When I first saw Hardened Scales being played in Affinity over a year ago, I wrote it off as a cute idea that wasn't really something to be taken seriously. It was inspired by the White-Green Hardened Scales deck that had a brief run in Standard but wasn't a top-tier player, so the strategy certainly didn't seem good enough for Modern. The deck continued to be a novelty until it reached the Top 16 of Grand Prix Barcelona, where it featured a rather surprising new addition from Dominaria, Sparring Construct. The deck has grown in popularity online over the past month and had a watershed moment last weekend when an incredible three copies of the deck reached the Top 8 of the highly competitive Magic Online Championship Series Playoff.

These events happen only four times a year, inviting the winners of monthly MOCS qualifier events and Gold and Platinum pros, and with a valuable invitation to the MOCS Finals on the line, they are among the very highest level of competition available on Magic Online, or anywhere in the world for that matter. Three copies of the deck reaching the Top 8 of such an event is astounding to me, and a sign the deck is very much the real deal, and maybe even Modern's next broken deck. I expect this deck to finally catch on with a wider audience and surge in popularity, and if it sustains these good results could even become more popular than traditional Affinity decks.

Today I'm going to take a deeper look at the deck from a competitive perspective by analyzing the cards it plays and the synergies between them, as well as how they combine to enact the overall strategy. I'll also evaluate how the deck will match up against the top Modern decks and lay sideboard plans.

The deck revolves around Hardened Scales, each copy of which will add an extra +1/+1 counter to every effect that adds +1/+1 counters. With a Hardened Scales in play, modular creatures like Arcbound Worker enter play with an additional counter as a 2/2, and when it dies and its modular ability puts counters on a creature, will add an extra counter for a total of +3/+3. Arcbound Ravager goes a step further by growing an extra +1/+1 each time it sacrifices an artifact, so it can quickly grow out of hand. Hardened Scales also works very well with Hangarback Walker and Walking Ballista, each of which will enter the battlefield with an extra counter and will gain an extra counter for each of their activations. Steel Overseer is also great with Hardened Scales, as each of its activations will add an extra counter to each creature.

A rather interesting piece of technology for the deck is Throne of Geth, which can sacrifice artifacts to Proliferate, adding a +1/+1 counter to each creature with one. It's similar to Hardened Scales, but being able to be used every turn means it will add even more counters over time and gives the deck ability to really grind out opponents with value. It's also very useful here as an extra sacrifice outlet, which in some cases will be a payoff more than a cost when sacrificing Hangarback Walker, Arcbound Worker or Sparring Construct.

Another dash of flavor to the deck is Animation Module, which has two useful abilities. The passive ability triggers every time a creature with a +1/+1 counter enters the battlefield and will generate a token for one mana. It's triggered by most creatures in the deck, so it will generate some nice extra value, and the tokens are useful for holding modular triggers or being fuel for Arcbound Ravager or Throne of Geth. The secondary ability is essentially a mini-proliferate one one permanent for three mana. It's not efficient by any means, but it's pure value, and will help the deck in the grindiest matchups, as well as being something like a combat trick in the creature matchups.

A single copy of Apostle's Blessing in the deck gives away the fact that it is in some ways a combo-like deck similar to Infect in that it can build a massive, lethal creature, so it's invested in protecting the creature with Apostle's Blessing. It has a slight edge over Welding Jar in that it can also push a creature through blockers by giving protection and can deal with Path to Exile, but the deck does play three Welding Jar, which is a better fit into the artifact plan and helps turn on Mox Opal.

My favorite part of this deck is Ancient Stirrings, which is typically used in broken combo-like decks and has been called to be banned, so it's a very, very good thing that the deck uses it effectively. It means the deck is using one of the best cards in the format, a card that traditional Affinity hasn't played to much success, so in that sense it's an improvement over the traditional build. It adds extra consistency to the strategy and helps give more reliable access to whatever it needs in any given situation.

This deck is different than traditional Affinity and thus plays a different land base. The biggest change is that it has more intense colored mana requirements, with four Hardened Scales and four Ancient Stirrings, but also lacks Springleaf Drum as fixing. On the other hand, it's a mono-green deck, so doesn't need Spire of Industry or Glimmervoid to fix multiple colors. Instead the deck just plays basic Forests, which give reliable mana along with better protection against cards like Blood Moon, Ghost Quarter and Path to Exile.

Horizon Canopy is a great addition to the deck, a green source that can be cashed in for a card, which gives the mana base value in a way other than creature lands, which this deck has less need for than traditional affinity with Cranial Plating. It's one of Modern's best cards and one that has been excelling in Humans, and one that feels great to be playing. In fact, I wonder why the deck does not play more copies, and could see the deck wanting all four.

The deck does still retain two Blinkmoth Nexus along with its set of Inkmoth Nexus, which is a key feature of the deck because it is very effective at holding +1/+1 counters. It can create something of a combo-kill with Arcbound Ravager to one-shot the opponent, but even a few counters can be enough to make it lethal quickly. Another green source with extra utility is Pendelhaven, which finds plenty of 1/1 creatures to pump. It's not very high-impact, but it's all upside when relevant, and is well worth playing over a Forest.

The most surprising inclusion in the mana base is Phyrexia's Core, which can sacrifice an artifact to gain a life. This life gain engine is nice, but it seems like the primary reason for including the card is to have an extra sacrifice outlet for when Arcbound Ravager and Throne of Geth aren't available.

This deck also plays a different sideboard than Affinity, in part because as a mono-green deck it has significantly less options than its polychromatic counterpart. Nature's Claim is probably the best green sideboard card in Modern and one that this deck can use against a wide variety of opponents, whether to disrupt their strategy or protect against Stony Silence. The effect is so useful that this list even plays a Natural State as a fifth copy.

A pair of Animation Module is a bit more surprising, but its ability to grind does make it a useful tool, and one that will be best after sideboard against decks where it excels, since it's too slow for many matchups to justify playing more than one main deck.

Dismember gives the deck an efficient answer to many creatures, which is very useful in Modern against a huge swath of the field. Surgical Extraction is a bit narrower, but it's similarly efficient and effective and helps the deck fight back against graveyard strategies. I could see this slot being used on another card like Grafdigger's Cage, especially because Ancient Stirrings can help dig for it, and it's overall a more powerful hoser against graveyard strategies like the Vengevine deck.

Damping Sphere has been catching on with a wide variety of Modern decks as a versatile hoser with applications against Urzatron, Amulet Titan, Storm and Ironworks Combo. It is being played as a one or two-of in some Affinity sideboards, but it is even more accessible here with a set of Ancient Stirrings to dig for it. Yet, these lists play a full four, which makes sense since this version of the Affinity deck seems slower and therefore worse at racing these matchups against which traditional Affinity tends to shine.

That does beg the question – why play Hardened Scales Affinity over traditional Affinity? It seems the answer is that it is superior at grinding against more interactive opponents, especially the control decks like Jeskai and Mardu that have become popular lately in response to Humans. I'm also under the impression that the Hardened Scales Affinity deck performs quite well against Humans, although so did traditional Affinity. There's also the issue of consistency, which traditional Affinity can lack and this deck seems to have more of, although at the cost of speed and explosiveness.

As far as the matchups, I want to review how it lines up against the popular decks in Modern and how I'd sideboard against them.

Humans

+2 Dismember

-1 Animation Module
-1 Apostle's Blessing

Consider saving Dismember for Kataki, War's Wage when possible.

Spirits

+2 Dismember
+1 Natural State
+2 Nature's Claim

-3 Welding Jar
-1 Apostle's Blessing
-1 Animation Module

Welding Jar has little value against Spirits, but they do sideboard Stony Silence, so be ready with Naturalize effects.

Tron

+4 Damping Sphere

-1 Apostle's Blessing
-1 Animation Module
-2 Throne of Geth

Welding Jar can protect Damping Sphere from Nature's Claim and helps against Oblivion Stone.

Red-Black Hollow One/Vengevine

+2 Surgical Extraction

-1 Apostle's Blessing
-1 Animation Module

White-Blue Control

+2 Animation Module
+1 Natural State
+2 Nature's Claim

-3 Welding Jar
-2 Throne of Geth

Welding Jar only stops sweepers, so it's too weak to play. Bring in a few answers to Stony Silence, which can also catch Detention Sphere. I like cutting Throne of Geth against Stony Silence.

Jeskai

+2 Animation Module

-2 Welding Jar

Jeskai doesn't typically play Stony Silence, and Welding Jar can stop Lighting Bolt.

Mardu

+2 Animation Module

-2 Steel Overseer

Ironworks

+4 Damping Sphere
+4 Nature's Claim
+1 Natural State

-1 Apostle's Blessing
-1 Sparring Construct
-2 Throne of Geth
-4 Hangarback Walker
-1 Welding Jar

They will bring in Nature's Claim as disruption so Welding Jar has some value, especially for protecting Damping Sphere.

Storm

+4 Damping Sphere
+2 Dismember
+2 Surgical Extraction

-1 Apostle's Blessing
-2 Throne of Geth
-4 Hangarback Walker
-1 Sparring Construct

Storm will have artifact removal and potentially Lightning Bolt, so Welding Jar will be useful, and like against Ironworks can be used to protect Damping Sphere.

Affinity/Mirror

+4 Nature's Claim
+1 Natural State
+2 Dismember

-3 Welding Jar
-1 Animation Module
-1 Apostle's Blessing
-2 Throne of Geth

It's possible that mirrors are much grindier than I imagine and using Throne of Geth and/or Animation Module is correct, but my first instinct is to cut out the superfluous pieces and focus the deck on its core and support it with disruption.

What's your experience with the Hardened Scales Affinity deck? Share what you know in the comments, and I'll try to answer any questions.

-Adam

@AdamYurchick