How Mardu Vehicles Stays On Top
Wizards of the Coast had just announced that there will be no changes to the current Standard format. I like the decision, because banning cards is generally detrimental to the players who had invested their hard-earned dollars into buying expensive mythics.
I feel that there will always be a few top tier 1 decks around regardless what is banned, unless it is something oppressive like Stoneforge Mystic or Jace, the Mind Sculptor, where where any white deck or blue deck was forced to pack a playset to be competitive.
Since there are no changes to the Banned & Restricted list, it's time to reevaluate Mardu Vehicle's position in the current format.
However, this is not entire another article about Mardu Vehicles. Rather, it is a story of how decks transform over time to edge out the competition and stay ahead.
The Evolution of Mardu
Card choices have been moving at a rapid speed given how stagnant the format is with regard to deck choice. Mardu Vehicles was a pretty "rigid" deck for a while but recent events have proved that changing a few cards have a substantial impact on the game plan.
For example, Veteran Motorist was a default 4-off in any Mardu Vehicles ever since Pro Tour Kaladesh. After Grand Prix Utrecht, almost everyone had gravitated towards running 4 copies of Walking Ballista instead.
Also, after last week's Grand Prix Barcelona and New Jersey, Archangel Avacyn is back to being everyone's favorite girl and suddenly you can spot 3 - 4 copies in most of the Mardu Vehicles 75 card that made top 8 last weekend.
Mardu Vehicles was born since Pro Tour Kaladesh and remained one of the important pillars ever since, because it constantly evolve to battle what was important.
Currently, Mardu Vehicles is in a neck-in-neck battle with CopyCat and they're clearly the two most powerful decks in Standard right now. That's not to say that the Black-Green decks aren't powerful, but the line is pretty clear that Black-Green isn't one of the top 2 at the moment.
Truth be told, when I'm piloting Mardu Vehicles and I am paired against Black-Green, I felt good about it. I know that I am going to be the slight underdog in Game 1 and I would need a blistering fast hand to win. However, I know that I am a huge favorite in Games 2 and 3 due to the planeswalker sideboard.
I know how to beat Black-Green and I like my chances, but I can't say the same when I'm paired against the mirror or against CopyCat, because the matchup is just about even. In fact, I'm sometimes a little confused in the mirror, because everyone has a different approach on how to sideboard for this matchup.
Using this opportunity, I would like to discuss "The Planeswalker Sideboard", one element of Mardu Vehicles that has kept it ahead of the metagame from the start to the present and also the element which transformed Black-Green from a poor matchup into a favorable matchup.
The Planeswalker Sideboard
The planeswalker sideboard is your best friend against Black-Green.
It changes the matchup so much that you actually want to face Black-Green rather than dodge it. The approach is simple. You want to prepare at least 12 slots in your sideboard with various planeswalkers, various Oaths, removals and occasionally Painful truths.
The list I am currently running belongs to Samuel Vuillot, Grand Prix Utrecht Champion. For your reference, here it is.
Mardu Ballista (Grand Prix Utrecht 2017 - 1st)
Standard by Samuel Vuillot
4 Concealed Courtyard
1 Foreboding Ruins
4 Inspiring Vantage
1 Needle Spires
4 Spire of Industry
4 Scrapheap Scrounger
2 Thalia, Heretic Cathar
4 Thraben Inspector
4 Toolcraft Exemplar
4 Walking Ballista
However, I made minor changes to the sideboard and here is what it looks like:
- 3 Oath of Liliana
- 2 Oath of Chandra
- 2 Chandra, torch of Defiance
- 2 Anguished Unmaking
- 1 Sorin, Grim Nemesis
- 1 Nahiri, the Harbinger
- 1 Shambling Vent
- 1 Archangel Avacyn
- 2 Release the Gremlins
In addition, I swapped out both Chandra's in the maindeck to make space for Archangel Avacyn.
Counting the first 12 cards, you must be wondering why 12 slots is the magical number. That is because you want to board out 4 Toolcraft Exemplar, 4 Scrapheap Scrounger and 4 Heart of Kiran whenever you transform into a control deck.
You may occasionally keep some Heart of Kiran in, but I felt it wasn't doing its job well enough when you are playing a defensive game. I only like it that it helps to activate Spire of Industry, but you are much better off removing a creature or playing a planeswalker rather than casting Heart of Kiran when you're assuming the role of the control deck.
The Mirror Match
What about the mirror match?
It is likely that you'll play against the mirror in any given tournament given how popular Mardu Vehicles is, so you'll need to think about how to sideboard.
Do you want to transform when you play the mirror?
I've it before with mixed success, but the short answer is no.
The mirror match sideboarding strategy has been constantly evolving as well. Release the Gremlins used to be your best card in the mirror match, so good that you can even play up to 4 copies in your sideboard.
However, "the planeswalker sideboard plan" has become quite popular nowadays and people started sideboarding out artifacts in place of planeswalkers and their Oaths. Suddenly, Release the Gremlins doesn't look so good anymore.
However, the Planeswalker Plan is actually not very good in the mirror.
For example, the various Oaths don't kill Heart of Kiran, and vehicles are generally very effective in pressuring planeswalkers. The Planeswalker Plan was only good against the mirror when it caught people offguard and resulted in them holding multiple Release the Gremlins as a dead card.
I really like Anguished Unmaking in this current metagame. the format has slowed down enough that answering an annoying permanent is a lot more important than losing 3 life. Not only will Anguished Unmaking rarely be a dead card, it will usually be rather crucial. Nowadays, the cards that give you headaches tend to be permanents and not spells.
This ranges from Gideon, Ally of Zendikar to Aetherworks Marvel to Dynavolt tower. It even breaks apart the combo of Saheeli Rai and Felidar Guardian. Even Mardu Vehicles are sideboarding in their 25th land to help them cast 6-drops after sideboarding so you really have no lack of targets.
Unlike Release the Gremlins, which sometimes ends up being a dead card.
As you can see, most of the problematic cards in Standard are permanents, which makes Anguished Unmaking well-positioned as long as you know how to manage the life loss. I literally sideboard in Anguished Unmaking against almost every matchup and it gets a lot better when you're also playing Archangel Avacyn since you are keeping your mana open more often.
The rise of the Planeswalker Plan is also one of the reasons that Archangel Avacyn is back. People started to realise that she is a solid all-rounded card regardless of what your opponent's sideboard plans were. She was pretty good back then as a 1-off to top off the curve, but now she is even better if your opponent sideboards into the Planeswalker Plan since she can just jump out and kill whatever planeswalker was cast.
Now that we've established that the Planeswalker Plan is not effective in the mirror (and assuming that you agree), this also means that Mardu players might revert back to sideboarding normally again, rather than use the Planeswalker Plan in the mirror.
If this were to happen, Release the Gremlins suddenly looks good again in 3 to 4 copies when people aren't boarding out their artifacts, but are keeping in Heart of Kiran to pressure their opponent's planeswalkers.
Many players played it safe and ran only 2 copies of Release the Gremlins despite that, but it was mostly out of the fear of their opponents transforming into the Planeswalker Plan, because you really couldn't tell who would and who wouldn't.
Another reason to "sideboard normally" is because there is no real downside to playing Archangel Avacyn. It is good against the mirror match regardless of what plan your opponent has adopted and it is also a pretty solid card against CopyCat, because it allows you to play the "instant game" on pivotal turns where you need to hold up mana for your Unlicensed Disintegration.
Now, the CopyCat player has to guess whether you're holding up mana for removal, or for Archangel Avacyn, or both! With 4 Walking Ballista, it is also relatively easy to flip Archangel Avacyn when you require.
She is, however, not at her best against Black-Green, where Grasp of Darkness deals with her easily and Black-Green creature easily trumps her size. Now that Black-Green is on the decline, this might explain why Archangel Avacyn is more popular, because there are less Grasp of Darkness running around.
There is only one type of game against Black-Green. The Mardu Vehicles player will try to destroy all Black-Green creatures with their spells, but in the end you can't kill everything and the Mardu Vehicles tiny creatures end up being outclassed by the Black-Green fatties.
Having said that, players who played Archangel Avacyn recognise that she is in a very good spot against Mardu Vehicles and CopyCat because the popularity of Black-Green is dwindling away. Their gambit paid off, as you can see the winning decks are all packing a bunch of Avacyns.
What about you?
What's your take on Veteran Motorist, Walking Ballista, Anguished Unmaking, Archangel Avacyn and Release the Gremlins?
I hope this gives you some perspective for your next Standard tournament!