by Dominik B.
My allegiance to the Mardu clan basically boils down to two factors: 1. I like it. 2. I can’t afford blue dual lands (for now). Being a deck builder at heart, I dedicated a lot of testing, brewing, theorizing, discarding lists, getting stomped at FNMs and being told that I cripple myself by excluding blue and green, to the idea that Mardu could just work. I just had to make it work.
In the week prior to Metagame Masters 15 I spent a lot of time assembling the best Mardu list I thought I could come up with. I settled on a list I called Mardu Aristocrats (you can see it here: https://archidekt.com/decks/114348#Mardu_Aristocrats_HL) and the basic idea was to engineer this unique creature engine that would trade for value early, create unsurmountable board states and drain opponents out with a swift sacrifice-cannon. It did kind of work in an FNM where it went 3-1, it did kind of work in testing where I beat my roommate’s RDW and 4C Blood. But alas, on the very night before MGM15 during a last test session with my fellow Highlander players, the deck just got destroyed. I even lost the matchups in which I felt favoured. Disappointed, I rode my bike down the Prenzelberg in order to swiftly build something else for the tournament.
That “something else” eventually became a list I will cautiously call “Mardu Superfriends”. I assembled the deck in under two hours by formulating a game plan and sticking to it tightly: Control the early game with versatile removal, then win with Planeswalkers. I got a few suggestions from my brother Dirk and made two changes, scribbled the list on a sheet of paper and called it a night. Whatever would happen would happen. I had an idea the deck was alright and I was sure I would at least have a lot of fun playing it. That should be the maxim, always: To have fun.
Turned out the deck went undefeated at MGM15, earning me my first Top 8 in a considerably sized Magic Event and my first tournament win in Berlin. So, what, for the love of Queen Marchesa, actually happened?
6 Reasons for Planeswalking to Victory
The list can be found here: https://archidekt.com/decks/115825#Mardu_Superfriends_HL. I see 6 major reasons why the deck performed well at the tournament:
1. It had amazing, versatile disruption. Mardu has the best removal in the format – only black-green can compete with it (Abrupt Decay, Assassin’s Trophy). Whether the discard package (Thoughtseize, Duress, Castigate, etc.), the versatile answers to threats (Dreadbore, Bedevil, Kolaghan’s Command, Council’s Judgment, Angrath’s Rampage, Vindicate), or the good old fashioned, very efficient creature removal (Path to Exile, Swords to Plowshares, Fatal Push, Lightning Bolt, etc.): This deck can almost always answer the first threats your opponents play. In a format where variance is ultra-high, having flexible answers can be crucial. This spell package was meant to carry me to the mid-game in which I would try to win with Planeswalkers. It worked!
2. The deck played the correct mix of Planeswalkers. My list plays 14 Planeswalkers, which is a lot. Enough to call this deck “Superfriends”. But in truth I could’ve played 20 if I wanted to. I opted not playing any Sorins, for example. In earlier versions of the deck, the build was very Tokens-centric, but I figured that Planeswalkers, ideally, double as threat and removal. All in all I was pretty happy with my selection, with some Walkers over performing (Sarkhan the Masterless; Serra the Benevolent, Kaya, Orzhov Usurper) and only few sometimes disappointing (Ajani Vengeant).
3. The deck can win surprisingly fast. One aspect I wanted to incorporate was direct burn and life gain. Mardu decks can be very life-demanding if you want to draw cards, resulting in aggro and burn decks just burning you out. In the end, I opted for three cards that do both: Lightning Helix, Oath of Kaya, and Smiting Helix (and, well, Ajani Vengeant). I won several games in which the opponent got caught off-guard with the load of drain that I could just throw at their face: Lightning Bolt, Chain Lightning, Lightning Helix, Smiting Helix, Kolaghan’s Command, Collective Brutality, etc. in combination with several loyalty abilities of my Planeswalkers gave the deck a surprisingly quick burn-reach. An absolute powerhouse, however, was Sarkhan the Masterless, often ending the game in two turns. Along with Smiting Helix, which is an amazing 12-point life swing in one card, Sarkhan was the card that absolutely over-delivered on my expectations. Previous Mardu decks of mine had problems closing games out – this list solved that issue.
4. It was the correct metagame call. Obviously I didn’t know the Meta before the tournament. As we are this early after the releases of both War of the Spark and Modern Horizons, both sets being one of the best couple of sets for Highlander of all time, it was foolish to think of a very particular ‘metagame’. Turns out, however, that people mostly stuck to well-known archetypes and only upgraded them accordingly. This means that the meta is very much still the creature infested, proactive playground as it was before. And even the blue decks more and more opt towards a more creature- and Planeswalker-centric playstyles. Creatures, Planeswalkers and fair magic across the board: Mardu has all the tools to combat this. I gambled on this idea and I was right, playing a low creature count of 5 myself, blanking a lot of removal from the opposition, and playing 3 sweepers (Toxic Deluge, Damnation, Sweltering Suns).
5. I had favourable match-ups – and a good dose of luck. You cannot win a tournament without being a bit lucky, and the Swiss portion of the MGM served me creature decks on a silver plate: Gruul aggro, 4c Tempo (no green, creature-heavy), White Weenie, Cradlehoof, 4c Blood. I was mostly scared of combo decks like Academy or Scapeshift, as I would struggle against those if I didn’t find specific answers. I was also a bit sceptical of a true Control match-up, as well timed counter magic could wreck my strategy. Hard control has fallen out of style, though. In the Top 8 I was matched up against Abzan, which was again favourable, in the quarter finals. In the semis, I faced Scapeshift and got really lucky with clutch discard spells and my opponent flooding out on both of the losses. The finals against 4c (non-green) Tempo were off to a lucky start since my opponent mulled to 5, established an early True-Name Nemesis, only to suffer a neck breaking Liliana of the Veil-topdeck from me immediately. In the game that won me the tournament, my opponent misremembered Sarkhan the Masterless and suicided his Bitterblossom-tokens. I never mulliganed to 5 the whole day and very rarely mulliganed to 6, often being able to keep the first 7. Honestly, there were times during the tournament in which I shook my head in disbelief about how lucky I got.
6. I played well. Now this may seem a bit arrogant, but hear me out. I consider myself a rookie in Highlander, only having played the format for a good one-and-a-half years. I’ve never won an FNM and make a lot of mistakes that cost me games. There are many many people in the Highlander Magic community that I look up to for their skill, analytical thinking and focus. I usually leave an FNM satisfied when I manage to beat one of these players. On that Saturday, I probably played the best Magic of my life and can honestly only remember one mistake in a particular game where I should’ve used a kill spell more effectively – but even that is debatable. I think in order to become a good player you have to critically analyse your mistakes and learn from bad days; however, I think it’s warranted to give yourself credit when it’s due.
A lot of things have to go right to win a tournament. Normally a deck comes together over the course of a long process of building, testing and refining. While I did playtest versions of this deck before, I think I have somehow caught a lightning in a bottle here. In addition, I want to take a minute to thank my fellow players who stayed with me until the end of the tournament and cheered me on. Towards the end of the tournament I felt pretty exhausted, but kept my focus thanks to the help of my friends.
Some Thoughts on Specific Cards
To those looking for a detailed tournament report round by round, I have to apologize. I am notoriously bad at remembering games play by play. Instead, I opt to share my thoughts on some card choices and where to take this deck from here. I will specifically talk about all the Planeswalkers since they are the main attraction to this deck.Ancient Tomb: This card is weird. In theory, it is super busted because it provides a really good tempo boost. Playing a 4-cost-Planewalker on turn 3 is pretty strong and may make this land viable. But in truth, this rarely happens and Ancient Tomb is a land that more often punishes you and too rarely gives you an advantage. I will never play Tomb in a deck again that doesn’t have an overabundance of colourless mana symbols. Maze of Ith: I kind of overrated this card as well, but maybe it’s particular to this list. You play so much removal that Maze felt like over-commitment. I included this because it helps protect Planeswalkers and acts as hard-to-answer removal for the best attacker. Unsure of its inclusion, may be a cut.
Manabase: The land base felt good. I opted for 6 basics (3 regular, 3 snow-covered to enable Tainted Pact) to have more game against Blood Moon and Back to Basics, which otherwise prey on my deck. Then I had to decide between 3 fast lands, 3 temples and 3 filter lands and went with the latter. I didn’t want to lose tempo by bringing lands into play tapped. The fast lands can ruin your day if they are land number 4 and you want to cast your 4-Mana-Walker. Same goes for the Temples, although I like those a lot to smooth draw steps. Ultimately, come-into-play-tapped lands can be back breaking, so I decided against them (safe for Shambling Vent). Oh, and the two new Canopy lands for Mardu were great as expected. Play them, even in controlling decks, is my recommendation.Angrath’s Rampage: Great, versatile spell. Randomly gives you game against artifacts and is another answer to True-Name Nemesis. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Castigate: I was looking for another discard option alongside the usual suspects (Thoughtseize, Inquisition of Kozilek, Collective Brutality). Blackmail was another candidate, but Castigate won for me because of the Exile clause which is nothing to scoff at. Damnation, Toxic Deluge, Sweltering Suns: My plan was to keep the creature count low to enable these. However, I had an overabundance of removal already and go-wide strategies are few and far between, so playing sweepers may actually be a mistake. I like Sweltering Suns because of the cycling clause, though, and will definitely play it moving forward. Smiting Helix, Oath of Kaya: Gaining life advantage while trading is effective in a format where racing is often a huge deal. These can also go to the face and enable play patterns in which you control the board as well as you can, and then burn the opposition out. Smiting Helix is an insane 12-point life swing in one card, can be discarded for value or 2-for-1s the opponent. It worked wonders for me. Oath of Kaya’s triggered ability is often more relevant than you may think; if the opponent tries to attack your walkers down and loses life in the process, they may unwillingly activate your burn side-strategy. The life gain part of the Helix effects is also important to mitigate life loss cards in your deck (Night’s Whisper, Phyrexian Arena, Arguel’s Blood Fast). Winds of Abandon: I think this will be a format staple and play a huge role in ridiculous tempo swings in the future. Paying two mana for Path to Exile is a fine deal, but a one-sided board wipe in the late game is literally game-winning. Play this card if you play white, simple as that. Bedevil: The colour cost on this is steep, but never underestimate versatility like this. Kaya’s Guile: I’m not entirely sold on this card. It was usually fine, but you can’t afford to keep up 3 mana to eventually exile the opponent’s graveyard in response to something. The other modes are usually fine (sac + lifegain; sac+ spirit), but all in all this card can be really awkward to play correctly. I will test it more, but have become a bit lukewarm towards it. Magma Jet: This is one of my favourite Magic cards ever because it does so many things. It’s removal, smoothes your draws and can be incorporated in burn game plans. Secure the Wastes: I was looking for a mana-sink card that synergized with my walkers. Turns out that tokens work pretty well with walkers; this can also be removal in a pinch in the early game, producing surprise blockers. Skeletal Scrying: Black Sphinx’s Revelation can be weird but can produce insane card advantage end of turn. The cost is real though and the card starts to get really good at 4 mana. There may be better options like Wretched Confluence, though. Ajani Vengeant: I think this card has gotten worse over time as the mana cost of evasive threats has decreased. The +1 felt underwhelming. However, it was nice to have another Helix effect pinned on here. All in all, the poor furry cat lord may end up on the chopping block. Chandra, Torch of Defiance: “Red JtMS” was among the best Planeswalkers by some degree. She can enable some nice tempo swings by producing mana, so you can Bolt a creature the turn she comes into play. The other +1 creates card advantage or puts pressure on the opponent’s life total. Her ultimate is more quickly available than you think and normally ends the game within one or two turns. Oh, and of course she can Flame Slash a creature as well; 4 damage has become an important sweet spot for targeted damage (Courser of Kruphix, Brimaz, and the likes). Elspeth, Knight-Errant: Ol’ reliable. I thought she might be pretty weak in a creature-light deck, but turns out she was great here as well. Gideon of the Trials: I feel this card is still underrated. This guy is flexible removal for the opposition’s biggest threat, is a hard to kill beater on his own and occasionally enables shenanigans with his weird emblem. Lil’ Giddy is nowhere near the cutting block. Gideon, Ally of Zendikar: Big Giddy, however, felt underwhelming. As a glorified token producing machine, he seemed just not efficient enough at 4 mana. The tokens are pretty weak as well. The emblem is not worth it most of the time because this is not a creature deck. Probably a good cut. Can’t stand his smug face, either way. Kaya, Ghost Assassin: This is my favourite Planeswalker, and in my opinion up there in power level with the likes of Jace the Mind Sculptor, Garruk Wildspeaker and Teferi, Hero of Dominaria. Kaya creates insane card advantage, can pressure the opponent’s life total while buffering your health and can reset herself in a pinch. It’s also a valid play to play her and immediately exile her in order to safely start the next turn untapped with Kaya in play. If you can protect Kaya, you will most likely win – which is a given for many Planeswalkers – but it never felt more true to say this. Kaya, Orzhov Usurper: Kaya’s smaller iteration is also a worthy inclusion. She can snipe important 1-drops like Delver of Secrets, Pteramander and Deathrite Shaman (not to mention every mana dork ever), she is also graveyard hate, lifegain and win condition all in one card. I won two matches in the tournament with Kaya’s ultimate out of “nowhere”. She tends to get disrespected by opponents because her +1 is so minimally invasive, which is usually a mistake. Liliana of the Veil: “Lotvy” has fallen out of favour for me a bit because in the modern Highlander metagame, opponents often have little cannon fodder to sac to her -2 ability (mana dorks, tokens, persistent creatures). In this deck, though, she shines because you enable her much more effectively with your plethora of removal spells. You can also pitch cards like Lingering Souls, Smiting Helix and Seasoned Pyromancer for Value. Liliana, the Last Hope: This card’s inclusion seems weird because her -2 is pretty weak here. But she is still very good even if she cannot fish anything out of your graveyard. She minimizes the biggest threat of your opponent, often directly snipes a creature and her ultimate wins the game. Nahiri, the Harbinger: I like this card because her uptick puts her at 6 loyalty, which is a LOT, smoothes some draws and comes with removal attached. Her ultimate approaches quickly and usually gets Palace Jailer, what else? Saheeli, Sublime Artificer: Another seemingly weird inclusion in a non-blue deck, Saheeli proved nonetheless worthwhile. She triggers on Planeswalkers being cast, directly helps protect them and can transform her Servos into huge Threats when combined with the tokens from Serra, the Benevolent or Sarkhan the Masterless. Sarkhan the Masterless: Speaking of which… Boy oh boy, did this card overperform. Dragonman won me almost all the games in which I cast him. He can produce surprise kill swings when you already have Planeswalkers in play, creates a 4/4 flying dragon immediately to up the pressure and has a decent triggered ability to boot. Five mana seems like a lot to ask, but this is a late game play anyway. This Sarkhan is a cornerstone of a Planeswalker-centric strategy and you can expect seeing more of him from here on out – he certainly raised some eyebrows at the tournament site, but then he won me the entire damn thing. Hail Sarkhan! Serra, the Benevolent: Modern Horizons was so chock-full of playables that some people forgot about this Serra Angel-producing Walker. Serra is great because her bottom is still quite good – 4 mana for a Serra Angel is pretty good – but then she also demands an answer to herself. Two turns later, she can sacrifice herself for another Serra Angel, which is a great turnout for 4 mana. Her uptick even buffs cards like Bitterblossom, Lingering Souls and Sarkhan the Masterless. Her ultimate can come out quickly and be a real pain to deal with, although the Worship effect only truly shines in a creature shell. I was sceptical of Serra’s role in the format, but now I’m a believer. Treasure Map, Phyrexian Arena, Arguel’s Blood Fast: I was looking for more card advantage to have a reasonable chance against blue deck. All three of these cards could feel very weird. Map is hard to truly enable in a deck that has very tight margins on mana costs. Phyrexian Arena is great when it’s going but often awkward to tap out for on turn 3. Arguel’s Blood Fast is powerful in the late game but really bad in the early turns. Coming out of this tournament I would probably cut all three and look for better options.
5 Creatures: Deathrite Shaman, Young Pyromancer, Kitchen Finks, Seasoned Pyromancer, Palace Jailer: I was debating whether to bring the creature count to 1 (Jailer is fixed) but was pretty happy with this ensemble. Deathrite Shaman is just a strong turn 1 play which can help burning out opponents later in the game and helps you play Planeswalkers a turn earlier. Kitchen Finks is really efficient at protecting your Planeswalkers and to recoup some initial damage and life loss due to your own cards and lands. Seasoned Pyromancer is abs-mazing, provides multiple blockers at once and straight up draws two cards when you are hellbent (which happened two times during the tournament; an amazing feel). Young Peezy I feel less enthusiastic about in a deck without blue cantrips, though. He also doesn’t trigger on Planeswalkers being cast, so he should probably leave the deck. Do I have to say anything about Palace Jailer? I won several games with him, but at this point it has become tiresome to talk about how ridiculously powerful this card is.
Anyway, that’s basically all I have to say. I’m still surprised this deck performed as well as it did. Who knows, on other days it could’ve been utterly smashed by established tier decks. But I won’t lie: I feel a deep satisfaction to have won Metagame Masters 15 with a rogue deck, which is in large part due to my personal story of trying to make something work that maybe made little sense. But work it did and it was, naturally, a blast to play this deck. If you want to try it out, go ahead. I don’t think this deck is particularly complicated to play and budget-ish for those interested in the best format Magic: the Gathering has to offer.
Thanks for reading.