This article was written before the Top 8 of the Pro Tour was played.
As you may have noticed, the Pro Tour Top 8 failed to feature a breakout deck. What it did do was remind us that just because a deck has a bad weekend or two, it doesn’t so easily become irrelevant. Also, in just 2 weeks, I got real tired of the “Walking Ballista crushes aggro” refrain—it doesn’t always come in as a 4/4 on turn 4. Glad we can put that to rest for a bit.
This weekend was a bit of a victory lap for the Vehicles decks. After successfully getting one card banned in Smuggler’s Copter, they tried to make a case for Heart of Kiran‘s ouster as well. I wasn’t as confident in Mardu Vehicles as I was in Dark Jeskai, but I was confident enough to call it after the first weekend. I saw the metagame and was convinced these decks beat Saheeli and all the other random decks. Post-board with Fatal Push and Harvester, I also felt like B/G wasn’t nearly as bad as people made it sound.
That’s the key here—in every fresh metagame we work with a number of assumptions and the PT either confirms them nor blows them out of the water.
The 4 Key Takeaways
- Mardu Vehicles (and by extension aggro) is a good choice simply because it has a real curve. Other decks sacrificed too much early interaction. This deck has always been solid solely on the basis of being difficult to stop when it curves out correctly. Look at the difference between the post-ban and pre-ban versions. Inventor’s Apprentice fell by the wayside because it was difficult to cast on turn 1 and had too little impact as a 2-power creature. Creatures in Mardu need to provide 3 power or some utility.In Donald Smith’s build, he took this a step further by adding Bomat Courier to the deck as an additional 1-drop. Why? Utility. It provides another card to curve out with (unaffected by your mana base) and later in the game can provide a handful of cards (or at least cycle). Other players like Yuchen Liu and PVDDR cut alternate 1-drops from the deck entirely. Instead, they bolstered the 3- and 4-mana slots of their curve. Even though they didn’t max out on 1-drops, they didn’t need to go heavy because so few other decks had relevant 1-mana plays.
Even the 2-drop slot displays a massive gulf in the quality of plays for an aggressive strategy. Scrapheap Scrounger ended up as the top card at the Pro Tour because it did everything. It attacked for 3, had no impact on your mana, fought through all forms of removal, and crewed Heart of Kiran immediately. It was possibly the perfect aggro 2-drop for this format, and Mardu Vehicles takes full advantage of it. Veteran Motorist may have been looked down upon for only having 1 toughness, but in the mirror pumping your Heart or Harvester is a huge advantage.
What do the rest of the decks in the metagame do early in the game? Sure, G/B Delirium/Aggro has Grim Flayer and Winding Constrictor, but those are effectively mediocre creatures until their bonuses are active. In fact, that’s why G/B was favored against Mardu initially. Even though what they were doing wasn’t as strong, it still made the Mardu player, react to it. They didn’t just give up all their mana. Trading early was fine because they could turn the corner with their 4- and 5-drops and suddenly you had to try and eek out those last few points of damage.
Saheeli has Shock and maybe a Negate or Revolutionary Rebuff to interact with you. They really don’t do anything, though. Other decks play cards like Longtusk Cub or Servant on the Conduit. Everyone gives you time to set up and wants to buy back tempo later. One of the reasons U/W Flash was so good was because it was great at matching your early plays with their own.
Besides, for all the talk about how control always overperforms at PTs, the “red deck” has done just as well in recent years.
- Combo decks are only as good as their card filtering or search. Saheeli may have been a mistake to let loose on the format and R&D has already said that they outright missed it. Still, there were so many articles claiming that Saheeli was going to ruin the format—perhaps down the road it will. The drawback of this kind of combo isn’t the immediate danger—it’s down the line when some utility card fixes a key problem for the deck. For now, the problem that plagues Saheeli is finding its early interaction and combo pieces with any consistency.None of the known builds are very good at assembling the combo. There are no 1-mana filter spells, and Anticipate is a joke. Oath of Jace is a bad one-shot Attunement, and Glimmer is instant-speed Divination. The deck really wants a Fact or Fiction or Dig Through Time, but will settle for an Impulse or even a Concentrate to recoup some cards. Even a card like Sleight of Hand would make the deck so much better. Maybe an all-in version using the red draw like Tormenting Voice and Cathartic Reunion is the answer.
Aetherworks Marvel succeeded because the combo is effectively self-contained in the 1 card and can’t be disrupted by creatures. This makes focusing on it a lot easier. And unlike your typical combo deck, Saheeli is bad against aggro. If your combo deck has an unfavorable aggro matchup, then where is your advantage? That was the difference between Richmond and the Pro Tour metagame. The former stuck to their midrange guns and got rolled by combo decks that needed the extra time to draw their combo. The latter just played decks that ran them over before they got situated.
- What changed after the bans and Aether Revolt? We have a playable aggro deck, playable midrange, playable combo, and nearly good control decks. Sound familiar? Essentially, this is where we were before, but the games aren’t as binary. It has, however, opened up the range of midrange strategies. If Saheeli falls out of favor, suddenly a deck like G/W Tokens doesn’t look unplayable anymore. Big G/B could be poised for a comeback since it has life gain and Ishkanah.Aetherworks Combo has also been completely written out of the metagame and I’m not sure why. People may be tired of spinning the wheel, but it’s one of the few decks that can go over the top consistently and there are a million ways to build it. One of them has to be viable if people are going to play Mardu, B/G, and Saheeli.
- Now we know what will be banned post-Pro Tour. Drumroll please……
Seriously, if your Pro Tour is saturated with aggro at the top of the standings, you’re probably in a pretty good place. Scrapheap Scrounger and Heart of Kiran were over-represented, but they were mostly just good for this tournament. Aggressive strategies were the right call, and these 2 colorless cards go in nearly every aggressive strategy. Smuggler’s Copter was basically correct to put in everything, even if you had to add creatures to properly enable it. Heart of Kiran demands some deck-building constraints, and Fatal Push means it should never reach the level of dominance that Copter did.
No, the real takeaway is that Vehicles were an unknown quantity and that they ended up too pushed. Smuggler’s Copter, Heart of Kiran, and Aethersphere Harvester recall a trifecta I’m very familiar with.
Vehicles are cool and I hope we see more of them sooner rather than later. But crew 1 is dangerous, and should only be put on a card if it’s designed for Limited. Alternate crew costs are in the same boat. Aethersphere Harvester is what Batterskull wanted to be—a way to bust open creature mirrors without being overwhelmingly strong early. Unfortunately, it has a crew cost of 1, so it ends up playing out well even if you flood on Vehicles, which takes away some of the sting of the drawback.
I’m not going to put R&D on blast for colorless threats being too good, because it came attached to a new mechanic and Scrounger requires black to function. But it doesn’t take much for a colorless card to be absolutely everywhere if it’s too good, and I’d be surprised to see another catch-all power artifact printed any time soon. It could be worse, though—anyone who played with or against Cursed Scroll can attest to that.
I’m happy I had the right metagame read this time around, and I’m sure many are happy that their cards are still worth something. A little more shakeup would’ve been good, but that could still happen once the full PT lists are released. Remember, U/W Flash only put a single copy into the Top 8 of Pro Tour Kaladesh, but ended up being the dominate strategy for a month following the PT. Plus, that Jund Energy Vehicle hybrid deck that Juza played sure does look spicy…