We are approaching a point that Standard has begun to feel very “solved.” I’m not going to throw hate at Standard. In fact, I’ve found the format to be one of the most enjoyable that I can remember in years.
Just because a format ends up boiling down to a few options doesn’t mean it wasn’t a great ride. There is so much data readily available with the internet, it only makes sense that after months of results we can determine what the strongest decks are.
The other reason I enjoy this particular Standard format is that the decks are fun to play and the games feel interactive. I played 7 rounds of Standard at the Pittsburgh RPTQ last weekend, and every single round (win or lose), I felt comfortable saying “good games” in earnest because they were in fact good games of Magic.
Nothing but cars and Cats for days.
The format has pretty much crystallized into a battle between Mardu Vehicles and Energy/Saheeli combo decks. There are a few different flavors of each archetype, but at this point these are the decks that matter in Standard.
I really liked the Mardu Vehicles deck I played to a 5-2 Top 16 finish at the RPTQ. It was fine tuned by fellow Ann Arborites Kyle Boggemes and Max McVety. There was a lot of discussion over different versions and sideboards (even some with Spell Quellers!) but this was the one everybody seemed to prefer in the end. Kyle was a strong proponent of the version we played, and his expertise paid off in spades as he earned a blue envelope over the weekend with it. Congrats!
There are two popular versions of Mardu. The first is a more traditional version of the deck like the one we played, which we code-named: “Buckle Up, Buckaroo!” for the purpose of differentiating between various Mardu variants. The other version of the deck foregoes cards like Veteran Motorist and Cultivator’s Caravan for Walking Ballistas and more planeswalkers.
I’ve played a lot of games with both decks, and I can appreciate the upsides of each. But I’m a big fan of keeping things consistent and streamlined for game 1, which is what ultimately tipped my decision to play the classic version rather than the cool Ballista Ranch one.
“You can walk the walk but can you talk about Ballista?”
Walking Ballista is one of the format defining cards in Standard and I can appreciate why people want to maindeck it. For starters, it is strong against the mirror and Saheeli combo. If it is good against the 2 best decks, why not just start it?
In the mirror, a Ballista for 4 is often a 2-for-1 since it can pick off a Toolcraft Exemplar and a Veteran Motorist. I get why people are excited to play a double Doom Blade, but there is a real cost. It’s anemic on turn 2 and it doesn’t crew any Vehicles. Keep in mind that just because a lot of people have reached the conclusion that we are approaching a two-deck tier 1, it doesn’t mean people won’t still jam other decks.
Various flavors of B/G Delirium are still fairly popular in real life and on MTGO. The deck may not be tier 1 but it is good enough to game with for sure. People are going to play what they want to play, and Walking Ballista is very poor against B/G.
Also, while it is a nice hedge against the Saheeli Combo because they can’t go off while it is in play, remember that those decks are perfectly capable of grinding you out without “going off.” The more popular 4-Color Saheeli deck can grind you out with planeswalkers and Whirler Rogues, and Jeskai can kill everything that moves and beatdown with Gearhulks.
It is most useful against Saheeli when you are forcing them to play from behind and can also take away the combo as an out.
Sideboarding is one of the trickiest skills to master with the deck because Mardu has so many good options.
The more controlling Mardu Ballista lists have the ability to sideboard into a much more controlling planeswalker-style deck. I admire the innovation, but I didn’t care much for it in practice. The lists that made Top 8 of Utrecht also had the advantage of surprise on their side for that event. I’m sure that many opponents were caught completely off-guard by Oath of Chandra, Oath of Liliana, and more ‘walkers.
But now that people are prepared, I’d rather just do my own thing and make them respect the possibility that I could have a ‘walker plan.
I do like sideboarding into a version of Mardu that looks like Mardu Ballista in the mirror, because I think that strategy is ideal and suits the grindy games that come along with Release the Gremlins.
The matchup becomes less about running them over with a train and more about grinding advantages. There are so many ways to interact that creating 2-for-1s and protecting planeswalkers are quite important. There is always a battle for position at the beginning and a lot of powerful swingy spells like Release the Gremlins and Archangel Avacyn to bring you back if you fall behind.
You want to be efficient, but also sideboard out your 1-toughness creatures to make opposing Ballistas less spicy. Archangel Avacyn is expensive, but one of the most powerful effects you can have. The flip is also devastating, especially when you have Ballista to force the issue.
A lot of games revolve around Gideon, Ally of Zendikar and trying to force it off the board by attacking. If you can stick a ‘walker and protect it, chances are that you are going to win eventually.
Release the Gremlins can be a swingy effect but sometimes it is difficult to set up. I definitely lost a game with Release the Gremlins to an opponent who just curved out with creatures and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar. Also, Pia Nalaar is great because it lets you sacrifice artifacts to fizzle RTG. I watched a player lose a game he should have won because he didn’t sacrifice his artifacts in response to Release and then to Unlicensed Disintegration! His opponent got an extra two 2/2s and dealt an extra 3 damage because he didn’t see the line.
I’ve played the matchup quite a bit lately and I think it is very close. The combo complicates things, since it forces you to leave mana up while they slowly deal with your pressure.
Expert level card.
The new popularity of Baral’s Expertise as a sideboard card makes me less happy to rely on cards like Ballista and Thalia to fight the combo. If they untap with a Felidar Guardian in play and 5 mana, Saheeli can play Baral’s Expertise and bounce up to 3 on-board hate cards, and then drop Saheeli and win the game. Yikes.
Shock is a card I really like since it only requires you to leave up 1 mana, which allows you to actually cast your high impact 3- and 4-drop spells.
Fatal Push is interaction, but it is narrow and pretty low impact. Since you are boarding in so many cards that are “better” interaction, I don’t mind taking it out.
Thopters for days.
Most of the games play out in such a way that the Mardu player tries to establish pressure in the first four turns and the Saheeli player ramps energy and eventually casts a Virtuoso to buy more time.
I like Archangel Avacyn, since you can leave mana up to interact with the combo and then flash her down if they don’t go for it. Flipping Archangel Avacyn is also a great way to clear out a mass of Thopter tokens and all their other creatures in a race.
The importance of Thopter blocks is the main reason that Motorist comes out. There is nothing worse than having to trade a whole card for just a lowly Thopter! The scry is nice, but the risk is too high.
So, it turns out that one of the early assumptions about the format may have been completely false:
“G/B beats Vehicles…”
I don’t actually believe that statement is true, which is why the format has turned into Mardu vs. Saheeli. It turns out that the Classic Flavor Mardu (not Ballista) and Snakes are very close, and the matchup might even slightly favor Mardu.
Another reason I like the non-Ballista variant is that I like having a strong B/G matchup.
The midrange plan is absurd against B/G. They can’t do much without committing a ton of creatures to the board, in which case you chump-block with your creatures and cast Fumigate. Quite powerful.
I don’t deviate much from my main deck, aside from just bringing in haymaker-type cards and an extra Fatal Push.
Mardu is a great deck and a lot of fun to play once you figure out what is actually going on with all the weird interactions and strange sideboard plans. I really enjoy this list because it is straightforward and powerful, and the sideboard plans are all logical.
Whether you Mardu or MarDon’t play this deck, understanding the matchups are a MarMUST in the current Standard metagame!