This past weekend was an emotional weekend for me; I landed a Top 32 finish at the TCGplayer MaxPoint Championship, good for $350. This is not a bad result by any means, though it is one of those times where I know that the result could have been much better. Mardu Midrange was my weapon of choice, and the deck was great for me all day. While this is a deck I have been talking about a lot lately, here is the list for a reference point:
This is not a common list at all as the most popular version seems to be playing Abbot of Keral Keep and a different selection of planeswalkers. While previously I have not been too sure on which version of Mardu is the best, I do believe it is something similar to this, as Gideon, Ally of Zendikar is absurdly powerful and works very well with the game plan. This version has two copies of Canopy Vista, which is a bit unusual, but I found the situation of wanting to fetch for a second white source to be quite relevant, especially in a deck with Gideon, Ally of Zendikar and Wingmate Roc. The second swamp on the other hand never really seemed particularly important, and ended up getting cut.
As far as the sideboard goes I was happy with the diversity of options it has. The first thing is that Atarka Red is a good matchup since I haven't trimmed on sideboard cards there. There are five cards in the board that are almost solely here to beat red decks, and that is a matchup I didn't drop a game to during the tournament. Abzan Aggro is another matchup that is very important at the moment, and running cards like Self-Inflicted Wound, as well as additional forms of card advantage, makes it very difficult for them to win post board. Of course there are a variety of decks in Standard and this deck feels favored against pretty much any fair deck, but there are a couple of decks that are trying to beat you in a different way.
Arguably there are two mainstream unfair archetypes in Standard, which have linear game plans and, if left un-disrupted, are extremely powerful. What I am referring to are the various forms of ramp, and the Four-Color Rally deck. These are the two most difficult matchups for Mardu Midrange; because the deck isn't super-fast you are essentially forced to let these decks get their engines going. Some may argue that ramp isn't an unfair deck, but that seems silly to me. It is the only strategy that can cast Ugin, the Spirit Dragon consistently and also generally has other big spells like Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger. The ramp deck I faced off against at the MaxPoint Championship was the Red/Green version of Jim Davis'.
I actually beat Jim in two games, though admittedly there was some luck involved. This isn't the best matchup for Mardu though it is obviously very winnable. Having access to discard plus removal to deal with the threats from the ramp deck means that ramp will generally need to play three or four of their big spells in a game in order to win. A single copy of Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger or Ugin, the Spirit Dragon is manageable. In game two on the play Jim was threatening to ramp into a turn five Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger but, luckily for me, I drew a sideboard card to foil that plan. I cast Infinite Obliteration and was able to nab the Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger just in time. Infinite Obliteration is a swingy card but here it got me out of a very tight spot.
While the ramp matchup is manageable, as the deck is currently configured, the Four-Color Rally deck is a very bad matchup. This is scary as there were three copies of that deck that made the Top 8 of the this past weekend at the MaxPoint Championship. M only loss of the tournament I felt like there was actually nothing I could do was against Josh McClain playing this deck:
This is a deck that we have seen before, yet it hasn't been putting up strong results the same way it did at the TCGplayer MaxPoint Championship. The deck has a ton of redundancy and has proven to be a top contender in Standard. After talking to Josh about the deck he admitted that he wished he had some copies of Anafenza, the Foremost in the sideboard for the Mirror Match. The real advantage to playing Abzan Aggro over Mardu is that you get to play with Anafenza, the Foremost which a card that is clearly very strong versus any deck with Rally the Ancestors in it. However, while Anafenza, the Foremost is the most obvious maindeck card that hoses Four-Color Rally, after board there are more options worth considering. Also, the Four-Color Rally deck generally brings in removal spells making Anafenza, the Foremost not as relevant post board.
Now the question becomes what is the best way of reconfiguring the sideboard of Mardu Midrange to accommodate for having a poor game one matchup against Four-Color Rally. Looking at the sideboard I ran there are additional discard spells which come in, along with Infinite Obliteration and the single copy of Burn Away. There are other cards from the sideboard which can come in as well but these are the ones that are most significant. The first part of the game plan is to try and force them to top deck a Collected Company or Rally the Ancestors by forcing them to discard the first one. The creatures are manageable, as Jace, Vryn's Prodigy is the only one that needs to be dealt with immediately.
Infinite Obliteration is a card I'm still unsure about. It can clearly be great, like when I cast it versus Jim's ramp deck, but in this matchup it seems merely okay. Once you have used a discard spell, Infinite Obliteration does get better as there are more known cards in the opponent's hand. This makes it much more likely that you will actually name a creature that is in your opponent's hand with the Infinite Obliteration. While it is nice to take out one combo piece from your opponent's graveyard and deck, it doesn't completely shut down the Four-Color Rally deck, and it does usually slow the Mardu deck down by taking the time to cast it. Overall the card should be brought in against Four-Color Rally but it isn't amazing or anything.
The single sideboard card which is quite focused on the Four-Color Rally deck is the Burn Away but even that card has its issues. If the opponent has a Nantuko Husk in play they can sacrifice the creature targeted with the Burn Away and prevent their graveyard from being exiled. The good thing about cards like Burn Away and Infinite Obliteration is that there are applications outside the Rally the Ancestors matchup, however I think it is time to devote sideboard slots to the best possible card to play versus Four-Color Rally. That card is Hallowed Moonlight. Hallowed Moonlight is a card that has seen a bit of play because of how strong it is versus Esper Tokens and Four-Color Rally but still isn't seeing the amount of play it needs to.
Hallowed Moonlight can completely shut down a Rally the Ancestors or Collected Company, which can completely shift the game around. This card is enough after board to swing the matchup but you also need to draw Hallowed Moonlight, which means playing multiple copies, remember that this card can also be used as a cantrip. Here is what an updated sideboard could look like, which includes Hallowed Moonlight:
3 Hallowed Moonlight
1 Painful Truths
1 Infinite Obliteration
2 Arashin Cleric
2 Radiant Flames
1 Surge of Righteousness
2 Self-Inflicted Wound
1 Transgress the Mind
1 Ashcloud Phoenix
This is the sort of sideboard I will be playing this weekend most likely. If my deck has white in it Hallowed Moonlight will be in it, as Four-Color Rally is that strong of a deck. I cut the Outpost Siege as, while it can be great, many times it does get hit by Utter End, so the automatic card drawing of Painful Truths is a bit more important. As far as the TCGplayer MaxPoint Championship is concerned, there was one situation in round thirteen that I am still reeling from.
The Judge Call
In round thirteen I found myself paired against Abzan Aggro, which is a pretty good matchup for my version of Mardu Midrange. Game one I get nut drawn, and win game two in a straightforward fashion. In game three I am way ahead and the only two creatures my opponent has in play are a Siege Rhino and a Warden of the First Tree on the second level. My opponent has eight lands available. At the end of my turn an attempt is made to make the Warden of the First Tree an eight power creature. I think and then decide that I want to Crackling Doom away the Warden of the First Tree before my opponent untaps.
I then say I'm going to cast the Crackling Doom, and reveal the card, though no mana was actually tapped. Unfortunately I realized that the counters had not actually been put on the Warden of the First Tree, which means that technically the trigger of making the Warden of the First Tree into a larger creature was still on the stack. When he immediately tried to put the Siege Rhino in the graveyard, I instantly clarified saying my intention was to cast the spell after the trigger from the Warden of the First Tree. In my mind I was shortcutting, but I should have been more clear and it cost me a Top 16 finish in the event.
The first judge ruled that we could back up to the point of the Crackling Doom being in my hand, but the head judge overturned the ruling. I am no judge and I still am not convinced either way on what the correct ruling actually was. Certainly I made an Error by not specifically saying that my intention was to kill the Warden of the First Tree before my opponent reached for his Siege Rhino. This is just a lesson to be as clear and up front about what is going on in a game of magic as possible. What happened is unfortunate as it absolutely decided the game since the Warden of the First Tree became huge, and my opponent immediately top decked Murderous Cut to kill me. I am frustrated to have lost a game there is no chance I would have lost otherwise but I believe that, in Magic, everyone has times where their heart drops. Something happened in a game that wasn't as you intended, and this was one of those occasions. I have heard opinions from many on whether we should have backed up the game to before I cast the Crackling Doom. In any case, as a professional Magic player, while this wasn't an actual "play mistake," it was a mistake nonetheless and one which I can learn from.
Thanks for reading,