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Neapolitan Vehicles at GP Denver

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Toolcraft Exemplar
Mmmmm . . .  who doesn’t love delicious Neapolitan ice cream? Vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry in the same box, so when others are stuck with a single flavor, you get something akin to a three-for-one. This ice cream archetype has a long and storied history, from ice cream parlors in the early years of the twentieth century all the way to supermarket tubs filled with literal gallons of the stuff. It’s a classic, and those pretentious artisanal ice cream snobs don’t know what they’re missing from an old-fashioned slab of triple ice cream goodness.

As it turns out, Mardu Vehicles follows the same basic formula. Just like Neapolitan ice cream, there are three different flavors within one delicious deck. Of course, the classic “Toolcraft Exemplar, Heart of Kiran, Scrapheap Scrounger, Unlicensed Disintegration” start wins plenty of games by itself. Like a hefty scoop of vanilla, these freeroll wins are the foundation of Mardu’s strategy, and though most folks get tired of plain-jane vanilla after a time, there is a certain nostalgia to rocking the baseline nut draw of an overpowered aggressive strategy. Having never experienced the power of the Mardu “chuckler draw” myself, the recent Grand Prix in Denver was a refreshing opportunity to watch some self-driving cars in action! Don’t sleep on vanilla, and definitely don’t sleep on the free win percentage gained by playing such high-power 1- and 2-drops.

Of course, vanilla isn’t everything, and neither is Toolcraft Exemplar. In Magic, sometimes there are longer games which require a different flavor of Vehicles in order to succeed. Mardu, unlike Ramunap Red or Zombies, is not vulnerable to a single point of heavy interaction. There is no “exhaust port” on a Heart of Kiran like there was on the Death Star, and resilience is the name of the game for this aggressively slanted midrange deck. Against Red, cards like Authority of the Consuls and Crested Sunmare can make for a nightmare matchup, but Mardu suffers no such vulnerability. Zombies live in fear of Cataclysmic Gearhulk, Chandra, Flamecaller, and Radiant Flames, but Mardu is as comfortable playing with those cards as it is playing against them. This is the chocolate, the delightful diversity of threats like Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, Archangel Avacyn, Scrapheap Scrounger, and Heart of Kiran. Fatal Push answers Heart of Kiran, but fails against the heftier threats. Magma Spray answers the low-curve threats, but fails to answer Heart of Kiran. Grasp of Darkness answers creatures but not Planeswalkers or Scrapheap Scroungers. No matter what, there is always the opportunity for Mardu to draw the right threats for the wrong answers.

Chandra, Torch of Defiance
Where Neapolitan really separates itself, though, is the strawberry third of the slab, and Vehicles does the same thing by employing a transformational sideboard to sidestep an opponent’s entire plan. This sort of “big Mardu” juke gained popularity as an answer to bg midrange decks in recent Standard formats, where opponents would sideboard in piles of Fatal Pushes, Grasp of Darkness, Magma Sprays, and the like. Imagine the horror on an opponent’s face when the game they came to play turns out to be like so much fake news; when Chandra, Torch of Defiance (incidentally, a strawberry blonde!) crashes the party and shows off a totally different flavor of Mardu. Despite the single-minded aggressiveness of many players in this Standard format, it pays to change gears every now and again, and nothing is better at changing gears than a vehicle.

Look. When opponents are stuck playing Deserts, sometimes it pays to stay one step ahead with a few choice desserts, and that’s the idea behind Neapolitan Vehicles. Plus, when your opponents are about to lose, you get to ask them to . . .  ahem . . .  scoop!

Okay, in all seriousness, Grand Prix Denver looked from the get-go to be defined by the aggressive decks of the format. Red won the Pro Tour, Zombies won Grand Prix Minneapolis, and together they looked to comprise over a third of the Standard metagame. The fact that both decks are consistent and straightforward adds to their intuitive appeal, ensuring a hefty presence from both archetypes. Sure, Mardu, bg, and Temur made up the middle part, and God-Pharaoh's Gift and various control decks occupied the last piece of the pie, but first and foremost on everyone’s mind was beating the aggressive decks. For Mardu, that meant Aethersphere Harvester and cheap removal for Red, and Cataclysmic Gearhulk, Nahiri, the Harbinger, and Declaration in Stone for Zombies.

Feeling lost and needing a guide on what to play, I turned to Gathering Magic’s own Andrew Jessup, who had been doing well with Mardu online over the previous week or so. His list and sideboard guide were invaluable in preparing for the event, and his enthusiasm for Neapolitan (the Standard deck and the ice cream) was infectious. Here’s the list he recommended, complete with all three elements of a great Neapolitan Vehicles deck:


A few notes:

Heart of Kiran
Heart of Kiran was fine as a three-of, because of the inclusion of Aethersphere Harvester as another Vehicles in the deck. One of the failure points of Vehicles is their low utility when all the pilots get destroyed, and Heart also has that pesky Legendary drawback, so three is an appropriate number.

Three Gideons is acceptable in a Zombies and Red-dominated format, mainly because the card is pretty bad on the draw facing down swarm aggro. Walking Ballista as a four-of is a bit ambitious, but the card does work against Red and Zombies, prevents mana flood, and gives the deck additional reach against Control.

Thalia, Heretic Cathar is not great when opponents are packing Dark Salvation and Shock, but she does excellent work against God-Pharaoh's Gift. Additionally, Thalia (if she survives) does great work against all of Red’s haste creatures, buying a turn or more of reprieve against their Ahn-Crop Crashers and Hazoret the Fervents.

For future Standard events, it might be correct to lose a single Walking Ballista for a third Aethersphere Harvester (depending on Red’s popularity), and it might be better to ditch a Fatal Push for a second maindeck Abrade (depending on the popularity of God-Pharaoh's Gift).

As for the tournament itself, things started off swimmingly, with three byes and four wins in a row. Of course, even a self-driving car can get tripped up, and it took one aBrade Nelson to put the brakes on this freight train before a win in the last round. At 8-1, this was the mood on Saturday evening, after a massive ice cream cone to celebrate my Neapolitan-flavored success:

Playing Mardu Vehicles is occasionally soporific, but never unhappy!

Unfortunately, when you drive too fast, you might get pulled over by the law. The law, in this case, was Zombies and Mono-Red, delivering two quick losses with the aid of an untimely string of lands off the top of my deck. Going from 8-1 to 8-3 is a sobering experience (not that I was playing Vehicles under the influence!) and it took a small breather to remind myself that there was still a Top 16 to play for, and I needed to stay sharp. Two more wins over Mono-Red followed, then a win over bg Delirium, and, finally, an unfortunate loss to Corey Burkhart and his Jeskai God-Pharaoh's Gift deck. That last loss stung a lot, not because I dislike Corey or anything, but just because losing the last round of any tournament is bound to sour the whole experience. Fortunately, there is an opportunity to redeem the good name of Vehicles at GP Washington DC in a week or so, and Andrew Jessup’s invaluable sideboard guide (with some alterations and annotations from yours truly) might prove useful to those of you who throw your lot in with Toolcraft Exemplar:

Mono Red:

Don’t die, turn the corner as quickly as possible, and watch out for Red’s “go-big” plan. It’s fairly straightforward, you’ll want to conserve your life total and trade resources while making sure to apply pressure and prepare to swing the game around in one or two big turns.

Zombies:

Andrew and I disagreed on this sideboard plan, oddly enough. He found Thalia to be useful, but I reminded him that all the opponents’ Zombies came in tapped anyway; and Dark Salvation absolutely embarrasses the Heretic Cathar. On the draw, note that it might be reasonable to shave two Toolcraft Exemplars and keep in two Fatal Pushes instead.

This matchup is supposed to be bad, but unless the Zombies player has a super nice curve or you stumble, I’ve found it to be plenty serviceable. After sideboarding, the Nahiris and Gearhulks do excellent work as well.

bg Advocate:

TRANSFORMERS! PLANESWALKERS IN DISGUISE! Seriously, though, this is where the transformational sideboard shines, when your bg Midrange opponent feels pressured to lower their curve, add cheap removal, and prepare for an aggressive start. They come expecting vanilla, and you bring them strawberry. Sorry, kid, but the ice cream man doesn’t play like that. That’s what they get for playing a dumb mint chocolate chip deck anyway!

Temur Energy:

(Note the number in parentheses indicates when you are on the draw)

Now, this is where things get hairy. Should you employ the transformative sideboard against Temur Energy? Andrew said no, but I disagree with him after playing the matchup. Most less-experienced Temur players will fall for the same trap as bg, and will fail to bring in Negate against the expected onslaught of Toolcraft Exemplar and Scrapheap Scrounger. Worst case, you can change it back up for Game 3 (assuming you get to a Game 3) and keep them on their toes. Try the same sideboard plan as for bg above, and see which works better. Make sure to get a healthy sample size, though!

God-Pharaoh’s Gift:

This particular configuration also differs from Andrew’s original plan. My recommendation is to include the Painful Truths, as any card that digs you into more Abrades is all right by me. Keep them off the namesake artifact with Abrade, buy yourself an extra turn with Thalia, and try to close out the game quickly. Not too complicated, right?

uw Approach:

This is about as intuitive as it gets. Unfortunately, you have little in the way of relevant interaction with the exclusion of Doomfall, and if you are concerned with improving this (and the other Glimmer of Genius matchups) it might be worthwhile to include a couple copies of the discard/removal spell.

ur Control:

Against ur, unlike Approach, you need to keep your Unlicensed Disintegrations to K.O. opposing Torrential Gearhulks and smack your opponent simultaneously. This is also useful if they bring in Planeswalkers or random creatures. I’ve seen Whirler Virtuoso and Thing in the Ice, so be careful!

Ramp:

Another day, another self-explanatory sideboard plan for us. Stay aggressive, my friends. Board in the removal that actually hits Ulamog and World Breaker, and get those Planeswalkers in there. Try to play around Hour of Devastation, if possible. Consider upticking Gideon the turn you play him, in order to get him to six loyalty as quickly as possible.

Mirror:

(Again, parentheses indicate different plans on the draw)

Toolcraft Exemplar is so embarrassing against opposing Walking Ballistas that he has to take a seat on the bench. Painful Truths is fine, but it’s a tough card to find a spot to cast, so only one makes the cut. It’s perfectly reasonable to add the 25th land, losing Thalia, Heretic Cathar or the Painful Truths. Truths is especially bad on the draw, so consider that shift as well.

Look, I get it. Some readers might have a favorite flavor, and nothing I say or do can get them off mono-vanilla midrange. Some folks know exactly what they like, and won’t ever feel the need to switch things up. I’m not one of those people. I prefer a bit of variety in my frozen dairy desserts and my Standard decks alike. Fortunately, the geniuses of Naples, Italy came up with a three-flavored ice cream combination to satisfy my need for novelty, and the geniuses at Wizards of the Coast did the same thing a century later with a three-flavored aggressive deck. You don’t have to love all three flavors, but you owe it to yourself to give it a shot. Delicious no matter which slice you eat first, Neapolitan Vehicles makes winning a piece of (ice cream) cake!


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