Every set contains cards that look like they could be very powerful, but then upon further investigation into the format, you realize said card just does not have the support necessary to be good right then. As perhaps the lowest-hanging fruit possible, we can remember Eye of Ugin coming out with essentially no colorless creatures of interest to find. One set later, and Eldrazi are running the show and Eye of Ugin has a substantial role in the metagame.
Eye of Ugin was an obvious plant by the designers as a bit of foreshadowing, and while not all plants are quite as obvious, many cards are designed to bridge the gap between sets or blocks more so than to shine upon their release. Their role is to lend support to a future set in order to make the sets work better together and to make the environment feel like more than just Block Constructed with better mana.
Sometimes these cards are intended to work with a specific card in a future set almost in the same way that two cards might be designed to work together in Limited. However, the two cards for Constructed are placed in different sets so that the time they share together in Standard is not the full duration that a card remains legal. Demonic Pact and Harmless Offering make a great pair to point to from recent times. Demonic Pact is a card that can stand on its own merit just fine, but when Harmless Offering saw print in the final few months of Demonic Pact's Standard life, it was pretty obviously done with Demonic Pact in mind. This interaction mixed up Standard for a short while without fear of it ruining the format and existing together for two years.
Other times, a card looks forward or back, not to find a specific pairing, but rather to work with a mechanic or theme from a neighboring set in order to provide support for that theme or mechanic across more than just the localized set or block itself. A recent great example of this comes from our undead Zombie friends.
While Zombies was one of the best decks in Standard recently, its tribal toys were actually spread out across multiple blocks. You might expect that Zombies all came out in a single set or block and burst on to the scene, but the truth is that cards like Dark Salvation, Diregraf Colossus, and Cryptbreaker were around for over a year before they started seeing play. The catalyst was a second wave of Zombies seeing print. These included Dread Wanderer, Lord of the Accursed, and Liliana's Mastery. Looking back, one might remember all of these cards together and think that they saw print together, but by being spaced out, Diregraf Colossus and friends existed in an underpowered state for half of their stay in Standard before emerging as a Pro Tour-winning formula later on.
Deckbuilders can leverage this knowledge when on the hunt for deck ideas after a new set releases. After Hour of Devastation came out, I had a mild obsession with God-Pharaoh's Gift as the card just looked like it could be busted and there surely were some creatures that could squeeze a little more juice out of the card than others. One of the cards that jumped up on my list was Marionette Master and I was intrigued at potentially having found one of these cross-block synergies to explore further.
This idea was birthed primarily by the fact that Marionette Master checked its power for its trigger and God-Pharaoh's Gift could artificially increase that to seven or four while still granting you three Servos to boot. At seven power and with only three artifacts sacrificed, Marionette Master would just kill the opponent. I was intrigued.
Ultimately, God-Pharaoh's Gift found a more consistent home and became friends with Angel of Invention for similar synergies, but without needing to assemble any sort of combo along the way. I left Marionette Master alone for the time being and went on my way, a little bummed that my scouting for cross-block synergies had come up short.
Leave it up to a bunch of Pirates to get me back out there, digging up that buried puppet once again.
Ixalan is not an artifact set in the traditional sense. It doesn't contain a ton of artifact synergies or an abnormally large number of artifacts compared to your average set. What it does contain, however, is the Treasure mechanic. Similar to how Clues granted you artifact synergies (I'm looking at you, Thraben Inspector), Treasures do much of the same but actually tend to show up for better rates than Clues and in greater numbers, due to Lotus Petal generally being worse than a card in your hand and therefore more acceptable en masse.
Spell Swindle versus Confirm Suspicions demonstrates this nicely. While Confirm Suspicions will always net you three Clues, Spell Swindle is likely to grant you four to six Treasures for most spells you would consider countering. Additionally, those Clues need extra work put into them to turn into cards, whereas Treasures are ready to use immediately, allowing for more explosive turns when it comes to a card like Marionette Master.
That mana actually is quite important at increasing the power level of any Marionette Master plus Treasure turn, and the reason for this comes in the sacrifice options available in Standard. In a perfect world, when you cast Master, you have enough Treasures for an instant win. In reality, though, having four or five Treasures out is not the easiest thing to do while also casting a six-drop. To help alleviate the reliance on a mass amount of Treasures, it makes sense to pair Master with a means of sacrificing other artifacts, including the Servos that Master brings along with it. Generally speaking, there are two types of ways to gain this sacrifice option.
In the first group are the free sacrifice options, meaning no mana is required. These were the types of cards that you had to pair Master with when Clues were around; otherwise the mana requirement for winning was too high. This class of cards includes Ravenous Intruder, Defiant Salvager, and Razaketh, the Foulblooded. These cards work to enable the life loss on Master, but do so while not being too great otherwise. Their role is hyper-specific and niche, which ultimately leads to a less powerful deck overall. The best free sacrifice options tend to be restricted to just sacrificing creatures, which limits their usefulness in an artifact shell (although they can still work).
In the second class of sacrifice outlets are the ones that cost mana to produce an output. This class of cards includes Syndicate Trafficker, Pia Nalaar, and Makeshift Munitions. At the moment, these cards are of a higher raw power level and tend to have more usefulness across random situations than the first group of cards. Casting Pia Nalaar on Turn 3 is hardly ever a bad play, whereas Defiant Salvager looks pretty suspicious. Of course, this usefulness is paid back later on when you wish to be a combo deck but now have a mana cost associated with each sacrifice needed.
For all versions of this concept that I tried with Clues, that activation cost on the sacrifices was too steep to pay. I rarely had enough for an instant win and surviving the opponent's turn without removal of some kind was even less likely. With Treasures both being free to sacrifice and then providing you mana, you can actually double up on sacrifices while using the better class of sacrifice outlets. Your Pia Nalaar now gets to sacrifice a Prophetic Prism and a Thopter off the back of your three Treasures, which is plenty for lethal most of the time.
So the basic premise behind any Treasure plus Master shell is to cast a Master and then have enough sacrifice fodder for an immediate kill. Assuming those conditions can't be met, Master must still serve as a threatening card that must be dealt with quickly or else the opponent risks losing soon enough. This premise does not necessarily lend itself to only one type of shell. My first thought is to use this combo finish as a victory condition in a combo-control deck, which has always been my favorite kind of deck to design. At the same time, however, attacking the opponent's life total does reduce the amount of Treasures you need to win, so a more aggressive shell for the deck also sounds credible. Today I wanted to look at Marionette Master and how to best maximize it in Standard.
Control's Final Act
Marionette Master in a Treasure-heavy shell seems like the type of finisher that a combo-control deck would be interested in. Combo-control tends to look to slow the game down to a pace it can handle while subtly setting up the pieces for an eventual combination of cards that will win the game. In some ways, Approach of the Second Sun is a combo-control deck, insofar as Approach of the Second Sun is able to be considered a combo. It does win the game on the spot without needing to interact with the opponent's life total at all beforehand. Most of the decks that played Demonic Pact were also combo-control decks who would only shift from control to combo upon the casting of Harmless Offering, yet would win the game immediately after.
Marionette Master makes for a reasonable control card, as it does being many bodies to the table which can be used to defend your life total for a bit. The real element to this combo that lends itself to control is how Treasures are earned. In many cases they come over time, a trait control owns more than any other archetype, but even the sources of immediate Treasures just happen to be found on more controlling cards. A three-mana Unsummon, a four-mana draw-two, and a five-mana counterspell are not the most aggressive options to be working with, but they don't sound too bad in control.
There are other supporting cards that work in an artifact token shell that have largely flown under the radar for awhile now. The first is Contraband Kingpin, which has been one of my favorite cards in Standard but has never really had a deck to break it out of the bulk bins. On its surface, a 1/4 creature with lifelink for two mana is quite good at defending your life total. Add to this a reusable and free source of card selection and you have an excellent early game play in combo-control. The second is Tezzeret the Schemer, which has just been looking for an excuse to see play since its printing.
Tezzeret the Schemer was producing Treasures long before they were given that name. In fact, he was already working with them when they were just a few Cells! Tezzeret's ability to produce a functional Treasure every turn is extremely valuable to a Marionette Master, but equally important is the ability for Tezzeret to curve into Master on Turn 5 perfectly while still having an activation on that turn available. That activation is key because it can do one of two things.
1) You produce another Etherium Cell to sacrifice for loss of life and mana or;
2) You activate Tezzeret's middle ability with five or fewer artifacts out to increase the power of Marionette Master for the turn. (With five artifacts out, you can actually make Master up to a 9/1 creature, which likely only requires two Treasures being sacrificed to kill the opponent.)
Tezzeret also provide a control deck with much-needed removal and with an alternative win condition should Marionette Master not show up or fall short of its mission. For these reasons, I think Tezzeret and Master make a pretty natural pairing in something like looks a little like this.
While this is obviously just a starting point and the numbers are likely to change as we learn about the metagame and about the strengths of these individual cards, the shell does make a lot of sense upon first review. The list is mostly just ways to buy time against fast decks, card selection/advantage, and then your combo elements (some of which blend into those other two categories as well).
Most of our Treasure granters appear on these kinds of effects, whether an Unsummon or a draw-two. This allows us to build up some number of incidental Treasures without having to dedicate full turns to not dying. Treasure Map requires a small investment each turn but eventually provides us with three Treasures, which might be all of the Treasures we need to win the game.
Treasure Map is a unique card, so I wanted to take a moment to cover the primary features of it. First of all, remember to use your instants to your advantage and scry as late as you can while holding one (unless you are seeking land drops, of course).
Additionally, remember that while the final activation appears to be free, due to the card transforming into a land, that land will actually be tapped still, so keep that in mind. You are gaining three Treasures, so it is likely still fine to do immediately, but be careful. That land does help out as the game progresses, though, as every land you have out is one more Treasure that gets to survive on your final combo turn (and thus the more explosive you can be).
Pirate's Prize does good work helping Tezzeret out at the job of casting a Marionette Master a turn earlier than normal. Typically, this Treasure will be one of many you have out, but just getting down Master on Turn 5 will sometimes be good enough even without a combo win. Those two new cards you drew might give you the win next turn anyway and you will know this information before committing Master to the table.
Saheeli Rai is an interesting card with Marionette Master and provides explosive turns when she is able to copy the six-drop, but her overall effectiveness still has to be determined. In theory, she is giving us some card selection while dealing a few points of damage to the opponent and softening the amount of material we need when we draw a Master. That said, the options she has to copy for value outside of Master are limited to mostly Prophetic Prism and occasionally Contraband Kingpin or Pia Nalaar (who is legendary and therefore not too exciting to copy). Copying Pia will essentially get you a "free" sacrifice, though, due to the legend rule, so long as you sacrifice the new artifact copy.
Beyond these named cards, we try our best to just stay alive with some of Standard's best options. Abrade needs no introduction, nor does Unlicensed Disintegration, although the damage it provides is much more substantial to our bottom line than it would be in most control shells. The hope is that, with just a little bit of spot removal and enough bodies clogging up the ground, we have enough time and life to establish our Treasures and find our Master.
Out of the sideboard, we maintain a little of the synergy that I tried to exploit previously from God-Pharaoh's Gift. It now comes in the sleek package of The Scarab God instead, but the same result will occur with Master returning to the battlefield as a possible 7/7, or a 4/4 with three Servos.
What Are You At?
As we mentioned earlier, while a combo-control shell is the first place my mind goes when thinking about Marionette Master synergies, a more aggressive deck gets to take a different look at the six-drop. With aggro, you get to attack the opposing life total, which lowers the reliance on anything particularly special happening on the turn you cast Master, if you ever do at all. If the opponent is at something like six life when you cast Master, you might only need a pair of Treasures to win the game. And if you have more, you get to play around removal on Marionette Master.
This is actually a good time to mention just how Marionette Master works. Because Master enters the battlefield and puts a trigger on the stack, it will be a 1/3 while that trigger is waiting to resolve. This means interaction from cards like Abrade is possible, even though you will still get your three 1/1 Servos after the fact. In these cases, your Master will only have one power, which means your Treasure setup is much weaker. You can always wait here and not pull the trigger or cash in everything for just single points of life loss and mana, which might very well be enough anyway along with your other collateral damage. Spell Swindle is a solid way to protect against this line.
In the world where your Marionette Master dies with its trigger on the stack, those single points of life loss matter a lot more when you have creatures attacking alongside it and the Servos left behind also matter more. It also lends quite the hand to aggro that some of the best sacrifice options are on really aggressive bodies like Syndicate Trafficker.
I began looking up ideas on how to make a Marionette Master aggro deck could earn its stripes and have enough going on to warrant its existence. By this I mean that if we just have a standard aggro deck with Marionette Master at the top of the curve and a few sacrifice outlets along the way, we probably are doing more harm than good to said aggro deck. Marionette Master is not naturally an aggressive card, so we need to meet it halfway if we expect to make it work here.
One of the most obvious concessions we can make is to include a higher number of natural artifacts in our deck all with a common goal of beating down. Scrapheap Scrounger is a great Magic card that most aggro decks at least consider running and we have access to it with bonuses thanks to it being an artifact in a deck that very much cares about that sort of thing. We also get access to Walking Ballista, who doesn't need any help from me in the advertising department, as well as others like Ornithopter and Hope of Ghirapur.
I mention those two flying creatures in the list because of a specific card from Ixalan that I want to try making work here: Prying Blade.
While Prying Blade wasn't quick to register as something I might play in Constructed, even failing to be jotted down as an option by me for the longest time, after I sat down and figured out the impact it could have in the right company, I decided it was enticing enough to give a shot.
On a flying creature, Prying Blade gives us a Treasure every turn, which quickly turns into the only source of Treasures you need for Master to win the game. If we take Ornithopter specifically, we can curve a Turn 1 Blade plus Ornithopter into a Turn 2 equip and connect. We haven't done a ton of damage through this line, but we have set up a must-answer threat out of our Ornithopter and have already gained the ability to cast a four- or five-drop on our Turn 3, which makes up for lost time in a big way.
Before I ramble on Prying Blade too long, here is a list to help digest the concept a bit.
- 4 Ornithopter
- 2 Scrap Trawler
- 4 Scrapheap Scrounger
- 4 Walking Ballista
- 2 Dire Fleet Hoarder
- 3 Marionette Master
- 4 Ruthless Knave
- 4 Syndicate Trafficker
- 3 Hope of Ghirapur
- 1 Yahenni, Undying Partisan
If we were relying on Ornithopter only to make this grand early play, or for Blade to be in Magical Christmas Land all the time, I think we would have a problem with consistency. Luckily, we gain multiple uses for these cards, as we can throw them away to Syndicate Trafficker and Ruthless Knave while feeling pretty good about it.
Our goal is not to present the most aggressive creature at every point of the curve, because that would have us competing with other aggro decks playing into raw rate, and we will lose that battle every time. We need to combine our synergies and our aggressive nature into a new shell that manages to blend them into a cohesive strategy that fights on its own axis.
Ruthless Knave is actually a great example of us trying to do just this. Few people would call Knave a good aggro card in the sense of rate alone. Three damage a turn is nice but hardly threatening by itself. Instead, what Knave allows is us to convert our other aggro cards into combo cards (Treasures) at a profitable rate. Ornithopter turns into two Treasures, which makes an impending Marionette Master that much more dangerous.
Knave also gets to do this at instant speed, which is always nice. In the world where you have been connecting with Prying Blade each turn and are Treasure-flooded, Knave is nice enough to turn some of those Treasures into cards so that you can keep the gas coming.
Scrap Trawler happens to be another 3/2 for three that makes this transition easier as well. By being able to turn your sacrificed Scrapheap Scroungers and Blades into Walking Ballistas and Ornithopters, you gain the benefits from sacrificing without losing too much in the process. Trawler also helps provide some resilience against sweepers, which is never a bad thing for aggro.
A Touch of Blue
While I think a mono-black shell offers the most consistency and most, if not all of what you need from the core of the list, adding blue is very enticing. We have already talked about Tezzeret the Schemer's synergy with Master, and it performs that same role well in aggro, even clearing the way for more attacking to happen. But when Tezzeret meets aggro, he does more than just hang out.
Tezzeret's Touch functions very similarly to Ensoul Artifact from recent Standard formats in decks built around turning a cheap flyer like Ornithopter into a 5/5 beater. While Touch is a mana slower at the same task, it has an important clause of returning to your hand when the artifact wearing it goes to the graveyard. This is really nice when you have a rather stable stream of Treasures to keep enchanting over and over as they are dealt with (if they are dealt with).
Having access to Tezzeret's Touch gives your cheap flying creatures and Prying Blades additional use beyond just that of Trafficker and Knave. It is important to remember that Hope of Ghirapur is legendary here, even when wearing Tezzeret's Touch. Also remember that Hope of Ghirapur can only be sacrificed if it has dealt damage to the opponent, so while it does work with our combo, it needs to have gotten in first. This means it will often be better to protect yourself with it rather than get an additional Master trigger, but that obviously depends on the game state.
Before we veer too far off course, here is what the aggro deck looks like with a little more blue.
- 4 Ornithopter
- 1 Scrap Trawler
- 4 Scrapheap Scrounger
- 4 Walking Ballista
- 3 Marionette Master
- 3 Ruthless Knave
- 4 Syndicate Trafficker
- 3 Hope of Ghirapur
Because Tezzeret's Touch does return to your hand, it is entirely possible that we can get away with one or two copies fewer than we have here, although, as one of the more unique cards to this list, I would rather overshoot and get it onto the battlefield more often than never drawing it and constantly wondering its true power level.
The core of this deck is essentially the same as that of the mono-black list; we are just trying to leverage a different three-drop for our synergies while also incorporating the Schemer himself. Without a solid metagame laid out, it is difficult to know which of these two directional choices is correct for aggro, but testing should answer that with enough time behind it.
There are undoubtedly some more decks that can be built around Marionette Master that have more of a pure combo feel to them, racing to Master and winning on the spot. So far I have not been able to arrive at a list I like, although Hour of Eternity has been involved in many of them. As I continue to learn more about Marionette Master and about the metagame, I will be sure to report my findings.
In the meantime, Ixalan is fresh on the shelves, so stop being a puppet and get to brewing!