If you enjoy aggressive decks, then Embercleave is one of the sweetest cards to build around in Standard. To take maximum advantage of the equipment, it makes sense to pair it with a high-power creature like Rotting Regisaur and to exploit its card type with Tournament Grounds and Acclaimed Contender. Accordingly, Mardu Knights is where Embercleave truly shines.
While testing for Grand Prix Oklahoma earlier this month, I went 16-4 with Mardu Knights on MTG Arena (mostly in Platinum and Diamond). My latest list is inspired by the deck that Ken Yukuhiro took to the Top 8 of Mythic Championship V.
2 Swamp (339) 4 Blood Crypt 4 Godless Shrine 4 Sacred Foundry 4 Tournament Grounds 4 Mountain (343) 1 Castle Embereth 1 Castle Locthwain 4 Knight of the Ebon Legion 4 Fervent Champion 4 Venerable Knight 4 Blacklance Paragon 4 Stormfist Crusader 4 Inspiring Veteran 4 Rotting Regisaur 4 Acclaimed Contender 4 Embercleave Sideboard 3 Epic Downfall 2 Noxious Grasp 2 Unchained Berserker 2 Embereth Shieldbreaker/Battle Display 2 Drill Bit 1 Steelclaw Lance 1 Order of Midnight/Alter Fate 1 Angrath, Captain of Chaos 1 Swamp (339)
4 Acclaimed Contender (ELD) 1
4 Blood Crypt (RNA) 245
4 Godless Shrine (RNA) 248
4 Sacred Foundry (GRN) 254
4 Tournament Grounds (ELD) 248
4 Mountain (XLN) 272
1 Castle Embereth (ELD) 239
2 Swamp (XLN) 268
1 Castle Locthwain (ELD) 241
4 Knight of the Ebon Legion (M20) 105
4 Fervent Champion (ELD) 124
4 Venerable Knight (ELD) 35
4 Blacklance Paragon (ELD) 79
4 Stormfist Crusader (ELD) 203
4 Inspiring Veteran (ELD) 194
4 Rotting Regisaur (M20) 111
4 Embercleave (ELD) 120
3 Epic Downfall (ELD) 85
2 Noxious Grasp (M20) 110
2 Unchained Berserker (M20) 164
2 Embereth Shieldbreaker (ELD) 122
2 Drill Bit (RNA) 73
1 Steelclaw Lance (ELD) 202
1 Order of Midnight (ELD) 99
1 Angrath, Captain of Chaos (WAR) 227
1 Swamp (XLN) 268
Compared to Yukuhiro’s build, I cut Steelclaw Lance for Venerable Knight to lower the curve, and I cut Rimrock Knight for Stormfist Crusader because having too many one-toughness creatures is a liability against Cauldron Familiar. I also made some tweaks to the mana base and the sideboard.
The game plan is simple. Every creature effectively acts like a Llanowar Elves for Embercleave, and eventually you connect with a huge double-striking, trampling creature (preferably a Dinosaur for the easy turn four kill).
Why Mardu Knights Over Rakdos Knights?
Willy Edel has championed Rakdos Knights in November, and that’s a viable deck too. In fact, I also went 16-4 with Willy’s most recent decklist and sideboard plans on MTG Arena earlier this month (mostly in Platinum and Diamond). And Connor Cole made Top 8 at Grand Prix Oklahoma with his take on Rakdos Knights. Still, I preferred Mardu because it has the better mana base.
This may sound weird, because normally, adding a color tends to make your mana worse, but Tournament Grounds and shock duals change the equation. Indeed, I have as many white sources for a turn-one Venerable Knight as the number of black sources Connor has for a turn-one Gutterbones in his Rakdos list. But I have far more red sources for Embercleave or Fervent Champion than either Willy or Connor have. Both of them had 14 red sources for Embercleave, which won’t allow you to cast Embercleave on turn three or turn four consistently enough. I have 17, and that’s a big difference for the key card of the deck.
Moreover, without access to white, Rakdos decks are generally filled out with Bonecrusher Giant or Spawn of Mayhem, but neither of them are Knights. Connor’s list only has 10 red sources and 15 black sources for these cards, and that’s very much on the low side.
All things considered, I believe the mana base of my Mardu deck is better. The key is that white allows us to add more playable Knights, allowing us to properly exploit 4 Tournament Grounds. And between Tournament Grounds, Godless Shrine, and Sacred Foundry, we effectively have 12 “free” sources. That’s still not perfect, but it’s still easier to find a single white than it is to find double black or double red. And with the London mulligan rule, I can have an opening hand with a white source 96% of the time if I am willing to go down to 6 cards.
How About Ryan Cubit’s Version?
Someone who also knows his way around Mardu decks is Ryan Cubit. The Australian won 8 out of 10 rounds at Mythic Championship I with a Mardu Aggro deck earlier this year, and recently finished in the Top 8 of Grand Prix Brisbane with his take on Mardu Knights. Cubit’s Top 8 performance at least supports my belief that Mardu Knights is superior to Rakdos Knights.
His list had Skyknight Vanguard instead of Stormfist Crusader and several one-ofs and two-ofs instead of Acclaimed Contender. I gave his list a quick try, and while I liked how Skyknight Vanguard made it easier to cast Embercleave, I still preferred my main deck because both Stormfist Crusader and Acclaimed Contender greatly increase the consistency at which we find Embercleave in the first place. His version did inspire me to make some tweaks to my sideboard, though.
Tips and Tricks
- When you control Stormfist Crusader and Rotting Regisaur, make sure to stack your triggers correctly. If you have no cards in hand at the beginning of your upkeep, then ensure the draw ability resolves after the discard trigger. If you do hold a card, then ensure the draw ability resolves first for maximum information. On MTG Arena, you may have to stop the program from auto-ordering your triggers to be able to choose the order.
- The upkeep trigger from Stormfist Crusader is life loss, so giving it lifelink with Blacklance Paragon won’t help. The life loss does count for Knight of the Ebon Legion, though, and for both players. Two Stormfist Crusader triggers and an untapped shock dual will trigger Knight of the Ebon Legion.
- With a Rotting Regisaur discard trigger on the stack, if Blacklance Paragon is your last card in hand, then you can cast it in response so you don’t have to discard. On MTG Arena, you need to set a stop in your upkeep in advance for this.
- You can’t use Tournament Grounds to pay for the adventure part of Embereth Shieldbreaker.
- Remember you can equip Fervent Champion for free with Embercleave or Steelclaw Lance.
- You can play around Deafening Clarion by keeping mana open to pump Knight of the Ebon Legion, by equipping Embercleave to Acclaimed Contender, and/or by keeping mana up to cast Blacklance Paragon at the end of their turn.
- The second Embercleave isn’t necessarily dead because when they put all of their blockers in front of your equipped creature, you can flash it the second Embercleave and equip it to an unblocked creature.
- A defensive Embercleave is a rarity, but there is no rule saying that you can only cast Embercleave during your own attack phase. Sometimes, you’re on the back foot, have to be blocking, and then you can use Embercleave as a six-mana pump spell to save your blocker.
- Deathtouch and trample is still a combo, as you only have to deal one point of damage to every blocker and can trample over for the rest. Knight of the Ebon Legion and Blacklance Paragon both grant deathtouch, so this combo comes up quite frequently.
- Acclaimed Contender almost always hits something. A priori, when we remove one Acclaimed Contender from the deck and put its ability on the stack for the remaining 59-card deck, we’re 98.0% to hit something. And for the specific situation where you have drawn 10 cards total but have not seen Embercleave yet, you’re 35.3% to hit Embercleave in your top 5.
When I’m on the play, I generally don’t change much because I prefer to keep my deck aggressive and streamlined. The main deck is perfect for that. I might cut one Venerable Knight and one Inspiring Veteran for the two most appealing sideboard cards because the white creatures are the most difficult to cast with the mana base on the play, but that’s about it. Don’t overboard. When in doubt, board nothing. One exception is against Jeskai Fires, where I will roughly sideboard in the same way on the play and on the draw to mitigate the impact of Deafening Clarion.
When I’m on the draw, opponents generally have enough time to set up their defenses or launch an offense, and I also have one more card than them. This changes the nature of the game and forces me to adjust my game plan and sideboard strategy. For example, removal spells go up in value, and card draw effects go down in value. Still, you cannot make too many changes—every Knight you cut makes Fervent Champion, Inspiring Veteran, and Acclaimed Contender worse, so I never want to lower my Knight count by more than four unless I cut several of those cards.
So what to cut? Well, on the draw, the symmetric draw effect on Stormfist Crusader gets a bit worse because you start with one more card than your opponent. Furthermore, Inspiring Veteran is weak against decks with sweepers; one-toughness creatures match up poorly against Mayhem Devil and Cauldron Familiar; Rotting Regisaur is mediocre when opponents have adequate removal or blockers; and Fervent Champion or a copy of the legendary Embercleave can go when your opponent may put you on the defensive. The sideboard plans below represent how I would generally board on the draw.
Simic Flash (on the draw)
Jund Sacrifice (on the draw)
Jeskai Fires (on the play and on the draw)
Simic Ramp (on the draw)
Golgari Adventure (on the draw)
Izzet Flash (on the draw)
Rakdos Knights (on the draw)
Azorius Control (on the draw)
Gruul Adventure (on the draw)