Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar was only a couple of days after Grand Prix Madison. Team Cabin Crew had booked the whole week in the Super 8 Motel in Madison to work on our Constructed strategies. A lobby with tables, a small gym, a pool, and a Subway nearby...we had all we needed.

As I mentioned in my Grand Prix Madison report, I only met with the team when we arrived in Madison. I had been exploring Standard with Eliott in Toulouse and we came up with a couple of nice brews that didn't quite make the cut (including a sweet Great Aurora / Demonic Pact deck). Maybe I'll post the list for you in near future.

So we had some catching up to do. It was one of these tournaments where the team didn't find a deck that was above the rest, that we had to choose among the stock lists we had. The team was divided into three groups: one group would play Esper Dragons, one would play Jeskai, and the last one would play Mardu Tokens. I was part of the latter.

DECKID=1252846

Davor Detecnik had been playing the deck for a while, tuning it, and had reached good results. We figured the format to be about Atarka Red, Jeskai (with or without black), G/W Megamorph, Abzan, and Esper.

From what I had seen, Mardu Tokens (the deck I selected) had fine matchups or at least a decent chance against most of these decks. Also, it was a good opportunity for me to express my mad drawing skills and make my own tokens.



Creatures

4 Hangarback Walker
4 Seeker of the Way
1 Butcher of the Horde
3 Wingmate Roc
4 Hordeling Outburst

One of the biggest challenges of the format was to find good two-drops. In the Mardu colors, there aren't that many options, basically three: Hangarback Walker, Seeker of the Way and Soulfire Grand Master. Even though Hangarback Walker has been the big talk since its Breakthrough, it's ok but not great. Against control decks, it barely does anything as you tap out on turn two, and have one land busy for a couple of turns. They usually have a way to deal with it (like Silkwrap) or can just ignore it completely. However, it's a good card to fight Crackling Doom as you can protect your other creatures by pumping it to the size of your biggest guy, and against aggressive decks that need to clear the board to attack.

Seeker of the Way is a powered up Grizzly Bear that can sometimes hit for three or four.

The other option is Soulfire Grand Master that you're very unlikely to activate.

These creatures have one thing in common: they're great against Atarka Red. Alongside plenty of removal spells, they usually buy you enough time to stabilize. Against anything that you're not going to race or where your life isn't that relevant, Seeker or Grand Master are barely ever more exciting than Grizzly Bears.

It's a metagame choice; if you're playing Mardu and care much about your curve, you won't find much better. They are needed for the early game of your strategy.

Hordeling Outburst is the center piece of the deck. With Bile Blight, Drown in Sorrow, and Elspeth out of the format, it's hard to deal with all the goblins at once. Along with Crusade effects (attack bonus to your team) from Gideon, Ally of Zendikar and Sorin, Solemn Visitor, they are a good way to attack the format.

Wingmate Roc is at the top of the curve and works well with the token strategy. When we started testing, Wingmate Roc was dominating most creature matchups, it didn't matter in which deck it was. It's particularly easy to trigger its raid ability with Goblin Tokens and Hangarback Walkers.

Butcher of the Horde was a one-of in the deck and Eliott insisted we have more, at least in the board. The problem was that the curve was already very heavy on four-drops and it felt like it was the least effective of them all. After 10 rounds with the deck, I wish I had played more of these in my main. With Siege Rhino being less popular (or thought to be less popular) for that tournament, Jeskai and Abzan decks were probably cutting their ways to deal with Butcher (cards like Valorous Stance). If you don't deal with the 5/4 flyer with a removal spell, it's quite hard to block in the format, so it's likely to go all the way. It's a very good way to sacrifice your Hangarback Walker to make more flying attackers and, most importantly, it's awesome to kill a Gideon, Ally of Zendikar. We expected a lot of these planeswalkers, and Butcher was the perfect answer.


Spells

4 Wild Slash
1 Fiery Impulse
2 Mardu Charm
4 Crackling Doom
3 Murderous Cut

Wild Slash and Fiery Impulse are cards we wanted at least five copies of in the deck to be able to weather the first wave of beaters from Atarka Red and deal with pesky Jace, Vryn's Prodigy as soon as possible. The mix could be three Slashes and two Impulses as well if you expect more Jeskai decks. The main difference is that Impulse can kill a Mantis Rider, while Wild Slash can damage a player or a planeswalker.

Crackling Doom was the black card Jeskai decks wanted in their decks. Since we're already in the right colors, there's no reason not to play one of the best removal in standard right now. It's a fairly reliable way to deal with Abzan beaters (Siege Rhino or Anafenza), protect yourself from attacking planeswalkers (Gideon or Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker), start dealing with Gideon right away (kill the token they make and attack for two to destroy the planeswalker) and have a good matchup against Esper Dragons. That deck wasn't played as much as we expected, mostly due to the fact that their Ojutai would never survive long enough to have any impact, and that's because of Crackling Doom.

However, as I mentioned above, it's not great when you're playing against Hangarback Walker as they will pump it so they have some fodder to sacrifice and save their friends.

Murderous Cut is the only delve card in the deck, and is the cheapest removal we get for that effect. We needed a card that could kill Abzan monsters but also the pumped up creatures from Atarka Red. You can't really kill a Monastery Swiftspear with a Wild Slash when it's backed up by Become Immense and Temur Battle Rage.

Mardu Charm was the last addition to the maindeck. We weren't sure about the 4th Murderous Cut, but I wanted to keep the removal ratio high while being able to do other things with them. Mardu Charm was the best option. The arguments some of my teammates were making was that none of Mardu Charm's modes were good. I strongly disagreed with that statement. I actually like every one of them and I wish I had played three or four.

The four-damage mode is just a basic removal spell that will take care of everything but a Siege Rhino (you already have a lot to deal with that guy). The two-token mode gives you surprise blockers and helps you deal the last damage when you're running out of threats or have a Gideon Emblem out (probably the least used mode). The Duress mode was my favorite. I didn't want to have a Duress-free deck in the main. I wanted to be able to interact with my opponent's hand without having the actual Duress in the deck. Being able to play a turn three Mardu Charm at the end of turn (or at the end of your opponent's draw step) and get rid of his answer for your turn four planeswalker / Butcher of the Horde is one of the reasons why I like this card so much.


Planeswalkers

3 Gideon, Ally of Zendikar
2 Sorin, Solemn Visitor

During testing, we never managed to figure out how good Gideon was. Sometimes, it was just a blowout. You have all your guys in play, you make another 2/2 on turn four, and create an Emblem on turn five to make your team bigger. Sometimes you're a little behind, you play it and make a 2/2, and it dies. So it translated into "a four-mana 2/2 that gains four life," which isn't exactly a card you would play. In the aftermaths, I believe three Gideons were too many. The biggest issue with Gideon in this deck, apart from the fact that it sometimes doesn't do anything, is its casting cost. Double white on turn four is a problem. All in all, I'd rather have more Butcher of the Horde, maybe a two-two split.

I've never really been a big fan of Sorin, but I'm revising my judgement. For starters, Sorin is much easier to cast than Gideon. The flying ability in today's standard is also very relevant. Hangarback Walker are almost everywhere, and you want to be able to sneak damage through them (flying over is a good way to do it). The life swing it provides after you played a Hordeling Outburst usually put you at a safe life total against aggro decks. I wouldn't play more than two, but I was very happy with what it did for me during the tournament.


Manabase

4 Bloodstained Mire
4 Wooded Foothills
2 Windswept Heath
1 Canopy Vista
1 Cinder Glade
1 Smoldering Marsh
2 Battlefield Forge
4 Nomad Outpost
2 Plains
3 Mountain
1 Swamp

The trickiest part to make this deck work is the manabase. In theory, you need to have double red mana on turn three for Hordeling Outburst, double white mana on turn four for Gideon, a mix of all three colors on turn three, a land drop all the way till turn five, and to not draw too many lands after that as you don't have ways to sink your mana.

Above is the manabase Eliott and I came up with. Ondrej Strasky and Davor ended up with a different one (one less Plains, more pain lands).

I actually liked the second Plains as it gave more ways for Windswept to fetch a white source.

25 lands is the right amount if you want to reliably hit lands till turn four (the 5th land might arrive a couple of turns later). Considering that you don't have that much card advantage (you're mostly killing creatures one by one), you can't afford playing more lands. Against decks with Dig Through Time, if you played more lands, they're likely to outdraw you as they have card selection and card advantage.


Sideboard

2 Silkwrap
2 Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker
2 Butcher of the Horde
4 Duress
3 Arashin Cleric
2 Radiant Flames

2 Silkwrap

Extra cheap removal against fast decks and the best way to deal with Hangarback Walker and not fill Jeskai's graveyard for Ojutai's Command or Dig Through Time.

3 Arashin Cleric

Atarka Red is a fine/good matchup, but it doesn't take much for this matchup to go from good to very good, and that's why we wanted the Arashin Clerics in the sideboard. I've read a lot of things saying that they "weren't that good" against red decks. I again have to strongly disagree. The reason why we have three in the sideboard is because every copy has a big impact in the game. I'd rather use a slot in my sideboard that improve my odds in a matchup by 5% than another card against another specific matchup that only improve by 1-2%, just for the sake of having a sideboard card for that matchup.

2 Radiant Flames

Sometimes, Arashin Cleric is not enough to put the nail on the coffin of aggro decks. Radiant Flames can just do that. It's not as good here as in some other decks with bigger creatures, as you'll have to adapt your strategy to cast one in time. When you set it up right, you're going to kill two to four creatures at once. Some other times, you'll be in a stalemate and won't be able to cast it because it will kill just as many creatures on your side. It's also much stronger on the draw, when you can cast it on turn three and play your Outburst on the following turn (and not pass with three mana open).

4 Duress

I guess we were a little too wary about Ramp and Esper decks (they've been on the rise after the Pro Tour, so we might need to keep these), but it's by far the best card against them. While Duress in the maindeck isn't necessary (or might just be bad in some matchups), it's nice to be able to set up your turn four play with it, and therefore dodge counters and Utter Ends on your Gideon or Butcher.

2 Butcher of the Horde

I think I would cut one Gideon main for a Butcher. There's just so many four-drops you can have in your deck, and I was just very happy with the demon. Lifelink also helps you to race aggressive decks while Gideon doesn't really help you to turn the game around when you're behind or have suffered too much damage.

2 Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker

We needed cards in the control matchups, where the spot removal was not as useful. Sarkhan would replace Wingmate Roc as your creatures usually have a hard time to connect and trigger the raid. A 3/4 flyer for five mana against control is rarely exciting. Sarkhan offers a much better deal for that cost and has that haste ability able to Deal Damage to opposing planeswalker right away.

Note that we didn't have Outpost Siege. While being a very good card, we believed that we had enough four-drops, and we already had enough cards against the decks it would be good against. I regretted I didn't have it for the mirror though.


Sideboard Guide

Vs. Atarka Red
-3 Gideon, Ally of Zendikar
-4 Crackling Doom
-1 Wingmate Roc

+2 Butcher of the Horde
+3 Arashin Cleric
+2 Radiant Flames
+1 Silkwrap

Mardu Tokens is one of the few decks that has a very decent chance (understand a good matchup) in game one thanks to the amount of removal and the cheap drops. Their transformational sideboard (if they have one) doesn't really bother you that much. When they bring in big creatures like Hooting Mandrills, you still have Murderous Cuts and Mardu Charms to kill them, as well as more time to find an answer (as they would cut some early aggression).

Vs. Jeskai
-4 Crackling Doom
-2 Sorin, Solemn Visitor

+2 Silkwrap
+2 Duress
+2 Butcher of the Horde

The matchup is average, they have card advantage and card selection, you have cards that really annoy them. Hordeling Outburst is hard for them to deal with and you're going to rely on the token generation to beat them. You might consider bringing in Radiant Flames on the draw.

Vs. Abzan
-3 Wild Slash
-1 Fiery Impulse

+2 Silkwrap
+2 Butcher of the Horde

An above average matchup, you have ways to deal with their threats while it's tough for them to deal with all of yours. Depending on how many answers they have (or keep) against your Butcher of the Horde, the matchup will either be much better or just good. If you stumble on your lands or if they start gaining too much from their Den Protectors, you're in trouble.

Vs. Esper
-3 Murderous Cut
-3 Wingmate Roc

+4 Duress
+2 Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker

Game one is quite hard. You have a lot of dead cards, but also five planeswalkers they can't leave unchecked. When you take out six useless cards for six extremely useful cards, the matchup becomes much better.

Vs. G/W Megamorph
-1 Crackling Doom
-1 Gideon, Ally of Zendikar
-4 Seeker of the Way

+2 Silkwrap
+2 Butcher of the Horde
+2 Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker

This is a tough matchup. They usually have ways to deal with your threats and it's tough to beat them on the draw. Their Hangarback Walkers block your Gideon tokens and protect their creatures from Crackling Doom. Just like against Abzan, it's tough to beat them when they start durdling with Den Protectors. Take it to the skies with Butcher.

Seeker of the Way is almost a dead card against them as it will either be blocked by a Walker or a Raptor. Either way, not a good deal for you.

The sideboarding against G/W Megamorph might be a little off (suggestions welcome).

The deck performed fine for me at the Pro Tour as I scored 18 points with it (6-4).


My Matches

Mardu Mirror (with Pia and Kiran Nalaar): lost 1-2
Jeskai Black: Won 2-1
U/B Aristocrats: Won 2-1
G/W Megamorph: Won 2-1
R/G Landfall: Lost 1-2

G/W Megamorph: Lost 1-2
G/W Megamorph : Lost 0-2
Atarka Red: Won 2-0
Atarka Red: Won 2-1
B/G Ramp: Won 2-0

Even though I did great the weekend before in Draft, I didn't do so well in Limited at the Pro Tour (3-3), losing two extremely close games that I thought I had. I had been on the winning side the weekend before, so I guess it's just balancing!

I finished the Pro Tour at 9-7 (120th), enough to pick up one extra Pro Tour point (but no money). I have had a great trip to Wisconsin and I came back home with a trophy, and at the end of the day, that's what mattered most.

Feel free to pick up the deck and play some with it. It might not be the best version of it, but I believe it's a serious contender in today's standard format.

Next up for me is Grand Prix Lyon where I'll be in the booth for the commentaries.

Take care!

Raph

Twitter: @hahamoud