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Budget Magic: $100 Hardened Scales but in Standard

Hey there, Budget Magic lovers, it's that time once again! March of the Machine unleashed a bunch of new +1/+1 counter support to Standard, including two different Hardened Scales effects in Ozolith, the Shattered Spire and Kami of Whispered Hopes. Can we combine them with a bunch of spicy counters synergies to make a fun, powerful $100 budget deck for our new Standard format? Let's see!

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Budget Magic: Standard Scales

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The Deck

Standard Scales is a +1/+1 counter–themed aggro deck that looks to grow massive creatures quickly with the help of Ozolith, the Shattered Spire, Kami of Whispered Hopes, and a bunch of sweet +1/+1 counters synergies!

The Scales

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So, why play a +1/+1 counter deck in March of the Machine Standard? Well, thanks to MOM, we now have two different versions of Hardened Scales in the format in Ozolith, the Shattered Spire and Kami of Whispered Hopes, both of which give us an extra +1/+1 counter whenever we add a +1/+1 counter to one of our creatures. Having redundancy lets us go all-in on building around the Hardened Scales effect. Every creature in our deck interacts with counters in one way or another, which allows us to do some absurd things if we can stack a couple of these cards up on the battlefield. While Ozolith and Kami are a bit more expensive than the original Hardened Scales, they help make up for this with some extra upside, with Ozolith, the Shattered Spire putting a counter on a creature (or, really, two counters, thanks to its other ability) for two mana, which is surprisingly powerful, and Kami of Whispered Hopes turning into a powerful but expensive mana dork if we can start growing its power. 

The Counters

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Along with having a bunch of new cards to play with, one of the great things about getting a new Magic set is that, in a weird way, it makes old cards new again thanks to their synergies with some of the new offerings. Take, for example, Clay Champion and Simian Simulacrum. When these cards were released in The Brothers War, they weren't really good enough to play in Standard. Sure, they could add +1/+1 counters to things and potentially be huge, but this just wasn't enough. Now, things are a lot different thanks to the Hardened Scales from March of the Machine. Clay Champion is one of the strongest cards in our deck. With a single Kami or Ozolith on the battlefield, we can cast it for four mana, and it will end up as a 6/6 and also add two +1/+1 counters to two other creatures, giving us a total of 10 power and toughness for four mana, which is insane! Simian Simulacrum isn't quite as busted, but it's still a solid three-drop in a deck that cares about +1/+1 counters. It's also worth mentioning that both cards are artifacts, which is actually super relevant at the moment since so many decks are playing Go for the Throat as one of their primary removal spells and Go for the Throat can't kill artifacts, which helps Clay Champion and Simian Simulacrum stick on the battlefield. Meanwhile, Siege Veteran's ability to add a counter to something (or two or three counters once we stack up our Hardened Scales) is exactly what our deck wants. Even though we don't really have many Soldier synergies, it's super solid in our deck.

Cards That Want Counters

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Next up, we have a couple of two-drops that don't put counters on things but do like counters being put on things in Botanical Brawler and Dusk Legion Duelist. Duelist is pretty straightforward: it draws us a card once a turn when it gets a counter, which makes it a strong card-advantage engine in our deck. Meanwhile, Botanical Brawler is the most explosive card in our deck. Even though it starts as a two-mana 2/2, it quickly ends up as something like a 10/10 tramper thanks to its ability to get a +1/+1 counter whenever we put a +1/+1 counter on another permanent. Remember the Clay Champion line we talked about before, with Champion giving itself and two other creatures counters? Add Botanical Brawler to the mix, and Brawler will also gain three (or six with a Hardened Scales) +1/+1 counters from a single Clay Champion resolving, even without us targeting it with Clay Champion's ability! While it does tend to die a lot, it gets so big so quickly that Botanical Brawler will easily finish them off with just a couple of attacks if our opponent can't find removal within a turn or two!


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We round out our creatures with a couple of one-drops: Hopeful Initiate and Evolving Adaptive. Thanks to training, Hopeful Initiate grows with +1/+1 counters as it attacks with bigger creatures (which our deck is full of thanks to all of our +1/+1 counter synergies), and its ability to remove counters to blow up artifacts and enchantments is super relevant in a format where cards like Fable of the Mirror-Breaker, Wedding Announcement, and Reckoner Bankbuster are everywhere. Meanwhile, Evolving Adaptive is kind of a nonbo in our deck since it technically grows with oil counters rather than +1/+1 counters, so Kami of Whispered Hopes and Ozolith, the Shattered Spire don't really do anything with it, although it's still a solid way to start off the game despite this drawback. Our goal is to finish off our opponent before they start playing Farewells and Atraxa, Grand Unifiers, which means having a Turn 1 play is super important. 


Record-wise, we finished 4-1 with Standard Scales when playing at top 1,500 Mythic on Arena, which is great! Our one loss came to an Esper Control deck overloaded with wraths, which felt like a pretty tough matchup. On the other hand, it felt like the deck has the ability to fight through the removal offered by midrange decks like Mardu and Grixis, thanks to the card advantage from Dusk Legion Duelist and Tocasia's Welcome in the sideboard. Combine this with the deck's ability to steamroll opponents with massive creatures if they don't have removal, and the deck felt surprisingly strong!

The deck's only drawback is that it's not especially cheap to put together on Magic Arena. Unfortunately, many of the sweetest +1/+1 counter cards happen to be rares, which, combined with the need for untapped dual lands, means it's going to cost quite a few rare wildcards to put together, even though the deck is just $100 in paper and $33 on Magic Online. While there are some changes you can make to help reduce the cost on Arena, they mostly require playing bad mana (which is especially painful in an aggro deck) or dropping key cards like Ozolith, Clay Champion or Dusk Legion Duelist, which means it's probably not worth trying to make the deck budget-friendly on the client, but it's perfect for paper play or Magic Online!

So, should you play Standard Scales? I think the answer is yes! The deck showed that it could compete at the highest levels on Magic Arena; plus, it's fun and full of sweet new cards! If you like growing massive threats and running your opponent over with janky creatures, Standard Scales might be the perfect budget Standard deck for you!

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Getting Standard Scales down under $50 isn't difficult, but it does require making some painful cuts to the mana base and replacing eight untapped dual lands with tapped dual lands, which will slow the deck down and likely cause some issues for competitive play. Apart from the mana base downgrades, we lose Tocasia's Welcome from the sideboard, replacing it with more removal, and Hopeful Initiate turns into Iron Apprentice. While the nonland changes are fine and shouldn't hurt the deck too much, if you start with the ultra-budget build, I'd try to upgrade the mana base before playing it competitively. The deck wants to win fast, and playing off-curve in the early game because of tap lands really hurts this plan.

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Finally, for our non-budget build, along with the normal upgrades to the mana base and sideboard, we get one massive addition to the main deck in Archangel Elspeth. New Elspeth feels perfect for the deck. We're really good at growing massive threats, although they are mostly stuck on the ground, which means many of them can be chump blocked. Being able to send a huge Clay Champion to the air along with giving it some extra +1/+1 counters seems like a great way to close out the game by surprise; plus, as a planeswalker, Archangel Elspeth survives Sunfall, Farewell, and other wraths, which should help improve our matchup against hardcore, wrath-heavy control, which is one of our worst.


Anyway, that's all for today. As always, leave your thoughts, ideas, opinions, and suggestions in the comments, and you can reach me on Twitter @SaffronOlive or at

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