Modern is being deeply and thoroughly investigated right now by everyone hoping to contest the Pro Tour in Bilbao. With so much going on in Modern – ridiculous deck diversity, new Ixalan and Rivals of Ixalan cards shaking things up, and even new decks emerging – there's so much to get across. The tournament is bound to be an absolute barnstormer, and as you might expect, I can't wait to help bring coverage of the event to the world. And there's one deck in particular I'm expecting to make some huge headlines.
This week and next, we're going to zoom in on this deck and discuss its ins and outs. If you've played any Modern in recent weeks, you're sure to have come across the new black of the format – or, rather, the new black and red and a little bit of white of the format (that doesn't really have the same ring to it, however). Mardu Pyromancer has seen fringe play since the printing of Bedlam Reveler in Eldritch Moon, but recently it has been picking up more steam than a Finnish sauna. At Grand Prix Santa Clara, Galan Falakfarsa made the Top 4 alongside teammates Isaac Sears and Dan Mabee; Falakfarsa was their Modern specialist, and he crushed his enemies with Mardu.
I was lucky enough to catch up with Falakfarsa in the wake of his performance and hear his perspective on the deck he's done so well with. He has put an enormous amount of time into Mardu Pyromancer, so much so that his take on the archetype is a marked departure from where the deck originated. A player on Magic Online with the moniker Selfeisek has earnt more trophies than Hugh Hefner with Mardu Pyromancer, and is generally regarded as the person who established the archetype – Falakfarsa, however, has developed the list further still.
When set against Selfeisek's "industry standard" Mardu list, there are some pretty significant differences here. The first is a further reduction of white cards in the list, to the point that it's only a very light splash for Lingering Souls and a handful of sideboard cards. The principal card sacrificed for this change is Lightning Helix, which is emblematic of the deck's game plan. Why, then, did Falakfarsa choose to abandon it?
"I'm less reliant on white mana," he explained. "I feel that Collective Brutality is more versatile than Helix in more matchups, and is more convincingly backbreaking against Burn."
Seeing as Collective Brutality has enough flexibility to help tussle with everything from small creature decks to big control decks, this makes a lot of sense. The added bonus of tightening up the deck's mana base is also very welcome.
The second major difference is the removal of Monastery Swiftspear, although it wasn't necessarily an easy cut. "It's a respectable clock in many of the matchups where you need to close the game," Falakfarsa admitted, "and is a sweet draw off of Reveler in tandem with other cheap spells you will likely draw." But all this wasn't enough to keep her around – Mardu Pyromancer is much more attrition-based than a deck that would traditionally feature Taylor Swiftspear, and as a result she had to hit the bin.
Falakfarsa found that the card would only average about four damage before becoming irrelevant – principally by means of a big blocker. Taking her out of the deck thins out the threat density a little too much, however, which explains the inclusion of Hazoret – which Falakfarsa described as "a singleton house" – and the Goblin Rabblemasters for extra post-board pressure. Between Young Pyromancer, Bedlam Reveler and Lingering Souls, the deck has enough to close out games, especially when you remember Kolaghan's Command can buy back slain creatures.
These differences give the deck a slightly different angle of attack, focusing heavily on attrition and playing a value-oriented game. In doing this, however, Falakfarsa stressed the importance of early plays in the opening turns – and in particular the very important role filled by certain one-mana spells. There is tension between hand disruption (Thoughtseize, Inquisition) and filtering (Faithless Looting) as your first play, and navigating this seemingly innocuous first turn is fundamental to later success.
Given this tension between discard and looting, what's the best way to open the account? "I'm fairly certain that in the dark, it's pretty much always correct to play discard before Faithless Looting," Falakfarsa shared. "Essentially, you need to know what you are looking for before casting Looting – exceptions are when you are looking for things to make your deck function that you may be lacking early on."
This is excellent, actionable advice – unless you're specifically seeking something (such as a land or a threat that your hand is otherwise lacking), slam the discard spell first thing.
When it comes to what to snag with discard spells, it's very important to remember the great many approaches this deck can take towards winning a game. You may need to protect a Young Pyromancer from removal, or a Bedlam Reveler from countermagic – or perhaps ensuring your backbreaking Blood Moon survives post-board Naturalize effects is the way forward. Of course, there's always potential for the blindingly obvious "take their best card" play; it's going to differ each time, so you need to ensure your decision matches up with the line you're taking towards victory.
It goes without saying that discard is a hugely important element of Mardu's early game plan, but there's a little more to the story. Discard spells are traditionally a pretty bad late game top deck (with the notable exception of playing against blue decks, where they can protect a key play from countermagic), but this list has many ways to mitigate the negative impact of ripping late Thoughtseizes and Inquisitions. Not only can they generate a 1/1 with Young Peezy when cast, they can also be discarded for value to cards like Collective Brutality and Faithless Looting – the other card Falakfarsa highlighted as critical early play.
Faithless Looting is at its best when you have information. Knowing what your opponent is playing, what their hand looks like and how the game is likely to unfold are all key elements of resolving a successful an effective Faithless Looting. Despite not being an immediate source of card advantage, it is a lynchpin of the deck and you must understand how to utilize the card properly.
Falakfarsa offered some useful guidance for what to keep in mind when Looting. "You need to know which axes of interaction you want in a given matchup once it is known," he said. "For example, you want discard against combo or Big Mana, and removal against creature decks. However, the deck is very adaptable and each game varies based on context, so don't get stuck in one mindset of how to sequence things, as it will vary based on matchup."
Faithless Looting also heavily informs two other key play sequences it's necessary to master to succeed with Mardu. The first is knowing at which point to discard threats to gain extra value later (flashing back Lingering Souls, getting back a creature with Kolaghan's Command); the second is deciding upon how many lands you're going to need to get through the game, as Looting allows you to turn extra lands into more action.
Kolaghan's Command is a card that simply oozes value, and while there is no Snapcaster Mage here to flash it back, this Mardu deck still makes exceptionally strong use of the card. Falakfarsa explained his preference for looting away threats to make K-Commands as mighty as possible: "A lot of the time I end up discarding a Reveler early on if I have a Command in hand, to guarantee the two-for-one value in any matchup."
As counter-intuitive as it may seem, discarding game-winning haymakers is often the right call – binning Hazoret in this way will put opponents on notice, as she provides an immediate impact after being regrown later in the game by a Kolaghan's Command. Don't be afraid to loot away action in order to prioritize early interaction!
Kolaghan's Command can also end games on the spot against decks that operate principally at sorcery speed. A draw step K-Command to waylay the plans of a deck like Tron or Valakut can often win you the game, especially when you're applying pressure. While its Shock mode is quite weak – you'd rather regrow a creature – it can close out a game against certain decks.
"If you're playing against something like a Tron deck or Scapeshift, a topdeck can take the game from 'I'm gonna win in 1-2 turns' to 'I just got my board blown up by Ugin' or 'just took lethal from a topdecked Primeval Titan or Scapeshift,'" he explained. Kolaghan's Command is excellent at preventing that through instant-speed discard – so keep an eye out for opportunities to leverage an advantage out of this interaction.
The other important angle to consider when casting Faithless Looting is how and when to discard lands. This deck has a sleek and efficient curve that effectively tops out at four (Bedlam Reveler generally gives you the mate's rates discount, of course), meaning you can generally plan for how many lands you'll need to see out a game. Rather than flooding out, Faithless Looting (especially when flashed back) allows you to decide how many lands you're going to be happy with.
Mitigating flood like this can be hugely powerful – but there's an important decision to make when it comes to exactly how many lands you want to have in play. Between cheap spells, flashback cards and card advantage engines like K-Command and Bedlam Reveler, Mardu Pyromancer can generally cast multiple spells a turn well into the late game, so the number isn't too low. After having played the deck for so long, Falakfarsa believes he's found the sweet spot.
"I don't recommend choking yourself on fewer than four lands," he contended. "I find that usually the deck functions most comfortably on five lands on average – but again, it varies." It varies due to reasonable visible factors – the cards in your hand and graveyard and the pace of the game being the two most obvious ones. Actual numbers notwithstanding, the fact that this deck has a built-in mechanism that allows you to control something often left to chance in mana flood means that Mardu Pyromancer won't suffer from the same fate as many other non-blue decks with no filtering.
After having discussed the broad strokes of Mardu Pyromancer's game plan and the various gameplay elements to master when playing with this deck, next week we'll look toward individual matchups in Modern as well as exploring the best way to sideboard.
Mardu Pyromancer continues to climb towards the top of the Modern format, and as I mentioned it's my pick for the breakout deck of Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan. Join me next week as we continue to investigate the deck – until then, may your 1/1 Elementals be plentiful and your Blood Moons devastating!