How do you attack a two-deck format?
First of all, I do want to challenge the notion that this is a two-deck format. Obviously, there are the various Mardu and Saheeli decks, but what about Temur Dynavolt, Jund Aggro, Winding Constrictor, R/G Energy Aggro, and various Aetherworks Marvel decks? Sure, they are not putting up the same big numbers each week, but if you've got the right one on the right weekend…
...and that's sort of the point. The third deck each weekend is the challenger. Yeah, there are several Top 8s that have featured seven or eight Mardu or Saheeli decks. I'm not saying the situation is good. However, that's not the case every weekend, and the field is more than 33% “challenger.”
That said, there is such a prevalence of Mardu and Saheeli in general, and especially at the top tables, that there may be a lot of opportunity to exploit them. It's going to be hard to compete with Mardu on “quality” and it's going to be hard to compete with Saheeli on “synergy;” however, that still leaves us with “positioning.”
Gerry Thompson's article on Friday really resonated with me.
Metallic Rebuke was fantastic in my testing for the Pro Tour and seems particularly well-positioned now. Both Mardu and Saheeli decks play a diverse mix of devastating threats. Having a reliable answer to planeswalkers, Vehicles, Felidar Guardian, whatever, is a huge boon, particularly when it's such a mana-efficient play.
In building the Improvise deck I played at the Pro Tour, I spent most of my time testing against Mardu Vehicles, G/B Constrictor, and Saheelis (evenly split between Jeskai and Four-Color, as well as some straight-up Jeskai Control with the combo in the sideboard). With G/B Constrictor and control mostly fallen by the wayside and Saheeli decks almost entirely Four-Color, the format calls for a very different build.
First, for reference, here's the deck I played at the Pro Tour:
My sideboard was absolutely terrible, and my post-sideboard win percentage was pretty disappointing compared to that of Game 1. That said, rebuilding Improvise is definitely not as simple as making a better sideboard. This version was already not at its best against Mardu, and the Mardu decks have evolved to be even harder for it.
This version's gameplan was great against G/B, since I could just Fatal Push, Grasp of Darkness, and Battle at the Bridge whatever they played and then take over with Tezzeret or Herald of Anguish. However, when facing Mardu, you kind of don't want to sit around drawing cards with Prophetic Prism and Metalspinner's Puzzleknot and using them to cast Reverse Engineer. Besides, it's really hard to be so reliant on creature kill when you also have to deal with planeswalkers and Vehicles, too.
I'd like to try something a bit more aggressive, better set up to attack planeswalkers. Additionally, I want to preserve the strength against Fatal Push but improve the resiliency to Unlicensed Disintegration and Release the Gremlins.
Maverick Thopterist is an absolutely awesome card, with the biggest cost being the need to radically rework the mana (which won't be trivial). It's also just about the best card we could add to help combat Mardu, assuming we give it the right support, so that it's coming down turn 3. It adds many blockers, matches up against their removal well, and puts a ton of pressure on Gideon.
While I did have good experiences with Pacification Array, it's less of a strategic fit in this version. We are a lot more proactive and can't really afford to sit around spending mana this way, especially when people are packing Release the Gremlins. Likewise, the aforementioned Prophetic Prism and Metalspinner's Puzzleknot are probably too big of a tempo hit for how aggressive we want to be.
Instead, Servo Schematic and Cogworker's Puzzleknot give us turn 3 Maverick Thopterist by themselves and give us better food to feed the Herald of Anguish (who isn't exactly optimized when eating Pacification Arrays). In this context, these Servo-makers are kind of like those cantrip artifacts, except you draw Memnite, and if it's turn 2 or 3, that's kind of like drawing a Mox. They aren't the greatest going long, but we're trying to go a fair bit shorter than the previous version, anyway.
The Schematic and Puzzleknot also set up some really great sequences when we draw Implement of Combustion. For instance, we can actually use the turn 1 Implement and both artifacts from turn 2 to play a Maverick Thopterist with a land open. Just make sure it's blue, and now we're holding up Metallic Rebuke, thanks to the Maverick tokens.
Rather than Tezzeret the Schemer, we're employing a couple of three-drops that further our push towards aggression. The first? Appropriately enough...
Like Ensoul Artifact, Tezzeret's Touch is sort of a 5/5 haste creature while also having the option to upgrade one of our Thopters to a 5/5 flier. This added dimension can really make things awkward for someone relying on Gideon, as it just becomes so easy to burst Gideon down out of nowhere (while also having a powerful threat).
Unlike Ensoul Artifact, however, Tezzeret's Touch is not nearly at as much risk of a two-for-one. In fact, putting it on a Servo Schematic is pretty much the opposite. First of all, the Schematic already got you an extra artifact in the form of the 1/1. A turn 3 Tezzeret's Touch and we're off to the races, already attacking for six.
Even if they untap and can kill the 5/5 with Unlicensed Disintegration or Fatal Push, we get a 1/1 on the way out and the Servo Schematic back in our hand, which is actually a lot like drawing two cards. We did invest one-and-a-half cards to start, but we also drew out a removal spell. The result? We're actually ahead by a card, rather than behind. It's also just nice that the extra token already on the battlefield means we're not even falling behind on our improvise mana.
Like Servo Schematic, Implement of Combustion works fantastically with Tezzeret's Touch. We actually draw a card when the 5/5 hits the graveyard, and then we “draw” an Implement of Combustion for a total of two extra cards. Once again, against an opponent trying to use Fatal Push, we're actually up a full card (to say nothing of the damage we might have already dealt).
Pia Nalaar is a little bit Maverick Thopterist #5 and #6, but it's also a little bit Herald of Anguish #5 and #6, too. You see, one of the drawbacks to the Servo Schematic / Cogworker's Puzzleknot approach is that later in the game we end up with some puny 1/1s. It's sort of like the classic Llanowar Elves experience, where they are incredible sources of mana but later they can have a relatively small impact on the battlefield once you no longer value their mana as highly.
Pia Nalaar can turn any of our tokens into serious threats. The pumping ability is even better with Pia and the Thopterist's flying tokens; however, it's also totally reasonable to pump your Servos into big enough threats to trade with “real” cards. Pia can also put our artifacts to use removing blockers, which can be especially nice against Gideon and Archangel Avacyn. And, of course, sacrificing Servo Schematic or Implement of Combustion is a mondo-combo, since we also get the trigger on the way out.
Yes, the list above is 61 cards. I don't think Key to the City is the 61st card, though. Besides, I'm not sure between 23 and 24 land yet. Testing with 61 cards early on is kind of underrated. It's not that you should try to do it. It's just that it's really not the end of the world in testing. Go to 60 when you can.
In the list above, there's a pretty decent chance that the card to cut is one of the interactive cards (assuming we do end up wanting all 24 land). I would guess Unlicensed Disintegration #4 is the most cuttable if we end up needing to go that way, but I would still put it in the sideboard.
As for Key to the City? Obviously, the card is also a little weird to wield, but we can actually make pretty good use of both the unblockable ability and the looting, and when we're using it for improvise, we can actually turn it into a fairly efficient Jayemdae Tome. Depending on how testing goes, I could imagine a second one instead of a Cogworker's Puzzleknot, but they do have pretty steep diminishing returns in this style.
Grasp of Darkness is just not realistic with the sacrifices we made for Maverick Thopterist. The Incendiary Flows also contribute to the aggression, which is going to sneak up on more than one of our opponents. The Collective Brutality is a little bit of a catchall, helping round out the numbers. It's doing a little bit of work as a third Incendiary Flow and a little bit of work as a third Transgress the Mind.
While Release the Gremlins has been an omnipresent Mardu sideboard card, it takes on new purpose in Grixis Improvise. Maybe our opponent's Heart of Kiran is their only artifact. Well, we can still target our Servo Schematic in addition to the Heart, giving us an extra 2/2 and an extra 1/1. Likewise, Cogworker's Puzzleknot and Implement of Combustion are also great targets. Remember, Release the Gremlins only needs one target left to fully resolve and give you the 2/2s. If you've just got mana for days, you can totally sacrifice your Puzzleknot or Implement in response!
I wanted a couple of planeswalkers (or bigger threats, anyway) for post-sideboard matches where we want to slow down. Chandra isn't perfect with the amount of situational removal cards, but it's just a powerful weapon against anyone susceptible to the four-damage ability. I'm not sure which is better between her and Tezzeret, but I do kind of like having two different options. I also would be potentially interested in Ob Nixilis Reignited; Jace, Unraveler of Secrets; Chandra, Flamecaller; and Goblin Dark-Dwellers.
Bonus Modern Grixis Improvise Decklist!
This one is just speculation at the moment, so the balance between enablers, payoffs, and interaction could easily be out of whack. Nevertheless, I think we've only just barely scratched the surface of what Improvise could do in Modern...