1800 or Bust!: Old Favourites

Jim’s back and he’s burning! Can his new CounterBurn deck survive the rigors of an actual tourney?

It’s a difficult thing to stop playing a game you play, judge and think about it every moment of every day, but after the preparations for the English Nationals and the Nationals themselves, I needed a break. I came 38th this year; not the best in the England, but certainly not the worst. I was happier with my drafting and much happier with my Type II play. Now, after a month of trying to avoid Magic cards and reading Magic websites, it’s time to get back in the saddle, and we’ve been given something wonderful to work with: Apocalypse.

I’m not going to go through and list my”Top Ten Apocalypse Picks For Standard” because it has been done to death, but my personal favourites are the new painlands. The moment I saw they were real I started thinking about new decks and revisiting some old favourites. One immediately sprung to mind: Counter Burn.

I last looked at Counter Burn decks in my article”A Little Counter, A Little Burn” just over a year ago.

Back then we had Hammer of Bogardan, Stroke of Genius, and Powder Keg to help us out, but only City of Brass to help us with our mana. The deck suffered at the time because of this and one new card: Rishadan Port. Now we have a few answers to this and some new spells to think about.

Here’s my first draft of the deck:

4x Thieving Magpie

1x Tahngarth, Talruum Hero

4x Counterspell

4x Foil

2x Misdirection

4x Shock

4x Urza’s Rage

4x Accumulated Knowledge

2x Earthquake

2x Tsabo’s Web

2x Dominate

3x Brainstorm

4x Shivan Reef

14x Island

6x Mountain

60 cards main deck. Earthquakes are our only mass-removal, while Misdirections and Foils allow us to cast our Magpies early and protect them. One thing to notice is that only four Apocalypse cards made it into the deck, that’s because this version of the deck was only to have a look at the burn and counter spells and try to get the amount of land right.

After a few days of testing, we found that the amount of land was a little low and the deck needed a few more sources of red mana. Tahngarth wasn’t nearly as good as I’d have hoped, Brainstorm was great against Duress (but very little else), and there needed to be a few more counterspells. With this in mind, we started looking at more Apocalypse cards.

Suffocating Blast is so close to being a good card it hurts. Only the words”or player” are missing but it makes such a change in how useful the card is that it certainly shouldn’t be played main deck – not in such a control-heavy, and therefore creature light, environment.

Fire/Ice, on the other hand, is one of the best cards in the set. You can deal a player two damage, kill two elves, tap a Spiritmonger for a turn – drawing a card in the process – and even tap a Rishadan Port in your opponent’s end step. The list goes on and on. We dropped Shock straight away and shoved these useful guys in. Hell, if I was playing mono-red I’d play Fire/Ice, I really would!

Prophetic Bolt is another card worth looking at… And one I’m still not sold on. Yes, it deals four damage to creatures or players. Yes, it replaces itself with the best card from the top four in your library. And yes, it’s an instant. On the other hand, it’s five mana and that means you can’t play too many of these without including mana acceleration, or you’ll be stuck with them in hand. Fact or Fiction lets you look deeper into your library and often nets you more cards… But FoF doesn’t kill a Kavu Chameleon, Serra Angel, or Lightning Angel. The Bolt deserves testing at the very least.

Jilt looks like it will certainly see some Type II play; I’ve played it in a few Limited tourneys and it’s great – I’m just not sure how good it is in Counter Burn. The deck we’re building will never have enough counterspells to be able to counter everything, and so you need a way to get rid of creatures that make it into play – but is bouncing them really the answer? Sure, you can kill a BoP, Yavimaya Barbarian, or un-kickered Kavu Titan at the same time… But it’s a bounce spell, and I’ve never been a big fan of temporary ways of dealing with threats in Type II. I want to kill something and for it to stay dead, not merely get recast the very next turn. Jilt may find a home in a more tempo-based U/R deck, but not this one.

So I’m stuck with eight counters and two Misdirections. With Suffocating Blast out of the window, the only other new counter spell to look at from Apocalypse is Evasive Action. I like Evasive Action – I like it a lot. Although not as powerful as Mana Leak or even Miscalculation, it gives the deckbuilder a new spell to play with. Domain players will probably find it a great new spell to play, and there may be a way of getting three or four basic land into play in a G/U deck in Type II – but with only two types of basic land, Evasive Action will never be better that great… And for it to be really effective, I need to see a Mountain and an Island on turns 1 through 4 – not a bet I’d like to risk a match on.

So where are we with the deck so far?

4x Thieving Magpie

1x Mahamoti Djinn

4x Counterspell

4x Foil

1x Thwart

2x Exclude

4x Fire/Ice

4x Urza’s Rage

4x Accumulated Knowledge

2x Ghitu Fire

2x Tsabo’s Web

2x Dominate

2x Prophetic Bolt

4x Shivan Reef

14x Island

7x Mountain

The deck’s gone up to 61 cards (something I only allow myself to do if I’m playing a bunch of cantrips), the amount of card drawing has changed slightly, as we’re playing with two Prophetic Bolts instead of the three Brainstorm – and that gives us room to up the land count by one and add a Thwart.

The Misdirections, although very useful, don’t stop Flametongue Kavu killing your Magpies – something I found happening a lot, and there are a lot of creatures in the environment. So Exclude might actually be a better main deck choice.

I handed the deck to a friend to play for a few hours and it still had some big problems: Enchantments and artifacts were a nightmare, and the mana still wasn’t quite right. Exclude also seemed to sit in his hand far too much. I tinkered with a few solutions, but decided that splashing white, for either Orim’s Thunder or Dismantling Blow was probably the answer. We tested Orim’s Thunder and found that although it often did its job, two more cards would almost always have been more of a benefit.

With a tournament looming, we spent a little more time and hammered out the final version of the deck:

4x Counterspell

4x Foil

1x Thwart

1x Absorb

3x Dismantling Blow

4x Fire/Ice

4x Urza’s Rage

2x Ghitu Fire

4x Thieving Magpie

1x Mahamoti Djinn

2x Prophetic Bolt

4x Accumulated Knowledge

2x Tsabo’s Web

4x Shivan Reef

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3x Coastal Tower

4x Mountain

10x Island

With the addition of a little white mana, the possibility of playing Absorb opened up – a far better choice than Exclude. I only added one to reduce the reliance on drawing one of only seven white mana sources in the deck. The deck still had a problem if Blastoderm or Spiritmonger got into play, and couldn’t cope very well with heavy discard or land destruction. Against Prison decks, only having three Disenchant effects seemed to mean I always lost to them. Against the bulk of control decks, I always found myself having to leave a Magpie on defence to stop Nether Spirits – not something I really wanted to do. The sideboard addressed all of these issues, bar one:

4x Glacial Wall

3x Misdirection

2x Teferi’s Response

2x Disenchant

4x Scorching Lava

The deck still can’t really cope with Spiritmonger until about turn 8 if one slips past a Counterspell – not a pleasant prospect, and something that will have to be looked at in greater detail if

Spiritmonger becomes popular.

Now the hard question: Am I confident enough to actually play the deck? With a Bath Type II tourney only three days away, my answer would normally be no, but after putting so much work into it I felt I should take it. Every dog has its day, and every deck deserves at least one real tourney experience.

On the day of the tourney, my teammate Tarik decided to play a Probe-Go deck based on a deck from the APAC championships, whilst Alan decided (once again) to stick with what he knows and play Fires. We arrived at the tourney to find quite a few people there, and the announcement of seven rounds of Swiss meant we had a long day ahead of us:

Round 1: Su Fun Chang

It was Su Fun’s first Bath tourney, and I’m always a little anxious that players I haven’t seen before could be amazingly good – so I try to be even more careful than normal. Game one started badly, with Su Fun casting a Duress. I hate it when opponents do that; it just doesn’t seem fair. One of my two counter spells left my hand and I settled down for a long match. Su Fun spent a long time blowing up my land and casting Sage Owls. Eventually I got a Magpie into play and filled my hand up, dealt with all his threats, and won the game with burn.

I boarded in my Misdirections and we sat down for game two. Straight away he started trying to blow up land – so I helped myself out a little by Misdirecting a Rain of Tears onto one of Su Fun’s own land. A few turns later, I was lucky to draw a second Misdirection just in time to defend myself from a Lobotomy. Su Fun had two Counterspells in hand and was good enough to search his deck, find two more, and remove them all from the game. As far as I know, if you’re searching your own deck you’re not obligated to actually find the spells you’re looking for. (You aren’t – The Ferrett)

My life total stabilised at around fifteen, and I soon cast a second Magpie, which gave me enough cards a turn make short work of Su Fun, countering or burning anything he cast.

Matches: 1-0, Games: 2-0.

Round 2: Shane Silk-Reeves

I’ve played Shane quite a few times recently and haven’t lost to him – a record I’d like to keep clean. We sat down, shuffled and started to play. Shane dropped a Forest and an Elf – he was playing Fires. As I’ve mentioned already, Fires is one of my worst matchups so I’d be lucky to win the first game – and hopefully I’d see some Walls after sideboarding.

Sure enough, game one came down to not being able to deal with a Saproling Burst. A short time later I was boarding and in came four Glacial Walls and some Misdirections. The second game started well for me, as Shane started playing quite slowly and I saw two Walls early on. Shane never dealt with them, but still managed to get me down to ten life before I took control. I took a little more damage but managed to cast (and keep alive) a Magpie to start filling my hand up. Shane cast Rage and I let it happen so, only a moment later – figuring I had no Misdirection in hand – he Raged me with kicker. His life total went from eighteen to eight very quickly. I finished Shane with a Rage of my own a few turns later.

One all and a final game to play. My opening hand had a wall, Counterspell, Fire/Ice and land. I stuck with it and Shane started off slowly again with a Yavimaya Barbarian and nothing for a few turns. I got my wall down, followed by a Magpie and eventually got bored of the Barbarian and Raged it – keeping the Fire/Ice for any elves that might appear. Shane started drawing threat after threat and pretty soon I was down to only burn spells in hand and Shane cast a few Blastoderms. Luckily, another Wall hopped into my hand and I managed to stay alive at four life. Over the next few turns I used my spare burn to work on Shane’s life total while my Magpie whittled him down to within double-Rage range and killed him.

Matches: 2-0, Games: 4-1.

Not a bad score at lunch… But as anyone will tell you, two of seven rounds isn’t a lot. I’ve found out to my cost over the last few tourneys I’ve played in that another five rounds can make a hell of a difference. We headed over to the New Inn for lunch and a chat; Tarik and Alan were both on 2-0 and Chris, to whom I’d lent the bulk of his W/B control deck, was only on 1-1, having lost to Richard Edbury’s new deck.

If I kept up my winning streak I knew that I’d run into Richard sooner or later, so I quizzed Chris what was in Richard’s deck – it sounded very nasty. We headed back to the tourney to find the pairings for the next round posted.

Round 3: Richard Edbury

To say I was mauled would be a BIG understatement.

In game one my life total went twenty, nineteen, eleven, three, dead. Spritmonger is as good as they say and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. If you don’t have a Counterspell in hand, you’re in real trouble against that bad boy.

Game two took slightly longer – about six minutes instead of three. My life went twenty, nineteen, eleven, three, negative five. Pretty good, eh? For the record Richard was playing a W/G/B deck with Spiritmongers, Spectral Lynx, Deed, Duress, and a mini-rebel engine. You should be able to work out the rest of the deck yourself – it’s awesome and went on to win the tourney.

We had a brief chat about his deck:

“I just put all the broken Apocalypse rares in one deck,” he said.

“Fair enough, seems to work,” was my only reply.

Matches: 2-1, Games: 4-3.

Round 4: Gareth Brown

Gareth is one of the younger players at Bath, but always seems to have most of the cards he needs to build a good version of a net deck. Today he was with Fires. He started slowly, so slowly that I managed to gain quite a lot of control and stabilise on around sixteen life. I took another four damage before killing him.

Game two went badly with a turn 5 Kavu Chameleon. I dug and dug for a wall or some burn, but it didn’t turn up – and five turns later I was dog food. So, game three and I draw a hand with a wall, a Magpie, some land, and a Counterspell. I went with it and quickly got the wall down. Gareth didn’t cast too much, and I drew into a few more counters and a bit more burn. A few turns later I had control, and waited for a kill card or two to show up. Eventually a Ghitu Fire popped into my hand and the match was mine.

Matches: 3-1, Games: 6-4.

Now, if I was playing a six-round tourney, I’d be very happy at this point. 3-1 would mean one more win and ID for a top-8 finish, but in a seven-round tourney I need to win a few more matches and I was getting tired. Recently I’ve been judging, dropping out to play side event drafts, and dropping out to go shopping! I haven’t played a full seven-round tourney for a long while, and I’d forgotten how tiring it could be. I got myself a quick drink and sat down for the next match.

Round 5: Mark Knight.

I’ve played Mark recently; he’s a good player, and he generally turns up with good decks. Game one we sit down and I thought I was playing a mirror match! Mountains, Islands and Plains started showing up on Mark’s side of the table. When he cast his first Lightning Angel, I knew that he was playing something different. The Serra Angel was a surprise a few turns later also. I managed to kill one of them, but the other made short work of me.

Game two went on for longer, but the number of Mark’s threats, and all of them with four toughness, made it very difficult. I also only had Misdirections in my sideboard to bring in against him. He finished me with a kickered Rage – he had a Misdirection in hand just in case I did, too.

What I really needed in this game were a few more counter spells and a better way of dealing with creatures. Wrath of God, anyone?

Matches: 3-2, Games: 6-6.

Round 6: Allan Paul.

Allan is one of the friendliest players at Bath, and it’s always fun playing him. We sat down, shuffled and started to play.

“Swamp, Dark Ritual, Bog Down.”

Hmm. Two cards for two cards, but still not too good for me. Two turns later he cast Bog Down again and followed it up with a Phyrexian Scuta. I quickly succumbed.

I boarded in my Misdirections and Walls and we started again. We both drew a lot of land, but I managed to get a Magpie on the table and serve for a few points. Pretty quickly Allan dropped an Abyssal Spectre and followed it up with a Scuta and started to hurt me again. Just to be sure Allan cast Bog Down with kicker at me, which I Misdirected back at him. He was surprised, but discarded a pile of land. This left me with only one card in hand, a Dismantling Blow.

“At the end of your turn, Recoil your Magpie.”

Hmm.”Some bad,” as they say. With six mana and a Tsabo’s Web in play, the only thing I could so was cast the Blow with kicker on my own Web, draw two cards and discard the bad ones. I cast it and it resolved and I drew…. Misdirection and… A Counterspell.

“Misdirect your Recoil onto your Scuta.”

Allan looked at me with amusement, as he had no cards in hand. The Scuta was soon in the bin.

Allan drew… A land, and played it.

“Your go, Jim.”

I untapped, drew a Ghitu Fire, and killed the Spectre to start my Magpie attack once more. This continued for a few turns more until my hand was full again, and by then I had another Misdirection and lots of Burn. Another Magpie soon joined the fray and I countered anything that could cause me trouble and soon win with many burn spells.

Matches: 4-2, Games: 8-7.

One more round to go and I check the pairings: I’m up against Steve Hill. Not someone I’ve seen at a Bath tourney before, but he’s 4-2, the same as me, so he must be quite good at the very least.

Round 7: Steve Hill.

Game one Steve blew up a lot of my land, cast small red creatures, and killed me. Not much more I can say about it than that, really. I brought in my Misdirections and Walls and we sat down for game two.

He came out of the blocks really fast again, but I saw an early wall and some burn to take care of a few things. My first Magpie was killed and I struggled on until Moti came to the rescue. In for five, in for five, apply a little burn and wait. I had a Ghitu Fire in hand and could kill him next turn. He attacked me with two Idols. I block one and go down to six knowing that, with him tapped out, he can’t even kill me with Cave-Ins. I untapped and killed him. He laughed and showed be a Ghitu Fire.

“You were dead next turn.”

I check the time and we have nineteen minutes left. All through the match Steve has been hassling me on time and trying to get me to play faster. I’d played a Magpie and he’d started to untap before I’d even said”Your go”; he’d done similar things all game and was really pushing the pace.

“I really need a result here,” he said.

“Fine, but I’m still going to shuffle your deck.”

He looked visibly annoyed with me. Why? I don’t know. I’d shuffled his deck every game so far, as I had for all of my opponents all day – better to be safe than sorry – and I wasn’t going to stop now.

He started by playing a land and letting it be my go. That was a good start for me, as I knew he had a number of 1cc creatures. I got going and soon had four mana, but still no wall. A few turns later he had a few small creatures, which I Fired away, and a Mogg Sentry. The Mogg Sentry means I need to see a Rage or a Fire – I can’t really get rid of it easily. Luckily for me I saw a Wall, which slowed his attack to one point a turn. He soon saw more creatures and without a Counterspell or burn, I started taking two a turn again. A Magpie comes into play and I start digging for answers.

Then I made a key mistake.

Steve attacked with two Mogg Sentries, a Goblin Raider and a Kris Mage. What I meant to do was block the Raider, put damage on the stack and kill the Mage with a Fire. What actually happened was that I took two damage and the Kris Mage went into the bin.

I untapped and Steve said

“You didn’t take damage from the Mage.”


“Well, you should have taken six from the Sentries, not two then.”

Part of me wanted to back up and do it properly. With us disagreeing, both missing the mistake, and me actually getting to untap, I think I could have forced us to back up by disagreeing on reality, getting us both a Warning and doing it the right way. I don’t play like that, though, and I was flustered so I agreed to take four more damage.

This left me on nine life rather than thirteen and pretty soon I’d taken a few more points and was Raged out. I looked at the top four cards: Misdirection, Counterspell, Rage, Ghitu Fire. Drawing two a turn with the Magpie – or losing the Magpie and drawing only the Misdirection, I’d probably have gained control. Sure, Steve would have still had an advantage, but he’d have had no creatures whilst I had a wall and I would have had counters in hand – a potentially winning position.

Matches: 4-3, Games: 9-9.

I was very disappointed with the last game. I made a mistake because I was tired and being rushed. I guess not playing a full tourney for so long can take its toll, and whether Steve was trying to rush me to make mistakes, or was genuinely worried we might draw makes no difference – I let him get to me. For the record I do believe that he wasn’t trying to get me to make mistakes, I believe that he really was just worried about getting a draw – even so I’ll be much more careful in future and play at my own pace.

4-3… again…

The deck performed well. I think I let it down a little and it could have gone 5-2 or 4-1-2 at the very least. It does have a few problems though:

Firstly, the deck only kills one thing at a time! U/W decks have it easy; they have Wrath of God. For only four mana, they can kill EVERYTHING in the whole world. Counter Burn decks of old played Nevinyrral’s Disk or Powder Keg. They could blow up the world and stick to U/R. These days we can’t do that, and Wrath is the next best thing.

Secondly, the Magpies. Although amazing when they are working, they require a great deal of investment. If you cast one you must be prepared to defend it, and if you do so you’re forcing yourself to defend it even more to stop yourself being the victim of a lot of card disadvantage. Take this example: I cast a Magpie on turn 6 with a Counterspell as backup. If my opponent kills it, I lose a card, and he loses a card – but I really need the Magpie to live one turn to replace the card it represented in my hand. So I counter the burn spell. Now I need to keep it alive for two turns to make up the cards I’ve spent on it. If you can get it attacking for a few turns without having to defend it, you’re probably on to a winner.

Compare this to Fact or Fiction. Firstly, you cast FoF in your opponent’s turn most of the time, meaning you have more mana to protect yourself. Secondly, once the FoF has resolved it can’t be attacked – you don’t have to defend it. Sure, Magpies can get you a lot more cards than FoF, but FoF gets two or three for you straight away.

Mapgies also mean that control players’ Wraths and Routs aren’t useless game one. In a normal control mirror match, they can be used to kill a few Nether Spirits or a lone Moti or Dragon that’s coming in, but all in all they sit in your hand. Against a deck playing with Magpies they’re valuable assets, forcing you to defend yourself.

Other than that, I liked the way the deck worked. I think that it still needs work, and could do with a revamp: The Moti could become a Rakavolver, and the Magpies will probably become Fact or Fictions. The Prophetic Bolts, although useful at times, might be more useful as a third and fourth Ghitu Fire, and somehow the deck needs mass removal – maybe Wash Out. Even with these changes, I’m beginning to feel that the power of Wrath of God means that U/W decks will always do better than U/R. If you’ve done well with a U/R deck and would like to show me I’m wrong, please feel free to send it to me.

Now that I have some examples of Apocalypse decks, and some of them are very good indeed, I’m going to start looking at Type II again. I’m going to get more testing in and get myself qualified for the Bath Invitational at the end of the year.

It’s nice to have a holiday, but it’s even nicer to be back. See you next week.

Cheers, Jim.

Team PhatBeats.