It's time to turn over a new leaf.
If you had asked me a month ago which tribe in Khans of Tarkir I was most likely to associate with, the answer would be a clear Abzan. I went from playing BGW with Lingering Souls and Gavony Township in Innistrad Block Constructed to BGW with Lingering Souls and Gavony Township in Standard. When I realized that tokens wasn't quite a strong enough deck in Standard, I decided to start playing Junk Reanimator…
You know, another BGW deck that featured the powerful combination of Thragtusk and Unburial Rites. For a year or more, I played a lot of BGW decks, including a long stint with Junk Aristocrats. I became associated with the Abzan color wedge and the kind of grindy value-oriented gameplay that was true of those colors.
For some reason though, the Abzan tribe in Khans of Tarkir just hasn't really appealed to me. A lot of the Abzan cards, and even the outlast mechanic itself, are designed to be highly defensive cards that are going to grind your opponent out of the game if they go unchecked for a while. In essence, these are exactly the kinds of cards that I loved playing. The kinds of cards I wanted to win with.
So why then am I on the fence about Abzan? Why haven't I pledged my allegiance to the nation of grind and value? Something has changed. In the past few years, I feel like Magic has started to shift away from these kinds of grindy decks being good. I feel like Magic has transitioned to a game where the best thing you can really do in any match is to just get your opponent dead. It doesn't matter if you can outlast your opponent going long if the game doesn't go long.
Instead of trying to grind my opponent out over a long period of time with big, slow, clunky creatures, I've decided that I want to be ruthless. I still want big threats. I still want to play powerful cards. Just instead of them being 2/4 creatures that provide slow value, I want them to be the kinds of powerful cards that my opponent is sitting there thinking "I hope he doesn't cast that card this turn or I'm just dead."
Cue entrance music:
These are the new tag team champions of the world. Your life total is on the chopping block.
Goodbye Abzan. I'm now a card carrying member of the Mardu Clan. After playing Goblin Rabblemaster for the first time at the WMCQ in Philadelphia last weekend, I am hooked. I'm hooked on the thrill of asking your opponent if you can move to combat and the look of fear on their face when they ultimately say: "Yes."
"I'll make a Goblin. Attack with everything."
I've spent the past week brewing, tinkering, and testing with all things Mardu. My newfound obsession may end up being my crackling doom, but until that point hits, let me share some of that sweet ankle shanking technology I've been working with.
Let's start with my first take on Mardu.
I played a Mardu deck with a more aggressive bend against Todd Anderson in a VS Video earlier this week. For posterity's sake, here's the list:
- 4 Bloodsoaked Champion
- 4 Butcher of the Horde
- 4 Goblin Rabblemaster
- 4 Soldier of the Pantheon
- 4 Gnarled Scarhide
- 3 Brimaz, King of Oreskos
This list wasn't very good. I learned a lot of things from trying out that deck, the main one being that Rabblemaster, Butcher, and Crackling Doom were all really sweet. That was around the point that the sweetness ended though.
None of the one drops performed very well, at least not against Todd's Green Devotion deck. I thought a card like Soldier of the Pantheon had potential to be a really powerful card in the new Standard format, especially with Khans of Tarkir being a multicolor block. As it turns out though, that isn't true right now. At least, it's not true yet.
There are three full sets in Theros Block to just one in Khans of Tarkir. Once the next sets come out, Soldier of the Pantheon might get his time in the sun, but until that point, it seems like he isn't quite good enough yet. Khans of Tarkir multicolor cards aren't going to push out some of the powerful single color threats in Theros like Polukranos, World Eater and Stormbreath Dragon.
I think it is going to be really hard to make a go of it with 2/1s for one mana in this new Standard format. You are going to need a dedicated strategy designed to make those 2/1s actually do something meaningful as the game progresses into the realms where your opponent's jamming a Fat Polly into play or sticking their second Courser onto the battlefield. Either you are planning to kill your opponent before that happens (good luck!) or you are playing cards that let you keep up pressure through those cards (Ride Down).
Even playing those cards comes with a cost. Sometimes you draw Ride Down when your opponent doesn't have any creatures in play and you need a threat. Sometimes you rip Boon of Erebos when your opponent is at three life with numerous blockers and you wish it were a Lightning Strike instead. There is a real cost to trying to build these synergy-based aggressive strategies.
Having said that, this Mardu deck was not a dedicated strategy designed to turn those 2/1's into something relevant. Therefore, they simply shouldn't have been in the deck in the first place.
Does that mean you shouldn't bother to try aggressive Mardu decks?
I think it's certainly possible that there is a good deck there, but I am skeptical. There is a lot of room for powerful synergies between cards like Foundry Street Denizen, Akroan Hoplite, Goblin Rabblemaster, and Mardu Ascendancy. Those tokens also have great synergy with Butcher of the Horde.
My fear is that these kinds of synergy decks have always struggled to succeed in a format where Thoughtseize is king. If your opponent Thoughtseizes your Mardu Ascendancy and then plays a 2/4 creature, how is Foundry Street Denizen able to compete? If your opponent Thoughtseizes your Akroan Hoplite and you're left with a few copies of Mardu Ascendancy in hand with no threats to back it up with, how do you recover?
That's not even taking into account the problems that come with trying to design a manabase for a three-color deck that's trying to explode out of the gates. You can't afford to play too many lands that come into play tapped, because it really ruins the power of cards like Foundry Street Denizen when your second turn is to play a tapped land and pass. Without those tap lands, you're left at the mercy of hoping to have the right colors at the right times. When things don't go right, you're drawing things like Firedrinker Satyr on turn 5 and he's far less impressive then.
I'd love to be proven wrong on this, but I simply feel like you want all of your cards to be stand-alone threats. I want my opponent to Thoughtseize me, tank for a while, and then have to select either a redundant threat or redundant removal spell out of my hand. If all of my cards are good on their own, then I have nothing to fear from Thoughtseize and its kin.
Now we're talking my language. Instead of focusing on one-drop aggression and trying to use Butcher as a high end finisher, this deck instead utilizes Butcher as more of a Desecration Demon without a drawback. You can slap the Butcher down on turn 4, even without access to a creature to sacrifice to give him haste. It's still going to hit for a lot of damage, and you don't have to worry about them sacrificing Elvish Mystics for ten turns in a row to slow you down.
Speaking of Butcher, it is quite the threat. I haven't spoken a whole lot about it thus far, but hot diggity dog, this card is good, especially in conjunction with Goblin Rabblemaster. You can just sac the little goblin that could every turn to provide a myriad of some of the finest abilities a multi-handed demon could ask for. Haste the first turn, Vigilance or Lifelink after that. Can't ask for much more.
This was my first take on a midrange version of Mardu. The idea behind this deck is to utilize removal spells and hand disruption to clear the way for Rabblemaster and Butcher. You butcher their hand and then you reduce their life total to rabble. Just how we drew it up.
There were a few things I learned from playing this deck. The first is that Thoughtseize into (pass turn) into Rabblemaster is like the new Thoughtseize into Pack Rat, only with a one turn delay (that you will hopefully use to Thoughtseize them again or kill a creature). You can just strip their removal spell, and then kill their blocker, and then they are up a certain kind of creek sans paddle.
This deck was pretty sweet, but it could still use some work. For one, Chandra Pyromaster wasn't quite "up to snuff". I had Chandra in there to provide a form a card advantage and to serve as another way to push a Goblin Rabblemaster through blockers thanks to her +1 ability. While awesome in theory, it didn't end up working out. Chandra wasn't bad. Far from it. She just wasn't exactly what I wanted.
In came Sorin, Solemn Visitor. As someone who has played and loved the other two Sorins they've printed, let me just say that this new Sorin is just as badass as the other two. He may look like a Solemn Visitor, but he is anything but. He brings the pain. Sorin turned out to be awesome in the deck. He was a strong threat on an empty board, and his +1 closed games out really well when you needed a little extra push.
Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker was also pretty sweet. In a deck with so many removal spells, frequently you can just jam a Sarkhan and kill their only creature with it. Then you get to untap with it then next turn and start going to town on their life total. He also serves up a fairly solid Stormbreath Dragon impersonation.
In this list, I have a split between Mardu Charm and Crackling Doom. Both cards were so good for me that I had a hard time deciding which one I wanted more. As of now, I feel like while Crackling Doom is an insanely powerful spell, Mardu Charm is where I want to be.
Mardu Charm is surprisingly effective against the red aggro decks. Two 1/1s with First Strike until end of turn is a gift that keeps on giving. Not only do you stick it to their myriad of X/1s, you get to keep two tokens around to also stick it to their myriad of X/1s again the next turn. Get stuck!
Mardu Charm also has been pretty awesome as a three-mana instant speed Duress. End of turn Duress to take their removal spell followed by untapping into Butcher has been quite a delight. Likewise, I've been a huge fan of the draw step Mardu Charm as Duress to strip a pesky planeswalker from their hand before they have a chance to deploy it. Ship that Elspeth, son!
Speaking of Elspeth, while I love that girl, she doesn't really fit into this shell. For one, she's pretty slow, not always easy to cast with the manabase, and this deck is trying to establish a strong early board presence rather than control the game into the lategame. For a control deck, Elspeth is queen. For this deck, she's more early of a post-midnight Cinderella.
When it's all said and done, this is the list I've ended up on.
I took a play out of Brad Nelson's playbook and went for the Wingmate Roc + Nyx-Fleece Ram combo. While I love Sarkhan dearly, it's possible that Wingmate Roc is simply a stronger threat in this deck. There is also a lot of awesome synergy with Wingmate Roc.
The first is that there are a lot of free ways to trigger it. Attacking with Nyx-Fleece Ram is an easy one. Your opponent probably can't kill your Ram after you've been ram-sacking their board with the plethora of choice removal spells this deck has to offer. Another is the free Goblin token from Goblin Rabblemaster. You can attack with the Goblin and then cast a Raided Roc. It doesn't matter if they absolutely massacre that attacking Goblin token with 98 power of first strike blockers. The important thing is that you triggered Raid and get to Rock out with your Roc out. Call me Bebop because that line is Roc-steady. Your opponent is going to be stuck between a Roc and another ****ing Roc. I'll take the hard place, please.
Part of me wants to jam a miser's Ornithopter just so I can trigger the Roc raid off of it and call the deck "Roc em Sock em Robots." Too far? Not far enough! [CEDitor's Note: You people see what I have to deal with?]
The second beautiful thing about our wingy friend is that it's a beefy 3/4 flier that dodges Elspeth, kills Elspeth, and gets positively dirty with Sorin's +1 ability. That sick combo lets you gain mammoth amounts of life and deal behemoth chunks out of your opponent's miniscule life total as these bigass Rocs fly over their puny and outmatched creatures. Hyperbole is my jam, and jamming is good.
The last thing I want to mention about this deck is the sideboard plan. One thing I really love is the Bloodsoaked Champion plan. Bloodsoaked Champion might be dual-wielding shields, but he just won't stop attacking (and can't block). That sounds like the perfect creature to combat grindy attrition matchups. When your opponent is going to be killing all of your creatures and you're going to be killing all of theirs, Bloodsoaked Champion is the perfect plan.
You can keep swinging in with the Champion. They have to eventually burn a removal spell on it and then they also can't let you attack with any other creatures the rest of the game either or you will just get them back and start anew. Champion also is great at triggering Raid for Wingmate Roc and then you can use the Rocs the next turn to bring back the Champion if he died in combat. Pretty sweet.
Along those lines, Empty the Pits has been one of the best performing cards I have tested so far. It is perfect for attrition matchups. Frequently, I will draw the card late in the game and just kill my opponent out of nowhere with a mass of marauding zombies. Even a nice solid Empty for three or four is a great midgame value play. The zombies also work nicely with Butcher of the Horde, allowing you to get lifelink when relevant to claw back into a game when you're low on life or giving it haste to finish off your opponent more quickly.
All in all, Empty the Pits has been an all-star. In fact, it has been so good that I am working on decks based solely around abusing that card because I think there's a chance it becomes a huge wrecking force in this format.
Regardless of whether Empty the Pits makes it on the big stage, I'm certainly excited about this Mardu deck. It has been performing great in testing, and I think it has what it takes to be a big player in the Standard format moving forward. I don't know about you, but I can't wait to show the world what Rabblemaster and Butcher can do to a new unsuspecting format.
Whether or not you're willing to abandon your previous ties and join forces with the Mardu Horde, we can certainly agree that one thing is abundantly clear. Butcher of the Horde is one of the top five Butcher cards of all time. And that's simply irrefutable. That's a fact.