Shifting Gears To Beat Mardu Vehicles

Mardu Vehicles, seemingly left behind by the banning of Smuggler’s Copter, came roaring back at Pro Tour Aether Revolt! Jadine Klomparens explores how to beat it and puts her work into practice with two decklists!

For all their pomp and circumstance, Pro Tours are not always dramatic, format-warping affairs. Sometimes their effects are more on the subtle side. Maybe a new piece of technology makes its debut or a minor tweak on a successful archetype is unveiled.

Pro Tour Aether Revolt was not one of those times.

It doesn’t take an expert to come up with the take-away message of this Pro Tour: Mardu Vehicles is back with a vengeance. With only one copy of the once-great deck cracking the Top 8 in the first two SCG Tour events of Aether Revolt Standard, it appeared that the death of Smuggler’s Copter had resigned Mardu Vehicles to a half-life on the fringes of competitive success. But appearances can be deceiving, and after Pro Tour Aether Revolt, it’s clear the future of Standard includes a lot of Mardu Vehicles.

Here’s the question of the day: how do we adjust our decks and play for the presence of Mardu Vehicles?

Know Thy Enemy

Let’s take a good look at the Pro Tour-winning list.

There wasn’t really a consensus on how to build Mardu Vehicles at the Pro Tour. Cedric Phillips wrote an excellent piece yesterday over on the Premium side that you should check out if the differences between the builds interest you. For our purposes, the subtle differences between the lists doesn’t matter too much. They all have the same general strategy, and all play a ton of copies of the scariest cards.

So, the basics. Mardu Vehicles is, first and foremost, an aggro deck. Standard aggro decks are typically very one-dimensional affairs, relentlessly attacking from one angle and one angle only. Think of a classic medieval-era castle siege. The aggro deck is the attacking force, and the opposition is the scared cowards holed up in the castle behind a closed drawbridge. Classic Standard aggro decks are a battering ram hitting the gate again and again until it falls or the attackers run out of strength: scary and often successful, but relatively easy to defend against. Toss some scalding hot oil down on them at a key moment, and the day is won.

Well, bad news. Mardu Vehicles is not a classic Standard aggro deck. Sure, they use a battering ram and pressure the gate. But they also are sneaking around back, looking for an out-of-the-way spot to throw up a siege ladder and sneak in. And if you manage to defend the gate and keep a weather eye out for stray siege ladders, you still have to hope they didn’t manage to bribe a guard to leave the back gate unlocked.

Here’s the battering ram: solid, aggressive creatures that are going to keep turning sideways until either they’re no more or you are. If you’re going to beat Mardu Vehicles, you need to find a way to stop these creatures from causing too much damage. Taking more than seven to nine damage from their ground creatures makes winning the game very difficult. Early removal is good and necessary, but eventually we need to find a way to make small ground creatures not matter.

The reason you can’t really rely on just removal is because these cards are so versatile. Scrapheap Scrounger keeps coming back no matter how many times you deal with it. Veteran Motorist might go down without much of a fight, but the scry trigger on entering the battlefield goes a long way in letting your Mardu Vehicles opponent shift gears. Basically, we need a way to blank these cards. Whether that’s building up a battlefield of creatures that outclasses three-power attackers or using removal that permanently deals with Scrapheap Scrounger, having a way to stop the Mardu ground assault is pivotally important.

And here we have the siege ladder. Unlicensed Disintegration is my pick for actual best card in the Mardu Vehicles deck. Games where the Mardu deck draws too many of this card are unbelievably hard to win. In discussing the Vehicles ground game, I claimed you needed to find a way to stabilize the battlefield. Unlicensed Disintegration is what makes doing that so hard. You throw defenders at the main gate, only to watch Unlicensed Disintegration clear a path around back, and before you know it your walls are overrun.

To combat this card, it’s important to go wide. One creature holding back a herd may seem like a strong plan on paper, but it is a recipe for disaster in the face of Unlicensed Disintegration. A turn you tap out for a single large threat could easily end in you losing your creature and taking upwards of nine points of damage. Good luck with that. The strength of Unlicensed Disintegration makes having a low curve even more important against Mardu Vehicles than against classic aggro strategies. Having your turn 4 play be two two-drops is an order of magnitude better than it being a four-drop. The post-Pro Tour world is not a great time to be a Mindwrack Demon.

Here are the curveballs of Mardu Vehicles. These are the guards of yours that got bribed or the massive wooden horse filled with enemy soldiers you let into your city. They represent additional powerful angles of attack from Mardu Vehicles that can win the game on their own with minimal support from the rest of the Vehicles deck. You can stop the A plan and the B plan, and you still might just flat lose to the C or D plan.

Maybe it’s a bit obtuse of me to take the premier Vehicle of the Mardu Vehicles deck and call it “the C plan,” but I think it fits. Heart of Kiran does a great job of supplementing the battering ram get-’em-dead plan of the deck, but is also more than capable of finishing the job on its own after the ground assault is stymied. If the Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court had managed to bring a helicopter back in time with him, I think his tale might not have ended quite so tragically. Gideon, Ally of Zendikar plays a similar role of excellent reinforcement to the ground attack that can also just win the game on his own with ease.

When planning for Mardu Vehicles, these are the cards I want to be ready for. They are the most resilient, punishing, and powerful cards in the deck, respectively. Registering cards in your 75 that match up well against these three cards will go a long way towards improving your Mardu Vehicles matchup. Thinking about matchups on a single-card, interactional level like this instead of in terms of overarching strategy is a very granular approach, particularly appropriate when the deck we’re discussing attacks from as many different angles as Mardu Vehicles. None of the classic ways to beat aggressive decks really clicks against Mardu Vehicles; they can beat stalled battlefields and are unimpressed by lifegain. Instead, we need to think about how to beat the individual cards they play, and not how to beat the overall strategy.

One last thing I want to mention before moving on to specifics: you need to beat them. I don’t mean that in some “end-of-the-world, Mardu Vehicles is boring, let’s not let it take over Standard” way; that’s not how I think. No, I mean that to win against Mardu Vehicles, you need to beat them. This is not just a tautology. It is really easy to fall into a thought trap against aggressive decks where you spend so much energy figuring out how to not die that you do an excellent job of not dying but greatly weaken your ability to actually end the game. Turning the corner is critically important. Delaying your loss until turn 8 instead of turn 5 does absolutely nothing for your match points. Given enough time, they will find a way to beat you.

So you want to play Jeskai Saheeli…

Jeskai Saheeli did not have the most inspiring performance at Pro Tour Aether Revolt. Only one copy managed to go 8-2 or better in the Standard rounds, and none made it to the Sunday stage. Here’s the best-performing list:

The poor performance of Jeskai Saheeli at the Pro Tour is reasonable evidence that its matchup against Mardu Vehicles is not good. Looking at the 8-2 list, I would tend to believe that the relatively strong performance put up by this 75 was more of an anomaly than anything else, as the list does not look particularly strong against Vehicles. In fact, the two copies of Shock are just about the only thing in the list that is non-standard and good against the Vehicles deck.

So what does a list of Jeskai Saheeli with a strong game against Mardu Vehicles look like? Well, let’s start with how to beat Scrapheap Scrounger and by extension the ground assault. First and foremost, it should be apparent that Jeskai Saheeli is not going to have an easy time stabilizing the battlefield in a traditional way, as the deck does not want to play many creatures. It’s going to be rough, but we must control the battlefield with removal. Radiant Flames is easily the best card we have access to for this purpose and we should probably maindeck some number of copies.

With the hordes neutralized with Radiant Flames, we need to give some thought to how to deal with Scrapheap Scrounger. This card alone can beat us if left unchecked. We have two reasonable options for removal that permanently deals with the pesky Scrounger: Stasis Snare and Incendiary Flow. Stasis Snare is more versatile but more expensive. Neither is an ideal solution, but the ability to once and for all remove a Scrapheap Scrounger is too important to ignore.

Unlicensed Disintegration may not seem terribly impressive on paper against the seven-creature deck, but it plays a very important role in the matchup. Stabilizing the battlefield a little with a turn 4 Felidar Guardian would be a great play from Jeskai that blanks Scrapheap Scrounger, but it is far too risky to make in the face of Unlicensed Disintegration. Similarly, Unlicensed Disintegration also turns an on-curve Torrential Gearhulk from a game-winning to a game-losing play.

I’m enamored of Dispel for the purpose of fighting Unlicensed Disintegration. Negate is swell and all, but Dispel lets us slam a Felidar Guardian on turn 4, blink an Island, and have Dispel up to protect our Guardian when they untap. That is a huge tempo swing and a big deal. Dispel also lets us go for our combo a full turn earlier than Negate does, and as I mentioned before, having a way to turn the corner is very important. While we’re on the subject of counterspells and mana efficiency, let me state that Disallow is on the way out thanks to the rise of Mardu Vehicles. Three mana is just too much to pay for a counterspell in a world of one- and two-mana threats.

I have less to say on dealing with Heart of Kiran with Jeskai Saheeli. Doing so is important, but we already have access to the cards to do it. Heart is 100% your priority removal target, as it won’t get swept away in a Radiant Flames. Play-pattern-wise, you want to try and get some energy early and keep it around so a Harnessed Lightning can take down Heart. Stasis Snare may get the nod over Incendiary Flow for its ability to deal with Heart of Kiran in addition to Scrapheap Scrounger.

Here’s the list of Jeskai Saheeli I would play in a heavy Mardu Vehicles field:

So you want to play G/B…

Awesome, me too. In fact, I am very likely to register Winding Constrictor this weekend at Grand Prix Pittsburgh. How will I be adapting the deck to deal with Mardu Vehicles, you ask? Good question.

I don’t think good ol’ Mindwrack Demon is where I want to be right now. The Delirium version of G/B has seen a great deal of success on the SCGTour, but in a world of Mardu Vehicles, I’m interested in a lower curve and less exposure to Unlicensed Disintegration. It’s a little awkward, as Mindwrack does block Heart of Kiran, but with both Depala, Pilot Exemplar and Veteran Motorist to punch Heart through a Demon, this aspect isn’t too tempting to me. Similarly, I might actually go down to three Verdurous Gearhulk for the first time in an effort to not get flooded on five-drops too often.

The game plan for G/B against Mardu Vehicles is to go bigger than Scrapheap Scrounger and ruthlessly annihilate every copy of Heart of Kiran they draw. Two-drops are the name of the game, as we need multiple creatures of sufficient blocking size to insulate ourselves from Unlicensed Disintegration. On three, Catacomb Sifter and Nissa, Voice of Zendikar help us clog the battlefield. Nissa plus Winding Constrictor is also a very effective way to develop a wide board of creatures big enough to block effectively.

We want two-drops, but playing Scrapheap Scrounger ourselves is a luxury we cannot afford right now. Being unable to block is a major drawback when we expect to be on the defensive in a very important matchup. Outsizing the aggro deck is completely useless if our creatures can’t get into combat with theirs. Servant of the Conduit, however, lets us speed up our development and then serves as an adequate home for +1/+1 counters. I’m into that.

Fatal Push is the best removal spell we have access to, and it’s not close. Grasp of Darkness is both one more mana and doesn’t reliably deal with Heart of Kiran, as Veteran Motorist and Depala, Pilot Exemplar will both protect the Heart from Darkness. Aethersphere Harvester is by no means a removal spell, but it does gain us a life cushion and block Heart of Kiran. Five toughness is great when they don’t have Motorist or Depala, and the really cool thing is that we can easily get some +1/+1 counters on the Harvester and let it grow big enough to block Heart even through their pump creatures. Plus, Harvester can assassinate a Gideon for us, which is a big deal, considering that playing Ruinous Path seems poor.

With all that in mind, here’s the list I’m going to run through some Magic Online matches the second I submit this article: