Sullivan Library: Understanding Scepter-Chant

Adrian looks at the success of Scepter-Chant at the recent Extended Pro Tour, tells you what he thinks Nick West and Ruud Warmenhoven got right, and then gives his own updated version of the deck for the next Extended season.

Good ol’ [author name="Ruud Warmenhoven"]Ruud Warmenhoven[/author]. Generally, I’ve liked the stuff that he does with the Magical Spells and Fantastic Creatures. His recent success at Pro-Tour came from working off of my old Chronoscepter deck from last year. However, his Friday article left me feeling as though he didn’t quite get what my own Chant deck was about, and what the card choices that he’s included accomplish. My old deck was definitely a powerhouse for its format, but in a new format, it would need to be updated. His update went in the right direction, I think, generally speaking, but got a lot of the philosophy wrong. Nicholas West’s list was an entirely different animal, but it has a lot to teach the foundations of the archetype as a whole.

Mine / Ruud’s / (Nicholas) List

4 / 4 (4) Brainstorm

4 / 4 (4) Counterspell

4 / 4 (4) Accumulated Knowledge

4 / 4 (3) Fire / Ice

4 / 4 (4) Isochron Scepter

4 / 3 (3) Cunning Wish

2 / 3 (3) Orim’s Chant

1 / 0 (0) Stifle

1 / 0 (0) Misdirection

3 / 0 (0) Memory Lapse

1 / 0 (0) Forbid

2 / 0 (0) Miscalculation

0 / 4 (2) Force Spike

0 / 1 (3) Mana Leak

0 / 3 (0) Intuition

0 / 1 (0) Decree of Justice

0 / 0 (4) Meddling Mage

0 / 0 (2) Exalted Angel

2 / 0 (0) Mox Diamond

2 / 3 (4) Chrome Mox

4 / 4 (4) Flooded Strand

4 / 4 (0) Shivan Reef

3 / 3 (0) Forge[/author]“]Battlefield [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]

2 / 2 (0) Reflecting Pool

5 / 6 (7) Island

2 / 2 (0) Mountain

1 / 1 (4) Plains

0 / 0 (4) Adarkar Wastes

0 / 0 (1) Skycloud Expanse


1 / 1 (1) Orim’s Chant

1 / 1 (0) Flash of Insight

3 / 1 (0) Starstorm

0 / 1 (1) Disenchant

0 / 1 (0) Forge[/author]“]Pulse of the [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]

0 / 1 (1) Boomerang

0 / 4 (0) Exalted Angel

0 / 3 (0) Lightning Angel

0 / 1 (0) Decree of Justice

0 / 1 (0) Plains

2 / 0 (0) Rack and Ruin

2 / 0 (0) Shattering Pulse

1 / 0 (0) Heroes’ Reunion

1 / 0 (0) Honor the Fallen

1 / 0 (0) Flaming Gambit

3 / 0 (0) Leonin Abunas

0 / 0 (2) Wrath of God

0 / 0 (1) Energy Flux

0 / 0 (1) Welding Jar

0 / 0 (1) Stifle

0 / 0 (1) Forbid

0 / 0 (1) Fire / Ice

0 / 0 (1) Enlightened Tutor

0 / 0 (1) Fact or Fiction

0 / 0 (1) Hibernation

0 / 0 (1) Intuition

0 / 0 (1) Annul

There is a lot that can be learned from these decklists. The first is pretty simple: there are two different decks here, Nicholas West’s and the three color approach that Ruud borrowed from me. While there are similarities between the two approaches, they are like the similarities between a Red deck in Standard going on the power of Slith Firewalker and tempo to win, and one basing itself off of the power of big burn and card advantage. There is a second thing that sticks out as well: there are glaring differences in the sideboard approach. My deck was facing a field defined by Tinker decks. Ruud and Nicholas’s deck clearly had different enemies they wanted to fight. But there is a lot that can be learned about what we all brought to the battlefield.


The defining of the countermagic mix is always an important one. We each brought 4 Counterspells and 5 cheap basic counterspell replacements (I ran Memory Lapse and Miscalculate, they ran Mana Leak and Force Spike in varying numbers). My own experience with Force Spike was a wee bit disappointing in that format, but in this format, I think that Nicholas West does indeed show that it is not necessary to run a full set of Force Spike. The value of Force Spike is mostly in the threat of it being cast rather than in its usual effect on the game. Having access to a Force Spike affect changes game play, and merely by changing one’s own game play, you can weaken the spell quite intensively. On the other hand, the forcing of slowing of game play does impact the game too; a deck slowing down against Scepter can be in a real rough situation.

Last year in the post-Tinker banning season, I took a lesson from Kibler and Cunningham in what I think might be the better Force Spike: Daze. In the control mirror match (only marginally uncommon to play), you can act a complete turn sooner off of Daze. Cunningham was able to play Daze in his Tog/Scepter deck on the back of nine Islands. Probably, you don’t need even that many. My own deck had run a Misdirection specifically to have a decent “tap-out” counter, but I’m not sure that it is really necessary or not in this current field.

Ruud writes the following:

I originally got a list of a Scepter-Chant deck in the StarCityGames.com archives. It was some concoction by Adrian Sullivan that he won a PTQ with. Obviously, this list looks horrendous and needed some work. The version I proxied up got rid of all the bad counters and the Mystical Tutor and replaced them with Mana Leaks and Intuitions.


First of all, the deck was made for a different metagame. In a Tinker/combo field, Memory Lapse was actually an incredibly fantastic counter. In a new field (one full of less “all-in” threats), Memory Lapse is much worse. On the other hand, Mana Leak is much, much, much worse than Miscalculation. Extended is a game of really, really tightly mana’d threats. Essentially, Miscalculation is almost always the exact same counter spell as Mana Leak. It is very rare that a Leak will counter something that a Miscalculation won’t. On the other hand, in any of the slower matchups, the Mana Leak quickly becomes an Early Frost versus a Miscalculation, which at least becomes a brand spankin’ new card. I would posit that the correct counterspell mix should look something like this:

4 Counterspell

5 Daze/Miscalculation mix

The other spells (Wishes, Scepters, Chants, Brainstorm and Fire/Ice) make the rest of the basic non-mana elements of the deck. Here, we are all essentially in agreement. Run four of them (or nearly that). Between the main deck and sideboard, we all ran nearly four of everything. I ran one less Orim’s Chant (but could fetch one with Mystical Tutor), West ran one less Fire/Ice main (but could fetch one with Cunning Wish), and both Warmenhoven and West ran one less Cunning Wish (to help fit Intuitions and a creature package, respectively). Clearly, a mix like this has to stay.

The mana (25 for Ruud and me, 24 for Nick) is also important to pay attention to. Notice the heavy amount of fixing in all three of the decks. Notice the heavy usage of moxen. All of this is designed to do the same thing: not only be able to cast the spells in the deck, but be able to get out a Scepter fast. You have a control deck that can potentially “combo a victory” on the first turn against many decks. That’s some scary sh**. Ruud disliked the Mox Diamond, but I found them very important. The 2 / 2 mix of Chrome Mox and Mox Diamond is especially useful in being able to actually cast the Kicker on Orim’s Chant off of an Isochron Scepter. Isochron Scepter itself eats up a spell, and losing more spells to Chrome Mox would slowly wear the deck down (especially against decks like Psychatog). Finally, I think that Nick and I are on the right track in running 4 Moxen to help maximize the first turn 2 mana play (one of the reasons that Force Spike is so much less important). I think 4 moxen is definitely correct, and in the three-color build, 2 Mox Diamond are correct, but your mileage may vary.

Quick responses to Ruud’s thoughts on his build of my deck

Initially, this article started as a reply in the forums to Ruud’s deck, but then I realized I had so much more to say, and that there was also more to say about the archetype just in general. I’d like to scattershot a bunch of responses to his thoughts before moving on. Let’s hit it:

Even though I was liking the deck more and more, it was hard getting people enthusiastic about it, especially since it never wins. I still remember playing against Jeroen with him being locked, but still playing it out and me having no idea how to kill him. We would then just see if the final Scepter and Fire/Ice were above the last ten cards to figure out if I could deal twenty at all. This is where Flash of Insight made a splash.

Here is one of the things I had hunted for in the deck: a way to finish the game good and quick. Flaming Gambit was the answer that I had used for this question. Ruud eventually would end up with a single Decree of Justice so that the late-late game would be easy to finish out after you had locked someone out. In the end, though, I think we were both wrong. Nick has it right: run some finishers. More on this in a bit.

[Versus Tog] He just sat there and laid lands as long as he could keep up, while I drew two cards a turn and made land drops into infinity. If it wasn’t for the Decree, I have no idea how I’d be supposed to win, even after drawing at least fifteen extra cards, but making a bunch of Soldiers finished the job.

Again, I’d say that the card that made me easily win in these situations was the Flaming Gambit. Decree does the job as well. Once again, I think we might both be wrong here, though.

Flash turned out to be so good later on – better than Fact or Fiction even – that after a while I just lost the Fact all together. You see, every time you wish for Flash, you are looking for something, and Flash finds things better than Fact. This deck doesn’t want a bunch of cards, but a few specific ones. Besides, Flash can be used twice, which makes it very good vs. Duress and Cabal Therapy and great in control matchups, where you get to remove your Accumulated Knowledges.


Yep. That Fact or Fiction in Nick’s sideboard is a mistake. Essentially, Ruud’s description is right on the money. In a deck like this, you aren’t hunting for specific card advantage (in general that Fact or Fiction is going to get you two or three cards for seven mana, if it doesn’t get countered). You are hunting for qualitative advantage. A Flash of Insight might cost you more mana, but it can be re-Wished for and it gets you card advantage even in the face of counter-magic resistance or discard as disruption. Each Flash of Insight is another nail in the coffin of a resisting control deck, and this contributed to me running 4 Cunning Wish in my initial build.

Exalted Angel seemed a natural fit, being insane against Rock decks that just board out their Diabolic Edicts and U/G decks that board out Wonder. I just needed some other reasonably large flyer that would be good against creatures on its own. I thought about Keiga and Palinchron at first, but really wanted something cheaper. After a day of pondering, I came up with Lightning Angel – another perfect fit to deal with all the Treetops, Troll Ascetics, Basking Rootwallas and Aquamoebas of the Magic world.

This is a very interesting approach, and it could very well solve the problems I had been having in the Rock matchup (my build and board are completely unsuited for that matchup).

Nick’s Rights

Let’s start with his small improvement. One of the things I had in my sideboard was Wishable life-gain. I ran Heroes’ Reunion, while Nick did me one better and ran Exalted Angel in the main. (Ruud at least had them in his sideboard.)

What this accomplishes is fantastic. Against another control deck, you have a cheap potential threat. This in itself is great. Three mana once, and then four mana at the end of some random turn, and you have a powerhouse. In control-control wars, tapping out for your threat can be a huge problem, and is one of the reasons that my maindeck killed by Wishing for Flaming Gambit and Ruud’s ran a maindeck Decree of Justice.

The life-gain aspect is also big. Reunion does the job, but it’s a bit messy. Exalted Angel is just very, very potent. Ruud would board 4 of them, but I don’t know if this many is necessary.

The big one, though, is Meddling Mage.

I remember bemoaning the terribleness of the Rock matchup to both Sol Malka and Zvi Mowshowitz at different points, and in the end I decided to ignore the problem. Sol suggested quite wisely an idea for the sideboard: Meddling Mage. Zvi independently suggested an alternate way to kill in the board, especially creatures (I believe he suggested Exalted Angel). The problem with my own initial build is that it didn’t include the space to make these ideas possible. Having that much in the board would cripple the Wishes.

I didn’t realize how potent the Mages were. I’ll say it again: I didn’t realize how potent the Mages were.

Nick showed that they could essentially be the Cabal Therapy for a Blue/White deck. Cabal Therapy is a pretty good card, or so I’ve heard. Now, the Mages did decrease his ability to win versus a deck like Red Deck Wins (they are incredibly easy to eliminate), but in nearly every other matchup, they show great promise. In addition, running them means that you (again) have a threat that can kill them. You don’t have to go hoping you’ll find one. You can just do it.

With the extra kill, a card like Lightning Angel in the sideboard becomes, perhaps, less necessary. Indeed the inclusion of Red at all can quickly be seen as a decision on Fire/Ice: Can you cast it? At this point, I’m still not sure that it becomes necessary to do so.

Nick’s board runs sweep. This is a biggie. 2 Wrath of God and (potentially) a Hibernation in the board. Ruud and I both ran a Starstorm in the board, but I think this sweep suite is important. In my own testing, I quickly came to the conclusion that Hibernation might be a luxury, but I’m still not so sure. Regardless, I think access to sweep is a big deal.

Nick doesn’t maindeck Intuition. In Ruud’s deck, I think a lot of space is wasted in essentially having a spell that tries to find the lock (either via Intuition/Accumulated Knowledge to draw cards, or to finish the combo). Simply being able to survive longer on the back of Meddling Mage and Exalted Angel seems a lot more potent. Nick does have the ability to Wish for an Enlightened Tutor or Intuition, but this search is served in a much more secondary role. The Welding Jar and Energy Flux in the board are very interesting choices, only working because of a Wish for Enlightened Tutor in Game 2. Clearly, this approach does merit some amount of consideration.

[In a deck tech article that I never quite finished, Nick said that the Welding Jar was definitely mistake – it should have been a Misdirection. Only having one Energy Flux also seemed a little pointless to him – you either need more or none at all. – Knut]

Finally, Nick has access to Stifle and Forbid. I think that this is actually a very important aspect of how the deck can play. As you get further into a late game, being able to stop a Mind’s Desire deck with more than just an Orim’s Chant can be huge, and being able to simply push an opponent into submission by Forbid-locking them isn’t terrible either.

The Final Question

After pushing through all of the various scenarios – what is good about each deck, what is not – I come to a conclusion: the power of the Red in the deck is really only there for Fire/Ice. How much do I like the easy access to Red mana? Compare that with easy access to White for Exalted Angel and kicking Orim’s Chant.

It’s a hard question. In parsing out the most powerful cards in the deck, I find that I am very nearly at the list proposed by Nicholas West. The only problem is, I’m out of cards. 60 cards is where I stop, and I’ve hit it. And so, I step ever so slightly closer to Nick’s deck, dropping a Fire/Ice and a mana source (oh, how dropping a mana source scared me. I might put it back in after more testing).

Now, the Red question is a mite bit easier to answer. Clearly, I don’t want all that much of it. I dropped down the numbers of Red so that the Red cards are castable, but mayhaps not as consistently as Ruud and I were able to cast them. Here is the final result:

The 2005 Chevy Isochron Adrian Sullivan (riding heavily on the coattails of Nicholas West and my past self)

4 Meddling Mage

2 Exalted Angel

2 Orim’s Chant

1 Mystical Tutor

3 Fire/Ice

4 Isochron Scepter

4 Brainstorm

4 Counterspell

3 Miscalculate

2 Daze

3 Cunning Wish

4 Accumulated Knowledge

1 Mox Diamond

3 Chrome Mox

2 Forge[/author]“]Battlefield [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]

2 Shivan Reef

2 Adarkar Wastes

2 Reflecting Pool

2 Plains

6 Islands

4 Flooded Strand


1 Stifle

1 Forbid

1 Fire / Ice

1 Orim’s Chant

1 Flash of Insight

1 Starstorm

1 Echoing Truth

1 Shattering Pulse

1 Honor the Fallen

2 Wrath of God

2 Energy Flux

2 Exalted Angel

In the maindeck, I’m very nearly Nick’s deck, with a few minor variations. The mana is obviously changed to incorporate a little Red. To do this, I did end up trimming a single White source, but I run the same number of Blue sources. Other than a slightly different counter mix, the other major difference is dropping a single Orim’s Chant for a Mystical Tutor. In my own testing, the one turn delay is usually not that significant, and sometimes you really don’t want a Chant, but rather would like something else. In addition, this gives a bit more oomph to the Wraths in the board.

The board is where a lot of the major changes occur. There are, of course, some cosmetic changes (an Echoing Truth for a Boomerang, for example), but here are the major changes. From Ruud, I definitely like the inclusion of many, many Exalted Angels, and I think that this can help shore up some significant potential weaknesses against both the Rock and Red decks (my initial build didn’t have a problem with Red, but this is a very different deck now). I’m still very tempted by Leonin Abunas, but most of the anti-artifact coming from Red seems to be of the Meltdown/Pulverize variety. Without Enlightened Tutor, I’ve included a second Energy Flux. Finally, Honor the Fallen is clearly a very reasonable choice against Reanimator if you should happen to not have an Isochron Scepter nearby.

Overall, I know that I really like the look of this deck, and excepting minor cosmetic changes as the metagame develops, I’d probably play it in a heartbeat in the upcoming PTQs. If you’re in a PTQ near Wisconsin, I expect I’ll see you there.

Adrian Sullivan

AdrianLSullivan (at) yahoo (dot) com