Part I of this series can be found here.
Make Matchups Great Again
Standard has had diversity issues for some time now. Even when there are a variety of decks, everyone has been forced into creature and planeswalker combat (now with Vehicles!) in a way that makes it too easy to predict which cards and strategies will be effective. When cards are too universally effective (like Emrakul, the Promised End or Smuggler’s Copter were), only strategies that work around those cards survive, and the games become generic, seeing who can hit their marks, marching towards their conclusion. I was listening to a podcast, and William Jensen said of the Pro Tour, “I knew the two best cards were Unlicensed Disintegration and Torrential Gearhulk, so I knew I wanted to play with one of those two cards.” I would love to move away from that sort of thinking.
When I first saw Felidar Guardian, like many others, I worried it would ruin Standard to bring back Splinter Twin. Instead, at least so far, it has been very good for Standard. The combo’s existence introduces a new deck, 4-Color Copycat, with entirely new avenues of attack. If we didn’t have Saheeli Rai to kick around, an entire archetype would be gone, and play would likely focus again on sheer power. Not only would Saheeli Rai itself be gone, but there’d be less variety as well. If Saheeli gets out of hand, we have the Jeskai version to beat other Saheeli decks while not being that good otherwise, so things will reach at least a reasonable equilibrium.
The remainder of what I have to say is of my impressions on the 4-Color Copycat versus Mardu matchup.
4-Color Copycat Vs. Mardu Vehicles
I love this matchup. It is close, the games are interesting, both players make interesting deck construction choices, and it is skill testing. There is constant tension for both players because the game is being played on so many different levels. Both decks can be the beatdown or the control, so the goals in each sub-game are always shifting, and Cat can also play combo.
The first game is the early game attack from Mardu, which can come out fast enough to overwhelm Cat, but it does seem like it is hard to do this against a good Cat hand. Mardu’s real goal is to get board control to keep operating without fear and stick Gideon without letting the Cat player stick Saheeli, or forcing the Cat player to sacrifice to keep her. This seems more achievable.
The second game is stopping the combo, since it is a grave risk to lower your shields at any time. Those first few turns without fear of the combo are precious, and need to involve setting up on-board shields. Having good shields on the table allows the Mardu player to use their mana properly without fear. The Cat player in turn can attack those shields even without the combo in hand in order to force the Mardu player to keep the shields up.
The standard equilibrium at the advanced level seems to be that the Mardu player never lowers his shields, and while the shields are up, the Cat player never goes for the combo unless they have no choice, even when the price of failing would be relatively low. There is almost always a value town to visit instead. Despite this, the top players are keeping the engine in the deck, even when they know their opponents will respect the combo.
This is a bizarre equilibrium. Why have the full engine in the deck all the time if you don’t need it? The engine cards represent grave threat, while also providing reasonable value. Playing a Felidar Guardian on turn 4 threatens Rai, and also threatens removal followed by Saheeli Rai, while also blinking something useful, and the 1/4 body matches up remarkably well on the ground. Combined, that is enough to justify its presence. Playing the full set of Saheeli Rai then follows, and can also provide value while freezing up the Mardu player, and having 4 copies lets you burn it without worry, but I would be very tempted to trim.
If the Mardu player is super paranoid, playing out the first half of the combo is so paralyzing that it still kind of makes sense to keep it in. The real purpose of the combo is not to win the game—the threat is stronger than its execution. The threat makes the Mardu player use sub-par threats, sideboard into less powerful cards and hold back its power. What you must ask as the Cat player is, what is the gap between the amount of paralysis you get by playing combo pieces versus the amount you get by not playing them?
The third game is the game of power, both on the ground and in the air. Either player can win this game, especially if they are the one that can sustain planeswalkers. The amount of power in the Mardu deck is a little less than what can be squeezed out of the Cat deck without the Cat deck combo’ing off, but the margin is low enough that an active Gideon or a power-heavy draw can swing the difference, as can forcing the Cat player to make unfavorable trades to buy time. Every sacrificed Thopter is a victory here. To a large extent, if you can get ahead, you can stay ahead by preventing the accumulation of value.
You can also win with flyers. Aethersphere Harvester impressed me a lot, both because of the power of flying and because the extra life will often render the Cat player’s attempts to win on damage non-threatening. Cat is not intent on racing, but the threat of racing is often key to holding the Mardu player back, so it is valuable to remove that. I also like packing at least 2 Archangel Avacyn, and of course 4 Heart of Kiran. I even wonder about sideboarding Selfless Spirit. It lines up badly against Thopters, but the Cat player’s game plan relies on removal for your flyers and/or for the creatures that stop the engine, and Selfless Spirit can protect both while also giving you a tempo edge. It is even potentially an answer to Release the Gremlins, which seems like the best sideboard card out of Cat.
Playing the Mardu side, you can play the control deck or you can play the beatdown deck. Ideally, your deck will be set up to play both depending on the circumstances, although the beatdown role is your default. Being able to get Gideon on the table without either losing him or exposing yourself to the combo is crucial for both plans. It’s fine if you don’t draw him, but if you do, he has to stick unless you have good use for an emblem. If you can force Cat into some chump blocks or allow Gideon to stick, the long game is suddenly in your court, as Cat only barely goes over the top.
The matches I witnessed did not involve Elder Deep-Fiend, so it might change the dynamics more than I realize. Elder Deep-Fiend builds are more threatening in the long term, forcing you to be more aggressive. Not being able to count on your hand even when you are willing to hold up mana seems like a big deal, and it moves me even more toward not relying on spells. It is also worth noting that if you can’t rely on untapped mana to save you, then there is no point in keeping your mana tapped, so you can build a strategy with more power instead.
My recommendation to take out all your removal should come as no surprise. Shock seems like a super efficient card with plenty of alternate targets, but drawing a hand without threats is miserable. I only like Shock if your opponent will assume you don’t have it.
My big worry with going for overpowering force is Release the Gremlins. Release the Gremlins seems like the all-star in the matchup, good early while providing huge swings late. This forces you into the air, but that means deploying even more Vehicles into Release the Gremlins. I can’t imagine not packing 3 if I were playing a Cat deck, and that makes me want to rely more on Archangel Avacyn (and maybe even Selfless Spirit) after sideboarding.
On the Cat side, the key question is how to prevent the early game from slipping out of control while still keeping enough of a grip on the late game. In current builds I am not impressed with Tamiyo or Chandra because they provide value their best value in exactly those situations where you have the board under control, and those are the situations you need help in the least.
One thing I want to focus on is being able to double-cast my spells as soon as possible. You have 11-12 two-drops already, which is good, but even more would be better if you could get away with it. The card I wonder about here is Heart of Kiran. It seems counter-intuitive at first, but it makes sense. Nothing but Cats and cars for days so why not both? This seems especially right if you are going to stick with running lots of planeswalkers. Rogue Refiner and Whirler Virtuoso (plus his built in Thopter) both crew it perfectly. A second-turn Heart of Kiran into a third-turn Saheeli Rai seems quite good, as does playing both on 5 mana. It also does for you what it does for the Mardu deck: Give you a 2-drop that does good late-game duty.
Sideboarding from the Cat side, in addition to how much combo to keep, it comes down to how much long game you need and how much you feel you can get away with. Release the Gremlins goes a long way, but is that enough extra power on its own? It felt like it was not quite enough. I think you want some ability to go over the top of the situation. Tireless Tracker seems far better for you than the planeswalkers (at least absent Heart of Kiran) but I still instinctively want more haymakers and less incremental advantage. Skysovereign, Counsul Flagship seems like the right attitude to have if you’re not already spoken for on Vehicles.