The TCGplayer MaxPoint Championship is in the books and the event was won by one of the most powerful decks in the format: Mardu Midrange. Today I'm going to discuss the ins and outs of Mardu and my take on the list. I piloted Mardu Midrange to an 11th place finish at the Championship and I was very happy with the deck over the course of the weekend.
First, why did I choose Mardu? When I began testing for the championship, I knew I wanted to play some kind of control deck. I wasn't interested in playing green because I hate topdecking Caryatids and Elvish Mystics in the late game and I really didn't want to play aggro because I felt that it was really hard to win when you were behind.
I tried a few different blue control variants including UB and Esper but I had poor results. UB was fine but there were some things I didn't like about it. It took forever to close out a game which gave your opponents many turns to draw their way out if it. Additionally, the removal was just not that good. Bile Blight was too narrow and hard to cast. Downfall was great, but the three mana casting cost meant that if I was on the draw I would fall very far behind if they played threats on turns two through four. Esper was a little better but the mana was really rocky which didn't allow me to build the deck optimally. I'm sure Esper would be one of the top decks if an Esper tri-land existed in the format.
When I saw Brad Nelson's deck from GP: LA, I knew this was the kind of deck I wanted to be playing. It was like a cross between the Mardu Control deck I played at Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir and the Boros Burn deck that I almost played. The deck had a lot of control elements that I liked but it also had plenty of win conditions and I didn't have to wait around forever to find one. Here's the list I played:
For those of you who follow Brad Nelson, you'll notice that this is his updated Mardu Midrange list with a few changes. I didn't agree with a few of his updates while I liked most of them. First, I really liked the addition of Magma Jet. Monored is on the rise and you need ways to interact with them early. Magma Jet is also good at killing Rabblemasters out of the mirror and Jeskai, and it's good at helping you dig to whatever you may need at the time. Overall Magma Jet is the deck's weakest removal spell due to it not being able to kill the format's most powerful creatures, but it's a necessary evil because in today's Standard you desperately need things to do early.
One change that I didn't like was that Brad cut the Wingmate Rocs in favor of more Sarkhans and an Elspeth in the main. Wingmate Roc is great in this deck. You may think that Wingmate Roc is a "win more" card because if you cast it with raid, you already have creatures that you are attacking with, and while that is true in most decks that the Roc sees play in, like Abzan Aggro or Abzan Midrange, I don't think that's true in Mardu Midrange. Most of the time you will be beating down with Goblin Tokens from your Goblin Rabblemasters or Hordeling Outbursts and between removal and trading you are usually left with a couple of goblins when all is said and done. Those goblins are usually not enough to close out a game and that's where Wingmate Roc comes in. This card is incredibly hard to deal with and your opponent will usually have to use two removal spells to kill them. Mardu Midrange plays so many must-answer cards that by the time you get a Roc in play, they may have exhausted enough resources where they are unable to deal with both creatures. I elected to play two Rocs in the deck.
Another thing I didn't like was the Elspeth in the maindeck. In game one the Mardu deck is always an aggro deck and rarely wants to play the control role. In games two and three you can change your game plan and add Elspeth if you want, but I don't think she belongs in the deck for game one. Additionally, six mana is a lot and while we play tons of fives, that one extra mana really makes a difference, especially in a deck where you are trying to win quickly in game one. If your deck slows down for the next two games by boarding into more controlling cards like End Hostilities and Anger of the Gods, then Elspeth is a great finisher. I think Elspeth is an awesome sideboard card but I don't think she belongs in the deck for the first game.
One of the things I like about this deck is that all of the cards are good at any point in the game. We don't play blanks like Sylvan Caryatid that we never want to see after turn five. We don't have mass removal that can hurt us depending on our board presence. All of our spells are good at almost every point in the game and that's why I think this deck is great.
I'm not going to go over all of the card choices. Most of them are self-explanatory, obvious inclusions. Instead, I'm going to talk about how the cards interact with each other and how to play the cards in reference to the Mardu deck. For instance, Goblin Rabblemaster is played in about three different decks, but you're going to play it differently in Mardu than you are in Monored. That said, let's start with... Goblin Rabblemaster / Hordeling Outburst
I hate playing Goblin Rabblemaster on turn three into my opponent's untapped mana. While I'm ok with a one-for-one trade, I'm not ok with losing an entire turn of tempo. If my opponent is representing a Lightning Strike, Hero's Downfall, or anything else that will put my Rabblemaster in danger, I'll play Hordeling Outburst over it every time. Most decks have a hard time dealing with all of the tokens and usually have to use a couple of cards to kill them. The one exception to this is Bile Blight. If I think my opponent has Bile Blight, I'll lead with Rabblemaster because I'd rather they use a Bile Blight on him than my Hordeling Outburst tokens.
If I don't have a Hordeling Outburst in my hand, I'd still rather pass the turn than put the Rabblemaster in Harm's Way. It's better for our opponent to make the first move, us to kill his threat at their end step or during our next turn with a cheap spell like Chained to the Rocks or Murderous Cut, and then play our threat while they are tapped out. We are playing powerful cards and can afford to play the waiting game.
Hordeling Outburst is an insane card right now. Most decks have a hard time taking care of three 1/1 creatures and I've seen players use three removal spells to kill them. In fact, in the finals of the TCGplayer Championship I watched finalist Cody Lingelbach use three Chained to the Rocks on three 1/1 Goblin Tokens, and he had to. Mardu Charm is the card that fights for this slot but I prefer Outburst because the one extra creature makes a huge difference. Mardu Charm is more versatile but the other two abilities are irrelevant because a) we are playing tons of great removal already and don't need another spot removal spell and b) I'd rather play a threat than take a card out of my opponent's hand, especially for three mana. If I really wanted to do that, I'd just play Thoughtseize. Seeker of the Way
Seeker of the Way has the ultimate target on its back. It pretty much just dies before you can even do anything with it. I like leading with Seeker on the play when I have a Rabblemaster in hand. Opponents will usually kill him during their turn which will mean it's safe to play our Rabblemaster on turn three.
If they let us attack with it into their open mana, I wouldn't get greedy. Just deal your two damage and be happy. If you try to get cute with a Magma Jet to pump the Seeker, you are very likely to get blown out and lose valuable tempo. Butcher of the Horde (Butchie)
Butchie seems like the best card in the Mardu deck. He's a 5/4 that can gain haste and lifelink for only four mana. Believe it or not, while this guy is definitely good, he is not even close to the best card in the deck. Most of the time he's a 5/4 for four. You are rarely going to want to give him haste unless your opponent is tapped out. Most players will save their removal for him so there is very little chance he survives anyway. He's a target, but that's fine because you would rather have Butchie get killed than your Sarkhan, and it's very unlikely that he'll close out a game anyway. Butcher of the Horde is always a good play on turn four, but in most situations it's better to not sacrifice a goblin to give him haste, especially when they have untapped mana.
There will be situations where Butchie will be your MVP. Your opponent may tap out, allowing you to get in for five on turn four unharmed. In those situations, your opponent will be forced to deal with him before you get in for another five, giving you the chance to play a Sarkhan or Wingmate Roc. Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker
Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker is not Stormbreath Dragon. What I mean is you don't want to cast a Sarkhan and attack for four. There are so many ways where that play will blow you out, whether it's him dying on the crackback, or to a removal spell like Utter End or Hero's Downfall. The best use of Sarkhan is to kill a creature. Then either your opponent will deal with Sarkhan immediately or you are free to get in for four damage on the next turn. Sarkhan is at his best when you get some value out of him, and at his worst when he is a bad Lava Axe. Of course, if your opponent is at four, that's a different story.
The reason why I prefer Sarkhan to Stormbreath Dragon is because Sarkhan is better when you are behind and is good at catching you back up. Stormbreath is better when the board is even or when you're winning because you can just crash in for four damage and not have to worry about him dying on the crackback as you would with Sarkhan. When you're behind, Stormbreath Dragon is almost uncastable and if you cast him as a blocker and they Downfall him or something, the loss of tempo will probably put the game out of your reach. Crackling Doom
The last card I'd like to discuss is Crackling Doom. There isn't really a right or wrong way to play it. It's the best card in the deck by a Landslide. It kills their best creature and deals them two damage for only three mana at instant speed. That two damage can really add up when you factor in your burn spells, haste creatures, and Goblin Tokens. Crackling Doom is a huge tempo play because you are only spending three mana to kill their biggest creature, and that creature is something that they could have spent a ton of mana on or invested a lot of resources in. The two damage can hit Planeswalkers too, which is great if you need to finish off an opposing Sarkhan or Sorin. The Doom also kills things that are otherwise hard for us to kill, like Stormbreath Dragons or indestructible Sarkhans. Crackling Doom was amazing for me all weekend and I felt way ahead in any game where I cast more than one.Matchups
I'm going to explain matchups but not give a detailed sideboard guide. In this deck you really can't sideboard the same exact way in each matchup. It really depends on what your opponent is doing or thinks you are doing. I will discuss how each match plays out and give a few sideboarding guidelines.Abzan
Abzan is a great matchup and the reason to play Mardu. The reason why the matchup is so good is because Abzan is a slow deck with expensive spells. They can spend their turn either killing your threat or playing a threat of their own, and if we can capitalize on that by playing multiple spells in a turn then we will get way ahead. Additionally, they have very few ways to gain card advantage. They have Abzan Charm, but they would rather use that to kill our Sarkhan or Butcher of the Horde, and they have Courser of Kruphix, but we don't care if they draw extra lands. They also have blanks in their decks like Caryatid and Elvish Mystic. We usually win the long game.
Their best card against us is Siege Rhino because of the tempo it provides, but luckily for us we have tons of ways to Remove it. It's really important to not waste Chained to the Rocks on creatures that can be killed with Lightning Strike, unless you absolutely have to (like if a Fleecemane Lion is going to go monstrous next turn), because it's very important to use them on Rhinos. Crackling Doom is really good against Abzan.
I board out the small creatures here in favor of the slower, more controlling cards. They will bring in Bile Blight and Drown in Sorrow against us and I prefer to make those cards blank. Plus the Goblin Tokens are pretty low impact against Abzan, especially when they are gaining life with Coursers and Rhinos. They can't even chump block well because the Rhino has trample. End Hostilities, Utter End, Elspeth, and Read the Bones are the cards I would board in.Red/Green and Temur Midrange
Any green midrange deck is a great matchup for us. The main reason is that we have the ability to kill any creature that is a threat to us and we have a much better long game. We are going to be drawing gas in the late game while they are drawing their mana creatures, giving us inevitability in the matchup. One thing to be careful of is to not get too low on life because Crater's Claws can finish us off. Butcher of the Horde is actually a real threat here because of the five-point life swing and they usually have to use their Crater's Claws on that.
Another thing to be aware of is Stormbreath Dragon. We don't have many ways to Remove it and the protection from white can be very good against us. Be sure to save your Crackling Dooms for these guys.
As for sideboarding, I like to go big against these decks and bring in the Planeswalkers and End Hostilities. Seeker of the Way and Goblin Rabblemaster aren't great in this matchup because they have plenty of spot removal and blockers making these cards very low impact. However I really like Hordeling Outburst in the matchup because it's good at buying you time until you play a board sweeper. The Temur decks will have Disdainful Stroke so be sure to play around that.Jeskai Tempo
This is another great matchup for us because our threats are really hard for them to deal with, but the matchup can be tricky because they play most of their spells during our turn. The most important thing to remember here is to never let them hit us with their creatures. Even one hit from a Mantis Rider can put us in burn range. Seeker of the Way and Butcher of the Horde are great here because of the life gain they provide. One hit with a lifelinked Butcher can swing the game in our favor.
In this matchup I don't like to board into the big stuff. They are trying to win as fast as possible so we need to try to be faster than them to put them on the back foot. Every Stoke the Flames targeting our Butcher of the Horde is great news for us because it's less burn at our face. Glare of Heresy is great here because it can Remove Brimaz, which can be a problem for us.Monored
Monored is winnable, but it is by no means favorable. We really have to get lucky to win game one because we have a lot of cards that do nothing, specifically Crackling Doom, Sorin, and Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker. Games two and three are much better. It's about 50/50 if you're on the draw and a bit better than that if you're on the play, but if you cast a Hordeling Outburst on turn three, you are pretty favored.
Anger of the Gods, Chandra, Elspeth, and one End Hostilities come in while Sarkhan, Sorin, and Crackling Doom come out. You need to keep a hand with early removal or a Hordeling Outburst in order to have a chance to win this one.UB Control
This matchup is really, really tough. We have a ton of cards that do nothing in game one: Crackling Doom, Chained to the Rocks, Lightning Strike, and Magma Jet. Draw too many of these and game one is essentially over. Games two and three are better, but the matchup is still in UB's favor. The problem here is that they are great at going one-for-one with us and then when we are both out of resources they have Dig Through Time and Jace's Ingenuity to keep going. This match will go super long but they have inevitability with all of their card draw. We also have no way of removing their Pearl Lake Ancient unless we sandbag a bunch of instant speed removal spells, which is a terrible plan against them.
Sideboarding for this matchup is very easy. You want to bring in more threats and anything that can provide card advantage: Elspeth, Chandra, and Read the Bones come in while you need to take out your dead Lightning Strikes, Magma Jets, and the Murderous Cut.Green Devotion and Variants
This matchup is a nightmare for Mardu Midrange but luckily for us, it's not very heavily played. Most green players have adapted the Monsters version because Devotion is just too fragile and inconsistent. Despite that, it's a nearly unwinnable matchup for us.
Forget about game one. We are going to lose unless we draw exceptionally well and our opponent does not. Your plan for game two is to kill everything in sight with Anger of the Gods and End Hostilities while you win the game with your flyers and Planeswalkers. That plan will not always work because the green devotion decks are really good at recovering from a sweeper effect. They not only draw extra cards with Eidolon of Blossoms, but they also don't really have to commit much to the board to force us to sweep. Hornet Queen is the worst card against us. Casting a Queen after we play End Hostilities will just put us back to square one and force us to have another answer. Most green devotion decks play four Hornet Queens so it's pretty likely that they will have another as a follow up.
We are the control deck in this matchup. Our early creatures do nothing against their Polukranos and Coursers so we have to rely on our Planeswalkers and sweepers to control the board. Read the Bones helps provide additional answers but overall the matchup is very unfavorable.Wrap Up
Mardu has some great matchups in the Standard format, especially green midrange decks like Abzan, Temur, and RG Monsters. It's also great against Jeskai and other aggressive decks. Its bad matchups are not as popular in the format making the deck incredibly well positioned right now. It's not surprising that three copies of Mardu made Top 8 of the TCGplayer Championship given the amount of Abzan in the room. I'll be playing Mardu until the format shifts a bit and I'd recommend it for any competitive level Standard tournament. Thanks for reading.
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