The Extended season is rapidly approaching, first with the upcoming Pro Tour in Valencia, then with the PTQ season to follow. The tournament in Valencia will include only the sets currently available, though the season to follow will bring us the addition of Lorwyn. This, I predict, will not actually change the landscape much.
Even players not playing in Valencia would do well to get involved in the Extended season early. Aside from practice for its own sake, it is important to spend some serious time learning the subtleties of the format, as well as the complex behavior of the Extended metagame. For a look at some of the 20+ major archetypes, take a look at my article from last week here. Flores’ article last week, found here, and Richard Feldman’s article here are also useful.
Today, I will be taking a look at one of few true control strategies viable in this wide-open field. Today, we look at Scepter Chant (also known as No Stick, which confused me at first, as I thought the name implied that there were no actual Sticks in the deck. As it turns out, there are Sticks, it is just that they are of the No variety).
As we have discussed, to really succeed in this format, Counterspell decks must have a degenerate locking mechanism to actually take control, as simple card advantage supported by removal and permission is not enough. There are just too many Vectors that you must defend against. Whether it is 20 points of Double Strike damage, Fat Tarmogoyfs, Bridge from Below, Dread Return, Mind’s Desire, Mind Slaver, Counter Balance, Seismic Assault, Cranial Plating, Goblins as a Tribe, Discard such as Cabal Therapy or Duress, Land Destruction such as Destructive Flow or Molten Rain, Permission such as Counterspell and Spell Snare, or so many more. There are just too many angles to cover, short of a lock of some sort.
Tron decks achieve this by setting up the uber-expensive Slaver lock, but their combo is actually a complete hard lock. Counterbalance / Top is a much softer lock, but costs hardly any mana at all, making it an exceptional choice for tempo based strategies, primarily revolving around undercosted cards that cost one, two, and three. Both of these decks have their own vulnerabilities and strengths, but today I want to focus on Scepter Chant, which has a lock that tries to find a middle ground between the Hard Lock of Slaver and the low operating cost of Counterbalance / Top.
The basic idea is to play an Isochron Scepter imprinting an Orim’s Chant, creating a situation where your opponent cannot play sorceries, artifacts, creatures, enchantment, or attack. The lock becomes that much harder when a Teferi is adding to the equation, completely locking the opponent out of spells or attacks for the remainder of the game. Short of a Mouth of Ronom, it is almost impossible to break this lock.
The key to succeeding with Scepter Chant is to be able to function as a legitimate control deck when you don’t draw the combo. Isochron Scepter can function as an incredible board control or card advantage engine on its own. Cunning Wish, which often retrieves a Chant, can be used to solve difficult problems when you don’t have a Scepter. The Orim’s Chants are usually pretty weak on their own (hence only playing two). They do have some utility though, helping fight counter wars, countering Mind’s Desire, or even just fogging, which can be useful against decks like Affinity.
The version of Scepter Chant that I have listed here is courtesy of one of Michigan’s top deckbuilders, particularly of control decks, Brian DeMars. A format rarely goes by from which I do not savagely burgle at least one piece of technology from Brian.
Brian is certainly an expert on the subject of Scepter Chant decks, helping lead the evolution of the archetype over the past few seasons. He played in six PTQs in the last two Extended seasons. He won one, making Top 8 in two additional PTQs and Top 16s in the other three, all with Scepter Chant.
In addition, Brian is universally regarded as one of the top Vintage DrainSlaver players, which passes more than a striking resemblance to the Scepter-Chant Strategy. Both are pseudo-control decks that counter lots of spells while drawing a lot of cards, building towards a comboesque hard lock.
Here is his current list:
The permission suite is pretty standard, as Spell Snare and Counterspell are both amazing. The interesting point is the choice of Absorb to round out the permission, instead of something more traditional, such as Remand. Brian says that the life gain is tremendously important to having such a positive aggro match-up.
It is an important part of winning game 1, also known as the easy one, as you will have to fight through Grudges and Grips post board. When they Helix you, it can be backbreaking to see your life go up to fifteen instead of down to nine. Michael J will tell you all about how good Overrule is. Trust me, Absorb is much better.
The card draw is not particularly surprising, just well tuned. Thirst for Knowledge is obviously very powerful, but is actually more important than Fact or Fiction due to the speed of the format. Fact is your best card drawer, but is so slow you just don’t want to draw it early. Cunning Wish can serve as a card drawer, but more often just serves as a Tutor for Chant or an answer to whatever the board presents.
The removal suite has been selected to give you plenty of versatile, efficient solutions to creatures, while helping increase the potency of Scepter. Wrath is a necessary evil. It is definitely one of your weaker cards, but you need to have access to this type of effect. Engineered Explosives is obviously less efficient, but much more versatile. The Academy Ruins / Explosives combo wins many games itself. Mouth of Ronom is an oft-overlooked addition that can help provide more ways to avoid death while you set up your lock.
Teferi is the kill card of choice, as it helps the lock, is a threat versus control, and just serves as a fine man all around. You don’t need junk like Exalted Angel. Just take control, and you can eventually lock them up and drop a Scepter with Helix or something.
The manabase is mainly configured as such to balance mana ratios, as well as make room for Academy Ruins and Mouth of Ronom. Brian often plays a Minamo and a Mikokoro, primarily to fight control, so consider them if permission strategies gain in popularity. The Ancient Den slightly helps strengthen Thirst for Knowledge. The basic land is plenty to be able to activate your Mouths, as well as live through Destructive Flow.
Now, let’s take a look at the individual match-ups.
Gaea’s Might: Game 1 is very favorable, your best game 1 match-up, at least 80%. Scepter on Chant, Helix, or Fire/Ice will win it for you immediately. Board in 3 Leonin Abunas and a Lightning Helix, for 1 Counterspell, 1 Cunning Wish, 1 Thirst for Knowledge, and 1 Isochron Scepter.
They do get DI Ancient Grudges, which is obviously hard for you, but it is not the end of the world as you can play a typical control strategy very well. You have the over trump plan of Leonin Abunas, which can be very hard to remove, short of a Tribal Flames for five. In addition, you can always just Academy Ruins your Scepters, especially ones that you Thirst away early.
It can be crucial to keep 1 Cunning Wish to provide an out to Jitte or random threats, plus it can retrieve Chant or Fact. The proper role after board here is to play like a combo-control. Wait until you can do something like Teferi, untap and drop a Scepter, or at the very least, drop a Scepter only when you have mana to use it. Don’t just run it out there, post-board.
Also, remember that Spell Snare can counter a flashbacked Grudge. Finally, remember to get some mileage out of your Moxes. Be careful of losing your Mox without ever getting to tap it. For instance, if they lead with a Kird Ape, if you play turn 1 Mox + Land to represent Counterspell, they can play a land and Grudge you on your upkeep, which is devastating.
This match-up is close to even after boarding, depending on how many Grudges and Grips they have. The important thing is that you just blow them out Game 1, and then look to split the next two.
Zoo: Again, Red-based aggro strategies are simple for you game 1. They have so much trouble dealing with ultra efficient answers like Spell Snare, Counterspell, and Fire/Ice. Throw in the life gain provided by Helix and Absorb, combined with the Sweeping Power of Wrath and Engineered Explosives, and you have a potent traditional control. Sideboard similar to Gaea’s Might, but keep Counterspell if they have land destruction, instead siding out something else expensive.
Affinity: You tend to lose close game 1s, with your best hope being a Wished-for Hurkyl’s Recall, especially if you put it on a Stick. Upheaval you is pretty good for a two mana instant. Cranial Plating and Arcbound Ravager are actually the two cards that beat you. You have the limit of Spell Snares, so you do have a plan, but if either of those cards hit, you are usually dead in a turn or so. Ravager trumps Helix in so many ways and Cranial Plating is at most a one-turn clock. You probably lose at least 70% game 1.
Sideboarding, on the other hand, completely turns the match-up around. Board in 2 Katakis, Disenchant, and Smash. Cut two Fact or Fictions and two Absorbs. Kataki from an aggro deck isn’t as big a deal. However, if you can play it in a control deck, you can usually sweep half the permanents of the Affinity player if they even have an answer. If he sticks around for more than a turn, they just lose. Kataki is like a White Balance.
The Rock: You have to keep their Deeds off the table. It is actually misleading how powerful Deed is. You can’t actually further most of your plans if it is sitting out there. As long as you can keep it off the table, though, you have plenty of time to draw cards and develop. Scepter can often be devastating, especially if it follows a Teferi.
You are the more controlling deck, usually, and just need to manage your resources while you set up your lock. Be mindful of Cabal Therapy, as you don’t want to get hit by a Therapy that grabs multiple copies of something. Sometimes you just lose to Turn 1 Duress, Turn 2 Cabal Therapy, etc.
Sideboarding is completely dependent on their board plan. Abunas are probably your main consideration. Wrath is terrible if they are Gifts Rock; however, it is amazing if they are Aggro Rock. Stifle is another consideration.
Loam: Game 1 is often favorable, as you just live long enough to drop the Scepter and they are locked. Loam can be annoying, but you can race with your Blue card drawers. Your Scepters give you inevitability, as long as you can keep Seismic Assault off the board. As with most match-ups, Spell Snare is amazing, in this case countering Dark Confidant, Tarmogoyf, and Burning Wish.
After boarding, things are favorable for Scepter Chant, although obviously Krosan Grip is strong. The key is to keep Terravore and Assault off the table. Bring in three Abunas and two or three Tormod’s Crypt for two Helix, two Wrath, and one or two more cards depending on their configuration.
Ichorid: You have a dismal game 1, but you can still win with an immediate Scepter Chant, so feel free mulligan very aggressively. You will probably win if you stick it, but you will lose for sure if you don’t
Board in three Tormod’s Crypt and Disenchant (Pithing Needle). Take out four Spell Snares (most likely). It would be nice to take out a Fact or Fiction, but you just don’t have that much action to bring in.
This is not the match-up you want, that is for sure, but it is not unwinnable. Tormod’s Crypt is obviously amazing and Academy Ruins is obviously the nut high.
Cephalids: Close to 50% before sideboarding, but favorable afterwards. Bring in three Tormod’s Crypt and Disenchant. Take out two Wraths and two Fact or Fiction. They are too slow. Depending on how they are built, they could give you a hard time by switching into Duress/Therapy mode, or they could just fall victim to all your cheap efficient answers.
Mind’s Desire: This is your best match-up as a whole. It is actually pretty freaking bad for them to begin with, as you have ten hard counters to stop Rituals, plus Chants, even Stifle. Isochron Scepter is obviously insane against them, and as long as you don’t get blown out by an Empty for eight or something, you’ll be fine. The Lotus Bloom into Desire on turn 4 can be hard, but short of that you just have many good permission spells and card drawing, as well as multiple trumps to Desire.
Boarding actually gets even better for you, as you bring in Orim’s Chant, Stifle, and Fact or Fiction, cutting two Cunning Wish and two Lightning Helix. Remember, Engineered Explosives is the best answer to Empty. As a whole, this match-up is pretty much a blow-up all the way through.
Counterbalance / Top: This is a little hard both before and after boarding. Counterbalance is just such a beating, though Engineered Explosives is your answer, as you can set it to two by paying UUWW, so as to have it count as a four mana for the purposes of Counterbalance. Because of the way Sunburst works, it will still only get two counters, since you only used two colors to pay for it. This is key to success.
Board in Abunas if they show any colors besides Black and Blue. Absorb is weak in this match-up.
Tron: You are pretty much screwed. I mean, it is not the end of the world, but they often have as much or more permission as you do and at least as much card drawing, if not more. The problems is that they generate twice as much mana as you do, and you inevitably get out-mana’ed in the mid game.
I wish we had a good plan to fight Tron, but we just don’t yet. Dwarven Blastminer just won’t cut it, as they are ready for that guy and he doesn’t lock them out tight enough to justify the space. I think one of the keys to succeeding with Scepter Chant will be devising a strong plan against Tron.
Okay, I am out for this week. Thank you guys for joining me, and special thanks to Brian DeMars for his insight into the Scepter Chant archetype.
See you guys next week when I go to war…