Feature Article – Scapeshifting Dark Depths in Extended

The StarCityGames.com $5,000 Standard Open Series Comes to Nashville!
Tuesday, November 3rd – The current Combo Wars fought in the Extended Metagame trenches sees Hexmage Depths taking its well-deserved place at the top of the heap. Scapeshift Combo, the heralded but underplayed Combo contender to the crown, is a lot lower down the list. Can merging the two together be a winning strategy? Richard Feldman investigates…

Like most competitive Constructed Magicians, I watched the results of PT: Austin with a keen eye for how it would impact the subsequent Extended format. From what I have seen, it looks like Zoo will be the deck to beat, followed by combo in the form of Dredge, Hypergenesis, and Dark Depths. Control, for the time being, seems to have exited the spotlight.

Given the success of Zoo at Austin, I was particularly interested when Manuel Bucher wrote about the Scapeshift combo deck that smashed it. However, looking over the top-performing decklists at the tournament, it seemed like a dedicated Scapeshift deck would be too slow for the format’s several successful combo decks, and Manu B’s matchup discussion at the end of his article confirmed this fear.

Then I read PV’s article on Dark Depths and was very impressed. I took the deck out for a spin and was a big fan, until I started testing against Zoo decks boarding Ghost Quarter. Other Zoo lists were manageable, but anything that approached Rubin Zoo’s post-board configuration (with its 4 Ghost Quarters and 3 Meddling Mages and 3 Blood Moon) was a real struggle. Only when I mised the one Pithing Needle – and they did not Pridemage it – did I feel like I was in the driver’s seat, but I almost never had time to tutor for it. (I’m not sure that more copies are the answer either, as they are dead draws when the opponent does not have Quarter, and they do nothing about Meddling Mage.)

Suffice to say, although I was interested in playing Dark Depths, I was highly concerned about the Zoo matchup. How could it be correct to run a deck that struggles against beatdown in an environment where even Pat Chapin is going beatdown?

Then I read Olivier’s take on G/B Dark Depths featuring Into the North, and something clicked. After a week of testing I found myself here.

I can only think of a few combo decks in history that have profitably incorporated two distinct combo kills, but these particular two combos seem to complement each other beautifully.

In non-Zoo matchups, this plays like a Hexmage Depths deck that can instantly kill out of nowhere with 18 points (or 36+ with over seven lands) of Scapeshifty goodness to the dome if the game drags on due to disruption. Against hate cards like Ghost Quarter and Path to Exile, it can absolutely turn on a dime and become a full-on Scapeshift deck instead, Transmuting Shred Memory for Sakura-Tribe Elder and just plowing ahead toward the more resilient kill.

The support cards back up both strategies comparably well, with Dead/Gone killing Meddling Mages and opposing one-drops alike, and Duress and Thoughtseize alternately removing Path to Exiles and slowing down explosive draws that could otherwise overwhelm you before Scapeshift came online.

Although you are a Hexmage deck first in most matchups, against Zoo, you are generally a Scapeshift deck first with a backup “show me a Path or you’re dead” combo playing a supporting role. Zoo has several answers (and sometimes a ton post-board) to the Depths plan, but has a much tougher time killing you before you accelerate out seven lands while you are slowing them down along the way with creature removal, hand destruction, Tribe Elder, and of course the odd 20/20 Flying Indestructible.

Whereas regular Depths players must take pains to play around Path to Exile – defenses they do not always have time to put up – you can just let your 20/20 be another speed bump. If they Path it (after you’ve chumped with Hexmage, of course, to save on damage in case they have the Path), you get to search up a fresh land to replace the one you lost, have saved some life with your block, and are still plowing right ahead towards seven lands for Scapeshift. If they don’t have the Path, you can just win with the 20/20.

Against other decks, particularly Hypergenesis, the Scapeshift kill is laughably slow, but that doesn’t matter. You are only playing two copies. Just play the deck like a regular Hexmage Depths list and go to town with your 20/20.

As for the “mirror,” while U/B Dark Depths decks have more dangerous supporting cards against you (Bob and Vendilion Clique can each win the game on their own when both players are just going back and forth Wastelanding each others’ Dark Depths), resolving Scapeshift will instantly moot an entire game worth of jockeying for resource advantages.

Tuning the Spells

Here is how the maindeck spells break down:

[11 disruption spells]
4 Thoughtseize
4 Dead/Gone
2 Duress
1 Damnation

[8 accelerants]
4 Into the North
4 Sakura-Tribe Elder

[7 tutors]
4 Beseech the Queen
2 Shred Memory
1 Infernal Tutor

[6 combo pieces]
4 Vampire Hexmage
2 Scapeshift

(Technically, I suppose, Into the North pulls double duty as a combo piece as well.)

When I first put a hybrid Depths-Scapeshift list together, I was drastically overfeeding the Scapeshift combo, playing things like Search for Tomorrow, 4 Scapeshift, and at one point even 3 Diabolic Tutor to find more Scapeshifts. While this tended to work out against Zoo, it was too slow in the matchups where I did not want to use Scapeshift as my primary path to victory, and was very prone to clunky draws – not only is Scapeshift extremely weak before the seven-mana mark (if you want to use it to fetch a Depths, you either have to use it at the four-mana mark and then play the Hexmage on the next turn, or else run out the Hexmage on the previous turn and hope he survives), but drawing two Scapeshifts is almost always terrible.

Infernal Tutor solved this problem. I realized its potential when I noticed how often I would build up to the point where the last card is my hand was Beseech, and I would lay my seventh land (it could not be Valakut or Dark Depths, naturally) and tap out to Beseech for and cast Scapeshift for the win in the same turn. As it happens, most often when I am casting Scapeshift against Zoo, it is either the last card in my hand or could have been if I had wanted it to be (by doing things like casting Dead on a Tarmogoyf that will survive it, for example, if I lacked the mana for Gone). Obviously in those cases, Infernal Tutor for Scapeshift is not only perfectly fine, it is actually better because it only costs six mana total; I can execute it on seven lands even if one of them is Dark Depths.

Since I can Transmute Shred Memory for Infernal Tutor, playing the Tutor allows me to effectively have access to nine copies of Scapeshift in my maindeck while only playing two actual copies. (I considered going down to one Scapeshift, but that would have left me unnecessarily vulnerable to Thoughtseize.) The idea is that although drawing two Scapeshifts generally means one of them is an outright blank, drawing Scapeshift and Infernal Tutor is merely suboptimal; the non-Hellbent Tutor is often unwieldy, but almost never actually blank. In practice, it turns out that sometimes a midgame Infernal Tutor is actually nuts instead of suboptimal – fetching a second Sakura-Tribe Elder against Zoo, for example, or another Shred Memory against Dredge, cards I would ordinarily be willing to pay 3 or more mana to duplicate in those matchups.

Some relevant counts (I am counting Infernal Tutor in each of these categories because of its Hellbent ability):

• 16 cards that are either Dark Depths or can tutor one up (13 can get it out by turn 4)
• 11 cards that are either Vampire Hexmage or can tutor one up
• 9 cards that are either Scapeshift or can tutor one up
• 10 Mountains in the deck, powering up Scapeshift alongside 2 Valakut
• 43 cards that are either an additional land or can tutor one up

And now for the cards that did not make the cut. First, the removal spells I am not playing. Between Red, Green, and Black, I have a few options for one-cost removal spells:

Wretched Banquet
Lightning Bolt
Burst Lightning

So why Dead/Gone?

Wretched Banquet has a lot going for it. Except against Affinity, you will usually trade for the opponent’s best turn 1 creature. (Ornithopter provides an obnoxious shield for Frogmite and Arcbound Worker, just as Arcbound Worker does for Frogmite.) However, Banquet is awful for removing Narcomoebas and Stinkweed Imps, which are important creatures to swat out of the way of your 20/20 in the Dredge matchup. It also does not even slow down a Tarmogoyf or Knight of the Reliquary, unless the creature in question is the only one the opponent has in play, and it almost never is unless the board has just been cleared with Damnation and the opponent was only able to follow up with one creature. As I am only playing one Damnation and do not often tutor for it against Zoo, this did not come up enough to justify playing Banquet.

What does Lightning Bolt kill that Dead (or Burst Lightning) does not? Things with exactly three toughness, naturally: Kird Ape, turn 2 Wild Nacatl (or later; turn 1 it is a 2/2 and two damage kills it just fine), and really tiny Tarmogoyfs. That’s about it; the rest of the format’s most noteworthy creatures have either one toughness, two toughness, or more than three toughness. Burst Lightning can kill certain mid-sized fatties (Goyf is probably out of the question once you have five mana, but Knight of the Reliquary and Myr Enforcer are not), but it is prohibitively expensive to do so.

Meanwhile, Gone bounces fatties of all shapes and sizes, including those post-Damnation Goyfs and Knights (and bouncing them often buys you the turn you needed to complete your combo), as well as outright killing an opposing 20/20 Marit Lage token. Gone has been absolutely amazing for me, and having access to it has definitely been worth the shortcomings of Dead in comparison to Lightning Bolt, Burst Lightning and Wretched Banquet. Overall I generally cast Gone about once for every four times I cast Dead, but when I do, it is a game-winner more often than not.

Besides these removal spells, I also experimented with various slow-but-powerful utility spells. The most exciting were Primal Command (gain seven, fetch Elder or Hexmage), Reap and Sow (with Entwine, targeting the opponent’s Dark Depths, or so went the dream), Hunting Wilds (you are dead to Scapeshift next turn, go), and Profane Command (give my 20/20 fear to get past your Narcomoebas while giving your Stinkweed Imp -2/-2, or bring back Elder and kill your Meddling Mage), but as tempting as they were, they all proved too slow for various matchups in practice.

Finally there was Malfegor. As an anti-Hypergenesis card, he has his pros and cons compared to Chalice of the Void. On the pro side, he is also a zero-mana defensive measure, but he is immune to Ingot Chewer. On the con side, there are many situations where he comes up short as a hoser. The worst is if they have end step Violent Outburst into Hypergenesis into Venser, which puts Malfegor into your hand before his ability resolves (since it is still your turn, your triggered abilities will go on the stack first), clearing out your entire hand and leaving you without a 6/6. But even if that nightmare scenario does not happen, Malfegor can be easily defeated by a second Hypergenesis, whereas Chalice will hold off any number of them.

Tuning the Mana

The color balance is very tight here. I started off playing 4 Dark Depths main alongside some Urborgs, but found the mana was just too unreliable. With that configuration I was not playing enough Green sources, and any hand without a Green source is basically an auto-mulligan with this deck. Another problem was that whenever I would draw Urborg against another Depths Deck, it was just a free Wasteland for them that would keep me from reaching lethal Scapeshift – and of course they didn’t really need the extra land.

I replaced Urborg with Twilight Mire to allow me to maindeck more Green sources while still smoothing out some of those Stomping Ground plus Beseech the Queen hands. Without Urborg, the fastest I could goldfish out the combo would be turn 3 (the rare draw of Urborg plus Depths plus Hexmage allows for a turn 2 20/20), and since at that point Into the North gives me an additional four ways to get Dark Depths onto the table turn 3, I felt comfortable moving a Dark Depths to the sideboard. This proved to be solid, as another problem I had been having was drawing multiple copies of the Legendary Depths in matchups where I was going for the Scapeshift kill.

As to the mix of Overgrown Tomb, Llanowar Wastes, Twilight Mire, and Verdant Catacombs, I started with 4 Twilight Mire but had to trim back because they were leading to too many mulligans. Double Mire, or Mire plus Valakut, for example, are mulligans even with color fixers like Elder or Into the North also present in the hand. However, I do want to run some of them because not only are they pain-free lands that enter the battlefield untapped, they are also excellent at converting hands like Forest, Swamp, Twilight Mire into draws that can Beseech on turn 3.

I am not thrilled with how much life it takes to play Verdant Catacombs (especially considering how often I just have to turn it into Overgrown Tomb), but I really wanted more ways to hit R on turn 1 to cast Dead/Gone, plus some extra protection against Blood Moon, so I grudgingly decided to play three – not so many that I would frequently be drawing two, but enough that I could expect to see one in plenty of games.

In a deck that is already playing 8 lands that make me choose between entering the battlefield tapped and dealing me damage, I generally prefer Llanowar Wastes to Overgrown Tomb, but I needed to play at least one Tomb so that I could fetch it out with Catacombs. By process of elimination, the remaining 3 of my 28 lands are Llanowar Wastes, which is fine by me because they can be painful in multiples.

I have tried going below 10 Mountains, but it has always burned me; there are all these really tiny corner cases that keep coming up and deciding games. The most important is the one where the opponent Ghost Quarters me with six Valakut triggers on the stack; if I can’t go get a Basic Mountain to keep my count at 6 when the triggers resolve, I am dead in the water. Then there is the case where I have drawn four Mountains and just cannot win unless I have six left in my deck or can get to eight lands for double Valakut. The final case is where Zoo is above 18 life and I have to Scapeshift twice to win, first on seven lands to clear Zoo’s board and dome them a little bit, then next turn play my eighth land and Scapeshift again to bring in the second Valakut and two or three new Mountains to finish the job. In those cases, every Mountain is absolutely critical.

Some relevant counts on the manabase:

• 25 lands that tap for mana, plus three Dark Depths that only produce mana when the opponent plays Urborg or Blood Moon
• 15 ways to get green mana on turn 2, and 13 ways to get it turn 1
• 15 ways to get black mana on turn 2, and 13 ways to get it turn 1
• 15 ways to get red mana on turn 2, and 13 ways to get it turn 1

Playing the Deck

First, an important note on mulligans. Let me clear my throat here.


Do Not.

Do Not.

Do Not.

Do Not.

Do Not Keep Hands That Cannot Make Green Mana.

I really don’t know if I can emphasize that enough. I know there are many tempting hands out there, but they are traps, believe me. I am not big on hard-and-fast rules, but in game after game with this deck I have said to myself, “This is the one. This is the exception to the rule. This is the time when I can keep a hand without Green Mana and win with it.” And then, without fail, as though I were on a TV show, I ended up muttering and cursing as I packed in my cards a few turns later due to a lack of Green Mana. Every single time.

Vampire, Depths, and two Black sources? Surely I won’t need to play any other spells this game. How about Valakut, Twilight Mire, Depths, and Vampire? Surely I will topdeck a Black or Green source. Oh, I lost because I topdecked it a turn too late? What a surprise.

There are many decks out there that can afford to forgo action in the first couple of turns while waiting to topdeck the right land. This is not one of those decks. This is not even close to one of those decks. If you don’t cast a spell on turns 1 or 2, then basically the only way you have a shot at winning is if your turn 3 is exactly: “play Vampire Hexmage, play Dark Depths, go.” Even in those cases, if you have no Green sources, you are hoping against hope that the opponent just folds as soon as you take your third turn, and very often he will not.

It took me awhile to get used to playing Infernal Tutor, but eventually I realized I was often overthinking it. When you are planning for a Scapeshift endgame, usually it is correct to just pretend Infernal Tutor is Scapeshift until such time as you actually draw a real one. Remember, Infernal Tutor was originally Scapeshift number three, and the main reason I swapped it out for an Infernal Tutor (besides wanting a way to Shred up a Scapeshift) was that drawing two Scapeshifts was so awful.

So by all means, whenever you draw Internal Tutor and Scapeshift, throw down the Tutor and duplicate something. Get creative. Figure out a way for the quirky Fork-esque card to help you win the game. (Or, if you are not feeling creative, make the embarrassingly common play of cashing it in for an extra Beseech the Queen when you have a spare two mana.) If worst comes to worst and you cannot think of anything productive to do with it, then it was at least no worse than another dead Scapeshift would have been.

But when you do draw the Tutor and not the Scapeshift, remember that first and foremost Infernal Tutor’s job is to be Scapeshift, and it should only be used in its non-Hellbent mode when (A) you have another Scapeshift already in hand, (B) you are absolutely sure you do not want to head for a Scapeshift endgame, or, as always, when (C) you will die if you do not cast it early.

Finally, a miscellaneous piece of advice on playing the deck: if you are casting an early Into the North while planning to go for the Scapeshift kill, don’t just grab Dark Depths for no reason. Having all your lands produce mana is often relevant (for example, for Beseeching for and casting Scapeshift the second you drop your seventh land), and if you topdeck a second copy of the Legendary Land later and end up one land short of Scapeshifting you will have committed suicide unnecessarily. (That said, if you are planning to go off with Hexmage, then by all means do grab a Depths; worst comes to worst, they will Path or Ghost Quarter you and you’ll end up with a basic from that Into the North anyway.)

Next up we have the deck’s matchups. I am very pleased with how these turned out. Molten Depths doesn’t beat everything, but it has no auto-losses and is strong against Rubin Zoo, which I expect to be the Deck to Beat. The sideboard has worked out very well, as few decks measurably improve their win rates against me post-board and several opponents’ chances of victory drop precipitously.

Versus Zoo

Before I say anything else about this matchup, allow me to impart a critical piece of advice for this matchup: do not play your Thoughtseizes and Duresses preemptively. The absolute best time to play them is the turn you are going to be busting out Marit Lage, as nuking the opponent’s only Path right before presenting the 20/20 gives him only one turn to topdeck another, whereas finding no Path in their opening hand allows them several turns to topdeck one. It’s a simple thing to remember, so do not let games go un-stolen by Marit Lage simply because of a reflexive turn 1 Duress.

That said, you should not do this if it will slow down the Hexmage combo – if you have the combo on turn 3, unless you think you will survive if you wait for that fourth land drop, then by all means, play the Duress or Thoughtseize on turn 1 and just go off turn 3.

How well you do against a given Zoo deck depends on a few specific cards. The more of the following they are playing, the worse the matchup will be for you.

• Blood Moon
• Molten Rain
• Gaddock Teeg
• Ghost Quarter
• Path to Exile
• Spectral Procession
• Meddling Mage
• Steppe Lynx

Those are listed in decreasing order of goodness against you. The last three are all good if they stick, but are lower in the threat rankings because they are so much easier to answer than something like Molten Rain or Ghost Quarter. Also, a nice feature of the builds that run Spectral Procession is that they often have to fetch Sacred Foundry for their turn 1 Kird Apes, leaving them uncommonly vulnerable to Dead.

Taking a gander at this list, you may note that in game one, Rubin Zoo has only Path to Exile and a singleton Ghost Quarter with which to fight you. They don’t even have Steppe Lynx. As such, game one against Rubin Zoo is more or less a joke. Game two, on the other hand, they pile on the hate with Blood Moon, Ghost Quarter, and Meddling Mage, all of which make the Scary List. Thus the post-board matchup is closer to even, but you are still a slight favorite, and easily the favorite to take the match.

In general, all you really want to do against Zoo is chump block and make land drops on the way to Scapeshift. As such, the two most common things I Beseech or Transmute for against Zoo – by a huge margin – are Scapeshift and Sakura Tribe-Elder. I suppose Damnation is a distant third, and in cases of extreme desperation I have been known to pull up a Vampire Hexmage, but I am not at all exaggerating when I say that if you are not almost always tutoring for either Scapeshift or Sakura-Tribe Elder, there is a very good chance that you are approaching this matchup all wrong.

Since the purpose of chump blocking is to preserve your life total, you need to put some thought into when to do it. For example, I will almost never chump a two-power attacker with Sakura-Tribe Elder unless I know I need the land next turn. If all I am doing is Transmuting on my third turn, and I have the third land drop in my hand, then Elder is probably better saved for a Tarmogoyf block down the line. To think of it another way, if worst comes to worst, the opponent will Bolt or Helix your guy to get him out of the way, at which point he saved 3 damage; you should measure every chump block with that standard of damage in mind. Also remember that spare Hexmages make perfectly reasonable chump blockers on the way to Scapeshift.

A common dilemma that comes up in this matchup is when to sacrifice your Hexmage targeting Dark Depths. If you chump on their turn, you get to save on damage even if they have Path for your token. However, if you do this and they topdeck Ghost Quarter, you will have lost out on your token when you could have kept it had you just created it on your own turn or on their upkeep. Since you can expect the average Zoo build to play more Paths than Ghost Quarters, you will almost always want to run the Hexmage Chump option.

However, there are a couple of situations in which you would want to make the token preemptively. One is the case where, if the opponent has Path for the token, you are undoubtedly going to lose. If that is the case, then you have to assume he does not have Path, and therefore might as well play around a topdecked Ghost Quarter by making the token before the opponent’s next main phase. Another situation is where you would rather take damage than have a land be tapped next turn (if the token is not involved in combat until your attack step, generally they will Path the token on your turn so that your free land is tapped during your second main phase), in which case if you present the opponent with the chance to Path your token before you declare blocks on his attackers – thus allowing him to get through for more – he will probably take it. The final case is where you actually need to race with your token (e.g. because the opponent has Spectral Procession), and you will need to block and kill something bigger than a 2/2 in order to win the race.

Sideboarding versus Rubin Zoo, Spectral Zoo, and Meddling Zoo:

-2 Duress
-2 Vampire Hexmage
+2 Yavimaya Dryad
+1 Crime/Punishment
+1 Pyroclasm

It probably seems counterintuitive to drop Duress when scary things like Blood Moon are coming in, but Duress’s primary role in game 1 (unless a given opponent has Molten Rain in hand) is to clear out Paths so your 20/20 can steal a win. Post-board they are much more likely to have the Duress-proof Ghost Quarter to foil your Hexmage draws, meaning the value of both Duress and of the Hexmage itself drops dramatically.

Because of Blood Moon, one of the most important things you can do in the post-board matchup is to get a Basic Forest in play. Elder for it, Into the North for it, Dryad for it, crack a Catacombs for it, whatever you need to do. Beating Blood Moon is very doable if you have a Forest, but practically impossible if you do not; when I have had a Forest in play or topdecked one within a turn or two of Blood Moon hitting, I have beaten it most of the time. I have only beaten it once when I did not have a Forest in play within a turn or two of the Moon landing, and that game I won specifically because I fetched out a Swamp while holding two copies of Beseech the Queen, which I then cast for 4B each.

As soon as you have a Forest, your next goal is to get out the two Basic Swamps. Again, use Elders, Into the North, whatever you have to – even paying 4B or 6 colorless for Beseech the Queen if need be. Once you can produce RGBB (and the R should be no problem when Blood Moon is in play), you can cast every useful spell in the deck except for Dryad and Scapeshift, which will be deactivated as a kill mechanism because of Blood Moon anyway – and besides, once you do blow up the Moon, you will definitely have enough green producers back online to Scapeshift. That said, remember that Scapeshift can be a reasonable way to get out from under a Blood Moon; if you have a Forest and are casting Elder or Into the North, you can go get a second Forest to bring Scapeshift online and then Scapeshift two of your deactivated nonbasics into Swamps, thus eliminating the need to find another tutor for a second black source.

Two final notes on Blood Moon. First, remember that Dark Depths taps for R while it is in play, so while you are tapping five to Punishment any Moons away (with four left untapped for Scapeshift, I should hope), make sure to tap Dark Depths to help pay for it if you have one. Second, remember that when the Moon is out, unless the opponent already has a Basic Forest and Plains, you should generally be casting Dead or Pyroclasm on Noble Hierarch at the earliest possible opportunity. Turning off a large portion of the opponent’s deck will slow him down more than anything else, and you need all the time you can get to dig your way out of the hole.

I originally had Kitchen Finks in the slot currently occupied by Yavimaya Dryad, but realized that every time I cast Finks, all I was hoping to do was buy myself some extra turns to topdeck a land or – ideally – an land accelerant like Sakura-Tribe Elder. Dryad basically functions as Elders number five and six, accelerating out a land and chumping one of the opponent’s attackers, which is something I want to be doing like crazy in this matchup. I had considered playing Wood Elves instead because they are easier to cast (particularly under Blood Moon), but Dryad’s extra point of power is occasionally relevant against Meddling Mages and Qasali Pridemages (when not attacking alone), and this extra damage prevention means I am sticking with her for now.

Similarly, I originally had Terminate in the slot now occupied by Pyroclasm, primarily as a tutorable answer to Meddling Mage or (via Shred Memory only) Gaddock Teeg. I changed it to Pyroclasm out of respect for Spectral Procession, Bitterblossom tokens from U/B Dark Depths (against which I would be boarding in either Terminate or Pyroclasm), and the ability to get cheap two-for-ones against stuff like Meddling Mage, Spectral Lynx, and Qasali Pridemage. I reasoned that if the opponent had one big guy that worried me I would almost always just tutor up an Elder to chump it for a turn and give me a land, and if I actually wanted a removal spell it was almost certainly to kill a 2/2 that was hosing me (Teeg or Meddling Mage), so I might as well try and knock off some extra creatures while I was at it.

Now the reason I listed the boarding plan for Rubin Zoo (Brian Kibler list), Spectral Zoo (Tsuyoshi Ikeda’s list), and Meddling Zoo (Willy Edel’s list) individually was that there is another Zoo list that did well at Austin, and against this deck your boarding plan is basically the exact opposite of how you handle the other Zoo decks.

Sideboarding versus Hunter Burton-style Molten Rain Zoo:

-2 Scapeshift
-1 Damnation
-1 Infernal Tutor
-1 Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle
+2 Duress
+1 Pyroclasm
+1 Chalice of the Void
+1 Dark Depths

Hunter Burton had Molten Rain in his maindeck and Gaddock Teeg in his board. These two cards, combined with the absence of Ghost Quarter and Meddling Mage, completely alter the dynamic of the matchup. For one thing, they make it much worse; this is the closest Zoo ever gets to a coinflip against you, and until I got a lot of games under my belt, I was losing to this quite often.

Whereas the other Zoo lists are best at fighting the Hexmage Depths plan, this deck is extremely good at fighting the Scapeshift plan. While other decks’ Meddling Mages can certainly name Scapeshift, you can always just Beseech for Damnation to get rid of the Mage and his burly Goyf/Knight compatriots. Gaddock Teeg, on the other hand, stops Scapeshift, Damnation, and Beseech the Queen all at once, meaning if you want to deal with him you commonly have to do something as heinously slow as spending five mana turning a Shred Memory into Pyroclasm just to take out the opponent’s lone 2/2. Other times your only way to find a removal spell is the “six”-cost Beseech the Queen and not Shred Memory, and you are simply out of luck.

Fortunately, unlike the other Zoo decks, this deck’s only answers to the Hexmage Depths combo are named Path to Exile, and those are eminently Duressable. Hence the counterintuitive post-board plan of going all-in on the Hexmage combo – it’s only about a coinflip, but it’s far better than the alternative. (If someone were to add Ghost Quarters and/or Blood Moons to this Zoo build, the result would probably be crushing for Molten Depths.)

In this matchup, the opponent hits so quickly and disrupts so many of my expensive cards, I eventually figured out that I just needed to take them all out. Every time I died I would find myself holding a Damnation or a Scapeshift or an Infernal Tutor, and every time I won it was because I successfully executed the Hexmage Depths combo. As strange as it seemed, even cutting a mana producer against a Molten Rain deck (24 mana producers plus 4 Elder and 4 Into the North is plenty, and Valakut is godawful when you have cut Scapeshift) proved the most effective way to fight this thing post-board.

Now to a certain degree this is absolutely a dangerous sideboard plan. If the opponent is not following Hunter Burton’s script, and is playing Molten Rain and Blood Moon, then not having access to Crime/Punishment is big trouble. (On the other hand, Punishment is just as blank as Damnation against Gaddock Teeg, but is a serious downgrade when Teeg is not present.) Likewise, if the opponent turns out to have Ghost Quarter, going all-in on the Hexmage Depths plan will be very rough. However, these post-board games are almost all white-knucklers; the philosophy that “oh, well if I just draw my one Scapeshift and it’s dead, that will be no big deal” does not apply. One dead card will often kill you in this matchup, whereas you might actually be able to combo twice to beat a Ghost Quarter. And of course, you can always change up your plan for game three if you see any surprises in game two.

Versus Hypergenesis:

You would be surprised how often a 20/20 Indestructible is just better than a Hypergenesis opponent dumping his entire hand onto the table. To be more precise, this is true most of the time – at least with Hypergenesis’s default suite of fatties. Pre-board they need either (A) end step Violent Outburst out two Bogardan Hellkites plus a third fatty, or (B) main phase vomit out 20 damage worth of power and/or Hellkite attacks, plus a flying chumper without whom you can still deal the 20 damage. Otherwise you just shrug and attack once or twice and they’re dead before you are. Post-board they have Venser – which, fortunately, they cannot profitably drop into play via Hypergenesis, but which does stop the 20/20 after Hyper forces your hand.

A great feature of this matchup is that you don’t actually have to pay for your combo, you just have to have Hexmage and Depths either in your hand or on the table. This means you should pretty much always cast Into the North for Depths on turn two, unless you have some very specific reason not to; if the opponent fears that you may have Hexmage in hand, he may pause to cast Thirst for Knowledge or something to try and fill up on enough creatures to beat the 20/20, which will buy you more time to actually find a Hexmage.

Because of the above facts, game one is very good for you – if you are careful. There are a couple of things you have to watch out for, or else Hypergenesis will steal the win from you.

One of the most important things to remember is that you should crack your Elders and Hexmages on your turn; do not give the opponent a free target for Demonic Dread. Make him find that Forbidden Orchard or hardcast a Simian Spirit Guide – and on that note, remember to kill hardcast SSGs on sight; Gone will only save you against a very few specific Hypergenesis dumps, but casting it as Dead to stave off a Hypergenesis altogether is obviously fantastic.

Remember that the Cascade spells do more than just Cascade. Demonic Dread says “target creature can’t block this turn,” so do not make your 20/20 until you are in the opponent’s attack step and it is too late for him to cast that particular Sorcery pre-combat. Likewise, when calculating whether you should swing with the 20/20 and race or leave it home to block, make sure to account for potential damage bonuses from Violent Outburst and Ardent Plea.

Another important trick to watch out for is Violent Outburst into Angel of Despair in response to your Hexmage ability targeting Dark Depths. Do not walk into this. Remember, the opponent (realistically) has to play Hypergenesis in order to beat you, and as soon as he does that you can go off to your heart’s content. Until then, you don’t have to blink. Don’t even play your Hexmage if you fear Outburst into Angel, just sit back and build up lands for a lethal Scapeshift. As soon as the opponent casts Hypergenesis you will have your 20/20 on the table regardless.

When you are deciding which lands to play or fetch in this matchup, always be thinking: what if the opponent drops a Sundering Titan into play next turn? Generally speaking, there is not much to plan ahead for if the opponent does not have Sundering Titan; you do want to make sure you have both of the Hexmage Depths combo pieces in hand if possible, but otherwise you can’t do much to anticipate the flood of creatures except to hope you can handle them.

Sundering Titan, though, you can and should play around. Consider which lands you have in your hand and which you need to be in play, and what spells you will want to cast if a Titan comes knocking. In particular you want to make sure you can cast Damnation or Gone the turn after the big guys come in, which in some cases means deliberately holding back on land drops, or fetching a second Swamp even though you would normally grab a second green source to go with your Llanowar Wastes before seeking a third Black source. Above all, do not play unnecessary lands off Hypergenesis that will die to Titan unless you like the idea of how the board will look even if a Titan lands on it.

There is usually not much you can do to play around Double Titan, or Titan plus Angel of Despair (blowing up Titan), but whenever there’s essentially no downside to playing around such occurrences, you might as well keep them in mind.

Sideboarding versus Hypergenesis:

+2 Duress
+1 Chalice of the Void
+1 Dark Depths
+1 Thought Hemorrhage
-4 Dead/Gone
-1 Damnation

If they don’t have Ghost Quarter, the post-board matchup is about even. You have Duress and Chalice, both of which are excellent, but Venser is fantastic against you; it is a Duress-Proof version of Path to Exile. Your only answer is Thoughtseize, and they almost always have the requisite 4 mana in time to answer the token.

If they have Ghost Quarter, though, the post-board games get very tough. (The only tougher post-board matchup I can imagine for this deck is a Molten Rain Zoo list with Ghost Quarters.) Most of your wins come from having one copy of the Hexmage plus Depths combo, and Ghost Quarter is absolutely devastating against that – they can even play it off Hypergenesis.

In fact, Ghost Quarter is the reason I am playing a Thought Hemorrhage instead of just 2 Chalices. I developed this plan when I realized that the problem with Ghost Quarter was not that it trumped me, but rather that it slowed me down. I had Duress and Thoughtseize and Chalice to slow the opponent down as well (Chalice is just a roadblock; they will bounce it or blow it up sooner or later), but if they had a Quarter, I could not just go off and put them away before they could topdeck another Cascade spell.

Enter Thought Hemorrhage. The idea was that once I had disrupted their early game, my midgame plan would become finding Thought Hemorrhage (I play “five” between the Hem itself and Beseech) and resolving it to remove all their copies of Hypergenesis. This would not end the game, as they play stuff like Fungal Reaches and Calciform Pools so that they can eventually hardcast fatties in a long game, but it would buy me enough time to either combo out twice around GQ, or hopefully just to find Scapeshift and kill them.

I was initially leaving in Damnation and boarding out Infernal Tutor, but considering how often I spent a tutor on Thought Hemorrhage and then needed to topdeck a Scapeshift to win, I decided it would be better to improve my ability to finish than to include a Damnation which might, at best, mise me a random win here and there if the opponent was sloppy and/or unlucky.

Also, I originally had Cranial Extraction in the Hemorrhage slot, figuring the damage would not matter and I might as well choose the one that was easier to cast. However, considering the opposing deck never deals itself damage, a hit with Hemorrhage means I can Scapeshift them out with only seven lands instead of needing eight.

Versus U/B Dark Depths:

I expected I would have the advantage in this matchup – after all, I have Scapeshift for the long games and they do not – but it turned out my prediction was wrong.

In practice, my inevitability is counterbalanced by two things: one, Muddle the Mixture can counter a topdecked Scapeshift, and two, U/B has a number of ways to steal victories that I do not have. Sometimes U/B will just stick a Confidant and it will bury me. Sometimes they will have Depths-Urborg-Hexmage on the play and I won’t have my own actual Depths, so I won’t have time to cast Into the North or Gone before I am dead. Sometimes I won’t have a removal spell for a random Vendilion Clique and it will go the distance before I can find Scapeshift or a removal spell. All these little corner case scenarios end up winning U/B about as many games as Scapeshift wins me, so despite the drastically different builds, the matchup ends up being about a coinflip both maindeck and post-board if both players know what they are doing.

There is some solace in the fact that both players do need to know what they are doing for this to be a coinflip, so if the opponent has not practiced and you have, he may just punt the match due to a rookie mistake.

There are two ways you can go about playing a game in this matchup. The default strategy is to aggressively attack the opponent’s Dark Depths by busting out Dark Depths of your own, making plays like turn-two Into the North for Dark Depths even when you are holding another Dark Depths already. Maintaining Dark Depths advantage makes it so that the opponent cannot go off without Ghost Quarter (which he can activate on end step, untap, and play his own Depths and Hexmage), but deliberately expending lands to kill the opponent’s lands makes it harder to reach a lethal Scapeshift.

The other strategy is just to go full speed ahead for Scapeshift. To do this, you need some sort of signal that this is the correct option, the most common being when you Duress or Thoughtseize the opponent and see something like a Dark Depths and two Tolaria Wests. In that situation, there is just no money in trying to keep the opponent from having access to Dark Depths, so you might as well just go for broke with Scapeshift and just start Into the Northing out basics. Other times you are holding two Dead/Gones and know the opponent must draw a Hexmage and two spells with which to protect it in order to beat your Scapeshift plan, and so the smart bet is to pursue Scapeshift rather than hanging around waiting for the opponent to actually draw the Hexmage and the requisite defensive spells.

By the way, remember that it’s fine to Scapeshift them for a sub-lethal 18 if you are pretty confident it will resolve; any further Mountain you draw will finish them off, and Into the North and Sakura-Tribe Elder will be potentially lethal as well. Better to resolve it while you have the chance, as a topdecked Muddle, Clique, or Thoughtseize will close that window. Also, if you don’t need the mana, try to get in a couple of Sakura-Tribe Elder beats early on to get them to 18 if they have not Thoughtseized you or taken any hits from Confidant.

Sideboarding versus U/B Dark Depths:

+2 Duress
+1 Crime/Punishment
+1 Dark Depths
+1 Thought Hemorrhage
+1 Pyroclasm
-4 Sakura-Tribe Elder
-2 Vampire Hexmage

The reason for the extra Duresses and Depths should be self-evident here. The miser’s Thought Hemorrhage is just a way to kneecap the opponent; if you know the opponent’s hand and are Scapeshifting soon, you can name Muddle the Mixture to clear the path, or just use it as a Cabal Therapy-type effect to strip out multiple copies of some card you saw in their hand with an earlier discard spell. Obviously you can also just name Vampire Hexmage and make the opponent kill you with beatdown, but you would be surprised how often that is doable for them; between Bitterblossom, Confidant, Vendillion Clique, and the one Meloku, they are certainly capable of it, so by naming Hexmage all you may be doing is changing which threats they choose to Beseech for.

As for the Crime/Punishment and Pyroclasm, basically I want to minimize the number of games I lose to random Dark Confidants, Bitterblossoms, and Vendilion Cliques. Particularly when the opponent has Bitterblossom on turn two, your life total is very relevant in these post-board games, and it pays to have ways to protect it.

I take out the Elders here because with them in you just do not have enough business spells for the post-board matchup. The opponent will have taken out his Chalices and Engineered Explosives and such for things like Bitterblossom and Meloku, so you cannot afford hands that are heavy on lands and land-fetchers and not much else. I also take out a couple Hexmages here because post-board I am most often going on the Scapeshift plan, and drawing multiple Hexmages is pretty awful.

Versus Dredge:

If undisrupted, their kill is faster than yours; fortunately, you have far more ways to disrupt their kill than they do yours.

Often the game 1 matchup comes down to whether you drew Shred Memory, Thoughtseize, Duress, or Dead/Gone. Sometimes they have a weaker hand (or mill 3-4 bridges right away) and even just a Sakura-Tribe Elder or a Vampire Hexmage to nuke their Bridges is enough of a road block to propel you to victory, but usually it takes one of those four disruption cards to win.

The big thing to watch out for here is Stinkweed Imp. While Narcomoeba can get in the way of your 20/20 for a turn, Stinkweed Imp can keep that trick going until the opponent runs out of cards in his library. Keep this in mind when deciding whether to pursue the Scapeshift combo or the Dark Depths combo, and also when deciding whether to attack with your 20/20.

Don’t forget that Vampire Hexmage can blow up Bridge from Below and a hardcast Golgari Grave-Troll (which is made of +1/+1 counters). Also, don’t forget to never Transmute your Shred Memories for anything unless doing so will absolutely win you the game; hardcasting Shred is almost always correct here.

Sideboarding versus Dredge:

+2 Tormod’s Crypt
+1 Thought Hemorrhage
+1 Pyroclasm
-2 Duress
-1 Scapeshift
-1 Damnation

As against Hypergenesis, Scapeshift is usually too slow of a kill, but having access to it is even more important here because it gets around those pesky flying blockers that can allow Dredge to actually race the 20/20.

Echoing Truth and Thoughtseize are why I am going with Crypts here. The opponent is almost certainly going to have Thoughtseize for Shred Memory, so boarding Ravenous Trap would just be asking for trouble. Leyline of the Void dodges Thoughtseize but is vulnerable to Echoing Truth, and chances are good the opponent is going to have E. Truth for my Marit Lage token anyway. Yixlid Jailer has the dubious honor of being vulnerable to both, while Tormod’s Crypt is only vulnerable to Thougthtseize when I am on the draw, and is otherwise the best of the answers both because it is the best topdeck, and also because I can Beseech for it and play it the same turn even if I am tapped out.

I went back and forth on what the best combination of Damnation, Pyroclasm, and Crime/Punishment was to leave in the deck post-board. Pyroclasm and Damnation are virtually identical in this matchup, as both cards serve as either emergency reset buttons or ways to clear blockers out of the way of a Marit Lage token. The only thing Damnation kills that Pyroclasm will not is a reanimated fatty of some sort – and if need be, I have Dead/Gone (and Hexmage in the case of Grave-Troll) to deal with those. Pyro has the advantage of being usable on turn two to kill a Crab or Rusalka or two before they can get out of hand, and is also more easily fetched than the others (if I really really need to, I can Transmute a Shred for it, plus it is cheaper to play on the turn in which I search it up). It does not share Crime’s limitation of only blowing up Zombie Tokens, Narcomoebas, or Stinkweed Imps (but not all three at once), so all in all it seemed like the best choice.

That said, if I saw Pithing Needles for my Tormod’s Crypts, I would probably cut the Pyroclasm for a Crime/Punishment.

Versus Affinity:

Among the decks covered here, this is the deck’s toughest game 1 matchup. They have a much faster clock than any of the other beatdown decks, and sport zero-mana flying chumpers to impede the 20/20 token. Unfortunately I don’t have much advice on how to navigate the game one minefield other than to remember that Duress is critical even though they won’t have Path in game one, because it can nab game-breakers like Cranial Plating, Soul’s Fire, Rite of Consumption, and so on.

The good news is that Ancient Grudge is as much of a house against them as it ever has been.

Sideboarding versus Affinity:

+4 Ancient Grudge
+1 Crime/Punishment
+1 Pyroclasm
-4 Dead/Gone
-2 Duress

Post-board you have a lot of effective Ancient Grudges. Four real ones, plus four Beseech and two Shred Memory. The critical thing to remember here is that Ancient Grudge numbers 5-10 cost an additional three mana to find, so you can’t keep a hand just because it has a Shred and a Beseech in it. You need some form of early disruption – granted, even an Elder or two can be enough if you’re on the play, but watch out for Delay – to get you through to the point where you can start searching up Grudges.

Absolutely, by all means do blow up the opponent’s lands if you are on the play – particularly ones that produce blue or white. You are not playing control here – you are just trying to hang on long enough to get to seven lands or a 20/20. If blowing up an opposing land will essentially Time Walk the opponent (give or take a Frogmite and/or Arcbound Worker), absolutely go for it. Crime/Punishment, which is normally fairly slow to kill Ravagers and Platings and such, can be amazingly clutch when you use it to nuke all the opponent’s lands.


I think this deck should be a strong choice for the upcoming metagame. It is a fast combo with an alternate, slower kill condition that is immune to most forms of hate (Blood Moon, Gaddock Teeg, and Meddling Mage are about the only things that hurt it). It seems to be considerably better against Zoo than a regular U/B Depths build, and while it does not have a leg up in the “mirror,” it does offer the opponent a whole new set of opportunities to misplay if he has only practiced the actual U/B mirror.

Hope you enjoy it!

Richard Feldman
Team :S
[email protected]