It’s no secret that Aetherworks Marvel is one of the best strategies (and one of the best individual cards) in Standard. That doesn’t mean it’s perfect, though. It’s fraught with inconsistencies, and prone to awful, embarrassing draws. I spent enough games keeping an Ulamog in my opening hand and drawing a second Ulamog for my first draw step that I knew the traditional builds were not for me. I set out to find something better.
The key, at least in my mind, was to choose powerful Marvel hits that could also be cast if you happened to draw them. Ishkanah, Grafwidow, Demon of Dark Schemes, and Noxious Gearhulk can all be game winners in a variety of situations you’re likely to face in Standard, particularly when they can hit the battlefield at instant speed. Filling your deck with these cards also allows you to play a normal delirium control game, increasing the consistency of a volatile strategy, and allowing you to attack (and defend) from many angles at once. Round things out with Vessel of Nascency, Traverse the Ulvenwald, and cycling cards, and you have a well-oiled machine that will rarely let you down.
I had experimented with Sultai Aetherworks Marvel before the release of Amonkhet, but I was unable to get it to the point I wanted. Then, two big changes transformed Sultai Marvel from a wacky, almost-joke deck into something that could be highly competitive. The first, naturally, is the banning of the Copycat combo, which was a huge win for all Marvel strategies. The second was the printing of Liliana, Death’s Majesty.
Liliana is the payoff card this style of deck has been waiting for. She’s a powerful planeswalker with a high starting loyalty that can defend herself and generate long-run value. When paired with game-winning creatures with powerful enters-the-battlefield effects, however, she’s a star. Aggro decks have a hard enough time fighting through Ishkanah and a wave of Spider tokens. But now picture that they’ve expended resources to kill Ishkanah once, and you play Liliana and reanimate her! Now you have a wall of blockers, and a planeswalker sitting behind them! Similarly, recurring Noxious Gearhulk is great, and you can even get lucky by milling an Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger and putting him directly into play on turn 4 or 5.
This deck took me to a 20th place finish at Pro Tour Amonkhet, losing (perhaps) two win-and-in matches in the last two rounds. I felt advantaged against Mardu Vehicles and most creature matchups, and about even against Zombies and opposing Marvel decks. (A bit behind pre-sideboard and a bit ahead post-sideboard against Marvel.)
Aetherworks Marvel: Despite not being an “all-in” Marvel deck, this card is still present in all of your best draws. You can effectively win the game on turn 4 by hitting Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger, or with a well-placed Ishkanah or Demon of Dark Schemes against aggro. Otherwise, you can use Marvel as a long-term value card to grind out your opponent.
Rogue Refiner: “Sultai” Marvel is really just a B/G Delirium deck splashing for Rogue Refiner. Refiner is such a great value card and important source of energy that you basically always want to draw it in as many copies as possible.
Attune with Aether, Servant of the Conduit, Aether Hub, and Woodweaver’s Puzzleknot round out the energy production. Sultai Marvel is not as good at producing energy as Temur Marvel, but that’s a sacrifice you make in order to have a strong plan B, and to not be hamstrung by Dispossess. You can also generate quite a lot of energy with Aetherworks Marvel’s passive ability.
Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger is an important card to have access to. It’s a disaster to draw 2 copies, but you want to be able to find Ulamog in your library or graveyard at some point in the course of a long game.
Ishkanah, Grafwidow protects you against creatures, and is the major payoff for building your deck to support delirium.
Demon of Dark Schemes rivals Ulamog in power level in some matchups, but is also readily castable for 6 mana. Hitting the Demon at instant-speed is the most fun thing you can do in Standard, and is a great appeal of Sultai Marvel. It’s one of the best cards against both Zombies and Mardu Vehicles, and will virtually always win the game when it goes unanswered. Remember to collect your energy off creatures dying, and remember that you can reanimate creatures from your opponent’s graveyard as well as your own.
Liliana, Death’s Majesty: I’ve already sung her praises, but Liliana and Ishkanah go together like peanut butter and jelly. She’s a perfect fit for Sultai Marvel.
Vessel of Nascency and Traverse the Ulvenwald are there to ensure the deck runs smoothly. Vessel fills your graveyard for delirium as well as for Demon and Liliana, and it also digs you towards Aetherworks Marvel.
Noxious Gearhulk isn’t as important as Demon and Ishkanah, but it can get you out of some sticky situations, and is the absolute best card against green creature decks. If B/G becomes popular, I’ll recommend having multiples between main deck and sideboard.
Yahenni’s Expertise is a concession to the Zombie menace. However, there are a lot of matchups and situations where you’re happy to have access to this card. It even gains value in this deck due to the ability to cast it at instant speed. (You can even cast a creature or sorcery from your hand at instant speed if you hit this off the Marvel.)
Dissenter’s Deliverance is a low-cost card that helps with delirium, and is great against Mardu Vehicles and Aetherworks Marvel. I wish there was room for another copy or two.
• When in doubt, I find it best to activate Marvel during the opponent’s attack step. Demon of Dark Schemes and Yahenni’s Expertise are best cast on the opponent’s turn. Also, the uncertainty makes it difficult for your opponent to make optimal decisions.
• Attune and Traverse should most often search for Swamps, since Demon requires triple-black, and you’ll often want to cast multiple black spells in the same turn. Be aware that Vessel of Nascency is very green-mana intensive, however, and you want to put yourself in a situation where you can cast and use Vessel in the same turn.
• Don’t let Zombies get out of range of Demon and Yahenni's Expertise. Although you want to protect your life total, sometimes you should be careful about killing Zombies in the early turns because a 4/4 Diregraf Colossus can be hard to kill. Similarly, don’t get too greedy with Yahenni’s Expertise since additional lords can put their creatures out of range, or they might strip it from your hand with Transgress the Mind.
• Sideboarding out copies of Woodweaver's Puzzleknot, Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger, or even one copy of Aetherworks Marvel should be a technique in your repertoire. It’s an especially good idea if you expect your opponent to have Dispossess.
Matchups and Sideboarding
Temur Marvel has more Ulamogs and more energy, which means their plan A is better than yours. Your plan B is much better than theirs, however, and the post-board games become a lot more about plan B than plan A. When both players are filled to the brim with permission spells and artifact destruction, it’s easy for Glint-Sleeve Siphoner or Tireless Tracker to take over a game. Additionally, black gives you access to Dispossess.
Zombies is a volatile matchup. They will win with an unanswered Cryptbreaker, or if they can quickly get their creatures out of range. You should win in the absence of those things. Ishkanah, Demon, and incidental bodies mean you don’t have to sweat their persistent creatures like Dread Wanderer and Relentless Dead. This is a big advantage of Sultai Marvel compared to Temur Marvel or dedicated control decks.
Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet is fantastic after sideboarding once they trim removal. Yahenni's Expertise is probably the best card to have in your opening hand, but it doesn’t always get you out of sticky situations in the late game. That’s why it’s important to diversify with hard removal spells like Never // Return and Noxious Gearhulk.
One of the main reasons I chose Sultai Marvel for Pro Tour Amonkhet is that I liked its Mardu Vehicles matchup more than other builds of Marvel. Fatal Push is the best card for surviving their early rush, and Ishkanah, Grafwidow stabilizes the board against ground creatures, flying creatures, and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar all at once. You can certainly still lose to a great draw on the play, but you should be squarely advantaged.
Of the main matchups, this is the one where your sideboarding should be most fluid. It’s reasonable to have zero, one, or two copies of Yahenni's Expertise based on their numbers of Veteran Motorist, Pia Nalaar, and Thalia, Heretic Cathar. (Thalia is one of the most annoying cards in the matchup.) You can trim Puzzleknots and more of the Marvel package if you think they’re trying to Dispossess you, but I wouldn’t do so unless I was sure.
Tireless Tracker might seem like a strange sideboarding choice, but Mardu has a shocking amount of staying power and you need a certain concentration of card advantage to ensure you’ll win the game once you stabilize behind an Ishkanah. Having Trackers is also important if your hand gets torn apart by Transgress the Mind and Dispossess.
Sultai Marvel has all the strengths of Aetherworks Marvel, but with an effective plan B, and a higher level of consistency. Many of the techniques your opponents will be employing to beat Marvel decks will be relatively ineffective against you.
Zombies and Temur Marvel were the biggest winners at Pro Tour Amonkhet—both of those matchups are fine but unexciting. Remember that Mardu Vehicles and B/G Constrictor decks are still out there, however, and Sultai Marvel is an excellent way to prey on them.