Regrets. I have a few, but then again too few to mention. Watching the top tables unfold at #GPHouston last weekend was like my wildest dream and worst nightmare at the same time. All those pros playing Hardened Scales, a deck I had taken to FNM just a couple of weeks ago. And I built it my way, which was really close to the builds that were in the Top 8.
I almost wrote about the deck when I played it, but it didn't do anything particularly powerful and I had so many Modern ideas to write about. Man, I could have looked like such a genius. While on the road recently I had a chance to play FNM in another city, and I played against the Four-Color Planeswalker list I wrote about here. The guy didn't recognize me but told me he got the list from StarCityGames.com® and really enjoyed playing it. That made my week. This could have made my year.
Before we go too much further, I should show you the Hardened Scales list from the GP, and the one I was playing.
- 4 Hangarback Walker
- 4 Abzan Falconer
- 4 Avatar of the Resolute
- 4 Endless One
- 4 Managorger Hydra
- 4 Servant of the Scale
This deck is obviously good, but was built for a different metagame from the one I expected. No Den Protector? No way to protect your team? Those are kisses of death around here. I chose to sacrifice some speed and aggression for a little more in the way of defense:
- 4 Hangarback Walker
- 2 Abzan Falconer
- 4 Avatar of the Resolute
- 3 Den Protector
- 4 Managorger Hydra
- 4 Servant of the Scale
- 2 Shaman of the Great Hunt
I was not a fan of Endless One in the deck when I tested it, but sample size may have been a factor as it looked very good on camera. That said, Shaman of the Great Hunt was amazing for me every time. Buffing every creature that connects would probably be enough, but four power and the ability to draw you many cards made it an auto-include for me.
I ran the single Inspiring Call in the main as insurance against the number of people playing sweepers locally, but I acknowledge that the lack of them in the current metagame makes them less important. Feat of Resistance was to protect me from the plethora of Reflector Mages being played and was often a blowout against people who tried to mid-combat Collected Company me. That ended poorly for them.
I've been playing with variants on this deck since it performed well at Pro Tour Magic Origins. The deck can be so good that my friend Ryan borrowed it from me and proceeded to win a tournament despite a litany of misplays that he still chuckles at to this day. Nonetheless, when I heard the coverage team talking about so many people playing the deck at the GP, I was skeptical to say the least.
Why Did It Work?
Hardened Scales is the little-kiddiest of G/W Little Kid decks. Its entire plan relies on being able to attack with creatures and, as a corollary, being able to keep creatures alive. Almost every card in the list is unimpressive on its own. It has zero disruption and very little interaction with anything but the opponent's face. In most metagames, the deck should be mediocre at best.
This is not most metagames, though. If we look at the top decks in the format, they are all pretty poorly positioned to deal with a swarm of ever-growing creatures:
Four-Color Rally has as few as two copies of Murderous Cut in the 75 and no way to interact with Hardened Scales itself. Bouncing a Managorger Hydra or Hangarback Walker can be painful, but only if Four-Color Rally can then win before the giant creatures return. Abzan Falconer makes blocking impossible, and with the sideboard Hallowed Moonlights, you can't even be sure that a Collected Company or Rally the Ancestors midcombat will do anything. Add to that the propensity of Rally's lands to enter the battlefield tapped, thus slowing down potential responses to a deck that goes huge in a hurry, and you end up with a matchup that on average favors Hardened Scales.
Bant Company might have less interaction than Rally. No Murderous Cut, no Sidisi's Faithful, and Dromoka's Command is only good if they have Deathmist Raptor because we go much, much bigger. They have a disruptive draw that can beat Hardened Scales, but we have many more draws that can race them. Their bounce effects have a lot to do, so the opponent can't save them all for Hangarback Walker, which is one card they can't easily answer.
Jeskai Black is loaded with cards that win the early game along with ways to recur them. A lot of that removal does nothing against Hardened Scales: Fiery Impulse, Kolaghan's Command, and Radiant Flames are most often not going to get anything significant off the table. Utter End and (if they still run them) Murderous Cut can do some work, but they don't have nearly enough to keep up.
Atarka Red can get the combo early and win that way, but our creatures get big enough quickly enough that they often have time breaking through. A well-timed Dromoka's Command can wreck their entire plan, and after sideboarding, we have Lantern Scout or Abzan Battle Priest to ensure we win the race.
Abzan Aggro has substantially cut down on the removal spells it runs, preferring to stock up on more copies of cards like Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet to beat the Rally matchup. They still have Abzan Charm, which is especially bad for us if it hits a Hangarback Walker, but by-and-large they are looking to overwhelm us with cheap threats that get much bigger later on. Oh, and Siege Rhino. Our threats outscale theirs, making it harder for them to execute their plan.
One thing notably missing from the list of top decks is a true control deck. Esper Dragons, U/W Control, Mage-Ring Control, and their ilk have all been notably and unexpectedly absent from top tables at recent events, probably because of how good the card Collected Company is against those decks. The number of very good creature-lands in the format also does not help. This is the biggest factor in the success of Hardened Scales; there's no natural predator for a go-wide aggro deck, even one as draw-dependant as Hardened Scales.
Can We Play This Going Forward?
What an excellent question. GP Houston showed us that the deck is imminently beatable when it doesn't get its best draws, but it does have some very powerful and fast starts that are hard to beat with almost any draw. I think it unlikely that the other top tier decks will adapt their removal suite too much to take Hardened Scales into account, for a couple of reasons:
- It's still a G/W Aggro deck that many people will think is beneath them, and that does have trouble getting consistent draws.
- Some people will just start playing Hardened Scales.
If you do want to play Hardened Scales, I strongly suggest having some sort of protection against removal. Whether that is Feat of Resistance to protect against targeted removal or Inspiring Call against sweepers, the blowout potential is huge. A lot has been said about holding up mana with this deck and how it is suboptimal, but losing your entire battlefield is even farther below optimal!
As it happens, I did not play Hardened Scales this weekend. I am not really a fan of fair Magic, preferring instead to do as much as possible as quickly as possible. While testing the following list, my good friend Mike walked by and remarked, “No wonder you're winning. You're playing Commander against a Standard deck.” I find it hard to argue.
- 3 Den Protector
- 4 Rattleclaw Mystic
- 1 World Breaker
- 1 Kozilek, the Great Distortion
- 2 Nissa, Vastwood Seer
The G/R Ramp decks that have been very popular tend to win by playing more huge threats than you have answers. It's a fine plan and one that has seen a fair degree of success, but it wasn't calling out to me. I had been messing around with the idea of taking all the turns in Standard, based on ideas from Ali Aintrazi and this one by Shawn Briggs.
Of course I had to put my own little twist on it, one Bennie Smith would approve of. The singleton Swamp is strictly for Villainous Wealth, which may yet make it to the maindeck. When you are ramping like crazy, you will often hit huge numbers on it, and in the ramp pseudo-mirror, that will end the game. The Den Protector - Crush of Tentacles interaction has won me multiple games, bouncing the battlefield while buying me time to draw my threats.
I've been pulling off some crazy plays with this list, including taking five turns in a row before attacking with a 27/27 Lumbering Falls after using Ugin's ultimate and winning the game with an opponent at 43 life by taking three turns, using Nissa's ultimate, and copying one awakened Part the Waterveil with two Mirrorpools to get three turns and eighteen +1/+1 counters in one fell swoop. This deck is a ton of fun and very powerful.
Modern Update: How's the Emeria Deck Doing?
Really, really well. I've lost one match in testing where I could not draw lands, but otherwise it has been winning by surviving until the engine comes online. The real MVP is the commenter who suggested Trading Post for the deck.
It has been absolutely incredible and I cannot believe I missed it. Discarding cards to make Ensnaring Bridge better, gaining life, recurring artifacts, saving creatures from exile effects, drawing cards...this deck really uses all the parts of Trading Post. It took the place of Bottle Gnomes, which really wasn't carrying its weight.
Perilous Myr has been better than I could have hoped. Constantly recurring it to shoot opposing creatures (or sometimes players) while making Thopters or drawing cards is just the best feeling, to say nothing of what happens when you equip it with Mortarpod.
One other major change was swapping out Court Hussar for Wall of Omens. Although the Wall doesn't dig as deeply and cannot attack, the extra point of toughness and the fact that it sticks around when reanimated put it slightly ahead in my mind. It also comes down a turn earlier, which can be relevant in some matchups. One card under consideration is Flickerwisp, which also makes Wall of Omens better than Hussar. Considering I play Flickerwisp in Legacy, I don't know how I missed it, but it can certainly do some work in the deck, blinking Lone Missionaries and Ichor Wellsprings and the like.
I'll leave you with one story that highlights one final change: fitting in Phantasmal Image. Playing against an Esper Gifts opponent, I was able to use Stonecloaker to disrupt his first attempt to reanimate a bomb, in this case Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite. He was able to take out my Stonecloaker, though, so his next Gifts Ungiven put Iona and a second Unburial Rites in the graveyard and threatened to leave me in a very rough spot.
He cast the Unburial Rites and named white with Iona, leaving me with two outs. I untapped; drew Phantasmal Image; cast it, copying Iona, Shield of Emeria; named white; and then cast Neurok Replica and sacrificed it to bounce his Iona, Shield of Emeria. Felt good.
As always, thanks for stopping by this week. I am looking for some ideas for brews, so if you have something you really want to see in a deck, get in touch with me and let me know.
Until next time...Brew On!