Mardu Vehicles: Past, Present, and Future
- Rodrigo Martin
Mardu Vehicles has been a popular archetype in Standard since Kaladesh released. The deck has faced one of the most troublesome metas in Standard history with four separate ban announcements, one format rotation, and yet it has, through it all, managed to be a fairly well represented deck. Let’s crew it!
When Kaladesh first hit Standard, the best decks were UW Flash and BG Delirium. Smuggler’s Copter was the most impactful card in the whole set by far.
In those early days, Mardu Vehicles was considered the third tier deck, a bit below the aforementioned. It packed 12 Turn One creatures, with the goal being set on being as ‘aggro’ as possible. Smuggler’s Copter was basically the key card of the deck, sticking all the pieces together, looting away useless cards while attacking up in the air.
The top end of the curve was Gideon, Ally of Zendikar the best planeswalker at the time, but not as relevant as it would be after the first banned announcement. The mana-base seemed a bit clunky, but it allowed a blue splash for Ceremonious Rejection to deal with Eldrazi threats and opposing vehicles. The list below, piloted by Fumiya Matsumoto, took first at GP Kuala Lumpur in 2016, showing the power of Smuggler's Copter before its eventual banning.
|3Mountain||3Depala, Pilot Exemplar||2Unlicensed Disintegration|
|3Plains||4Inventor's Apprentice||4Harnessed Lightning|
|4Aether Hub||4Scrapheap Scrounger||2Gideon, Ally of Zendikar|
|4Concealed Courtyard||4Thraben Inspector||3Cultivator's Caravan|
|4Inspiring Vantage||4Toolcraft Exemplar||4Smuggler's Copter|
|4Spirebluff Canal||4Veteran Motorist|
|4Ceremonious Rejection||4Galvanic Bombardment||1Unlicensed Disintegration|
|1Skysovereign, Consul Flagship||2Gideon, Ally of Zendikar||2Fragmentize|
From the Banning of Smuggler's Copter Until Rotation
On January 2017, Emrakul, the Promised End, Reflector Mage and Smuggler’s Copter were banned. Since 2011, Standard had been a safe place for B&R announcement, but Kaladesh proved a dangerous block for Standard, and these announcements would become quite normal.
Mardu Vehicles seemed to be long gone without the Copter, but Aether Revolt brought the perfect replacement for the trademark looter scooter: Heart of Kiran.
This new vehicle had the same cost, attacked in the air, and came with vigilance to boot, although it crewed for three rather than one. It came with one significant advantage though… it could be animated with planeswalker loyalty counters.
Soon, Gideon and the Heart were BFFs because you could play Gideon, crew the Heart, attack, and then still protect your walker by crewing again during your opponent’s turn. After Pro Tour Aether Revolt, the deck rose in popularity, only foreshadowed by the Felidar Guardian + Saheeli Rai combo that only lasted until April, when Wizards struck with the banhammer again. Here's a version I piloted back during Amonkhet, showcasing the strength of the Gideon - Heart pairing and, in addition, took advantage of some high-end cards not used in most lists.
|1Release the Gremlins||1Cast Out||2Magma Spray|
|2Negate||3Metallic Rebuke||2Painful Truths|
|2Fumigate||2Sorin, Grim Nemesis|
Aether Revolt didn't only bring Heart of Kiran to Mardu Vehicles, we also had three new tools to play with: Fatal Push became the removal of choice for one mana, Spire of Industry improved the mana-base and finally some versions tried Walking Ballista as a mana-sink for the late game, able to kill small creatures while pinging the opponent.
During that time, I had the chance to play the deck a lot and brew my own lists depending on the expected metagame: the first version, straight up Mardu, used to pack 4 man-lands (Needle Spires and Shambling Vent) and had a better late game plan with Archangel Avacyn. She was great at blocking opposing Heart of Kirans and combined with Ballista could blow out the entire table in our favour.
The second version was built to defeat Aetherworks Marvel decks, which took over the throne after Felidar Guardian was banned. I chose to splash blue again to include Metallic Rebuke and Negate in the sideboard.
The sideboard plan was another of the deck’s upsides: you trimmed down your aggressive creatures and swap them with mass removal and planeswalkers i.e.: Chandra, Torch of Defiance, Nahiri, the Harbinger or Sorin, Grim Nemesis. All of them could crew the Heart and, at the same time, fight grindy match-ups.
This video is a good example of the deck’s raw power back in the Gideon days: you can see how the deck could switch roles before and after sideboard. Having Fumigate was the only way to deal with cards like Bristling Hydra and Gideon showed how powerful he was on the second game, summoning uncountable Ally tokens until the mass removal finally came.
By midyear, the third banned announcement in a row was made, this time getting rid of Aetherworks Marvel. This would have seemed to clear the way again for Mardu Vehicles, but Hour of Devastation brought with it a new deck, which was quite a bit faster than Mardu Vehicles. Ramunap Red became the real deal and Mardu had to face a faster aggro deck that could deny its Vehicles thanks to Abrade, a main-deck creature removal that also crushed any artifact for two mana only.
From then on, Mardu lost popularity in favor of the new Red Deck and the dominant Energy-based decks that countered Ramunap Red. Despite some nice additions such as Glorybringer, Canyon Slough and Cast Out from Amonkhet, the Fall Rotation in September 2017 looked like the archetype's finish-line.
Present Configuration and Sideboard Choices
After rotation, two huge relevant cards were taken away from Mardu Vehicles; Gideon was the face card of the Zendikar block and the best planeswalker for the strategy. His 0 ability provided tokens that could crew our vehicles, block or attack alongside Gideon depending on the situation.
Thraben Inspector also came out, and while it didn’t’ look very impressive, it gave the deck a lot of consistency. It gave us an artifact on turn one to pump our Toolcraft Exemplar, Spire of Industry and Unlicensed Disintegration, plus, it was a relevant body to either crew or block one power creatures and even a revolt trigger when cracking the clue for Fatal Push.
To make things worse, Ixalan was not the best set to find replacements since it was mainly focused on different tribes and although it brought some ship shaped vehicles, none of them could match the ones we already had.
Again, it was another banned announcement early this 2018 which brought Mardu back to life. With both Energy decks and Ramunap Red downgraded in power level the deck might still have a chance in the current metagame, let’s take a look at an actual deck-list:
|2Canyon Slough||1Depala, Pilot Exemplar||4Unlicensed Disintegration|
|2Aether Hub||4Scrapheap Scrounger||3Lightning Strike|
|4Concealed Courtyard||4Bomat Courier||4Heart of Kiran|
|4Inspiring Vantage||2Pia Nalaar||2Aethersphere Harvester|
|3Mountain||4Veteran Motorist||2Chandra, Torch of Defiance|
|4Spire of Industry||3Hazoret the Fervent|
|2Cast Out||2Settle the Wreckage||2Fumigate|
|1Chandra, Torch of Defiance||1Angrath, the Flame-Chained|
As for the creature configuration, we have Bomat Courier as the finest substitute for our beloved Inspector; it’s an artifact itself and trades for cards once it gets useless. The average version also runs playset of Toolcraft Exemplar, Scrapheap Scrounger and Veteran Motorist.
Some builds tried Relentless Raptor as a powerful two drop but so far this addition has proven less than adequate. Other decks are adding Walking Ballista, Glorybringer or even the brand-new Rekindling Phoenix.
As for three-cost creatures, all versions include Pia Nalaar since she adds 2 creatures on the battlefield that together can crew Heart of Kiran. Depala, Pilot Exemplar has gained a place as a singleton in order to use the spare mana in addition to pump your Dwarfs and Vehicles.
Although Gideon was irreplaceable, the best way to mitigate it is to pack Hazoret the Fervent into the deck as our impactful four drops. She’s able to crew our Heart of Kiran even is she’s not allowed to attack or block plus she enables a ‘burn your opponent’s face’ plan paired with Unlicensed Disintegration and Chandra’s first ability.
Looking into the rest of the spells, we have 4 Unlicensed, 2 Abrade and 2 Fatal Push as the common removal package. However I also recommend replacing the last two for Lightning Strike and Shock since Mardu is not the midrange deck it used to be so you might as well try deal the last points of life with direct damage.
Finally, the namesakes of the deck need no introduction: Heart of Kiran is our best two drop alongside with 2 Aethersphere Harvester. Its five toughness and lifelink abilities are crucial for blocking Glorybringers, Rekindling Phoenixes and other flying threats.
Regarding the mana-base, it’s still the same except for a singleton copy of 1 Dragonskull Summit to provide extra black mana. Twenty-three lands seem to be the correct number with the possibility of adding a Scavenger Grounds in the side to fight against graveyard decks like Esper Gift or eternalize threats.
Moving into the sideboard, we still have the mass removal plan combined with some planeswalkers for grindy matchups. Fumigate helps us recover the life we lose on the early game and Settle the Wreckage is the perfect tool to exile indestructible creatures such as Hazoret or The Scarab God. To deal with the powerful Gods that keep on coming back, Cast Out or Ixalan's Binding are the best answers, plus they can get rid of any planeswalker or troublesome permanents.
Against aggressive strategies like Mono Red, we include cheap interaction like Magma Spray, which eliminates recurring creatures like Earthshaker Khenra or Champion of Wits. Abrade is very effective against other vehicles or annoying artifacts like God-Pharaoh's Gift. If you expect a lot of Mono Red decks, two copies of Authority of the Consuls are also worth trying.For Control match-ups like UB Control or UW Approach, Duress and additional planes-walkers are your best bets; here we must highlight the new inclusion of Angrath, the Flame-Chained, currently the only Rivals of Ixalan card in the deck so far.
Right now, we are more than seven months away from next rotation and there is still a lot of time left for Mardu Vehicles. It is soon to know if the return to Dominaria will bring cards that improve or change the strategy or if the set mechanics will be as parasitic as Energy in Kaladesh block.
Whatever it ends up happening, Mardu Vehicles still has a lot to say in the current Standard metagame. It's a very versatile deck capable of switching roles depending on the board state.
Thank you all for reading and let me know your thoughts and opinions in the comments below.
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