As many of you already know, the breakout deck from #GPHOUSTON was G/W Hardened Scales. I, along with many others, embarked to the Lone Star State with one dream in mind and many dice in order to make it into a reality. Most of us thought the deck was good, knew it was breaking out, and hoped that everyone and their mother wouldn’t be playing it. Quickly we realized that G/W Hardened Scales was the worst-kept secret in some time with many of the game’s greats were playing it. The only problem was the game’s greatest weren’t and had better records than us. So was Hardened Scales a bust? Let’s discuss the newest kid on the block and figure out just exactly why it mesmerized many of us even with its hardened exterior.
The story of my discovery of the deck started with one Brian Braun-Duin. He gave me the decklist Tuesday afternoon after crushing Magic Online with it for most of the day. He told me he got the list from Sam Pardee who got it from Matt Nass. Now many of you probably know who Matt Nass is, but for those who don’t you can thank him for the format’s boogeyman. Matt was the original designer of Four-Color Rally and the only pilot of the deck way back when in #PTBFZ. This would make anyone excited about another Matt Nass deck since he does design some of the best decks. I was ready to get to work.
I started crushing event after event with the deck. Now the deck didn’t come without issues, but one of the most impressive traits it had was an unbelievable high win percentage whenever Hardened Scales hit the battlefield on the first turn. It’s fairly intuitive to understand that a deck’s namesake card being in play is good for it, but I could only remember losing one game where I stuck a Hardened Scales on turn one. You can’t beat those numbers. The power of the deck goes absolutely through the roof with the enchantment on turn one, operating on a level unrivaled by any other deck in Standard.
So what about when it doesn’t draw turn-one Hardened Scales? Well, things become a bit more bleak. Cards like Hangarback Walker, Dromoka’s Command, Managorger Hydra and Nissa, Voice of Zendikar all pull their own weight when it comes to playing fair Magic, but they often need to be drawn in multiples to keep pace with an opponent running on all cylinders. One of the saving graces for the deck at #GPHOUSTON was the fact that Hangarback Walker had fallen out of favor in the format thanks to how miserable the card is against Reflector Mage. That gave the deck some extra percentage points when it came to playing against non-Collected Company strategies.
The MVP for the deck is Managorger Hydra. This card has seen very little play in this format thanks to the highly-played Lightning Bolt wannabe, Fiery Impulse. Luckily, most of the decks that play these cards aren’t that bad of a matchup for a deck with four Hangarback Walkers and Nissa, Voice of Zendikar. Not to mention the Evolutionary Leap sideboard strategy absolutely crushes removal-based strategies.
The deck’s biggest weakness is Reflector Mage and the Collected Companies that find this three-mana dream-ender. Hardened Scales isn’t what I would call an “evolved strategy.” In actuality, I had my doubts about the deck going into the event due to how it ignores many of the fundamental rules of good deck construction. Firstly, it doesn’t play creature-lands in a format filled with them. To go along the lines of mana-sinks, the deck doesn’t play any real way to utilize excess drawn mana outside of creatures that can cost any amount. There also isn’t a way to manipulate the deck’s consistency in the early game in a format where the best card does just that. Lastly, the deck is completely filled with four-of creatures in a format that’s being warped by Reflector Mage. In theory this deck should be something you see on the casual tables, it’s not the kind of deck high-level Magic players usually bring to a Grand Prix.
Oddly enough it still works thanks to the absurd power level of Hardened Scales. The games you draw that card are just so good that you can handle the weaker draws without it. Those can still be won thanks to how powerful some of the other cards in the deck can become when left unchecked. I had my reservations about the deck, and at the last minute I almost switched back to Bant Company, but sadly I didn’t bring the cards with me. I decided to stay the course instead of trying to find an additional copy and go into battle with one of the wackiest decks I’ve played in a very long time.
After all was said and done, I finished the event 12-3 losing only to Jeskai Dragons, Bant Company, and the mirror. My goals were set much higher than this going into the event, but halfway through I realized that Hardened Scales was not the “hot knife through butter” I was hoping it to be. In fact, I was jealous of Paul Reitzl when I saw he was playing Bant Company. I kept telling myself I was stupid for putting Bant Company down, but I kept smashing opponent after opponent with Hardened Scales. I even beat G/R Eldrazi Ramp in the tournament!
In the end I realized that this will become a part of this metagame just like every other deck that found its way. Standard is in a great spot right now, and I am pretty sure we will continue to see many Tier Two decks succeed while also watching Four-Color Rally win every event.
I did learn quite a lot about this Hardended Scales deck while preparing for this Grand Prix, so I shouldn’t let that knowledge go to waste since I assume many of you will be trying this deck out this weekend. We start things off with the decklist:
- 2 Abzan Falconer
- 4 Avatar of the Resolute
- 4 Servant of the Scale
- 4 Managorger Hydra
- 4 Hangarback Walker
- 4 Endless One
My list for the deck ended up being slightly different than everyone else’s. The biggest difference had to have been the Abzan Falconer numbers. This was clear to me as the weakest card in the deck, as usually it was only great against Four-Color Rally and Bant Company. The only problem was that those matchups got to utilize our biggest weakness: Reflector Mage. I understand it’s bad theory to cut the best maindeck card for two of the most popular decks in the format, but I always found the second drawn copy of the card to be almost useless. Instead of playing the full four, I decided to play a couple of maindeck Silkwraps due to their necessity in the mirror along with being good against both Company decks’ best card, Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy.
Arashin Cleric was another card I chose to play while many others did not. The other two cards worth consideration in these slots are Abzan Battle Priest and Lantern Scout. While testing these lifelinking all-stars I leaned more towards playing Lantern Scout. This was mostly out of fear of not having the fourth land against aggressive strategies as well as being afraid of a Fiery Impulse ruining my day; a dead Abzan Battle Priest grants no lifelink. In the end, I went with my trusty Arashin Clerics. I know this card isn’t something to write home about, but it is exactly what I was looking for against aggressive strategies. Hardened Scales is such a powerful deck that I wasn’t afraid of not being able to win in the later stages of the game, I just didn’t want to get run over in the early turns. That’s why I chose to go with the card that’s decent no matter what my draw looked like, even if it is less powerful. It always draws out some sort of card earlier than the opponent wants to thanks to its strange power and toughness, which is exactly what you want to force an Atarka Red opponent to do. That, or not attack and keep building up a board for me to match on the very next turn.
I honestly can’t think of anything I would change about the list moving forward, but sadly I don’t have any more Standard events to work on prior to the Shadows Over Innistrad rotation. That said, I did test this deck quite extensively and feel that I can shed some light on how this deck plays out against the rest of the field. Let’s talk about some matchups!
The main goal in this matchup is to be aggressive. Four-Color Rally is trying to gum up the board with a magnitude of different creatures while also having upwards of eight ways to put your hard-hitting creatures back into your hand. This means that attacking and constantly interacting with their board is important so they won’t be able to properly utilize Nantuko Husk or a timely double-block. Abzan Falconer is the easiest way to steal games in this matchup, but oftentimes it isn’t a great play until the aerial assault is lethal.
Hallowed Moonlight isn’t as great in Hardened Scales as it may be in other decks against Four-Color Rally. We need to be pressuring their life total, which means casting creatures. This makes it easy for them to cast a main-phase Collected Company to find Reflector Mages and Sidisi’s Faithful to completely invalidate the progress we were trying to make on the previous turn. Our Plan A is to hope that our draw isn’t messed with too much in the early turns, allowing us to swiftly bash our opponent’s skull in before they can set up. We don’t have the luxury of playing it safe. Hallowed Moonlight is mostly here to fight the first Rally the Ancestors if our initial assault was thwarted.
See above. It has the same plan as against Four-Color Rally.
I consider this to be G/W Hardened Scales’s most difficult matchup. Bant Company might not have the explosive endgame that Four-Color Rally does, but it makes up for it in how explosive it is in the earlier turns. We are supposed to be the aggressor in the matchup, but cards like Reflector Mage and Bounding Krasis make it very difficult to get any footing. Others have expressed that this matchup isn’t as bleak as I’m making it seem, but my experiences have only shown me how far we are behind. The only games I’ve seen Hardened Scales win in this matchup is when it comes out of the gates extremely fast and doesn’t draw too many or too few mana sources. The only advice I can give you is to try to nut draw as often as possible in this matchup.
This matchup tends to be difficult if Mardu Green is able to stick a threat like Siege Rhino or Goblin Dark-Dwellers. It’s fairly easy if they don’t have anything pressuring you on the board. This is the main reason why I chose to play all four Valorous Stance in the sideboard when most players didn’t.
Evolutionary Leap is the key to grinding through all of the deck’s removal spells. It’s also a great combo with Hangarback Walker since many Mardu Green decks have access to multiple ways to exile larger threats. As long as their board is dry, Mardu Green will not be able to keep with this enchantment or even a Gideon, Ally of Zendikar since their deck will be diluted with Radiant Flames.
Sideboarding doesn’t really have that much of an outcome in this matchup. The goal is to just bash them as quickly as possible and many of our cards are great at executing this. Don’t be afraid to mulligan weaker hands. This deck does mulligan well thanks to the explosive nature of Hardened Scales, and even Managorger Hydra can be ridden to victory since they have very few ways to answer it prior to an endgame Ugin, the Spirit Dragon. Thankfully we have eight colorless creatures so that is not just obviously the best strategy for them to be playing towards.
Jeskai Black does have access to Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet, but nothing else for our Valorous Stances. Dromoka’s Command is a decent card to keep in since they have so many cheaper threats and also lean heavily on cards like Radiant Flames and Chandra, Flamecaller.
The gameplan is very similar to Mardu Green, but easier to win thanks to Jeskai Black not having much of a way to pressure us.
G/W Hardened Scales
The mirror match is awful. It pretty much boils down to who draws the better Hardened Scales draw. Outside of that basic and uncontrollable degeneracy, the matchup is hyper-dependent on removal spells which is why I made sure I had access to so many of them to begin with. They are not only good in other situations, they shine in the mirror. Don’t be afraid to mulligan in the mirror. Both decks are capable of coming out of the gates so quickly that a mediocre seven will be much worse than an above-average six. It’s just too important to have a good start.
I’ll be honest when I say I don’t have a good plan for this matchup. That’s because it has been such a good matchup thus far. I haven’t lost to this deck yet thanks to the explosive nature of our deck. I wouldn’t be too afraid to face off against any Hordeling Outburst strategies right now.
That’s about all I have for this week. I’m not sold that Hardened Scales is the next best thing in the format, but I can say that it’s fun and just good enough to be playable at your local events. Maybe the deck is actually great and I have too high of standards for myself at a Grand Prix. Who knows? But I will say this: the G/W Hardened Scales deck is going to be a thing and you better be prepared to either play with it or against it.