Before we begin talking about Standard, let’s address the elephant in the room. Yes, week 1 of the new format was punctuated by Mardu dominance. Go figure. Keep in mind this was previously a two-deck format and one of the decks wasn’t touched. Players had a whopping 2 days notice if they wanted to play something else instead. This was also including the fact that it was a week 1 tournament, which made for card availability issues since many non-Mardu decks were significantly impacted by the bans and Amonkhet. That’s why I’m not too worried about the Top 8 of the first Open.
I think Mardu got weaker on the whole, but it is still one of the best decks around. When people say Amonkhet hurt it, it’s because the deck lost a decent matchup and the metagame was going to become more hostile to it. Also, many of the cards that fit the deck would require some reworking of the existing strategy instead of slotting them in as replacements or upgrades.
I’ll be surprised if the Pro Tour showcases mono-Mardu like previous Top 8s, but hey—if it does, it does. For now I just want to look at the changes and variations the archetype has made. For example, this version came in 2nd this weekend in the Magic Online PTQ.
Notice anything missing? Toolcraft Exemplar missed the cut! When we talk about killing your darlings, this is a prime example. Instead, Pascal plays Veteran Motorist, Caravan, and additional mana sinks like Glorybringer and Cut // Ribbons.
Cut // Ribbons may have flown under the radar. I saw some chatter about it when it got spoiled, but that quickly died out and few people seriously suggested it become part of the core of Mardu. It makes sense here, though—it’s an early removal spell that kills most of the creatures in the format and comes back as a Devil’s Play to the dome later. It forces people to respect your burn even if they lock up the battlefield, whereas before Disintegration was the only burn spell in the deck.
One of the biggest advantages a build like this has over the standard Mardu deck is that your sideboarding strategy isn’t so disruptive to your main plan. Last season’s lists often had you going aggressive or taking out your stronger early game cards to make room for the full transformation to control. This allows you to better control your tempo, which will become more important as the metagame pans out and we see exactly how many control and midrange decks there are. You also have an edge in the mirror where Toolcraft Exemplar was easy to answer and often had no value after turn 3.
Andrew Jessup’s winning Mardu build will likely become the new normal, but also has the least to talk about. Walking Ballista and Archangel Avacyn still make the cut despite replacements being available, and Cut // Ribbons and Canyon Slough will likely be adopted by every Mardu build. Outside of that, the only things of note are that Transgress the Mind is still the best discard option available for the sideboard, and Painful Truths got better due to an influx of midrange.
Unfair: Bant and Temur Marvel
Sam Lowe, 1st place at SCG Atlanta Classic
zeuth, 1st place at 4/29 Magic Online PTQ
Sometimes you just spin the wheel and that’s all it takes. Aetherworks Marvel is still one of the most powerful cards in the format, pushed aside simply because Copycat was the more streamlined of the two. Even then, Aetherworks would occasionally make an appearance to help support the combo or provide a value engine. Now that Felidar Guardian is no longer, Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger has reclaimed its title of most powerful play in the format. Not only that, but cycling and cards like Pull from Tomorrow make it more consistent at actually finding its Aetherworks.
Both Censor and Cast Out seemed like reasonable options in Saheeli, and may play even better in Marvel decks because spinning up Marvel costs no mana. Additionally, if you aren’t tapping out to play energy creatures, Censor is amazing for you. Either your opponent doesn’t pressure you for a turn and you dig a card deeper, or you get to counter their early game drop, which buys you time. Rarely is Censor bad in the deck and I’d be surprised if players didn’t run at least 2.
As for the classic question of which color pairing is better, Bant gives you an array of artifact and enchantment hate, and Cast Out and Fumigate as big draws to the deck. Meanwhile, Temur can give you Magma Spray, Harnessed Lightning, Chandra, and Whirler Virtuoso (assuming you keep the energy package). I just rebuilt my Bant Marvel deck online and I’ll be seeing how that plays, though Fumigate looks well suited to dealing with the current Mardu lists. I’ve also always been a sucker for Linvala, the Preserver, though that was when I could make copies of her. Regal Caracal may just be the better choice as it produces a couple of life gain bodies and comes down a turn earlier.
One final note, Nissa’s Renewal looks like a reasonable mainstay of the deck if Cut // Ribbons is a staple now. Losing after you’ve wiped Mardu’s board and just need a turn or two to attack for the win is awful and 7 life goes a long way toward making sure it doesn’t happen. Between that, Fumigate, and Puzzleknots, the deck actually has a significant chunk of life gain to offset early beatdown. Something to keep in mind if your primary plan against the deck is to go under it.
Too Fair: U/W Control
Sometimes you end up being a little too fair for your own good. These types of decks can still be good, but the lack of free wins and a penchant for draws mean that unless you’re abusing a skill gap you’re handicapping yourself. U/W Control has long been an example of one of these decks, and this time around is no different. I really have enjoyed playing the U/W deck and I wouldn’t be surprised if a shell of it is tier 1. But right now it just feels like a weaker iteration of U/R or Jeskai Control.
While I think Cast Out and Censor are the two best cards in the set, you lose out on creaturelands, some very solid Torrential Gearhulk hits, and your sideboard is significantly more limited. Access to Magma Spray completely changes how you play the Mardu matchup, and without Wandering Fumarole you often need a backup win condition.
If you do go the U/W/x route, then let’s take a look at some Jeskai builds from Emma Handy and Matthew Wright.
I think Cast Out and Censor are absurd Magic cards, and seeing them as 4-ofs in Wright’s list makes me happy. I’ll also be honest and say Harnessed Lightning doesn’t really impress me if you aren’t doing anything busted with the energy. Making a bunch of Thopters or activating Aetherworks Marvel is great—casting a slightly bigger Harnessed Lightning is meh. You’re going to be on the defensive for the bulk of the match, so why not just play Immolating Glare and take care of all your potential attacking problems?
If you have Fumigate and Cast Out, what non-attacking creature threats are you afraid to leave on the board for a turn or two? Tireless Tracker? Ishkanah if they can activate the ability? Plus, you already have access to Magma Spray, Sweltering Suns, and Radiant Flames out of the board if you choose. There are very few scary threats in Standard that won’t be attacking you.
Other little tech choices I like for the future: Forsake the Worldly also answers Heart of Kiran and Aetherworks Marvel, and should be main deck in pretty much every control build. You lose very little by running at least 1, and Torrential Gearhulk gives it a lot of extra utility.
Nahiri, the Harbinger is one of the few planeswalkers I’d be happy playing game 1. Having 1 or 2 in the deck is a nice hedge when you don’t draw Pull from Tomorrow or don’t want to overload on them. I understand not just jamming 4 Pull into the deck, but frankly I’ve wanted it over Glimmer of Genius a majority of the time.
I expected to see more Regal Caracal out of the sideboard. It can come down in lieu of Fumigate and provides a lot of lifelink bodies. They also excel in multiples compared to a card like Linvala, and Mardu can’t really ignore it. Mardu creatures don’t block well, and they don’t have removal that takes out all the kitties at once.
This week, I plan on giving some Marvel decks a spin, taking a look at the mono-black lists, and I’ll report back next week.