Is Mardu Vehicles Here To Stay?

Cedric Phillips would love to give you a big breakdown of the top 8 Pro Tour decks, but frankly, there’s no need. Instead, he’s here to debate staying power! Is Mardu Vehicles a flash-in-the-pan deck? Or is it going to dominate other events as well? Cedric shares the facts!

History has a way of repeating itself.

The last time a Pro Tour came to Dublin, it was 2013 and Theros had become legal a few weeks prior. Nowadays, two SCG Tour weekends lead into each Pro Tour to help establish a metagame for the professional community to poke holes into. Back in 2013, however, there was only one tournament leading into Pro Tour TherosSCG Cleveland – and it was won by a deck that quickly became irrelevant in Theros Standard:

Saying G/W Aggro quickly became irrelevant might be a touch hyperbolic, but if you know your history, G/W Aggro quickly ceased to exist due to the dominance of Mono-Blue Devotion, Mono-Black Devotion, and Esper Control. Truthfully, the most relevant thing about Eric Finnegan’s win with G/W Aggro at SCG Cleveland was that it gave those qualified for Pro Tour Theros a deck to seek and destroy.

And boy did that ever seek and destroy good old Fleecemane Lion:

Rarely will you see the same archetype take the top three slots in a Pro Tour, but Pro Tour Theros was a unique tournament. As someone who was doing coverage of the event, I had a singular vantage point of watching The Pantheon construct Mono-Blue Devotion leading into the event with the hope that many people would simply miss just how broken the devotion mechanic was.

Many people did miss it, some didn’t, and the rest is history, as Thassa, God of the Sea and Master of Waves ran roughshod over just about everyone the entire weekend and led to Mono-Blue Devotion finishing in first, second, and third place.

While Pro Tour Aether Revolt didn’t occur underneath the same pretense, the series of events leading into the tournament looks shockingly similar to what happened the last time the Pro Tour came to Dublin. Instead of only one tournament leading into Pro Tour Aether Revolt, there were two – SCG Columbus and SCG Richmond – with the later really setting the tone for what the professional community needed to poke a hole through thanks to Dylan Donegan’s win with Jeskai Saheeli.

Now, I don’t expect Jeskai Saheeli or any other Saheeli variants to fall off a cliff in the same fashion that G/W Aggro did after Pro Tour Theros, but if a deck is going to trend downwards given the result of Pro Tour Aether Revolt, it will certainly be those based around Saheeli Rai and Felidar Guardian. By all indications, the Izzet planeswalker and Cat Beast do not match up well against Toolcraft Exemplar, Heart of Kiran, and Unlicensed Disintegration.

Vroom Vroom

When Pro Tour Theros brought three copies of Mono-Blue Devotion into the top three slots, I didn’t think we’d ever see anything like that again. Three of the same archetype occupying the top three slots of a Pro Tour in the Internet Age is just pretty unheard of because information sharing (and information leaking) is just so much more likely now than ever before. Players like to share ideas, get feedback on their ideas, and, in a general sense, just like to talk about Magic. As a result, it’s very difficult to keep unique ideas under wraps.

But six of the same archetype?! And it was an archetype that many already knew about coming into the weekend?! And it performed poorly at SCG Tour Opens leading into the Pro Tour?!

Shows what I know…

It’s still hard for me to believe that Mardu Vehicles was the dominant deck at Pro Tour Aether Revolt. When I was doing coverage of SCG Columbus with Patrick Sullivan a few weeks ago, I remember vividly watching a few matches of Mardu Vehicles and thinking to myself, “That deck has some pretty aggressive draws but I wouldn’t want to go up against Walking Ballista ever.” And it’s not like I was the only person who thought that. After speaking with many people over the course of the weekend, many expressed to me that Mardu Vehicles “was their best matchup.”

People tend to oversimplify things, myself included. Here were a few of my oversimplifications about Mardu Vehicles after SCG Columbus:

  • Mardu Vehicles couldn’t handle lots of spot removal. I assumed Mardu Vehicles was a deck that couldn’t really handle all the copies of Walking Ballista, Shock, and Grasp of Darkness that were running around. Because the Saheeli Rai / Felidar Guardian decks required creature removal to interact with (I’m ignoring stuff like Authority of the Consuls for this anecdote), I felt that the splash damage from trying to beat the various Saheeli decks would negatively impact Toolcraft Exemplar, Veteran Motorist, and its ilk.
  • Mardu Vehicles lost if it flooded. I assumed that if Mardu Vehicles drew five or more lands, it would have a really tough time winning. Most aggressive decks don’t have a great way to mitigate mana flooding, and outside of a few clues from Thraben Inspector, Mardu Vehicles didn’t want to draw more than four lands per game.
  • Mardu Vehicles lost too much in power level with the loss of Smuggler’s Copter. I assumed that with the loss of Smuggler’s Copter, Mardu Vehicles would just be a worse deck. The power level of Heart of Kiran is undeniable, but I really believed that losing Smuggler’s Copter was too much to overcome.

On the surface, all these things appear to make sense. However, after watching the Pro Tour and thinking about things more, I think I was wrong on all three of those oversimplifications:

  • Mardu Vehicles demands that the opponent have spot removal. If the opponent doesn’t have Walking Ballista, Shock, or Grasp of Darkness early and often to interact, they’re pretty freaking dead. Mardu Vehicles is an incredibly aggressive deck with a one-mana 3/2, a two-mana 3/1 that scrys, a 4/4 Vehicle that dodges sorcery-speed removal, and numerous other creatures and vehicles with power to toughness ratios that any aggro player would swoon over. Yes, things can get a bit hairy if the opponent has all their removal lineup favorably and Mardu Vehicles floods out, but that isn’t going to be the norm.
  • Mardu Vehicles has enough mana sinks to mitigate mana flood. Between cracking Clues from Thraben Inspector; dumping mana into Depala, Pilot Exemplar; activating Pia Naalar; and returning Scrapheap Scrounger, drawing more than five lands really isn’t the end of the world for Mardu Vehicles. Having things to do when flooding is something I look for in all of my aggressive decks (Figure of Destiny in Kithkin as an example), so for me to miss this entirely is, frankly, quite embarrassing.
  • Smuggler’s Copter was a luxury for Mardu Vehicles. Any deck that lost Smuggler’s Copter obviously took a dip in power level, but perhaps a better way to look at things was to assume that decks would be able to still thrive even though they lost one of the best cards Magic has ever seen. The fact that Heart of Kiran slotted in for Smuggler’s Copter so naturally is pretty humorous, but I don’t think I gave Heart of Kiran enough credit from the jump.

Here Comes the Breakdown

Normally, when I write this type of article, I break down each Top 8 deck, detail what I like/dislike about each one, and give my thoughts on their viability moving forward. Fortunately for me, six of the decks are the same, so I get to go into easy mode! And by “easy mode,” I mean I get to talk about a low-to-the-ground aggressive deck that I’m extremely likely to play at Grand Prix Pittsburgh later this week.

First things first, let’s take a look at the cards that make up the base of Mardu Vehicles:

These six cards make up a great base for Mardu Vehicles. You get eight one-drop creatures, eight two-drop creatures, a completely busted Vehicle that is surprisingly easy to crew, and arguably the best removal spell in the format, given how easy it is for Mardu Vehicles to control an artifact. It’s arguable if Heart of Kiran should be a four-of given its legendary status, but the rest of these cards are four-ofs, no questions asked.

Next up is where the numbers fluctuate:

If you look across all six decklists, the numbers on these cards fluctuate between zero to four. Legendary status plays a role in these numbers (Depala and Pia). “Bad in multiples” is something else to take into consideration (Cultivator’s Caravan and Aethersphere Harvester). And for those who wanted additional one-drops, Inventor’s Apprentice was an option available. The neat thing about these six cards is that you won’t find a consensus opinion about the numbers for these cards like you will for the first six that I went over. Gideon, Depala, Pia, Caravan, Harvester, and Apprentice are all very good Magic cards, but they all have upsides and downsides.

Of the six, Gideon is clearly the most powerful, but four mana is a lot for a deck that plays ten Kaladesh fastlands and even a few creature-lands. If you can cast Gideon on time, we all know by now the warping effect he has on a battlefield, but if that fourth land enters the battlefield tapped and Gideon is late to the party, he might be too little too late.

For Depala and Pia, I think both cards are great but for very different reasons. Some game states may arise where Depala’s +1/+1 is game-breaking. In others, it might be completely irrelevant. In some matchups, the bodies Pia creates will be extremely useful for trading and getting to the late-game. In others, they’re minor annoyances for Walking Ballista and Winding Constrictor. In a vacuum, both cards are fantastic, but neither is better than the big six outlined above.

Last, there’s the difference between Cultivator’s Caravan and Aethersphere Harvester. Again, both of these cards are fantastic Magic cards, but how potent they are will vary from matchup to matchup and even game state to game state. Aethersphere Harvester, for example, could easily be the best card in the mirror and against other creature decks. But in a matchup against Glimmer of Genius and Torrential Gearhulk? I’d much rather have the mana fixing/acceleration and 5/5 body that Cultivator’s Caravan brings to the battlefield.

For me, all these cards are metagame-dependent. In some metagames, you’re going to want the maximum number of Gideons to push your Gideon advantage. In other metagames, you’re going to want a lot of Aethersphere Harvesters to win the mirror. If you can predict your metagame correctly, you’ll be able to tailor your build of Mardu Vehicles appropriately and reap the rewards as a result.

One-mana removal is at a premium in Standard, but which of these two is the better removal spell? “It depends” isn’t the answer you want to hear, but it’s the answer I have to tell you.

Shock is plenty good in the mirror, as it kills Toolcraft Exemplar, Veteran Motorist, Thraben Inspector, and plenty of other annoying little creatures. But the real reason players were playing Shock over Fatal Push was because it solved the Saheeli Rai / Felidar Guardian combo. If you’re expecting that combo to still be around in large numbers – and I think players were expecting to see more of that combo at the Pro Tour than they did – I think Shock is where you want to be.

But what if you’re expecting Winding Constrictor and/or Heart of Kiran? Then you quite clearly want as many Fatal Pushes are you can get your hands on. But it’s important to remember something! Even though Fatal Push does an excellent job of solving those problems (and many more), you’re doing two things by playing Fatal Push over Shock:

  • You’re making yourself worse against Saheeli Rai decks. Shock reliably breaks up the Saheeli Rai / Felidar Guardian combo. Fatal Push does not. Fatal Push can break up the combo if you can trigger Revolt, but it’s nowhere near as reliable as Shock is.
  • You’re making your mana worse. Mardu Vehicles is a base-W/R deck that is splashing black for Unlicensed Disintegration. Admittedly, Mardu Vehicles has quite a few black sources of mana (Concealed Courtyard, Aether Hub, Spire of Industry, etc.), but this isn’t a deck that loads up on them. I’m not saying you won’t be able to cast Fatal Push. I just think it’s important to be aware of what you’re doing to your deck when you make this decision.

Last, let’s talk about the manabase:

Hell to the yes! This is the kind of manabase dreams are made of. The numbers vary on a few of these when you compare and contrast each decklist, but what you should pull away from this is that Kaladesh fastlands are broken, and if you can play a lot of them, you absolutely should. Inspiring Vantage, Concealed Courtyard, and Spire of Industry are no-doubt four-ofs in my opinion, and then you can decide on how many Aether Hubs and Spirebluff Canals are appropriate.

For me, the lands are the biggest draw to Mardu Vehicles. Sure, there are plenty of powerful creatures, Vehicles, and planeswalkers littered throughout each decklist, but none of that matters if you can’t cast them. But with access to lands like this, you can absolutely cast them.

What’s Next?

That’s the million-dollar question. With a performance like this at Pro Tour Aether Revolt, Mardu Vehicles is 100% the deck to beat at Grand Prix Pittsburgh and any other Standard tournament over the next few weeks.

Is this deck beatable? I’d like to think so. It’s just creatures and Vehicles, after all. But to sell it short like I did just a few weeks ago is to not understand the deck. This is a deck full of very good creatures and very good Vehicles. It has a very good manabase, has access to all five colors if it wants it, and puts a ton of pressure on its opponent to interact early and often.

As I prepare for Grand Prix Pittsburgh this weekend, I’m trying to convince myself to play something else, but that almost seems foolish at this point. The deck took first, second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth place at a Pro Tour! It seems a bit wiser to be a part of history than to try to create my own.

So I’ll ask you. What would you do?