This coming weekend, we have 2 Standard Grand Prix in New Jersey and Barcelona that will give us a better sense of where this Standard format is headed. For a while, it seemed that the format was similar to a game of rock, paper, scissors, where Mardu beat 4-Color Copycat, which beat B/G Constrictor, which beat Mardu.
However, these decks have been evolving over the past few weeks and the format gotten itself out of the predictable, matchup-dependent rut it was in. Mardu evolved to beat B/G Constrictor, which has struggled to adapt at all. 4-Color Copycat certainly seems to be the dominant archetype that utilizes the powerful 2-card combo. Other decks that existed on the fringes of the format are starting to creep towards claiming the tag of “tier 1”, such as Temur Tower.
As a quick aside, I played in a PPTQ this past weekend with B/G Energy Constrictor, not since I like the deck’s position in the metagame, but because I had the cards and I figured I’d give it a go. The deck is bad, don’t play it. It struggles to deal with even one planeswalker, it’s being headhunted by everyone, and it really only thrives against players who mulligan improperly or take poor lines of play. I finished X-2 on the day, but felt like every game I won there was some divine intervention needed, as I was basically playing several sometimes-beefy creatures and mediocre removal spells.
The focus of this article will be on the decision players will have to make when selecting their Mardu decks; Mardu Vehicles or Mardu Ballista? At the MtGO Championship this weekend, 2 of the top 4 decks were Mardu, but they were different builds of the deck, which certainly highlights Mardu’s ability to shift itself around based on the metagame. Additionally, it highlights that there isn’t yet a consensus about which version of Mardu is optimal for the current metagame. At the end of the article, after we’ve gone over card choices, I’ll end with the list that I’m currently working with for GP New Jersey this weekend. Let’s drive!
Mardu Vehicles by Marcio Carvalho at MtGO Championship
2 Chandra, Torch of Defiance
1 Cultivator’s Caravan
1 Fatal Push
2 Release the Gremlins
2 Skysovereign, Consul Flagship
1 Skywhaler’s Shot
2 Thalia, Heretic Cathar
2 Walking Ballista
This deck that Marcio Carvalho piloted to a Top 4 finish this past weekend is the closest to what we might consider “traditional” Mardu Vehicles. It declines to include Walking Ballista in the mainboard, and instead stays faithful to Veteran Motorist. It also includes 2 copies each of Pia Nalaar and Archangel Avacyn. Both cards are excellently-positioned in this format. Having flying creature to pressure opposing planeswalkers is critical. Pia Nalaar lets you stay on the front foot and push through the damage needed to finish off your opponent, and Archangel Avacyn is rarely beaten when the format’s most common removal spell is Fatal Push.
Instead of the more common secondary vehicle Aethersphere Harvester, this deck opts for Cultivator’s Caravan, in large part due to both of the aforementioned cards, which either require a large mana investment up front, or can use extra mana to great effect.
A lot of Mardu Vehicles lists turned to Chandra, Torch of Defiance as a powerful mainboard card that improves the B/G Constrictor matchup massively. However, Marcio opted to leave his in the sideboard. The red planeswalker is joined my many familiar faces, such as Release the Gremlins, Shock, and Thalia, Heretic Cathar. Despite not including any copies of Walking Ballista in his mainboard, Marcio did include 2 in his sideboard.
This is a concession to the inherent disadvantage of his build in the mirror match, and is an attempt to right the ship in the post-board games. Skysovereign, Consul Flagship is another excellent option in the mirror match. The powerful sky ship can swing the game in your favor instantaneously, as it’s a major beating on both your opponent’s board and their life total.
Mardu Ballista by Josh Utter-Leyton at MtGO Championship
This variant, which Josh Utter-Leyton claimed the victory with this past weekend, is only a slight deviation from the winning list from GP Utrecht the weekend before. Instead of Veteran Motorist, this deck plays Walking Ballista, as an excellent, easy answer in the mirror match to the card that it replaced, as well as Toolcraft Exemplar. Thalia, Heretic Cathar offers an excellent, proactive answer to the entire strategy of 4-Color Copycat, which seems to be the other main tier 1 deck of the format.
Unlike Marcio, Josh opted for Aethersphere Harvester as his secondary vehicle. His deck doesn’t need mana as much as Marcio’s, and he plays more small creatures that are very happy to crew the 3/5 flyer. Just like Marcio, Josh cut Chandra, Torch of Defiance from his mainboard. However, he actually cut the powerful red planeswalker entirely from his 75, a decision that I like now that B/G seems to be on the downswing.
His sideboard is also similar to the winning list from GP Utrecht, but he cut 2 copies of Oath of Chandra, and a copy each of Ob Nixilis Reignited, Release the Gremlins, Nahiri, the Harbinger, and Authority of the Consuls in favor of some more traditional Mardu sideboard options, notably Fumigate. However, I don’t think that Fumigate is necessary anymore in this format. This deck is already positive against B/G Constrictor after sideboard, and Rishkar, Peema Renegade and friends should have their numbers depleted.
However, I’m a big fan of both Painful Truths and Anguished Unmaking. Both of these cards were concessions to the Temur Tower deck that has been running around a lot of MtGO recently. I wouldn’t be surprised to see it show up in surprising numbers this weekend, and being prepared for it will give you a big edge. The matchup is favorable pre-board, but a single Painful Truths post-board is frequently enough to get the job done. Josh also included a copy of Archangel Avacyn, which helps him pressure opposing planeswalkers, which is a fantastic thing to have access to in this format. The only thing that surprises me is that he only played 1.
Where We Go from Here
If you’re playing in either Grand Prix this weekend, don’t be surprised to see both variants of this deck out in force. They both have their pros and cons, but I believe that more important that the debate over Veteran Motorist versus Walking Ballista is finding the right balance of card choices. Mardu is blessed with what feels like infinite options in both the mainboard and sideboard, but here are the cards that I think truly shine in this deck, and players would be wise to play them this weekend:
As I mentioned before, Avacyn is a big, powerful beater that pressures opposing planeswalkers. Both of the top decks in this Standard format want their planeswalkers to stick for as long as possible, so Avacyn is naturally well-positioned.
This card has the ability to swing the game in your favor rather instantaneously. Killing an opposing creature can vary anywhere from one card’s worth of value to many, as you’ll kill your opponent’s only crew-er a non-zero amount of the time.
This card has surprised me. On its surface it’s a worse Fragmentize, but the creatures that it brings and the ability to hit more than one artifact at once has made it the premier artifact removal option for Mardu. The winning list from GP Utrecht played 4, Josh Utter-Leyton played 3, Marcio Carvalho played 2. The correct number is certainly still yet to be seen. I’ll be starting with 3.
This card is a fantastic one-of catch-all that you will find yourself boarding in in a lot of matchups. The additional flexibility over Release the Gremlins is appealing, but the creature (or creatures) that Release brings is great, so I would limit myself to only one copy of Anguished Unmaking.
3 mana draw 3 cards is only good in a few matchups in this format, but those matchups are on the rise. Don’t be surprised if you come up against Temur Tower or Jeskai Copycat once or twice. If you do, you’ll be thrilled that you have Painful Truths in your sideboard.
Enough talking, here’s the list that I’m currently working with for GP New Jersey:
Mardu Ballista by Jonah Gaynor
1 Anguished Unmaking
1 Nahiri, the Harbinger
2 Oath of Chandra
3 Oath of Liliana
1 Ob Nixilis Reignited
1 Painful Truths
3 Release the Gremlins
1 Skysovereign, Consul Flagship
2 Thalia, Heretic Cathar
Mardu Vehicles and Mardu Ballista are both incredibly safe choices for this weekend. They are aggressive, punish poor plays from your opponent, and get free wins some percentage of the time when it draws the perfect hand. I highly recommend it to any player who isn’t yet sure what they want to play in this Standard format.
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