Mardu is the most important deck in Standard—it's arguably the most powerful, and certainly the most popular. Throughout this month, we've seen Mardu decks do well in several tournaments across the world: GPs, RPTQs, and the MOCS. Yet, it seems that no one can really agree on what the best Mardu list looks like. In today's article I'm going to analyze the options you have, and tell you what I believe to be the best choice right now.
Veteran Motorist or Walking Ballista?
A couple of weeks ago, almost everybody was on the Veteran Motorist train—only the Japanese played any Walking Ballistas in Mardu at the Pro Tour, as far as I know. At the subsequent GP and MOCS, almost everybody was playing Walking Ballista. So which one is better?
In my mind, Walking Ballista has one major advantage over Veteran Motorist. It's colorless, and makes your mana significantly better. First, because you don't need any colored mana to cast it (which means it's always castable and it doesn't deplete your Aether Hubs), and second because it turns on Spire of Industry.
It also has one major downside when compared to Veteran Motorist—it sucks.
There's no way to sugarcoat it. Walking Ballista is just not a good card in Mardu Vehicles. Most of the time, it's a 2-mana Mogg Fanatic, and Mogg Fanatic hasn't been good since 1997. It doesn't pressure anybody, it doesn't crew Vehicles, it doesn't pump Vehicles, and it doesn't scry 2. You know what does all those things? Veteran Motorist.
People seem to think that Ballista is some sort of super trump in the mirror. It's good in some spots in the mirror for sure, but a lot of the time it just trades 1-for-1. Imagine a scenario where I have Motorist and you have Ballista. If we both play our cards and they trade, I'm ahead one scry 2. If we both have Heart of Kiran, I can crew mine and you can't crew yours. I'm now ahead one scry 2 and 5 damage.
Of course, there will be situations where you play a Ballista for 2 and kill two creatures, or a situation where the game stalls and a Ballista that you can keep charging dominates. In the end, though, it's too disconnected from what the deck is trying to do—it's simply too anemic of a creature for a deck that wins matches because it beats down harder than anything else in the format.
Ballista does have the advantage of stopping the Saheeli combo dead in its tracks, and it does kill multiple Thopters, so it certainly has its appeal. But overall I think the combination of 3 power plus crewing Vehicles plus scry 2 is just too good. The scry in particular is amazing in the deck, allowing you to keep borderline hands that really need a land or two to work, fixing your mana early on and then acting as effectively "draw a card" when you scry a land to the bottom in the middle-to-late game.
To me, there's no question that Veteran Motorist is the superior card by a decent margin. The only question is whether the mana can reliably support it. I think that if you play R/W/b, then it can. If you play B/W/r, then it cannot. Then the question becomes: "How much do you want to play main-deck Fatal Push?"
Shock or Fatal Push?
With the prevailing notion that B/G was Mardu's bad matchup (a notion I do not agree with), Fatal Push main deck became the norm. At the MOCS, the two Mardu decks in the Top 4 had a total of 7 main-deck Fatal Pushes and 0 main-deck Shocks. In fact, the only main-deck Shock in the entire tournament came from Thiago Saporito's 4c Saheeli deck. With the emergence of 4c Saheeli as the other tier 1 deck in the format, it's time to go back to Shocks.
There are pros and cons to both Shock and Fatal Push. Push is much better against B/G, where it kills Winding Constrictor and Walking Ballistas of any size, and it's also better against Heart of Kiran, which makes it a better card in the mirror most of the time. That said, I think both those factors are nullified by the direction the metagame is taking. I believe B/G to be a fine matchup anyway, and it's been dwindling in popularity as people realize it doesn't have any good matchups. As for Heart, it's only a major concern in game 1. Some people will take it out game 2, and for those who keep it you have artifact removal.
Shock's advantages, on the other hand, are at an all-time high. The first big advantage is that it's better on your mana. If you want to cast a lot of main-deck Pushes, it's hard to play Veteran Motorist, which I've already established as a card I want to play. Even if you don't play Motorist, you're usually forced into some high number of Aether Hubs—a card I strongly dislike. The plethora of sideboard artifact removal makes it hard to rely on Cultivator's Caravan to cast your removal spells, and a lot of Mardu mirrors are decided by whoever has functional mana, so being able to play with better mana is a huge upside.
The second advantage—and this one is big—is that Shock is actively great against 4c Saheeli, and Push is not. The ability to disrupt their infinite combo for only 1 mana is amazing, and being able to kill Rogue Refiner is a nice plus, since the deck currently doesn't have many 5/4s for your opponent to attack into. The direct damage can be used to finish them or their planeswalkers off, and it's often easier to kill a Felidar Guardian with combat plus Shock than it is with Fatal Push, since there aren't many revolt enablers. Nowadays, Shock is especially good against the combo, since people will often assume you don't run it and go for it into open red mana.
On top of that, there are some extra bonuses to Shock, such as being much more efficient in killing Thalia, Guardian of Thraben, often the 3-drop of choice those days. If you can Shock their 3-drop, that's a huge tempo swing for you.
All in all, I see the benefits of Push, but I think the pros of Shock far outweigh the cons. If Push cost red mana, then maybe it'd be different, but if I want to play Veteran Motorist (which I do), then Shock is superior. If both Shock and Push were in the same color, I'd probably play a mix as a concession to Heart of Kiran, but that's about the only thing that scares me that Shock doesn't deal with.
Blue in the Sideboard, or Not?
At PT AER, our team played some sideboarded blue lands and Metallic Rebukes (plus Ceremonious Rejection, but let's try to forget that). We got a couple of laughs from the sideboarded lands, but given that there was absolutely nothing we wanted to sideboard anyway, it could easily have been right.
Nowadays, blue has fallen out of favor, and I think it makes sense. Metallic Rebuke is your best card against specifically Torrential Gearhulk, but now that Saheeli decks are 4 colors instead of Jeskai, there aren't that many Torrential Gearhulks around. It's still going to be great against Tower control decks, but you're mostly fine against those without it, especially if you play cards like Chandra post-board.
For this reason, I'd avoid playing blue right now. If the metagame gets to a point where Jeskai Saheeli becomes the most popular Saheeli build again, then I'd reconsider it.
There are 5 potential 3-drops that you can realistically play in Mardu:
I'm down on Caravan and Harvester at the moment because I think there's too much artifact removal coming out of the sideboard. You can use those cards game 1, but you can't rely on Caravan to cast Fatal Push out of the sideboard when some people board in four Release the Gremlins. I wouldn't be opposed to playing a Caravan main, though (the mana is not useless and a 5/5 is big), I just wouldn't rely on it for color fixing in game 2.
Harvester is, to me, a low impact card. It's much better with Ballista, since it gives you a use for the 1/1, but 3/5 is just too defensive a combination of stats. It does pressure planeswalkers, which are currently popular, but I want my Vehicles to do a little bit more than that—it's not like other 3-drops won't pressure planeswalkers.
This leaves Thalia, Pia, and Depala. Of those three, I think Thalia is the best. It serves as a "Seal of They Can't Combo" just like Walking Ballista does, but it has better offensive capabilities. I originally didn't love it in the mirror, but that was when it just traded for Shock. Nowadays, with people mostly running Push, it's harder to profitably trade with.
Thalia is significantly better on the play than on the draw, because on the play she can punish fastlands. The natural progression of Standard decks is to play nonbasics on turns 1-3 and then basics on turn 4, but when you stop their turn-3 land (which Thalia will do on the play) then you can actually Time Walk your opponent. Other than that, Thalia is also great against opposing Vehicles, since the normal play pattern is to play a creature to crew the Vehicle (giving the creature haste, so to speak), and Thalia makes sure that if a Vehicle is going to be crewed, then it has to be with a creature that could have attacked instead.
Pia and Depala serve somewhat similar roles in the deck. They can help you push through a board stall and mitigate flooding. Pia is the usually better card, but Depala has her moments too, and I'm not entirely sure why she's fallen so much out of favor. Perhaps it's a reflection of Oath of Chandra's popularity.
I like playing at least 2 Thalias and at least 2 Pias. My fifth 3-drop of choice is a Caravan because I think you actually want the mana to guarantee you'll cast Gideon, Ally of Zendikar turn 3, and a turn 3 of Caravan plus Shock is strong. My sixth 3-drop of choice would be either a second Caravan or a Depala.
To Play Aether Hub, or Not?
I despise Aether Hub—it's just so bad in a deck with this many 1-drops. Aether Hub makes the mana look great, since people just count it as all colors (so they say things like "I have 20 white sources, 16 red sources, and 12 black sources"), but in practice it's not even close to a tri-land. I think you can play Hub if you play something like Josh Utter-Leyton's version, which has no Motorist and Aethersphere Harvesters, but if I play Motorist, I like keeping it to a maximum of 1. Without the blue sideboard, I actually think you're fine just playing 0 Aether Hubs, but 1 is fine as well.
The Build I Would Play
The deck I'd play, if I were to play Mardu tomorrow, is remarkably similar to our Pro Tour deck:
It's possible that another dual land is better than the Aether Hub. I want it to produce black, for Disintegration, but it also ideally produces red for sideboard Chandra. Perhaps the best choice is just Smoldering Marsh?
There are two ways you can go with Mardu sideboards. You can morph into a control deck with planeswalkers, or you can just have a normal board. The transformational sideboard is appealing because it uses your slots better, but I don't think it's what the deck really wants to be doing in any matchup other than B/G, now that people are ready for it (and it's also better with Push than with Shock).
I think we can try to meet halfway and play some expensive spells—Chandra and Archangel Avacyn, mainly—while keeping our deck aggressive. I like Archangel Avacyn against the mirror (it's very good for you if they tap out for a planeswalker or Fumigate and you play Archangel Avacyn) and especially 4c Saheeli, as it lets you hold mana up to stop the combo while still adding to the board at some point, and if it ever flips it just clears the board. It's better with the Ballista combo, of course, but still good without it, and it's possible you want to sideboard in Walking Ballista.
My sideboard would definitely include:
Past that, there's nothing I truly want. Fatal Push would be good, but again, I don't want to rely on Caravan in post-board games, so I don't think you can play it. You probably still want some extra removal for Winding Constrictor, and you can play either Oath of Chandra or Harnessed Lightning for that. If you're one of those crazy people that like Aether Hub, then I think Harnessed Lightning is definitely better, as you can use it to kill Archangel Avacyn or Gearhulk. Other options include Skywhaler's Shot (also good versus Archangel Avacyn), and potentially an extra Needle Spires and some Walking Ballista to complement your Archangel Avacyns. I do not like Fumigate or Nahiri, and I don't think you can play Ob Nixilis with a red mana base.