Mardu Zoo at Pro Tour Honolulu

Aloha! Today, I’ll go over the Mardu Zoo deck that I played at Pro Tour Honolulu and discuss some other topics related to that event. So let’s dive right in.

In the Standard rounds, I piloted the following deck to a 6-4 finish:

Mardu Zoo

To explain how I arrived at this deck, I need to start at the beginning. Before Kaladesh was even released, I knew that I wanted to play a synergy-driven aggro deck. Looking at the past Pro Tour I played, I had always enjoyed the sequencing decisions and combat math that these kinds of proactive creature decks offer, and I had plenty of experience building synergy-driven decks. So I decided to lock in early, relax, and avoid the stress that tends to come with choosing the right deck for the tournament—no matter what, I would be having fun with 1-drops and burn spells.

When Kaladesh was released, I tried a few options, such as R/G Energy, R/W Vehicles, and B/R Artifact Aggro (essentially the brews that I shared several weeks ago) but I found that they were all lacking a good early-game presence. There were some 1-drops and 2-drops, but I didn’t feel like there were enough to consistently curve out. Since I didn’t want to grind out Aetherworks Marvel and other silly decks with 5-drops and creature removal spells, I wanted to go faster.

The cards I liked best in my early testing were Kird Ape and Wild Nacatl, or at least their Standard equivalents. I didn’t want to choose between them—I wanted to play both. To make that work, however, I needed a lot of artifacts.

I ran some numbers on Inventor’s Apprentice and concluded that 14 artifacts (or artifact-generating cards) was a good number for a deck with 4 Inventor’s Apprentice. But the more the better, and I was looking at a deck with 4 Toolcraft Exemplar as well. Hence, I put a target of 17-18 artifacts total, with at least 15 of them costing 3 mana or less and at least 12 of them costing 2 mana or less.

The ones that I liked best, based on my early games with R/W Vehicles and B/R Artifact Aggro, were Thraben Inspector, Smuggler’s Copter, and Pia Nalaar.

Thraben Inspector was a good crew member for Smuggler’s Copter, and I liked how difficult it was for my opponents to destroy the Clue token.

A lot has been written on Smuggler’s Copter already, so I’ll just reiterate that it is a pushed card and easily the best 2-drop in the deck.

Pia Nalaar provided 2 bodies, which was great against spot removal spells, and all of her abilities were relevant. I particularly liked her ability to sacrifice Clues to prevent creatures from blocking.

After adding some burn spells and sketching out a reasonable mana curve, the deck was shaping up like this:

4 Inventor’s Apprentice
4 Toolcraft Exemplar
4 Thraben Inspector
4 Smuggler’s Copter
7 [Additional 2-Drop Creatures] 3 Pia Nalaar
4 [Additional 3-Drop or 4-Drop Creatures] 4 Fiery Temper
3 [Additional Interactive Cards] 2 Needle Spires
3 Aether Hub
4 Inspiring Vantage
7 [Additional White Sources] 7 [Additional Red Sources]

This mana curve, land base, and split between creatures and spells felt right to me, based on my experience with similar decks in the past.

The mana base was built with Fiery Temper and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar (which I knew would be somewhere in the 75) in mind. It features 14 turn-1 red and white sources and 16 red and white sources total, which were satisfactory numbers to me.

Fiery Temper was my burn spell of choice, and it emphasized the more aggressive stance of the deck. Although Declaration in Stone and Harnessed Lightning are excellent answers to Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet and Smuggler’s Copter, respectively, I prefer burn spells over spot removal spells in the main deck when I play aggro. Burn spells give some reach when you get your opponent down to 3 or 6 life, and against nearly-creatureless decks (like Jeskai Control, Grixis Control, Aetherworks Marvel, and Blue-Red Spells) spot removal can be dead. Fiery Temper was my burn spell of choice over Incendiary Flow because it is excellent with and against Smuggler’s Copter.

So at this point in the building process, I needed at least 6 extra artifacts, with at least 4 of them being 2 mana or less. With that in mind, I considered several options.

Equipment are artifacts, and a 4/5 Stone Haven Outfitter on turn 2 sounded appealing. But it was hard to do that consistently, and equipment cards took Vehicle slots. There are only so many creature-requiring cards you can run before the risk of not controlling any creatures becomes too high, and I felt that the Vehicles were just better for those slots.

The next artifact option I considered was Servo Exhibition. It produces multiple tokens, which means that Toolcraft Exemplar or Inventor’s Apprentice would still be big after one of the artifacts dies. As a result, I would loosely count 4 Servo Exhibition as 5-6 artifacts for my requirements, so that works well.

Servo Exhibition also synergizes nicely with cards like Reckless Bushwhacker and Outnumber. Outnumber, in turn, is a cheap spell to surge Reckless Bushwhacker, making it a better inclusion than Fiery Temper for this kind of deck. Makis Matsoukas put all of these cards to good use at the Pro Tour.

Red-White Tokens

Makis Matsoukas, Top 8 at Pro Tour Kaladesh

Although this approach was potentially powerful, I had several problems with it. First, it was susceptible to Kozilek’s Return and other sweepers. Second, Reckless Bushwhacker was too often a 2/1 haste for 2R with no other abilities in my testing. Maybe I was on the wrong side of variance, as team members reported good results with the card, but every time I drew it, Brazen Scourge would have been better. Finally, the 1/1 tokens would all too often be nullified by an opposing Thraben Inspector or Inventor’s Apprentice (which, by the way, was the main reason why I was not too impressed by Bomat Courier in these kinds of decks either).

Matsoukas’ list looks well thought-out, but I gravitated toward a different creature base, based on the cards that impressed me in my testing.

Scrapheap Scrounger was the 2-drop artifact that I felt was best for the deck. 3 power for 2 mana is a good deal, and along with a few black-producing lands, it is easy to bring back from the graveyard. Its recur ability is a nightmare for control decks and gives you some resiliency against sweepers. It is also pretty sweet to discard to Smuggler’s Copter for value, and I have sacrificed Scrapheap Scrounger multiple times per turn to Pia Nalaar to set up lethal.

To generate black, I already had some copies of Aether Hub, and it was not hard to fit 4 Concealed Courtyard into the mana base. The fastland only has a minor drawback for this low-curve deck.

Once I decided on Scrapheap Scrounger, the rest of the deck came together. Rounding out my artifact count and the top of my curve were several copies of Fleetwheel Cruiser. Veteran Motorist filled out the remaining 2-drop slots. It attacked for 3, set up my draws, and helped me win Smuggler’s Copter fights.

To finish the deck, I wanted two more threats costing 3 or 4 mana and 3 interactive spells that could help me push through for the final points of damage. For these final 5 slots, I chose all 1-ofs. Since the deck has plenty of card selection in Smuggler’s Copter and Veteran Motorist, it is better to be able to choose between 2 different cards than to look at 2 copies of the same card.

The Sideboard

I’ll just go over all of my sideboard options one-by-one and explain when to board them in.

Gideon, Ally of Zendikar: Sideboarded games are often slower and more grindy than preboard games, as opponents typically bring in additional removal spells. This means that aggro decks typically cannot win on speed alone. To compensate for that, heavy-hitting 4-drops like Gideon are perfect, and I bring them in for almost every matchup.

Always Watching: This card is meant for decks with Smuggler’s Copter and Weaver of Lightning. The +1/+1 boost helps you win Copter fights and allows you to attack more easily into Weaver of Lightning. What’s more, it saves your 1-toughness creatures from the ping triggers. Finally, vigilance is huge in a damage race.

Selfless Spirit: The indestructible effect is great against Radiant Flames and Kozilek’s Return. I considered Make a Stand and Repel the Abominable as well, but I like a more proactive card that doesn’t force me to keep mana up and that can still attack for 2 even if the opponent didn’t draw a sweeper. It is worth noting that Repel the Abominable would be decent against the red-green double strike deck as well—if it weren’t for the fact that it doesn’t do anything against Voltaic Brawler.

Skywhaler’s Shot: I needed answers against Mindwrack Demon and Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet. Otherwise, I would just get brickwalled on turn 4. The removal spell is also good against Metalwork Colossus and big Electrostatic Pummelers. Skywhaler’s Shot is worse than Unlicensed Disintegration, but I wanted to have at least 10 black sources to fit in the black card, and that demanded quite a few slots. My sideboard had 3 black sources and 4 Unlicensed Disintegration for quite a while, but everyone told me that the black splash was not worth it, so I ultimately cut the black lands and added Skywhaler’s Shot instead.

Galvanic Bombardment: I only planned to board in this card against the red-green double strike deck, but it’s a matchup where you need some help and cheap interaction is the best way to fight them. Given that the deck didn’t post an impressive performance at the Pro Tour and given that it’s the only deck that heavily relies on early drops with 1 or 2 toughness, I’m fine with cutting the Bombardments from the sideboard.

Blessed Alliance: If you’re being attacked by a 64/64 trampling Electrostatic Pummeler with hexproof, then Blessed Alliance is a perfect answer. It’s also playable against red-black decks who board in Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet. But it could easily be cut from the sideboard as well.

Fairgrounds Warden: It’s an excellent answer to Ulamog and Emrakul from the Aetherworks Marvel deck. Because it can only exile opposing creatures, an Emrakul can typically not prevent you from mis-using Fairgrounds Warden. I also planned to bring in the card against decks with big creatures if they didn’t have that many spot removal spells. And at the very worst, Fairgrounds Warden will jump into a Vehicle.

Key to the City: I found this to be one of the best cards against green-black delirium. They can gum up the ground with Ishkanah, Grafwidow and other blockers while you keep getting in with an unblockable creature every turn. You even get to filter through your deck and turn on artifacts-matter cards in the process.

Chandra, Torch of Defiance: I wanted an extra removal spell against Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet but didn’t want to fill up my sideboard with Skywhaler’s Shots. Meanwhile, I also wanted an extra sweeper-resistant threat against control decks. Chandra offered both effects in 1 slot.

Needle Spires: Against sweeper-heavy control decks, I tend to up my curve a bit by bringing in all the 4-cost planeswalkers. I’m also keeping Fleetwheel Cruiser. To compensate for the higher mana curve and to gain another sweeper-resistant threat, I had 1 Needle Spires in the board.

My sideboard had no Fragmentize, Lantern Scout, Thalia, Heretic Cathar, or Skysovereign, Consul Flagship because there were (almost) no decks against which I wanted to board these cards in.

Sideboard Plans

Given that the Standard format is changing rapidly and your version may be different from mine, I’m not going to provide fixed sideboarding guides. Moreover, I find myself switching things up all the time depending on who is on the play and the peculiar card choices of my opponent. Instead, I’ll offer some general sideboard advice on what to board out. (To see what to board in, refer to the previous section.)

There is a set of cards that I pretty much never touch while sideboarding: Toolcraft Exemplar, Inventor’s Apprentice, Thraben Inspector, Scrapheap Scrounger, Smuggler’s Copter, Pia Nalaar, and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar. I never transform into a control deck after sideboarding, and I will always keep an aggressive stance with the key early drops. I also never want to go below 15 artifacts after sideboarding.

The remaining cards, however, do come out in various matchups:
Declaration in Stone can come out against any deck without Kalitas, Ishkanah, or Electrostatic Pummeler. Remember that many black-red decks have Kalitas in their sideboard.
Key to the City can come out against any deck without Ishkanah or Torrential Gearhulk.
Incendiary Flow can come out against any deck without Scrapheap Scrounger, Prized Amalgam, or Electrostatic Pummeler.
Depala, Pilot Exemplar can come out against any deck with efficient spot removal spells, but you should keep her against decks with Smuggler’s Copter or Kozilek’s Return.
Veteran Motorist can come out against any deck without Smuggler’s Copter. Against decks with Liliana, the Last Hope, you should board out at least one 3/1.
Fleetwheel Cruiser can come out when you’re on the draw against another creature deck or when you’re boarding in 4-drops without adding lands.
Fiery Temper can come out when you’re playing against a deck with little to no small creatures. You don’t have to board out all 4, but I often cut multiple copies against control or combo decks. If you can’t figure out what else to cut, then shaving 1 Fiery Temper even against opposing creature deck is acceptable.
• You can sometimes board out a Mountain when you’re on the draw, didn’t add 4-drops, and took out at least 1 Fiery Temper.

How about intensifying the splash?

My list only splashed black for the activated ability of Scrapheap Scrounger, but you can go deeper. Team MTGMintCard went as far as playing 4 colors in their list—blue only for Ceremonious Rejection from the sideboard—which was held together by Cultivator’s Caravan and more fastlands.

4-Color Vehicles

Lee Shi Tian, Top 8 at Pro Tour Kaladesh

I admire the creativity here and I appreciate the 5 toughness on Cultivator’s Caravan, but I still think it’s a worse Vehicle than Fleetwheel Cruiser in game 1. Moreover, I think the artifact count in this deck is a little on the low side—I don’t like to draw multiple Aether Hubs in my opening hand, and I still find Pia Nalaar and Fiery Temper more appealing than Depala, Pilot Exemplar and Harnessed Lightning.

Finally, given that there were 2 Counterspell-heavy control decks in the finals of the Pro Tour, I expect less Aetherworks Marvel going forward, which means that Ceremonious Rejection may not be necessary in the sideboard. Cutting the blue would also improve the mana base, as Spirebluff Canal is not completely free. Sometimes you want to play Gideon or two 2-drops on turn 4, and then the fastland is annoying.

But I do like the black. Cultivator’s Caravan may be the correct way to add an extra black source for Unlicensed Disintegration to the deck, so I at least want to give that a try. Given that there were plenty of Thing in the Ice and relatively few Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet in the Top 8 of the Pro Tour, I prefer to have Unlicensed Disintegration over Skywhaler’s Shot in my sideboard.

With all that in mind, I intend to test the following list for Grand Prix Warsaw:

Mardu Zoo Update

The black splash does come at the expense of certain slots, and you will sometimes still lack a black source for Unlicensed Disintegration, but I think 10 sources is fine, especially when you factor in the card selection from Smuggler’s Copter and Veteran Motorist.

I still don’t want Unlicensed Disintegration in the main deck because I want to be as fast as possible in game 1, and Foreboding Ruins and Shambling Vents don’t mesh well with that plan because they enter the battlefield tapped. Moreover, it’s a miserable draw against decks like Aetherworks Marvel or U/R Spells. But as I mentioned, post-sideboard games are often a bit slower and more dependent on high-impact cards (for instance, when opponents board in Kalitas) which is when Unlicensed Disintegration can come in handy.

Tips and tricks for playing with Vehicles

Vehicles are a new card type that lead to all kinds of weird timing situations. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Frequently, you have a Toolcraft Exemplar, a Smuggler’s Copter, and a crew member, while you fear your opponent might have, say, a Harnessed Lightning for Smuggler’s Copter. In that case, you should let the Toolcraft Exemplar trigger happen first, crew up the Copter afterward, and then go to declare attackers. If your opponent kills the Copter at that point to deny the loot trigger, you at least have a 3/2 to attack with.
  • Likewise, you can trigger Toolcraft Exemplar at the beginning of combat and subsequently tap the 3/2 to crew Fleetwheel Cruiser. To do this (and the preceding trick) on Magic Online, you should put a stop in the beginning of combat step on your own turn.
  • If the top card of your library is unknown, then you should always loot with Smuggler’s Copter, even if your hand is already 100% perfect. The reason is that you can hit Scrapheap Scrounger or Fiery Temper, which you can discard for value.
  • If the top card of your library is known due to the scry from Veteran Motorist and you have no bad cards in hand, then you should often choose to not loot with Smuggler’s Copter. Better to keep a good card on top than to mill it away, essentially.
  • If you crew a Smuggler’s Copter with Veteran Motorist, then it will be a 4/4 once it turns into a creature. There is never a point where a Fiery Temper can take down your Smuggler’s Copter in that situation.
  • You can re-crew Vehicles. This is particularly relevant when you’re attacking with multiple Vehicles and have an untapped Veteran Motorist. You can use Veteran Motorist to give one of your Vehicles +1/+1 after your opponent has declared blockers.
  • This rarely comes up, but you can crew a Fleetwheel Cruiser with a Smuggler’s Copter if you want to.

On Kaladesh Limited

As I wrote when I offered my initial pick order list, there would inevitably be cards where my first impression would be off. I won’t go over everything comprehensively, as Martin Juza told me he was planning to write about Kaladesh Limited and he went 6-0 in the Draft rounds at the Pro Tour.

But I can offer a few short notes. At the cabin in the Czech woods (where I drafted with Martin and the rest of Cabin Crew) we found that red-black, black-white, and green-white were the best-performing archetypes and that blue was the worst color. The fabricate creatures with the black artifact-matters cards were great for us in testing.

Now that I have had the opportunity to play with the set a bit more, I can also pinpoint a few cards that are worse or better than my initial impression.

5 Cards I Overrated:

5 Cards I Underrated:

The upcoming Pro Tours in Dublin, Nashville, and Kyoto

For the past 3 years, I played all of the Pro Tours, had a great time, and visited many nice places. I reached some of my goals (such as becoming the Dutch WMC captain) and failed to reach others (such as winning a Grand Prix or Pro Tour).

This season, I intend to spend a bit less time on Magic tournaments and preparation. I will continue playing most of the Pro Tours, writing my column, and (hopefully) doing event coverage work, but I will attend fewer Grands Prix, may skip a Pro Tour, and will no longer dedicate 2 weeks of team testing for every Pro Tour. In a sense, I’d like to put my Magic focus on content creation over competition.

A main reason for this change is that I lost my competitive drive a little bit recently. I noticed I wasn’t playing well anymore and didn’t care as much about my final record at the event. This has happened to me in the past, and it’s nothing to worry about. But when it happens, it’s best to take a bit of a break. If you ever get into a similar slump, then I recommend the same. Magic will surely be around when you get the fire again.

Another reason, which is more specific to me, is that Hall-of-Famers no longer get any appearance fees or flights to Pro Tours (nor are we allowed to play RPTQs to win a flight). Moreover, the Modern Pro Tour, my favorite of the year, was abolished. All of this gives me less of an incentive to craft my schedule around the Pro Tours. (I don’t mean any of this as a complaint—I just want to explain why you might not see me at all Pro Tours this season.)

Finally, as for team testing, it definitely adds a bit of an edge, but I am not convinced it is that large. There is a lot of time lost in communicating, coordinating, traveling, building physical decks, and so on. It’s nice to have a lot of people testing everything if you want to figure out the entire metagame, and it can be a lot of fun to play games with a dedicated group for a week or two, but I really enjoyed my approach of locking into a synergy-driven aggro deck early for this Pro Tour and I plan to keep doing that. Life is much more relaxed when you lock into a deck early. That leaves draft preparation, but I think that can be done conveniently on Magic Online now that prerelease Drafts are available two days earlier and Leagues are much more time-efficient.

So that’s what I’ll try for the rest of the season. My main goal will be to have fun at the events I play in, without trying to hit any pro levels. Win or lose, I’ll have a good time, and that’s ultimately what Magic should be about.


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