Exploring Scapeshift – Top 64 at SCG Milwaukee

These days I’m somewhat schizophrenic in my long-distance tournament planning. Usually I make the entirely adult decision to stay home from any GPs or Star City Games Opens requiring a day’s drive or flight. Some quantity of these good decisions are inevitably reneged on when a friend convinces me through last-minute pleading and/or reminders of Magic’s awesomeness to accompany them on a weekend of debauchery. SCG Milwaukee was about in this vein. Two days beforehand I get the bug, and end up jammed into a car with four other people Wisconsin-bound after cobbling together a 75.

Explore

Since the Splinter Twin ban I haven’t played much Modern (and deliberately avoided it like the plague during a certain deck’s reign of horror) and I’ve been struggling to find a deck I like. Typically I’m all about that Bolt-Snap-Bolt life, and I love the dynamic of a control shell with a combo finish. The natural place to go was Scapeshift. Being unfamiliar with the archetype, I scoured the internet for various high finishes. Here’s what I knew going in:

Prismatic Omen

  • I wanted to run Prismatic Omen. I’ve always felt the Bring to Light package is a smidge on the cute side in a format so dominated by blisteringly-fast combo and aggro decks. The toolbox approach is nice, but I really wanted the potential to just slam my sixth land and kill the opponent from nowhere when I’m forced into a race.
  • Ancestral Vision in some capacity. This was less about my convictions of its strengths, and more for the purposes of testing. Ancestral is obviously one of the most exciting tools blue mages have been gifted in a while, and I wanted to see if it had legs in Scapeshift. Since most Omen lists ran Ancestral in the board, I assumed that’s where mine would start as well.

Those were just two bullet points, but they gave me a working framework. My carmates turned me on to the list Daryl Ayers used to win the SCG Classic in Baltimore a few weeks back. The maindeck looked pretty solid to my eye but I had some reservations about the sideboard. Most notably, the absence of Anger of the Gods seemed like a red flag, but maybe Ayers had expected a particularly non-aggressive field for the event he played. I also was less than enthused about the Shatterstorms. I’ve always preferred Ancient Grudge as my anti-Affinity tool in Twin builds, but I knew the possibility of ramping into a sweeper on turn three might be the tie-breaker in Scapeshift. Ayers also came packing 2x Nature’s Claim, so we could still tag any opposing Cranial Platings during combat if necessary. (At this time I was unaware that Affinity would be at an all-time low in Milwaukee—I never played against the archetype.)

The one other concern I had about the sideboard was its seeming lack of flexibility. I’m generally a huge fan of the one-of sideboard slot in general, but especially in Modern where you’re trying to cover so many different matchups. Ayers’ list had no Negates, Vendilion Cliques, Spellskites, or big finishers like Wurmcoil Engine or Inferno Titan.

Ultimately I reasoned that my lack of past experience with the archetype precluded any rash changes to Ayers’ clearly-proven list. After all he was a well-known player and there was undoubtedly a reason for all his inclusions. I registered his exact 75:

Scapeshift, by Jason Schousboe (52nd place, SCG Milwaukee Open)

Creatures (4)
Sakura-Tribe Elder

Enchantments (4)
Prismatic Omen

Instants (12)
Cryptic Command
Lightning Bolt
Remand

Sorceries (14)
Explore
Farseek
Scapeshift
Serum Visions

Lands (26)
Forest
Island
Mountain
Breeding Pool
Flooded Grove
Misty Rainforest
Steam Vents
Stomping Ground
Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle
Sideboard (15)
Obstinate Baloth
Oracle of Mul Daya
Dispel
Nature’s Claim
Sudden Shock
Ancestral Vision
Shatterstorm
Buy deck on Cardhoarder (MTGO)Buy deck on TCGPlayer (Paper)

Note this list cuts the Search for Tomorrows for the full playset of Explore. That’s partly because the basic land count is frighteningly low (five) and also because Explore into Valakut is an excellent way to mitigate the enters-the-battlefield tapped problem. When you have an Omen going it’s also nice because you can trigger Valakuts with additional copies of itself, something the other ramp spells don’t enable.

Search for Tomorrow

The other notable thing is zero Snapcaster Mage (to my chagrin, most certainly). In the car I discussed Snappy’s role in Scapeshift with my friend Jon who has extensive experience with the archetype. Our conclusion was that running anywhere from 0-2 Snapcasters in a list like this was defensible. They would have been pretty nice to draw into against BGx post-Thoughtseize with a Scapeshift in the graveyard, but I did have Omens to topdeck as well. At this point I’m pretty sure I would run one copy (probably over the second Farseek), but at the time I just deferred to Ayers’ wisdom.

I’ll spare you guys the grueling match-by-match recounting of all 15 rounds, and just touch on the interesting plays and moments that occurred during the tournament. Then I’ll suggest some updates for the list.

Day 1

Rounds 1-4

I start out on a heater, crushing the first four rounds without dropping a game. Jeez, Scapeshift, where ya’ been all my life? These rounds are something of a blur, but I do remember I took down two Burn players in decisive 2-0 fashion. At this point my thoughts are something to the extent of, “Scapeshift, bah-roken. Even its bad matchups are unloseable.”

Round 5 (Abzan Company)

My opponent is an acquaintance from local tournaments back in Minnesota, and he plays pretty tight the whole round. Wish I could say the same. Game Two I just completely punt the match to him when I miss an on-board kill. Luckily the universe gives me a break and he misses on his draw step. I tighten up for game three and manage to take the match.

Round 7 (Death and Taxes)

leonin arbiterBy this point I’m 6-0 and feeling good. My opponent is a young child (12-14 or so) who impresses with surprisingly tight play the whole round. Game one I start Cryptic’ing his team to dig for Scapeshift, which he’s basically cold to. I manage to chain together two Serum Visions, a couple Explores, and two Cryptics and still brick. All told I have something like 12 draws to find my eponymous game-winner, but as I reflect to myself, I did choose to sleeve up a deck that’s reliant on finding that one card.

Game two I just combo him super fast. Game three is where things get interesting. He’s doing the annoying Death and Taxes thing of tightening the screws one turn at a time. In the late game I’m facing down Leonin Arbiter, Spellskite, two sphere effects in Thalia and Vryn Wingmare, and a motley crew of other mono-white dorks threatening my life total. I Cryptic to buy time, getting to enough land drops for the Scapeshift in my hand to be lethal. On his end step I kill Skite with a Nature’s Claim, untap and slam Scapeshift for six mana.

SpellskiteIt’s at this point I look to his board and see the Arbiter, sitting there in full view. My opponent calmly (and snarkily) turns it 180 degrees so I can read it. Riiiiight. “At least I didn’t sac any lands yet,” I quip out loud, before tossing the Scapeshift in the yard and passing the turn.

Later I find out the spotter was right behind me trying to decide whether to bring me into the feature match area when I made this play. First impressions, nice.

If I sandbag the Scapeshift I have one more turn before dying, in which I can topdeck Lightning Bolt to kill Arbiter. Either way it wasn’t to be as my opponent’s next draw step is a second copy of Arbiter which just puts the nail in the coffin. That’s the second punt rendered irrelevant as I pick up my first loss.

Round 8 (Mono-Red Burn)

The word’s been going around in the tournament hall about my opponent’s deck this round. He’s playing Mono-Red Burn with some, shall we say, spicy Standard inclusions in four- and five-drop dragons… Game three after mulliganing and getting stuck on lands he reveals a hand of two Thunderbreak Regents and a Stormbreath Dragon. If he’s playing traditional burn with white and/or green cards I can’t possibly win the match (the same was true of one of the earlier rounds too). I thank my lucky stars to be 3-0 against Burn.

At this point I’m locked for Day 2, but I’m itching to end the day X-1. My carmate, Will Drescher, is fighting for his tournament life (he will eventually Top 8) so I’m cheering for him too as we hit the final round.

Round 9 (Jund)

They jam my opponent and I this round in the “fake” feature match area, where we’re essentially on standby if the main match finishes early. I can tell right away that’s he’s seasoned and talented. Unfortunately he dispatches me in quick fashion well before any opportunity to get on camera.

Kitchen FinksThis match my sloppy play finally catches up to me. He has a Liliana of the Veil ticking up alongside a small beatdown squad, and I’m holding the game-winning Scapeshift plus the extra card to pitch to Lili. All I need is one more turn of fading Thoughtseize to untap and 18 him for exactsies. He takes his turn and casts… Kitchen Finks. Damn. After pitching my Lili fodder, I draw a brick (I can’t remember now what it was) and am faced with a decision.

Liliana is on 5, so I have another turn before all hell breaks loose. If I Scapeshift now and put him to 2 I’m drawing live to Bolt, or a combination of mana source plus Prismatic Omen. Alternately I can Scapeshift for less than the full amount to get Liliana off the board and/or kill his Scavenging Ooze, but I’m pretty sure that’s just a losing line. After mulling it over, I decide that there’s no reason to 18 him this turn, when all I have to do is draw a land next turn to deal the full 36 off two Valakuts.

If you can’t see how this is a horrible, horrible play, well let me tell you. He untaps, Lilis away my extra card, then passes the turn. I’m thinking it’s clear sailing (assuming I draw one of my many outers), when he stops on my upkeep to Kolaghan’s Command my one-card Scapeshift hand!

Kolaghans CommandLesson learned. At least I’m still in Day 2. I check in with Will and am happy to hear he won. I also note to myself that Ancestral Vision‘s performance this match was lackluster at best.

Day 2

Round 10-11

I start off the day 1-1, losing to something I forgot and demolishing a Kiki Chord player who mulligans and misses land drops. That third loss certainly hurts, but I’m relatively zen about it—still live to Top 16.

Round 12 (Infect)

This was the first match I played all weekend that just felt hopeless. Every other round I thought I had game, even the ones I lost, but this one was just a one-sided massacre. He starts with fetch into basic Forest, Noble Hierarch. I’m not sure why but I just kind of put him on Infect in my mind and pray I’m wrong. It’s possible for an Abzan Company player to take this line if they don’t need the extra dual land, I rationalize to myself, as I play a land and pass.

Sure enough, he’s playing filthy, filthy Phyrexian monstrosities and proceeds to “compleat” me in two short games. I try to Remand, Dispel, Bolt and Cryptic my way into a lethal Scapeshift, but he handily kills me both games with several turns to spare.

Anger of the GodsThe Infect matchup is the reason for Sudden Shocks in the sideboard, and this round was enough to convince me they’re just not worth it. I brought in both, and while I didn’t draw them game two, they just wouldn’t have mattered. I think the Infect matchup is just so abysmal that the correct strategy is to say screw it and hope you dodge them all day. If those Sudden Shocks had been Anger of the Gods I might have been able to win the match against Death and Taxes, or improve my lot against Abzan Company. I’m not even sure that Sudden Shock is strictly superior to Anger in the Infect matchup. As it stood, I basically mulliganed two sideboard slots to bring in solely in one round where they made zero difference.

Round 14 (Bring to Light Scapeshift)

By this point I’ve picked up another win, and need one more to cash, two to Top 32. I figure out pretty quickly that my opponent is on Bring to Light Scapeshift, and we play the pass back and forth do-nothing game for a while. Unfortunately I’m missing land drops throughout this whole process, which is the death knell. He untaps with billions of mana and Bring to Lights for the win, powering through my meager tap-out-for-Cryptic Command disruption.

Game two I’m starting to brick on land drops again and getting frustrated. He’s tapped out on my turn, so I have free purchase to resolve anything. His board is 5 lands. Mine is 4 lands, Omen. This turn I’ve again failed to draw a land, and I have no Explores or ramp spells to keep digging. What I do have is a Cryptic. I bounce one of his lands and draw, reasoning that he can resolve Bring to Light next turn but can’t get up to the critical 7 lands. I’m ecstatic to hit a Valukut off my Cryptic draw, and play it and pass the turn.

Cryptic CommandHere some unfamiliarity with Bring to Light lists gets me pretty good. He untaps and slams Crumble to Dust on Valakut. Ewwwww. Well, I say to him, I can maybe beat you down with 10 hits of an Oracle of Mul Daya (which I haven’t drawn yet). “I don’t think that’s likely,” he laughs. “Yeah, me neither.” He goes on to crush me as you would expect.

I spend a lot of time thinking through that turn and this match later, and eventually reach the conclusion that it was the right play after all. Assuming he has access to Crumble to Dust post-board, he can Bring to Light for it, so I’m pretty unlikely to fade that play from him. But I can always hit a different, non-Valakut land which makes my play better. Ultimately, I think if I just let him keep hitting land drops and try to keep up Cryptic indefinitely he’s eventually going to overwhelm my defenses.

Either way, the matchup definitely seemed in his favor. They just have so much more play than the Omen version, and being a turn faster isn’t that relevant in a matchup of Remand and Cryptic wars. I’m still skeptical of Bring to Light‘s positioning against the field at large, but it certainly is advantaged in the mirror.

Round 15 (Merfolk)

My tournament goes out in a whimper as I play against a very green-behind-the-ears Merfolk player who makes multiple critical misplays, including leaving in all his Tidebinder Mages and Harbinger of the Tides. I’m worried to hit another bad matchup, though, even against a less-skilled pilot, and he gives me a run for my money. Again I’m kicking myself for leaving the Angers at home.

CursecatcherGame three is the interesting one. I let his fishies hit me for a few turns until they’re lethal, then Cryptic them down. I have the Scapeshift in hand, six lands, and a Sakura-Tribe Elder waiting to fetch up the seventh, with him on 20 life. His hand is empty so all I have to do is rip a land to 36 him through his double Cursecatcher. On his end step I tank for a while on whether to crack Sac-Tribe. Ultimately I elect not to, in order to marginally increase the chances of drawing a land.

My draw for turn is Lightning Bolt. Wow, I’m so bad. If I just fetch up a land end step, I have exactly seven mana to cast Scapeshift for 18, pay for both Cursecatchers, and finish him off with Bolt. I tank for a while trying to figure out if I can mind-game him into forgetting to sac the Cursecatchers. Maybe if I Bolt him after Scapeshifting, he’ll forget how much mana I have floating. The other line is to kill all his guys, leaving him with Mutavault and 3 Islands. This is somewhat scary as I’m on 3 life.

Ultimately I decide it’s way too risky to just hope he doesn’t know how his own cards work. I kill his team and hope to fade a two-mana lord for one draw step (Merrow Reejerey doesn’t do it as he can’t cast it and activate Mutavault). He bricks and on the subsequent turn I bolt the creature land when he tries to get in with it. Several miraculous draws later (and more bricks from him), I find a Prismatic Omen and eventually bolt him to death. Phew! I’m in Top 64 and get $100 for my troubles. Not a bad weekend.

Changes to Scapeshift

As you might guess from my tournament report, I want to overhaul the sideboard pretty extensively. Anger of the Gods just feels so necessary, and frankly I’m not sure how Ayers managed without it in his list. I want to cut the Sudden Shocks as they’re not accomplishing their intended goal, and also add some alternate wincons like Wurmcoil. I wouldn’t mind squeezing in a few utility and flex slots too, like a singleton Negate or Vendilion Clique. Clique especially I’ve always loved so much in blue sideboards for its ability to pressure combo, beat down in the face of disruption, and still not be embarrassing against Jund.

Finally, a note on Ancestral Vision. If you noticed I barely mentioned this card during the whole report, that’s because I rarely boarded it in. Even in the Jund matchup, it felt like a mistake to try to beat them on the card advantage and grinding axis. At this point I’d much rather assume the aggro role and just try to combo-kill them. Against the mirror I think the card advantage game matters, but less so than mana development. So the only place it feels truly excellent is against Grixis or Jeskai Control—two matchups that are traditionally favorable.

So yeah, as much as it pains me to say it, I’d probably leave the Ancestrals out of Omen Shift for the time being. Oracle of Mul Daya, on the other hand, was amazing all tournament. I probably boarded it in more than any other card. It plays the card advantage and alternate wincon roles very well while synergizing with our Plan A. With fetchlands and Sac-Tribes it also lets us effectively “Top” into high-impact sideboard cards. I’d probably go up a copy.

Below is the updated sideboard I would play. If (let’s be honest, when) Affinity makes a return you might have to load up on more artifact hate, but right now I like the following:

3 Obstinate Baloth
2 Oracle of Mul Daya
2 Nature’s Claim
1 Wurmcoil Engine
1 Vendilion Clique
2 Dispel
1 Negate
2 Anger of the Gods
1 Ancient Grudge

The only other change I would make, as I mentioned above, is to add a Snapcaster Mage to the main over a Farseek.

What are your experiences building and playing Scapeshift? Any experts out there who can chide me on my foolish deckbuilding choices? Anyone who can articulate the argument for the Bring to Light version? Let me know in the comments.

Thanks for reading,
Jason Schousboe

14 thoughts on “Exploring Scapeshift – Top 64 at SCG Milwaukee

  1. Jason,
    Great article! I am a longtime Scapeshift player as well and enjoyed the write up. I noticed Ayer’s finish with this list and was intrigued to see if the non-search for tomorrow, Prismatic-Omen build was worth the price of no Snapcasters – and it looks like it is!

    From my perspective, Aryer’s build and the tradtional Temur Builds are the best for this Meta. The Bring to Light versions have never really caught on for me for the same reasons you’ve stated above; they simply feel too slow for Modern, and Scapeshift is already a slow enough deck. My Current build is like uses 3 Snapcaster Mage in the main due to the fact that the Metagame has slowed down so significantly. Simply put, the ability to Snap-Bolt, Snap-remand, or Snap-Scapeshift has been backbreaking against many decks. In regards to your mention of a sweeper in the side, I definitely agree with you. For the two years I’ve played Scapeshift I’ve never budged from my 3-of Firespout in the board.

    The single best piece of tech I can provide you with is Gigadrowse. The card comes in against a surprising variety of matchups, everything from UW/x Control. Grixis Control, Scapeshift Mirrors, and Tron. The trouble with Scapeshift mirrors is that they too often go to time and put a nasty draw on your record. Against any deck playing blue you tap all their lands on the end step, untap, and win, never going to time. Against Tron you upkeep tap all their lands if you’re running out of remands/cryptics, or to buy a turn against their impending Ulamog.
    Here’s a link to my 75:
    http://tappedout.net/mtg-decks/scapeshift-50916/

    As a final note, yes the Infect matchup is unwinnable.

    Thanks for the article!

  2. Hi Jason,

    Great article! Thanks.
    As a merfolk player I would just argue that leaving harbinger/tidebinder against Scapeshift deck is totally fine. Depending on the list, you sideboard out around 8 cards: 4x spreading seas, ~4x removal spells (snag/dismember). It is unlikely that you have that much relevant cards to bring it from your sideboard. Tidebinder/harbinger have useless ETB in the match up but are 2/2 bodies that can grow, and in that kind of match-up all you really want is creatures to attack and counter spells. So nothing wrong here in my opinion.

    Cheers!

    1. That all makes sense. My opponent that round basically told me afterwards that he thought I had Primeval Titan which is why he brought/kept them in. Are you saying you’ll actually run the full eight copies post-board?

  3. I truly don’t understand the feeling of the omen lists that they HAVE to run only combo wins. I used to run an omen list that used KotR and fetchlands to hit for 9-12+ a turn off of Valakuts, with Titans to go over the top and a copy of Emeria, the Sky Ruin to handle games that went long, but kept the combo out of Scapeshift. I found it worked a lot better than the “control and only combo” win versions.

  4. I really liked your thoughts. I have Been playing scapeshift with a very different list. I play no lightning bolts, 4 AV, and the usual ramp package. My question is, if im playing 0 one drops in the maindeck, can i be playing chalice of the void? I have 2 in the sideboard but i havent been able to play enough games to get a good read on them.

    1. I’m interested in exploring Chalice as a possible way to beat Infect. (Haven’t yet, though.) If we can go turn two Chalice into turn three Anger that might get the job done. What other matchups are you looking to bring this in for? I’m assuming Burn?

      1. Well, i have also considered it on the play against affinity, burn, boggles, delver, and some of the modern flotsam that thrive on 1 drops (like 8 rack). For affinity, i would like to put it on 0 on the play. I havent gotten the chance to really grind out games with it because of my lack of a pc right now.

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