From the editor: Paul Dean wrote this in-depth play-by-play analysis before the Marvel banning. We deliberated over running the piece, and have decided that it still provides considerable value to the reader. While the card is no longer legal, the advice here is illuminating for any deck you play.
I realize that on June 13th, Aetherworks Marvel was banned in Standard and as a result, this article may have limited relevance to your upcoming tournaments. However, this article is intended to be focused on the strategic thought process rather than the cards themselves, and I hope it is still useful. Although it breaks my heart, I reluctantly agree the Marvel banning was justified."
As you may know, I recently made Top 8 of both GP Omaha and GP Montreal playing Temur Aetherworks Marvel. I know what you must be thinking—dang, that handsome guy should buy a lottery ticket. Well, thank you for the compliment!
I certainly had my share of luck along the way and I won't deny that I managed to hit Ulamog at a few key points in each tournament, but I like to think it wasn't all lucky Marvel activations that got me there.
For this article, I thought I would run Marvel through a Standard league and gather a few decision points that I found tough, then discuss my thoughts and considerations. I'd recommend looking at the pictures and seriously considering what you would do before reading on. What are your options? What advantages/disadvantages does each play have?
A lot of people have been complaining about Standard, how it comes down to "being able to spin the Marvel better than your opponent," and that there are no difficult decisions to be made when piloting Marvel.
My blunt opinion is that if this is your mindset, you aren't trying hard enough to play well, or you haven't actually played a significant amount of matches from the Marvel side. I find Marvel very interesting to play, and in almost every single match I find myself inundated with difficult decisions. It only took me one single match to find plenty of material for this article.
For this League I played the same list as in GP Omaha, only two cards off from the deck Brad Nelson used to win the tournament.
Click to enlarge.
Here I am in game 1 against what appears to be the mirror. My opponent has spent turn 3 playing a Servant of the Conduit after fumbling with some tapped lands. As I see it, I have two options with sub-options:
- Play Rogue Refiner and probably Spirebluff Canal afterwards.
- Play Shrine or Hub, and cast Glimmer of Genius now or on their end step.
At a glance, there are two advantages to playing the Refiner: It allows me to put more attacking pressure on my opponent, and delays my scrying decisions from Glimmer. In my opinion, putting on pressure is not significant. Very few games in the mirror come down to attacking like this. I'd estimate at least 80% of my games come down to casting Ulamog. They have a blocker to stem the pressure if they need to as well, so aggro'ing them out is not likely to work. I also have a lot of gas in the tank, so playing toward Aetherworks Marvel is realistic.
So getting the 3/2 on the board isn't important, but do I want to cast Glimmer of Genius yet? It certainly looks like my opponent is playing Marvel, but they may be playing energy aggro with Longtusk Cubs. My worry is that if I cast Glimmer now and I see Harnessed Lightning, would I keep it? That's a pretty great draw against a Longtusk Cub deck, but awful against Marvel. If I cast Refiner now, I can get more information before Glimmering.
In either matchup, I think resolving this Glimmer is fairly important, which makes me want to cast it now while they have no blue mana. Resolving Glimmer now also has a difficult to see but important tempo advantage. If I cast my Glimmer and keep one or two cards on top, can my opponent realistically tap out for anything any time soon? I will have 7 energy and they will know that I have something good, so they'll have to slow down their development enormously to play around Aetherworks Marvel.
Because of this, I want to Glimmer now. I decided to main phase the Glimmer because I can't really get punished for it—my opponent only has 4 energy, and even with an Attune with Aether wouldn't be able to cast and activate Aetherworks Marvel. If I wait until their turn to Glimmer, it could get Censored or Negated.
First off, I don't see how someone can have Glimmer of Genius in their deck and think the deck is trivial to play. So many decisions to be made!
Here I see a redundant Dissenter's Deliverance, which I think I can safely put on the bottom, and a Shrine of the Forsaken Gods. Although I already have my fair share of lands, I think getting a second Shrine is quite valuable. It ensures that I will make it to Ulamog first if my opponent doesn't hit one off Marvel, and because I have Deliverance, my opponent would have to hit it on the first try for that to happen.
Putting Shrine on top also screams to my opponent, "I have something very good in my hand." If they have a Negate in hand, they'll be really hard-pressed to cast anything in the coming turns for fear that I'll cast Aetherworks Marvel, perhaps with Censor backup. Therefore, I'll buy a lot of time to find and cast an Ulamog.
I decided to put Shrine on top, and Deliverance on the bottom.
After my Glimmer, my opponent casts Longtusk Cub and passes with 2 mana open. I may already be seeing the impact of putting a card on top from my main phase Glimmer—if they had Bristling Hydra in hand I'm sure they'd have loved to cast it. But maybe they couldn't for fear of Marvel.
Here I have basically two options:
In this scenario I don't think casting Puzzleknot is important at all. I already have my golden 6 energy and the life isn't needed immediately. I can also cast it for a discount later with Shrines. The question then becomes: Is casting Refiner now important? If they have Harnessed Lightning for my in-play Refiner, I'll have to take a hit from Longtusk Cub if I don't cast Refiner. I can also double-block a 4/4 Longtusk Cub if they attack into both Refiners.
On the other hand, with a potentially 4/4 Longtusk Cub in play, I am now under a bit of pressure to actually do something this game (such as cast Marvel, Harnessed Lightning, or Ulvenwald Hydra), and casting Glimmer of Genius would help me find that sooner. Casting Glimmer would make it much more likely that I could punish my opponent next turn if they tap out for something like Glorybringer. Additionally, casting Glimmer now and playing Spirebluff Canal means I could play both of my Refiners next turn with my 6 mana.
I decided to play Spirebluff Canal and pass the turn with the intent of Glimmering on their end step. The opponent casts Harnessed Lightning on my end step. I immediately Glimmered in order to play around a counterspell, and bottomed two redundant lands. My opponent attacked with only Longtusk Cub and passed the turn.
At this point there is just a massive odor on the battlefield, and it smells like a Negate plus something else—either another Negate or another Harnessed Lightning. I know my opponent has plenty of creatures that cost 3 and 4 in their deck, 6 cards in hand, didn't play a land, and they also didn't attack with Servant of the Conduit. What could their hand be? It can't have lands in it so it must be 6 spells. My guess is something like Tireless Tracker, Bristling Hydra, Negate, maybe Harnessed Lightning or Negate, maybe Glorybringer and Rogue Refiner.
I'm very reluctant to just run out the Marvel here. It is so unlikely to resolve and I absolutely don't have to resolve it now. If I cast my two Rogue Refiners I might find a Negate or Censor to help resolve this Marvel. Then I can cast Marvel next turn at a large mana discount with the Shrines.
Note that I've also drawn Ulamog, so at this point I just need to buy the maximum amount of time in order to cast it.
I decided to cast the two Refiners.
Well, hold up—am I still casting this second Refiner? I could hold up Censor to stop a Bristling Hydra or maybe a Glorybringer next turn, and continue to delay time to casting Ulamog.
Holding up Censor only seems to be a good play if they do tap out for something expensive next turn, which I think is not likely. I've drawn so many cards that I am so likely to have Aetherworks Marvel to kill them if they do tap out. Furthermore, if they have another Harnessed Lightning, I won't be able to block next turn.
Because of all of this, and since I do in fact have the Marvel to punish him casting something expensive, I decide to cast the second Refiner.
I don't think this play is under much debate. I can just cast Marvel with Censor backup. Then I can main phase activate Marvel in case I see Chandra, Flamecaller. Main phasing it would also ensure I resolve a Harnessed Lightning if I see that or Glimmer into one. Then I can cast Woodweaver's Puzzleknot for a bit of added cushion.
I just wanted to discuss this screenshot because for me, it really illustrates why I think these fish-style creature plus counterspell decks are not effective against Aetherworks Marvel. My opponent had to hold up mana all game, and as a result I didn't have to take any significant risks because I wasn't under overwhelming pressure. Now, they finally get to cast their Tireless Tracker—fantastic!
The universe rewards good play with a good spin. That's just science. Now I know what you're thinking—wow, sooooo lucky! He hit Ulamog but that never happens to me! No wonder he made Top 8!
But I would argue that I played very well to resolve and activate this Marvel, and I would also argue that I didn't need to hit an Ulamog in order to win this game. Because I've stemmed the bleeding so much, I could hit any removal spell or even Woodweaver's Puzzleknot, then hardcast Ulamog next turn and activate Marvel again.
- Cast Ulvenwald Hydra, which will be large. This leaves me with not enough energy to activate Marvel this turn.
- Cast Aether Meltdown + cast Aetherworks Marvel to get up to 6 energy.
Casting Hydra strikes me as underwhelming in this scenario. If my opponent has nothing, it totally brickwalls the board, but they have plenty of energy and have not yet cast a Harnessed Lightning. If they have that, I'll take 5 damage and won't get to activate Aetherworks Marvel. Even worse, I may get Confiscation Coup'd.
Casting Hydra also plays around Negate the least—in the dark I'd be very confident that my opponent has at least 4 Negate and maybe even some Ceremonious Rejections in their deck. It seems best to cast my noncreatures now, then cast Hydra when they are holding up mana.
Casting Meltdown now also has the added benefit of almost certainly stemming bleeding, whereas Hydra is only a "maybe" to be able to block. The question is what should I cast Meltdown on?
Over the next 3 turns, Rogue Refiner will deal more damage to me since Glorybringer is exerted. The game is not likely to last much longer than that. On the other hand, if I Meltdown the Rogue Refiner, hit nothing off Marvel, then cast Hydra next turn, it would be an 8/8 and would die to Glorybringer exert + block. But if that occurs, it feels like I would be very favored to win regardless, so I don't want to play around that.
I decide to Meltdown the Rogue Refiner, cast Aetherworks Marvel, and activate main phase to play around counterspells.
I exiled the Glorybringer and a Botanical Sanctum. This plays best around Confiscation Coup since my opponent would need to use an energy with Servant of the Conduit in order to cast it, leaving him 1 energy short of taking Ulamog.
Sorry for botching that screenshot cropping too—I'm not very good with technology I guess. Unless you're talking about Ulvenwald Hydra.
Most players would agree that most of the time when you hit Ulamog off Marvel, you win the game, whether you play well or badly. But what about all of the other games?
My general experience with Marvel is that when you activate it, you sometimes just laughably crush your opponent in a non-game and collect your free win. The rest of the time you continue playing a normal interesting game.
You may notice that in all of my analysis, I never took "well I might just hit Ulamog and win the game on the spot" into account. Those are not the games you need to play toward because whether you hit Ulamog this turn or two turns from now, it's probably going to be good enough.
The situations you should be focusing on playing toward are those where Ulamog doesn't show up immediately. This almost always means trying to buy the maximum amount of time possible to ensure that you get to activate Marvel multiple times before the game ends. Always be asking yourself, "What if I miss on this Marvel? What if this Marvel doesn't resolve?"
If you want to maximize your win rate, you need to be salvaging as many of those "unlucky spin" games as possible. The games where you do hit will take care of themselves. I think I would have won both of these games even if I didn't hit Ulamog for 2 or even 3 activations. To me, this shows how effective the sideboarding plans that Brad and I came up with were.
We knew what our opponents would do this weekend—they'd play early creatures and hold up counterspells or Spell Quellers. We would respond by stemming the bleeding with early Aether Meltdowns, buying time to cast Ulvenwald Hydras and Ulamogs. If you think these decks are favored against Marvel, I hope we proved you wrong. It feels like poetic justice that neither of us were eliminated from the tournament by anyone else, only he eliminated me, in the semifinals.
I hope this article was helpful. Let me know in the comments if this style of article is useful. In my opinion, these granular decisions are discussed far less often than deck lists, but are much more crucial to tournament success.