This week, we learned that there are no changes to any format. Now, I don’t agree with the decision to leave Standard untouched from a professional’s perspective, but I understand why they stayed their hand, and actually would have done the same thing if I were in charge.
There’s not much more than a month left before Amonkhet spoilers become available, and in that time interest in Standard will dwindle. There’s a high cost to telling people who own one deck that they can no longer play it. For these players to continue to play they have to reinvest in a deck, and then with the release of Amonkhet, risk this new deck becoming obsolete yet again. For some players, this might just be enough for them to be done with Magic or lose interest altogether. If I were going to ban Felidar Guardian or Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, I would wait until before the Pro Tour when decks will become obsolete from this season and new decks (hopefully) emerge. I do hope, however, that at least Felidar Guardian is banned going into that Pro Tour because of how format-warping the combo is.
With all that said, last week I was on a mission to find the best deck, and the best version of whatever that was. I played close to 100 matches, most of which were with Mardu. In this time I was also communicating regularly with Owen Turtenwald so that we had a larger sample to go from. I found my win rate to be higher with Mardu so I stuck with that.
I wanted to try different versions of Mardu and find out what I liked and didn’t like. I started with Marcio Carvhalo’s list from the MOCS and moved to Josh Utter-Leyton’s list because I liked his mana, and in the process learned a few things about Mardu.
Walking Ballista is Better than Veteran Motorist
Veteran Motorist is nice with Heart of Kiran, but if Heart of Kiran goes unchecked, you’re probably winning anyway, and when you no longer have Heart of Kiran, Veteran Motorist lines up poorly against Walking Ballista, Whirler Virtuoso, and even Thraben Inspector. 1 toughness is just too much of a liability against the major decks at the moment when trying to get into combat.
Walking Ballista isn’t exactly exciting either, but it plays a few vital roles other than just picking off 1-toughness creatures. Walking Ballista obviously acts as insurance against the Saheeli Rai combo. This is fairly obvious at this point, but it allows you to tap out with less risk.
Walking Ballista flips Archangel Avacyn. This didn’t come up that often in testing, but when it did it was crucial. Fighting through an army of Thopters or killing a planeswalker the turn you cast Archangel Avacyn on your own turn was sometimes extremely important.
Lastly, and one of the most important reasons I wanted Walking Ballista, was because it allowed me to have more artifacts in my deck that weren’t as weak to Release the Gremlins. In the mirror match post-board, I often take out a lot of my artifacts and Toolcraft Exemplar. In doing so, Spire of Industry and Unlicensed Disintegration got much worse. Having Walking Ballista as your only artifact in play allows you to turn on Unlicensed Disintegration while also not having to worry much about Release the Gremlins.
Archangel Avacyn Is the Truth
Archangel Avacyn took over games almost by herself, and was almost always a great draw. At one point, Owen Turtenwald insisted we play 4, but drawing too many of them early can lead to awkward draws where your beatdown plan doesn’t quite come together.
In the mirror, Archangel Avacyn can pressure Gideon, Ally of Zendikar and other planeswalkers, while being hard to attack into with Heart of Kiran. With Walking Ballista you can threaten to flip her at any point to clean up Knight tokens and Gideon. A Walking Ballista with 1 counter in play threatens a Gideon, Ally of Zendikar with 4 loyalty just by main-phasing Archangel Avacyn.
Against 4c Copycat, Archangel Avacyn is a flash threat that you can add to the board while leaving yourself with mana open to make it a risky proposition to combo. Most importantly, she threatens to flip and clean up Whirler Virtuoso and all the Thopter tokens. Other than Harnessed Lightning and a well-timed Chandra, Torch of Defiance, Avacyn wreaks havoc in a fair game.
Aethersphere Harvester Was Underwhelming
Aethersphere Harvester did not impress me at all. 3 power isn’t enough to kill any planeswalkers on its own, and in post-board games it was simply too much of a liability against Release the Gremlins. You can sideboard out Aethersphere Harvester, but all of the major decks are playing several Release the Gremlins in their sideboard, so a card that is going to be boarded out in almost all of your matchups while also not being that impressive in game 1 isn’t worth playing. If I was going to play a 3-mana Vehicle in my deck, I’d opt for a single Cultivator’s Caravan so that it could help me cast Gideon, Ally of Zendikar and Archangel Avacyn more reliably, two of the most important cards in the deck.
I Wanted Both Fatal Push and Shock
Fatal Push is important in the mirror, especially game 1. Heart of Kiran has the ability to take over the game on its own. All of your threats are pretty much bricked by Heart of Kiran as it blocks everything in the mirror, and also keeps the opposing player off of Gideon, Ally of Zendikar. Killing Heart is mandatory, so you definitely want to play Fatal Push main deck.
The other option is Shock, which you see in heavier red builds. I loved Shock for the 4c Copycat matchup because it provided a cheap way to interact with the combo while also killing Servant of Conduit and Rogue Refiner when necessary. It could deal the last points planeswalkers in a fair game as well.
Having the ability to play out your hand and leave up only 1 single mana is useful in any fair game with 4c Copycat. You can now play Gideon, Ally of Zendikar on 5 mana in a close game and not have to worry about dying immediately to the combo.
For all of these reasons, I wanted access to both in my 75 and ended up playing Shocks in the sideboard.
Skysovereign, Consul Flagship Was a Liability
Skysovereign, Consul Flagship is a perfectly powerful card in a lot of matchups, and a huge liability in others. Against 4c Copycat you can rarely tap out to cast it without fear of dying, and that isn’t what I want out of a 5-mana spell. Skysovereign also was a liability post-board against Release the Gremlins, so like other artifacts, it isn’t the best strategy to board into an expensive artifact when your opponents are bringing in a bunch of copies a huge percentage of the time. Most of the time I just want to replace any copy of the Flagship with additional Archangel Avacyns as they both can pressure planeswalkers and have the ability to pick off 3-toughness creatures.
In the end, we landed on what I thought and still think is the best version of Mardu, give or take a card or two. Paul Reitzl played a similar list and did well, finishing in the Top 4 of the event. While my personal record was poor, I played a bunch with the deck on Magic Online and know it’s the real deal:
Stasis Snare gave us the ability to remove opposing Archangel Avacyns, Scrapheap Scroungers, and even take out an attacking Gideon, Ally of Zendikar. Moving forward, I’d be careful about playing Stasis Snare if Nahiri, the Harbinger becomes popular. That is a situation you’d like to avoid just like bringing in artifacts against Release the Gremlins.
Linvala, the Preserver is predominantly for the mirror. Linvala has the unique ability to win games no other card can when you’re behind, but also the game state largely dictates how effective this 6-drop will be. It’s quite possible it was just worse to play than Sorin, Grim Nemesis at 6 mana, because Sorin, Grim Nemesis is better from ahead and when you’re only a little behind.
Let’s get into the 4 major matchups.
The post-board mirror games play out in a variety of ways. Some of the games are just dominated by Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, and the first person to cast it is at a huge advantage. Other games turn into long and grindy games where players are trading resources until eventually a threat sticks or Scrapheap Scrounger punches through a ton of damage. Toolcraft Exemplar and Heart of Kiran both play right into the opponents’ plan of boarding in a bunch of Release the Gremlins, and Toolcraft Exemplar ends up being a horrible topdeck later in grindy games. To mitigate the effect of Release the Gremlins, we were taking out all of our Heart of Kirans. Even though it’s one of your best cards in game 1, once the removal count goes up, and the blowouts from Release the Gremlins are factored in, it’s just best to cut them from your deck entirely, especially without Toolcraft Exemplar to help crew it early.
There’s a lot of debate over changing your plan on the play and draw in this matchup. I experimented with the plan of keeping the aggressive cards in in the mirror and wasn’t impressed. The start of Toolcraft Exemplar into Heart of Kiran or Scrapheap Scrounger was just so easily trumped by a Release the Gremlins that I was a firm believer in turning into a slower deck post-board. Players are siding anywhere from 2 to 4 copies of Release the Gremlins so we don’t want to get caught losing to a single Manic Vandal. Though my confidence level in this isn’t 100%, if you have a good idea of how many Release the Gremlins your opponent has to bring in, it becomes more correct to be the aggressor on the play the fewer Release the Gremlins they have. If you’re fully confident your opponent is going the more controlling route on the draw in post-board games, you can consider bringing in Painful Truths on the play as well.
They also bring in Release the Gremlins in this matchup, but Heart of Kiran is just too important for pressuring them early. Archangel Avacyn is tough for the 4c Copycat player to deal with, so getting an early start stifled by Release the Gremlins isn’t as backbreaking. In this matchup I’m always offering trades with Toolcraft Exemplar and Scrapheap Scrounger to try and push through as much damage as possible. When the choice is to advance your board or leave up mana to interact with the combo, you have to decide if you’re winning the fair game on board. If you aren’t, it’s important to advance your board. If you can wrap up the game with what’s in play, obviously you should be playing around the combo. Don’t let Gideon, Ally of Zendikar get taken out by a Chandra, Torch of Defiance if your opponent has an Oath of Chandra in play. It may be wise to plus Gideon the turn it comes down in some cases to prevent this. His emblem can push Scrapheap Scroungers and Toolcraft Exemplars through Felidar Guardian, but also protect Avacyn from Chandra.
On the Play
On the Draw
There are a lot of versions of B/G floating around, but this is the most popular and only one I really see anymore. In this matchup you want to turn into a control deck and keep their high impact creatures off the table. I didn’t expect this matchup to be all that popular, and I ended up playing against it 0 times in the Grand Prix, so my sideboard is a little light for it. Fumigate is high impact if you want a sweeper for the matchup, but I’d likely add another Oath of Liliana if I was expecting to play this matchup more. All of their creatures are potent threats, so getting extra value when you play planeswalkers to protect them is just great for your removal spell. Stasis Snare can be awkward if they have a bunch of Natural States, so beware of this interaction and try to hit cards that don’t produce value with Stasis Snare if given the option. Winding Constrictor, Greenbelt Rampager, and ideally Walking Ballista are the best targets.
Though the early analysis said that G/B decks were favored versus Mardu, my own results indicate otherwise, and I think the control plan is one of the major reasons this is the case. This is one matchup where Archangel Avacyn isn’t at her best, so don’t be afraid to trim them if you have more sideboard cards for the matchup.
It’s best to try and get underneath your Temur Tower opponent and force them to react on your terms while they hold up counter mana. If you’re able to stick a turn-4 Gideon, the game gets pretty easy to handle from there if they don’t have a Dynavolt Tower ready to take care of it. If you don’t stick a Gideon, you have to beat them down with your cheap creatures and force them to tap mana when they don’t want to, to resolve a high impact spell. When they have mana up for Disallow or Negate, but are missing a fourth mana, I generally choose a lower priority threat to cast unless I have multiple planeswalkers, so that I can cast a higher impact spell when they have 4 mana open and can’t cast Glimmer of Genius when they want to. I find in this matchup I either run away with the game with Gideon or play a long, close game that can go either way. I do find the matchup pretty favorable, though.
Tips and Tricks
- Using Gideon, Ally of Zendikar as a creature to crew Heart of Kiran is a play I haven’t seen much. Eduardo Sajgalik pointed out to me this weekend that he doesn’t see enough people making this play, and the one time he sat next to me at the event I watched him do it. Creating a Knight and then paying a loyalty to crew Heart of Kiran is trading 2 full loyalty counters for a Knight token. If this is not a trade you’d want to make depending on game state, then just make Gideon, Ally of Zendikar a 5/5 and tap him to crew Heart of Kiran. This is generally going to be correct when you think your opponent has an Unlicensed Disintegration and a Clue, and you don’t want to lose your Gideon and your Heart. Not only will this play save Gideon from being destroyed, it will be unable to take the damage from Unlicensed Disintegration as well.
- Fatal Push can be difficult to trigger without a Clue or Walking Ballista around, but when desperate times call for desperate measures you can use Heart to crew Gideon until he runs out of loyalty and protect yourself from dying to a million Felidar Guardians.
- Sometimes you don’t have a Walking Ballista to intentionally flip your Archangel Avacyn. Sometimes you do have an extra Heart of Kiran though, and you can crew the Heart with Avacyn, play a fresh Heart and legend-rule the crewed copy to force an Archangel Avacyn flip. Gideon, Ally of Zendikar can also turn into a creature and legend-rule itself to make Avacyn flip. So when you have two of any legend in your deck, you can force an Avacyn trigger. That’s not all, either. You can turn Gideon into a creature and then crew it to death with Heart of Kiran to also flip Archangel Avacyn. These are some unique situations that come up occasionally, so keep your eye out for them.
- Heart of Kiran is one of your best lines of defense against Gideon, so I like to not attack early with Heart if my hand is weak to a Gideon and they are representing a Fatal Push or Unlicensed Disintegration. This can force them to play a removal spell on a worse creature and make it difficult to get Gideon into play.
I didn’t do particularly well at GP New Jersey but I think that was in large part to drawing poorly, playing worse than I normally do, and because I played 9 mirrors throughout the course of the event, which oddly enough was the only matchup I was worried about playing. Both Owen Turtenwald and a friend of mine, Devon O’Donnell, had strong showings with the list, both suffering only 3 losses in the event. Standard isn’t changing for a little while, so if you have an event to play, I highly recommend this list, with maybe a tweak or two like changing the Linvala, the Preserver to a Sorin, Grim Nemesis.