I like Modern because it gives me a chance to diversify my portfolio. I played Affinity at Worlds, Merfolk in Oklahoma City, Collected Company Zoo in Charlotte, and Delver in Omaha.

I tried a lot of different decks for Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch. I tried three versions of Elves, Affinity, Delver, WU Control, three flavors of Jeskai, Scapeshift (both with and without Bring to Light), Abzan, different Through the Breach variants, Infect, Blue Moon, and Jund. I didn’t have a lot of time to spend on Eldrazi because my preparation was almost exclusively on Magic Online and I was hampered by the lack of card availability. I did a lot a learning, incinerating several hundred tickets in the process.

I couldn’t win with the purely proactive strategies in the format—Snapcaster Mage/Lightning Bolt decks, fast combos like Ad Nauseam and Storm, and the ultimate aggro-punisher Burn consistently frustrated my attempts. I played a little with Affinity, but felt pretty strongly that it would have a huge target on its forehead in the wake of the bannings of Splinter Twin and Summer Bloom. That doesn’t necessarily make it unplayable, just annoying. When they play Stony Silence turn 2 or Shatterstorm turn 4 every match, that flight home from Atlanta gets pretty long.

But I liked little parts of what different decks were doing. Abzan had the Liliana of the Veil/Lingering Souls shell that gave other grindy decks fits. Jeskai played the best mix of efficient removal— Path to Exile/Lightning Bolt/Lightning Helix is a nightmare for normal creature strategies. Jund was capable of the turn-1 discard spell into turn-2 Dark Confidant opening that brutalized decks light on removal and played Kolaghan’s Command, one of my favorite cards in the format. Abzan’s flaw was weak matchups against Infect, Merfolk, and Affinity—it wanted Bolt and Helix. Jeskai couldn’t disrupt combo—it wanted discard. And Jund lost to the other grindy matchups—it wanted Lingering Souls.

So I thought, why not combine all three? Mardu couldn’t exist in a world with Splinter Twin. Where Jeskai gets to play its whole game at instant speed, Mardu has to cast spells on its turn. Where Abzan and Jund have the warm blanket of Abrupt Decay, Mardu struggles more to kill a Deceiver Exarch. Post-bannings, it seemed to me like the perfect time for Mardu to break out.

I scoured the internet to see if anyone else had come to the same conclusion. My strength is more tuning than deck design, so I wanted a starting point. I found this 5-0 league deck from MTGO user mooff:

Mardu, v1.0

I won 11 of the first 13 matches I played with this deck online against non-Griselbrand strategies. The removal suite was hell on Infect, Merfolk, and Affinity. The array of discard and disruption was great against Scapeshift, Ad Nauseam, and Tron. And the Lingering Souls were the key trump card against Jund. Griselbrand decks were very hard to beat, even with all the discard and graveyard hate, but that was something I was willing to accept.

I set upon tuning the deck with enthusiasm—Mardu had really reinvigorated my love for the Modern format. Rich Hoaen, Ben Stark, Pat Cox, and Matt Severa ended up playing the deck in Atlanta and were crucial to the tuning process, but all of Team Ultra PRO helped immensely.

The first reactions from people on our team who tried Mardu were that 4 Abbot of Keral Keep was too many and 22 lands too few. Luckily, those two observations aligned nicely, and I quickly moved to shave Abbots and add a 23rd land. Abbot is great early in the game if it hits a needed land and is almost always a nice draw late in the game. But in the middle stages, it too often hits an uncastable 3cc spell. A classic case of a card with diminishing returns—2 feels great. I initially tried Needle Spires, but found Lavaclaw Reaches more effective. Frequently, this deck grinds both players down to no resources, and strong creature lands like Shambling Vent and Lavaclaw Reaches are a great way to press an advantage and finish. Having a fifth creature land also mitigated the possibility of mana flood, something I’m always trying to avoid.

Pia and Kiran Nalaar, Murderous Cut, and Painful Truths were other cards that ended up on the chopping block. Painful Truths didn’t fit here. The deck was already taking a lot of damage from Dark Confidant, Thoughtseize, and lands, and accruing incremental advantage from the aforementioned Bob, Liliana of the Veil, and Lingering Souls. Murderous Cut doesn’t play well with Dark Confidant, and we converted it into the versatile and powerful 4th Path to Exile.

Pia and Kiran Nalaar was the hardest cut—it’s a strong card, combos nicely with Kolaghan’s Command, and helped the deck with a minor problem closing out games. Pia was a casualty of our strong desire to play a different 4-drop and keep our curve as low as possible. We also felt we were naturally strong against grindy midrange strategies (where Pia and Kiran Nalaar shines) and wanted to divert some resources to fight combo, control, and big mana.

We settled on 1 Fulminator Mage, 1 Ajani Vengeant, and a third Lightning Helix in the last three slots. The third Lightning Helix fit our general theme of lowering the curve, strengthening our Burn, Zoo, Affinity, Infect, and Merfolk matchups, and fueling our Dark Confidants.

We added a Fulminator Mage and Ajani Vengeant to the main deck to give the deck a chance against big mana strategies like Tron and Eldrazi. Fulminator Mage combos nicely with Kolaghan’s Command, and Ajani Vengeant doubles as another source of life gain against single-minded proactive strategies like Burn. We also liked that Ajani Vengeant could lock down a Reality Smasher without having to pump in more resources and could stick around to eventually use its one-sided Armageddon. We felt with discard, Dark Confidant, and the Ghost Quarter/Fulminator Mage/Ajani Vengeant trio that we could steal the occasional game 1 against the decks centered around nonbasic lands.

In the sideboard, I advocated for making 1 Rest in Peace into a Rakdos Charm. Rakdos Charm was another card we could bring in against Affinity, might allow us to surprise a Goryo’s Vengeance player, and was actually better against Living End. Sometimes, you could even let Living End resolve and use the surprise third mode to kill them out of nowhere!

Pat Cox specifically advocated for the 1 Timely Reinforcements. Our team discussed how a major story of the PT over the last year had been the overrepresentation and performance of Burn. Although we felt pretty good about our Burn matchup with Shambling Vent, Lightning Helix, Inquisition of Kozilek and Ajani Vengeant, we wanted one card that would be absolutely brutal for them.

I tested Ajani a lot in the days leading up for the tournament and was really impressed. I wanted a second in the sideboard versus Eldrazi, Tron, and other midrange decks, and loved the fact that it was another card we could bring in against Burn.

I think Matt Sperling was the one who suggested the Damnation. As the last-second rumor mill swirled, it seemed like the Eldrazi decks would look more fast and aggressive than the more controlling versions we saw online. Damnation was another way to deal with cards like Blight Herder, Drowner of Hope, and Reality Smasher with minimal pain. Obviously, splash damage against random creature strategies like Affinity, Merfolk, and Zoo was nice and we theorized a strong possibility of efficacy against Infect, whose countermeasures to removal usually tended toward hexproof and not outright countermagic.

Altogether, our final deck list was about 15% different from the original one I found on Magic Online. That might not seem like much, but that 15% is huge. The changes that we made resulted in this final deck list.

Mardu, Final Version

Tips and Tricks

  • You don’t have to activate Liliana of the Veil. It will frequently be correct to do so, but if your opponent is hellbent and your hand is stacked, it’s not mandatory to tick up.
  • Liliana of the Veil is a great way to get rid of those excess discard spells. It also allows you to sideboard in Wear // Tear aggressively and proactively, since you can ditch it if it’s dead.
  • Lavaclaw Reaches can pump itself when blocking, if it’s not summoning sick.
  • All of your removal spells can eliminate your own Dark Confidant, if you’re up big on cards and he’s threatening to betray you.
  • Fulminator Mage can often take Burn off the mana they need to cast Atarka’s Command or Boros Charm. Sometimes it’s worth taking another hit from their creature to kill their land on your turn.
  • Don’t forget you can Path to Exile your own creature. This is useful if you are short on quantity or type of mana, or if the opponent gains some benefit by a spell resolving (like bounce draw from Cryptic Command or Lightning Helix)
  • Sequence your lands and fetches carefully. Err toward making sure you have double-black as soon as possible to cast Liliana of the Veil.
  • This comes up rarely (such as under Blood Moon), but you can use Thoughtseize or Inquisition to discard your own Lingering Souls if you don’t have white mana.
  • After sideboarding, you can fetch or play a shockland untapped before casting Timely Reinforcements to drop below your opponent’s life total and ensure that you gain 6 life.

Other cards to consider moving forward:

  • Gideon, Ally of Zendikar (Closes fast and synergizes with the Spirit tokens, but 4cc is a lot and WW isn’t easy)
  • Sword of War and Peace or Fire and Ice (Nice with Lingering Souls—no one will have artifact removal against you, but 5 mana to get an effect is so much in this deck)
  • Sorin, Solemn Visitor (Synergizes nicely in the deck, but low overall power level. Gives you added % versus red)
  • Pia and Kiran Nalaar (Synergizes with Command and multiple applications, but you have limited space for 4-drops.)
  • Chandra, Pyromaster (Good versus other Lingering Souls decks—might be a nice trump if the mirror becomes important)
  • Crackling Doom (Great answer to Emrakul and Reality Smasher)

Dealing with Eldrazi

Let’s talk about Reality Smasher for a moment, and the Eldrazi menace in general. I played against Eldrazi twice at the Pro Tour and went 1-1, although the matchup as it stands is probably slightly unfavorable. Ajani Vengeant, Fulminator Mage, and Damnation are good weapons against Eldrazi. Certainly more Damnations should find their way into the deck now. Terminate is fairly effective against Thought-Knot Seer, Endless One, and Vile Aggregate—perhaps changing some of the Bolt effects into hard removal would help as well. A 2nd Crumble to Dust would also help. Taking out Eye of Ugin or Eldrazi Temple permanently will severely hamper their explosive potential.

Notes on the Sideboard

  • Ajani Vengeant vs. Burn, Eldrazi, Scapeshift, Abzan, Jund, Tron, and Ad Nauseam.
  • Fulminator Mage vs. Burn, Eldrazi, Scapeshift, Abzan, Jund, Tron, and Ad Nauseam. Occasionally 1-2 vs. Affinity and Infect depending on their deck list.
  • Lightning Helix vs. Burn, Abzan, Jund, Affinity, Zoo, Merfolk, Hate Bears, and Infect.
  • Crumble to Dust vs. Eldrazi, Tron, and Scapeshift.
  • Damnation vs. Affinity, Burn, Eldrazi, Zoo, Merfolk, Hate Bears, and Infect. Sometimes bring it in vs. Abzan or Jund depending on their deck list. Rakdos Charm vs. Affinity and rare decks that use the graveyard such as Storm, Living End, and Goryo’s Vengeance strategies. Rest in Peace vs. Melira combo, Storm, Living End, and Goryo’s Vengeance.
  • Stony Silence vs. Affinity, Tron, and Lantern Control.
  • Wear/Tear vs. Affinity, Merfolk, Infect, and Ad Nauseam. Consider sideboarding in vs. anyone with access to Night of Souls’ Betrayal. Can also bring in vs. Burn if you think they might have artifacts or enchantments in their sideboard (remember you can always hit Eidolon of the Great Revel).
  • Zealous Persecution vs. Affinity, Merfolk, Infect, and anyone else playing Lingering Souls.
  • Timely Reinforcements vs. Burn and small Zoo (Kird Apes and Goblin Guides, not Knight of the Reliquary and Loxodon Smiter).

Moving forward, for GP Detroit and beyond, Mardu is an excellent choice in Modern. Now that you can cast a sorcery on turn 3 without fear of facing infinity Faeries, casting Lingering Souls is a great thing to be doing. Strong matchups against format staples Affinity, Burn, Infect, Abzan, Jund, and Scapeshift mean Mardu is well-positioned. The next step will be to turn your attention to the Eldrazi variants, using some combination of good answers (Ajani Vengeant, Damnation, and Crackling Doom) with land disruption (Ghost Quarter, Fulminator Mage, and Crumble to Dust) to combat the format’s alpha dog.

I hope you enjoy trying this deck out. And remember, you want the original Ravnica Dark Confidant.