It's been a while since Mardu Pyromancer posted a fantastic result and it's easy to see why. Modern is ever-changing and the Mardu pilots haven't adapted along with it. New threats like U/W Control, R/B Vengevine, and Hardened Scales Affinity attack from different angles than what Mardu is used to.
It's time for a change.
First though, some hot Modern takes.
1) Humans is the New Splinter Twin
Whether or not Humans is the best deck will vary, but it will always be viable and it's become the litmus test for the format. It also happens to be the scourge of many different combo decks, thanks to its clock and suite of disruption.
It might not the Splinter Twin you wanted, but it's what you've got.
2) U/W "Control" is Actually a Prison Deck
I'm critical of control decks. They tend to win at a higher clip when the competition isn't as stiff, and that's typically because of the higher power level of your cards like Teferi, Hero of Dominaria, Cryptic Command, or Torrential Gearhulk. Your cards can carry you when your opponents aren't playing properly against you or perhaps giving you more time than you'd have against someone who was truly gifted. Basically, if you plan on playing control at a Grand Prix, you're saying "I hope I don't play against anyone good."
Control is an archetype that rarely dominates at the Pro Tour level, and it's because people generally have an inflated view of their matchup percentages because of it. I typically overcompensate for this bias and think control is worse than it is. Then again, I rarely lose to control, so it's difficult for me to ever believe those decks are capable of winning tournaments against strong competition.
Building a control deck in Modern is especially difficult because of how many different decks and strategies you need to account for. Jeskai's plan of switching to Snapcaster Mage beatdown isn't a great one. U/W Control's plan of playing as many four-mana cards as possible is also sketchy.
U/W Control, especially the Terminus version, isn't a normal control deck. All it's trying to do is set up a game state that's unwinnable for your opponent. With Teferi, Jace, and Search for Azcanta, you have enough fundamental lock pieces. Terminus, even though it's high variance, is completely fine. Either you miracle it early and it's great, or you use Timely Reinforcements to buy time until you can miracle it with the help of a Jace Brainstorm.
This isn't a control deck, at least not in the traditional sense, and people need to stop building it like it is.
The Problems With Mardu
Over the last few months, many shifts have occurred in Modern. Humans is still a large part of the metagame, but they're a little better against Mardu because of Militia Bugler. U/W Control has mostly overtaken Jeskai Control, which is a significantly tougher matchup due to how many planeswalkers they have in lieu of crappy burn spells. Finally, there are decks like Krark-Clan Ironworks and R/B Vengevine which attack on other angles.
Given all that, how can we fight back?
For starters, having an actual clock would greatly improve matchups like Ironworks and U/W Control. Rather than being pressured to grind them out (which is very difficult), you want to look for ways to end the game quicker. Sometimes a Young Pyromancer can do that, but especially against a control deck, it's far more likely that they are able to delay the game until they can set up their engine.
These changes are subtle, but they matter.
This list has shifted toward trying to address new enemies while also hedging against the older metagame. Modern is a vast format, and while Humans (or Spirits) and U/W Control are the most popular decks, there's no telling what you might end up playing against. For a midrange deck, it can be difficult to balance, but it's important not to focus too much on a specific portion of the metagame.
Step one is playing the full eight discard spells. The fourth Thoughtseize is a huge addition and goes a long way toward fighting expensive planeswalkers. Snagging a Faithless Looting or Stitcher's Supplier can go a long way toward crippling R/B Vengevine too. Mardu needs to be able to interact earlier with these decks and discard is reasonable against each of them.
Step two is including Goblin Rabblemaster. I'm loath to include a card that is almost strictly a clock, but it's what you have to do. You could sideboard the card entirely, but it's not completely out of place in the maindeck and I wanted my sideboard slots to serve other purposes.
If you want a clock, Goblin Rabblemaster is the most effective red card for the job. Cards like Hazoret the Fervent and Chandra, Torch of Defiance are too slow, especially considering its difficult to make your fourth land drop in a timely manner. Goblin Rabblemaster will effectively end the game by Turn 6 if left unchecked, and that's by far the best Mardu can do.
Blood Moon isn't great at the moment. Most decks shrug it off, either by being aggressive (Vengevine, Humans), having a resilient manabase (U/W Control), or by being so weak to it in the past that they specifically build their decks to counteract it (Tron).
Another card that has gotten weaker is Collective Brutality, although it still synergizes well enough with the deck that it's worth playing a couple copies in the 75. Mardu is hungry for ways to turn excess resources into something useful, and Collective Brutality also helps get you closer to casting Bedlam Reveler, even against opponents who aren't cooperating by not playing creatures.
Opposing planeswalkers are at an all-time high, so don't leave home without your Dreadbores. I've seen some lists that split Dreadbores with Terminates, either 1/1 or 2/1, but I don't think that's a good idea.
Burst Lightning is another card I could see making an appearance (as it did in Tyler Blum's #PT25A deck), mostly because Fatal Push isn't killing much that Shock wouldn't. Plus, you have the opportunity to use it as a Lava Axe or a very weak Dreadbore, which gives it some added utility.
I've basically only had success with Mardu when Liliana of the Veil has been in my maindeck, but that time is over. Liliana tends to be stronger against Jeskai than U/W because U/W's threats can easily beat Liliana of the Veil and they have more of them. Against combo decks like Ironworks that can go off from a low base, it doesn't matter as much that you're constraining their resources. In both matchups, having a clock like Goblin Rabblemaster is a better choice. With Liliana out of the way, you no longer need the Godless Shrine, even if you happen to be including more white cards like Stony Silence.
My sideboard has gotten more hateful, but there's a good reason for that. I estimate the Modern metagame at a large tournament to look something like:
- 20% Collected Company/Aether Vial
- 20% Cryptic Command
- 15% Graveyard
- 10% Artifacts
- 10% Big mana
- 10% Midrange
- 15% Random
Overall, this is the cleanest metagame we've had in quite some time, and that means we can be a little more targeted with our sideboard hate.
Hedging with cards like Collective Brutality, Engineered Explosives, and Kambal, Consul of Allocation will only get you so far. You might end up having to fight matchups where you have very little to bring in, but the hope is that the power of your sideboard cards will carry you.
Despite Surgical Extraction working quite well with land destruction against big mana, Leyline of the Void is the correct choice. This deck sees a lot of cards, so it might make sense to have your sideboard hate be something you can dig for, but I'm not buying that right now. Decks like R/B Vengevine, Hollow One, Mardu, and Ironworks are much weaker to a Leyline of the Void than to a Surgical Extraction. Again, I'm skimping on Tron hate, but this time it's to gain massive percentage points in other spots.
Pithing Needle is a card that's effective at fighting Tron, even if they bring in Nature's Claim blindly. Your discard can protect it, and shutting off any topdecked copies of Karn Liberated is a huge boon. It conveniently fights planeswalkers against U/W Control as well, so we finally have a reason to devote a slot to it.
Anger of the Gods is finally back! Vengevine's return to Modern makes that a possibility. If Spirits picks up, you'll be sad that you don't have a sideboard card that is directly targeted at them, but Anger of the Gods is still fine. Having a bunch of sorcery-speed removal certainly makes that matchup closer, though. The singleton Ensnaring Bridge could be another sweeper of some sort, but since it's good against the majority of creature decks anyway, having one doesn't seem like a bad idea.
Due to Krark-Clan Ironworks and Hardened Scales Affinity being the artifact decks of choice, Stony Silence gets the nod. Honestly, these matchups seem perfectly reasonable, so maybe you don't need to directly target them, but Stony Silence gives you another disruptive tool against Tron, even if it's not exceptional against them. To support it, I added another fetchland to the manabase, plus you have the singleton Manamorphose to put you up to eleven white sources.
If you think your metagame is more diverse than my predicted metagame, you should absolutely retool the deck for what you expect to face.
Mardu, Part Two
Is Lingering Souls actually good against anyone? Even the new Affinity decks shrug it off. It buys time for your engine, but if you're actually looking to clock people, why shove Goblin Rabblemaster into your deck instead of retooling it entirely?
As always, Magic Online has the answer.
I'm skeptical that Monastery Swiftspear and Kiln Fiend are good against everyone. Too much of the time, it seems like they will sit there and do nothing until you find a Temur Battle Rage (which most lists aren't even playing).
For people who insisted on sticking with Grixis Death's Shadow, I urged them to try the Kiln Fiend version of the deck. Humans mostly invalidates the plan of "make one giant monster and ride it" to the point where people felt the need to include Temur Battle Rage into their decks. Once it gets to the point where you determine that Temur Battle Rage is where you need to be, it means you're better off fully adopting that strategy by also including Kiln Fiends.
This deck exists on the same axis. If you want to play Faithless Looting and Bedlam Reveler but have a necessity to actually kill your opponents rather than prolong the game, Kiln Fiend and Temur Battle Rage is where you want to be. Similarly to Grixis Death's Shadow, you don't necessarily need all the copies of Temur Battle Rage because you'll likely be able to dig for it by the time it matters.
Honestly, if I were playing Modern tomorrow, I wouldn't play either version of Mardu, but that's because I think there are better options. If you want to use Faithless Looting in the fairest manner possible, you shouldn't be sticking to stock lists. As always, Mardu (with or without Young Pyromancer) is infinitely customizable.