December 24, 2015

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Going Rogue: Sideboard Scepter Control

Hello and welcome back to another edition of Going Rogue, where winning isn't the goal but it often happens anyway.

I've been playing this game since 1993, and I'm not sure I've ever seen a card quite as exciting as Isochron Scepter. To any Timmy or Johnny, and especially the control-lovers among them, there are fewer cards more tantalizing than one that lets you play Path to Exile every single turn. The bulk of my Magic history has been casual play at the kitchen table, and I can recall too many games to count that were decided by this card (or more specifically, the one stuck under it.)

With a more analytical eye, though, it's not surprising that the card doesn't see significant competitive play. It's a tempo pit, making your first one- or two-mana spell cost four instead, and although it looks like infinite card advantage, it's actually disadvantage until you get two or more activations out of it. In a Modern meta-environment with Burn, Infect, and Zoo threatening to kill by turn 4, and uncounterable Abrupt Decays looking for easy two-for-ones, it begins to make a lot of sense why this card doesn't see significant play.

But I'm not willing to give up just yet. The card, when left unanswered, is absurdly powerful and able to take over games against top-tier decks. So there's gotta be a way to Clear a Path. One way would be to maindeck Slaughter Games, and strip away the cards you fear most. But that involves surviving beyond turn 4, playing multiple copies of a card that doesn't synergize with Isochron Scepter, and having to draw it.

The other way is to approach deck-building with a strategy that relies on a concept I wrote about last month, the Transformative Sideboard. The idea behind the transformative sideboard is that by playing a deck with certain noteworthy attributes (e.g. tokens, creatureless, all artifacts), you can lead your opponent towards making certain sideboard decisions to respond to those attributes. With that in mind, you then shift gears, and take advantage of their otherwise-correct decisions. So basically, you need to give them a reason to board out answers to Isochron Scepter, like Abrupt Decay and Maelstrom Pulse.

Sideboarding Scepter into UWr Control

Enter UWr Control. UWr Control is an excellent, formerly-Tier 1 deck that uses cheap removal and permission spells to control the early game, grind out card advantage with Snapcaster Mages (Magi?), and eventually win on the backs of difficult-to-interact-with threats like Geist of Saint Traft or Celestial Colonnade.

One of the traits that makes UWr Control so successful is that it generates virtual card advantage by making most of your opponent's removal spells into dead draws, so the tables are tilted heavily in your favour in game one - a trait often reserved primarily for aggro or combo decks. Enter Game 2, though, and things get a little different. Pyroclasms show up to clear away your Geists, Ghost Quarters for your Colonnades, and all of a sudden your opponent can re-stabilize in the late game and make it a fairer match.

This doesn't have to be the case though. What if you came back for game 2 with a very different set of threats that also suited your control strategy? This is where Isochron Scepter shines like every casual player dreams it should.

This tactic doesn't come for free, however. Vendilion Clique is a good enough reason to keep Abrupt Decays in (although in a Jund > Abzan world, maybe Lightning Bolt suits this role well enough and the Decays would still get cut, but let's play it safe), and there are too many cards at 3CMC or higher than don't fit. At the same time, the presents further opportunities. If we're going to cut expensive cards, we can rely less on lands too.

The changes here are subtle enough that the main deck will play a very similar game. The biggest compromise is losing Electrolyze, which will certainly hurt against decks like BW Tokens or Infect. Timely Reinforcements helps here, to an extent. There is also a greater emphasis on cheap counterspells - adding in Izzet Charm and Deprive in place of Supreme Verdict and more copies of Cryptic Command weaken some elements of the mid-late game pre-board in favour of cards that support the transformation better.

The transformation will usually look something like this:

UWr Control → UWr Scepter Control Transformation

Cutting Cryptic Command in a blue control deck might seem insane, but the reality is that we are relying on Isochron Scepter to compensate for that loss of card advantage and then some. We want to have as few cards out of Scepter-range as possible, and Timely Reinforcements is usually going to be more important than Cryptic, especially when we're running twelve other counterspells, and sideboarding out some of our extra blue mana.

Cutting mana resources in a control deck is also non-traditional, to say the least, however we are really going to rarely need more than four mana in any given turn. With Scepter and Lightning Bolt (and Lightning Helix), Celestial Colonnade becomes a very-backup win condition, and doesn't need to be reliably activated, and extra lands can instead be used to refuel if needed via Oona's Grace.

For the same reason, Deprive comes in to replace Mana Leak as an option that fits under the Scepter and remains relevant in the late game. Deprive under the scepter basically gives you an emblem that reads "Landfall - Whenever a land enters the battlefield under you control, counter the next spell an opponent casts" , and when that land is Halimar Depths, the game is as good as over.

Finally, there are some fringe options in the sideboard that might need a little bit of explaining. Condemn is simply a fifth Path to Exile for decks rich in early creatures, or those with toughness greater than three. Our inevitability makes opposing life rather insignificant, and we could even play more of these if we wanted to. Marrow Shards is there to address our weakness to creature card-advantage, such as Lingering Souls, filling the hole left by Electrolyze's departure. And Beckon Apparition is an Isochron-friendly replacement to Relic of Progenitus.

Does it Work?

Against the decks that the transformation is strong against, you will certainly have to transform back for game three, as Scepter hate comes back in. Still, while this occupies a huge chunk of your sideboard options, it should hypothetically mean you're forcing many dead cards in every game - probably a good way to win. The more awkward thing is that against the decks that don't naturally pack effects that destroy Scepter, you might be better served with the maindeck plan anyways, as the Scepter can slow you down vs. aggro matchups - unless you're patient about resolving it.

The harshest reality is that this article is poorly timed. Scepter Sideboard Control had a better shot at making it this time last year. The reason for this is of course Kolaghan's Command. While unlike its Golgari counterpart, you can counter it, "K-Command" is a strong enough anti-control card that you're likely to have a hard time chasing it out of the deck. Still, you can play around it with relative ease - or this may call for adding a Dispel or two in the 75.

Tier 1 or not, this is probably the best shot Isochron Scepter has in Modern today. No other colour combination offers a powerful-enough mix of two-or-less CMC instants, except maybe five-colour control (which is another topic for another day.)

If you're willing to trade win % for the satisfaction of counter-locking your opponent out of the game, give this build a shot, and let me know your feedback! Otherwise, that's all for today. Until next time, have fun, and may the force be with brew.