This weekend I decided to stay home and watch the excitement coming from both #GPHouston and #SCGPhilly. I mostly focused on the Grand Prix because a new twist on an old Hardened Scales deck was making its first appearance on the big stage. I was a little jealous watching all my friends get to battle with such a sweet deck in a major tournament after I reluctantly decided to take the weekend off. I did however play about thirty matches with the deck at home and learned a bunch in the process about Hardened Scales.
Admittedly I was a little slow to come around on this deck after an initial glowing review from Sam Pardee stating that “Matt Nass may have broke it again.” I don’t think that’s even close to the case, but he definitely innovated another very powerful deck with some legs. The deck began as kind of a secret amongst a small circle of people including Sam, but after excessive play on Magic Online this past week the secret got out and a lot of very aware and active players caught on. Needless to say, the shiny new toy was good enough for many top-level players to bring to #GPHouston. Now, with so many good players playing this deck it was surely going to crack the Top 8. It did in fact do so, with two copies making Top 8 in the capable hands of Chapman Sim and a near-perfect Swiss record by Mark Jacobson. Neither player was able to make it to the finals of the event.
- 4 Abzan Falconer
- 4 Avatar of the Resolute
- 4 Servant of the Scale
- 4 Managorger Hydra
- 4 Hangarback Walker
- 4 Endless One
The decklist I ended up testing with was remarkably similar to the deck Mark Jacobson registered. I had a second Gideon, Ally of Zendikar where he had a Secure the Wastes in the sideboard. I also only had three Silkwrap in the sideboard along with a third Valorous Stance, but a 24th land and no Valorous Stance in the maindeck. I also had Lantern Scout instead of Abzan Battle Priest as well.
I like the changes Mark had and think Secure the Wastes could be a solid way to flood the battlefield late in the game against grindy decks, so I would definitely try that when playing the deck in the future. I’d probably stick with Lantern Scout as Abzan Battle Priest is weak against cards like Fiery Impulse, not giving us a guaranteed turn of lifelink against an Atarka Red opponent.
The main plan of this deck is to cast a turn-one Hardened Scales. That’s it. Simple enough, right? Seriously though, the amount of percentage points you get with a turn one Hardened Scales is pretty crazy. The fact that it exponentially increases the value of each of your cards makes it one of the most important cards I’ve seen in a deck in a long time. The comparison between it and Eye of Ugin in the Modern Eldrazi decks is relatively accurate and may even be a bit understated. Each creature in this deck gets some major value with Hardened Scales on the battlefield, and it also turns Dromoka’s Command into a powerful removal spell that is able to destroy a reasonable-sized creature even though our creatures may be a bit smaller.
The major reason this deck got a big boost, however, is Nissa, Voice of Zendikar. With Hardened Scales on the battlefield she is able to put two +1+1 counters on each creature, which is simply just busted. One of the most powerful draws with this deck is casting a Dromoka’s Command adding counters to your Hangarback Walker (with a little help from Hardened Scales) and fighting and trading the Hangarback Walker for another creature such as Ayli, Eternal Pilgrim or Deathmist Raptor.
Hangarback Walker will spew out a swarm of Thopters that can get double the counters from a follow-up Nissa, Voice of Zendikar. You can make as many as six creatures on turn three with this play, with a little help from your opponent having a Deathtouch creature of course. After Nissa, Voice of Zendikar pumps them, that’s an attack for eighteen damage on turn four. This deck has the ability to spew out tons of damage very quickly with draws like this. Unfortunately this deck has very little room to work with in terms of tuning. The deck forces us to play with creatures that have +1+1 counter bonuses and there are very few that fit the bill in a format as full of powerful cards as this one. One card I saw a couple of players playing this weekend was Oath of Nissa. I am not a huge fan of Oath of Nissa in this deck, but one thing I did like was how it can insulate Hardened Scales from Dromoka’s Command. I think I would suggest cutting the maindeck Valorous Stance from Mark’s list or the 24th land I played for an Oath of Nissa instead.
Another card I was extremely impressed with in sideboarded games was Evolutionary Leap; I could even see putting a copy into the maindeck. The ability to sacrifice a Hangarback Walker and go wide is something the deck can really benefit from. I’d be willing to potentially swap an Abzan Falconer to the sideboard for the Evolutionary Leap main because drawing multiple Falconers is rarely good and Evolutionary Leap gives you a way to dig for the Falconer if you are in need of a flying swarm. Since there isn’t much to discuss in terms of changing the deck, let’s focus on its strengths and weaknesses.
The best draws with this deck are nearly unbeatable. If you want free wins in Standard, this deck is a good choice. Hardened Scales on turn one followed up by curving out with any of your creatures topped off by Nissa, Voice of Zendikar will beat basically anything. Hardened Scales has the ability to get far ahead in the early game and stay ahead.
Another strength of this deck is how well it mulligans. Now, recovering from a mull to five may be tough, but I find myself going to six cards frequently when I don’t have a Hardened Scales. Hardened Scales counts for substantially more than one card, so mulliganing a weak hand trying to find Hardened Scales is highly encouraged.
In my experience Hardened Scales will excel in a field full of decks like Bant Company, Four-Color Rally, Eldrazi Ramp and even the Eldrazi Blue decks. These decks lack enough actual spot removal to break up synergistic starts, making it easy to gum up the ground, create an army of large creatures, and eventually either win in the air with the help of Abzan Falconer trample over whatever is in the way with Avatar of the Resolute and Managorger Hydra.
In other words, this deck will excel in a metagame short on removal-heavy decks because it will allow us to reap the rewards of our synergies before they can be broken apart. The clock is clearly ticking against Rally; we don’t have inevitability because of their ability to combo off, so be aggressive. Against Bant Company, however, we have the luxury of time to set up a winning position and capitalize. Managorger Hydra can be repetitively bounced by both these decks, but at the same time it grows incredibly quickly to uncontrollable size with a Hardened Scales on the battlefield so it will only take one or two attacks to end the game. Nissa, Voice of Zendikar can be easily defended when the battlefield is stalled, giving us plenty of time to ultimate and draw a critical mass of creatures and Hardened Scales to end the game.
The ramp matchup can be a little difficult if they draw really well and your draws are slow, but we can usually beat them before they can throw a big-enough haymaker at us. Additionally, Endless One and Hangarback Walker give us colorless threats to dodge a crippling Ugin, the Spirit Dragon battlefield wipe. Against the Eldrazi Blue decks, we just have a strict deck advantage for the matchup. Hangarback Walker is a huge problem for their deck to attack through at times, and they are unable to break up any of our synergies. If the metagames in your area floods with these specific decks, I would definitely recommend playing Hardened Scales… and this weekend was one of those times.
With all that this deck has going for it in explosiveness, its weakness can nonetheless be lethargic starts. Casting a turn-one Endless One followed by an Avatar of the Resolute puts five power onto the battlefield by turn two, but when the Avatar is met by an opposing Roast what you’re left behind with is remarkably unimpressive. Your battlefield can very easily end up with a couple of 1/1s and an 0/1 Plant token while you’re desperately trying to protect Nissa, Voice of Zendikar, hoping to get an ultimate off and get back into the game.
This leads me to another weakness of this deck, its inability to catch up from behind. The deck has no reach to close out a game once it falls behind on the battlefield. Other than Nissa, Voice of Zendikar, most of our topdecks are pretty unimpressive, and Nissa only helps if we already have a few creatures on the battlefield. Standard is full of value two-for-ones, and our deck lacks anything like that to catch us back up in a pinch. Sometimes Hangarback Walker can buy us enough time, but usually it’s not enough once we fall behind.
Because Hardened Scales is a pure creature synergy deck, it will fall prey to any deck with a lot of removal. This means the deck is weak to decks like Jeskai Black, Mardu Green, Grixis Control, or anything else with this approach. Hardened Scales, Avatar of the Resolute, and Nissa, Voice of Zendikar rely on us flooding the battlefield with creatures to be at their best. Hardened Scales wants us to follow up with creatures while Nissa and Avatar of the Resolute wants us to have a bunch of creatures on the battlefield to provide a big benefit. Once our creatures are destroyed the impact of all of these cards is drastically decreased, leaving us with lackluster draws in the midgame. The problem with this deck is that (other than Hangarback Walker) we have no creatures that are resilient. The closest thing we get is a little value out of Servant of the Scales when it dies. So if our opponent curves out removal spells for our creatures and follows up with a reasonable-sized threat like a Siege Rhino, we have very few ways to catch back up.
The sideboard for this deck is pretty unimpressive. Like Affinity, we should refrain from diluting our deck in sideboarded games because we need to rely on our synergies for the weak cards to have a chance to outperform stronger individual cards. There are no “silver bullet” sideboard cards that instantly solve any of this deck’s major issues like there are in Modern. When Jacob Wilson piloted Hardened Scales this weekend at #GPHouston, he went so far as to put a Hedron Alignment he could not cast in his sideboard as a statement that the sideboard cards just aren’t that important for this specific deck.
Though I would define the sideboard as a weakness of the deck, we can still discuss a simple plan for how to approach sideboarded games. I would look to identify your opponent’s deck and swap your removal suite as necessary. Most of the decks fall into a category of either a removal deck or a Collected Company deck. Collected Company decks are usually short on removal spells but have plenty of ways to bounce our creatures instead. Against the Collected Company decks we want to identify our weakest card, for instance Hangarback Walker is remarkably slow and gets bounced excessively, so you look to the sideboard for upgrades. Hangarback Walker is also too slow against Rally decks, so we can remove those in favor of some amount of Hallowed Moonlights and fill out the rest with Silkwrap. I don’t like the full playset of Silkwraps in the sideboard of Mark’s deck, as I don’t think I’d ever want to dilute my deck with so many removal spells that I sacrifice on my beneficial synergies, but there might be spots where I felt that Silkwrap was a significant upgrade to Dromoka’s Command and could be substituted directly.
Against a deck full of removal, Abzan Falconer is extremely poor because it is expensive, slow, and only has a solid effect on the game if we have enough other creatures on the battlefield already. I find myself cutting Abzan Falconer against decks like Jeskai Black, Mardu Green, and Grixis Control in favor of Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, Secure the Wastes, and a couple of Evolutionary Leap to make our creatures better against spot removal. Abzan Battle Priest is likely a concession to Atarka Red strategies; I myself played Lantern Scout in these slots as a guaranteed way to get that very necessary lifelink effect against a Fiery Impulse – all we need is one turn to swing the race in our favor. It’s possible Mark had other matchups in mind with the Abzan Battle Priest, in which case it may be correct.
After a major tournament like a Grand Prix it’s much easier to identify the direction of a format. I think Hardened Scales will stick around for a few more weeks, but I don’t foresee it having much in the way of significant results in a format full of midrange and control decks chock full of removal spells. I would have a hard time saying that anything other than Four-Color Rally is the correct deck to play from here on out because of how impressive it’s been, even in environments where it’s been targeted heavily. That said, If I was personally going to play a deck next weekend I would likely move towards a deck with Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet such as Andrew Cuneo’s second-place deck from #GPHouston. For now though, I will be playing Modern to prepare for #GPDetroit next weekend and answer the question at hand. Should I stick it out with the Eldrazi, or should defect and try and defeat them? Let me know what you think in the forums below!