Testing leading up to Pro Tour Amonkhet was far different from usual. First off, Felidar Guardian was banned from the format. This was a relief for many people and everyone was excited to once again have a fresh format to dive into. You might think this would make midrange strategies better, but as it turns out this basically just makes Aetherworks Marvel strategies better as they are so unbelievably strong in those matchups and no longer have to compete with another combo deck.
The second unusual factor was the early release of Amonkhet on Magic Online. This gave preparation for the Pro Tour as well as the event itself a whole new "face-up" feel. The early release coupled with normal limited queues (not the overly expensive "pre-release queues" of the past) gave competitors an avenue to draft much more than usual. Magic Online set a record for online users the Monday after prerelease, so this is clearly a great change and I expect them to continue this trend in the future.
This also meant Standard went up much sooner online. The cards are now cheaper and more readily available. In the past, online testing could be negative as players tend to play what they have already since the new cards are hard to get, entirely mitigating the value of practicing online. For this Pro Tour, the influx of cards an entire week sooner after a huge format ban really got the ball rolling. To be clear, one week doesn't seem like much but much of the impact has to do with timing – a majority of Pro Tour competitors participate in the Limited Grand Prix the week before. This means many of us are traveling, so the online release is inconvenient to useless. Instead, the set is up right before we are all leaving for our trip for several days so this provides a solid warmup depending on how much testing time you can commit to this period.
What all of this resulted in was an open format with virtually zero surprises. This kind of format should be good for me, as I consider myself to be better with reps and a reasonable deck tuner. Though, this also devalues the team aspect a bit, as there are less breakouts and more people know what's going on.
As usual, I tested with Face to Face, Channel Fireball Ice, and a few members of Hareruya. It was evident that Mardu Vehicles would be the deck to beat, similar to how Jeskai Copy Cat was at the last Pro Tour. Any deck had to beat Mardu to compete, and that caused it to be a rather undesirable deck to play for us early in testing since it was likely a risky choice. Mardu was still doing well in online tournaments, but both Marvel and Zombies seemed to be popping up everywhere. These were clearly going to be the most played decks at the Pro Tour. Notably, Blue-Red Control also seemed to be the "other" deck popular online, almost too popular considering it didn't seem to beat Mardu or seem like that great of a deck when our team tested it.
Early on and throughout testing I spent much of my time working on a Temur Emerge deck.
This deck was severely dismantled with the ban of Emrakul, the Promised End. But this type of midrange deck could never have a chance to prosper in a format with Felidar Guardian. Kozilek's Return seemed like a busted card in a format with Mardu, Zombies and creature-heavy Marvel Decks. My testing confirmed this, as this deck was excellent at beating Mardu and also borderline absurd against Zombies. Furthermore, Manglehorn was an excellent new addition in the deck, as was Rogue Refiner over Pilgrim's Eye. Manglehorn is great versus Mardu and Marvel, and even can be reasonable against Zombies and Blue-Red as they have Metallic Mimic and Torrential Gearhulk. Everything was looking good for me to just play a super-tuned list with a surprise factor. Unfortunately, after time I found the Marvel matchup to be rather bad, and the control Matchup to be virtually unwinnable no matter what plans I tried.
At this point, most of my team seemed to be interested in playing a Black-Green Cryptolith Rite deck. I had played against it a bit already, and had not been impressed. Since it was late in the game and I didn't like the team deck, I decided to revisit Temur Marvel and try it out online as well as against teammates. It was a deck I was comfortable with after helping to pull it from Magic Online into paper with a second place finish and Grand Prix Denver.
The Temur Marvel deck was strong, and had been putting up extremely consistent results. After testing it for a few days, though, I had found some issues. First and foremost, the Temur Marvel mirror was not what I remembered, and had become a coin flip with little benefit coming from playskill or relevant matchup knowledge. Not only that, but the Zombies matchup did not feel as good as advertised (I did not find Chandra, Flamecaller, so kudos to Team Genesis and others who did). I wasn't just losing to hate cards like Dispossess, but more often to overpowering go-wide and fast draws. In many of these games, I Marveled into an Ulamog and still lost. Furthermore, while the Mardu matchup is favorable for Temur Marvel, at 58.6% this is a pretty good matchup but not a slam dunk by any means, especially as this matchup is usually very draw-dependent on both sides. Finally, the nail in the coffin for Marvel was a terrible matchup versus Blue-Red Control. Regardless of the numbers from the Pro Tour, I tested this matchup in person and online and it's quite tough. Too many counters, and very efficient removal in the form of Magma Spray/Harnessed Lightning continuously demoralized me to the point where I thought I couldn't possibly play Marvel within the metagame I expected. And let's get one thing straight here, I love the Marvel.
Blue-Red was common online, and I thought that about 15% or possible more of the field would play control variants, while maybe 10% of the field would be on Zombies. This ended up being one of my huge mistakes, as in reality around 25% of the field played Zombies and only 6%(by far the lowest percentage of any Pro Tour I've ever played) played control.
Throughout testing, a good amount of my team had been working on a tuning a version of Mardu Vehicles. It was late in testing, and I had actually gotten practice with Mardu by being the enemy, in addition to being the deck I played at the last Pro Tour. I was completely aware that Mardu had a target on its back, similar to Jeskai Copy Cat at the last Pro Tour. This was unfortunate, but if I had learned anything in testing was it was nearly impossible to straight-up beat Mardu even when dedicated to do so.
Mardu was powerful game one, and extremely flexible in a match. Being planeswalker-heavy was potent in every matchup. Zombies was incredibly tough in game one, but Radiant Flames is an absolute monster against them. The Mardu mirror can be navigated post-board and whatever edge you sacrifice against Marvel you gain that back tenfold against the control decks of the format, even though they are less common.
Of course, this is pretty close to a stock Mardu list, but we put in a bunch of work to optimize it as much as possible. The mana base of this deck is slightly different from most lists. Most importantly – and if you get anything out of this writeup take this – is the lack of Aether Hub. Do not play this card in Mardu, as the one-shot land may be nice but overall hugely detracts from your ability to consistently cast spells.
In multiple Mardu mirrors my opponent played it and to my delight, used the mana early to only be screwed over later. Canyon Slough is extremely good. I wish we had played four over the Foreboding Ruins, but we figured that you would much rather draw a split and this would reduce the number of slow and clunky draws. The cycle lands are just great cards, and they remind me of the scry lands like Temple of Malice because they don't appear to be super impactful but provide an unseen advantage as they fix your mana and help you draw a better mix of lands and spells throughout many games. If you play Mardu, four is a must as this will help you cast your spells and reduce flooding. Most people think too heavily about game ones, so this is especially helpful when you sideboard into a control deck, as the games will go longer and you will have more stress on your colored mana. Speaking of post-board, we also bizarrely played a Plains number five as opposed to a fourth Spire of Industry. This is because in sideboarded games you are often siding out some artifacts while not replacing them, and your opponent is siding in spot removal and sometimes dedicated Shatter effects such as Manglehorn or Release the Gremlins, which leave your Spires useless. The extra Plains helps you still curve out with early creatures and Gideon, and doesn't deal you any damage.
The other differences from most lists in the main deck were the inclusion of a fifth planeswalker: Chandra, Torch of Defiance. In testing, many decks prayed on the overabundance of removal in Mardu, usually four Fatal Push, four Unlicensed Disintegration, and a Cut // Ribbons. I had many games against Marvel or control where I would lose to drawing these cards in bad situations, so Chandra is removal that is also a game-winning threat. Normally, Mardu plays two three-drop creatures, either Pia Nalaar or Thalia, Heretical Cathar. We found them to not be great against the major archetypes and also worse against sweepers such as Sweltering Suns or Kozilek's Return, which made you worse against Marvel decks and control. Instead, we played a Cultivator's Caravan and an Anguished Unmaking. The Caravan helped us go a bit bigger post-board, and of course increased our turn-four Gideon or Chandra draws (like in Dublin, where we were the only team to play four Gideons main and two Caravans to boot, remember those days?). The Unmaking was not as much tech but a card that most Mardu Vehicles decks sideboard. We found that you almost always boarded it in, and the ability to straight up answer a Marvel, New Perspectives (which was extremely hard to beat otherwise), Ulamog, any annoying Zombie or Gideon in game one provided a boost that a card like Pia or Thalia could not.
We had the typical planeswalker sideboard options. We played some discard, as we found Transgress the Mind to be necessary to combat Marvel, but also was an excellent option when playing the mirror or control. I wanted to play more Dispossess, as I had seen so much Marvel online, but most of my teammates were so against it that I ended up on one while they neglected to play it. If I knew the field would be so polarized I likely would've played more as I found Transgress to be not that great against Marvel as you needed to use turn two to pressure them, and if they played Servant of the Conduit your hand was too forced when you would rather add to the board.
Painful Truths has been super impressive, especially in conjunction with Sorin so that you could hit your land drops and planeswalkers and gain life at the end if necessary.
The biggest oversight of our sideboard was the lack of Magma Spray. It's a fine card in the mirror depending on how your opponent sideboards, but just an absolute house against Zombies. Answering a Relentless Dead or early Cryptbreaker is huge, and it's just so cheap and efficient that it plays really well with your Painful Truths-plus-planeswalker sideboard plan. I found many games against Zombies where I just had so many planeswalkers that did not line up well against Relentless Dead or just a wide board. Three Radiant Flames was great, but Zombie opponents would play around sweepers with a Relentless Dead and a few mana. Two or three Magma Spray certainly would help swing the match more in my favor. Some people played some Declaration in Stone, which could be worth including, but I have always found that to just be a bad card, as it's sorcery speed and can really be unhelpful many times since it provides your opponent with card advantage.
If you are looking for a recommendation for a current list, I would turn the Foreboding Ruins into an additional Canyon Slough. To the board, I would add three Magma Spray and one Dispossess and remove Cut // Ribbons, one Release the Gremlins, one Transgress the Mind, and one Sorin. Something I'm unsure about but reconsidering with the presence of Zombies and the resurgence of black-green decks is Fumigate; if you expect to see black-green, swap a Radiant Flames for a Fumigate.
Mardu ended up not being the greatest choice, as the field was super heavy on Zombies and Marvel while less so on control. The list was acceptable, and it took me to a mediocre 6-4 finish that could've easily gotten me one more win I needed to essentially lock up Platinum. Noah Walker ended up 8-2 with a slightly altered sideboard, so the Mardu contingent of our team did produce a solid and capable list for a deck that may not have been the best choice. It's hard for me to say that it was a mistake to not play Temur Marvel, though I agree it was the deck to play at the tournament (especially with Chandra, Flamecaller), as the control matchup was poor and I never would've expected such a lack of those decks.
The Pro Tour was different, and so much open available information is something that I clearly must adapt to in the future. I likely should've played more with Zombies, as I did beat people with it in testing and also lost to it more than I had imagined online. As it turns out, the Temurge deck would've been a great choice for me, as I played against four Mardu, two Zombies, one Black-Green Energy, and only two Marvel and one Blue-Red Control deck. Perhaps sticking to my guns would have been better for me.
While I've never included anything personal in my articles, I think that on such an occasion it's proper for me to congratulate our newest Pro Tour Champion, Gerry Thompson. Gerry is the hero who doesn't know actually know it. He will ask me how I'm doing, but not as an excuse to tell me how he's just lost and is now eliminated (like many players are apt to do), but rather because he actually cares how I'm doing, and not just in the tournament we're at, but in life. Gerry is in a way the epitome of sportsmanship within Magic, as he is not trying to be overly polite or friendly but instead just is while being competitive at the same time; if anyone understands the swings of Magic, it's Gerry. His integrity is profound as he's been in the game for longer than almost anyone and maintained a seriousness and passion for Magic all throughout. He's always thinking about Magic and is one of MTG's superb idea men. He's open about his ideas in his content which has been consistently awesome for longer than almost any writer, but also if you speak with him in person he is the exact same way. It should be extremely unsurprising that he would win a Pro Tour fresh off a ban amidst the face-up style of this Pro Tour from the early online release to boot. Congrats to him.