This week, let’s go over one of the early front-runners in Standard, Mardu Vehicles.
Strengths of Mardu
Mardu Vehicles is one of the best snowball decks in the format thanks to a variety of strong plays on turns 1 and 2. There’s a reason that cards like Toolcraft Exemplar and Heart of Kiran were so popular at various points in Standard. Mardu can easily run over opponents who fail to interact early or who present “normal” combat scenarios with cards like Gifted Aetherborn. Not only can you go around it with Heart, you can go through it with cards like Lightning Strike, Cut // Ribbons, and Unlicensed Disintegration. Scrapheap Scrounger can also freely attack without worry since it’ll almost assuredly be bought back later in the game if it trades early.
Mardu also has one of the better long games among aggro strategies because of flyers, Hazoret the Fervent, and incidental damage from Unlicensed Disintegration. I’ve won many games on the back of Hazoret and Scrapheap Scrounger after my opponents had effectively run me out of all of my other resources. The same goes for close games against decks like Grixis Energy where I would close them out with the combined burn damage from the deck after ceding board control.
It has a diverse and powerful set of sideboard options ranging from Duress to Chandra to Settle the Wreckage. You can effectively pick and choose what matchups you want help in and what role you want to assume for post-board games. If you want to try to play a slower, more controlling tack against a deck like Hazored or B/G Constrictor, you can side in additional Abrades and some combination of sweepers (typically Settle the Wreckage and Sweltering Suns, but Fumigate is also an option) along with another set of answers. For red this could be Authority of the Consuls with another Aethersphere Harvester. For B/G, this could be Glorybringer and Cast Out.
The same is true against control decks and even more combo-oriented decks like U/W Gift as well. You better control over how you want to play out your post-board games than many other decks. Mardu may be the deck where you gain most by figuring out solid sideboarding plans for every matchup, and two good players could have completely different, but viable, takes on how to do so.
Weaknesses of Mardu
Mardu has a weak game against red decks, which is obviously a serious liability if red decks get popular again. Mardu trades cheap interaction and combat-worthy creatures for better snowball ability and more anti-control/midrange threats. All your creatures essentially have “can’t block” written on them in invisible ink. Your creatures simply can’t scare opponents into not attacking you and that’s a bad place to be when you’re on the draw and so many opponents have Fatal Push or Abrade for the maximum punishment if you hold back to crew Heart or Harvester.
Mardu also suffers against cheap interaction decks capable of dealing with Hazoret, typically U/B and Grixis Midrange after sideboarding. Game 1 they’re limited in what they have that really scares you, and most builds only have 2 Vraska’s Contempt and possibly a few Supreme Will to stop Hazoret. Post-board, Abrade and Contempt could both become full playsets and your best weapons against them take a major hit.
This is one of the few times where Jeskai Vehicles begins to look appealing because of how well Spell Pierce lines up against these strategies. Besides that, you also get more time to deploy your threats and better utilize cards like Cast Out. Out of Mardu you do have Duress, but that can be foiled by good topdecking from the opponent.
Finally, the mana base is shakier than previous iterations of the deck due to the lack of Clues and a heavier reliance on basics. You’re almost stuck running Aether Hub to meet your early-game mana requirements and still have enough black sources without jamming a bunch of ETBT lands. I have often been at the mercy of Spire of Industry for black mana when my opponents simply killed my creatures and Vehicles on sight, meaning I would die with a Scrounger in the ‘yard and a Disintegration in hand.
There are a few different ways to build Mardu, so let’s start with the most common:
This plays out like your typical good-stuff aggro deck, and very little has changed since the last time this deck rose to prominence. For most players, the debate over adding Hazoret the Fervent was short-lived. It’s simply the best or second-best card in the deck in nearly every game 1. What hasn’t been hashed out yet is just how good Veteran Motorist is in the current metagame. Motorist is awful in many post-board matches, cannot attack into Whirler Virtuoso, and puts notable stress on the mana base now that you have fewer ways to power up a turn-2 Spire of Industry.
If you cut Veteran Motorist, where do you go? Well, you’d want to look for something with more resilience in combat and preferably something that could crew Heart of Kiran. The two choices that come to mind are Relentless Raptor and Glory-Bound Initiate. While I made fun of the former last week, in this deck you not only have a much better shot of casting it early, you can crew Vehicles as a way to not have Raptor attack into its doom. Meanwhile Glory-Bound still sucks at blocking, but has precious lifelink, which can swing close races against red decks.
Looking at the removal, we see a similar preference play out between Magma Spray, Shock, Fatal Push, Abrade, Lightning Strike, and Cut // Ribbons. Any of these could reasonably see main-deck play and each have their own strengths and weaknesses. My personal choices have been Spray, Cut, and Abrade over the rest, but that’s for a rather open field. The more control decks that pop up, the more I’m interested in Lightning Strike; the more small creatures, the better Push looks; and so on.
What I think is less negotiable is that you want 2-4 one-mana removal spells and no more than 4 two-mana removal spells. Main deck, I prefer only running 2 because your deck is already very heavy at the two-slot. Unlicensed Disintegration has been a 4-of in the bulk of Mardu decks, but you could get away with 3 and run an additional threat if you like. Drawing multiples is only really strong in snowball situations and it’s harder to get the 3 points of burn against decks like Grixis Midrange and B/G Constrictor compared to before.
I like 23 lands and sideboarding a land over 24 in the main deck. You lose more games to flooding out than you do not having enough mana (22-24 of your cards are two-mana or less).
Post-board is when you tend to bring in slower and more situational cards and when you want to engage in the late-game. 2 Aether Hubs is probably the max you want to run in the deck unless you’re willing to go with Harnessed Lightning, in which case you can probably jam all 4 and not hate your life.
Of course, this isn’t the only way to build the deck. Here’s a much more ambitious build that I’ve been tweaking between MTGO Leagues.
This one focuses more on building up a resilient creature base and being better able to deal with red decks. Obviously, the standout here is the removal of Veteran Motorist altogether for Relentless Raptor and Glory-Bound Initiate. Why this swap? Motorist is incredibly weak to Whirler Virtuoso and red decks. Not only does it die to Shock and post-board, Dual Shot, it simply gets turned off from attacking too often. Motorist excels in a less creature-heavy metagame, but when restricted to mostly crewing Vehicles, some of the upside is lost.
Meanwhile, Relentless Raptor fears no Thopter and can simply go in each turn while still being capable of crewing if you find it necessary on defense or to simply stop it from attacking into a bigger beast on the other side. Unlike Mettle Boros decks, Disintegration and Key to the City also go a long way toward keeping the way clear for Raptor attacks. Glory-Bound is the weaker of the two, but allows you to focus on white as a primary color for more Plains, and the lifelink shouldn’t be underestimated.
I’ve messed with Gideon of the Trials on and off. Gideon has been frequently underwhelming in Standard, and even in Mardu you just can’t get much out of him sometimes. But this is the deck best home for him since he can interfere with troublesome permanents, attack into Grixis Energy safely, and is an amazing turn-3 followup to Heart of Kiran. It also makes the mirror miserable for the opponent if they have a creature-heavy draw as Gideon can immediately get out of 3-damage burn range and shut off Heart/Harvester/Hazoret.
These sideboarding notes are essentially preference for me, and I’m only listing the matchups I’ve faced enough to have a good idea of how to play them.
Basically, you just don’t want to die early and your creatures are garbage at accomplishing this task. I max out on removal, and on the play you may not want to do that. Staying aggressive is a reasonable line since your creatures are so much better on offense. You definitely want ways to deal with Hazoret, and Settle is one of the best ways to stay afloat on the draw, but it’s more questionable on the play.
Be aware that many red decks will have 3-4 Abrade post-board, so Vehicles get weaker in general and your creature count can’t drop too low or you’ll find yourself without crew members.
I’m actually pretty fond of this sideboard plan. Besides Banishing End, they don’t interact well early and frequently will bring in Negate. Your job is to just jam creatures early and not bother playing Heart of Kiran immediately. Save Duress until turns 3-5 if you can help it and that can help plan your attacks through the typical Cast Out/Settle the Wreckage subgame.
Angrath, the Flame-Chained can often win the game on its own simply because they often only have 1-2 cards in the late-game and can force bad Torrential Gearhulk sequencing. So if you’re going to save one in the chamber, I’d rather it be the angry Minotaur over Chandra or Hazoret.
This matchup is difficult and I’d say that you’re probably disadvantaged post-board, but game 1 revolves almost entirely around Whirler Virtuoso and Fatal Push. If they don’t have the early interaction, you can often run them over before they get to play a real game of Magic.
My sideboard plans should be taken with a grain of salt because I have not played the matchup enough to get a firm read on the worst cards, and the removal count varies wildly. I’ve played against builds with quad Fatal Push, Abrade, Harnessed Lightning, a handful of Magma Spray, and at least 3 Vraska’s Contempt. Other builds will only have a full playset of Fatal Push and Harnessed Lightning with a mix of the rest.
Against the former, their main game plan seems to be just trading 1-for-1 until The Scarab God or Torrential Gearhulk take over. It’s difficult to just overpower them with creatures and your Heart of Kiran become huge tempo sinks, so my board plan moves away from those. Veteran Motorist also dies to everything and can’t attack into Thopters, so I remove them as well.
One plus is that they can rarely kill you without one of their huge threats, so answering them with a Cast Out actually can buy you a ton of time.
On the play, you can also go low to the ground and try to punish them if they stumble.
Ignore their creatures besides trading up with Virtuoso/Gearhulk. Duress trading 1-for-1 is fine and will sometimes win the game if you can snag the Scatter or Contempt for your Hazoret.
On the play you want to run them over and abuse tempo advantage. On the draw you want to offset this as much as you can and then look for an opportunity to flip the board. Settle the Wreckage is one of the only good ways to do this and if you don’t have it and your opponent does, it can be very difficult to win the game.
One common thread in all of these plans is that I do not take out Bomat Courier even when it seems reasonable to do so. This is for two reasons. The first is that your Spire of Industry hands are very loose games 2 and 3 when every opponent is bringing in 3-7 additional removal spells. Having Clues really minimized the risk of lowering your artifact count and that risk is brought into sharp focus post-board. The second is that players have a healthy level of respect for Bomat Courier, often snapping off a removal spell on it when it isn’t really needed. This respect can be leveraged very well with your other aggressive creatures, especially when it reaches the three-card mark and people desperately do not want you to know what’s in the box.
That’s all I’ve got for now. Once I’ve got more games under my belt and the metagame tightens a bit, expect an update article focusing more on the matchups. Until then, mulligan your Spire-only Bomat hands.