Insider: Brewing Aggro in Battle for Zendikar Standard

Mike-Lanigan QS Magic the Gathering MTG

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It all started with one man and his Grand Prix deck.

Hardened Scales may have broke out before rotation but it’s definitely not going away. This casual player's dream enchantment is $5 and trending upward. This isn't news to you if you're a regular reader on the site, but if you’re like me you were expecting the price to drop back down once the hype had passed. That hasn’t happened yet and the card shows no sign of slowing down anytime soon.

Hardened Scales may have started out as a bulk rare, but I doubt it will ever have that status again. Leading Hardened Scales into Hangarback Walker is obviously strong, but that's just the beginning of the powerful synergies this deck can present.

Take Avatar of the Resolute for example. This seemingly innocent upgrade to Swordwise Centaur fits perfectly into this archetype. A 3/2 for two is a fine investment and casting it on curve is definitely acceptable. But later in the game he becomes truly dangerous, growing larger for every other creature you control. Two-drops that scale so well into the lategame are a rare commodity, and this deck certainly exploits Avatar to the fullest.

I paused writing this article to go order five playsets of this guy, so you can say I believe in him too. Avatar forms the centerpiece of a Standard strategy that's sure to see plenty of play, and it's unlikely to stay under a dollar for long.

Post-Rotation Hardened Scales

To build a Scales deck in the new Standard, our first order of business is to replace the rotating cards. We may want to change the deck's makeup more substantially, but let's start by looking at the most direct port possible.

As you can see, the core of the deck remains unchanged. The obvious inclusion from the new set is Undergrowth Champion, which brought along with it some adjustments to the mana base. We want as many fetches for Champion as possible and having Canopy Vista as a fetch target also does wonders for our consistency.

The other change I made was to make room for Silkwrap. Every deck needs an answer to Hangarback Walker and Silkwrap will always exile the overpowered threat no matter how many counters it has amassed.

Other options are available as well. Battle for Zendikar gives us three new cards worth considering. Earthen Arms, Woodland Wanderer, and Skyrider Elf all seem specifically created for this strategy.

Woodland Wanderer and Earthen Arms probably don't make the cut since we have so many better cards available, but I think Skyrider Elf is the real deal. Whether you have two or three colors of mana to spend, each mode seems great. A two-mana 2/2 or three-mana 3/3 flier is a potent threat. We saw that with Mantis Rider and it’s still true with this new aggressive threat.

U/G Scales

My first thought was to swap out the white mana for blue, because I love the U/G Devotion deck I’ve been playing, and I wanted to continue to battle with it even after rotation. Here’s what that thought process yielded:

One of the best aspects of U/G Devotion was its ability to fight on the opponent's turn. In addition to Collected Company, the deck could play Harbinger of the Tides or Bounding Krasis while keeping up mana for a Counterspell.

I’m not certain that concept will work with the currently legal cards. This version doesn’t really have enough creatures for Collected Company and it seems like Hangarback Walker might just be better than Company anyway.

Another problem here is the blue-green manabase is much more strained. Running both double green and double blue means you'll have cards stranded in hand too often for an aggressive deck that needs to curve out. I like the concept, but I don’t think it will work in conjunction with the +1/+1 counter theme.

Bant Scales

What I’ve liked best so far is adding blue mana to the green-white deck. We even have great mana to support this strategy. Let’s take a look at what it might look like.

While I’ve only added two blue cards here, the deck looks more powerful overall, with a more threatening late game and better sideboard options. Even though we’re adding a single Prairie Stream and Island, we still have ten sources of blue mana, which should be enough.

My initial impression is the addition of blue mana is well worth the hassle. With Skyrider Elf we have at worst a two-mana 2/2 flyer and at best a three-mana 4/4 flyer. Now that’s what I’m talking about!

Additionally, we have an actual replacement for Ajani, Mentor of Heroes in Kiora, Master of the Depths. Kiora doesn’t synergize quite as well as Ajani did, but she does provide card advantage, pseudo-vigilance, and an extra mana if necessary.

I’m eager to try out this version. Not only does this deck provide hard-to-deal-with threats, but the synergy pushes the power level of everything higher. Considering how situational the removal in Standard is, this deck seems well positioned to take advantage of its initial position in the meta.

B/W Warriors

Up next we have last season’s event deck turned competitive staple. Here’s my first version.

The future of aggressive red decks is uncertain. From my perspective, we have lost too many cards for the archetype to survive. Warriors, on the other hand, has gained tools that make it much better. Courser of Kruphix distorted the metagame for the past two years away from non-red aggro. That time has come to an end and I think this deck will lead the way.

There are enough aggressive one-cost creatures in Standard to play a lot more than this, but I’m not sure the payoff is there. Still, starting the game with a one-mana 2/1 is back to being good again.

Three cards give us an incentive to play a bunch of warriors.

The first is Chief of the Edge. Pumping power is the job of typical a Gray Ogre lord, but this one packs a wallop on its own as a two-cost 3/2. He doesn’t get a second ability like many lords do, but shaving a mana off his cost is well worth the loss.

Next up we have Blood-Chin Rager. Granting menace to all your creatures is great against midrange and aggro alike. The midrange decks don’t have enough creatures to double up on everyone, whereas aggro has to choose between an all-out race and leaving all their creatures back to block. The ability obviously doesn’t shine against control, but even there it can be useful to sneak past a dragon.

Finally, we have one of my favorite cards that hasn't seen much play yet. Blood-Chin Fanatic allows you to end games you couldn't win any other way. After your opponent finally deals with your Blood-Chin Rager so they can block normally, you draw this creature and start draining them. It works particularly well with Bloodsoaked Champion, but even with non-recurring creatures you won't have to sacrifice too many to finish off an unsuspecting opponent.

Hangarback Warriors

I followed my own advice and found room for the three copies of Silkwrap to deal with my opponents’ Hangarback Walkers and clear the way for my guys to get through. I’m not sure the five-costs are necessary and I definitely need to test some things out. For example, what about Arashin Foremost? Is that guy good enough to make the cut?

My main question, however, is about Hangarback Walker. Basically it seems like every deck is better with that card. It has nothing to do with the strategy (and in fact detracts from it by decreasing the warrior count), but I’m forced to admit it might improve the deck.

So, not only is removal for this creature absolutely essential in every deck, but most will just play it as well. To me that says the card is too good.

Are we at the point where we should be rattling Wizards for a ban? It certainly doesn't read like an overpowered card, but when you look at its impact on the metagame you see an alarming pattern. A card that warps the format this much at least demands consideration of a ban.

In any case, let’s get to the deck list.

Cut the five-drops and shave a land to make room for the not-so-secretly impressive creature. I’ll admit, this deck looks much better than the previous version.

Only extensive testing will show us whether or not Hangarback belongs in every deck, but my initial impression is that it does. What if we get to a point where every piece of removal removes Hangarback and we’re playing multiple cards that function that way? Will then be the time to discuss a banning?


I’m excited about both these decks in the upcoming metagame. Both Hardened Scales and Warriors seem like great decks that are fast, resilient, and capable of winning games that break into the midgame.

Which version of each deck do you like? Was there a card that should have been included in one or both decks? What are your thoughts about a possible banning? Let me know in the comments.

Until next time,
Unleash the Force!

Mike Lanigan
MtgJedi on Twitter

8 thoughts on “Insider: Brewing Aggro in Battle for Zendikar Standard

  1. I played around with a lot of Scales. I found that Endless One is a great 1-drop and scales decently well, even without the namesake enchantment around. I also found that 4x Inspiring Call in the main was amazing. It\’s protection from Radiant Flames, it\’s a draw-4 a lot, and it lets you chump-block without actually having to chump.

    1. I actually had no idea about the second half of Inspiring Call. That seems great! Endless One is an interesting idea.

      1 mana 1/1

      2 mana 2/2

      3 mana 3/3

      4 mana 4/4

      5 mana 5/5

      6 mana 6/6

      All of those seem great accept for maybe the one mana one. Great suggestions Doug. Thanks. You’ve really given me some things to think about with this archetype.

    1. I had not considered adding black mana for Drana. That does seem like a great idea but the problem is that the deck would have too many three cost threats and no way to accelerate from one to three mana. If you have a list, I’d love to see it though.

  2. Hardened Abzan
    2 Den Protector
    4 Hangarback Walker
    2 Endless One
    4 Avatar of the Resolute
    4 Woodland Wanderer
    3 Hidden Dragonslayer
    4 Undergrowth Champion

    4 Hardened Scales
    4 Abzan Charm
    3 Dromoka’s Command
    1 Sorin, Solemn Visitor

    4 Sandsteppe Citadel
    2 Bloodstained Mire
    4 Windswept Heath
    4 Wooded Foothills
    5 Forest
    2 Plains
    1 Swamp
    1 Smoldering Marsh
    1 Cinder Glade
    1 Canopy Vista

    I’ve been crushing on Xmage. I’m literally over 90% win. That’s because the deck is great or it’s just running well against clunky brews. Either way, it’s been a lot of fun to play.
    Woodland wanderer has been incredible. He is consistently a 6/6 vigilant trample on turn 4. That is absurd. The mana base has been incredibly reliable, making him the most efficient beater in standard.
    Hidden dragonslayer has also been huge. The life gain is awesome in R/x matchups, and his ability to take out a midrange threat is game breaking.

    Check it out and give me some feedback. I’m open to any changes.

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