Week in Review: GP Houston

Let’s start off by congratulating Owen Turtenwald for his victory with Rally. Owen’s win was hardly a walk in the park, with a stacked Top 8 full of old-school pros and PT grinders. So now that Owen has established yet again that he is a master, let’s avoid talking about Rally since it’s been covered to death at this point and rejoice that the rest of the Top 8 is pretty interesting. With only two Rally decks and 12 copies of Collected Company in the Top 8, Houston wasn’t completely overrun with green value decks. In fact, an entirely new archetype popped up, and it only featured one Eldrazi!

The Falconer Has Landed

As written in all great fairy tales, Hardened Scales finally transformed into a real boy. The once-niche pet deck of FNM players and the occasional Japanese Pro was the breakout deck of GP Houston. Trumpeted by Matt Nass(ty) and Sam Pardee, the deck spread to a large chunk of the Face-to-Face and CFB set, culminating in a Top 4 finish by Mark Jacobson. So what happened to make this bad GW deck turn into a beatdown machine?

Gavony Township effect that doubles as a threat that has to be dealt with is the big gain for the deck. Nissa allows Scales’ rag-tag group of lovable scamps to skip all the creature tapping and mana investment to get right into making them large enough to crash in. If you have Hardened Scales in play already, this is closer to a mini-Overrun that ends the game in two turns (or immediately if Abzan Falconer is involved). Decks like Rally and Bant CoCo can’t effectively attack into you once you get set up and while Reflector Mage is a beating, it’s one of the only useful pieces of interaction they have. Just make your creatures bigger than theirs and play with your awesome draft deck against their Grizzly Bears and 2/3s.

This deck is successful when it curves and draws the right pieces, which was true before Oath of the Gatewatch as well, but Nissa doubled the number of high-quality draws in the deck. Additionally, the format got weaker against a deck going wide.

Scales sets out to plop down a bunch of undersized threats quickly that are cheap and unremarkable enough that the opponent feels bad and loses tempo spending mana and removal to deal with them. There are also a lot of creature-heavy decks that aren’t actually great at creature combat. So popping out a bunch of 1/1 and 2/2 monsters that grow over time isn’t that weak a plan in context. Unlike Atarka Tokens though, which seeks to have six or seven 1/1 creatures against a Siege Rhino or random Rally creatures, Scales wants to make four creatures and then have them all become 3/3 or bigger and run the opponent over. Best-case, they all get boosted to five or more power, turn on Abzan Falconer, and you one-shot them. Instead of using Atarka’s Command for this process, the pump is permanent, which means getting in incidental damage is far less relevant—unlike the Atarka decks.

So because very few decks are on real sweepers and creatures take a while to dominate the board, it opens up the field for a deck like Scales to make its mark. This is one of the best parts about Standard—with enough set releases, an also-ran can get the key card or two to become a great choice for at least a weekend. Moving forward, it’s now a known quantity, which is going to be an issue when players adopt more sweepers. You aren’t going to get free wins, and that alone could be enough to drop it and play a bigger green deck.

Dark Jeskai

Andrew Cuneo, 2nd at GP Houston

I’ve already discussed my love for the Jeskai shells in-depth and Cuneo’s version is no exception. While I was battling with Draconic Roar and Thunderbreak Regent to win longer games, Cuneo jammed a playset of Painful Truths alongside the usual Jace and Dig Through Time combo. With that much draw, you aren’t going to run out of gas in a normal game and both Kalitas and Gideon give the deck threats that get scarier the longer they remain in play.

Notably, he runs 3 Fiery Impulse, which is a card I’ve been on the fence about cutting altogether. Chapin was also rather disappointed with how the card played in Dark Jeskai and I’m not sure what the deck gains by having it over Draconic Roar at this point. Even without Dragons to activate it, I’m much happier playing a limited Searing Spear over a card I have to work to use in the Rally or Bant CoCo matches. It isn’t unplayable, but the smaller number of cheap spells and the move toward situational counters like Disdainful Stroke and Dispel makes it harder to turn on without an early Jace.

On the other hand, the more Duress and Transgress the Mind you start packing, the easier it is to hit spell mastery early. Plus, having a 1-mana answer to Jace is nice, especially on the draw where it won’t disrupt your curve. Roast is a card that’s played more for lack of alternatives—and the massive life swing when combined with Soulfire Grand Master. As much as I want another spell like Crackling Doom, the 2-mana options are limited.

If you want a controlling take on the deck, I like this build more than the slower Dragons build that won the MOCS. The added draw is huge and the only card I miss is Chandra, Flamecaller. I would definitely slot her in somewhere as another way to close the game out and her wrath ability is situationally huge. There are certain board states that are nigh unbeatable that Chandra completely clears and she’s one of the best cards in a long game against Mardu Green.

For a more aggressive take on the deck, I highly recommend that you start with Jeskai Dragons and then decide if you want to go with the 4th color for Painful Truths and Crackling Doom. One piece of tech that my opponent beat me down with in the Jeskai mirror this weekend was Stormchaser Mage. Stormchaser Mage makes for a nice complement to Mantis Rider and retains value throughout the game thanks to the evasion. It isn’t that hard to line up turns where you get in for 2-3 damage while advancing your game plan and the rest of the time it pings for 1 and is pretty good at dodging common removal.

The biggest tip I can give about playing the deck is always to look at how you plan on winning 2-3 turns down the line. Even if it doesn’t look like it’ll come to putting their life total to zero, figure out what best puts you in the position to take over the board and win from there. You win so many games by doing things like end-step Jeskai Charm, untap, buyback Jeskai Charm, Draconic Roar or Mantis Rider for the last few points.

That’s it for this week—next week we’ll see if Scales is a flash in the pan or not. Oh, and if you’re in the Bay Area, don’t play GR Ramp—that matchup is atrocious. If you play elsewhere, I recommend it unless you have a significant skill gap over your competition or have already locked in on a deck for the season. Sweepers and 7-drops are great right now and GR Ramp has both in spades.

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