People over-complicate the process of picking a Modern deck. It is way simpler than it looks: you can play whatever you like as long as it is broken.
But what is a broken deck?
A broken deck is any one that can break one of the fundamental axes along which Magic: The Gathering is designed, be it mana or cards. You can do so by accessing a billion cards, cheating a billion permanents into play early, adding a billion mana (seven on turn 3 is enough, I guess?) very early, etc. The concept of virtual card advantage, which is killing your opponent in a noninteractive enough way that their whole deck is completely irrelevant, also ties into this, and gives an extra layer of complexity to the analysis. You have to consider whether, say, Burn or Grixis Death’s Shadow (through Temur Battle Rage’s combo-kill) is noninteractive enough in a given metagame to be considered “broken,” but you can circumvent this by simply picking the decks that have at least some level of broken written into them, like Dredge, Tron, Amulet, or Phoenix.
But this article isn’t about any of those decks.
Is Scales Good?
Scales is an incredibly odd deck because it doesn’t smell like it’s broken. You aren’t accruing card advantage, you are somewhat slow out of the gates, a lot of your combo-kills are convoluted and easy to miss, and a lot of your games, simply put, look lame. And yet, it is broken. The turn-3 pure goldfish rate is easily around 10%, which is on par with the fastest Modern decks, and even though you are a volume-based deck, you actually mulligan quite well.
So, what the hell?
Scales’ “broken-ness” is hidden under one of the layers beneath the mana/tempo axis, which is creature sizing. Creatures are designed to be a certain size at certain points in the game, and creature counters (and, more importantly for the deck, abilities tied to counters) are designed with that in mind. Hardened Scales is designed to make a 3/3 enter the battlefield as a 4/4 in Limited, not for repeated use spending 0 mana with Ravager, completely breaking how it was supposed to scale with the board. That’s where the “broken” comes from.
Hangarback, Ballista, and Inkmoth are the three payoff/kill conditions. All three attack from completely different angles (and Ravager itself can be considered a fourth), and none of them can be considered “card advantage” in a traditional sense. The deck mostly goes “tall” instead of “wide” with the advantages it accumulates. But it is broken all the same.
Of course, you can only run four Hardened Scales. But the London mulligan will help a lot in that regard, as it will for every deck dependent on specific cards. You’ll simply have more playable hands with Hardened Scales in them. Scales thrives on volume too, but your cards don’t stack linearly: an extra counter on a Ballista can be the difference between killing off a Noble Hierarch on turn 2 and staying in play or not, which is absolutely massive. So a hand with 6 or 5 that has Scales usually doesn’t need as many artifacts to be powerful.
Why Play Scales Now?
After a couple of years hovering around the top of the metagame, Scales was pushed out of the winners’ circle, mostly, in my view, because of its bad Phoenix matchup. The metagame shifts brought on by the London mulligan rules and open deck lists, though, in my view, all favor it:
- There are good artifact hate cards for basically every possible broken linear with the London mulligan, and you play Stirrings and Welding Jars. Scales can do a great prison impression post-board by default at no cost against a wide variety of decks with cards like Grafdigger’s Cage, Damping Sphere, and Pithing Needle.
- Chalice of the Void, one of the “trendy” cards for this MC, is downright embarrassing against you. Have you ever proliferated one with Throne of Geth? It is really cool.
- Tron is a predator for both Humans, which is the level-1 deck against the aforementioned linears, and for Phoenix. Scales isn’t a deck with many lopsided matchups, but Tron is your best by a wide margin. You’re one of the few in the format that go over the top of their top-end (even turn-3 Karn doesn’t do much most of the time if they’re on the draw), and you even get targeted hate post-board while they don’t get anything of substance.
- U/R Phoenix, which was the #1 deck for the last few months and a bad matchup, has already been losing steam due to the rise of Humans and Tron in recent events, which is another good turn of events. It also isn’t a deck that interacts with others very well, which might make it a bad choice in a tournament poised to have a lot of new linear decks in the field.
Glossing over the rest of the Modern metagame, Scales is a very well-rounded deck. You’re solid even against Humans and creature decks in general, and have a positive matchup against Thoughtseize. Your worst matchup, U/W, is mostly pushed out of the metagame. Phoenix, which was the biggest reason the deck had been pushed out of the top tables, is on a downswing, and the other truly bad matchups are mostly very fringe decks nowadays (stuff like Living End or Ad Nauseam). Stony Silence has never seen so little play, and Shatterstorm doesn’t shut you off nearly as much thanks to Hangarback.
Okay, you convinced me, _megafone_. Now what?
This is the important part of the article. Read carefully from now on. First, let’s get the easy part off our heads.
6 Forest 2 Horizon Canopy 2 Llanowar Reborn 4 Inkmoth Nexus 1 Phyrexia's Core 1 Pendelhaven 4 Darksteel Citadel 4 Arcbound Worker 4 Arcbound Ravager 4 Hangarback Walker 4 Walking Ballista 1 Spellskite 2 Metallic Mimic 4 Mox Opal 4 Ancient Stirrings 4 Hardened Scales 2 Throne of Geth 2 Animation Module 4 Welding Jar 1 Dismember Sideboard 2 Dismember 4 Grafdigger's Cage 3 Damping Sphere 2 Pithing Needle 4 Nature’s Claim
This is as clean as it gets. The last two cards in your main deck do not really matter much, so you basically run 58 maindeck cards and 17 sideboard cards. That’s the gist of it. You can cut the Spellskite or the Dismember if you want—a main deck Relic of Progenitus might make sense for London depending on the metagame next week (adjust the SB plans below accordingly). I don’t care. Do not add Steel Overseer. It is terrible, but that’s beside the point. Stay with me now.
Do Not Overthink the List. It is Not Important.
If you take one lesson out of this article, let it be this: Scales is the hardest deck in Modern to play. At the time of writing, I don’t know when this is going to be published, but I suppose you have less than a week to pick it up. Scales is not an intuitive deck to play. If you spend ten minutes arguing with yourself about the list, those are ten minutes you are not learning the lines.
The point of this article is to get you to the point where you don’t need to think about anything besides learning the deck. Besides shifting a card or two off the sideboard depending on what appears on MTGO this weekend, you can submit the list as it is for the MC and I’m sure it’ll be 99% optimal to play. Focus your playtesting on discussing keeps and lines of play. I’ll go over a few things here, but it is hard to even scratch the surface of the whole complexity of the Scales play style.
How do I play without Scales?
- The “rule” on how to play when you don’t draw Scales is to go for extremes: you either play extremely conservatively when accruing counters on your permanents for a long game, or you all-in on a 5/5 Nexus on turn 3 and pray for the best.
- When going conservative, a common line of play that I’ve found to be nonintuitive for people is to run Throne of Geth as your first artifact. Throne is your Scales proxy and can make a pretty good impression of it once you get 3+ different permanents with counters in play, so you want to protect your ability to activate it at least once with the maximum possible number of counters in play. A good way of doing so is to have it out in a turn where you play two different creatures (so as to constrain their ability to have open mana to deal with one of them in response to the other). Having Llanowar Reborn out or Welding Jar out makes this easier too.
- Try to maximize the potential size of your biggest creature. This usually means saving your Ravager for last, and also maximizing your ability to use up mana to pump Ballista as the turns go. For example, you can plan three turns ahead, starting on turn 4 where you can pump Ballista now, pump it again and play a 1-drop on 5, and then play Ravager on 6 and pump Ballista again. This is just a random theoretical example to illustrate the kind of thinking you want to have.
- When going all-in, remember you can proliferate non-animated Nexus and Dismember your own Workers. The 5/5 Nexus happens sometimes, and even 4/4 Nexus can be correct, especially on deep mulligans.
- All that said, be flexible. Always, on every turn, count for possible kills. It’s easy to surprise yourself.
How do I sequence my artifacts early on?
Sequencing with Scales is incredibly tricky. Let’s try to be as thorough as possible. Remember, you’ll know their deck in London!
- Module is better than Scales against heavy interaction. Play it first and don’t get Seized/Rejected.
- Always lead with Llanowar Reborn if you don’t have the third source. I’d rather play Scales on turn 4 than miss playing a 2-drop on either turn 2 or 3. Most of the time—that makes you way too slow.
- You don’t necessarily want to get Worker Bolted against a guy who played an untapped source on turn 1. Consider if you’d rather have him spend his mana on turn 3 rather than on 1.
The two questions you need to ask yourself are a) what kind of interaction can they offer me, and b) which turn do I want to start presenting lethal?
- Ballista is the fastest kill and the most fragile of your creatures. Against Tron, for example, that’s your usual lead. Remember, Ballista “doubles” your counters as they count toward a kill, just like an Inkmoth (you attack with, say, a 10/10 Ballista, deal 10, then remove 10 counters for 10 damage on them, dealing 20. Sounds obvious, but might not be for a novice).
- Against a deck like B/G/x or Phoenix, you usually lead with Throne, as I’ve mentioned above. This protects your ability to exponentiate your cards, and you’re usually only angling for a turn-4.5(ish) kill, so you have ample time to build up.
- Having Scales out usually makes you want to lead with Ravager a lot more since that both makes it better at attacking and protecting itself. That said, I always prefer to err toward caution with Ravagers.
Starting on turn 3, you’re always on the lookout for kills. Check if you have a kill. If you don’t, make the play that allows you to either have the biggest possible creature creature on the board with the cards you have, or the biggest amount of different cards with counters on them as the game progresses.
What do I get with Stirrings?
- First off, don’t be so greedy. This is a mana-hungry deck. If you don’t have three mana sources, you almost always should be getting the third. Get one that does something over a Forest, but get one. That Ravager won’t be doing anything if you’re dead and can’t cast your spells. This is the main mistake I see people make.
- The first sacrifice outlet usually gets priority over any business spell, except for Module or Hangarback against grindy decks and Ballista whenever it’s stupidly obvious (e.g. they are playing Elves).
- Even if you already have mana, Mox can be a good pickup. Plan out your turns and check if you can present lethal a turn earlier if you get it. As always, count it up. You can always surprise yourself.
What about the combat math? I can’t get it right!
- Going through every possible combat situation with Scales is impossible and completely out of the scope of this article. Nothing beats practice in that regard. Instead of banging your head against the wall, just play games. The counts get more natural with time.
- Try to get some reps with arbitrarily large boards (like, literally build a large board, not necessarily in a real-game setting) if you’re not used to complicated double-Ravager + Hangarback setups. It can get really messy and you need practice, especially to navigate board-stall matchups like Humans. You can even use a timer: ask a buddy to build a big board and try to get out of it in two minutes. This is important. Learning to do this quickly is way more important than figuring out sideboard slots.
Matchups (Including A Sideboard Guide)
I don’t hate SB guides as much as I used to, but sideboarding in Scales is frankly pretty easy—the deck is very tight and the sideboard is even tighter, with the cards coming in usually being obvious. Modules, Mimics, Dismember, Spellskite, and Jars against white-based decks are the obvious “bad” main deck cards. Everything else is good and shouldn’t be sided out (there are a few matchups where shaving one Hangarback or one Throne is OK, but those are exceptions, and that’s about it).
- Proliferating Thing early will usually buy you a turn off the flip. If you can set up an early kill in game 1, most of the time you should go for it. They don’t have that much removal. If not, use the extra time to prepare for the hit (that usually means chumping with an Inkmoth or something like that) and rebuild afterward.
- Spellskite is great game 1 but actually isn’t very good post-board. It might be good to sub a Cage in on the draw to force them to Abrade it on turn 2 and not lose to the nut Phoenix draws, but I’ve never tested that. I also never tested siding Damping Sphere in that matchup. The main problem is that if you bring too much hate you start losing to hard cast Arclight Phoenixes, and if you don’t you lose to reanimated Phoenixes. Yeah, the matchup is bad.
- If they lean too hard into control game 2 (the clear sign usually is Anger of the Gods), bring Module back. This usually makes the matchup easier. You’re a good deck against U/R Moon, and pretty terrible against U/R Phoenix since you don’t have a lot of answers against flyer beatdown (Crackling Drake in particular is a nightmare). I tweeted a few weeks ago that I’ve had a lot of success playing online against this deck even though I think the matchup is very bad, and this is one of the reasons—people mis-assign their roles frequently here. Phoenix is the beatdown, not you. You have the tools to play beatdown to their control, but you can’t play control to their beatdown at all.
- Remember to proliferate their Vials!
- Always plan to have your creatures Reflector Mage’d. This usually means prioritizing Throne (again), and running odd sequencing if you have multiples of the same creature.
- Save Dismember for Meddling Mage and Mantis Rider whenever you’re not straight-up dying to whatever else you want to kill now. That Champion of the Parish can get to 40/40 and it won’t do anything besides being chumped for 40 turns.
- Animation Module can kill Phantasmal Image and add counter to Vials.
- They don’t run instant-speed removal, so screw their 1 Dismember. All-in with impunity. I usually am pretty reckless with going all-in on big Ballistas too. Once they play out their hand, they don’t have that many topdecks to kill it.
- Most of what you do runs circles around Tron’s big threats. Karn, Ulamog, and Wurmcoil are all owned by the sac outlets, and Oblivion Stone is owned by Hangarback and Welding Jar. Basically, the main thing you need to do is to force your opponent to blow through their Oblivion Stones without losing all your sac outlets. As long as you have one and they don’t have enough Stones to deal with all of them, you can’t really lose.
- Here is the part where I remind you about one of the alternate kills of the deck, which is the go-wide Hangarback sac: if you have two outlets, throw your board into a Hangarback, then sac the Hangarback for a billion tokens. This is how you beat Ulamog, usually.
- Needle goes on Oblivion Stone 80% of the time, 10% on Ghost Quarter, and only 10% on Expedition Map. You don’t really care all that much about their Tron setup.
- Don’t play around Dismember or Spatial Contortion unless you really can afford to. They don’t run that many, their range of keepable hands isn’t that large (they already will keep hands that have the Tron and threats, thus won’t be angling for removal as hard as, say, a B/G deck) and you can’t play around everything.
- Once you have a Module, lands go way up in value with Stirrings. They can’t really beat one once they get going.
- Protect your life total if you can. You want to stay out of TBR range if possible.
- Be patient. Skipping attacks and building up a board to kill in a single big hit can pay off. This goes hand-in-hand with the point above: you don’t want them to be able to one-shot you, and preferably you want to be able to keep their Death’s Shadows in Dismember range, or at least close.
- In game 1, be very aggressive with your Inkmoths. They don’t run almost any spot removal, and a lot of lists don’t even run Ghost Quarter. Take any opportunity you can to throw counters on an Inkmoth (through Ravager or Throne, or maybe even Dismembering a Worker if you’re desperate) if that’s your best shot, and go for it. Going all-in Ballista is also OK, but worse, since everyone will run multiple Engineered Explosives and they have ground blockers.
- In game 2, the sideboard plan is basically mana denial. Claim targets Coalition Relic on sight the vast majority of the time. Ignore the Sakura-Tribe Scouts unless you can get free kills off it, but don’t leave Azusa in play if they have Amulet—they can generate some absurd turns out of nowhere with it.
- This is a tough matchup game 1. Mulligan aggressively, and don’t keep mediocre hands. Be happy with the open deck lists.
- Your main way to win is through Ballista, so don’t get it Darkblasted or Conflagrated if you can avoid it.
- Try baiting their artifact removal post-board with Modules and other irrelevant things before playing your Cages. You can deal with medium boards most of the time, and they’re often slow if they keep multiple removal hands.
- Try to assemble a diverse board so that they need the most different lock pieces to stop you (Needles for Inkmoth, Ravager, Throne and Ballista, and a Bridge).
- Getting the first poison counter on them is priority #1 in many games, so you get the proliferate-win avenue. That makes locking you up a lot more difficult.
- Needle names Welding Jar post-board, more than Explosives.
Burn is easy. Just remember to be aggressive. If you try to be too defensive, eventually they’ll draw enough Bolts to kill you. This usually means taking a few risks with tapping out. Be liberal with Claims post-board: if you have open mana and a Citadel, fire the Claim off most of the time.
There are many other decks, of course, and I can reply to What’s the Plays and Keeps or Mulligans this week on Twitter @_megafone_.
I’ll reiterate: I firmly believe Scales will be a great choice for the Mythic Championship next week, but it is the hardest deck in Modern and not something you can pick up and play without a lot of practice. But it is a very rewarding deck, and the skills you learn there can carry over to the rest of your future Magic career. If you’re reading this and not qualified for London, take the opportunity to learn some different insights about metagame analysis and prep for a high-level tournament. I might be washed up these days, but I know a thing or two to pass to you youngsters.
P.S. The “how to play without Scales?” section obviously applies to games with Scales. I just wanted to fool you into thinking that the deck has a “different mode of play” when you don’t have the card, which is obviously not true. Scales makes it overpowered, but it’s still a good deck without it. If you don’t think so, you just don’t know how to play it yet.