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January 28, 2016

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Going Rogue: Mardu Flagstones

Hello and welcome back to Going Rogue, where winning isn’t the goal but it often happens anyway!

I don’t know about you, but I am sick and tired of getting run over by all these big-mana Tron and Eldrazi decks in Modern these days. Not only did they get a bunch of new powerful cards with recent sets, but the banning of Splinter Twin and Summer Bloom seems to have opened the door extra-wide for decks that take over at around the turn four mark. They’re everywhere now, and you know what they say:

If you can’t beat ’em, keep trying.

Or something like that.

               

Thankfully, these decks share a common Achilles’ heel: their land. A Tron deck that can’t assemble the trifecta of Urza Lands simply can’t operate, and although the Eldrazi deck is considerably more capable of playing a lower-mana game, destroying all their effective-Ancient Tombs keeps them off the spells that really seal the deal. Oblivion Sower may be a fantastic answer to a shut-down mana base, but not if you never let them cast it.

Take ’em Out at the Knees

Land destruction has been an under-utilized part of the game for as long as I can remember, and for good reason. Even the bad players know that paying three mana for a Stone Rain isn’t typically a good exchange for something your opponent got to play for free. However, the game has come a long way over the years and even though Stone Rain still represents a reasonably-costed bar to set the mana-denial quota at, there are better ways to do it.

               

Bringing this effect down to a converted mana cost of two changes the game entirely, and this is achievable by designing your deck to exploit bilateral effects and make them as unilateral as possible. Flagstones of Trokair into Boom // Bust is a fantastic turn two play, doubly so if you started the game, and triply so if your target is an Eldrazi Temple. Although Smallpox is harder to cast turn two with Flagstones (without lucking into your one-of Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth), you also get to take down a creature. You can easily set your deck up to be more happy discarding cards than your average opponent will be.

Add in some Fulminator Mages, and you have yourself a bona fide Tron killer.

Don’t Forget to Bring a Towel

As satisfying as it may be to shut off these oppressive decks, we can’t neglect preparing for the decks that make up the other 75%+ of the format. A deck full of Stone Rains folds like a cheap suit to a Wild Nacatl, so we need to fit in stabilizing cards that fit nicely with the rest of our strategy.

I’m assuming you’ve all heard about and are familiar with the term Virtual Card Advantage. But what about Virtual Land Destruction?

             

No, I’m not talking about Ajani Vengeant‘s ultimate, which is pretty clear about what it does. I’m talking about his +1, which in this deck basically says

Target land might as well be destroyed as long as you’re not in greater need of a Lightning Helix.

In a deck that aims to suppress mana availability, Ajani quietly ticks up in accordance with your game plan until he’s able to do what you obviously want him to do.

Meanwhile, with an opponent short on mana, Ghostly Prison forces them into deciding whether to continue building out their board, or to spend their resources trying to push your life down to zero. While in some respects this plays awkwardly with Ajani Vengeant (Ghostly Prison’s effect doesn’t work when creatures attack Planeswalkers), if you can protect your Planeswalkers and have a Prison in play, the game is yours to grind out.

Synergy & Utility

We’re almost there. We can keep big mana decks from affording their real threats, and we can hold off aggro decks by putting a price tag on their modus operandi. All that’s left is to incorporate synergistic answers for mid-size threats like Tarmogoyf and Gurmag Angler, add a transitional defence/offence option, and we’re off to the races!

               

Great cards that require little justification, but they really do go the extra mile in this deck. Terminate is the best catch-all answer in a deck that very much does not want to play Path to Exile, and the Abzan-classic Liliana of the Veil + Lingering Souls engine is powered up in a shell with more cards that are discard-friendly, as well as a primary strategy that leaves cards in the opponent’s hand for Liliana to pluck away.

To everyone who never wants to see a Karn Liberated resolve again, I present Mardu Flagstones:

Alex’s Mardu Flagstones

Creatures: (7)
Lingering Souls
Fulminator Mage
Vengeful Pharaoh

Spells: (19)
Faithless Looting
Lightning Bolt
Smallpox
Terminate
Fiery Temper
Murderous Cut
Boom // Bust

Artifacts and Enchantments: (6)
Engineered Explosives
Ghostly Prison
Outpost Siege

Planeswalkers: (5)
Liliana of the Veil
Ajani Vengeant

Land: (23)
Arid Mesa
Bloodstained Mire
Marsh Flats
Blood Crypt
Godless Shrine
Sacred Foundry
Flagstones of Trokair
Swamp
Plains
Mountain

Sideboard: (15)
 Dreadbore
 Firespout
Fulminator Mage
Ghostly Prison
Kolaghan’s Command
Lightning Helix
Pyroclasm
Relic of Progenitus
Slaughter Games
Wear // Tear

The final list is a lot like the Red-White Stax Control lists of years gone by, but with a powerful injection of land destruction to combat the big-mana decks it was typically very weak again. But with a meta-inspired land destruction bent to them, trading off some of its potency versus aggro decks to specialize on dealing with the big-mana bogeyman of early 2016.

Matchups

Early testing proved that this deck is more than a laugh, pulling in a 6-4 record over its first ten matches. It tends to produce very long games, seldom winning before turn eleven or tweleve, but it gets there quite successfully against big decks and little decks, showing weakness to midrange and combo.

  • Affinity: Good. With lots of main-deck answers to Inkmoth Nexus and Blinkmoth Nexus without activation, they need to rely on other threats like Etched Champion which falls quickly to Smallpox. Shutting down its mana base is easier than most decks, and Ghostly Prison makes attacking very difficult.
  • Burn/Zoo: Average. Lightning Bolts are the right size to take care of their smaller threats, and Lightning Helix and Ajani Vengeant keep you out of range. Again, Ghostly Prison plays a very important role. Boom // Bust becomes more about controlling colour availability than total resources.
  • Jund/Junk: Bad. Disruption is very powerful against a deck trying to cheat extra value out of key cards, and when your opponent’s flagship threat is a 5/6 for two mana, there’s really only Vengeful Pharaoh to save us.
  • Merfolk: Good. Ghostly Prison is incredible against decks that like to go wide, and picking off Mutavaults goes a very long way. Keep their bodies to three or less toughness and the game is a walk.
  • Hatebears: Terrible. Thalia, Guardian of Thraben sets us back a turn on basically the whole deck, and their mana base is simple and, therefore, resilient. Plus, Leonin Arbiter wrecks our Flagstones of Trokair. They kind of beat us at our own game.
  • Tron/Eldrazi: Very good. The deck was designed to be good here, and it performs very well, to no surprise. Tron is almost a free win, and outside of a turn two Thought-Knot Seer, you’re laughing versus Eldrazi too.
  • Infect: Good. Yet again, Ghostly Prison is fantastic, making it very difficult to pay for pump spells when attacking, and Smallpox renders Vines of Vastwood useless. Lingering Souls is also outstanding here.
  • Scapeshift: Average. Attacking their mana isn’t as powerful as you would assume, Electrolyze is a good answer to our Lingering Souls, and counter-magic makes resolving our Planeswalkers very difficult. Game one we can usually grind out, disabling their combo long enough to punch in with spirits, but post-board becomes difficult to close out the match against the likes of Huntmaster of the Fells.
  • Ad Nauseam: Terrible. Just awful. They can win with zero lands, and we give them enough time to do it. If you ever wanted to watch yourself die in slow motion, I recommend playing this matchup.
  • Kiki-Chord: Good. When Smallpox hits a land and a mana dork, you are really doing it. Add in Ghostly Prison shutting off the combo and the long-game looks good too. Tread carefully against Voice of Resurgence, save your Terminates for Restoration Angel, and you should squeak this one out.

All in all, the deck is a lot of fun to build and tweak, and satisfying to play if you like watching your opponents squirm and hate their lives a little bit. On the other hand, taking a long time to win is hard on the clock and can be a little mind-numbing, so be sure to come prepared to play patiently.

If Tron and Eldrazi are indeed going to be leading decks in the format, land destruction is definitely a good game to be playing. Whether or not this is the exact best way to do it, I can’t yet say, but I’m happy to have acquired the pieces so I can play around and see what works. It’s an archetype that I think a lot of players want to see succeed, and would add an interesting dimension to the meta if it were to become a somewhat common deck.

If you can afford the recent price hikes on Boom // Bust and Flagstones of Trokair (apparently I’m not the only one with this idea), I’d recommend giving it a shot too. If you do, let me know in the comments how it works out for you.

Until next time, have fun, and may the force be with brew!