How awesome is Standard right now? I know, I know, you shouldn’t start by asking the reader a question because they may not agree with you. Well I don’t care, because Standard is awesome right now! There are so many playable decks at the moment. Granted, this was true of the last format as well, but mono black and the Sphinx’s Revelation decks were pretty oppressive for the home stretch. The one difference that I am truly enjoying is how customizable each strategy is. Standard is like one of those awesome 10 million flavor Coke machines. “I will have a Coke,” says the average consumer. “Of course,” says the machine, “but would you like Coke, Diet Coke, Coke Zero, Vanilla Coke, or Lime Coke?” With so many delicious options to choose from, what could possibly be the right answer? All of the top tier decks have two if not three powerful builds already showing up. This format is great because it is a brewer’s and a tuner’s dream. While the various Abzan and Jeskai options all have their merits, I have been on Mardu since day one, aka Coke Classic.
The group I tested with at the start of the format was my local team including fellow members of At Your End Step (Jordan Kennedy isn’t the only one throwing shout outs). Minus Jordan who ran away to a top 8 with Jund, the rest of us worked on a Mardu list. Black, Red, and White offer great planeswalkers, proactive creatures, and the best removal/disruption. Finding the perfect list required a lot of time, and we definitely didn’t find it. We did alright though. Here is the At Your End Step Mardu list from SCG Indy in September.
AYES Mardu Midrange
This deck attacked the format in a powerful and proactive manner. We wanted every threat to be able win the game by itself, and all of the creatures and planeswalkers were capable of this. Anything that wasn’t a threat was then an answer to a threat. There are draws with this list that are nigh unbeatable. What I really focused on in testing and while building was making sure you could win from almost any position. Our testing showed that the midrange decks consistently got themselves into situations where there were no cards in either player’s hand and no important threats on the field. There are 14 creatures/planeswalkers that either have or gain haste, so that we always had the best chance to break serve in these situations.
There were some issues with the deck though. First off, the mana was far from perfect. We ended with too many five drops and tapped lands, something had to give. Additionally, while the removal was powerful, it was slow. Murderous Cut was essentially the only card that could allow us to catch up on a board in which we were behind. We also heavily overvalued the discard spells. We started out testing with four Thoughtseize and stayed there. Notice that we correctly identified how midrange mirrors always devolved into attrition battles, but failed to recognize how poor Thoughtseize was in great numbers? That was a rough oversight, and I was definitely punished in multiple top deck situations by drawing a useless Despise or Thoughtseize.
Overall we felt that the deck did a lot of impressive things, and I managed a top 64 with the deck by going 7-3. My losses were to Green Devotion, Abzan Reanimator, and a transformative Temur Monsters list. This was one of the most exciting opens I played in just due to the sheer amount of different decks I played against. We knew there were some issues to address though, and we went back to the drawing board.
Shortly after this, the Pro Tour came and offered up a new twist on the archetype. If these colors have the best removal and powerful threats, then why not look at it through the lens of a control deck. Enter Raphael Levy’s and Jeremy Dezani’s Mardu Control.
This deck definitely had similar tenets to our own build, but really kicked up the control aspects. We had originally tested Elspeth, and we found it difficult to stretch the mana base. Levy and Dezani answered this by going up to 27 lands. They also fixed the problem of being able to cast two removal spells in a single turn with the addition of Chained to the Rocks. Again, the 27 lands and Evolving Wilds helped ensure that a Mountain would be in play on time. I tested this deck as much as I possibly could. With the TCG Player 50K Championship on the horizon, I wanted to see which Mardu variant was the best. This control list did not disappoint with its raw power. Asserting board control happened consistently and easily, however, winning games was not as forthcoming. With only planeswalkers as threats (with only four being the kind that quickly close out games) the deck could have every advantage calculable and still lose. It quickly became frustrating to have your only Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker hit with a Hero’s Downfall. Opponents always had it. Of course they did, there weren’t any other targets for the spells.
I discussed the frustration with my teammates, and we began looking to bridge the gap between the two builds. We focused on things like Chained to the Rocks, but we had a difficult time constructing a mana base with enough Mountains while still being to cast Elspeths and black spells. My friend (and fellow cohost) Dave kicked around the idea of an aggressively slanted main deck that could board into the Levy deck. Well apparently ask and you shall receive.
The week after the Pro Tour, Brad Nelson decided to the build the deck for us. His version of Mardu had an aggressive and tempo oriented game one, but it also had powerful trump spells in his board. His deck allowed him to operate in such a manner than his opponents were hard pressed to understand what they were playing against. Here is his Grand Prix Los Angeles list.
Brad Nelson’s Mardu Midrange
Brad’s list definitely focused on powering out threats in game one, while still offering up strong removal spells. I have been iffy on forgoing Hero’s Downfall entirely, but Crackling Doom has really been impressive. There are definitely some awkward situations where it may not kill what you want, but those are negated by how good it is with Seeker of the Way. We tested Seeker in our initial list, but the slow removal made it weak. This deck is able to capitalize on small openings, and it really shines when something like Sorin, Solemn Visitor or Chained to the Rocks triggers prowess.
The deck’s strategy truly separates itself in the sideboard though. The deck is able to transform into a much bigger deck when needed. Elspeth and End Hostilities make the Devotion and slower midrange matches much more manageable. Needless to say this deck really got me excited by how open this archetype really is. Nelson himself has already updated the list moving more walkers to the main while cutting the Wingmate Rocs. A quick perusal of the lists from the TCG Player 50k will also give you an idea of just how many variations on Mardu are possible.
Going forward I will continue to run a variation of the current Nelson list. I feel like there is still a lot of tuning to be done, and the metagame shifts will make this a fun archetype to play. If there is only one thing I still do not agree with in the current popular lists, it’s the inclusion of Wingmate Roc over Stormbreath Dragon. Brad Nelson himself said that Roc wasn’t very good for him in the GP, and it is easy in this attrition format to have no way to trigger raid. Hordeling Outburst helps, but Roc is incredibly bad without the raid trigger. Stormbreath Dragon is a threat that is easier to eliminate with one for one removal, but the combination of haste and protection from white make it very relevant at the moment. Dragon helps deal with opposing planeswalkers since we have no Hero’s Downfalls. Dragon also dodges much of the relevant Abzan and Jeskai removal (Hero’s Downfall and Stoke the Flames being their only clean answers). It also attacks through opposing Butcher of the Hordes and Wingmate Rocs in the mirror match; a mirror match that is already becoming much more common. Lastly, Stormbreath Dragon doesn’t get worse when you board out your small threats to become the control deck.
So to summarize, here are my main points.
- Standard is currently awesome and full of fun and customizable archetypes
- Mardu is my pick for the best of these customizable archetypes. You should be playing some form of it.
- If you do play some form of it, then play Stormbreath Dragon!
Thanks for reading. Be sure to let me know what you are having success with in the comments!
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