“If you have a Mardu Vehicles deck, then there are probably Black-Red Artifact Aggro or aggressive red-white decks that are still plenty competitive. You may not be able to play Mardu Vehicles, but you should have a place to go with your deck.”
Well, Mardu Vehicles still turned out to be plenty competitive…
I wasn’t expecting the deck to be that good. Nor did I expect it to be the breakout deck of the Pro Tour, especially after it put up lackluster results on the SCG Open circuit. But the Pro Tour metagame never fails to surprise, and (in my opinion) aggro decks tend to be more difficult to play optimally than other archetypes. Given the high skill ceiling of Mardu Vehicles, the results make sense.
As for myself, I was pretty much locked on Mardu Vehicles since November last year. I had done well with the deck at Pro Tour Kaladesh and at Grand Prix Warsaw, and it fit my style. I enjoy synergy-driven aggro decks for their game play and for the deck building puzzle they present. I made the decision before I even saw a single Aether Revolt card, but I figured the deck was already fine and could only gain something from the new set. There would be no rotation, only an addition of new cards, and it wasn’t like they were going to ban Smuggler’s Copter, right?
My testing for the Pro Tour was deliberately minimal. I had lost a bit of my competitive drive at the end of last year, and I wasn’t enjoying the weeks of dedicated PT testing as much anymore. Testing with a team can be a lot of fun and it can increase your chances at the Pro Tour if you want to predict and beat the metagame, but it requires a lot of time, effort, travel, coordination, and hassle. I didn’t feel up to it, especially when I wanted to play my own deck anyway.
So I decided to go as a lone wolf, ignored any metagame considerations, trusted my instincts, and kept my Standard preparation time to two days only. I didn’t even try to join a Pro Tour Team Series team because I was planning to skip Pro Tours later this season (I don’t get an appearance fee or flight) and didn’t want to commit to competing at all Pro Tours.
I made it into a nice trip to Dublin with Bas and Brent, my two teammates from Grand Prix Rotterdam, and I relaxed, avoided unnecessary stress, ignored Pro Point totals, and showed up to the Pro Tour to have fun. Judging by how things went at this Pro Tour, I’m unlikely to change my approach for the next Pro Tour I will compete in.
I piloted the following list to a 7-3 record in Standard (which, together with a 3-3 Draft record, made for a 79th place finish):
This looks similar to Lucas Esper Berthoud’s winning list, and that’s no coincidence. I had given his teammate Pedro Carvalho my list earlier on Tuesday when we had a Facebook chat on aggro decks. Since I was working by myself anyway and since I respect the viewpoints of Pedro, a fellow Affinity aficionado, on aggro decks, I was happy to exchange ideas with him. I told him that I didn’t mind if he gave my list to someone else—and the rest is history.
Lucas crushed the event, and with a 12-0 record in Standard at that. He even crushed me during the Limited rounds on his way to the Top 8, with 3 Self-Assemblers no less—what are the odds?*—but he was a pleasant, charismatic, and skilled opponent. I think he’s a great champion, and I was happy to congratulate him on Sunday night, where he bought me a round of drinks to thank me for the deck.
*The probability that 8 Kaladesh boosters contain 3 or more Self-Assemblers is 3.7%. Of course I was going to tell you the odds.
Back to Mardu Vehicles. The list was constructed to hit the following target numbers, which apply to both the list that Lucas registered and the one that I submitted:
- 6 removal spells
- 11 1-drops
- 12 2-drops
- 5 3-drops
- 3 4-drops
- 23 lands
- 16 artifacts or artifact-generating cards
- 15 creatures that can crew Heart of Kiran by themselves
- 6 Vehicles
This mana curve, a mix between creatures, spells, and other numbers, felt perfect to me based on my experience with Mardu Vehicles and similar decks in the past. I would recommend not to deviate too far from it.
Changes I Made Since Tuesday
I didn’t play the exact same list as Lucas as I made a couple of small changes to my list from Tuesday. In the main deck, I made two changes:
- I replaced 1 Thalia, Heretic Cathar with 1 Depala, Pilot Exemplar. I made the swap because Thalia died too easily to Shock, a card I expected quite a bit, but ultimately they’re pretty much the same card—a 3-drop creature with a relevant ability and sufficient power to crew Heart of Kiran.
- I replaced 1 Smoldering Marsh with the 4th Mountain. Both help turn on the singleton Foreboding Ruins, but I decided that 11 black sources was sufficient and that an extra untapped red source for a turn 1 Inventor’s Apprentice was more valuable. I’m still not sure if this was correct or not.
In the sideboard, I made several changes:
- I cut a Selfless Spirit for an Implement of Combustion, giving myself a bit more flexibility against Jeskai Saheeli decks where I didn’t really want to have Shock in my opening hand but still wanted some answers in case they kept the combo.
- I cut a Skywhaler’s Shot for a cheaper removal spell that could hit Winding Constrictor. At first I added a second Fatal Push, but once I cut Smoldering Marsh, I switched it to Harnessed Lightning to improve the mana base a little bit. In hindsight, Fatal Push was probably the better choice.
- I added 2 Fumigate to the sideboard as a sideboard plan against Green-Black Constrictor on the draw. To make room, I cut 1 Chandra, Torch of Defiance and 1 Skysovereign, Consul Flagship. In hindsight, this was probably not a good swap, as Skysovereign was useful in the mirror match, whereas Fumigate was weak.
While I’m at it, let’s just go over all the notable cards one by one. I won’t waste time talking about Toolcraft Exemplar, Scrapheap Scrounger, Inspiring Vantage, and other obvious inclusions, but I’ll focus on the new or controversial cards, including some that I ended up not playing.
Notable Main Deck Options
Heart of Kiran is not as good as Smuggler’s Copter, but it’s a good replacement. I wasn’t in love with the fourth copy in the main deck, but I felt it was necessary because the deck requires a high artifact count. Heart of Kiran also act as a lightning rod for opposing removal spells, so you can often use a second copy of the legend if you end up drawing multiples.
Before Aether Revolt, I had 4 Kird Apes in my deck. With the release of Aether Revolt, the card got worse for 2 reasons.
Second, Aether Revolt introduced Spire of Industry. The land is an excellent mana fixer for the deck, but it comes at the cost of a reduced amount of colored sources for turn 1. It’s nearly impossible to make a functional mana base that can consistently cast white and red 1-drops on curve, and it makes more sense to focus on white because it has both Thraben Inspector and Toolcraft Exemplar. The mana base I played at the Pro Tour had 10 turn 1red sources, which means that the probability of having an untapped land for Inventor’s Apprentice went down—it used to be 90% and now it’s closer to 80%.
Nevertheless, your best draws start with a 1-drop on turn 1, and an aggro deck with substantially more 2-drops than 1-drops feels a bit off to me. For those reasons, I retained 3 Inventor’s Apprentice with the 4th in the sideboard for matchups where you only care about speed. I can see lists with only 2 Inventor’s Apprentice, but I dislike going lower than that.
I have seen several lists without Pia Nalaar, but I like her more than Depala or Thalia. All of Pia’s abilities are useful, but the most important reason for including her is that the deck needs artifacts. Inventor’s Apprentice, Toolcraft Exemplar, Spire of Industry, and Unlicensed Disintegration all require artifacts, and I specifically didn’t want to play fewer than 16. That was my minimum.
Having 2 Pia Nalaar is a reasonable way to get to that number.
I didn’t like the 3rd Pia Nalaar as much because of the risk of drawing multiple copies of the legend, but I still wanted another 3-drop creature in the deck.
Thalia is best if you expect a lot of Copycat combo decks, but she is vulnerable to Shock. As I expect Shock to remain a popular removal spell in Standard, I have a small preference for Depala right now.
You could consider adding Thalia to you sideboard if you expect a lot of 4-color Saheeli lists—she is at her best there—but opponents will probably have even more red removal spells after sideboard, so I don’t mind a list without any copies of Thalia.
I think 6 removal spells in the main deck is the sweet spot, although I could see 5 or 7 as well depending on how many targets the metagame has. Unlicensed Disintegration is easily the best one and a mandatory 4-of in my view. For removal spell 5 and 6, I think Shock and Fatal Push are the best options.
Shock can disrupt the Copycat combo, is easier on the mana base, and can go to the face. Fatal Push is better against Winding Constrictor and Heart of Kiran, but it usually won’t help if your opponent is making infinite Cats or if they are at 2 life. I went with Shock at the Pro Tour, but the metagame may swing to a state where Fatal Push is better.
Aethersphere Harvester is best in aggro mirrors, gives Inventor’s Apprentice and Thraben Inspector a use in the mid-game, and provides energy for Aether Hub. Against control decks, however, the 3/5 doesn’t give the fastest clock, and lifelink is pretty much irrelevant.
Cultivator’s Caravan is better at fixing your mana, so it’s a mandatory inclusion in 4-color variants. But it’s another Vehicle with crew 3—a lone Inventor’s Apprentice or Thraben Inspector aren’t licensed to drive it by themselves. On the other hand, Cultivator’s Caravan curves into one of those 1-drops on turn 3, so it’s not all bad.
Adding up all the upsides and downsides, I chose 2 Aethersphere Harvester in the main deck, and I put 1 Cultivator’s Caravan in the sideboard. I was planning to swap the 3-drop Vehicles against control or combo decks when I needed pressure. I also made the switch when I brought in additional Fatal Push and felt I needed the extra fixing.
The Mana Base
Spire of Industry is great in a 3-color deck with 16 artifacts. Because we’re playing aggro, the occasional life loss isn’t that big of a deal. I considered 3 copies for a while because drawing multiples can be a little awkward, but I ultimately decided that the card was good enough to jam 4.
Without a reliable source of energy, Aether Hub is merely a Tendo Ice Bridge most of the time, and drawing an opening hand with 2 copies of Tendo Ice Bridge is miserable. Aethersphere Harvester helps a little bit, but Aether Hub is still a mediocre land.
Having 1-2 Aether Hub in the deck is okay to get to a good number of untapped white and red sources, but I greatly dislike playing 3 or 4 Aether Hub in a Mardu Vehicles deck.
A creature land is a good late-game mana sink, so 1-2 copies is fine. I have a strong preference for Needle Spires because it hits much harder, so I put one in the main deck and another in the sideboard, ready to be brought in against control decks where I want to increase my curve.
I wavered between 11 and 13 black mana sources for a while—this also depended on how many Fatal Pushes and Cultivator’s Caravans I had in my list. I disliked Swamp because you can’t cast Veteran Motorist with it, so the next-best option is Foreboding Ruins.
I’m still not sure if 1 Foreboding Ruins and 1 Smoldering Marsh is better than 2 Foreboding Ruins if you want to add another black source—there are arguments for and against both options—but I think the world will stick to the 1-1 split because that’s the list that was randomly sent on Tuesday evening.
Notable Sideboard Options
The sideboard options aren’t great, mainly because there’s very little you can board out in any matchup.
Implement of Combustion: I had one in my sideboard against Jeskai Saheeli decks.
Metallic Rebuke, Spell Queller, Ceremonious Rejection, Negate: Countermagic is okay against control decks, but I didn’t feel it was powerful enough and there is a real downside to having to fit in Spirebluff Canal and Cultivator’s Caravan into your mana base. Ceremonious Rejection was great because it was hyper mana-efficient and because you could cast it off Cultivator’s Caravan on turn 3. Unfortunately, colorless cards aren’t that popular right now, and the other blue counterspells are substantially worse. Improvise isn’t as easy as it might look.
Fragmentize, Release the Gremlins: The Gremlins should be released in the mirror, against decks with Herald of Anguish or Metalwork Colossus, and against certain black-green variants with more artifacts than usual. Fragmentize was in my sideboard as a hedge in case someone broke it with something like Inspiring Statuary, but I wasn’t even planning to bring it in for the mirror—you don’t want to have too many situational answers in your deck, especially when you already have the more powerful Release the Gremlins. Adding it when you’re on the draw is not unreasonable, but it probably doesn’t deserve a slot.
Chandra, Torch of Defiance, Gideon, Ally of Zendikar: Planeswalkers are good threats against control decks that try to beat you with Radiant Flames or other sweepers. Chandra is also an excellent card to add against Black-Green Constrictor decks that have Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet in their sideboard.
Skysovereign, Consul Flagship: This card is great. I liked that it was a high-impact card against Green-Black Constrictor that wasn’t affected by Natural State or Grasp of Darkness, so that’s why I initially had two. I then proceeded to cut one for Fumigate, but I didn’t expect to face many mirror matches. If I knew how popular Mardu Vehicles would be, I would have kept 2 Skysovereign.
Fatal Push, Harnessed Lightning, Skywhaler’s Shot: The former two are good answers to decks with Winding Constrictor and Heart of Kiran. Skywhaler’s Shot is fine too, albeit a little restrictive. Right now, I think Fatal Push is the best of the bunch, even if it’s the toughest on the mana base.
Declaration in Stone, Shock, Anguished Unmaking: These are the removal spells that I’d recommend you not to put in your sideboard. Shock would only come in against Electrostatic Pummeler decks. Declaration in Stone is a decent main deck card but a poor sideboard card because you don’t want to give your opponent free cards in post-sideboard matches that tend to be slower, and Anguished Unmaking is a little too painful for my taste.
Tips and Tricks
- You don’t have to attack with a Vehicle. If you think your opponent has a removal spell in hand and you value your Heart of Kiran, then consider simply attacking with Scrapheap Scrounger or passing the turn rather than crewing up your Vehicle.
- Frequently, you have a Toolcraft Exemplar, a Heart of Kiran, and a crew member while you fear your opponent might have, say, a Fatal Push for Heart of Kiran. In that case, you should let the Toolcraft Exemplar trigger happen first, crew up Heart of Kiran afterward, and then go to declare attackers. If your opponent kills Heart of Kiran at that point, you at least have a 3/2 to attack with.
- Likewise, you can trigger Toolcraft Exemplar at the beginning of combat and subsequently tap the 3/2 to crew Heart of Kiran. To do this (and the preceding trick) on Magic Online, you should put a stop in the beginning of combat step on your own turn.
- You can re-crew Vehicles. This is particularly relevant when you’re attacking with multiple Vehicles and have an untapped Veteran Motorist. You can use Veteran Motorist to give one of your Vehicles +1/+1 after your opponent has declared blockers.
- This rarely comes up, but you can crew Heart of Kiran with Aethersphere Harvester if you want to.
- If you have a low-curve draw that only needs 2 lands to function, hold Unlicensed Disintegration and lack black mana, then consider holding your third land drop. This way, you can immediately use Concealed Courtyard if you draw it.
I find myself switching things up all the time depending on who is on the play and the peculiar card choices of my opponent. Since your deck may differ, I’ll share the guidelines and underlying reasoning that I applied at the Pro Tour rather than offering fixed sideboard plans. If you want fixed plans, then check out the Pro Tour winner’s suggestions.
On the draw, I was planning to add Fumigate against Black-Green Constrictor for instance, whereas I didn’t Fumigate when I was on the play. Furthermore, you can sometimes board out a land on the draw. I’ve boarded out Foreboding Ruins against control decks, for instance, especially when I’m also taking out an Unlicensed Disintegration against them.
The 4th Heart of Kiran and Gideon also tend to be worse as you’re more likely to draw multiples when you’re on the draw. Moreover, with Heart of Kiran, you’re less likely to put your opponent in a spot where they have to kill it when you’re on the draw. And with Gideon, it’s harder to protect him when you’re on the draw.
Other cards you can always cut without affecting the deck too much are Inventor’s Apprentice, Veteran Motorist, any 3-drop creature or Vehicle, and Shock. Of those, Shock gets boarded out the most. It’s particularly bad against Green-Black Constrictor or control decks. Against Walking Ballista decks, shaving a Toolcraft Exemplar is a fine choice as well.
But you can never board out too much since this is a synergy-driven deck. I would never go below 14 artifacts after sideboarding, and would prefer to keep 15 if at all possible. (That means cutting 1-2 artifacts at most, although it’s of course fine to cut 2-3 artifacts if you’re adding Cultivator’s Caravan.) I would also never want to go below 13 creatures that can crew Heart of Kiran by themselves, and would prefer to keep 14 if I retain all 4 Hearts in the deck. (That means cutting 1-2 pilots at most, although you have more leeway if you’re adding planeswalkers.)
How to Beat the Deck?
It’s scary to see 6 copies of the same deck in the Top 6 of the Pro Tour. But most Pro Tour competitors hadn’t prepared for the deck, and the deck can certainly be defeated. A well-tuned black-green list could do it, for instance.
Good starts involving Winding Constrictor, Rishkar, Peema Renegade, and/or Walking Ballista, are tough to beat, especially when there is a Fatal Push to efficiently answer the threats from Mardu Vehicles as well. Add a Flaying Tendrils or two to your sideboard to exile Scrapheap Scrounger while sweeping the board, and you’re on the right track.
Perhaps Ishkanah, Grafwidow or Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet could make a comeback, as those cards are a pain to beat. Sure, Unlicensed Disintegration answers them cleanly, but you only have 4 copies of that card. Another idea is to play a creatureless deck to turn Unlicensed Disintegration into a dead card.
Recommendations for Changes
For next weekend, Mardu Vehicles will probably not be well-positioned. Literally everyone will be ready for it, and there won’t be a lot of Jeskai Saheeli decks for you to prey on. If you still want to play the deck, however, then I’d recommend the version that Lucas won the Pro Tour with as a starting point. The changes I made since Tuesday were probably for the worse.
I would, however, consider replacing 1-2 Shock by Fatal Push to improve against Winding Constrictor and Heart of Kiran. You could even consider adding another Fatal Push to the sideboard, likely instead of Fragmentize. And if you expect everyone else to add Fatal Push, then you could cut an Inventor’s Apprentice for a 3-drop creature, likely Depala.
For reference, I’ll conclude with the deck that Lucas played:
Lucas Esper Berthoud, 1st place at Pro Tour Aether Revolt
I already linked this earlier in my article, but check out his report!