How March Of The Machine Helps Modern Hardened Scales

Hardened Scales has had a tough road in Modern, but Dom Harvey still holds hope. Will the March of the Machine additions he highlights change your mind?

Hardened Scales
Hardened Scales, illustrated by Mark Winters

I’m hooked on Hardened Scales, and March of the Machine is doing nothing to help that. After winning a Pro Tour Qualifier early in the pandemic with Golgari Scales in Pioneer and a Modern Challenge on Magic Online on the first weekend with Modern Horizons 2, I’ve leapt at any chance to load up counters on Walking Ballista and go to town. 

That hasn’t happened much in Modern recently, but that may be about to change…

Ozolith, the Shattered Spire

Scales Without Scales

There’s an obvious but sensible question for any Hardened Scales deck: what do you do without Hardened Scales? There aren’t many ways of finding it – it’s a notable miss for Ancient Stirrings if you’re playing by the rules – and you can’t afford to spend mana digging it up, since the appeal of Scales is casting it on Turn 1 and then curving out from there. Pioneer lists could turn to Winding Constrictor or Conclave Mentor, but those are off-limits for the Modern version, where one of the unique selling points is getting to fill your manabase with powerful colourless lands. 

Ozolith, the Shattered Spire lets Modern Hardened Scales finally have more copies of its namesake. It even dodges the occasional fail case of the original Scales – if you have too many Scales and not enough scaly things, it can be activated to harness its own effect or cycle towards something else. As an artifact, you can shield it with Welding Jar or sacrifice it to Arcbound Ravager, and it pumps Constructs from Urza’s Saga without doing anything. 

Artifact or Fiction

The Ozolith

It also pairs very well with its predecessor. The Ozolith (now just An Ozolith, I suppose) made it much easier to deal lethal out of nowhere by shuttling counters between permanents, and this new Ozolith makes it even better at that. With these working in tandem with all of your other enablers, it’s easy to make even the smallest creature into a dangerous threat.

Arcbound Ravager Walking Ballista Hangarback Walker

This new toy’s main drawback is its mana cost. Scales already has a glut of good two-drops, and this is yet another card campaigning for those slots. Arcbound Ravager and Walking Ballista are essential; Hangarback Walker is more expendable, but has earned its keep. Everyone else fights over the scraps – with Ozolith, the Shattered Spire in the mix, I doubt the Patchwork Automatons or Ingenious Smiths that rounded out previous lists will stick around, and I don’t see a return for Steel Overseer or Throne of Geth anytime soon. This one isn’t just another two-drop; it’s a productive way to use increments of two mana on future turns. Why play a marginal two-drop when you have so many good mana sinks already? 

Recent Tools

Scales has quietly picked up some important tools in the past year:

Boseiju, Who Endures Zabaz, the Glimmerwasp Haywire Mite

After the initial Modern Horizons 2 hype died down and the format settled, Scales fans had to justify their choice – why play this deck instead of Mono-White Hammer, which was weak to many of the same cards but seemed to be faster and more consistent? That question was unavoidable when the two decks faced each other – the Hammer matchup felt very difficult unless you had your best draw or could make a massive Walking Ballista quickly. 

Boseiju, Who Endures gives Scales a flexible piece of removal that doesn’t take up a spell slot and slots seamlessly into the manabase – you can happily run three or four copies without feeling the pinch, and Scales can support an artificially high land count because you have so many good mana sinks in both lands and spells. Zabaz, the Glimmerwasp is a cheap legend that in turn makes Boseiju even cheaper – since the two-drop slot is so crowded, turning the channel ability into a one-drop makes it easier to pair with a two-drop in later turns. 

Haywire Mite was a game-changer for green decks with Urza’s Saga, giving them a powerful tactic against other Saga decks – if your Saga ends first, you can find Haywire Mite and remove theirs before it can get most of its value. A one-drop artifact creature comes with a high floor in a deck with Arcbound Ravager and other modular effects. 

Force and Stone

Force of Vigor

With Ozolith, the Shattered Spire joining Hardened Scales and Ancient Stirrings as coloured cards that you can’t hit with Stirrings, you finally have enough green cards to support Force of Vigor. Historically, Scales has suffered against other decks that are weak to Force of Vigor, such as Amulet Titan, so getting to harness that weapon yourself is very appealing. When those decks aren’t popular, you will be less likely to face Force of Vigor yourself. 

The Stone Brain Ancient Stirrings

The Stone Brain gives everyone access to an effect that was gated by cost and colour before. In my preview piece for this card, I highlighted the danger of that – a whole new set of players gets to put the card in their deck when they shouldn’t! – but Scales is one of its better homes. The Stone Brain won’t fix your combo issues by itself, not least because it’s much worse on the draw when you most need the help, but it gives you a clear route to stealing games in those matchups without assembling some elaborate contraption. 

One advantage Scales has over Hammer and other decks is getting to use Ancient Stirrings to find its high-impact sideboard cards more often – not just The Stone Brain, but Chalice of the Void or Void Mirror if Cascade decks are popular, graveyard hate when that matters, and so on. Newcomers to Modern might not believe that there were once calls for Stirrings to be banned when it powered Tron and Amulet as well as a whole family of Mox Opal decks, but the card is still phenomenal in decks like this, and getting to play Stirrings is a big point in its favour.

Hardened Scales After March

Here’s where I plan to start when I come back to the deck after March of the Machine:

Gemstone Caverns

Gemstone Caverns is one of the most underplayed cards in Modern, but if you aren’t feeling lucky, a colourless land can be an unacceptable cost. Even monocoloured decks like Hammer tend to have heavy colour commitments, and stock Hammer lists are already shying away from maxing on Inkmoth Nexus

Gemstone Caverns

Hardened Scales is tailor-made for Gemstone Caverns – a mostly colourless deck with plenty of two-drops that you’d love to ramp out on Turn 1. Pre-game Gemstone Caverns also lets you play Urza’s Saga Turn 1 (or cast Stirrings to find it and still use your land drop on it) and start making Constructs as early as Turn 2.

Voltage Surge

Voltage Surge

Voltage Surge might be a surprising card to see in Modern, but it fills a particular niche in this deck. You already wanted a light red splash for the red ability on Zabaz, the Glimmerwasp to achieve the same result – often the thing you most want is a way to blow up your own artifact! Zabaz has this strange ability as a modular tie-in, but this comes up frequently with Hangarback Walker – an excellent card if you can pop it on demand, and often a mediocre one otherwise. 

A highly synergistic deck like this can’t afford many random off-plan removal spells, but Voltage Surge gives you extra sacrifice outlets while keeping the opponent honest. Focusing entirely on your own plan leaves you vulnerable to faster linear decks or the other powerful synergies prevalent in Modern, and you don’t want to be wholly reliant on Walking Ballista for interaction. 

Four damage is also a relevant number in Modern – Surge kills Wrenn and Six; Dryad of the Ilysian Grove; Omnath, Locus of Creation; Yawgmoth, Thran Physician; and a Fury with a Feign Death counter on it, to give just a few examples of cards that would survive a trusty Lightning Bolt

The Matchup Muddle

Indomitable Creativity Archon of Cruelty

It’s hard to pin down Hardened Scales’s place in Modern right now. I’m not sure what I actively want to play against, which isn’t encouraging, but the matchups that were tricky before have become easier over time despite – or sometimes because of – their new tools.

Five-Color Indomitable Creativity became popular after Modern Horizons 2 at Hammer’s peak because it could ‘combo off’ with Velomachus Lorehold or just lock up the game on the spot with Serra’s Emissary. The current crop of lists are more stable and can resolve Creativity more consistently – but a single Archon of Cruelty is much more beatable even without the copies of Orvar, the All-Form that many Scales lists pick for what is still admittedly a tough matchup. 

At the other end, Izzet Midrange is a fine matchup that you would often lose to a gigantic Murktide Regent. Ledger Shredder competing for those slots makes sense in the format at large, but is great news for our plucky robot army.  

So Long, Solitude?

Prismatic Ending Leyline Binding Solitude

The most promising development is that Solitude is quite lonely in Modern at the moment. The ban of Yorion, Sky Nomad cut the various Four-Color Control decks down to size, and Prismatic Ending is at a low ebb. This white removal that didn’t care how big your creatures were and left nothing behind from modular or Hangarback Walker posed a big problem – you couldn’t commit to winning quickly thanks to Solitude, but Yorion ensured you would lose a long game. The remaining Solitude decks still make you work hard for your wins, but those feel attainable now. 

Hardened Scales may never achieve the glory that it once had or that Hammer stole from it, but it’s gained enough to just about keep up with all the other exciting developments in Modern.