Pro Tour Aether Revolt is in the books, and who would have thought the Top 8 would include zero Felidar Guardian, four Winding Constrictor and 26 Heart of Kiran?
In the two weeks leading to the Pro Tour, Black-Green (Energy, Delirium, you name it) and Saheeli Copycat Combo (Jeskai, four-color, you name it, too) dominated the Open Series. So how come so few of them made it to the top when it most mattered?
My testing team for Dublin included Jeremy Dezani, Eliott Boussaud, Craig Wescoe, Dan Lanthier as well as Jonathan Melamed, Patrick Chapin and friends of theirs (Mateus Martin, Martin Hrycej, Justin Robb and Samuel Vuillot). Eliott and I started the tests early in Toulouse before we would meet the rest of the team in Prague for the Grand Prix. In the span of 10 days, we discarded a large number of brews. We built a dozen versions of Improvise decks, in most color combinations: blue-red, black-red, blue-black, Grixis, with zero-mana artifacts and without zero-mana artifacts. These decks couldn't beat the black-green decks or were just too clunky to bring to a Pro Tour.
We tried all kinds of combo decks: with Aetherflux Reservoir, Inspiring Statuary, Sram… none of them were good enough. They would lose to an artifact removal, a creature removal or a counter. These decks weren't resilient at all, and there was no real reason to play anything other than Saheeli if you wanted to play combo.
Even though we weren't 100% sure we hadn't missed something important, we had a good idea of the strength and weaknesses of the wacky brews. It saved us a lot of time later on. The conclusions we drew from the first week of testing and the first days with the team together were that:
- Black-green variants were a solid choice no matter what version. It would beat random creature decks thanks to the Walking Ballista-Winding Constrictor Combo. There was no "regular" creature deck that would be able to overpower Verdurous Gearhulk. I tried to revive our Blue-Red Zombie deck (with Prized Amalgam), but even when you had the nut draw and brought back two or three Zombies, you could still not beat an 8/8 trampler. According to the results of the Star City Games Opens and our own testing the black-green decks had a real problem beating Saheeli Combo decks or Jeskai Control in general.
- There were a lot of ways to play the Saheeli combo, but even though the deck seemed to beat black-green, we were concerned it would not be great in a field where players knew how to beat it. We tried all the different versions but none were very convincing.
- Control, whether it was Jeskai, straight white-blue or Grixis, was going to be played. It consistently beat black-green given that their sideboards weren't positioned well for that matchup), but had a tough time beating the different versions of Saheeli combo (when they were packing too many planeswalkers, for example).
From there we had to find a deck that fared well in that environment. It was a deck proactive enough that it wouldn't lose to control and Saheeli Combo, with removal that was efficient against Winding Constrictor, Verdurous Gearhulk, Felidar Guardian, and Torrential Gearhulk.
We came to the conclusion that Mardu Vehicles was the deck to play. Its matchups against Control and Copycat combo were outstanding, and only the black-green decks post a tricky matchup, though not unwinnable. If we expected 15-20% of black-green variants and 80% of others (including combo and control), it was definitely the deck to play.
For the record, nine of us played the deck, with seven making Day Two. Everyone that made Day Two had a positive record in Constructed (I went 8-2 with the deck). At the Pro Tour, Day One had around 95 players playing Mardu Vehicles and 75% of them advanced, an astounding record for a deck played by so many people.
Mardu Vehicles has a very fast and steady clock. It might not be able to kill by turn four every game, but usually can a turn or two after that. Saheeli decks can assemble the combo by the fourth turn, but it's not going to be easy. By going off on turn four, they leave the combo vulnerable to any removal spell or even a Shock. They require both cards in hand with very little library manipulation and in the end, they won't be much faster than you. Sure, some versions play interactive cards like Chandra, Torch of Defiance and other planeswalkers, but these aren't going to do much against your fast draws.
You have both Shock and Unlicensed Disintegration to interact with the combo and Heart of Kiran that can attack and "one-shot" a Saheeli on turn three, meaning that they will be vulnerable to your main angle of attack. Their best way to beat you is to reach six lands and combo you off in one turn, hoping you can't interact then. When Jeremy playtested the matchup, he came up with ridiculous records like 18-2 in games. At first, we were a little doubtful, but when we all tried it, it became clear that Saheeli combo didn't stand a chance against Mardu.
We were worried about that matchup in particular. We knew that the archetype was preying on decks with one-toughness creatures and Mardu packed a lot of them. A Winding Constrictor into Walking Ballista draw sounded impossible to beat.
The thing was, there were a lot of different versions of black-green so when we tested that matchup, we were discouraged by the results against Black-Green Energy. They were fast, they had the Snake-Ballista combo and had enough removals to take care of your Heart of Kiran. We almost gave up on Mardu because of that. Then we tried against Black-Green Delirium and it wasn't as bad. The more removal they had, the easier it was. Basically, you would have a hard time beating a fast draw backed up with a few removal spells, but If they spent the first couple of turns killing your creatures in a one-for-one attrition game, since you have more creatures than they have removal, you end up only having to kill a few of their guys and they can't deal with all of your creatures. Gideon, Ally of Zendikar is also a huge trump in the matchup.
For that matchup, we had a plan that we didn't fully use at the Pro Tour but was ready if needed. At first, our sideboard was packing four Fumigate, two Painful Truth, two Oath of Liliana, one Chandra, Torch of Defiance, one Gideon and one Ob Nixilis Reignited. The full package made it barely impossible to lose to an unprepared black-green player. We tested that plan and it was finding success, but we knew that if we had a transformational sideboard the word would get out quickly (some of the lists online already had Fumigates). Craig started sideboarding Transgress the Mind and anti-control cards, and the matchup became more complicated. It was a good plan that gave us an edge in that matchup, but not worth allocating 14 of the 15 sideboard cards. In the end, we decided to keep some of that plan, two Fumigates (the Planeswalker suite were there anyway to fight off control decks) as a curveball on the draw.
We found out that the key to this match, on the play, is to be as aggressive as possible with efficient removal for their most important threats. Oath of Liliana, for example, was a great card against the black-green decks on the play as you got to destroy their turn-two play and later on get a Zombie off your Gideon or Chandra. Kari Zev's Expertise is a card I always wanted to have in my hand (but never two of them) as it allows you to swing real hard when they played out Verdurous Gearhulk.
On the draw, I liked to be a little more controlling with all the removal from the sideboard, all the Planeswalkers and the two Fumigates. It still allows you to have aggressive draws, but also gives you a chance in case they overpower you too early.
One of the things I would change in our main deck is the mana base. I think we messed up slightly on this one. Aether Hub is a card I despise and I was not happy I had to play four of them. We should have played only two or three and added the fourth Spire of Industry.
I don't like the blue splash some Mardu players added to the deck. Sure, you have Aether Hub and Spire of Industry to cast it and you can play Spirebluff Canal, but the Canals make the mana worse since you already have eight fast lands and they make your fourth land much more likely to come into play tapped, which is very relevant when you play four and five drops. But the most important question is: are counters really necessary in that deck? I've seen some games on camera where the Mardu player only needed an extra threat or removal spell to win the game and drew… Metallic Rebuke. It just doesn't go well in the plan unless you're ahead on the board, but in that case, you can just add another threat or have another backup removal spell.
At the time we registered our decklists, we were pretty sure of our choice. Mardu Vehicles was the deck to play and I was feeling pretty confident with it. Our biggest mistake was to think that we were the only ones to have figured it out, and we were therefore unprepared for the mirror match. We didn't play any Release the Gremlins, which would have given us an edge in the mirror, and we didn't have a good sideboard plan in general.
My first mirror match of the tournament was against Marcio Carvalho. After he beat me, he shared some much-appreciated information with me. The key to the mirror is to pack as many removal spells as possible, including, if you have them, Release the Gremlins, and try to set up Gideon for the win. It wasn't obvious to me that Gideon was the most important part of the matchup, and I tended to take one out (as I thought it was too vulnerable and slow) when I was supposed to add one. I didn't lose another Mardu Mirror after that.
With six Mardu decks in the Top 8, there's no doubt the deck dominated the tournament. But what now? If Mardu sticks around more, we'll see less and less Copycat combo and maybe more black-green decks that have a good chance to beat Mardu (I like Martin Juza's list for that matter). We may even see it cycle through, where we see black-green decks tweaked to beat Vehicles make a comeback and Mardu fade away… and once Mardu fades away, Saheeli decks will come back… and so on and so forth.
My feeling is that Mardu is here to stay. Until the next rotation, and if you're planning to play Mardu, I'd be preparing for all these three matchups: black-green decks, Saheeli combos and the mirror match. The decks you're going to face will be more prepared than at the Pro Tour (understand: there will be more Release the Gremlins!)
I'm looking forward to seeing how Standard shapes up, and hopefully we'll see something else show up and take the format by storm. However, I think we're going to see a lot (too much) of these three decks for the few months to come.
Before I leave you, here's the updated list of Mardu I would play now:
- Raphael Levy