Going Rogue: Bant Hardened Scales
Hello and welcome back to Going Rogue, where winning isn't the goal, but it often happens anyway!
Anyone paying attention to Standard right now is dealing with a new monster deck in GW Hardened Scales. The card had some brewers excited last year, when Heroic was still in the environment, but to the surprise of many it's only now that the deck has emerged as a real contender. It seems that the addition of Nissa, Voice of Zendikar and her Oath were all it took to catapult the deck to Tier 1 status.
How it Works in Standard
Not familiar with the deck? Here's basically how it works: Every single creature you play has some sort of dependency and synergy with +1/+1 counters, and with a Hardened Scales in play, this gets out of hand very quickly. Your Servant of the Scale starts as a 2/2, and gives a +3/+3 bonus to something else when it dies. Your Hangarback Walker grows at a disgusting rate, and the Thopters it spits out grow twice as fast from Nissa's -2.
There's a lot of cute synergy in it that builds up to a strong deck, and my hypothesis is that we can do this a heck of a lot better in Modern.
+1/+1 counters have been central to a lot of mechanics over the years, and by dipping into the Modern card pool we gain access to some very powerful tools such as Undying, Graft, Evolve, and Proliferate.
On the other hand, Modern is a much tighter format, and if you are going to rely on synergies to power your deck, you certainly need to implement some tools to ensure your stars align. Even though the core deck will be more powerful, the rest of the format is much more powerful, so it's going to be Hardened Scales or bust. I'm not a big fan of tutors in a competitive format, but if we have access to a reasonably costed option, I think it behooves us to make it work.
Bringing it up to Modern Power Level
So first things first, let's take a look at my choices for favorite options among the improved card pool we gain access to on top of Standard's offering of Avatar of the Resolute, Endless One, Managorger Hydra, Servant of the Scale, Abzan Falconer, and Hangarback Walker.
Not the shortest list in the world, but I think these are the cards I'm most interested in theorycrafting with. Oh, let's not forget about Llanowar Reborn, either.
We have to be careful when building a deck like this, because it's very easy to get carried away with Magical Christmasland ideas of bad cards working out well. (This isn't EDH.) We still need to be streamlined as much as possible, and while we are going to rely on resolving Hardened Scales pretty hard, we need some other game to both enable that and provide a backup plan.
So if redundancy is the name of the game, then Wargate is the first card I want to start with. With a CMC of one, Hardened Scales is relatively easy to deploy via a Wargate, especially if we are able to add in some acceleration. Meanwhile, Wargate is easy to get other value out of in a deck with other cheap pieces. Servant of the Scale and Simic Initiate are ideal 1CMC ways to start off a chain of +1/+1 value, some of our big threats are going to be on 2CMC bodies, and we will likely have multiple land options to search for as well. While not as ideal as a starting hand with Hardened Scales, Wargate is going to provide a lot of affordable diversity, and form part of the backbone of this deck.
What Makes the Cut?
The creature selection in the Standard variant is certainly good, but we can do a lot better. The immediate cuts include Managorger Hydra and Endless One, as these aren't real modern cards in this archetype. After that, Abzan Falconer is unlikely to make the grade - certainly not all four copies.
The other two Standard inclusions in Hangarback Walker and Avatar of the Resolute require a closer look. For the Avatar, on one hand, the impact isn't as high as it could be. We work hard to let our 3/2 come in instead as a 5/4 or so - does getting it to 6/5 make it that much better? No. But - the fact that it is the best creature in the deck without Scales in play, and the fact that a late game Wargate could bring a double-digit Avatar into play definitely earns it a spot somewhere in the deck.
Meanwhile Hangarback Walker is an odd one. It loses points for not working at all with Wargate, but unfortunately that serves to justify a greater number of copies in the deck, so that we can access it naturally - rather than cutting copies as anti-synergy would normally guide us to do. On the other hand, it can be absolutely game-breaking with Scales in play if left unchecked for any length of time at all. Add a Nissa, Voice of Zendikar or Gavony Township to the deal and it's out of control.
Speaking of Nissa, I'm also not going to want all four copies in the Modern version, and her Oath is definitely not what this deck wants. Make a few cuts there, as well as shaving a Dromoka's Command or three, and we're looking at about 18 slots to work with. So let's narrow down our additions.
Simic Initiate is like Servant of the Scale but better. We'd be insane to run less than than the maximum. We then prioritize Birds over Hierarchs because this list is more likely to go wide than narrow, so Flying beats Exalted. Four Wargates might be the right number, but I want this deck to try running three, at least at first. And finally our Ooze patrol sits at two apiece because we can bring in extras from the sideboard to help control graveyards or if Path to Exile was nowhere to be found in game one.
If we find any extra room we find in the deck, I want to reserve it for Tezzeret's Gambit, as it's an affordable way to keep the gas flowing later in the game, and this deck wants as many Gavony Township effects as it can possibly get.
So, without further ado - the list!
Alex's Modern Bant Hardened Scales
Even from my own perspective, this looks like a janky brew, but in the minor amount of testing I was able to do with the deck it shocked me, taking down Grixis Control 2-1, and Jund 2-0. Time to retire as the undefeated champion of Modern? I think so.
I don't keep all of my brews around for very long, but this is one that I think I'll return to more often than usual and refine it over time. It's a lot of fun, and I learned a lot about the deck very quickly in the minimal testing I was able to accomplish.
- Predator Ooze is an absolute house of a card when Path to Exile is nowhere to be found. I underestimated the impact of resolving a growing, indestructible threat as early as turn 2. This thing wins games on its own.
- Nissa, Voice of Zendikar is also an exceptional card. Given her colour, she can fairly realistically be considered a two-mana Planeswalker. Going Birds into Nissa, make a plant to chump with, T3 Hardened scales + 1-drop + 2-drop into Nissa's -2 creates an obscene turn three board state.
- Tezzeret's Gambit is every bit as awesome as it looks on paper.
- Hangarback Walker with Llanowar Reborn is a vicious value play. It's very hard to beat a Hangarback surrounded by synergy. It might be more correct to run a full set in the main deck - but I still want to be cautious of Path to Exile
- Hardened Scales is not as necessary as I expected it to be. In fact, I didn't cast one in either of my two wins over Jund, winning instead on the back of Nissa, Hangarback, and Scavenging Ooze keeping his Tarmogoyfs at 2/3 or smaller. I think I still want to run all four, but I might want to cut back on a Wargate
- It's only been two matches, but it seemed that interaction wasn't all that necessary. I might consider cutting the lone Dromoka's Command from the deck and maintaining the focus on pressure. But then again, maybe not.
- One downside is that the deck hurts itself a fair bit. You often have to shock yourself to cast a 1-drop to respect what might be coming up next, and paying four for Tezzeret's Gambit isn't what you want to be doing in Modern. As a result, Kitchen Finks might be a good sideboard card. It doesn't synergize perfectly with the +1/+1 aggressive theme, but plays beautifully with the rest of the deck if we ever have to be on defense.
So there you have it. Hardened Scales is not just a thing in Standard. These cards should be available cheap within the next year, probably even before Dragons of Tarkir rotates, and it's the sort of card that just keeps getting better over time, as new synergistic cards are added to the format. Grab your set today and hang onto it, because who knows if the day someday comes where some variant of this deck is a tournament contender.
That's all for this week. Let me know your thoughts on this week's brew in the comments! And as usual, have fun, and may the force be with brew.