I’ve been a fan of the Rally deck for some time, and I played it at Grand Prix Oakland to an 11-4 finish. I thought the deck was amazing then, but my biggest criticism was that I felt weak to creatures. If my opponent got a really good creature into play, all I could hope to do was bounce it with Sidisi’s Faithful, which was good enough to win some of the time but woefully inadequate other times—this is what led me to play 3 Merciless Executioner. That felt like solid technology at the time and a big improvement to the deck.
Reflector Mage, however, is insane. INSANE! I already thought Rally was the best deck—then it got a new great card, and it solves the biggest problem the deck had previously.
Rally has never been dominant and there are various reasons why. It’s never heavily represented due to deck complexity, it’s hard to play, and there are tons of moving parts to track. It’s unpopular because it’s not fun. It’s easy to get discouraged if you’re inexperienced with the deck and get blown out by Hallowed Moonlight and to feel like the deck is less powerful than it actually is.
By far, the most common response I get when I ask people why they don’t want to play Rally is “eh, I don’t like that deck.” I made a decision long ago that I wouldn’t use the excuse “it’s not fun” as players did with Jund in Standard or “it’s too hard” as they did with Birthing Pod in Modern. I’ve said these things myself, and then watched as others won with decks I dismissed myself for childish reasons. If my goal is to be a Platinum Professional Magic player, I can’t refuse to play a deck that I know in my heart is the best because it’s not fun or too hard.
I’ve always been impressed with the results of this deck in spite of the fact that it’s difficult to play and underrepresented in terms of the number of people playing it. It consistently puts a couple people in the Top 8 and it’s not the most played deck. It even had great results online in spite of a bug making Anafenza even more powerful against the deck than it should have been.
Hardened Scales: A Cultural Phenomenon
I play a Daily Event with Rally and go 3-1 and feel nothing. I look at the two 4-0 decks and it’s Jacob Wilson and BBD with Hardened Scales decks.
It turns out that Hardened Scales + Nissa = Tempered Steel. I’ve played Tempered Steel before—that’s a pretty busted card. Conley Woods, LSV, PV, and Josh Utter-Leyton all made Top 8 of the World Championships with it. I only won Player of the Year in 2011 because all of them lost before the finals.
I recall seeing David Phelps make Top 8 of Grand Prix Indy with a Hardened Scales deck before Nissa was even printed.
Yuuya Watanabe played a Hardened Scales deck at Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir. Maybe there was something there? I begged Jacob Wilson for a list, which in hindsight was foolish. The deck is all 4-ofs of all the most obvious cards you could possible play in a Hardened Scales deck.
I built the deck in the interest of being thorough and played some matches.
GW Hardened Scales
I knew Rally was awesome, and worst-case scenario it would be an acceptable fallback choice and Hardened Scales could just be broken. I went 14-0 in my first 14 matches with the deck before playing against Reid Duke in the finals of an 8-person event on MTGO and losing—he was playing Atarka Red with Nissa.
I dismissed the deck.
I asked Reid to play me some more games to test my deck. He claimed to be busy playing a Daily Event. I checked out the event and he’s 1-2 receiving a bye in the final round. I checked who went 4-0 in the Daily and it’s babones with a Hardened Scales deck.
I begged Brock Parker to play one match against me of Rally vs. Hardened Scales. Rally wins. I’m convinced.
No seriously, what is going on?
I registered this:
I went with Dark Ascension Evolving Wilds and people seemed to think they were ugly. No points for nostalgia?
This is the deck list and approximate sideboarding strategy I used to win Grand Prix Houston. I’ve written quite a lot on the topic of Rally and I’ve often said that it’s by far the best deck in the format, and that Standard has been solved. I played against someone in the Grand Prix who said that he had read my articles about Rally, and he criticized the hyperbole I used to describe the deck, Standard, and specifically the card Reflector Mage.
He lost—mostly to Reflector Mage.
I played against Hardened Scales five times in the event and went 5-0 against it. They were always close matches that could’ve gone either way, but I felt favored and it only took a small amount of good fortune to come out on top five times. It certainly didn’t feel like I won five coin flips.
My advice in sideboarding is to never sideboard more than 5 cards in any matchup. It’s a good idea to trim a Rally when you do sideboard in a lot of cards because you’re often sideboarding in noncreature cards, and the risk of having weak Collected Companys is very real.
Dispel is great in the mirror as I expected opponents to have Rally, Collected Company, Hallowed Moonlight, and their own Dispel. Anafenza is expensive and unreliable. I had excellent results in the mirror with my version of Rally with zero Anafenza against people who had them. Reflector Mage is a total game-changer.
Duress is an excellent hedge against Hallowed Moonlight that can also hit counterspells, planeswalkers, and sweeper effects. It is almost never a dead card and helps versus unknown unique sideboard cards.
Ayli, Eternal Pilgrim was included on Reid’s recommendation. I’ve always hated the card and I frequently sideboard it out as it never did much for me in the event. I played it in spite of the fact that I believe it’s bad because I’m human and I’m capable of being wrong. I assumed I was, and trusted that Reid was right. I’m still unsure what’s optimal though.
Grim Haruspex was also included for this reason. I'm confident that exactly 1 copy of the card is absolutely correct.
I had an amazing time in Houston and this win was extra sweet for me. I faced some of the toughest competition in the late rounds and, with lucky draws, I came out on top. I beat PV, EFro, Shahar Shenhar, and Andrew Cuneo, among many other talented players. Moving forward, I think the Hardened Scales deck is competitive but nothing special. Two in the Top 8 is nice and all, but there were about 30 players who played the deck and it was such a high density of talented players—so many of them did poorly that I suspect that if you took those same 30 players and had them play any other unique archetype that they would have had similar results. Rally will be the best deck until that card rotates out.
Quick anecdote: So many people were playing Hardened Scales that on Day 2, when I would ask if my opponent had dice and wanted to high roll for choice of play or draw, I knew that all the people who didn't have dice were not playing Scales.
Thanks as always for reading and all your continued support.