But can any of them compete with Goblin Guide?
At the beginning, white was the color that dropped two points of power on turn one with ease. And we're actually talking back when everything started, as Savannah Lions is from Alpha. It instantly became a paradigm to improve on, like Grizzly Bears for two-mana cards; it was functionally reprinted several times (Elite Vanguard, Expedition Envoy) and made strictly better in eight occasions, especially in recent years: Isamaru, Hound of Konda (2004) has two toughness as well (at the price of being legendary); Dryad Militant (2012) fights flashback; Soldier of the Pantheon (2013) comes with multicolored hate; Dragon Hunter (2015) can block Dragons; Mardu Woe-Reaper (2015) has a limited way to hinder reanimator; Kytheon, Hero of Akros (2015) has activated indestructibility and turns into a Gideon planeswalker; Skymarcher Aspirant (2018) acquires flying later; and Dauntless Bodyguard (2018) can sacrifice herself to save a chosen creature, although that's at odds with her dropping on turn one most of the times.
A couple of others are 2/2s like Isamaru, but have small additional requirements: Goldmeadow Stalwart needs to be in a Kithkin tribal deck, Glint Hawk needs artifacts for bouncing. Both are actually pretty good and see play in their respective build of choice.
When it comes to putting two-powered creatures on the battlefield on turn one, blue is less equipped, as expected. It essentially only offers Phantasmal Bear, which comes with the Illusion downside of dying to targeting. Spindrift Drake and Drifter il-Dal are evasive but have permanent echo; Faerie Impostor requires the same setup of Glint Hawk, but it's unlikely that such deck would bother.
Black, on the other hand, has solid options, especially recursive creatures like Gravecrawler and Blood-Soaked Champion, even if they can't block. This ends up being Gnarled Scarhide's issue too, barely offset by the option of doubling as Unholy Strength via bestow. Black creatures typically ask for their controller's life in exchange for a quick summoning, like in the case of Carnophage, Vampire Lacerator and Reaver Drone. Diregraf Ghoul and Tormented Hero enter tapped (which is roughly the same kind of drawback as not being able to block) but have upsides, the latter the one of being heroic, the former of being a Zombie. Same goes for Dread Wanderer, which instead comes with a limited chance of recursion.
You might not expect it, given their penchant for creature synergies, but green is not exactly filled with two-power one-drops. The never seen again Jungle Lion from Portal was Savannah Lions' color-shifted reprint. But aside from that, green got creatures with severe liabilities: Ghazbán Ogre and Wild Dogs are always at risk of changing side; Mtenda Lion can be neutered by blue; Skyshroud Ridgeback is only around for three turns; Pouncing Jaguar and Uktabi Drake have echo (making it hard for the latter to actually drop on turn 1, though haste guarantees at least one round of damage); Tattermunge Maniac is forced to attack. The strongest of the bunch here is definitely Nettle Sentinel, but it only works in Elf builds, where it especially combos with Heritage Druid. Aside from Return to Ravnica's Selesnya-colored Dryad Militant (a staple of Stompy decks), in order to find another green 2-powered one-drop with no issues (in fact, it has the ability to transform into a 4/4), we must skip forward to Eldritch Moon's Kessig Prowler, and that's basically never played.
With colorless not helping the cause much (both Straw Golem and Bonded Construct are pretty terrible), red is the true color for Savannah Lions emulators, accounting for almost one third of all the rwo-power one-drops in existence (20 out of 63). Some of those come with crazy ways to impede their attack that ultimately make them nearly useless, like the oldest of the group, Ice Age's Orcish Conscripts, or Prophecy's Branded Brawlers (and of course Norin the Wary is utterly incapable of attacking, although he's cool in other, more combo-prone ways). But Tempest had already found a way to make that kind of limitation work, since it's easy to have Mogg Conscripts attack on turn 2 in a cheap creatures deck like Goblins; in fact, the same mechanic would be revisited in Betrayers of Kamigawa by Goblin Cohort, and both are happily played in Pauper Goblin decks especially.
Tempest also introduced Jackal Pup, later remade and improved in Theros as Firedrinker Satyr; they're dangerous for the controller as they are for the enemy, but their fastness devoid of attack issues warranted some play nonetheless. Entirely without worries in the right deck are Flamekin Bladewhirl and Daring Buccaneer, which are actually strong in their tribal shells (Elemental and Pirate, respectively). Them the post-Goblin Guide culmination of the red two-power one-drop came first with Dragons of Tarkir, that saw honest-to-God 2/2 Zurgo Bellstriker drop and attack unimpeded, with a dash option to exploit should he be drawn in a later turn; and then Falkenrath Gorger, which is less resilient but can chump-block to his heart's content, and has only upsides on his rule text (namely, universal madness for Vampires, which makes him another tribal player).
I'll repeat the original question now: is any of these comparable to Goblin Guide at all? Can any of them provide his sheer rate of early damage, even at the cost of giving the opponent, say, one extra draw out of three attacks? The answer is no, none of them can, because none of them have haste, which is an unparalleled tempo gain for creatures; less importantly but still notably, most of the mentioned creatures aren't even 2/2, which means Goblin Guide can attack past most regular one-drops with no fear of bumping into a trade. And these are the reasons why Goblin Guide is the best aggressive two-power one-drop ever printed. QED.
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