The Card That Changed the World

Posted in Beyond the Basics on March 2, 2017

By Gavin Verhey

When Gavin Verhey was eleven, he dreamt of a job making Magic cards—and now as a Magic designer, he's living his dream! Gavin has been writing about Magic since 2005.

In the entire 23-plus year history of Magic, there are a few specific cards that you could really say changed everything.

It is extremely, extremely rare that a single card impacts every single format in which it's legal. That one card defines multiple decks in multiple formats, creating color splashes solely for its inclusion. That breathing its name becomes normal Magic parlance, a perfect mix of understated grandiosity that rolls off the tongue quickly and casually, yet carries incredible weight.

And yet, here we are. One of the most famous Magic cards ever to be printed. And it's back in Modern Masters 2017 Edition.

I need only speak its name once for many of you to conjure up vivid memories of what it can do. And for those who have no such images running through your head, don't worry, you soon will. Are you ready?

Tarmogoyf.

It doesn't look like much, does it? Two mana for a creature with mysterious power and toughness. Kind of a cute little fella, even.

But this many-toothed menace has been—and still is—the cornerstone of formats, the primary victory condition of enumerable decks, and a card you generally never want to see on your opponent's side of the table. Appropriately for a set titled Modern Masters, it is one of the most important cards to own for your Modern deck.

Why is this? What makes Tarmogoyf so powerful, even ten years later? How did it come to be the renowned piece of Magic history it is today?

Tarmogoyf makes for a great lesson in card evaluation and deck building. So, let's talk about it today, shall we?

In the Beginning, There Was Nothing

. . . And then there was Tarmogoyf.

It might surprise you that this now-famous card didn't grab people at all when it was first released in Future Sight. (And not just because it's an inanimate object that can't actually grab things.)

To be fair, Future Sight was a set full of many unusual cardboard squares, all of which at least technically claimed to be Magic game pieces. While people were puzzling over cards like Spellweaver Volute and Fleshwrither, this creature that was "just stats" didn't get much attention.

I remember people trading Tarmogoyfs away like "bonus throw-in rares" for the first few weeks. Crazy to think of now, but really, most people were not onto this card at all. I picked up my playset early because, of all things, I was playtesting Dredge at the time and speculatively thought there was a chance Tarmogoyf might get along well with Golgari Grave-Troll.

A big Standard tournament called Regionals came and went. (At the time, Regionals was a way to qualify for your country's National Championship.) Despite the tournament featuring Standard, very few Tarmogoyfs showed up at all. While a few wise players had cracked the Tarmogoyf code, some of the decks featuring them had fewer than four copies, or had them in the sideboard. (If you're up for strolling through memory lane, you can view all the reported 2007 Regionals decklists here.)

But, like many others at the time, one of the first events I remember seeing Tarmogoyf making a splash in was a Time Spiral Block Constructed Grand Prix—a format in which only cards from Time Spiral block were legal—in Montreal. A few decks featuring Tarmogoyf made the Top 8, and one ended up winning the tournament. Let's take a look at the decklist from Top 8 competitor Jason Imperiale:

Jason Imperiale's Green-White Beatdown

Download Arena Decklist

Jason's deck is a green-white beatdown deck, aiming to defeat the opponent by laying down efficient creatures and attacking. What all the specific cards do here isn't all that important—it's not crucial to learn everything about this decade-old decklist—but there is something major I want to highlight.

Tarmogoyf had been identified as a powerful card, provided you could grow it large enough. So check out some of the cards in Jason's deck.

Chromatic Star and Terramorphic Expanse in a two-color deck. Edge of Autumn in a strategy with very little to do beyond three mana. (Though, granted, it had great synergy with Flagstones of Trokair.) Jason was very much playing some of these cards solely to enhance Tarmogoyf, to make it worthwhile.

Jason had identified that Tarmogoyf could be an incredibly strong card when grown fast, and was willing to play a few slightly weaker cards so that his Tarmogoyfs would be as powerful as possible.

This is something good deck builders try to do: see the whole of the deck as more than just the sum of its parts. If you've identified something really strong your deck can do, it can be worth playing a few odd cards to make your strategy the best it can be. It's an important deck-building lesson to always keep in mind.

This was the first era of Tarmogoyf, but it was far from the last.

The Evolution

Like Tarmogoyf itself, the card's ubiquity quickly grew with time and experience.

The card began to crawl into every Standard crevice. While the first decks, like Jason's above, made sure to diversify card types to make the Tarmogoyf huge, that trend quickly turned into a quite simple philosophy: "Just play Tarmogoyf in everything."

While Jason's deck-building instincts of making his own cards powerful were generally right (and especially in Block Constructed), it turned out that a card that could consistently have 2-plus power on turn two and grow to be enormous in the late game was plenty good on its own. It didn't need many deck-building concessions to be good; between you and your opponent's graveyards, it was set.

The turning point for me was when it became a fixture of Extended—a format kind of like today's Modern—where it sat alongside fetch lands and plenty of cheap-to-cast cards that could get into the graveyard quickly. That showed that Tarmogoyf wasn't just a flash in the Future Sight pan; it was here to stay.

It was also the format that revolutionized how me and many other players would look at Tarmogoyf forever.

Until then, it had been seen as a card for beatdown and midrange decks. A large creature, towering over its ilk. But Patrick Chapin would change all of that.

Patrick's brilliant deck, Next Level Blue, not only catapulted the phrase "next level" into the Magic lingosphere, but sent an entire new generation of decks into the Pro Tour–qualifying spotlight.

Here's a version of Next Level Blue, played by eventual-and-former Wizards designer Tom LaPille:

Tom LaPille's Next Level Blue

Download Arena Decklist

This is a blue control deck through and through, playing Counterspell and Spell Snare for early countermagic, the eternally potent Counterbalance and Sensei's Divining Top to lock your opponent out of the game, and Vedalken Shackles. Check out those sleek Threads of Disloyalty, poised to steal any Tarmogoyfs that came across its path.

It also featured four copies of a single green card in the main deck, supported by a couple well-inserted fetchable sources. A card that was how the deck intended to close the game.

By this point, Tarmogoyf had been in some slower decks before, sure. Remi Fortier's winning deck from Pro Tour Valencia shortly before, a three-color control deck, was a good example of this. It's unfair to give Chapin all the credit, surely. But this was the first deck I remember that tore up the PTQ season and felt like something else entirely, so distinctly playing green just for Tarmogoyf. (Though Chapin's original versions also sported Living Wish as well.)

A fundamental part of making this work was that Tarmogoyf only has a single green mana in its mana cost. Its inherent splash-ability allowed it to go places it otherwise never could have.

Tarmogoyf was strong enough now to go anywhere—and everybody knew it.

Tarmotakeaways

Now, years later, Tarmogoyf has been cemented as a cornerstone of every non-Vintage format it is legal in.

History bore out that it was quite strong in Standard, going so far as showing up as the only non-Elf creature in Lorwyn tribal Elf decks. It pushed through all the way through Extended to Legacy, where it is one of the most-played creatures in a format where practically every creature ever printed is legal.

And, in Modern, Tarmogoyf sits atop the creature throne.

Leading the charge in everything from Jund to Bant to Death's Shadow and more, it still conjures glee in its casters and fear from its opponents. Tarmogoyf is around to stay.

Let's talk about three things to be learned here.

For one, creatures that are just stats can be plenty powerful. If anybody ever says that isn't the case, Tarmogoyf is a perfect example to point to.

Second, playing ways to make your other cards strong can be totally fine, provided, in most cases, that you don't contort your entire deck around it. Tarmogoyf took in support and diversification early to make it as strong as possible. (Of course, like Tarmogoyf, if it turns out you don't actually need that support, feel free to take it out!)

And third, when it looks like something is powerful, don't be afraid to try it in places it wouldn't "normally" go. Tarmogoyf has shown up in every manner of deck now, from hyper-aggressive to control to combo. Squadron Hawk is an unusual control card, but trying it in a control deck led to one of the most dominant Standard decks of all time.

Who knows which new card might become the next Tarmogoyf. But for now, you can be perfectly happy opening up a Tarmogoyf in Modern Masters 2017 Edition.

TL;DR: Tarmogoyf is back, y'all. (There's a quote for the top post of your thread, Reddit.)

I'll be back next week with more Beyond the Basics. For now, may your Tarmogoyfs always find that extra power they need to take down your opponent's copies!

Gavin
@GavinVerhey
GavInsight

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