The Chump Block – Scapeshifting Perspective

The StarCityGames.com Open Series returns to Dallas/Fort Worth!
Friday, January 1st – Moving into 2010 is exciting! I have always seen 2010 as this futuristic date, and now that we’re finally here it’s only a matter of time before the hoverboards and flying cars and holographic computers start rolling into circulation. But until then, I am happy that there is something else to be thinking about Magic-wise other than Zendikar Limited and Standard.

Moving into 2010 is exciting! I have always seen 2010 as this futuristic date, and now that we’re finally here it’s only a matter of time before the hoverboards and flying cars and holographic computers start rolling into circulation. But until then, I am happy that there is something else to be thinking about Magic-wise other than Zendikar Limited and Standard. Boy, those were two formats that I could have done with two less months expending energy toward. That’s not to say they were terrible or anything, but they were certainly beginning to stagnate for me as my enthusiasm for them started to wane fairly early. But now we have an Extended PTQ to which we can look forward, and from what I can tell, one that seems to be wide open in terms of innovation.

I often enjoy looking around the interwebs for interesting deck ideas, whether it be checking out the forums here on StarCityGames.com, looking at tournament results, or watching replays of daily and premier events on MTGO. I was intending to write this article about some entirely new deck ideas I had been battering about within the cavernous recesses of my mind, but without much testing behind many of them, any adoration I had would be narcissistic and any thoughts or strategy I had would be completely unfounded. As I began to watch some replays, it was then that I began to run across the same deck putting up surprisingly consistent results over and over again. And yet, no one seemed to be giving the deck its due! It seemed to be mostly under the radar, which delighted me, as I love playing decks that people least expect. The deck shouldn’t be that much of a surprise to people as it is an established archetype, but again, not one that people are respecting at the moment.

When Patrick Chapin heralded the coming of this deck all those months ago, I must admit I didn’t believe the hype, and with the deck doing nothing special at Pro Tour: Austin I was all too quick to dismiss it. Well, someone or some group of people have certainly been doing their fair share of testing and tuning, as the deck is now just plowing through the competition. At first I felt its prevalence on the top tables of MTGO tournaments was the result of the interesting online metagame that tends to occasionally misrepresent a deck’s real-life popularity. Shapeshift is (comparably) a pretty inexpensive deck to build; while it’s not on the level on Mono Red Burn, which costs a mere pittance, the only expensive cards in the whole deck are the assorted Ravnica dual lands which find their way into most decks, alongside the various Tarmogofys and Baneslayer Angels and swaths of older cards that tend to command a rather high price. I began to believe in the deck a little more after seeing that it took the trophy at not only the last two Magic League tournaments, but also put a whooping four pilots into the Top 8 of their master tournament on Dec 27th. Those, my friends, are some impressive statistics.

Like I said, most of Scapeshift’s success has probably been the result of the deck’s evolution from clunky to streamlined, not unlike every combo deck. However, Scapeshift does not have some crystalline structure where there is almost no further room to alter the list lest its power begin to disintegrate. The above list is the same 75 that was used to win both back-to-back Extended tournaments on Magic League, but there have been several innovative card choices in some of the decks online which I tend to like. Their exact lists will be unknown for the time being until the mothership comes out of its holiday hibernation, but just on my own observations I can say that there have been a couple of switches away from some a hard-core deck solely concentrating on comboing out as soon as humanly possible. In lieu of somewhat weaker accelerants such as Search for Tomorrow (which, admittedly, is one of the decks few turn-1 plays) players are becoming a bit more defensive-minded. I have seen both Kitchen Finks and Firespout make the transition from benchwarmer to maindeck-worthy in order to buy more time against aggressive decks that would otherwise give it a little trouble. One of the other main changes has been to trade out the cost-prohibitive yet more versatile Cryptic Command for the more sleek and slender Condescend, which in my mind seems like a much better trade. Unless something has gone terribly wrong, you are more than likely going to have more mana than your opponent making Condescend just as much of a hard counter, but one that also has the option of hitting spells on the second or third turn which is obviously incredibly important. Yes, you no longer can no longer run the miracle Cryptic Command draws where you Fog for multiple turns while drawing an additional card, but the Scry ability of the Mirrodin block common is on par with the “draw a card” mode of the Lorwyn rare. Like many combo decks, card advantage is secondary to finding combo pieces and going off, and Scrying does a very good job of doing just that.

One of things that this deck has going for it is the resilience toward popular hate cards. Chalice of the Void, a now-ubiquitous hoser card, does almost nothing to stop this deck. Sure, it can be set on two, but that would imply that a) you were tapping four mana against a deck that can go off with a single resolved spell b) the Scapeshift player cares and doesn’t have one of their many counterspells with which it would want to cast it. A Chalice on two also tends to turn off most of the host deck’s main players, Hexmages or Thopter Foundries, and therefore is probably not the best use of the artifact. The best case scenario is probably trying to land it with 4 charge counters on it, but again, that implies an awfully big gamble on the Chalice caster’s part. If it resolves, you probably win. If it’s countered, you will almost assuredly lose. Additionally, the myriad graveyard hating spells — Ravenous Trap, maindecked Relic of Progenitus, etc — do absolutely nothing versus the Scapeshift player’s gameplan. Even what would seem like a potential hate card, Ghost Quarter, can often do nothing to stop the barrage of lands entering play at the same time.

Probably the prickliest pear for the Scapeshift player comes in the form of opposing counterspells, but even those are not unclearable hurdles. While the Uw or UB player is laying a single land at a time, the UGr player is rocketing up on lands, usually netting about an extra one per turn in the first 4 or so turns. This gives it a distinct advantage in a counter war, not to mention the fact that most of the opposing blue decks provide little to no pressure allowing the Scapeshifter to mold the perfect hand with his Ponders and Peer through Depths. Also the deck runs Gigadrowse, which tends to be game over against decks relying too much on simply winning a counter war.

The deck is not unbeatable, however, and some of the answers lie in rather unconventional solutions. One of the first ways to beat this deck is simply the rallying cry of red mages everywhere: “Kill them before they kills you.” The Scapeshift deck has few answers to resolve threats and the general plan against a turn 1 Steppe Lynx or Goblin Guide is the rallying cry of Sakura-Tribe Elders everywhere: “Chump Block.” If the Scapeshift player has to search for its namesake card then it has fewer resources to counter spells or accelerate our lands which can provide enough time for the aggressors to eke out the necessary damage to win.

One of the other ways to beat the deck lies on the opposite end of the spectrum: life gain. Aside from plinking away with 1/1s, there are not many alternative ways to actually deal damage aside from Scapeshift. Since there are only 9 Mountains and 2 Valakut, The Molten Pinnacles in the entire deck, that adds up to only 54 damage they deck can potentially dealt. That may seem like a lot, but the number gets less and less with every land fewer than 11 they have in play and with every mountain they have had the misfortune of having to play pre-Scapeshift. I have seen some players cast a desperation Scapeshift and mow down their opponents entire team because they were unable to kill them with damage due to Rhox War Monk life gain only to realize they have literally no other way to win the cards left in their library. A couple of Martyr of Sands activations can also put the game out of reach. While certainly not the most interesting or fool-proof way to win, gaining a fair amount of life can make the game almost unloseable.

The last ways to beat the deck also rely on the finite ability of Scapeshift’s damage potential and they both revolve around preemptively removing the potential for destruction. To illustrate: the Dredge versus Scapeshift match is an interesting one especially post board when players have learned what decks they are facing. I feel, if the players are familiar with how to win the matchup, Dredge has a MAJOR advantage over its opponent. A resolved Hedron Crab or Glimpse the Unthinkable can end the game before it really has a chance to begin as, if the milling player is wily enough, they will start to mill their opponents instead of themselves. As said before, there are only a finite number of lands that Scapeshift can tutor up, and putting enough of them in the graveyard can render the green sorcery useless. What good is Scapeshift if all of its Valakuts are in the graveyard? On that same note, one angle of attack that I’ve been looking into for other decks is library surgery. Cards such as Earwig Squad and Sadistic Sacrament can end the game on turn three by simply removing both Valakuts from the game. There’s nothing left for the good guys to do at that point but concede. These cards aren’t as specific as they seem either, as removing three key cards from many decks can be equally as back breaking. No more Thopter Foundries anyone?

Despite the various shortcomings that I’ve just highlighted, I would fancy that the titular deck of this article will be putting up very good numbers come the first few weeks of extended season. I am unsure as to whether it will last — the deck can be overcome — but until players begin to give the deck the respect it deserves, it will be easy pickings for Mr. Valakut. I’d love to hear any suggestions people may have for the deck whether they be card choices or matchup play suggestions, as I plan on using this deck to battle in the upcoming weeks if I can’t brew up a more interesting, consistent deck myself.

Thanks for reading.

Zach Jesse
Zoochz on MTGO
[email protected]