Flow of Ideas – Building a Better Scapeshift

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Thursday, January 7th – Scapeshift is a deck surrounded by an unusual level of mystique. As a mythical “one card-combo” in the vein of Tooth and Nail and Enduring Ideal, people immediately began to work on the deck as soon as Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle was previewed. Many were uncertain if Scapeshift was any more than just another tadpole in a lake of gimmicky Extended decks…

Scapeshift is a deck surrounded by an unusual level of mystique. As a mythical “one card-combo” in the vein of Tooth and Nail and Enduring Ideal, people immediately began to work on the deck as soon as Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle was previewed. Many were uncertain if Scapeshift was any more than just another tadpole in a lake of gimmicky Extended decks. And so, they waited for time to tell.

Time has spoken. Scapeshift is the real deal.

Now commonplace on Magic Online and at a PTQ near you, Scapeshift is a deck everyone is scrambling to build. Unlike a deck like Zoo, which has been carefully crafted over the course of multiple Extended seasons, Scapeshift is new on the scene and everybody has their own take on it. Last weekend’s PTQ felt like (a miniature) Pro Tour: Berlin all over again. At least 30% of the field had their own Scapeshift list, with their own tweaks and technology that they swore by. Fortunately, we knew it was going to be extraordinarily popular and playtested the mirror to craft a plan — but let me back up a little and explain just how this began.

It all started at our last Zendikar Sealed PTQ a few weeks ago. Four separate players from four different testing groups came up to me and said something akin to, “don’t tell anybody, but I’m pretty sure Scapeshift is the absolute best deck.”

It was then I knew something was up.

Like a Joraga Bard being recruited to a party of allies, I joined the Seattle group of Alex West, Dan Hanson, Mike Gurney, and Ben Konrady. They had been testing for weeks and had decided that Scapeshift was their clear front runner, and had dedicated a large number of man hours to evolving the archetype. We were later joined by Max McCall and — conveniently in town the weekend of the PTQ — Brian Kowal.

Eventually after much toil and days of testing, we all arrived at a very similar list. We cut the cards which were weak, like Coiling Oracle — it’s only ever worthwhile if it hits a land — and refined the deck to have the spells we wanted. Our Scapeshift was only consistently losing to Dark Depths and, not expecting many copies of the deck, we just abandoned the matchup. There were a few card numbers we disagreed upon, but in general our lists looked very similar. This is the decklist I played at the PTQ, but depending on your expected metagame there are a few card slots you could change.

I was very happy playing this deck, and I would happily play it again with minimal modifications — but I’ll get those as I run through the card list.

Let’s start with the manabase.

Unlike a lot of manabases, this one has to be carefully tuned. Normally Extended provides you with near-perfect mana, but when you have to run a requisite number of mountains that changes.

Four Steam Vents and four Stomping Grounds are absolutely essential. I’ve seen some lists with fewer, but you want to make sure your mana is smooth with spells which want Green on turns 1 and 2 and Blue on turn 2, as well as UUU on turn 3. Past that, the two Valakuts are essential. You want a second just in case something disastrous happens to the first one, and so that you can search up a second for those times when a non-absurd amount of damage just isn’t enough.

We started with just one Breeding Pool, but found ourselves wanting a second. However, we used to have Farseek as well as Wood Elves. Now I’m not sure if the second Pool is as necessary — it could easily become a second Misty Rainforest instead. Speaking of the U/G fetchland, Misty Rainforest is a 4-of in a lot of lists but I don’t think that’s necessary at all. While it is nice at suspending a turn 1 Search, Grove helps make the mana work. The Flooded Groves are excellent at fixing, especially to hit Cryptic Command. There are only two because of Search for Tomorrow considerations, but the third one could be added back in.

As far as the basic lands go, you want a lot of forests for several reasons. First, it’s important you can operate out of a Blood Moon. You also always need early Green mana. Green mana is crucial: a lot of games were lost in playtesting because we kept hands without a Green source and a scry card and didn’t get there. Be careful when mulliganing in that respect.

Islands are also important early. You want three so you can search up all three (not as difficult as it sounds with Harrow in your deck) and cast Cryptic Command under Blood Moon. In general, you need a high basic land density so your search spells are always active early on.

And then there are the two Mountains. I would play only one, but there are compelling reasons to play two. A lot of people only have 9 Mountains in their deck, but that is a mistake. Not only do you want to make sure you have an extra Mountain so Valakut is still lethal even if you’ve drawn 3 naturally, but if your opponent has a Ghost Quarter it’s absolutely crucial you have two mountains. If you Scapeshift on seven lands, find six Mountains, and then they Ghost Quarter one of them and your single basic was drawn earlier in the game/searched up with Scapeshift, you’re going to fizzle. Considering people are still (inexplicably) bringing in Ghost Quarter against Scapeshift, it’s a protective measure you definitely want to have.

Finally, there’s the lone Boseiju. We counted it more as a spell than as a land, but it does have the land supertype so you can use it as such in dire situations. As indicated earlier, we expected a lot of Scapeshift and wanted to sideboard several Boseijus for the matchup. However, with just one maindeck you have the capacity to Scapeshift early and find your Boseiju against control decks or the mirror, and that was worth it for me, at least. Plus, I wanted a 25th pseudoland anyway. This was definitely a point of contention, though, and not all of us went with the one Boseiju. Looking forward, I would only play it if you expect a lot of the mirror and control decks. Another Search for Tomorrow is probably better in a lot of lists.

Moving onto the creatures, Sakura-Tribe Elder is pretty standard and vital — no surprise there. What might look a little more surprising is the full set of Wood Elves. While a lot of lists have three, it can be the difference between winning and losing to accelerate and block a creature in the beatdown matchups. It only has a net cost of two, so unless it is countered or in your hand on turn two it works similarly to any two-cost searcher. I was happy with all of my Wood Elves.

The singleton Kitchen Finks might look a little out of place, and, well, perhaps it is. The night before the tournament I wanted a little more ammo against Zoo and against Burn — both decks I knew would be popular as well — but couldn’t fit another Finks into the board. Eventually the third Search for Tomorrow hit the chopping block to make way for an extra Finks maindeck.

Moving onto the spells, I think the four Scapeshifts are pretty self explanatory. You always want to draw one; in fact, most of the times I have had reasonable draws and lost at all it’s just because I couldn’t find the deck’s namesake card. That also explains, then, the four Peer Through Depths. Brian Kowal (and several others) only had three, but I’m sure that’s a mistake. It’s usually a nonland Impulse in a deck like this, and you need the ability to find your key card.

As far as the countermagic goes, Remand is a solid four-of. Though I think it’s overrated in this deck, and it is horrid against beatdown, it still does exactly what the deck wants to do: buy time and dig deeper. I could see cutting one and going to four Condescend three Remand like Brian played, but I don’t think I would exclude the card entirely. Condescend if very similar, except better late game and gives you a permanent answer to your opponent’s threats.

The standout counterspell, though, is Cryptic Command. A lot of builds don’t have the 1UUU Lorwyn mainstay, and I am positive it is a mistake. Just look at its modes. Command has the capacity to bounce lands which is incredible in the mirror match because it sets them back a turn early on or threatens to disrupt their combo, and also gives you an out to problematic permanents which otherwise lock you down. The tapping effect is also very good because the zoo decks are light on burn this year, buying you a valuable turn which can make all the difference. Chaining Cryptic Commands is often game against Zoo, provided you have the Scapeshift to back it up.

The other modes are also excellent in a deck like this, providing a hard counter as well as an additional way to dig. Many people have the misconception that this is a single-minded combo deck. I don’t really see it that way. I usually play it more like a U/G control deck with a single card win condition, similar to the U/R Swans deck from last season. Maybe Cryptic Command wasn’t in a lot of early builds because they were more singularly focused with cards like Coiling Oracle, but now it definitely belongs in. I wouldn’t play more than three because you can’t afford to be clogged on them early on, but Dan Hanson was testing with the full set and was happy with them.

Magma Jet is important for a lot of reasons. First of all, if they are bracing for an extra turn by staying above 18 life and out of 7-land combo territory you can end step Magma Jet them to slip them into the danger zone. But it also gives you outs to cards like Gaddock Teeg while killing a plethora of other things. Additionally, it helps by scrying so you can dig to lands or Scapeshift. Not something you want to draw a ton of, but a card you usually want to see once per game.

Finally, there’s the ramp suite of Harrow and Search. In reworking the deck and playing online in the days after the PTQ, I really feel like four Search is where you want to be. Suspending it turn 1 is phenomenal, and it’s a very solid ramp spell in its own right.

However, Harrow is also very good. At only one net mana you can have a lot of explosive turns, and if you play right, you never really need to worry about it being countered. Magma Jet, Peer through Depths, Sakura-Tribe Elder, Condescend, and Remand can all be cast from a turn 3 Harrow. Furthermore, it gives you a play on your opponent’s turn. You can leave mana up for, say, Cryptic Command, then Harrow and still cast a Peer if they don’t cast a spell. Finally, it helps you find your basics so you can operate under Blood Moon and cast Cryptic Command if you need to. I think you can safely cut down to two Harrow and move up to three Searches (possibly cutting a Condescend or the Finks for a fourth), but I still want Harrow in the deck.

Finally, there’s the sideboard.

Firespout is incredible against Zoo — but unfortunately, that’s the only matchup where it’s really exciting. Many have this maindeck, but most of us didn’t feel like it was necessary in this metagame. Still, you want the full set after sideboarding. A pretty standard sideboard card; not much to say here.

Primal Command, on the other hand, is very original. While worse than Nourish against Mono Red Burn decks, it’s also good against Dredge. You can usually accelerate into it pretty fast and buy the time against Dredge that you need to steal the game. It’s usually fine against burn unless they have the Flames of the Blood Hand, in which case you’re dead. It’s a calculated risk, but the additional strength against dredge was worth it to me.

Against decks like Tezzeret, you want extra countermagic and Negate is very good at providing just that. It’s also very good in the mirror providing they don’t have Boseiju, and is serviceable against burn. However, I feel like it’s dangerous to maindeck over Condescend like Dan Hanson chose to do in case you run into Zoo or Bant.

Everybody else swore up and down that you needed three Echoing Truth, but I was pretty happy with two. This was one area we disagreed upon. It’s good against All-In Red and as hate for cards like Blood Moon, Teeg, and Meddling Mage, but I felt like my Firespouts were going to be good enough against Zoo to not worry about the creatures, and I didn’t think there would be a lot of blood moons. If you expect a lot of Dredge or All-In Red, I could definitely see going up to four. However, if you’re only worried about the cards out of Zoo, I could see going down to just one.

Alex and Dan extensively tested a list of options for the mirror, and determined Boseiju was the best strategy, with Vendilion Clique in second. While I had not played the mirror as much as they had, they had the experience and I was inclined to believe them. I wanted three after sideboarding, so I put one maindeck and two in the sideboard. I added one Shadow of Doubt, though, because I had one more card to put in the Tezzeret matchup and Shadow is also serviceable against them.

Finally, there’s the second Finks. As I brought up earlier, it’s just a concession to the Burn and Zoo matchups. I think with four Firespout and two finks after sideboarding your Zoo matchup is very good, and that’s something I want going into any Extended PTQ.

Finally, here’s the sideboarding strategy I used with the above decklist against what I felt were the four major archetypes. I’m not sure how it changes with any of the recommended changes I made, but if you ask in the forums or send me an e-mail I’d be happy to talk about what I recommend taking out.

+4 Firespout, +1 Echoing Truth, +1 Kitchen Finks
-4 Remand, -1 Cryptic Command, -1 Boseiju, Who Shelters All,

+3 Primal Command, +2 Negate, +1 Kitchen Finks
-4 Remand, -1 Boseiju, Who Shelters All, -1 Cryptic Command

+2 Negate, +2 Boseiju, Who Shelters All, +1 Shadow of Doubt
-3 Magma Jet, -1 Harrow, -1 Kitchen Finks

+2 Negate, +2 Boseiju, Who Shelters All, +1 Shadow of Doubt
-3 Magma Jet, -1 Harrow, -1 Kitchen Finks

Before I leave, during my Winter vacation in the Oregon mountains I went through Gatherer and took a look at each on-color card in a quest for mirror match technology. There are plenty of cards you can splash to play — Cranial Extraction, Aven Mindcensor, Bitter Ordeal, and so on — but I figured I would share the list with you guys in case you’re looking for a new way to attack the mirror.

Boseiju, Who Shelters All
Declaration of Naught
Glen Elendra Archmage
Grimoire Thief
Lavaball Trap
Last Word
Mind Bend
Pact of Negation
Sowing Salt
Spectral Shift
Shadow of Doubt
Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir
Vendilion Clique
Vexing Shusher

Let me know what you guys think about our list in the forums or send me an e-mail at gavintriesagain at gmail dot com and I’d be happy to talk with all of you about it. Though I finished 6-2 at the PTQ, there were two errors on my part during the tournament and I’m confident I would have been in Top 8 contention had I not have made them. I think this deck is a great deck to play, at least until people start playing Dark Depths again as a foil to Scapeshift.

Gavin Verhey
Team Unknown Stars
Rabon on Magic Online, Lesurgo everywhere else