The Evolution of Vehicle Aggro Decks - Massdrop East/West Article #19
Hi there! This is Ricky Chin from team Massdrop East and I'm back with an article on Magic the Gathering. One of my favorite things about Magic is that you can play the game the way you want to and still have a lot of success. Some people really like being able to dictate what their opponent can play via counterspells and removal spells, some others prefer to play bigger creatures and planeswalkers. Personally, I enjoy finding ways to deal 20 damage to the opponent as fast as possible. In the last few months of standard, there is one type of deck that has put consistent results. For this week’s article I chose to talk about one of my favorite archetype, Mardu Vehicles. This is an aggro deck that has the ability to adapt to any known metagame. I will also go over the different builds that I tried in order to beat the best decks in the format.
Versatility Mardu Vehicles is at its core a colorless deck. The two main threats are Scrapheap Scrounger and Heart of Kiran (the deck previously used the “fair” magic card Smuggler’s Copter). This gives us a unique opportunity to build the deck with cards from any color, as long as your mana base can support it. Kaladesh opened the door to this type of deck building in aggro strategies with the release of its own version of dual lands, often referred to as “fast lands”.
The deck operates on three different angles, creatures, vehicles and planeswalkers. It becomes really difficult for your opponent to draw the correct answer for your threats when they only have five or six turns to do so. If unanswered, threats like everyone’s favorite planeswalker Gideon, Ally of Zendikar will rapidly end the game.
Over the last six months, there have been many iterations of the deck. Each modification made to the deck came about to beat a new top tier deck. While the card pool in standard is limited, it offered enough solutions to make Mardu a strong contender in a diverse format.
Following Pro Tour Aether Revolt, there were three top tier decks. Mardu Vehicles, BG Constrictor and Saheeli-based combo decks. These decks form a Rock-Paper-Scissors metagame, but with skill and variance added to it.
This is where the first big adjustment came in for Mardu Vehicles. In order to have more answers to Felidar/Saheeli combo, Mardu Vehicles started playing more copies of Thalia, Heretic Cathar and brought in Walking Ballista. It allowed the deck to have more ways to stop the combo in game 1. Those changes did slow the deck down a bit but it was a small price to pay considering the situation.
While testing for PT Aether Revolt, I couldn't find a way to beat BG Constrictor with Mardu. You could get the occasional game where you curved out to punish a bad hand but in general, the matchup was terrible. The winner of GP Utretcht 2017 Samuel Vuillot had an amazing sideboard plan that worked both in the mirror and against BG Constrictor. The plan was to board out most of your creatures and artifacts, and bring in planeswalkers and removal spells.
This led to GP New Jersey 2017 were only 2 decks emerged as Tier 1, Mardu Ballista and 4-Color Saheeli. The interaction between Felidar Guardian and Saheeli Rai was judged too powerful and was eventually banned.
The recent change to the banlist coupled with the addition of Amonkhet as a standard legal set brought two new enemies to the format, Temur Aetherworks Marvel and Mono Black Zombies.
With Mardu Ballista, the matchup against Marvel felt like a coin flip slightly weighted toward the Marvel player. The only thing you could do is put pressure on them and hope that they don't draw Aetherworks Marvel, or that they activate it and don't find Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger. Black Green Energy made a comeback in popularity and Mardu Vehicles couldn't dedicate 12 good cards in the sideboard against it anymore.
Leading up to Grand Prix Montreal 2017, my buddy Pascal Maynard built a vehicle deck that also relies on counterspells. The goal here was to have a better matchup against the best deck in standard Aetherworks Marvel. The deck focused on putting early pressure with creatures or vehicles, then sitting back with a Metallic Rebuke or Spell Queller in hand for their turn four Marvel. The deck excelled in that aspect. My win rate against decks that tried to cast a 10/10 indestructible creature on turn four was over 70 %. The problem with this build is that it was still weak to Black Green Energy and Mono Black Zombies. In our testing, one of the ways Mardu could beat the Zombies deck was to attack in the air with flying creatures, mainly Heart of Kiran and Archangel Avacyn. Adding in Eldrazi Skyspawner helped complement this goal. It felt like a perfect fit since it also crews Heart of Kiran on its own (2/1 plus the 1/1 Eldrazi Scion) and offered a way to make Avacyn transform on demand. One way to beat creature-based decks is to play board sweeper. In addition to Fumigate, we tried Dusk // Dawn in the sideboard. When I played against BG Energy, the card was really good. It synergized well with Spell Queller (as opposed to Fumigate) and the Aftermath part of the card often gave me extra value. I had mixed results with Dusk // Dawn against Zombies deck. Sometimes I would destroy all of their creatures and I would go on to win the game, but I also had games where I faced an army of 2/2’s and all I could do was stare at my empty board with a Dusk in hand.
In the end, I chose not to play this deck at the Grand Prix because I couldn't bring its bad matchups closer to 50% even after sideboard. I ended up playing 8 rounds of mirror matches against Aetherworks Marvel in Montréal. In both GPs that weekend, three Temur Marvel decks reached top 8 proving that even if the deck has more variance than other solid decks, it still is the best deck right now.
Mardu (Blue) Vehicles
I then worked on a list that was a hybrid between Regular Mardu and Esper Vehicles. At its core, Mardu Vehicles is an aggro deck and you need to have ways to remove blockers and push in the last points of damage to win the game. Unlicensed Disintegration is still the best removal in the format, but I was also impressed by Cut // Ribbons. You usually are attacking your opponent for the first five or six turns, then either they are dead or you no longer have the ability to attack. It could be due to an Ishkanah, Grafwidow, your opponent having bigger creatures than you, or they could be playing a control strategy while removing all of your threats. Ribbons has won me several games in those situations. The main issue with this deck is consistency. Relying on four colors after sideboard made it difficult to cast your key cards.