by Eli Goings
As if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.
Herman Melville, Moby Dick
Across Magic’s history, there have been many potent creatures that have doubled as removal spells. Today we have Shriekmaw, Ravenous Chupacabra, Walking Ballista, all quite strong in their own right. However, the granddaddy of them all is the one and only Mogg Fanatic.
As Dan Paskins put in his 2009 A Guide to Goblins, “since it was first unveiled in Tempest, the Fanatic has more Top 8 Pro Tour finishes than a Level 6 pro, has killed more creatures than a Wrath of God, and has dealt the finishing blow to more players than a Lightning Bolt”. For a long time, Fanatic was a cross-format staple, largely because it abused a rules-set we no longer have with us. Since damage left the stack, the once Mogg Fantastic has been knocked down a peg or two. However, I think the old fella still has it in him, and I have won a fair number of games of 2019 Legacy due to the 1/1 that could.
To my knowledge, it was initially brought up in a Facebook group as a potential playable when Deathrite was banned, since there would presumably be an influx of Noble Hierarchs, and a downtick in goddamn 1/2s. I tried it on a whim, and the former all-star that someone once told me wrecked tournaments for years has impressed me to a serious degree. To put it in perspective, I want to compare Fanatic to Walking Ballista. Ballista is becoming more of a mainstay in Legacy Stompy decks and fair archetypes like Maverick and D&T, and for good reason. I would like to ask; how often is Ballista cast for X = 1 and popped without additional mana being sunk into it? Probably quite often! Yes, it can be a lategame mana sink, but a lot of the time I see it, it just comes in and spikes an X/1. As an aside, I do have to say I am amused by the idea that D&T is excited to have the ability to tutor up a four mana shock sometimes.
Back on point, Mogg Fanatic is just a Ballista on 1…for half the mana cost. The trade-off of not being able to pump the Fanatic like Ballista is made up for in spades by the myriad of tribal synergies. I will enumerate them, but there’s something I need to address first; why would someone play Mogg Fanatic when they could play Tarfire? It does more damage for the same mana cost! What gives? And given the printings of Goblin Cratermaker and Goblin Chainwhirler, along with the existence of Gempalm Incinerator, why would you even need it? Most people see it and think, “eh, seems kinda mopey”. I want to prove that thought wrong. This article sets out to show how a seemingly weak card can be a perfect roleplayer when you understand what the most important resource in your deck is. For Goblins, it’s bodies; small exploding bodies (yikes, that sentence came out brutal).
Why 1 Mana Removal Matters
So you need to kill a creature right now. Not a big one, you have Gempalm Incinerator for that. Just a small but potentially very scary creature, a Noble Hierarch that threatens who knows what, a Young Pyromancer that is going to create an army, a Mother of Runes that is going to absolutely make your life a nightmare. If you’re playing Goblins, you’ve got two real options for one mana removal. Tarfire, or Fanatic. For the past 7-8 years, people have been playing Tarfire in Goblins, largely to deal with the 1/2 from hell, AKA Deathrite Shaman. Thankfully, that nonsense is gone from our format now, so what do we do for one mana removal? Do we even need it anymore? Gempalm Incinerator, when it works, is potentially the most powerful removal spell ever printed (uncounterable Terminate that cantrips? That can also be a 2/1 when it has to be?). Why not just play four of those, a pile of Goblin Cratermakers, and call it a day? Well, unfortunately, Gempalm is not always online, and in Legacy, two mana can be a lot to kill something cheap, and Cratermakering a mana dork is an exercise in futility unless you’re very ahead somehow. In a format stock-full of one drops, always having two mana removal that requires setup can lead to some severely awkward draws. You’re never going to be able to Gempalm a turn one Mother of Runes on the draw, or stop that Delver from getting a few hits in before you can finally Incinerate it. Given the face of Legacy right now, I do really think having zero options at one mana is pretty sketchy (the new Pteramander is another good mention here). So we want some one mana removal. Not much, just an option to squeak out of the early turns alive. Again, Tarfire or Fanatic?
Synergy vs. the Numbers
At first blush, Tarfire seems like a strictly better choice, right? Red for two damage, or one. They’re both fetchable with Matron and Ringleader. Mogg Fanatic hasn’t seen play ever since damage left the stack, now it’s just a 1/1 that will only ever do one damage. Seems straightforward, two is more than one. (Editor’s note: this is the kind of big-brained content we like to see on The Salt Mine). However, this analysis neglects the most important part of Goblins; synergy. This discussion is ultimately about this balancing act; synergy vs raw power. Yes, Tarfire does more damage than Fanatic, but Fanatic complements almost every other card in the deck.
The biggest weight on the scale here is not the fact that Tarfire does more damage, but the fact that Fanatic is a true goblin. Tribal sub-type or not, Tarfire isn’t really a goblin. You can’t cast it off Cavern of Souls, and you can’t Vial it into play off Aether Vial. These points alone are huge bonuses for Fanatic. Furthermore, it doesn’t get haste from Goblin Warchief, it doesn’t pump Goblin Piledriver (it pumps Tarmogoyf instead), you can’t sacrifice it to Siege-Gang or Trashmaster. To cast Tarfire, you need to interrupt one of Goblins’ best tools, mana denial.
Take this sequence for instance; you are on the play with a turn one Vial into a turn two Rishadan Port (yay!). This is a great spot to be in, maybe the best “fair” start that Goblins has access to (as fair as generating free mana can be). Now, say your opponent on their turn one plays a Delver of Secrets. Now, imagine you have a Mogg Fanatic or a Tarfire in your hand. The appeal of Fanatic is now immediately apparent. Instead of having to make the choice of “do I not use my Port and Tarfire the Delver now, or do I use my mana efficiently, progress my game plan, but take potentially three on the chin for my efforts? What if they have Spell Pierce next turn?” With Fanatic, you simply Vial it in, kill Delver, and Port your opponent. Have your cake and eat it too. This same principle plays out in situations where you want to represent removal at all times, but not lose tempo by holding up mana constantly. Fanatic lets you tap out for a critical turn 3 Warchief against a Vial on 1 facing D&T, where with Tarfire you would have to decide to not use your mana to hedge against a Mother of Runes that they may or may not have. For another example, let’s take the original situation and swap it so we’re on the draw. Opponent plays a turn 1 Delver on the play, definitely something Goblins can lose to if backed up by enough Dazes and Wastelands. Now, if you go to Tarfire the Delver, you’re susceptible to a Daze or Force of Will, and Delver might just run away with the game if they have enough follow-up disruption. Wouldn’t you rather Cavern of Souls out a Fanatic?
The use of Vial is also very important to Fanatic. He saves you a lot of headaches when you are low on mana and need to answer something quickly. Against a deck like “Medium” Depths, being able to Matron for a removal spell for Bob or Hexmage on turn three (with a Vial on one) using only a single Red source and three mana instead of four can be the difference between a win and a loss. Other matchups where this kind of play pattern could be very relevant would be Elves or Infect, where every turn you kill something means you’re one turn closer to having Sharpshooter or Chainwhirler online.
Now, an obvious counterpoint to my line of argument here is that two damage truly matters compared to one, and that you increase your vulnerability to two toughness creatures. A fair point, but I think not examined in context. How many two toughness creatures are there played in Legacy? There are hardly any! The only X/2s that are widely played are Stoneforge Mystic, Delver (when flipped), and….huh. Scavenging Ooze I guess? Past those 3, you’re only talking about sideboard cards and 3 drops; Containment Priest, Monastery Mentor, Goblin Rabblemaster, Tireless Tracker, etc. For Stoneforge, most of the time I would prefer they spend the next two turns and at least four mana setting up an equipment and then have it nuked by a Cratermaker or Trashmaster. With so many answers to equipment, the only times I really care about Stoneforge now are if I’m trying to connect with a Lackey on the draw. But still, yes, it could be annoying that Fanatic doesn’t stop Stoneforge. However, it does delay any effects from Jitte or Batterskull for a turn with a block + sacrifice, buying me critical time to set up my Shatter. Or maybe I’m lacking in Goblin bodies, and Fanatic ends up getting chucked with Trashmaster! What a deal, my one mana ping became a Shatter (and probably attacked for two in the meantime). As for Delver, yes, it can come up that I’m dying to a Delver and I top deck a Fanatic instead of Tarfire. In this specific instance, Tarfire is obviously preferable. However, as I explained before, Fanatic is better at dealing with turn 1-2 Delver, thanks to its increased resilience to counter magic.
Goblins wants to invalidate counter magic as much as possible, and I would hate to a turn on a card that would have rotted in my opponent’s hand all game by using an instant or sorcery. Another point about the damage that gets brought up to me is that Tarfire is better “reach” for when you need to finish your opponent off. Again, this is only true out of context, or in specifically one turn window top decks. Fanatic attacks for one, and it does it a lot. People don’t really ever want to spend mana or a card killing something like Fanatic, so it usually plinks in for a couple of turns before getting popped as removal. I’ve had Fanatic attack for 4-5 turns before being used! Take this game I played against Stoneblade awhile back. My boardstate is: Cavern, Mountain, Lackey, Piledriver, Fanatic, and a Vial on two. My hand is Trashmaster, Warchief, and Chainwhirler. It is the end of my opponent’s turn four, they have four lands, a Jace, and a TNN while at nineteen life. Not really a position you normally want to be in, TNN and active Jace. Had they gotten to untap, they probably could run away with the game with a Plow + Snap, Plow, or maybe a Supreme Verdict. On my turn, I drew a Mountain and killed my opponent with exactly nineteen damage. While this can be largely attributed to the combined power of Piledriver, Warchief, and Trashmaster, Fanatic did present a hefty amount of damage off of a one drop. It attacked for two, gave Piledriver +2/+0, then blew itself up for lethal.
No matter how many turns Tarfire sits in your hand and is castable, it certainly doesn’t get any better. So while Tarfire might be a more “consistent” option, Fanatic has a much higher ceiling, with only a slightly lower floor. The only true “cons” for Fanatic in my opinion is that it is harder to bait opponents with, as it is an on-board spell, and that it can be Revoker’d/Stifled. Granted, if my opponent is willing to spend a Revoker or Stifle on my Fanatic, I’m usually quite happy, but it can be annoying at times. There is a small point to remember here though; sometimes (but not often), it can be correct to hold a Fanatic. If you’re stuck on mana and aren’t going to be casting anything else anyway, it can be correct to just make sure you kill that Delver or Pyromancer. The pros of Fanatic as it pertains to small synergies are exhaustive to list, so just remember that it significantly pairs with almost every part of the Goblins archetype. Every little Goblin matters!
I realize that this article seems might seem a little preposterous. 2400+ words on why one removal spell is better than another, nearly identical removal spell for a single archetype is maybe a little “extra”. But I think the underlying lesson for this discussion is important to deckbuilders of all kinds. It’s important to analyze all the situations in which a card can be more than meets the eye. On the surface, Fanatic is a one damage pinger for one mana. When looked on the deck level, it is much more than that. Aptly referenced with “When You Want a Goblin That Can Do Anything” by Paskins, Fanatic has a hundred secret modes that are only really noticeable in play. It’s quite similar to Skirk Prospector in that it is hard to believe in unless you see it. People in general seem to overlook free sacrifice outlets in Legacy, and one that does damage is just… Damn useful. A one mana creature that will block a Batterskull, sac before damage and pop a Flickerwisp or Thalia is aces in my book. The random ability to hose a Dredge player’s Bridge from Below ain’t bad either!
No, Fanatic isn’t the best creature in the deck, and I probably couldn’t justify playing more than 1 copy without a ton of D&T, Dredge, and Infect in the meta. Its slot in the list lies somewhere in between a copy of Mogg War Marshal and a Gempalm Incinerator, acting as a bridge between them. I think it’s extremely useful, which is more than I can say for Tarfire. Tarfire was a card we were forced to run for years because of the meta. However, Fanatic is a card we get to play because it’s great. Maybe even Fantastic.