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"May the Scale Lords be With You: Shedding Light on Modern BG/x Scales"

  Modern is always an exciting time for brewing! So far, Kaladesh block has been an extremely impactful set, reshaping the Modern landscape. That impact reaches into new archetypes with a powerful Modern version of Hardened Scales.dec, a fast and flexible BG/x deck focused around +1/+1 counters. Winding Constrictor’s success in Standard set off a chain of brewing with the “snek” and Hardened Scales in Modern as well by finishing with two of the most powerful +1/+1 counter creatures in the format: Hangarback Walker and Walking Ballista. Ballista has already made a splash in Tron decks as a low to the ground flexible answer card for that strategy, but in a deck designed to abuse +1/+1 counters, the card becomes phenomenal. Here are a few different variants of the deck that have all seen success, linked to the articles that discuss them. While you don’t need to do more than check out the decklists in those pieces, if you’re interested in this strategy as it develops in Modern, these links are a great summary of that development thus far.

1. Feb 12, Brian Demars’ Abzan Walkers

The Significant Highlights: --Dromoka's Command --Traverse the Ulvenwald

2. Followed up by Eric Froelich’s discussion of the deck’s strategy.

3. Feb 27, Jason Schosboe’s discussion of a variant performing equally well.

The Significant Highlights: --Steel Overseer, and +1/+1 counter (Scales) Lords, on the micro scale --the Merfolk 12+ lord aggro plan, on the macro scale --Mox Opal

As you can see, work is just starting on this archetype. A big “watch out for this deck” signal is the difference between the Abzan and Golgari variants discussed in the articles, each boasting 5-0 results on MTGO. Two versions of a core strategy performing so well, so quickly, is a signal that the best skeleton, once determined, will be a strong tier 1 contender.

Of course, not one to leave the brewing to others when a new strategy comes out of the gates, I’ve been tinkering here as well. After working with both of these lists before moving onto adjustments, here are the pros and cons of the deck strategies as I’ve seen them.

The Pros:

"If any of your Scales effects resolve and aren’t immediately removed, the deck’s ability to go over the top of the opponent skyrockets."

And you can pile Scales effects very, very quickly (for reference, Scales effects are those effects that place or increase the number of +1/+1 counters on your creatures). The addition of Winding Constrictor as a second doubling effect lets you easily turn your 2 mana ‘walkers, Ballista and Hangarback, into Tarmogoyf equivalents. Except that, not only do these ‘goyfs boast 4/4 for 2 or better stats most of the time, but they’re also either extremely resistant to removal or supercharged Lightning Bolts. That doesn’t even account for the ease with which this deck interacts up and down the mana curve, allowing you to scale your plays at every stage of the game (no pun intended, but the fact that the Scales deck scales well is pretty excellent).

"Modular is very powerful against Lightning Bolt and Fatal Push."

Modular lets you largely ignore two of Modern’s best pieces of removal, or force your opponent to spend those spells early and fast. Either you drop a 2/2 or bigger 1 mana Arcbound Worker, or you force the opponent to spend removal on the early threats, clearing the way for your larger XX artifacts on turns 3 and 4. With an Arcbound Ravager, things start to get a little silly. With a Scales or Constrictor in play, your 2/2 or 3/3 Arcbound Workers can be sac’d to Ravager to generate two instances of additional triggers, adding two or three +1/+1 counters for Ravager’s own ability, PLUS all of the sacrificed creature’s modular counters, with an additional one or two for good measure.

"The deck comes with a built in “combo”"

Centered around Walking Ballista. The high density of doubling effects and modular triggers makes it very easy to pile enough onto the ballista to machine gun your opponent to death. The most straightforward way to do this in the builds discussed above is as follows:

Turn 1 Hardened Scales Turn 2 Arcbound Ravager (enters with 2 +1/+1 counters) Turn 3 Arcbound Worker (enters with 2 +1/+1 counters); sacrifice Worker to Ravager, transferring a total of three counters to the Ravager for the modular trigger and an additional two counters to the Ravager for Ravager’s own ability making a 7/7; cast a Walking Ballista, which enters as a 2/2, and then sacrificing Ravager to itself transfers 8 counters to Ballista, so that it can swing for 10 and then ping the opponent for 10 on turn 4.

The Cons of the builds discussed above:

"In Abzan, Dromoka's Command is both very flexible and very weak."

Unlike Atarka’s Command or Kolaghan’s Command, those that have made the most splash in Modern, Dromoka’s Command lacks a pair of modes that can be cast without relying on your opponent to do something. If your opponent has no burn, no creatures, and no enchantments, Dromoka’s Command cannot be cast. However, if viewed primarily as a removal spell rather than a spell to generate counters and Scales triggers, I think the card is easily worth inclusion in this shell. The negating a burn spell and enchantment modes grant you the equivalent of the better-documented Collective Brutality against burn by countering a spell and destroying an Eidolon of the Great Revel, as well as an out to painful cards like Blood Moon or Worship that would otherwise prevent you from operating at peak performance. I can’t help but ponder card design sometimes, because had the “counter target burn spell” mode been replaced with destroy target artifact, an entirely acceptable mode for a Selesnya card, this Command would have been an instant staple as soon as it was printed, alongside it’s Gruul and Rakdos brethren.

"In Abzan, which only runs eight Scales Lords, you run the risk of opening slow hands, even with Traverse the Ulvenwald; this as opposed to the Golgari version, which runs twelve and approaches the right number for a tribal aggro strategy to take shape."

The Abzan version chose to play four copies of Hardened Scales and four copies of Winding Constrictor as its Scales Lord effects. In contrast, the BG version highlighted by Modern Nexus ups the count to 12 lord effects by including Steel Overseer. Based on the success of Merfolk, “tribal” aggro decks with lord effects look to have at least 12 2 mana or less lords before the deck can really merit attention, and the BG version goes right to that standard with the Overseer. In Abzan, without a Scales Lord, you ran the risk of opening very slow hands that didn’t scale well with the opponent. Worker and Ravager are pretty underwhelming in this deck without additional counter effects. While Steel Overseer only cares about artifact creatures, it’s also pretty cool that with the exception of Constrictor and Ravager, every artifact creature in this shell is a Construct! Hmm. Lots of Scales Lords. A high concentration of Constructs…

I believe that the Golgari designer got a very crucial step in deck design right by recognizing the need for at least 12 lords, but relied too much on the synergies developed in Modern Affinity rather than developing the strengths of BG/x Scales, which conform a little more to Merfolk styles of play.

"In Golgari, the deck trades the powerhouse cards of BG/x for the synergies of Affinity by relying on Mox Opal, Blinkmoth lands, and Steel Overseer to compliment the Scales Lord/Modular package."

This is a fine way to approach the deck, but not the one I’d advocate. Affinity has so many more payoff cards that reward slots dedicated to 0 cost artifacts that don’t do a whole lot, but Scales loses Cranial Plating, Etched Champion, and Master of Etherium, those cards that turn the 0 cost artifact cards into real payoffs. The deck’s choice to move to the synergies between the Blinkmoth lands and Steel Overseer is also a valid way to approach the deck, but pushes you to only splashing colored spells rather than taking advantage of such powerful haymakers as Abrupt Decay, Maelstrom Pulse, Lingering Souls, and, a strength unique to BG/x Scales, Traverse the Ulvenwald.

"On Traverse the Ulvenwald, and moving the strategy forward…"

The Abzan variant chose to complement its eight Scales/lord effects with a playset of Traverse, because a deck centered around artifact creatures that you’re generally fine sacrificing to Ravager turns on Delirium with relative ease. This is a very strong move, and the most important reason is that while 12 2 mana lords is the minimum for a Merfolk style deck, with Traverse the number goes up to 20 playable 2 mana or less Scales Lords. Those effects are the following:

--Hardened Scales

--Winding Constrictor

--Steel Overseer

--Metallic Mimic

--Traverse the Ulvenwald

Wait a minute, what’s Metallic Mimic doing in that list? That hasn’t show up anywhere yet! Correct. Metallic Mimic is my compromise between the measly 8 Scales effects in Abzan and the artifact-centric resilience of the Golgari skeleton. With the exceptions of Constrictor and Ravager, every artifact creature in this list is a Construct, so Mimic naming Construct is a powerful tool to generate additional counter triggers. The fact that Mimic generates independent counter triggers synergizes with your overall game plan, enables some extremely aggressive starts, and makes the Scales Lord effects do more for you. For reference: Scales into Constrictor into an Arcbound Worker nets you a 3/3, whereas Scales into Mimic into Worker nets you a 4/4. Both Modular and Mimic trigger an additional counter from Scales, where Constrictor only adds a third counter to the original Modular trigger. It is also worth noting that the last Scales Lord, Steel Overseer, is also a Construct. Mimic is a fine compromise between Steel Overseer’s Affinity synergies and retaining the Abzan list’s colored strengths. A list using Mimic to generate a higher Scales Lord count might look like this:

BG/x Scales, by Chris Striker

Creatures: 25

4 Hangarback Walker

4 Walking Ballista

4 Arcbound Worker

4 Arcbound Ravager

3 Winding Constrictor

3 Metallic Mimic

2 Dark Confidant

1 Scavenging Ooze

Instants: 7

3 Fatal Push

4 Dromoka's Command

Sorceries: 4

4 Traverse the Ulvenwald

Lands: 20

4 Gavony Township

4 Vault of the Archangel

4 Verdant Catacombs

4 Windswept Heath

1 Marsh Flats

1 Overgrown Tomb

1 Temple Garden

1 Godless Shrine

2 Forest

2 Swamp

2 Plains

///SB: 15

2 Path to Exile

3 Lingering Souls

3 Surgical Extraction

2 Fulminator Mage

1 Qasali Pridemage

1 Ethersworn Canonist

1 Athreos, God of Passage

1 Anafenza, the Foremost

1 Orzhov Pontiff

My version of the deck plays:

--4 copies of Hardened Scales

--4 copies of Traverse the Ulvenwald

--3 copies of Winding Constrictor

--3 copies of Metallic Mimic

--1 copy of Gavony Township

That’s 15 potential Scales Lords effects. For reference, the second place list at GP Vancouver, Merfolk, only plays 11 lords.

Not only that, but four of our lords cost 1 mana, and are difficult-to-remove enchantments, rather than creatures. This gives BG/x Scales the power to vie with Merfolk’s unblockable game plan through sheer flexibility and fast value.

There are four things I’d like to highlight about what I’ve learned from prior development and where I believe this deck should be going.

1. Traverse the Ulvenwald is very easy to use in this deck, and should under no circumstances be abandoned.

As you can see, I’ve gone all in on Traverse to play a game of find the lock piece in sideboarded games. Opponents will be bringing in a variety of hate against you, as sweepers, artifact removal, enchantment removal, and exile effects are all important ways to answer the things your deck is doing. You can use this to your advantage by hearkening back to the Pod days of yore and Traversing for whatever lock piece will allow you to finish the game at the speed of your current hand. Modern often gets criticized by competitive players for being such a vast format and putting unreasonable pressure on a sideboard, but in a deck where you have a reliable tutor in Abzan colors, you’re able to make your sideboard stretch a lot farther than otherwise. Each silver bullet has five effective copies in your deck, allowing you to play the cards that will either lock in the win for you, or buy you enough time to finish assembling your giant Ballista or giant army of Thopter tokens.

2. A colorless creature suite in an Abzan deck grants you functional immunity to Blood Moon and Ghost Quarter.

I play in a local metagame where land destruction is on everybody’s mind as the best way to combat Big Mana strategies, so I often build decks that can invalidate opposing strategies to disrupt mana. By playing a fetch-heavy mana base using the almost entirely colorless creature collection, in many games you can happily fetch for basic lands alone without losing any real steam. As a result, you mitigate one of the major weaknesses of other Abzan decks, Blood Moon, and you don’t even need to spend your Dromoka’s Commands to do it! While you can still run the risk of your opponent Ghost Quarter’ing your basics to try to put you off a color, that’s an extremely unsavory proposition, and it’s frankly more likely your opponent wouldn’t deprive themselves of a source of mana if that’s the choice you offer them. Last but not least, being able to play three color and basic heavy means that you lose a LOT less life, while still being able to thin your deck with a high fetch land count.

3. The slot occupied by Metallic Mimic can be swapped with any number of Steel Overseer.

However, I put to you that Mimic is the better card for this deck. Steel Overseer has very little utility when played on turn 2 in this deck. Unlike Affinity, which can often have three or more other bodies on the field by then, at most you’ll have one body to start piling counters on, aside from the Overseer itself. This puts Overseer firmly in the late game category, which isn’t really where the deck needs help. As the game goes on, you will draw more Scales Lords, and at least one, Hardened Scales, is very difficult to interact with by virtue of being an enchantment. As the game goes on, you will draw and play more lands, making your XX artifacts naturally scale better with time, without any extra effort from you. Metallic Mimic, on the other hand, is fine as the game goes on, but also enables new, and very aggressive, lines of play. Moving from Scales on turn 1 into Mimic on turn 2 lets you cast your XX artifacts for 0 and have them enter as 2/2s, because Mimic’s trigger is a replacement effect, which is then replaced by Hardened Scales’ replacement effect for the second counter. Even Mimic on turn 2 without a Scales lets you play 0 mana 1/1s with useful upsides, and a subsequent Scales Lord and trigger will set everything in motion to get you the counters where you need them. Flooding the board early with resilient creatures is a very strong opening against UB/x control strategies. Mimic does, however, get worse if not seen early, unlike Steel Overseer, because you need to play it before you play any other threats. I believe that in this deck, where playing a Mimic permits you to play an XX artifact for 0, that weakness is mitigated. It’s also useful to note that a second Mimic naming Snake lets your Winding Constrictors enter as 4/5s.

4. This deck, once solved for the correct 60 to be at its optimum efficiency, will be one to keep a lookout for.

BG/x Scales comes equipped with the ability to power out resilient, large, threats quickly. Its creatures are difficult to interact with as soon as a single one resolves, because with the exception of Winding Constrictor, each can generate counters or move them to another creature when they die. As noted above, its threats all naturally grow as the game progresses, through a combination of access to more mana and more Scales Lords. This unique flexibility makes a much higher percentage of your hands keepable than I think would otherwise be the case, but also means that sequencing your cards properly in response to the game becomes an extremely important skill. Access to Traverse the Ulvenwald, easily turned on by getting an artifact creature, land, and another card into the graveyard, really blows the top off of this shell by overpowering its sideboard in comparison to many other Modern decks. Of note, you can also adapt your maindeck manabase with more utility lands to use with a Delirious Traverse. Bojuka Bog and Llanowar Reborn are where I’d start looking if I wanted to try that strategy. Access to maindeck Gavony Township and Vault of the Archangel as virtual 5 ofs, also thanks to Traverse, are good enough to make it maindeck, even in my version. The colorless creature suite negates most of their disadvantage as it is, let alone the high degree of synergy Township has with your entire deck, and Vault of the Archangel has with Walking Ballista. Deathtouch Machine Guns for the win!

Chris Striker, aka Nightwalker on the Tavern’s forums, emjoys brewing in UR/x and BG/x fair strategies in Modern, his format of interest. He enjoys fair, interactive Magic, and cannot wait for the day when Werewolves are a playable tribe

Tags: MTG - Modern, Chris Striker, March 17