Counter Punch

Posted in The Week That Was on September 5, 2014

By Brian David-Marshall

Brian David-Marshall is a New York–based game designer who has been involved with Magic since 1994, when he started organizing tournaments and ran a Manhattan game store. Since then, he has been a judge, a player, and one of the longest-tenured columnists on, as he enters his second decade writing for the site. He is also the Pro Tour Historian and one of the commentators for the Pro Tour.

When you hear the word "counter" in a Magic context you almost certainly hear it as the prefix to "spell." Not an unreasonable thing to do since a search for the phrase "counter target spell" spits out more than 300 cards, but it is not the most popular arrangement of the word "counter" in Magic. A quick search for the phrase "+1/+1 counter" turns up more than 700. You could do a children's book of the ABCs of +1/+1 counters and hit every letter but X.

My preview card this week is just one of a horde of new cards that will have you reaching for extra dice at the Khans of Tarkir Prerelease to keep up with the growth rate of your creatures. Let's take a look at a one-drop enchantment that packs a powerful counter punch.

O is for Outlast

If we want to play with this card in the new Limited format, that is going to send us into the arms of the Abzan and the outlast mechanic. Outlast implies a certain amount of patience and lying in wait to overpower your opponent, but with Hardened Scales you get to have a much shorter fuse. Herald of Anafenza is probably the most exciting outlast creature we have seen so far—I would not be surprised if that remains true throughout the preview season—and it will get out of hand very quickly in concert with Hardened Scales.

Herald is always going to be a tough card to deal with, but after your opponent plays it you run through the math and assume you have two turns to find a way to deal 3 damage to it. One activation is what you tell yourself. You know you can deal with one activation, but once your opponent adds Hardened Scales into the equation all outlast cards become immediate glowing red targets on the battlefield. Herald of Anafenza goes from 1/2 to 3/4 with a bonus Soldier token, conceivably on turn three. Playing Galactus to Herald of Anafenza's Nova is Anafenza, the Foremost, but they are both capable of destroying your world with Hardened Scales augmenting their already impressive abilities.

Even the lowly (and by "lowly" I just mean "common") Ainok Bond-Kin becomes a 4/3 first striker that also gives first strike to all your counter-bearing creatures. Go a little deeper in the Card Image Gallery and get to the cards with three different colors of mana in the casting cost. Just look at the Abzan Ascendancy and you get a really good (depending on which side of the table you are sitting on, it could actually be very bad) idea of what a nightmare this clan will be to deal with as the game advances.

With Hardened Scales on the battlefield, your Abzan Ascendancy becomes a permanent Overrun effect for your creatures in play. A token strategy may seem a little counterintuitive, since Abzan Ascendancy cares about nontoken creatures dying, but I already have dreams about parlaying my Brimaz into a Triplicate Spirits and then giving all those creatures two +1/+1 counters with Scales and Ascendancy.

A is for Ajani

It doesn't even matter which Ajani you want to pair Hardened Scales with, since they all give +1/+1 counters to your creatures. We can afford to be picky here, though, and let's exclude Ajani, Caller of the Pride from the party since it only gives one creature a counter. Ajani Goldmane and Ajani Steadfast are going to get maximum value out of your Hardened Scales, giving two counters to all your creatures, while Ajani, Mentor of Heroes would merely distribute four, five, or six counters across one, two, or three of your creatures.

Who am I kidding? I cannot exclude Ajani, Caller of the Pride with the Hardened Scales–augmented ability to bump your 3-power creature to a 5 and send it to the air a turn later to deal 10 damage.

H is for Heroic

My favorite mechanic from the most recent block was heroic, and I have enjoyed watching the fledgling efforts to bring the mechanic to Constructed over the past Pro Tour season. So far, those efforts have been either Azorius or Boros, but I have to wonder if there is a Selesnya or even Bant offering in the future of Standard with Hardened Scales.

The most obviously exciting heroic card with Hardened Scales is my beloved Phalanx Leader, which will make your army of small creatures...unsmall...with every spell that targets it. A Gods Willing or Ranger's Guile to protect your Leader will also give each of your creatures two +1/+1 counters, until you kill your opponent or he or she kills your creatures. Throw in some Favored Hoplites, Fabled Heroes, and maybe a Hero of Leina Tower and I am ready to race against my opponent's board sweepers. If you happened to have an Abzan Ascendancy to add into the mix, even your creatures dying won't matter much here, since you will end up with a swarm of Spirits to replace them.

Perhaps the least obviously exciting card with Hardened Scales is Sage of Hours. There have already been many attempts to build nigh-infinite-turn combos with Sage of Hours, and Hardened Scales should make all of those attempts a little easier. Two Hardened Scales and Ajani, Mentor of Heroes would let you take all the remaining turns of the game with Sage of Hours in play, but that is a four-card combo.

We can get down to three cards—provided we have seven mana available to work with. Krasis Incubation would put two counters on your Sage of Hours when you target it with Hardened Scales in play. Returning the Incubation to your hand would provide the extra three counters needed—two from the Incubation ability and one bonus counter from the Hardened Scales. You can also expect to see me in the Tournament Practice room trying to make Clockspinning happen in this context.

...actually, maybe just the Anything Goes room.

C is for Commander

I fully expect to see this card showing up in many of the Commander decks that are allowed to play green cards. It is perhaps at its most impressive in an Animar, Soul of Elements deck—like the infernal contraption that Marshall Sutcliffe can often be found playing—where each creature you cast is going to reduce the cost of the next creature by two mana with Hardened Scales in play. Obviously, this is not a permutation of cards you would typically find in an Animar deck, but you could ramp from Ornithopter to Arcbound Ravager to Solemn Simulacrum to Duplicant—all for free—and then play a three-mana Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre.

Just staying in the command zone for the moment, Skullbriar, the Walking Grave and Ghave, Guru of Spores immediately jump to mind. Cards like Doubling Season are already fixtures in the Commander format, and with almost all the cards ever printed at your disposal I cannot fathom that there are not untold disgusting things that can be done with Hardened Scales here.

X is for...Well...X +1

Okay I sort of lied. While there are no cards that start with "X" that care about +1/+1 counters there are abundant creatures with X in the casting cast that get counters equal to X when you summon them. Just in the Hydra tribe alone there are nine different creatures that get a little something extra from the flavorful addition of Hardened Scales. Going all the way back to the original Rock Hydra and through to the recent Genesis Hydra (although you only get a bonus counter on Genesis Hydra, for the purposes of revealing cards you still only reveal the actual X) there are plenty of creatures packing a counter punch.

August Magic Player of the Month (#MTGPoM)

It is hard to derail a Pro Tour champion from winning Player of the Month, but it has happened before, and there is a case to be made that it could happen again. You are going to be able to influence the outcome by taking to social media with the hashtag #MTGPoM and tweeting at me via @Top8Games or in my general direction via @MagicProTour to tell me who you think should be August's Player of the Month. Even if you just engage in social media discussion with your friends, using the hashtag will let me see who you would like to bestow this honor on for August.

Ivan Floch had won a World Team Championship for Slovakia, but coming into Pro Tour Magic 2015 he had yet to make the Top 8 of a Pro Tour over the course of his career. He more than made up for it by not only making the Top 8 of the last PT of the season but winning the whole shebang in spectacular fashion. He had to defeat three distinctly different decks in the Top 8 with his creatureless Azorius control deck, with Burn, Midrange, and Aggro standing between him and the trophy. Facing off against a surprisingly robust Selesnya Aggro deck in the finals, Floch reached deep into his sideboard for answers. In game five he went over the top of the Aggro deck with Nyx-Fleece Rams and Archangel of Thune. I am not sure anyone expected to see the Pro Tour decided by a pair of attacking 5-power Rams, but that is what happened.

Coming into the last Pro Tour of the season, recently inducted Pro Tour Hall of Famer William "Huey" Jensen estimated that he needed a Top 25 finish to jump up the leaderboard and secure an at-large bid for the exclusive 24-player World Championship. Jensen, who seemingly grew more dominant throughout the Pro Tour season, locked up his World Championship seat with the fifth Pro Tour Top 8 of his illustrious career. He immediately followed that up with a dominating win at team Grand Prix Portland alongside his close friends (spoilers!) Owen Turtenwald and Reid Duke.

Owen Turtenwald came into Pro Tour Magic 2015 with a stranglehold on an at-large bid for the World Championship but needing a strong finish to give himself even more to do in Nice, France, this December. An exuberant Turtenwald squeaked into the Top 8 ahead of Player of the Year Jérémy Dezani for the second Sunday finish of his career. The finish catapulted Turtenwald ahead of teammate and friend Reid Duke for the captaincy of the US National team at the World Magic Cup. As already spoiled above, Turtenwald followed up the Pro Tour by winning the first Grand Prix of the new season alongside Jensen and Duke.

Japan's Yuuki Ichikawa was not on the list of Japanese players to watch for at the start of the season, but he has quickly made a name for himself. He came on strong in the closing half of the Pro Tour season with a pair of back-to-back Pro Tour Top 8s. His Top 8 finish at Pro Tour Magic 2015 with Jund Planeswalkers gave him enough Pro points to qualify him for the Magic World Championship. The popular streamer got his new season off to a great start with a Top 8 at Grand Prix Kōbe.

Those are my nominees for the August Player of the Month. Who do you think should get the nod? Did I leave someone out you want to write in? Get to Twitter and Facebook and use #MTGPoM and let me know!

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