At the time of writing, I am ranked 12th on MTG Arena, having spent the last ten days stomping people to death with four copies of Ghalta, Primal Hunger. I’ve piloted some variation of this list through all four of Arena’s ranked seasons so far, and always finished comfortably in a top 1000 Mythic spot.
What’s different this season is that I’m not the only one playing four Ghaltas. In fact, stompy decks seem to be the flavor of the month, with several different variants presenting themselves in large quantities on the ladder, probably in no small part thanks to the Arena Decklists’ Twitter account. I’ll show you version of the deck, explain my choices, and share why I think it is the best version to be running.
The basic concept of a stompy deck is to produce power faster, and in more abundance, than your opponent can handle. Ghalta epitomizes this concept, coming down as a 2-mana 12/12 trample, often as early as turn 3 or 4.
The Key Cards
It should not surprise you to hear that Ghalta, Primal Hunger is the most important card in this deck. You can win without it. You even side it out in some matchups. But in most matchups it is your best card. An unanswered Ghalta will close out a game in 1-2 turns. Obviously removal spells are good against it, but it’s worth remembering that many of the removal spells that people play won’t kill it—Cast Down, or any burn spell—and what’s more, the difference between having the removal spell right now and having it next turn is generally the difference between dealing with Ghalta and Ghalta dealing with you.
The two most important cards after Ghalta are Steel Leaf Champion and Llanowar Elves. Turn-1 Elves is the dream start in basically any deck that plays the card. Usually that’s especially the case when you have powerful 3-drops to cheat out on turn 2. Enter Steel Leaf Champion. It’s not clear to me that there’s ever been a better payoff for a turn-1 Llanowar Elves in the history of Magic. Steel Leaf Champion not only helps tremendously in ramping you to a Ghalta, but also presents a pretty fast clock on its own and importantly is very difficult to block for most of the decks you’ll end up racing against.
With these three cards you should understand the basic system that the deck tries to employ. In the best-case scenario you’re going:
At this point, you’ll almost always win. Even if Ghalta gets killed your opponent is going to have to tap out to do it, take another 5, and probably see you add another threat to the board.
Note, though the above is your dream start, there are alternate routes to a turn-3 Ghalta. For example:
Of course, you’re not going to see these scenarios all that often, and even when you have the right pieces people will sometimes have early interaction to disrupt you. The important takeaway here is just understanding what the deck is aiming to do. There are quite a few people who incorrectly classify this deck as a midrange deck. I think this is a big mistake that leads to both building it and piloting it sub-optimally. This is an aggro deck (with some combo elements to it). While turn-3 Ghalta isn’t that common in practice, turn-4 Ghalta is extremely common, provided you are disciplined and play toward it.
Once you understand that this deck is all about Ghalta, certain concepts follow almost immediately.
First off, what I like to call the Ghaltan rule: play in such a way so as to best setup for a Ghalta. This rule impacts your game in various ways. Sometimes it means playing creatures in your first main phase to get Ghalta down and thus enable an attack that doesn’t risk your Ghalta play. Sometimes it just means sequencing your cards and using your mana in a way that works toward best enabling Ghalta. What you’re really trying to do is have as much power on the board at the start of your main phase.
In most cases, even if you don’t have a Ghalta in your hand, it is best to sequence your plays in a way that works towards it. And if you do have a Ghalta in your hand, you’ll want to do your very best not to risk trading your creatures in combat until you’ve gotten her onto the board. Any time you enter into combat with a Ghalta in your hand, consider how much power you want to be left with. Think about how many lands your opponent has untapped, if they might have removal or combat tricks, and take that into account. While context is always important in Magic, it is usually correct to play conservatively when it comes to landing your Ghalta because of how dramatic an impact it has once it hits the board.
The second important concept is something I like to call Ghalta efficiency, and it applies primarily in deck building. Ghalta efficiency is essentially a comparison between the mana it takes to produce a card and the power it adds to the board. If a card adds more power than it costs mana then you can say it is Ghalta efficient. In order to best enable your Ghalta, you want to build your deck in a way in which you maximize Ghalta efficiency. This is why, for example, I run four Collision/Colossus in the main deck. Of course, both sides of the card have useful effects: trample helps with chump-blockers, and dealing with aerial threats covers one of your weaknesses, but over and above all of that, Colossus is a Dark Ritual when Ghalta is in your hand. It is extremely Ghalta efficient.
With these concepts in mind, let’s take a closer look at some of the places my build diverges from a few of the other choices people make.
Growth-Chamber Guardian is not very Ghalta efficient. Even though it’s a 2-drop that can represent 4 power, it would take 5 mana to do so. You might argue that it brings friends who represent even more power, but the problem is recursive—you always have to add at least as much mana as the power you’ll be producing. A related problem with Growth-Chamber Guardian is that it’s just not an aggressive card. This is an excellent creature to play in any green deck that isn’t too aggressive. But when you’re trying to put pressure on your opponent early on, this just isn’t the card you’re looking for. So if you understand Ghalta efficiency and understand that the deck is an aggro deck, you really shouldn’t be considering this card.
Jadelight Ranger is more interesting. Whether or not it is Ghalta efficient depends on how the explore triggers go. One of the common justifications cited for running Jadelights in this deck is that extra explore creatures help to smooth the mana, which is beneficial to a deck that wants to consistently play Steel Leaf Champions on curve while also splashing red. But the problem is that these two points are in tension with one another. That is to say, any time Jadelight Ranger draws you a land it’s not going to be Ghalta efficient. You might argue that it can smooth your lands just by graveyarding nonlands, while still getting the counters. But this is not going to happen reliably, and just leaves you with a 3-mana 4/3 that self-mills for 2. Is this a card you want to be playing? When you look at the alternatives, I think you can do better. Similar to Growth-Chamber Guardian, Jadelight Ranger just doesn’t strike me as an aggro card and thus doesn’t really have a place in an aggro deck.
First I should mention that Domri was in my list in the January season (which only had about one week of play post-RNA), was dropped at the start of February, and only recently returned this month. What you should immediately infer from that is that I consider him a metagame choice. The simplest explanation is that Domri is very good against Esper and very bad against Mono-Red, and his strength against the rest of the field more or less depends on where they exist on the continuum between those two extremes. Right now there is a huge amount of Esper in BO3, and very little Mono-Red. What’s more, Sultai has been making a bit of a comeback and Domri helps to grind out value in that matchup too. In addition to the general grindy value-creating nature of planeswalkers, Domri also offers haste to your creatures, which can play around sorcery-speed removal and give your 12/12 haste, giving your opponent zero turns to draw a response.
All that said, the main reason I run Domri at the moment is because I want to have five planeswalkers in my 75 to make my Esper matchup favorable. Although Vivien is better than Domri in that matchup, she has no place in the main deck of an aggro deck and thus Domri gets into the starting lineup.
Finally, it’s worth discussing the Blue Stompy list that’s been making the rounds this season. This is not to be mistaken with the Blue Stompy list that MTGNerdGirl piloted to win her group at the Mythic Invitational, which was evidently built to attack the BO1 format.
The benefits of blue are two-fold here. First, it provides evasion in the form of Departed Deckhand. And second, it offers protection in the form of Frilled Mystic. It also enables sideboarding options that can give what is, ultimately, more evasion and protection.
Those seem like good things. But what does it give up to get them? Speed and consistency. Deckhand has less power than Harpooner (and also lacks the ritual effect of Harpooner). Frilled Mystic is 1 mana more and 1 power less than Gruul Spellbreaker. And losing Colossus means losing out on an important ritual effect.
Ultimately, I dislike this build because it weakens the power level of your best three cards. Turn-1 Llanowar Elves is less impressive when you don’t have Spellbreakers. Steel Leaf Champion is harder to cast when you play Guildgates. And Ghalta is going to hit the board slower on average when you’re playing less Ghalta-efficient choices like Deckhand and Mystic.
While some people prefer decks that have more options and more answers, I personally think that it shows they misunderstand the real drive of playing a stompy deck in this format to start with. You are an aggro deck. You are trying to land your Ghalta as fast as possible. And any decision that compromises that seems like a bad one to me.
To wrap things up, here’s a sideboarding guide. Though bear in mind that sideboarding decisions can vary depending on the specific context of a given match (i.e., the specific card choices your opponent has made).
Ghalta is really bad in this matchup. You’ll hardly ever be able to cast it, and the times you can, it’ll probably be a bad idea to cast more creatures anyway. I usually keep all four Collision/Colossus in, because most Esper players will bring in things like Lyra and Thief of Sanity that are very important for you to deal with. Of course, pump spells aren’t great against control decks, so if you don’t expect your opponent to sideboard this way, it’d be better to remove them for the other Brontodon and either Lightning Strikes or Cindervines.
With a solid aggro plan and six anti-enchantment cards, you’re very favored in this matchup. So you’re basically siding out to protect against bad draws. You don’t need Ghalta to win here and it isn’t worth risking a stumble on. It’s good to remove red cards when adding red cards given the small number of sources you play. Lightning Strikes come in because your opponent will bring in Oozes, which can be tough to beat sometimes, and because they can win games through Fogs.
This is one of the more difficult matchups to figure out how to sideboard. All of the stuff that’s good against Nexus is also good here. But the cards you take out against Nexus aren’t bad here. Ghalta basically auto wins against Temur, and Collision is a good answer to Niv-Mizzet. I’ve been back and forth on what to take out and at the moment settled on dropping two Branchwalkers, since I’m adding a lot to the 2 slot anyway, and they’re extra fodder for Cannonades. You also don’t have to bring in the Lightning Strikes here, as not all Temur players will bring in Oozes and usually they don’t play Fogs. But most recently I’ve been experiencing both of the above, and thus have been bringing in the Strikes.
Basically, Wildgrowth Walker and Hostage Taker are tough to face, so you’re siding in every answer you have to them. Outside of those two cards the matchup is actually very favorable. I do sometimes bring in one Vivien too, depending on how I feel my opponent has understood their position in the matchup.
On the Draw: This matchup is super difficult to win on the draw. If they have a good hand you’re going to lose almost always. The hope with this sideboard plan is that they’ll keep a hand that depends on a Marshal and you’ll be able to remove it.
On the Play: On the play I don’t make any changes, because frankly my best chance of winning is to curve out and be faster than they are.
There are two ways to win this matchup. The first involves landing a Ghalta. If you can do that, it’s extremely unlikely they’ll survive the next turn. The second involves them running out of gas because they constantly have to use two spells to kill one creature. That’s why you bring in extra 3-mana 4-toughness creatures (though they also help against Frenzy). I prefer two Strikes over the full four Coils because you can bait them into trying some first strike shenanigans with their Chainwhirlers and end up with 2-for-1s.
Gruul Midrange and the Mirror
Coils are great against opposing Steel Leafs or Rekindling Phoenixes. For Gruul you can also bring in Lightning Strikes sometimes for more profitable Chainwhirler plays. In both cases it can be good to bring in a Vivien as an extra win condition.
Against the blue Stompy decks I consider leaving in Colossus to push my speed advantage and force them to react to me. This further takes advantage of them playing cards like Frilled Mystic, which are useless when they’re behind on board.
If you’re on the play you can reduce this to just two Domris out for two Coils in. But on the draw you usually need to be willing to try react to them. Sometimes I go for two Strikes and two Coils. Strikes are worse against Djinns but you do have other answers to those, and instant speed helps you to remove things through protection spells.
I used to bring in Lava Coils here but recently I’ve erred on the side of not doing so. You already have 10 cards that remove their creatures without compromising your plan, and your plan is actually very good against them. They can’t beat a Ghalta. It’s definitely OK to bring in Coils as they will generally produce value here, but I’m not currently sure that it’s optimal to do so.
Ghalta Ghalta Ghalta Ghalta Ghalta. If you want to play a stompy deck, the most important thing to learn is that Ghalta is your queen and you exist to serve her. Your build decisions and play decisions should almost always take her into consideration first as the existence of this archetype is entirely premised on how to get the most value out of her. Play four Ghaltas, be Ghalta efficient, and always remember the Ghaltan rule.