It shouldn’t come as a big shock that Wizards decided not to ban any cards in Standard. Even though the format has narrowed to Mardu (Ballista or not) vs. Saheeli combo, we’ve slogged through worse without any action being taken. The Top 32 of both events last weekend shows that people are still playing B/G and Marvel decks, to some degree of success. In Barcelona, we were only a win away from having a pair of Marvel decks in the Top 8.
For most of us, the best option now is to pick one of the two best decks and just git gud. Let’s take a look at the most unique version of the breakthrough winner from this weekend, Ben Friedman’s 2nd-place 4c Saheeli deck.
Adding the delirium package to Saheeli combo has been bandied about before, but the numbers never really seemed to work. But Ben added Walking Ballista as an artifact and a disruption spell for the mirror, which seems like it may have done the trick. This weekend I had recommended a few friends run Ballista in the sideboard because it was so useful in the mirror (as a 2-drop that disrupts the combo when on the draw) and provided another play on curve.
Dropping down to 19 lands is aggressive, but I like it with so many 1-mana ways to hit your land drops. I’ll try this build first, but 2 Attune just feels so wrong. Still, better to give Traverse a fair shot before making any changes. The big gain here is that you increase your threat density without actually cutting away much in mana. Hit your land drops and then find half your combo? Sounds ideal.
Ishkanah, Grafwidow isn’t going to win the game on its own very often, but it will buy a lot of time against the multitude of threats without trample. With Gearhulks being forced out, Spiders can safely chump Heart of Kiran and Archangel Avacyn all day. Speaking of Avacyn, I’ve actually liked using her out of the sideboard in Saheeli. Maybe it’ll be worthwhile in the future as Ballista continues to grow in popularity. Skysovereign, Consul Flagship play picked up at both GPs for the same reason.
The takeaway from the 4c Saheeli decks at both Grand Prix events is the overwhelming inclusion of these mini-packages that support the combo, such as Traverse for threats or Felidar Guardian, Walking Ballista and Archangel Avacyn to have more power in the late game , or Skysovereign, Consul Flagship as a way to make your Rogue Refiners, Guardians, and random Thopters useful in a stalemate.
Mardu tries to do something similar post-board, but it tends to adjust the entire deck around this pivot in strategy. Much like the Splinter Twin decks of old, 4c Saheeli stills get to threaten combo even if the pilot minimized the number of copies of either piece. If you want to get ahead of the curve, figure out the best of these packages to run and get better mirror tech.
As for Mardu players, we didn’t see nearly the same improvement in technology. Though I will say that the list Paul Rietzl and Owen Turtenwald played at the Grand Prix looked very good and is probably the best of the “midrange” iterations of Mardu.
Much like when U/W Flash pilots decided to go bigger, Archangel Avacyn shows a clear change in late-game strategy. Without burn to make up the difference, players have been searching for good ways to close out games. And now that many 4c Saheeli decks are packing Chandra, normal threats have lost some of their luster. Enter the old “best white mythic” from a Standard past. Now Mardu has a card that can attack Chandra and Gideon with impunity and threaten blowouts in a board stall.
Meanwhile, sideboard Painful Truths became the new norm—alongside good answers to threats that Fatal Push—exploiting the fact that there are no real surprise wins in Standard. Very rarely is there a combination of cards that will kill you that you couldn’t have seen coming.
One quirk about this is that the deck only really has a powerful curve when it hits Toolcraft Exemplar on turn 1. The rest of the time it lacks real pressure until turn 3 at the earliest and a single removal spell can stifle it. Instead, Mardu wins many games by just playing better cards than the opponent. In essence, it has become a better B/G deck while keeping a certain percentage of nut draws where the opponent gets run over without playing a game.
As for where we go from here, I think we’ve reached the end game. Unless you’re doing something broken with U/R Emerge or Aetherworks, there just isn’t a reason to pick a non-Mardu or 4c Saheeli deck at the moment. If you’re willing to roll the dice, then these slow strategies now have a bit more time to set up before they start throwing haymakers. There’s still a possibility for one of these linear decks to start making waves, but more likely we’ll just be in this metagame until Amonkhet hits.
The low-key biggest problem facing Standard is how absurdly good the mana is. Mardu has access to fastlands, creaturelands, and multiple 5c untapped lands. Meanwhile, 4c Saheeli has Attune with Aether, Oath of Nissa, Traverse the Ulvenwald, and Servant of the Conduit. That kind of consistency punishes anyone who doesn’t choose the good stuff route.
Mana this consistent that enters untapped means there’s no drawback for picking from the best options across colors. Instead of color restrictions holding you back in deck building, you get format restrictions and that’s a bad look.
Even ignoring the mana itself, powerful colorless threats are always a danger and Wizards has already come out and admitted that Vehicles were pushed too hard. Gold cards suffer from the same imbalance—there’s no downside to playing a more powerful gold card when you sacrifice so little to make the mana happen.
None of this is going away in the short-term though, even taking into account what we’ll lose in rotation. So keep that in mind when designing and tweaking your decks. People are going to pick from the best of the best and you need a good reason not to join them.