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By: Psychobabble, PB
Jul 29 2015 11:00am
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Magic Origins was the first set since M13 that I hadn't written a set review for - two years! - It felt kind of weird. I'm sure it's not a bad set, but somehow I'm just not feeling it and couldn't get myself to jump on board the new set hype train again. My interest in standard is also generally waning with the threat of a collection-value-destroying rotation looming, and even after that the new block system meaning rotation will come around format even more frequently, making it harder and even more expensive to keep on the new card treadmill. It's entirely possible that I'll get the bug again come Return to Zendikar but right now, standard's just not doing it for me. The thing is, I still enjoy the game and playing limited doesn't really scratch my itch. It's times like this that eternal formats were made for, and I happened to run across the streamer Bahra playing an interesting take on an old-favourite standard deck of mine - Aristocrats. I decided to jump in and see how it played.

Modern Mardu Aristocrats

The most fun I've had in standard was playing the "aristocrats" deck back in ISD/RTR block standard. This was a crazy value creature combo-ish deck that was enabled with the printing of Cartel Aristocrat in Gatecrash. When combined with resilient creatures from ISD block (and, subsequently, Voice of Resurgence and Xathrid Necromancer) that enabled you to get multiple sacrifice effects out of your creatures, as well as cards like Blood Artist and Tragic Slip that paid you off for doing so you had a deck that played out like no other deck I've ever encountered. There were multiple different colour combinations of the deck, as I covered in an older article, but the original one was a BWR version with a pseudo-combo finish that combined Boros Reckoner with Blasphemous Act for 13 to the face out of nowhere.

What does the archetype look like when ported to modern? The version Bahra was playing retains a surprisingly high proportion of original the ISD/RTR block cards:

 

 

The core of the original deck is here, which is combining creature cards or token makers that create bodies which can be sacrificed multiple times, along with payoffs from that sacrifice to kill your opponent. Here the main kill condition is Blood Artist, but Greater Gargadon and Falkenrath Aristocrat, not to mention Sorin-buffed tokens, all give you quite reasonable secondary beatdown plans. The main upgrades to the maindeck deck from the larger modern card pool are Lightning Bolt, Tidehollow Sculler and Mogg War Marshal. The interaction between Tidehollow Sculler and sacrifice outlets is worth pointing out because it's templated in the "old" way:

Tidehollow Sculler

Unlike modern cards like Banisher Priest, the wording of this card allows you to permanently exile a card if you sacrifice it while the "look at your opponent's hand" ETB trigger is still on the stack. This will cause the "when Tidehollow Sculler leaves the battlefield" clause to trigger before you have exiled a card, turning this into a 2-mana spell that can exile any non-land card in your opponent's hand AND get you a sacrifice trigger AND put a body in the graveyard, which becomes important with a card I'm about to talk about. Depending on the board state, this is frequently the correct play, although it's a little annoying that you have to make the choice before you see your opponent's hand.

The other addition from the modern card pool is Mogg War Marshal, which fits the deck's gameplan plan excellently by producing three bodies with one card. You rarely want to pay the echo cost on this card unless you're in a late game topdeck/flood situation, as even if you can't get some immediate value out of the sacrifice from Viscera Seer or Greater Gargadon, it provides you with an easy way to get bodies in the graveyard which is something you're incentivised to do thanks to the most recently-printed card to feature in the deck:

Return to the Ranks

The synergy between this card, token-makers, sacrifice effects/outlets and a number of impactful one and two-drops is quite insane. When playing the deck, your opponent is in great danger of dying to Blood Artist triggers any time their life total starts to fall below about 12, because Return to the Ranks lets you create these huge sacrifice chains out of nowhere. You can sacrifice all your creatures on-board, cast a token maker like Lingering Souls, use convoke from the newly-cast creatures to cast Return to the Ranks, which then brings back multiple creatures that create multiple bodies so you can sacrifice everything again to drain your opponent out.

I've found the maindeck to be solid, but there's always some other options to consider. Here's some that come to mind as worth considering:

bitterblossom Promise of Bunrei spectral procession raise the alarm mardu charm dark confidant Bloodsoaked Champion Bloodghast

The first five options there are additional tokenmakers. The problem is that while the deck certainly likes token makers, they don't synergise with Return to the Ranks in the way that a card like Mogg War Marshal or Doomed Traveler does, so if you went that route you would probably be looking to shave some of the Return to the Ranks. Return is one of the ways that your deck can have explosive turns, and get card advantage but can be awkward on some draws especially in multiples if you have a creature-light hand. Replacing Return to the Ranks with additional token makers would flatten out the power level of the deck, making it more consistent but potentially taking away so much power that it was no longer able to compete with other decks in modern - it would have to be something to test.

Mardu Charm is interesting as a jack of all trades option, but probably doesn't have enough power level to get there in modern. While Dark Confidant doesn't have a power-level issue, it doesn't synergise with the deck particularly well other than being a very good card in the colours so I'm not sure that's what the deck really wants. The final couple of cards there are synergistic with the deck in a different way - they don't create multiple creatures, but they are recursive so can still help trigger multiple sacrifice effects. Bloodsoaked Champion is probably, on balance, too expensive but Bloodghast has some potential if the mana isn't too restrictive. It definitely seems like an option worth looking into.

Sideboard-wise you have a real wealth of options in these colour combinations and I wouldn't regard the 15 up there as settled by any means. Some spot removal that hits larger creatures to replace Lightning Bolts against decks like Grixis is a good idea. Mardu colours are traditionally weak to counterspells and this deck is in general no exception, so Thoughtseize (or Duress) is a very good idea. The list currently doesn't have any graveyard or land hate, so it's really weak to Tron and random graveyard strategies - given that you use the graveyard too I would look at some combination of Leyline of Sanctity, Fulminator Mage or even Sowing Salt. The deck is naturally fairly decent against Affinity due to the number of annoying bodies it puts out, many of which fly, and its potential life-gain so I'm not sure the Stony Silences are necessary and while the Intangible Virtues are nice against weenie aggro and decks that pack Zealous Persecution, they're not absolutely necessary and you could try to make room for something like Kor Firewalker to help out against burn.

One nice thing about this deck is that it's very budget friendly. If you want to play modern, you're going to have to either invest in a mana base or accept that you're playing a sub-optimal deck at some point. Unlike standard staples though, modern lands keep their prices really well over time barring reprints so you're really only facing a holding cost not an investment that will have its value destroyed. If you want to save some tix too, you could replace the Arid Mesa with Bloodstained Mire, they're functionally similar in the deck. Outside of lands, the only Falkenrath Aristocrat and Sorin cost more than 1tix, and not much more at that. And not only is it budget-friendly, it's quite competitive in my experience. I won my first five 2-player queues with it, against a variety of tier and non-tier decks including Grixis control, mono red and Abzan. The deck has a fantastic ability to come from behind thanks to the lifegain and possibility of a combo kill at any point, and can also create some bizarre board stalls. This is how one of my games against a collected company elf deck ended!

The deck's fun, cheap, creates interesting board situations, has a real surprise factor and enough power to mix it with the best decks in modern. For those with fond memories of the aristocrats in standard, I highly recommend that you revisit it in its newest guise.