An In-Depth Look at GW Hardened Scales

Last weekend, I was one of many players who chose GW Hardened Scales at GP Houston, ending up with a decent 12-3 record—good for 18th place. Today I’m going to talk a bit about the deck and what place I think it has in the current Standard format.

GW Hardened Scales

Those of you who follow my articles know that this is not the type of deck I like to play—I almost always prefer power over synergy. Sure, some synergy is great, but being in a top deck war and drawing Servant of the Scale is just not my gig. This is also an aggro deck with a lot of 3-drops but no use for extra lands, so you’re put in that awkward spot where you need to draw at least three but no more than five lands most games.

All in all, I hate it.

Yet, I played it anyway. Why? Because I thought it was more powerful than anything else. Personal choice and experience definitely count, but there is always a point where a deck is powerful enough that not playing it is incorrect. Tons of my friends liked it, and I felt like I didn’t have enough information to flat-out say they were wrong. More importantly, I didn’t want to miss out on the broken deck of the tournament by being skeptical like I had been so many times before *cough* Elves *cough*.

After playing the tournament with it, I can safely say that it’s not broken. It’s definitely a playable deck—likely tier 1—but it’s not inherently better than any other deck. It’s good enough that you can play it if you want to, but not good enough that you should play it even if you don’t want to. I didn’t want to, so I kind of regret playing it despite finishing well—I wish that I had played a Jace deck, which I would have enjoyed more while maintaining a similar power level.

This is an incredibly straightforward deck, as it requires most of its pieces to function properly. You want to play Hardened Scales and then you want cards that work with it and with each other, and these are just the best cards that work with Hardened Scales and with each other, so there is almost no room for customization. It’s similar to how Mono-Black and Mono-Blue decks were built in the devotion era—those decks were all almost identical because they were already playing the best mono-colored cards that they could play and there wasn’t anything to add.

With Hardened Scales, you’re pretty much locked into 59 of the spots. They are not mortal locks, as I can see playing, say, one fewer Abzan Falconer in a different metagame, or maybe fewer 1-drops, but right now you want the list to have 59 of those cards and a flex slot, for which I chose Oath of Nissa. Of the other Hardened Scales decks in the 32, Nathan Holiday played 59 + Forest, Mark Jacobson and Sam Black played 59 + Valorous Stance, Chapman Sims played 59 + Plains, and only Brad Nelson diverged a bit, playing 24 lands and 2 Silkwrap instead of 2 Abzan Falconer.

A lot of those people worked independently after getting the original list, so the fact that they were all basically playing the same list is telling. I chose to play Oath of Nissa because I didn’t want to have a hand full of uncastable 3-drops all the time, but I also didn’t want to flood and it was a good compromise. It also helped cast my sideboard Gideons and it served to protect my Hardened Scales from Dromoka’s Commands, so all in all I was happy with it. I think Valorous Stance and Silkwrap are also valid choices (I like Stance more because it can kill your own Hangarback), but I think that playing a 24th land is wrong.

Sideboard

Despite playing basically the same main deck, Hardened Scales pilots had a lot more variety in their sideboards. That said, you simply do not sideboard very much in most matches, as your deck is so incredibly linear. Here is what I played:

3 Moonlight: This is the best card in your sideboard and it’s necessary to beat Rally. I would not play fewer than 3 and I would consider playing 4. People say it’s awkward that you have to keep mana up, and that’s true sometimes, but losing to a Rally is way more awkward. It’s nice to stop Company, and by all means do it if you can, but it’s here for Rally, so you don’t have to keep mana up too early in the game.

2 Silkwrap: I like this versus Rally and the mirror, but there’s a limit to the number of spells that you can board in, so I only have 2. In the mirror you’d likely want more, but that’s about it.

3 Valorous Stance: Valorous Stance is quite good against the Mardabzan decks that we’ve seen lately (or whatever they’re called). Killing Kalitas is very important, and killing Siege Rhino and Goblin Dark-Dwellers is not so bad either. You can side it in versus RG if they have the Become Immense combo, and I also like that it randomly kills your Hangarback Walkers in some matchups (such as Ramp). In the GP, I had a game in which I killed my Hangarback to make 8 tokens and then minused Nissa with Hardened Scales, which I’m sure my opponent wasn’t very happy about.

1 Evolutionary Leap: I’m less in love with Evolutionary Leap than other people who play the deck. The main problem I have with it is that there are very few decks that kill all your creatures but do not pressure you—decks like Abzan, Mardu, and Esper Dragons all have enough of a clock that you don’t have time to rebuild your board, especially since you have multiple creatures that take a while to get going. It is nice to be able to kill Hangarback, though, and I was told that Leap is good against Bant because of Reflector Mage. It’s also quite good versus the few mono-removal/no pressure decks you’ll face, such as some builds of Jeskai or Grixis.

2 Gideon, Ally of Zendikar: I didn’t like Gideon very much and would likely not play him again. 4 mana is a decent amount and double-white is not trivial to get, and the benefits are not that big, especially since, again, most decks can at least somewhat pressure it. I only boarded it in against one opponent at the GP (Grixis Control) and it would have been great except it got Negated, for whatever that’s worth.

1 Lantern Scout: A way to gain life against red. You don’t have any other Allies to trigger it (you don’t board in Gideon versus them), but your creatures are big and one hit is usually enough to get you out of burn or even combo range.

3 Gleam of Authority: This was the best racing tool I could find versus Ramp. It’s not very versatile or resilient, but it kills them very quickly and often lets you swing through World Breakers.

Other Options

I don’t like this card very much because any shock deals with it, and if you make an attack under the assumption you’re going to gain life and they do shock it, then you’re in trouble. The same can be said about Lantern Scout and Atarka’s Command, of course, but at least that’s one card and not three.

This is the other option against red. It’s the best versus the combo, but the worst versus non-combo. You are worse against the combo version, but it’s the least prevalent version right now—if you expect more of it or if you think you can beat the non-combo version regardless, go for it. It’s also randomly good against BR Dragons sometimes.

I’m not sure why this card is here. I assume you want to Fireball people with this plus Nissa, especially post-Ugin, but in practice, I don’t think it’s super likely to work.

Jacob Wilson played one of these in his sideboard to illustrate the fact that this deck rarely sideboards many cards. He went 2-4, so I don’t recommend it.

Playing the Deck

As far as playing, it’s straightforward. Normally you have 5 important decision points:

  1. Your opening hand. This deck mulligans a lot. A lot. Many, many times. This is because one of your cards (Hardened Scales) is significantly better than all your other cards. With Hardened Scales, you’re favored against almost everybody. Without Hardened Scales, you’re at best even against most people. As a result, it’s important to maximize the number of games in which you have Hardened Scales. It makes every other card you draw better, often twice as good—drawing Hardened Scales + Servant + Hangarback, for example, is just better than drawing 2 Servants + 2 Hangarbacks, even though it’s one fewer card. If you have Hardened Scales, it often doesn’t matter what else you have, and most 5-card hands with Hardened Scales will play better than 7-card hands without it. I think almost any hand with Hardened Scales and a semblance of a curve is a keep, whereas to keep a hand without Hardened Scales, you need a very good curve (ideally with a 1-drop plus Avatar of the Resolute, but you can get away with slightly slower hands in some matchups if you have Nissa).
  2. Your turn 3. Which 1- and 2-drops to play is generally intuitive, but which 3-drop to play is often not. Most of the time you want Hydra earlier, since it grows bigger, but if they’re just casting a removal spell, then you’d rather have Nissa as you get an extra Plant that will eventually grow. It’s also possible to play Abzan Falconer on turn 3 so that you can outlast it and play another 3-drop on turn 4. I’d go with Hydra as the default, but if you are playing against a deck that has no board and is very likely to have removal, then go with Nissa.
  3. +1 or -2 Nissa. The default is to +1 Nissa, and then -2 it twice, because that will boost the Plant and any other creature you play the following turn, but sometimes you want to -2 it immediately to push damage through or to ensure that you will get an activation out of it against decks that can kill it with Ruinous Path, Mantis Rider, or a burn spell. If you think you need exactly one Nissa activation to win, then do it immediately. If you think you might need 2 or that just 1 is not going to make any difference, then make a Plant.

The Matchups

Rally

Most people who played the deck thought this was a good matchup for them. I do not agree—I think it’s close, but you are not favored. They have Reflector Mage, Sidisi’s Faithful, Company, and Rally, all of which are very good against you and impossible to answer. You can be faster than them, but it’s unlikely unless they have a poor draw. Outside of having a busted draw, Abzan Falconer is your best chance to win as it lets you hit for a ton with no counterplay that is not Company into bounce.

Out

In

Post-board, it gets better for you as Moonlight is excellent against them. Again, don’t worry about leaving mana up to counter Company most of the time unless they pass with open mana and make it very obvious—it’s there for Rally. You want to take out 4 Hangarback Walkers and 1 Servant of the Scale. Hangarback is too slow and they have too much bounce (and sometimes they bring in Anafenza), and Servant is the card I take out when I have nothing else to take out.

Ramp

This is a good matchup because it’s a race where if you win the race you kill them, but if they win it they don’t necessarily kill you. You also have more ways to disrupt them now that most lists play mana creatures that are vulnerable to Dromoka’s Command. Ugin is the best card, and it’s very tough to beat—they usually have to Ugin for 3 so try to keep a 4/4 Hangarback or Endless One in play to at least finish it off.

Out (Play)

Out (Draw)

 

In

Falconer doesn’t do much as their creatures either fly or have reach, and Oath of Nissa is not very exciting because you don’t have time to durdle and there’s no card that’s better than the others versus them other than Hardened Scales. The other card you’re taking out is likely to be decent regardless, but I think the sideboard cards are better. On the draw, you need the board pressure (and it’s also much harder to Dromoka’s Command a mana creature on turn 2) but on the play, you have a lot more chances to do that. A lot of people don’t realize this, but World Breaker can exile Hangarback Walker —I had opponents who just kept hitting my irrelevant lands because they were so used to colorless-but-not-artifact creatures.

Atarka

This is another good matchup because your creatures are big and your clock is fast. If they don’t play the combo it’s even better for you, but if they have the combo, then you can definitely lose. Luckily, most people don’t play it right now.

Out

In

If they don’t have the combo, then just do -1 Hydra for +1 Scout.

Bant Company

I never played against Bant Company during the tournament or on Magic Online, so I don’t have experience with the matchup. I was told by multiple people that it was a good matchup and by multiple people that it was the hardest matchup, so go figure. I think Bant Company is just a worse version of Rally anyway, so I don’t understand why anyone would play it, but I would not expect the matchup to be good.

Out

In

Moonlight is not as good against them as it is against Rally, but it still has enough applications between Company, Deathmist, and Roc that I think you want to keep it—but don’t worry too much about it. I think Leap is good because of Reflector Mage, and because killing your own Hangarback is important against Silkwrap.

Abzan/Mardu

This matchup is tricky and depends on how well their draw matches up against yours. You have some time, but not a ton since they have a number of 4-power creatures that can race you if you get to an empty board. Kalitas is also quite good against you. At the same time, you get some draws that flood the board and that they can never beat, and sometimes Hangarback Walker single-handedly wins the game if they don’t have Kalitas or Abzan Charm.

Out

In

Valorous Stance is very good against them because it protects your Hydra from removal and because it kills Rhino and Kalitas. If they are playing a more controlled version, then Gideon is good, but I don’t love it against most Rhino decks.

Jeskai

This is similar to the Abzan matchup, except they usually come in on either side of the spectrum (more aggro or more control) whereas Mardu/Abzan are in the middle. They usually have fewer ways to deal with Hangarback Walker, so it’s easier to steal a free win (though I lost to a Jeskai player that had Jeskai Charm and Reflector Mage in his deck), but they can also get some free wins of their own with Jace.

You want to take out some number of Dromoka’s Commands, Falconers, and Servants. You want a mix of Valorous Stance, Silkwrap, and Gideon depending on what they play (if they have Mantis Rider, for example, you want Silkwrap but not Gideon).

Mirror

The mirror is a race. Be on the play and/or draw Hardened Scales and you’ll likely win. Fail to do those things and you’ll likely lose. It’s a very unexciting matchup.

Out

In

It’s a toss up between taking out Falconer or Nissa as I’ve heard she’s not very good on the draw. After board there is more removal, so you’re less likely to die to Hydra but otherwise, the matchup remains similar.

Tips and Tricks

  • Avatar of the Resolute has reach. It’s rare to have a game in which your opponent has flying creatures, you have Avatar, and they don’t suicide their creature into it. PT second-place finisher Ryoichi Tamada suicided his Eldrazi Skyspawner in a feature match against Thiago Saporito, for example. It’s hard to blame them—the card doesn’t look like it would have reach and there’s no apparent reason for it. Maybe it’s just a very tall avatar? In any case, make sure that you know it has reach.
  • Outlast is only sorcery speed. When I tried to block my opponent’s creature and outlast mid combat on Magic Online, it did not go well for me.
  • You can play Hangarbacks and Endless Ones for 0. They will die (even if you have Hardened Scales), but they’ll trigger Managorger Hydra.
  • You can use your Servant of the Scale to fight something with Dromoka’s Command and put its counters on another creature mid-combat. This works very well if you have Hardened Scales as you get roughly a million counters.
  • Oath of Nissa can protect your Hardened Scales from Dromoka’s Command, so sometimes it’s worth casting it first.
  • You almost never search for Plains. It’s more likely that you’ll have trouble casting GGGG worth of spells in a turn than that you’ll want to cast WW. The usual sequence is Forest, Forest, Canopy Vista, Canopy Vista, unless you want to cast a turn-2 Dromoka’s Command. You only have 3 fetchable white sources, so sometimes your Wooded Foothills has to find a Forest so that, in a future turn, your Flooded Strand still has a Canopy Vista to find.

That’s what I have for today! I hope you’ve enjoyed this and see you next week!

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