Hello, my name is Chris, and for those not familiar, I’m a player based in the north of England aiming to provide an account of each PPTQ I play in this season as I try to qualify for the Pro Tour in Alberquerque. This is a continuation from a quest starting last season to qualify for the Pro Tour in Kyoto and I aim to provide insights and lessons learned from engaging the grind to get that coveted Pro Tour invitation.
Last weekend, I attended a Standard PPTQ at IQ Gaming in Huddersfield. This was the first PPTQ I could attend this season as I had prior commitments the weeks preceding.
If I’m honest with myself, I did very little preparation for this event. Despite a new set coming out, most of my energies had been exerted (no pun intended) on exploring the Limited format through a number of drafts and sealed events. I’m not hugely confident of my ability to play Limited generally and am qualified for a Limited RPTQ in June so I wanted to get more practice in for that. I also hadn’t really thought about how I wanted to invest in Standard cards. Despite having to bear the inevitable ‘price hike’ set in motion by the Pro Tour results, I usually wait to review the results and watch the coverage to get some clues as to what strategies are effective before I start to buy new cards for Standard.
Speaking of the Pro Tour – that event happened at the same time as this PPTQ. Day one was in the books the eve before the event in Huddersfield. While coverage from day one wouldn’t tell me everything, it would at least give me a level of awareness of what some of the key players in Standard with Amonkhet might look like. So, what ‘new toys’ did I see?
I mostly ignored the New Perspectives combo deck, deciding that it was on-balance too ‘janky’ to show up in large numbers. This may be a bit of a premature judgement, but here is my rationale. Putting myself in the seat of someone trying to play this deck, folding to countermagic in game one, and chances not improving hugely in game two felt like a scary enough prospect to potentially not run it in a local level tournament, where I know there are always a decent number of players championing blue spells.
Marvel looked like a popular choice among the Pro Tour competitors. Turn four Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger did indeed seem very scary, and if that didn’t come together, playing value creatures/planeswalkers to either win or build up to the turn 10 Ulamog proved to be a solid plan B. While I didn’t have the cards to play the deck myself, I’d likely be making sure my sideboard gave extra consideration to combating this strategy. It later transpired that there were some great innovations of this archetype with a version playing Chandra, Flamecaller and a version playing Glimmer of Genius/Torrential Gearhulk, but I didn’t see these from the coverage I managed to watch in advance of the tournament.
The zombie deck looked effective and terrifying. The mono black version looked like it played very similar to a traditional tribal deck (if you’re familiar with Merfolk in modern, I find it very similar to that only black for removal over blue for countermagic). Flooding out the board with cheap, resilient creatures and pumping with Lord of the Accursed/Metallic Mimic, with a backup plan of drawing extra cards with Cryptbreaker or transforming Westvale Abbey to fly over seemed legit. The white-black version using Binding Mummy and Wayward Servant to break through ground-based board stalls (and cast Gideon, Ally of Zendikar out of the sideboard) while sacrificing some of the raw explosive aggressiveness, also looked good. Which is better? My initial assessment was that while monoblack is more streamlined, efficient and plays to plan A (Zombie smash!) a bit better, whereas the version with white is likely better in the mirror and has more flexible options for attacking the wider metagame. Either way, I realised the importance of not succumbing to the horde!
What is my strategy for this tournament? Mardu vehicles! Though, I’m sure some of you who know what I’ve played in recent Standard events likely sensed this. Here’s the list that I registered for the event.
As I wrote out my decklist and deliberated my sideboard, I sat with and discussed options with Tom Law, a friend who I see at plenty of events I go to. Tom’s a great player and a member of Team Axion, and usually a lot more on the ball than me about what different decks do. He helped me fill in the gaps on how bad some of these matchups are for my deck (at least through a better understanding of how their cards interact with mine) and, if anything, convinced me I needed more sideboard cards for Zombies and Marvel. The point I want to raise here is that, even though in direct competition with one another, we’re willing to share our experiences and help each other succeed by giving advice. Even though I didn’t particularly like the ‘newsflash’ that some of the new strategies have a good chance of crushing mine, I’m a strong advocate of taking on board advice from sources you trust in order to help you improve at Magic. My conversation with Tom was a very good example of this.
Some quick notes on card choices.
The deck is largely based off the 1st place list from the SCG Open in Atlanta piloted by Andrew Jessup. I really liked the Cut//Ribbons he added for extra reach against those who stabilise at low health against you when you are the beatdown. Also, having an additional removal spell that deals with Kalitas and 4/4 Grim Flayers is also handy.
- Anguished Unmaking: I hadn’t run this card previously, but having a potential out to Marvel (or Ulamog) as well as a generally flexible card that could handle opposing Planeswalkers in a grindy stand-off was probably worth it.
- Transgress the Mind: This was my weapon of choice for Marvel (and New Perspectives) so I decided to run it in plentiful supply. I was sceptical of Dispossess, as the Marvel deck can still play a normal game and Ulamog can go over the top on turn 10 – they might even board the Marvel out for sideboarded games. Transgress also doubled up as something I could use against control decks.
- Fumigate: Normally Fatal Push and Disintegrate and the beatdown pressure is enough, but the Zombie deck can flood the board very quickly and one-for-one removal on their threats feels quite lacklustre and pressuring them with Toolcraft Exemplar and Scrapheap Scrounger is very difficult to do given they have multiple ways to generate/recur zombies. After boarding, I definitely wanted to be the control deck and decided to play that role most effectively, I’d need the support of a sweeper. Let’s hope they don’t kill me on turn four!
- Release the Gremlins: None in sight! While this had previously been reputedly the ‘best card’ in the mirror, I feel that the postboard games in the mirror involve sideboarding out a lot of artifacts (at least that’s what I do and have seen many people do) which minimises the effectiveness of this card. It does answer Marvel, but I’d prefer to try and stop that from happening in the first place with Transgress the Mind.
- Chandra, Torch of Defiance: I spoke very highly of this card last season as a key enabler for the Planeswalker plan and also ran two in my maindeck at the RPTQ in March. I’d love to run it again but the manabase has shifted to become a bit more Black than Red and I didn’t want to destabilise it with a RR card that sometimes needs to hit the battlefield as early as possible.
There were 36 players in the event which meant six rounds with a cut to Top 8. Here’s how it played out.
Round one: Black Green Delirium
- Game one: I keep a hand that allows me to Fatal Push his early Grim Flayer, attack with Scrapheap Scrounger and apply more pressure with Gideon. Sadly Gideon is taken out by Never//Return but the Scrapheaps keep chomping away. Finally he bites and kills off the Scrapheap with removal spells and lands an Ob Nixilis. I reanimate the Scrounger to keep Ob off its -3 ability at all times, but my opponent doesn’t draw any useful cards off it anyway and decides his health total is too low and concedes.
- Game two: My opponent is able to use Liliana to hold off Thalia and a Knight Ally token after casting Never on Gideon as per the first game. I remove the Last Hope with Anguished Unmaking and reload with Painful Truths. A few turns later I’m able to use my stronger board presence to overwhelm the game. I don’t remember my opponent casting any Ishkanah, Grafwidows – I think if they had done, the game becomes drastically different.
Round two: Blue Red Control
- Game one: I mulligan to five which isn’t a good start, but I at least have some pressure in my 5 with Scrapheap Scrounger and Gideon. The former is instantly hit by a Magma Spray and the Ally of Zendikar is countered leaving me all-in on Thraben Inspector for a while. I somehow manage to get my opponent to 3 life and threaten to finish him off with Ribbons, but at this point my opponent has complete control of the game, and can only really lose if they get greedy and try to vanquish me in one swoop by animating multiple Wandering Fumaroles. Unfortunately for me, he plays it safe and elects to kill me a turn later with the backup of multiple counterspells.
- Game two: I don’t have to mulligan to five and can curve out. The turn before I plan to deploy some threats I cast Transgress the Mind on my opponent who reveals multiple Magma Sprays and a Glimmer of Genius, but not much else. I decide that I’ll take the card draw and wait out the removal before casting the Scrapheap Scrounger in my hand. I repeatedly attack my opponent with Thraben Inspectors and Shambling Vent while my opponent draws (presumably) some cards that aren’t really of further use to him. Eventually he bites, offing the Vent and its replacement with multiple Magma Sprays and now it’s time for Scrapheap to try and earn its stripes. A few turns later I draw more gas and my opponent is overwhelmed.
- Game three: I start with threats and two Transgress the Mind in hand, drawing the third on my first turn. My opponent halves my Thraben Inspector clock by offing one and protects his hand by countering the first two Transgress the Minds. This only encourages me to play the third at the next opportunity and take the Torrential Gearhulk he is protecting and try to play round the rest of his hand. It’s now basically a topdeck war, but my opponent has missed land drops so likely needs to topdeck a bit better than me. After a few ‘land, go’ from both of us, I resolve a Nahiri, then a Sorin, then a Gideon and it’s game over for my opponent.
Round three: Mardu Vehicles
- Game one: I kill his Toolcraft, having no turn one play of my own. My opponent then curves Heart into Thalia. This is huge because I don’t have removal at the moment and can’t play my Gideon on turn four due to the non-basic lands in my hand, but after I deploy a sheepish 1/1 Walking Ballista, he gets to play his Ally of Zendikar and snowball the advantage. After only a single turn, I realise my only way to catch up is to try and mitigate his board by playing and successfully transforming Archangel Avacyn (I can use a walking ballista to reduce his Gideon down to 3 loyalty and trigger the transformation). I cross my fingers, hoping he does not have Unlicensed Disintegration (though I was going to lose to that card anyway if I did not try this plan). It works and my opponent’s board is shrunk down to just a Heart of Kiran. Unfortunately, I still have to be careful as I am on about 8 life. I actually need to keep Avacyn the Purifier on defence as it cannot race his Heart of Kiran if he has a new way to crew it. I play my Gideon and my opponent also draws another one of his own. The next five or six turns involve us either drawing land or both slowly adding to the board, but with me having Gideon advantage and with Tom needing to draw removal for my Avacyn. Gradually I’m able to reduce his board to very little and defeat him.
- Game two: I curve out and am able to deploy Oath of Liliana into Nahiri. My opponent also plays Oath of Liliana into planeswalkers. I’m slightly ahead but I think I mess up a bit on a couple of counts. I think I should have used Nahiri to exile his Oath of Liliana straight away instead of ticking up to try and draw into a better hand (just because mine was not good). My opponent also taps out for Sorin and uses it to kill Gideon and I should crew my Heart of Kiran with Gideon repeatedly to deny him the lifegain. With us both close to 20 life, it appears unlikely to make the difference at the time, but the lifegain reduces the impact of possible aggressive lines later in the game which I may want to make. My opponent uses Oath of Liliana to claw things back a bit and eventually, I’m embarrassingly forced to use my removal on random zombie tokens to protect my planeswalkers. From what seemed like a great early position, a comeback is made and I feel a bit disappointed to have let this game slip away from me.
- Game three: I’m lucky enough to deploy multiple planeswalkers on curve with little added to my opponent’s board. I’m quite far ahead, but I think the crucial turn of the game involves my opponent playing an Avacyn in combat but forgetting that Thalia, Heretic Cathar causes it to enter tapped which means I can remove it with Nahiri’s -2 ability. I think if he had waited until the end of turn to cast Avacyn, this game ends up very different. The game goes to turns, but given how far ahead I am, I think it’s a matter of me not messing up. This time, when my opponent tries to gain life by killing Gideon, I remember to crew the Heart of Kiran to prevent the lifegain.
Round four: Monoblack Zombies
- Game one: I win the die roll and decide to trade 1/1 Walking Ballista with Cryptbreaker. I’m a bit sad about the multiple Scrapheap Scroungers in hand as I know they’re likely going to be blanked in a couple of turns (and can’t block my opponent’s onslaught, but as I have Avacyn in hand, I might be able to engineer a boardwipe, we shall see. Unfortunately, my opponent gets a bit stuck on lands and I’m able to seize the initiative and put him under too much pressure in only a few turns later.
- Game two: My opener contains cheap removal, Gideon and a Fumigate which is pretty much what I want, just have to ensure Fumigate does not get Transgressed. My opponent appears to have again kept a land-light hand and misses multiple land drops. Fortunately, I’m able to use the removal and Fumigate to keep the board clean and use my Planeswalkers to secure victory.
Round five: Monoblack Zombies
I’m randomly paired down against a 3-1 so I can’t ID the match.
- Game one: My opponent curves out with a few zombies and my hand is actually quite poor for dealing with this, I draw multiple Gideons and each time I play one, my opponent uses a removal spell and his combat phase to kill the Gideon, which nets me about 12 life and means that he’s run out of Grasp of Darkness for Avacyn which I manage to transform, clearing the board and putting on a swift clock. My opponent flooded a bit at this point, but I don’t think there were any spells that could have dealt with a transformed Avacyn anyway.
- Game two: Again my opponent curves out. I’m quite happy trading Dread Wanderers for Thraben Inspectors (even though my opponent can get them back later) as the inspectors won’t be able to trade once a Lord is down, and I feel this matchup is about staying alive long enough to cast more powerful spells, like Fumigate and Planeswalkers which I use to win the match handily following my opponent’s initial onslaught.
I intentionally draw round six with my opponent. I forget what I saw him play earlier. I’m fairly confident I will be first seed in the top 8
Quarterfinals: Black Green Delerium
I’m playing my opponent from round one again. If the swiss rounds are anything to go by, I should be confident.
- Game one: I have the great curve on the play, Toolcraft, into Heart, into Disintegration on his Flayer, into Gideon. My opponent never really gets into the game.
- Game two: I curve into multiple Planeswalkers and my opponent does not play spells due to being stuck on only a single black mana – quite unlucky given the usual number of black sources in the deck.
Semifinals vs Temur Marvel
- Game one: I curve very well with Toolcraft into Heart into Thraben Inspector into Gideon. Unfortunately, my opponent plays Attune, Woodreaver’s puzzleknot, sacrifices puzzleknot into Marvel, spins it and casts Ulamog, exiling Heart of Kiran and Gideon with me at 20 and him at 11. I fortunately have another Gideon which I play and my board is Toolcraft, Inspector, two knight tokens, Thraben Inspector and Gideon. My opponent only adds a Rogue Refiner to the board, but then passes – even here, attacking with Ulamog is risky. I decide I’m going to try and go for damage here and trigger my Toolcraft, crack the clue before blocks and Fatal Push the Rogue Refiner. My opponent falls to three life. I then cast Cut on Ulamog, mostly to threaten Ribbons next turn. I feel like I was quite lucky to win in spite of a turn four giant Eldrazi.
- Game two: I’m lucky enough to curve Toolcraft into Scrapheap, then Transgress the Mind on turn three to get rid of an Aetherworks Marvel. My opponent plays a second one and spins it, Ulamog would be very bad. Fortunately for me, he just adds a Tireless Tracker to the board. I use Anguished Unmaking on the Marvel end of turn, untap, Disintegrate the Tracker and continuing to attack with Toolcraft and Scrapheap. My defenceless opponent casts Nissa’ Renewal to try and stabilise but it only delays the inevitable as he doesn’t have the Ulamog to hardcast and stabilise the board.
Finals vs Sultai Delerium
- Game one: I have what is probably the fastest curve of the day with one Toolcraft, turn two Inspector plus second Toolcraft, turn three Scrapheap and second Inspector. My opponent is dead on turn four.
- Game two: I decide the planeswalker plan is good as he may be able to halt the Toolcrafts very easily with Liliana Last Hope or Ishkanah. In game two, I curve well into Oath of Liliana and Planeswalker. My opponent doesn’t really get Delerium going and can’t seem to answer Nahiri and Sorin. In a very short space of time, I add an Avacyn to the board and the game comes to a very quick conclusion.
Post event thoughts
- Magma Spray felt underwhelming. I’m likely to replace it with Declaration in Stone going forward to deal with recursive Zombies that might have 3 toughness or Ulamog.
- 25 lands? Yes, you sometimes flood a bit, really helps set you up for casting your 4cmc+ spells on curve. I have always found the Mardu manabase one if its biggest weaknesses, but I’m happy with the one I’m using right now.
- Sorin, Grim Nemesis got the job done when needed but also felt mostly underwhelming. It feels like I want a six drop that does more, maybe Chandra Flamecaller is an option worth trying going forward.
So, is Mardu still good? By now Pro Tour Amonkhet is in the books and we can see that none of the Mardu players made the Top 8 of the event, nor did it have a great conversion rate into Day Two despite being the most played archetype for Standard on Day One. This would immediately suggest that it’s not as dominating force it used to be, but it’s important to understand why this is the case, rather than simply look at the results of the Pro Tour and assume it’s a poor deck choice. In terms of what I learnt from this event:
- I’m a bit unsure about my Zombies matchup. On paper, game one seems weak for Mardu, but adding enough Fumigates maybe puts you I a good enough spot for games 2 and 3. I think the intended Zombie curve can quite easily put Mardu on the backfoot in game one where you have no Fumigates to recover and Toolcraft Exemplar and Scrapheap Scrounger can quickly become dead draws against the horde. I’m assuming we’ll see more Zombies going forward considering it just won the Pro Tour (three in the Top 8).
- You have very little defense against a turn four Ulamog and I think this is a potential excuse for Mardu to tear its manabase up even more and add blue for countermagic (see Eduardo Sajgalik’s deck from the Top 8 of Pro Tour Aether Revolt). I was very lucky to beat Marvel in my semifinal match. If my opponent had been on the play in game one, they would have been able to exile either all my pressure, or lands 2 and 3 which would have made Gideon uncastable and I’m pretty sure they would have won the game from there. I would like to test this matchup a bit more before forming a conclusion as the games I played in this event were few and they didn’t really showcase the Marvel deck very well.
- Mardu likely can’t beat the New Perspectives combo deck, certainly not in game one and maybe not even in the sideboarded games unless it goes a bit bluer. The disenchant effects don’t really work as they likely ‘go off all in one go, and can do so in response to you destroying the enchantment. I can maybe afford to add Lost Legacy to my 75 if this becomes highly relevant. My manabase is much more black than red as I’m not running either Veteran Motorist or Chandra.
- Barring a deck that can repeatedly recur an Ishkanah with Delirium when it needs to, I think Mardu is still the best choice to win midrange battles. It’s also great against all the control decks which I believe are actually good against New Perspectives and Marvel (at least on paper – I’ve not tested these matchups properly).
For those interested, this is how I sideboarded against Zombies and Marvel with my deck:
- OUT: 4 Toolcraft Exemplar, 4 Scrapheap Scrounger, 2 Unlicensed Disintegration
- IN: 1 Magma Spray, 2 Oath of Liliana, 2 Nahiri the Harbinger, 1 Anguished Unmaking, 3 Fumigate, 1 Sorin, Grim Nemesis
This is how I sideboarded against Marvel
- OUT: -4 Fatal Push, -2 Archangel Avacyn
- IN: +3 Transgress the Mind, +1 Anguished Unmaking, +2 Nahiri, the Harbinger
I likely don’t have enough cards in my sideboard for this matchup.
I guess this series of PPTQ diaries has turned out to be rather short! Fear not, I’ll still be playing in a lot of Magic events so I’m sure I can return other insights from those – at least the RPTQ that I have just qualified for. For instance, in June, I’ll have the RPTQ for the Pro Tour in Kyoto (which I qualified for last season) and a trip to the Grand Prix events in Las Vegas. Those of you continuing to grind PPTQs, this season good luck!