I’ve recently made my stance well known on why the combo of Felidar Guardian and Saheeli Rai is simply too good to exist. I predict I’m in the majority opinion, but I’ve seen many passionate arguments against getting rid of it. This makes it a very interesting topic with next Monday marking the first ever mid-season Banned and Restricted List update from Wizards of the Coast. This week we discuss Felidar Guardian’s euthanasia, why this is good for Magic in a variety of ways, and why a ban against Mardu would be a colossal mistake.
The Cat’s Out of the Bag
I’ve heard many reasons for why the Felidar Guardian / Saheeli Rai combo isn’t good enough to justify a ban, how its exclusion could make Standard worse, and even how Mardu is actually the major offender. I just don’t buy any of those arguments. I’ve been playing Magic for almost half my life now, and rarely have I seen something this powerful find its way into Standard. Not only that, but it’s also destructive to the health of the format. It has to go!
Let’s start by talking about the so-called health of Standard. In the last few years there has been a long list of “best decks:” Abzan Midrange, Four-Color Rally, Bant Company, B/G Delirium, Aetherworks Marvel variants, B/G Constrictor, Mardu Vehicles, and now Four-Color Saheeli. Some held the control of the throne for longer than others, but the relevant factor that divides these decks has nothing to do their longevity. Some of these decks were able to be attacked in a variety of ways, while the rest only had an “Achilles’ heel,” so to speak.
Abzan Midrange, Bant Company, B/G Delirium, and B/G Constrictor are all powerful midrange decks that took over their format for some time. They got attacked by the format, triggering the necessity to evolve, and they either did or didn’t. They all created a great story arc for the format, as well as an ebb and flow for players to constantly explore the format. They were all healthy monarchs.
Four-Color Rally, Aetherworks Marvel variants, and now Four-Color Saheeli are not such kind rulers. They all stifled the format to an extent that shouldn’t happen. When decks like this are on top, the rest of the format begins to devolve into that which can compete, and that list is often very short. Why can’t they be so easily attacked, you ask? Well that’s because these three decks have something in common with each other that none of the others share: they are midrange-combo decks.
Magic used to be about aggro, midrange, control, and combo living in exclusive harmony. Through the years those lines have blurred, and true/virtual card advantage has become much more prominent in everyday competitive Magic. Wizards has learned over the years that making cards that promote doing things is more fun to play, but some problems do arise from games going on forever. Now there are just too many cards that have more value than just a single one, and decks can be built to continuously produce advantages. Culprits of this are Tireless Tracker; Den Protector; Rogue Refiner; Liliana, the Last Hope; and Scrapheap Scrounger.
All three of these tyrant “combo” decks were able to find a specific combination of cards that would allow them to compete on more than one axis point thanks to these card-advantage-based single-card engines. Once that “proper form” was found, they became midrange decks with a combo finish. They obviously don’t have as much raw power as opposing decks to play normalized Magic with them, but the combo finish was often enough to find the win somehow. Usually it came due to the opponent needing to cover too many bases.
That’s where we are right now. Four-Color Saheeli is the newest iteration of an overpowered midrange-combo strategy that invalidates a wide variety of decks and stretches what’s left far too thin. Mardu Vehicles competes with it thanks to the deck’s inherent speed, power, and removal, but nothing else is at the same level of efficiency. It’s just too difficult to find proper footing against midrange-combo strategies given how flexible they can be when executing different strategies.
Vroom Vroom Doom
Now, I understand the confusion that can come from calling one deck too good, but at the same time another one has all the chips. Mardu Vehicles won the Pro Tour and the Magic Online Championships, and it has put up absurdly good numbers all season long. It even has better results than Four-Color Saheeli up to this point. If one deck should get banned, why isn’t it the best-performing one playing a majority of the best cards in the format?
Now, Mardu Vehicles is an absurdly good deck, there’s no denying that, but it doesn’t feel like it’s doing anything broken. It’s just that the cards needed to be built around to defeat the deck aren’t justifiable given Four-Color Saheeli’s presence. We saw B/G Constrictor begin to take over the format by preying on Mardu Vehicles for a short while after Pro Tour Aether Revolt. At the same time that Mardu Vehicles began adopting sideboard strategies to combat B/G Constrictor, Four-Color Saheeli was beginning to take its perfect form by turning into a well-tuned midrange deck.
We didn’t get to play out the back and forth these two decks would have had since B/G Constrictor needed to adapt too much to compete with the new variation of Four-Color Saheeli. Who knows what would have happened if Four-Color Saheeli weren’t in the picture, but the data we do have don’t justify the ban of Mardu in my eyes, especially when cards like Liliana, the Last Hope and Ishkanah, Grafwidow aren’t even in the picture thanks to the Saheeli Rai / Felidar Guardian combo.
My opinion on this matter is subjective, I know. Just because I feel that Mardu Vehicles is manageable doesn’t make it true. There is of course the possibility that a Four-Color Saheeli ban would just leave Mardu Vehicles alone at the top, or maybe even Four-Color Saheeli being replaced with B/G Constrictor so that the two-deck format continues with different gift wrap. I don’t know what reality would exactly look like, but I do stand by my opinion that Midrange-Combo decks are less exploitable than others, making them the first place to look when manipulating a format from the outside. Mardu Vehicles is just the red herring we need to overlook for the time being.
From the sidelines, it’s difficult to know what Amonkhet has in store for us. The set’s going to dump 264 cards on our lap for us to sift through and build from. It would be a grave mistake for the Saheeli Rai / Felidar Guardian combo to exist once we go to another plane. Instead of opening up the floodgates of creativity, the only question that would be asked is what small subset of cards will either help or hurt the combo. Maybe the set has enough tools to defeat the combo. Maybe not. It doesn’t actually matter when, at the end of the day, we are still just talking about the same thing we have been for the last month.
We saw Emrakul, the Promised End get the axe for the very same reason, and we were happy about it. It was taking over Standard, but more importantly it was all that mattered. It’s all we talked about and it impacted every decision we made in deck building. You were either with Emrakul, the Promised End or against it. This stifled creativity when it was released, stifled creativity when Kaladesh first emerged, and was about to again when Aether Revolt came around before we saw it on the Banned and Restricted List. We should be excited about how a new block like Amonkhet can take over Standard and not just going into it with jaded perceptions.
Once again, Mardu can also fit the bill for this argument. Mardu’s just as good as Four-Color Saheeli and can also potentially suppress the excitement Amonkhet provides to us fans of the game. Maybe I’m trying to turn opinions into facts here, but I see and believe there to be quite a difference between the two decks. The argument used here is the reaction Standard players will have if one or the other deck gets “effectively” banned.
We all knew going into Aether Revolt that Felidar Guardian was an oversight that wouldn’t have happened given perfect information. Regardless of results, most of us went into the format playing “the combo” feeling like we were on borrowed time. That time is now almost up, and the inevitable is about to happen. Maybe in a different time, a ban of Felidar Guardian would shock us, but the inverse is now true after seeing an aggressive ban on three cards just last set. I don’t see the community being as calm with a ban on Heart of Kiran, Scrapheap Scrounger, or Gideon, Ally of Zendikar.
The price tag on Mardu is almost double that of Four-Color Saheeli. Mardu is also filled with more rares that need to play off one another, while Four-Color Saheeli is just the same generic energy shell we saw Temur Aetherworks use back when Emrakul, the Promised End was wreaking havoc. These energy cards will most likely find a new home since the engine they create is so good. Also, a ban on Four-Color Saheeli won’t set players back that far, and like I said earlier, the risk was understood when they made the investment. The same can’t be said for the owners of some of the best Vehicles Magic has to offer. Gideon, Ally of Zendikar will survive a Heart of Kiran ban, but the opposite might not be true. Like a house of cards, the value of an entire Mardu Vehicles deck could plummet, leaving dedicated customers feeling left in the cold.
That’s not to mention that a ban from Mardu Vehicles will set the scariest precedent Wizards has ever made. Cards from the top three decks of last season got banned. Who’s going to want to invest in Tier 1 decks ever again if now cards from the two top-performing decks from this format also share that same fate? We could start to see a larger percentage of players scared to invest in Standard. We want people happy with their investments, not paranoid they might just lose value in the very near future, especially with the bad taste of “losing” back-to-back decks that cost $400!
Monster Truck Madness
Let’s flip the script for a minute. How about we say, for argument’s sake, that Mardu might be too good to exist. In this scenario, I would like for Wizards to still not ban anything yet and do so if it’s needed after Amonkhet is revealed. That way we can use the data accumulated from Magic Online to make a better assessment if Mardu Vehicles has been the problem from the beginning. If we see the deck dominate, then maybe it will be easier for the collective to accept a ban and not go off the rails for their cards losing value so abruptly.
Now, we don’t know as much about the future of Standard as Wizards would, given that they know what’s in the next couple of sets. If Wizards already knows that Mardu Vehicles and Four-Color Saheeli will overshadow their new set Amonkhet, they may be inclined to just rip the bandage off right now, accepting any backlash that comes with it. That may be severe in the here and now, but it could potentially be catastrophic if they let preexisting decks completely dominate their newest product. At the end of the day, Wizards is a company that needs to make money to exist. They never want to upset their clientele, but they will always do what’s best for the longevity of the product. In some ways, that’s beneficial to us as well, even if it bites us in the short-term.
So what are your thoughts? Do you think I hit the nail on the head, or am I way off-base? Let me know in the comments what you think will happen, or even what you would do. It won’t take long for us to find out what the final decision’s going to be, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have some fun debating the issue before it happens!