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Pioneer Selesnya Hardened Scales gets a Huge Update in Magic Core 2021

by Ron Duwell | July 26, 2020July 26, 2020 11:07 am EDT

Core 2021 is live in the world of Magic: The Gathering, and its overpowered cards are tearing up formats left and right. Teferi clearly is now Wizard’s of the Coast’s favorite Planeswalker, but in spite of the domination of Blue decks, we’re turning to a simple uncommon that gives one of my favorite builds an absolute major overhaul that could push it to the top of the Pioneer pile.

Conclave Mentor is yet another Hardened Scales on a stick!

Longtime Hardened Scales fans have often turned to Winding Constrictor to play this vital role of doubling as a way to ensure you get those +1/+1 counters to pile up on your creatures, but the benefits of Conclave Mentor’s potential lifegain aren’t all that offsets the benefits of Winding Constrictor’s player counters and additional point of toughness.

It also sets you up in the proper colors that Hardened Scales has always wanted to be in.

To date, Pioneer Hardened Scales has always had to rely on a third color to back up its gameplan, but Black has always felt a little wobbly. Sure, the splash gives us some great options for sideboards like Thoughtseize and Planeswalkers in Vraska, Golgari Queen, but nothing really that plays into the whole +1/+1 counter goal of making huge creatures for a low-low price.

Conclave Mentor gives us a far more consistent mana base that will ensure you always can cast both it and the highly advantageous benefits that White brings to the table.

Pioneer Selesnya Hardened Scales

So what are we working with here. First, we have our deck’s namesake, Hardened Scales, one of our all-time favorite build-arounds.

Play creatures, put counters on them, and watch them get bigger, bigger, and BIGGER for a very low investment. Hardened Scales has always had a very straightforward gameplan, and there is nothing about this build that is going to change that.

To back it up, we need a few dorks that will pile the counters on easily.

Counter Dorks

Experiment One is our best turn-1 play as it piles on the counters easily with access to both other creature’s power and toughness, very handy once we get to some of our other creatures. The regenerate ability is also easily obtained once Hardened Scales and a creature trigger evolve one time.

As always, his trusty buddy Pelt Collector is backing him up. In the Black build, we had sacrifice outlets to help power Pelt Collector to greater heights, but Selesnya doesn’t play by those rules. We just want creatures to stay on the board, and our creatures will be dying less. Because of that, Pelt Collector takes a backseat to Experiment One in our deck, but is still a very viable turn one option.

Trample is a little harder to get than Experiment One’s regenerate since you’ll need at least two creatures to pull it off. But still, no reason not to play it.

And the last of our dorks is not as powerful as the other two, but a 2/2 for a single mana once Hardened Scales is on the battlefield is still a great bargain. He immediately pumps up his stronger brothers once he hits the board with an active Hardened Scales.

Plus, his counters survive after he dies. Again, no sacrificing here, but those counters surviving go a long way in helping the creatures that live.

Artifact Creatures

No doubt we’re still tossing a few X casting cost artifact creatures in here.

Too much piled onto a single card here. Reach blocks flyers, trample ensures we’re going to do some damage, protection from multicolor keeps us safe from any pesky removal spells, Planeswalkers like Teferi, and hulking multicolored creatures like Uro, Yorion, or Kroxa.

Better yet, with Hardened Scales, he’s always going to be one bigger than you pay for him. A turn-1 Pelt Collector or Experiment One plays nicely into a turn-2 Hardened Scales then Stonecoil Serpent for a single mana. You have a fabulous 2/2 creature on the board, and your turn-1 dork immediately becomes a 3/3!

That’s about as aggressive as it gets.

As if we wouldn’t play Walking Ballista. This card has been overpowered since the day it came out, and it still rocks in our deck, providing huge power with Hardened Scales and Conclave Mentor even if we pay just two mana for it. It gives us great removal if our opponent’s creatures start getting out of control, and it also provides us with some inevitability if our opponent doesn’t take care of it immediately.

It’s so easy to close a game with this thing.

You might notice that our friend Hangarback Walker is not present in this list, and it’s sadly true. Without the sacrifice outlets to get our thopters from it, Hangarback Walker is just a little too inefficient in getting to what makes it such a great card and faces a bit of a retirement to more efficient creatures.

However, we do have one other artifact to talk about.


The Ozolith is a fabulous and very efficient artifact that helps keep your counters alive long after the creature they were piled upon perishes. Not only do they survive, but with a Hardened Scales or Conclave Mentor on the board, each combat step increases their value exponentially since transferring them onto a creature adds an extra two or three depending on how many of these cards you have out.

Sadly, counters that pile onto The Ozolith do not increase since Hardened Scales and Conclave Mentor only work with creatures.

My absolute favorite interaction with this card is actually with Servant of the Scales. When it dies, not only do its counters transfer onto The Ozolith, but counters also get passed on to another creature! The counters put on the other creature are entirely new counters and have nothing to do with the transfer to The Ozolith, essentially doubling your counters! Don’t you just love the tricky wording of Magic cards?

It’s Legendary, so you’ll only want to run one or two, but never overlook this card. It’s a bomb that will cripple opponents who lean on creature removal spells.

White Splash

So what is it about Hardened Scales that makes it play so well with White? Why do we favor Conclave Mentor over the snek? Despite years of love for Winding Constrictor, I just can’t look past what a consistent White and Green mana base brings to our deck with these powerful option.

Woo boy, the king itself! Dromoka’s Command is absurd in Hardened Scales, giving us the power to pile counters on creatures and act as a removal spell all in one for the price of two mana! In a fix, it also plays nicely as enchantment removal for annoying aura decks or Blue self mill decks, and it even occasionally (rarely) cancels out a finishing blow from a Lightning Strike or Expansion//Explosion.

No doubt, this is our main reason for playing White over Black since it provides everything our deck wants from counters to necessary interaction with opponents.

Gird for Battle is a single mana for what could be four to six +1/+1 counters. Easily worth the price of admission even if it it’s the weakest card in our deck.

It’s under strong contention from another instant speed spell I love called Lead By Example, but when it comes right down to it, Selesnya Hardened Scales simply wants cheap counters over sneaky combat tricks. Both are viable, but take the single mana sorcery option every time.

I knew this card was bound to find a home once I saw it, but again, it wasn’t quite strong enough to cancel out the benefits of our powerful Black cards.

However, with Hardened Scales or Mentor Conclave on the board, this could double your +1/+1 counters and leave a nice 2/3 vigilance body on the board as well. Not bad, not great… but it sent into overdrive with our first sideboard option.

Yes, we ARE a Lurrus deck

Lurrus of the Dream-DDDAAAAAMNNNNN

Despite how much our friends will inevitably hate us and how the Companion rules have been changed to weaken them, Lurrus is still a dominating force in Magic: The Gathering, providing a simple way to get back all of our creatures.

First off, yes, this makes Huatli’s Raptor playable in Pioneer. Recurring the dinosaur every time you throw it in the way of an attacking creature gives you yet another chance to double up on your counters across the board. No sweat!

Sure bringing back any other creature from the graveyard is great, but most importantly, we have Walking Ballista, which can drain itself of counters by dealing out damage as it sees fit, die, and then be summoned back on an even larger body. That’s broken beyond belief!

Lurrus is the real deal in our deck, and because of it, we run only cheaper options. Heliod’s combo with Walking Ballista might win the game on the spot, but the consistency of Lurrus makes it a far better gameplan. Sadly, it also locks us out of another traditional Hardened Scales all-star…

Nissa, Voice of Zendikar used to define Hardened Sclaes, but Lurrus rewrote the rules when it came out. No longer do we need to consider her for maindeck because she is too large to meet Lurrus’ companion restrictions. Bummer, but we also don’t need to consider Llanowar Elves or Elvish Mystic to ensure she comes down on turn-1 either, giving us more freedom to run Experiment One and Pelt Collector, which are far better turn-1 options.

It might not be the best move, but I still run a playset in my sideboard just because there is always threat of maindeck graveyard hate in Pioneer. When Lurrus is unable to bring your creatures back against Grafdigger’s Cage, Leyline of the Void, or Rest in Peace, board out your Raptors and go to town with Nissa, Voice of Zendikar.

Nice little common that does a lot for us, killing off mean auras, gaining us life in the face of burn, or just providing a nice escape pod with a cheap +1/+1 counter. Does it all, does it cheaply. Board it in against aggressive decks and enchantment based decks as a backup to Dromoka’s Command.

This might actually be better enchantment hate since you get to choose the enchantment that gets toasted.

Likewise, three mana to permanently get rid of enchantments? Absolutely! Gryff’s Boon, the Theros Gods, and all of the enchantments that Lurrus can bring back, gone for good? Sign me up! Cycling also is nice in a pinch.

Blue decks are all the rage, and I have nothing but rage towards them. Play one or two of these and watch your Teferri-loving friends cry!

Standard protection from Storm decks.

Standard protection from zombie and other graveyard decks. Drawing a card as an alternative is nice, and I prefer this over Grafdigger’s cage since you usually only want to get rid of one card on the spot in a graveyard, which this does nicely.

It’s also a better option than Rest in Peace since we don’t want to block Lurrus from calling out our own creatures.





A solid playset of each of Pioneer’s fastest and least risky lands. Canopy Vista is nice, but I rarely get to play it untapped, so I took it out.

The Deck

Creatures (27)

  • x4 Stonecoil Serpent
  • x4 Walking Ballista
  • x4 Experiment One
  • x4 Pelt Collector
  • x4 Servant of the Scale
  • x4 Conclave Mentor
  • x3 Huatli’s Raptor

Spells (6)

  • x2 Gird for Battle
  • x4 Dromoka’s Command

Enchantments (4)

  • x4 Hardened Scales

Artifacts (1)

  • x1 The Ozolith

Lands (21)

  • x8 Forest
  • x1 Plains
  • x4 Fortified Village
  • x4 Sunpetal Grove
  • x4 Temple Garden

Sideboard (15)

  • x1 Mistcutter Hydra
  • x1 Lurrus of the Dream-Den
  • x4 Nissa, Voice of Zendikar
  • x3 Light of Hope
  • x1 Barrier Breach
  • x3 Soul-Guide Lantern
  • x2 Damping Sphere

That’s all she wrote. I love the snek (Winding Constrictor), but I have now seen the light to drop my black splash and never look back. Should Wizards of the Coast provide a solid reason to bring back sacrifice and outperform the power of Dromoka’s Command, I might check it out again, but for the time being, it’s all Green/White baby. Hardened Scales forever!


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