I have a bad habit of not playing with the best cards. Not bad cards, mind you--just, the very best cards, the exciting game-winning mythic rares. When Dragonlord Ojutai was the name of the game, I did everything in my power to play any other deck. When Elspeth, Sun's Champion was deciding games left and right, I let my curve stop at Siege Rhino. With feature appearances in five of the top 8 decks at Grand Prix Memphis last weekend, The Scarab God is everywhere in Standard these days, well, everywhere except my decklist.
Look, it's not some being different for the sake of being different thing. I'm as Spike-y as they come, I promise. For whatever reason, I keep convincing myself that playing these overpowered cards isn't in my best interests. And for what it's worth, I'm sure that sometimes I've been right. Yes, sometimes I've essentially handicapped myself by not playing with these overpowered cards, but other times I've been right and have created a substantial edge for myself by exploiting those same overpowered cards.
That's the key: these cards are exploitable. Aside from being absurdly powerful, the thing they all have in common is being expensive. Not expensive in the financial sense, although yes, they were all worth a pretty penny in their heyday. No, expensive in the converted mana cost sense, which is what makes them exploitable.
Expensive spells demand your whole turn to cast. Powerful, expensive spells demand not just one full turn, but your whole game plan as well. To get the most mileage out of your best cards, you tune your deck around creating the situations in which they thrive. You seek to create the same favorable turn in which to deploy your great card time and time again, but in so doing you create a repetitive play pattern that savvy opponents can take advantage of.
Don't get me wrong: these cards pay you off for doing this in a big way. When your opponent isn't able to stop you from engineering the situation you want, you win the game. If you want to beat these cards, you have to be able to keep your opponent off their A-plan, but that's easier said than done. Their entire deck and all of their in-game planning is going towards creating said situation, but you can't afford to give it that same attention.
Think of a Magic deck as some cartoonish piece of heavy machinery. Levers and buttons everywhere, lots of gears and pulleys and tons of accompanying grinding and clanking noises. These machines are prone to malfunctions, and your job is to fix anything that goes wrong. But at the same time, your rival's machine is bigger and fancier than yours, so if both machines work as intended, their end product will outshine yours. You can't leave your machine alone to go sabotage theirs though, as your machine is likely to go up in flames in the interim. So, what do you do?
You study their machine before the big day. You become infinitely familiar with the sounds it makes as it churns along. You learn every possible thing that could go wrong with it and how to tell if one of those issues is about to pop out of the woodwork. You figure out how to tell if their gears are getting tired or if their pulleys are overtaxed.
You pick your moment, and you throw a well-placed wrench into their machine.
The Two Kinds of Scarab Gods
In the current Standard metagame, you'll see copies of The Scarab God out of both control and midrange strategies. The control decks play their copies of The Scarab God in a much more scripted, and thus exploitable manner, so that's going to be our focus.
The above list is pretty typical of the control shells people are playing right now. Froehlich and Vance might have lost in the top 8, but U/B Control was everywhere at Grand Prix Memphis. Some versions will splash a third color, either white for Settle the Wreckage or red for Abrade and/or Harnessed Lightning, but the idea is the same regardless. Maintain a clear battlefield in the early game, keep the cards coming with Glimmer of Genius and/or Hieroglyphic Illumination, utilize Torrential Gearhulk to pull ahead, and slam the door shut with The Scarab God in the late game. As plans go, this one is pretty airtight.
Dealing with The Scarab God out of this deck can feel hopeless. You've chipped in for some damage where you could, picked your spots well to double-spell through counter magic, played around Torrential Gearhulk blowouts like a champ, and finally have managed to grow a reasonable battlefield that should close the game out in just a couple turns. And then they slam The Scarab God.
All the work you did throughout the entire game, undone by a single card. The precious two creatures you've managed to protect look foolish next to the undead hordes that The Scarab God creates. This game is over.
There's two kinds of Scarab Gods out of the control decks. The good ones like from the last example, where it single-handedly takes over a simplified battlefield. And then there's the desperation Scarab Gods, the "this game has spiraled out of control and I just need to slam Scarab God on turn 5 and hope it stabilizes the battlefield" kind of Scarab God.
You can't win the games where everything goes perfect for them. That's understandable. When they get to play The Scarab God onto a nearly empty battlefield with four mana up, you are extremely unlikely to win. You shouldn't try to win those games.
To beat these decks, we need to force them to play desperation Scarab Gods.
Not letting your opponent play the good kind of Scarab God actually has very little to do with The Scarab God itself. After all, The Scarab God itself isn't doing anything to create the situations it's good in. It can't, it's not even supposed to be played until then!
You force desperation Scarab Gods by just playing good Magic against the control deck. Make something go wrong with their game plan. Don't let them just trade card for card every turn forever. Ride early threats to a consistent battlefield advantage. Punish their stumbles with sticky threats. Every deck will have a different plan for making something go wrong for the control decks, and you need to execute on that plan to have any chance against The Scarab God.
Honestly, in the finishing blow role that the control decks want to use it in, The Scarab God isn't anything special. Yeah, it wins the game in short order at basically no risk, but so did Pearl Lake Ancient and every other control finisher we've seen over the years. The thing The Scarab God does different is just flat out steal games where things didn't go according to plan. It's that ability of The Scarab God that we can work to mitigate.
Setting Up to Beat a Desperation Scarab God
So, you did it. You got a fast start and put your opponent under so much pressure that they were forced to cast The Scarab God on turn 5. What now?
Do: Play Clean Answers.
The easiest way to win these games is to Vraska's Contempt that Scarab God right then and there and get a free swing with your team in. This sequence is the whole reason that control decks don't like to play The Scarab God on turn 5: it opens them up to losing the game on the spot if you have the answer. So, you should probably have some answers in your deck if you're trying to take the game to turn 5 or later.
Aside from Vraska's Contempt, the best clean answers to be playing right now are Cast Out, Ixalan's Binding, and Essence Scatter. Essence Scatter in particular is great right now, as it doubles as an answer to Torrential Gearhulk. You know a format's in a good spot when Essence Scatter is better than Negate against the control decks.
Don't: Play Too Many Clean Answers.
But don't get too excited about being able to answer The Scarab God. If you overload on answers, you won't be able to force them to play it in desperation mode. It's really hard to get your control opponent to feel threatened when you've drawn two answers to The Scarab God, answers that just sit in your hand, unable to help you put them under pressure.
The best answers to play are the ones that do something else. That's why I like Essence Scatter so much, as it also stops them from pulling ahead with a Torrential Gearhulk play. Cast Out is also good for this reason, as you can cycle it early if you need more pressure.
If your answers only deal with The Scarab God and little more, three is the number to play. You don't necessarily want it in your opening hand, and you definitely don't want to draw two, but you do want to find one when you need it. If you have access to the class of answers that can also do something else, you can safely bump the number you play up to five or so. It's still not free to play these cards, and you still don't want too many, but you can play more than three.
Do: Have a plan for when you can't answer The Scarab God.
Because you can't afford to play enough answers to guarantee that you have one when they go for The Scarab God, you need to have another avenue of attack. In early turns, the only stabilizing factor of The Scarab God on the turn it's played is it's 5/5 body. Let's make that no good.
Notably, The Scarab God lacks flying. Coincidentally, a flying offense was the A Plan of both the finalist decks at Grand Prix Memphis. G/R Monsters leans heavily on Rekindling Phoenix and Glorybringer, and The Scarab God sure can't block either of those creatures. Sultai Constrictor ( Snakes and Ladders ) has no creatures with flying in the entire 75, but it sure does use Hadana's Climb to accomplish the same thing.
Even if you don't have access to evasion, you can make The Scarab God's body look unimpressive. Hazoret the Fervent attacks through The Scarab God with ease. If you have a Carnage Tyrant on the battlefield, you probably don't care too much about a The Scarab God that can't activate its ability.
But things aren't always that good sitting across the table from The Scarab God. Sometimes, the best we can do is have a single big creature that forces a trade with our opponent's Scarab God. This can be an okay state of affairs for us despite The Scarab God's recursive abilities. The key is to have a bunch of small creatures that can get meaningful damage through while the titans of the battlefield trade off. Then ideally we have a fresh dumb ground brute to replace our fallen champion with, and our opponent will find themselves in that same desperate scenario next turn, up a land perhaps but down a sizable chunk of life. That might be game right there.
And finally, let's not understate the value of non-clean answers to The Scarab God. You don't have to live in fear of them bringing The Scarab God back in the end step. A simple Struggle can clear the way for a meaningful attack, and your opponent will just be in the same situation again next turn. Removal that doesn't exile isn't ideal against The Scarab God, but it'll do in a pinch; you just have to be sure to have the speed to back up these tempo plays.
Don't forget to use effects like these in the end step when you don't want to attack. By killing The Scarab God in the end step, you delay its inevitable return to their hand until their end step and stop them from deploying it again for a whole extra turn cycle. That extra turn can be a valuable opportunity to sneak a few more points of damage in and clinch the game. One of my favorite tricks is to jam a four power attacker into The Scarab God and then wait to finish it off with my Walking Ballista until the end step.
Don't: Force them to play The Scarab God when you can't beat it.
This is a tricky one. Sometimes, you can't beat The Scarab God if they play it. You just have some reasonable but not impressive ground creatures on the battlefield, creatures which will be forced to meekly stop at the stop sign that is The Scarab God. You're really hoping they decide against slamming that Scarab God on turn 5 and you get some more time to find an answer or another plan of attack.
The good news is that your control opponents also don't want to play their Scarab God on five. Doing so is scary. What if you Vraska's Contempt their Scarab God? What if you just fly over it with a Glorybringer? If they don't feel forced to make such a risky play, they won't.
So feign weakness. Refrain from deploying that third threat if it would make your battlefield a hair too imposing. Don't represent lethal, because if you do they will go for their last resort play. It doesn't matter how well you represent or bluff an answer to The Scarab God; if you force them into a situation where they need you to not have it, they're going to simply cross their fingers and hope for the best. Slow yourself down and bide your time until you figure out a way to beat The Scarab God.
Do: Avoid making The Scarab God good if it's going to be sticking around.
Sometimes, despite your best efforts to appear weak, they go ahead and play The Scarab God early anyway, and there's not a thing you can do about it. It trumps your battlefield and you can't stop them from untapping with it on the battlefield, but the game isn't over yet, so don't panic.
Often, this situation comes about from your opponent having an exceptionally weak hand. Your battlefield isn't particularly threatening, but their draw has developed so poorly that they feel severely threatened by it anyway. You need to keep the game moving and play to a longer game where their bad draw loses, but you need to do so in a way that doesn't let their Scarab God take over the game despite their other cards.
Rule number one in these spots is to avoid trading. If you don't let your creatures hit the graveyard, their Scarab God will just be a 5/5. 5/5s are good, but every creature oriented deck in Standard can do better than that.
The good news here is that The Scarab God is so good that it has cannibalized the format against itself. Because answering The Scarab God is necessary, a high priority has been placed on removal that exiles its target. This can make it hard for these control decks to actually get creatures into the yard to reanimate with The Scarab God.
If you find yourself up against a long-term Scarab God, avoid playing out creatures that die to their situational non-exile removal. When possible, don't give them a Fatal Push or Moment of Craving target. Sure, you could play that Earthshaker Khenra, you have nothing else to do with the mana. But then they hit it with a Moment of Craving and reanimate it with their Scarab God. Now they have a 5/5 and a 4/4, and all you had to do to prevent this was not give them something to kill.
There's some cards we can play that will incidentally help us in these situations. Scrapheap Scrounger is one I've liked a lot, as keeping a Scrapheap Scrounger in your graveyard and two mana up can effectively counter their activation of The Scarab God. And if you do end up bringing back that Scrounger, remember you can hold priority to double or triple activate to empty your graveyard as much as possible. Lots of decks can fit Scavenger Grounds into their mana base for free, and that card is excellent at turning The Scarab God into a vanilla 5/5.
Do: Combine these tricks when appropriate.
Your best results will come from using a "little of Column A little of Column B" approach to these tricks. Let's say your opponent deployed that desperation Scarab God on turn 5 or 6. Your battlefield was decent but not amazing, and it did effectively end your attacks. You opt to double Lightning Strike it in your end step, and they pass back to you without doing anything, reclaiming their Scarab God at the end of their turn.
You want to begin your turn by attacking, and then if their life total is still not in the critical range, you should start preparing to fight a long-term Scarab God. Don't let them get a creature in the graveyard this turn via countering a spell, simply pass back and resolve your creatures after they tap out for The Scarab God again.
Or maybe you have a Glorybringer that you played after they tapped out for The Scarab God. You can't answer that Scarab God, but you're executing the plan of having another way of beating it. They're at eight right now during your main phase, and you have a second Glorybringer in hand. Should you cast it?
No! Sure, if everything goes well you'll win the game this turn. But everything won't go well. You didn't give them an opportunity to counter your Glorybringer, and they could very easily have a counterspell. If they do, not only will you not kill them, you'll give them a flying blocker to answer your Glorybringer. That's bad.
In the end, understand that you should be thinking about how you can deal with The Scarab God from the second you see them play that first Drowned Catacomb, not from the second they put The Scarab God on the stack. Powerful cards warp formats and shape games, and you need to let your opponent's powerful cards shape your games from turn 1 if you want to maximize your chance of beating them.