This past weekend, we got to explore three formats concurrently at Grand Prix Madrid. The sparks flew in Standard, Modern and Legacy alike, but as we got deeper and deeper into the tournament, some patterns emerged. While Modern is in an engaging state of flux right now, still finding its feet after two hugely impactful unbans, both Standard and Legacy are dominated by a single card.
There are a lot of similarities between The Scarab God and Deathrite Shaman in the way they impact their respective formats. Both cards are played in a wide variety of dominant decks, both cards can single-handedly win the game, and both cards are now in a position where the format is warping around them.
There are solutions to this, obviously – however, players in both Standard and Legacy seem to be picking "join 'em" rather than "beat 'em." It's difficult to fault this logic – these cards really are just that good – but today we're going to explore what can be done to topple them from their lofty pedestals.
Throughout Madrid, The Scarab God made repeated appearances at the top tables and cemented itself as the card to beat. There should be no doubt in anyone's mind when it comes to how to succeed in Standard: if you want to win games of Magic, you have to come ready to beat The Scarab God.
Many players in Madrid chose to fight fire with fire, and as a result we saw The Scarab God set up shop in a range of different blue-black decks. Whether it was a midrange approach with plenty of creatures to bring back, or a more controlling version packed with answers for opposing gods, Standard belonged to blue-black strategies this weekend.
In conjunction with these straight blue-black lists, some players looked to utilize a third color while hustling and bustling with The Scarab God. Andrea Mengucci opted for Grixis to expand his removal suite, including Harnessed Lightning and Magma Spray. In addition to this, The Scarab God was included in the sideboards of lists as diverse as Esper Gifts and Sultai Constrictor—the card really does have a stranglehold on the format.
It's problematic that the best answers to The Scarab God lie within its own colors. Essence Scatter and Vraska's Contempt are the best ways to keep The Scarab God off the battlefield – but if you play both these cards, you might as well play The Scarab God anyway, because the card is just that good. This vicious cycle is only perpetuating the dominance of TSG.
So how does one go about beating it? Given The Scarab God's reliance on stocked 'yards, one might think graveyard hate would be the way to go. Unfortunately, there's not all that much in the way of impactful hate – Silent Gravestone shuts off TSG's activated ability, but is slow to perform against other eternalize cards like Champion of Wits or Earthshaker Khenra.
Crook of Condemnation's first ability is similarly anemic against eternalize, although it does offer speedy one-shot graveyard removal, as does Sentinel Totem. Ashes of the Abhorrent prevents eternalize abilities, but does nothing against TSG. And while Scavenger Grounds is a main-deckable piece of graveyard hate, so far it hasn't done enough to keep the God at bay. Clearly, Standard graveyard hate isn't up to snuff.
Perhaps it would be better to attack from a completely different angle. What other options exist?
Bant Approach has a few aspects that make it a natural foil to TSG-based strategies. The most obvious one, of course, is that it plays no creatures – opposing Scarab Gods are stuck in a BYO-creatures situation, meaning the likelihood of being burnt out from range by upkeep triggers is greatly diminished. This also has the added benefit of blanking all the removal found in black-based Standard decks – an opponent will never feel good about trading a Vraska's Contempt for one-quarter of an Hour of Promise.
Much more importantly, however, are the tools this deck has in going toe-to-toe with The Scarab God. As established, Essence Scatter is one of the best cards you can have in this situation (and excellent against the format in general), but Bant Approach also packs several copies of Ixalan's Binding. Outside of Commit // Memory, there is no way for a blue-black list to remove the enchantment. If they're foolish enough to allow The Scarab God to be stranded under it, any further copies will be similarly stranded in hand.
Two more cards in this list shine against blue-black decks. The first is Carnage Tyrant out of the sideboard, as a nigh-unremovable threat that blocks The Scarab God and his cronies all day erry day – but the second could prove to be much more important. In days of yore, control decks relied on Nephalia Drownyard to (eventually) close out games. Milling out a Blue-Black Control player may be the best Plan A, considering you're probably never resolving that second Approach through their countermagic. For this reason, the four copies of Ipnu Rivulet in conjunction with lands like Desert of the Indomitable are key inclusions.
Overall, this list is something to watch if The Scarab God continues to overperform in Standard - it has many of the tools needed to beat the best decks in the format.
In a format of razor-thin edges, Deathrite Shaman punches well above its weight as one of the most important cards in Legacy. Typically found in decks filled with one-mana threats and answers, its ability to enable multiple spells per turn in the early game can't really be overstated. Given how impactful cards like Delver of Secrets and Brainstorm are, the fact Deathrite Shaman can power out three spells on turn two is huge.
While being an emblematic card in Delver decks of all types, Deathrite Shaman also serves an important purpose in decks like Czech Pile. Legacy is a format where three- and four-mana spells can often be prohibitively expensive, and as a result the ramp effect of Deathrite Shaman is crucial in casting huge haymakers early. Having something like a Leovold, Emissary of Trest come down on turn two can often be a game-winning play.
Given the abundance of mana denial in Legacy, an uncontested Deathrite Shaman will ameliorate the effect of opposing Wastelands, and lessens the drawback of a card like Daze. Quite aside from ramping, helping to fight through being color-screwed and tying together four-color decks, it also has a pair of activated abilities that can shore up virtually any game. Further even to that, these abilities provide incidental graveyard hate. Deathrite Shaman really is the complete package.
There's an ongoing debate as to whether Deathrite Shaman should face a ban. It's fair to say that it's highly overrepresented in the format – but no more so than other Legacy staples such as Brainstorm and Force of Will. These blue cards seem to be grandfathered past any banhammer discussion, but the relative newcomer (five and a half years isn't so long when it comes to Legacy) gets no such privilege. It remains to be seen whether Deathrite Shaman will suffer a ban in the coming months; in the meantime, you've got to know how to beat it.
Whether it was for budgetary reasons or because the strategy was actually deemed a good choice, Red Prison decks saw a lot of play in Madrid over the weekend. Taking advantage of a huge number of powerfully disruptive options, this deck looks to cheat out an impactful three-drop on turn one. Whether it's Blood Moon, Ensnaring Bridge, or Trinisphere, this deck looks to make life hell for any list overloaded with one-drops like Deathrite Shaman.
Combining "Sol Lands" – Ancient Tomb and City of Traitors – with Simian Spirit Guide and Chrome Mox means that three mana on turn one is quite achievable. When on the play, any of these three-drops on turn one necessitates a Force of Will from your opponent or it's effectively lights out. Delver decks generally play no basics, so both Blood Moon and Magus of the Moon will lock them out immediately, and it goes without saying that Trinisphere is absolutely insane against any deck with an average converted mana cost of one-and-a-bit.
A turn-one Chalice of the Void is no less devastating for Deathrite decks of all kinds. Disabling Brainstorm, Delver of Secrets and of course Deathrite Shaman – and if none of these disruptive options take your fancy, there's always Goblin Rabblemaster there to smash face like it's 2014. Additionally, this deck has no reliance on the graveyard for Deathrite to mess with, and doesn't even have fetches or Wastelands to feed to the 1/2.
Obviously, all of this comes with a fair bit of optimism, as the dream scenario involves being on the play and having the requisite mana to be able to cast these cards so far ahead of time—something that doesn't happen every time by any means. Unfortunately, it's easy enough for an opposing Deathrite deck to interact with plans like this when on they're on the play – not only does being on the play allow them to deploy a threat like Delver of Secrets or even Deathrite itself, they can then back it up with Daze! Even on turn one, Blood Moon is a lot less effective when a Deathrite is already online, nor does Trinisphere do much work against a resolved Delver.
Nonetheless, this deck is packed to the rafters with ways to make life hell for anyone looking to leverage Deathrite Shaman in Legacy. The early disruption of Chalice of the Void, Blood Moon and Trinisphere combined with a plethora of Bolt-, Push-, and Decay-proof threats like Chandra, Torch of Defiance and Hazoret the Fervent mean that Red Prison decks are a great way to punish one of Legacy's most ubiquitously-played cards in Deathrite Shaman, not to mention the shells it's most commonly played in.
Moving forward, a reliable and sustainable answer must be found to both cards for the continued health of their respective formats. Standard decks are converging towards The Scarab God-based homogeneity, while in Legacy it's difficult to find reasons not to include Deathrite Shaman in any list playing fetch lands. If these cards truly are beatable, now is the time for people to prove it.
- Riley Knight