After last week’s article about Standard and what we need to do about the looming Smuggler's Copter threat, I decided to start the gears grinding with some testing. I posited a couple theories last week, and I put them into action during this one. To summarize, last week I stated that the best ways to interact with Copter is to play instant-speed removal, Nahiri, the Harbinger, and maybe even maindeck artifact removal. I utilized all three of these plans in the same deck.
Last season I was working on Mardu Planeswalkers, but my development of the deck started very late in the season. Right after Eldritch Moon was released, I focused on breaking Bant Company as much as possible, because I had some big events on my schedule. Additionally, I couldn’t seem to get the numbers to work out for the Mardu deck. I loved the concept, but midrange decks like that follow different design schematics than the creature-centric decks I typically play. Toward the end of the season, once my tournament schedule calmed down, I had time to tinker around with the deck idea.
My basic premise for Mardu was that the virtual card advantage provided by the Oath cycle—like Oath of Liliana—was a powerful engine especially when combined with the potent planeswalkers that are legal in the format. We all know these ‘walkers are great, but no one has really tried to jam them all into the same deck.
My initial snag was with the card Deploy the Gatewatch. That card is like the planeswalker version of Collected Company, right? As it turns out, which you probably already knew, the answer is no. Unfortunately, Deploy is a long walk in the wrong direction away from Company. Because we are talking planeswalkers and not creatures, we are severely limited with which cards we can consider hits once we cast Deploy. If you already have Chandra, Flamecaller or Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, for example, you can replace the one you have with a fresh one, but that’s not nearly as powerful as adding another permanent to strengthen your board position. In short, the card never panned out.
Once I moved away from that deck constraint, I was able to focus more on the core concept of enabling the Oaths by casting powerful planeswalkers to clog up the board. Even my first version with this mindset was right on point. Although I found a slick angle on the format, I never had an opportunity to prove how great the deck was because the format rotated. My initial testing was just an FNM, but I didn’t just go undefeated at my shop—I didn’t even drop a game with the deck. It was just FNM, but sweeping every match in any tournament is no easy feat.
Now that we have a brand new format, I’ve started working on the deck once more. As it happens, the Mardu color combination fits like the right piece of puzzle that we’ve been looking for in Standard. Let’s take a look at the deck.
Instant-speed and sorcery-speed removal to back it up—check. Nahiri, the Harbinger as a powerful way to deal with artifacts as well as being relevant against all board positions—check. It may only be one copy, but we do have a main deck Fragmentize, as well.
The rest of the deck is setup as a midrange, controlling strategy. You have a bunch of removal spells that also double as your engine. They aren’t the best to cast without targets, but there are plenty of times when you want to play an Oath on an open board. Each Oath does something great. Oath of Chandra is basically the same as Incendiary Flow but with bonus damage tacked onto the opponent later in the game. I love redirecting that damage to an opponent's planeswalkers, as well. The zombies from Oath of Liliana are extremely relevant blockers as well as attackers. Finally, Oath of Gideon has really impressed me in the deck. The two 1/1 tokens are relevant against aggressive strategies, and the boost your planewalkers get from the extra loyalty counter is immense. Usually the extra loyalty means they can ultimate and stay in play.
What you really want to hear about, though, is Chandra, Torch of Defiance.
As you know, her price has fallen dramatically so far, and it looks like she will continue the downward trend. While I’m writing this, her current price is $25, but I think she will eventually fall under $20. Even if Chandra starts seeing a lot of play, the supply generated from Inventions will hold her price down similar to her other-world self, Chandra, Flamecaller.
How has she been performing in testing? It’s hard to say how good she is on her own, because I always have her in play with some number of Oaths. That leads to better board positions for this particular deck but wouldn’t necessarily be so positive for any deck that can run her. For instance, it doesn’t really matter what mode you choose when you also get a 2/2 zombie.
Breaking Chandra, Torch of Defiance down, I’ve found that her card advantage +1 turns out to be "look for a removal spell or loot a land from the top of your deck and deal your opponent two damage." Either of those things are good, but when you only deal them damage, the +1 is not very powerful at all. I am left wishing it was worded the same as Chandra, Pyromaster’s zero ability. That way you could play lands and not just spells.
If we had the ability to make land drops from her +1, though, the mana +1 would be less relevant. Often, the second +1 allows my deck to play two spells on turn four, five, or six. On turn four, playing Chandra into her Oath is great. On turn five, playing Chandra and a removal spell is great. The same goes for turn six and two planeswalkers. I think the mana base needs some tweaking to support all lines, though, because sometimes the lands you have restricts which two spells you can play.
So far both her -3 and ultimate have been solid, as well. The four damage has been able to kill most threats I’ve faced, and the ultimate has been able to end the game once the emblem was in play. There are cases where those things didn’t happen, but most often the abilities have been good. Three loyalty is a lot to pay for this particular ability, but it gets the job done in a pinch.
Overall, Chandra, Torch of Defiance has been a solid card in this archetype. I think even without Oaths to support her, she should be decent in other decks as well, but she is not an all-star or format defining card like her four-ability, four-drop companion, Jace, the Mind Sculptor.
The first thing other players typically ask about are the numbers on black cards. Why is there only one copy each of Liliana, the Last Hope and Ob Nixilis Reignited? The main reason for these one-ofs is due to their strict color requirements. Black is a splash in this red-white deck, and we can’t afford many cards that are double black. I’ve used them both to great effect, but if there were more copies, they would be stranded in your hand most of the time.
Pia Nalaar is the biggest question mark in the deck so far. I know that a creature slot is necessary, and Pia is a great threat because she comes with a Thopter buddy. I’m not certain, though, that Filigree Familiar isn’t a better creature to run in that slot. Previously I ran Hangarback Walker, and I loved that card because of its variable mana cost. Pia and the Familiar are both three-drops, and I’m not sure if that’s too much mana or not. I have not found a solid two-cost creature that possesses the right capabilities for this deck, however. One may be hiding out there, but as of now, it is yet to be found.
Playing the Games
As far as game play goes, Mardu Planeswalkers has had positive matchups against the aggressive Smuggler's Copter decks. Since those are the majority of the metagame, I have not tested a ton against other archetypes, but my limited testing proves viability against non-aggro decks, as well. So if you are looking for a non-vehicle alternative in the metagame, try Mardu Planeswalkers out and see how it fares for you.
I will say that this deck is complex to pilot, and there will be some adjustments you have to make in what you prioritize with your removal spells. Last season, you could basically just play your spells however you wanted and the virtual card advantage you generated would be enough to win most games. Now, the vehicle decks are so potent and filled with aggressive power that one wrong move could let the game slip out of your hands. All of the games are intense and interesting, but they are almost all winnable with the correct sequencing.
One of the biggest threats to this deck is Depala, Pilot Exemplar. This dwarf seems unfair against every deck, but if it gets to do anything other than go straight to the graveyard, a control deck has an uphill battle ahead of it. Often I see opponents set up turns where they can tap huge amounts of mana to get an effect similar to Collected Company. Depala actually reminds me of Ranger of Eos. Usually your opponent will be able to get two creatures or vehicles when they attack or crew one of their vehicles. A positive quality of Chandra, Torch of Defiance is that she is a clean answer to this potent, card-advantage-generating threat.
Lastly, along with Chandra, Torch of Defiance, my store lowered prices on tons of cards from Kaladesh. If you don’t need cards from this set yet, hold off on obtaining them, because they are still on their way to the bottom. They haven’t found their minimum just yet. Most of the more expensive cards in the set dropped at least a couple bucks, but there are a few that are on the rise.
I don’t know whether the Electrostatic Pummeler plus Metallurgic Summonings deck is a real contender, but the prices on those two cards skyrocketed this week. The other enabler cards like Aetherworks Marvel, Aetherflux Reservoir and Paradoxical Outcome all have potential sleeper target potential. For more info about these spec targets as well as others, Brian DeMars wrote up a great piece on this topic earlier in the week.
Finally, the fast lands have been selling really well, and obviously the red-white one has been hard to keep in stock due to the demand level of RW Vehicles. The set is selling well so far, but we will see what happens after the Pro Tour this weekend.
I’m excited about the Pro Tour, and hopefully we will have a lot to talk about next week once the event is in the books.
Until next time,
Unleash the Force!
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