Using A Saw At SCG Atlanta

With a critical card amputated from Standard just two days before SCG Atlanta, it’s no surprise Mardu Vehicles won! Jim Davis explains why calls for another ban are misguided and highlights the crucial pressure point that could shrink Gideon, Ally of Zendikar’s metagame share!

Ever since he was three, we’ve had a standard operating procedure for whenever my six-year-old stepson John endures any sort of normal childhood bump or bruise. We call it “the saw.” Kids hurt themselves all the time, whether it’s a fall on the playground or running into a wall at home, and at the younger ages it’s often accompanied by yelling and a wall of over-exaggerated tears.

“The saw” is a simple and elegant solution.

We ask John if he is hurt, ask what hurts, and then localize the source of the problem. Once it is clear it’s just an insignificant bump, we tell him the fastest and easiest way to make the pain go away is to saw whatever is hurting right off. No more leg, no more bruised knee! We direct “the saw” towards the injury, with appropriate saw buzzing noises of course, and in his humor and indignation at the absurdity of cutting off his leg because of a little bruise he forgets the pain and laughs it off.

Of course, he then tries to turn his hand into its own saw and saw us, even as we tell him we aren’t in pain at all, but that’s another story.

Anyway, the point here is amputations are serious business and even a six-year-old can realize that. Amputations are a last resort, only to be done when absolutely necessary to save the whole. Nobody wants to live without an arm or a leg, but given the option of death or living without a limb, most people will do the sawing themselves if necessary.

Bannings in Magic are like amputations.

They are dangerous, messy affairs that have a very real and serious impact on one’s life but are sometimes necessary to preserve the whole.

Felidar Guardian had Standard on life support and was an infection on the format. By removing it, we have certainly endured many of the pains I discussed in my banning response article last week, but we have come out the other side alive and breathing with a new format and a new set to conquer.

When a card gets banned, people tend to get a bit ban-happy. Mardu Vehicles does well at the next event and everyone wants Gideon, Ally of Zendikar or Heart of Kiran to be next on the chopping block. In short, everyone wants to use “the saw” to solve the format’s perceived problems.

Even the six-year-old knows how silly “the saw” is, and you should too.

Let’s approach the problem of powerful decks and cards like Magic players: with our heads. With the exodus of Felidar Guardian from the format, many things change. We have a new current top dog, but the format’s rules have changed and the deck is beatable.

Yes, at a glance, Mardu Vehicles dominated #SCGATL.

My Team MGG teammate Andrew Jessup finally got the win he’s deserved for a while now, and there were four other copies of the deck in the Top 8. The story of a tournament goes well beyond the Top 8, however, and there were a ton of interesting decks in the mix. Mardu Vehicles was the obvious choice for a Week 1 tournament and became even more obvious with Felidar Guardian being banned on Wednesday night before the event. Two days is a very short period of time to tackle a brand-new format and it showed.

Even I fell to the dark side and played Mardu Vehicles. There just wasn’t enough time to refine the things I was working on. For reference, here are the two decks I spent most of Thursday on:

This deck was really awesome once it got going but struggled with the speed and resilience of Mardu Vehicles. As with most control decks, Gideon, Ally of Zendikar was just too hard to overcome.

The Drake Haven plus Nahiri, the Harbinger engine was absurdly good, though, as was Corrupted Grafstone. Being able to make a at least one Drake every turn for no mana while building Nahiri up to Torrential Gearhulk territory was fantastic, and you’d often be drawing into more cyclers. Making three Drakes a turn was not uncommon. Nahiri also answers many of the new enchantments in Standard, making her a very useful utility card as well.

The mana was a bit rough, as having access to only one cycling land was unfortunate, and there were definitely issues with lands entering the battlefield tapped too often. This deck is definitely not a pure control deck and has much more in common with the old Astral Slide decks than Jeskai Control.

I wrote about this deck a few weeks ago, and here is the update.

There are lots of awesome things going on in this deck, but finding the balance between them all is pretty tough. The madness outlets like Noose Constrictor and Key to the City are fantastic, and the madness cards are great when they work. Honored Hydra is also an insane Magic card, as it’s effectively a cantripping 6/6 with trample for only four mana that’s occasionally a late-game six-mana pounder. The synergy between Key to the City and Honored Hydra is also simple and effective.

I missed Hazoret the Fervent the first time around, but it’s a perfect fit for the deck’s aggression and theme. It’s also another big hitter to make unblockable with Key to the City and gives the deck even more reach with its synergistic ability.

I played against a few G/R Monsters decks at SCG Atlanta that had similar things going on but played higher up the curve with Bloodrage Brawler, Rhonas the Indomitable, and Glorybringer. Bloodrage Brawler didn’t impress me in a world drowning in copies of Fatal Push and it doesn’t play great with the madness cards on the early turns of the game. The other big creatures are pretty good and it’s possible this deck wants to go up the curve a little more and skip on the one-drops.

It’s also possible that the deck wants to up the black splash from just a few sources for Scrapheap Scrounger to an actual splash for Unlicensed Disintegration, but the idea of playing a bunch of lands that may not enter the battlefield untapped scares me.

There’s certainly something good going on here, but it needs work.

Reality set in somewhere around 2 am on Friday as neither deck was ready for the big show, and Brad and I were resigned to just playing Andrew’s Mardu Vehicles list. The deck was certainly very solid, with Andrew of course taking down the event, Brad coming in tenth place, and me coming in 33rd place.

Without the restriction of Saheeli Combo on the format, there are definitely many solid ways to pressure Gideon, Ally of Zendikar in the format as well as ways to defend against the early beats of Heart of Kiran and Toolcraft Exemplar. Mardu Vehicles is a beatable deck, but the other decks in the format just need time to coalesce.

If anything, the card that scares me more than Gideon is Aetherworks Marvel. Aetherworks Marvel was an absolute terror before Emrakul, the Promised End was banned and was a major reason for the banning. Randomly casting ten-drops on turn 4 is not something that Standard is often prepared to handle, and while the new versions of the deck are nowhere as resilient as the Emrakul versions, they are still quite explosive.

The question is how to build the deck.

Michael Segal was the highest-finishing Aetherworks Marvel player at #SCGATL with an interesting take on the deck that hybridized it with Temur Dynavolt.

Rather than trying to race to a fast Aetherworks Marvel activation with Servant of the Conduit and other, more linear cards, Michael included more controlling elements in his deck to help stifle early aggression while he set up his Aetherworks Marvel. Magma Spray and Kozilek’s Return in addition to the usual Harnessed Lightning is an impressive removal suite, with Glimmer of Genius providing cards and energy.

Finding the proper balance in a deck like this can be tough, but this seems like a great start. At first glance, the Rogue Refiners don’t impress me much as the deck’s only target for removal, and those Torrential Gearhulks in the sideboard are mighty temping. Having good Aetherworks Marvel hits that are also powerful, castable cards is a huge bonus, and Torrential Gearhulk is just a fantastic Magic card. I also think this deck would heavily benefit from some maindeck copies of Negate to help in the mirror; defend against Gideon, Ally of Zendikar; and protect Aetherworks Marvel from countermagic.

There’s a danger in toeing the line with a deck like this, however, because you don’t want to end up just being a slow Aetherworks Marvel deck and a bad control deck, but this deck is doing a lot of new and interesting things that weren’t really possible with Saheeli Combo legal.

The other non-traditional take on Aetherworks Marvel was a Bant version of the deck played by Zan Syed. Following along the same path of Michael’s deck, Zan is looking to hybridize the Aetherworks Marvel plus Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger plan with more control elements. This was a deck that I sketched on Thursday but never finished working on, and I think Zan has missed perhaps the best possible card for the deck.

As I said earlier about Torrential Gearhulk, being able to put cards in your Aetherworks Marvel deck that are great hits off Marvel but still powerful to hardcast goes a long way towards increasing the consistency of the deck.

Descend upon the Sinful is a very powerful sweeper effect that has been held in check by the fact that white decks have a hell of a time getting delirium. The exile effect is huge in a format infested with Scrapheap Scrounger, both Lilianas, various Gods like Rhonas the Indomitable, enemy Ulamogs, and Dread Wanderer. The 4/4 Angel token also is a fantastic tempo boost that can immediately begin to pressure planeswalkers or handle the follow-up. It’s also an awesome card to cast on your opponent’s turn with Aetherworks Marvel, preferably after they have fired up some Vehicles or creature-lands.

The problem, of course, is that getting delirium in your white deck has often been difficult.

Cycling to the rescue! Most white decks already want to play four copies of Cast Out anyway, which provides a unique card type for delirium at a very low cost. Throw in a few other spells and the things you are already doing, and getting delirium is actually pretty easy. This also makes Ishkanah, Grafwidow an option as well.

It would require reworking, but Descend upon the Sinful is a powerful path that Aetherworks Marvel decks could take.

Also responsible for keeping Mardu Vehicles in check in the previous format were the various G/B Aggro decks based around Winding Constrictor. These decks were able to get on the battlefield quickly enough to pressure Gideon, Ally of Zendikar and force the Mardu deck into a defensive stance, which is something the deck full of Scrapheap Scroungers and Toolcraft Exemplars does not do very well. Walking Ballista was also a great tool at keeping Toolcraft Exemplar at bay.

There were a few G/B Aggro decks at #SCGATL, although the deck was not as popular as B/G Delirium.

Shawn Ellis was the highest-finishing G/B Aggro player, and I must commend him for being a confirmed maniac. Sixteen lands!? Hot damn.

Despite an almost suicidal land count, there are a lot of good things going on in this deck. It has an extremely lean mana curve, which should have it succeeding at getting under Mardu and the other decks in the format, but it also has some staying power, as almost all of its creatures scale well later into the game. Blossoming Defense is a great response to Unlicensed Disintegration and a good call in a removal-heavy format. I don’t think the maindeck copies of Never//Return are that necessary, and frankly something has to go for a few more lands, but on the whole this deck is very sweet.

Michael Lux had a decent event with a much more normal version of the deck, with a slight delirium theme not present in Shawn’s deck. All the usual suspects are present along with a few new ones, and decks like this are very customizable to the format and adaptable week to week, which is a nice feature to have.

With these G/B Aggro decks, it’s crucial to understant why Mardu regained the edge in the matchup. The Mardu Vehicles transformational sideboard plan is mostly known by now, yet still not properly understood by most. Many of my opponents at SCG Atlanta were just loaded up with copies of Manglehorn, Release the Gremlins, and Magma Spray post-sideboard against me…and were forced to helplessly Manglehorn my Clue tokens and Magma Spray my Zombie tokens as the game dragged on and I accrued advantage from my planeswalkers and Oath of Liliana.

Don’t fall into this trap.

Planeswalker removal like Never//Return is an absolute must in post-sideboard games against Mardu, and you must be prepared to beat a wall of removal and planeswalkers. As long as you are prepared for the sideboard plan, you can keep Mardu Vehicles a good matchup.

And Many More

There were a ton more awesome decks in the Top 64 of #SCGATL, and we’ve barely begun to scratch the surface of both Amonkhet as well as our new Standard format.

At the moment these are your gatekeepers to the format, but I expect the format to go much deeper than Gideon, Ally of Zendikar and Aetherworks Marvel. We had a pretty interesting and exciting tournament at #SCGATL with only two days to prepare. Imagine how the next two weeks are going to pan out!