"You're really trying to avoid snowballs," is the way Brad Nelson described the Mardu Midrange mish-mosh he, Patrick Dickmann, and Valentin Mackl are all playing. Mackl, hailing from Vienna, is currently the highest in the standings with the deck, even though he's the one who knows it the least.
"I just played what [Brad and Patrick] told me too," Mackl said. The deck was constructed between Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir and last Friday. All three players were staying at a house together. Dickmann and Mackl were happy to spend time in LA with Brad and were expecting to have some fun adventures. "But all Brad did was sit on MTGO," Mackl said.
However, Nelson's diligence may have paid off. The deck occupies a slight undercurrent in the metagame that preys on exactly what people expect to see.
"I was afraid that people would have figured out the deck by the end of the tournament, but two rounds ago I totally got my opponent," Mackl said. "He sideboarded completely wrong." This same thing had happened in Round 6, when Fabrizio Anteri thought the deck was something completely different, with Raise the Alarms and Stoke the Flames.
Mostly a modification of Nelson's surprising White-Red Aggro "MAC" from the Pro Tour, the deck has a very clear first game, but isn't scared to sideboard eleven or twelve cards each game to completely transform how it plays.
"When you're on the draw against Abzan, you take out all the Seeker of the Way, the Goblin Rabblemasters, and anything else weak." He continued, "Because you sideboard out at least eight creatures, you can play board sweepers and you don't have to worry. And board sweepers [from the opponents] don't do much. You don't need to fill your board full of [bad cards]."
Mackl was a bit scared of Anger of the Gods in the main deck, but he said that for some reason no one seems to be playing them. "There was even a Top 8 deck from the Pro Tour that had Angers in the main deck, but not here . . . without Anger of the Gods, the Jeskai match is just the nuts."
Much like the Sigrist Abzan Aggro deck, the three-color manabase looks shaky, but Mackl says it plays a lot better than he was expecting it to. "It's weird because you have the Bloodstained Mire that needs to get the Swamp, but also a Mountain for Chained to the Rocks. But it's really been working fine."
Nelson attributes part of that to the play-style of the deck—the anti-snowball snowballer. "You want to make sure they don't end their turn with a threat; and make sure you do. If Abzan gets the turn back with a Siege Rhino, it just snowballs from there. It's bad." Contrastingly, this deck really wants to have a threat in play—any threat (even a 1/1 Goblin token)—then use lower-costed removal while continuing to develop your board. The Chained to the Rocks usually doesn't need to be cast until turn four or five—when you casting it alongside a Butcher of the Horde with a Goblin token or two left over.
And there's the big card combination that hasn't been mentioned yet. Butcher of the Horde and Hordeling Outburst is murder. Stone murder. "Sometimes, if you need it to, [Butcher of the Horde] gets both haste and lifelink, and you still have a Goblin token left," Nelson said. The lifelink on the Butcher and the Seeker of the Way often means the difference in aggressive match-ups. Like the Sorin, Solemn Visitor in the Abzan matches, Mackl's life total can seem precariously low one minute, then skyrocket the next while dealing significant damage at the same time—like a Mirror Universe or Reverse the Sands.
Valentin Mackl is hoping that a good finish today will continue to propel him into the Magic strata. "I've put up two American Grand Prix Top 8s, and two European Top 8s, but it's hard to make a name for yourself without good Pro Tour finishes." He continued, that those haven't quite been his best days. "I finished in the Top 75 so far, that's not too bad."
But either way, Mackl will continue to do the Grand Prix grind. He's flying to Stockholm next week, then he's either heading to Madrid or New Jersey. "I hate you guys for scheduling them on the same weekend; I want to go to both. It's Modern. I love Modern." That's unsurprising considering his close relationship with Modern expert, Patrick Dickmann. Though Mackl started competitive Magic because he's a "lazy [butt] gamer," he's an inveterate traveler and the lifestyle of the wandering mage really grabbed him and is yet to let go.
The Mardu Midrange deck is a deck to watch. It smashes Jeskai all day, and can play whatever role it needs to anywhere else. And Valentin Mackl is a player to watch. If he can pilot this complicated deck without knowing anything about it, imagine him in a format where he knows what he's doing.