I didn’t feel motivated to test much for the Pro Tour, so I spent the week after Grand Prix Kyoto in the Japanese Alps around Takayama.

The region formed the inspiration for the 2016 anime movie Your Name, and it was a nice one to visit. I dipped in an onsen, hiked in the mountains and forests, prayed for good luck at various shrines, ate some good hida beef, and visited world heritage sites.

Along the way, I played a few Standard Leagues on Magic Online, but that was pretty much the entirety of my preparation. Instead of trying to “break the format,” I relied on the experience I had with Mardu Vehicles, my Standard deck of choice for the past year. I made some changes inspired by Hour of Devastation, but given that they were based more on theory than testing, I didn’t expect to do well at the Pro Tour.

To my own surprise, I went 5-1 in Limited and 6-4 in Constructed, finishing in 39th place. I’m taking home some prize money, a flight to Albuquerque, and good sightseeing memories—a very successful trip indeed!

Here is the deck I registered.

Mardu Vehicles

It was mostly my own construction, made with valuable input from Pedro Carvalho and Lucas Berthoud. Since some of my card choices are atypical, I’ll explain the reasoning behind them.

Why Inventor’s Apprentice?

Well, I basically never cut them. At Pro Tour Kaladesh, I referred to my Mardu deck as “Zoo” because the 1-drops reminded me of Kird Ape and Wild Nacatl. At Pro Tour Aether Revolt, the best-performing Mardu versions had Inventor’s Apprentice as well. In my mind, Mardu is an aggro deck, and for that you need at least ten 1-drops.

Since then, the “standard” Mardu build has become more midrange, focusing on planeswalkers and removal spells. I don’t enjoy playing midrange decks, and especially in any new metagame, I’d rather be the one asking the questions and putting on the pressure.

In addition to these reasons, the rise of Mono-Red provided a final incentive to run a 2/3 for 1 mana. It blocks their 1-drops, survives Shock, and eventually trades for Ahn-Crop Crasher. I was always happy to draw Inventor’s Apprentice against them.

Why Pia Nalaar over Thalia?

Although Thalia is a better card in the abstract, Pia Nalaar produces an artifact. Especially with Inventor’s Apprentice in the deck, you need a high artifact count to function.

Moreover, Thalia dies to Shock, whereas Pia Nalaar can produce a board-stabilizing 2-for-1 against Mono-Red.

Why No Walking Ballista, Archangel Avacyn, Fatal Push, or Cut // Ribbons?

 

You’re an aggro deck, not some midrange deck. Aggro decks want to focus on high-power creatures for a low mana cost. Walking Ballista and Archangel Avacyn aren’t aggressive enough, Fatal Push and Cut don’t pressure opponents.

The Ribbons aftermath does give some reach, but with a mana base that has to support white and red 1-drops, getting to double black was too difficult.

Why the Deserts?

 

First, they produce free damage. You’re an aggro deck after all, with twelve 1-drops. This means that you don’t care as much about your life total, but you do care about the ability to close out a game when your opponent gets low. Second, they mitigate mana flood, so they allow you to add a 24th land to the deck, which in turn increases the likelihood of having the right colored mana on turn 1. Third, they help cast Thought-Knot Seer from the sideboard—something you didn’t have access to before.

I liked having a few Deserts for these reasons, but I didn’t want more than 5 because then the life loss starts to stack up too much. Ramunap Ruins is the better card, but I chose a 3-2 split instead of a 4-1 split because I didn’t want to have too many painful red sources in the deck.

Why 3 Spire of Industry and 3 Aether Hub?

 

At Pro Tour Aether Revolt, I had 4 Spires and 2 Hubs. So what changed? First, I added an extra 1-drop. Spire of Industry cannot cast 1-drops, but Aether Hub can. Second, I added Deserts, and the life loss from Spire of Industry stacks up with them. Third, I added an extra Aethersphere Harvester to the sideboard, giving additional sources of energy for Aether Hub.

I still hate Aether Hub as a land, but the 3-3 split seemed better for the new incarnation of the deck. Just keep in mind that you sometimes have to mulligan aggressively toward a reasonable mana draw.

Why the Random Glory-Bound Initiate Instead of a Playset of Veteran Motorists?

Veteran Motorist is weak against Thraben Inspector and Bomat Courier. It is also worse in multiples as scrying has diminishing returns. Finally, now that the mana base has 3 Aether Hub, you can’t have too many double-colored spells anymore. Meanwhile, Glory-Bound Initiate can easily swing a damage race against Mono-Red.

Why the Random Hazoret Instead of a Playset of Gideons?

Hazoret is a more aggressive card, and I like attacking. The curve of my deck is similar to Mono-Red’s, so it’s low enough to enable hellbent reliably. Hazoret doesn’t work well with Vehicles, which is why I left her as a 1-of, but she definitely won various games by herself.

Meanwhile, Gideon isn’t great in multiples, is poor against haste creatures, and I never felt like he was a must-have 4-of, mostly for mana curve reasons.

How About the Sideboard?

The basic idea underlying the sideboard is that you can make big adjustments depending on who is on the play and who is on the draw. If you get to be on the play, then you should make minimal or no adjustments. You can switch one or two cards (e.g., adding 1 Gideon as he’s better on the play, while cutting 1 Glory-Bound Initiate or 1 Aethersphere Harvester since lifelink isn’t as valuable on the play) but basically you want to stay as aggressive as possible, and the main deck configuration is set up well for that.

On the draw, however, you are behind in the damage race from the start. Meanwhile, you have an extra card to work with. As a result, the game plays out differently, and you can transform into a midrange deck. While the classic Mardu versions (or at least the ones that became popular since the last time I got to play a Pro Tour) use planeswalkers for that, I didn’t like that as much because you’re likely going to be behind on board when you cast them.

On the play, planeswalkers are easy to protect—on the draw, it’s much more difficult.

So instead, I filled my sideboard with cards that felt better on the draw. Thought-Knot Seer is more impactful when the opponent has one fewer card to work with—they are less likely to hold two removal spells (and are less likely to have them in their deck when they’re on the play) and it’s easier to break up their curve. Glorybringer is a powerful way to gain back tempo, especially when you can kill a creature and a planeswalker in one fell swoop. Also, the one-two punch of Thought-Knot Seer exiling a removal spell that would otherwise kill Glorybringer seemed appealing.

To complement these 4- and 5-drops, you need some early removal. Since you’ll often cut Toolcraft Exemplar or Scrapheap Scrounger as they are poor defenders, you need a cheap removal spell. Abrade is perfect for that slot. Abrade deals with Cryptbreaker, Heart of Kiran, Winding Constrictor, and even God-Pharaoh’s Gift—all cards that you need an effective answer to when you’re aiming to stabilize into a long game. Fatal Push would also be good for most of these things, but it’s not an easy fit for a mana base that wants to cast Inventor’s Apprentice in game 1.

The rest of the sideboard was a mix of additional removal spells (Magma Spray and Radiant Flames) when you’re on the draw, Aethersphere Harvester and Authority of the Consuls against Mono-Red, and finally one card that is meant to be boarded in almost exclusively on the play: Gideon.

Why Did I Choose this Deck over Mono-Red?

I tested Mono-Red in two Leagues as well, and I felt it was a strong deck. I entered the first League with a card-for-card copy of a list I found online. It wasn’t particularly tuned since it featured only 21 lands and only 2 Hazoret. But that was easily remedied for the second League I played, where I went 4-1.

Nevertheless, I feared that Mono-Red might be a trap. It seemed like the type of deck that would be beatable. Some exploitable weaknesses appeared to be its large number of 1-toughness creatures, its vulnerability to big lifelink creatures, and the susceptibility of Hazoret to Grasp of Darkness. I expected many of the big teams to show up with cards like Thraben InspectorKalitas, Traitor of Ghet, or Grasp of Darkness.

I figured that Mardu was more resilient to such hate than Mono-Red. Moreover, I had more experience with Mardu and enjoyed playing the deck a little better. So in the end, that’s what I stuck with.

Looking at the Top 8, Mono-Red was not a trap after all. Instead of playing a deck that could beat Mono-Red, many of the big teams had settled on Mono-Red themselves! If I had known that in advance, I probably would’ve run Mono-Red myself. But it was a tricky thing to predict, and I was still content with my deck choice. I also believe that Mardu is still fine going forward.

How Is the Matchup Against Mono-Red?

I believe I’m slightly favored. I went 3-1 against Mono-Red on Magic Online and 3-1 against Mono-Red at the Pro Tour, and most of the games felt good for me. I was often able to beat them in a close damage race.

I should point out that “regular” Mardu Vehicles decks are almost surely not favored against Mono-Red. Cards like  Archangel Avacyn, Gideon, Thalia, and Abrade are too slow, have trouble blocking, and don’t match up very well against their game plan. But with Inventor’s Apprentice, Aethersphere Harvester, and Pia Nalaar, I think you have a good setup for the matchup.

How to Sideboard with the Deck on the Draw?

I was changing things all the time at the Pro Tour, but you can find a rough guideline below. Keep in mind that these sideboard plans are on the draw. On the play, you should make minimal or no adjustments and present the best possible aggro deck, as I explained above.

Mono-Red

Out

In

Mono-Black Zombies

Out

In

B/G Constrictor

Out

In

Mardu Vehicles

Out

In

U/R Control

Out

In

R/G Ramp

Out

In

W/U Monument

Out

In

Temur Energy

Out

In

W/U God-Pharaoh’s Gift

Out

In

Would I Make Any Changes to the Deck?

Not right now. If I knew that the field was going to be 50% Mono-Red, then I would suggest cutting the Deserts, the Unlicensed Disintegrations, and the Thought-Knot Seers while adding Glory-Bound Initiate, Shock, and Shambling Vent. But I believe that Mono-Red is beatable—it won’t dominate uncontested.

I expect the metagame to be in flux for the next few weeks. First, decks that can beat Mono-Red (such as well-tuned versions of B/G Constrictor or Mono-Black Zombies) will become more popular. Then, decks that are good against anti-Red decks (maybe W/U God-Pharaoh’s Gift or R/G Ramp?) will probably surge in popularity. Afterwards, the metagame will settle somewhere, but it’s hard to predict that far in the future.

Either way, I filled most of my sideboard with cards that are good on the draw, not with cards that are good in specific matchups. This made particular sense for me because I’ve only played 30 matches of Standard in the last half year or so, but it also helps in a dynamic metagame. I believe the theory behind my build is sound, and I discovered no glaring flaws in the deck during the Pro Tour.

Vroom on!