A Deeper Look at CounterTop in Legacy

Thursday, September 16th – I have a deep and insatiable love for Trinket Mage. As such, I’ve been favoring a CounterTop deck that has a lot of controlling elements.

Legacy is such a great format, which is why I do my best to play it as much as I can — and why I’m thankful there is a solid Legacy scene here in Phoenix, Arizona.

To me, Legacy is what Magic should be: powerful cards, balanced game play, and tactical decisions. Think of this: how often do you generate a stack with three or more unique effects? How often do you use something for other than its R&D-intended effect in Standard? This isn’t a slight on Standard, which is more fun now than it’s been in awhile, but Legacy is home to being creative with your powerful cards. It’s no mistake that I’ve used Jace, the Mind Sculptor’s -1 ability on my own creature more in Legacy than I have Standard.

Also, Legacy is the home of Trinket Mage.

I love Trinket Mage.

I’m not one for “Top 5” lists, but my five favorite Magic cards of all time are:

1. Opt
2. Merfolk Looter
3. Trinket Mage
4. Grizzly Fate
5. Shelldock Isle

…Don’t judge me.

To further dwell on my love of both Trinket Mage and Legacy, I have been favoring a Counterbalance deck with far more controlling elements than most other Counterbalance decks. First, here’s the list I played at the SCG Denver Open:

The key to this deck (or any deck) is understanding what each card does for your overall deck. The Counterbalance + Sensei’s Divining Top soft lock does quite a few things for you when constructing your deck:

  • Counterbalance costs UU, which more or less commits you to a heavy blue mana base — and, naturally, many blue spells. This is certainly not a problem, as blue is the best, but it

    mean that Brainstorm and Force of Will will be tagging along because they are the best blue spells. Not that they need to be any stronger, but Force of Will and Brainstorm directly contribute to making Counterbalance a stronger card. Brainstorm has the ability to ensure one successful Counterbalance, even without Sensei’s Divining Top. It also allows you to draw cards of the mana cost you need to see, shuffle, and then Brainstorm them back on top of your deck.
  • A naked Counterbalance (one without Sensei’s Divining Top) will counter a non-zero amount of spells. It brings an element of luck into the game that

    don’t have to do anything about, but your

    must play around.
  • Along with Brainstorm, Sensei’s Divining Top allows you to sculpt your hands for the long game. The Top is inefficient in the early game, but it offers unparalleled card selection as the game goes on.
  • The CounterTop soft lock will provide plenty of card advantage— and with the card selection of Sensei’s Divining Top in the long game, the deck doesn’t need to pack mass card drawing spells. This is desirable, because there aren’t really any efficient sources of pure card drawing in Legacy. Any card drawer will be among the slowest cards in our deck, should we choose to play any.
  • The CounterTop soft lock is very soft as far as locks go, and its effectiveness generally depends on the opposing deck. Zoo decks and Storm decks often have only a handful of cards they can sneak past a one and a two, while a Goblin deck can often draw and cast multiple impact cards. A reasonable expectation is to assume your opponent will be able to cast two or three spells after being Counterbalance-locked — and that since those spells are the most expensive in their deck, they’re likely to be the strongest. In addition, any lands your opponent has will be unaffected by the lock. This can range from mildly annoying (Rishadan Port), to dangerous (Mishra’s Factory), to full-scale battle (the Land deck). A previously-resolved Aether Vial also has full functionality under Counterbalance.
  • The CounterTop soft lock generally takes some time to set up due to the mana required for Sensei’s Divining Top to function at full power. “Turn 1 Top, turn 2 Counterbalance” is a strong play, but only because it locks the opponent out of one-mana spells. It isn’t much different than Chalice of the Void at one (for the opponent only, admittedly) until you have excess mana to spend on the Top.

Given the previous two points, Force of Will is exceptionally strong in a CounterTop deck. Granted, Legacy decks of all stripes often try to jam in enough blue cards to play Force of Will, because the card is just that strong without … but a Counterbalance deck actively desires Force, because Force shores up the weaknesses of a CounterTop soft lock. First, you can defend yourself with Force of Will while establishing the lock. Second, you can counter any spells that slip through the lock. As I said earlier, there aren’t many spells that slip through, but most opponents will have some and they will generally be powerful.

As anyone who has played Legacy knows, Force of Will has a real cost to it, and it has a significant impact on deck building. In my opinion, playing Force of Will efficiently prevents you from playing other cards that are inherent card disadvantage, such as Enlightened Tutor or any two card combo. Force of Will is a huge strain on your card economy. The not-uncommon sequence of mulliganing on the play and Forcing your opponent’s first play leaves you with a whopping three cards heading into your second turn… and

assumes you didn’t play a turn 1 spell. This is why I don’t like Merfolk as a Legacy deck (even though I love a Merfolk in general). Counterbalance can build its deck with Force of Will in mind; Merfolk and many combo decks cannot.

The rest of the deck is built to shore up the weakness and to find both parts of the lock in a reasonable amount of time.

Ponder and Predict

I used to play just four Ponders, but Predict offers just enough card advantage to be worth playing in small amounts. I’ll often side it out in matches where I don’t need any card drawing at all, but I still leave in Ponder almost all the time just to ensure enough early game manipulation.

If you have a non-fetchland to play on turn 2, a turn 1 Ponder allows you to play either Predict or Counterbalance on turn 2 while knowing the top card of your library. Brainstorm allows this as well, only better. I used the Brainstorm->Counterbalance play in the Top 8 of the Denver 5k to great effect, keeping a Survival of the Fittest off of the table.

Trinket Mage

Let me tell you about one of my favorite cards of all time:
Trinket Mage is awesome

. Imagine Cedric Phillips telling you about his love for Justin Bieber — my infatuation for Trinket Mage is twice as deep.

Trinket Mage is a supremely versatile card, and it allows you to save a ton of space in deck building without damaging the flexibility of the cards involved; I wouldn’t even play most of these cards if I didn’t have the space to tutor them up.

The fantastic thing about Trinket Mage is that the body is generally relevant. If you’ve played something like Sea Gate Oracle in standard, you appreciate the “comes into play” effect (“enter the battlefield” is for losers), but the body is almost always relegated to chump block duty.

In Legacy, the 2/2 is far more relevant. It trades with many different tribal creatures, and I’ve sometimes dealt twenty with Trinket Mage by itself.

Your Trinket Mage tutor targets are…

  • Sensei’s Divining Top

    – Copies of half of the lock are always valuable, whether it’s the first copy to get the lock going or a second copy to solidify it. It’s hard to keep drawing good cards without the Top in play, and I probably find a Top more than the rest of the cards combined.

  • Seat of the Synod

    — A little protection against Choke, although it is vulnerable to Wasteland and Price of Progress. Sometimes Civic Wayfinder is the best card you could draw.

  • Tormod’s Crypt

    – Graveyard decks aren’t incredibly popular in Legacy, so it would be foolish to put a ton of graveyard hate in the sideboard. However, decks like Lands, Dredge, and Reanimator show up enough that Crypt becomes excellent when you can play a single copy and find it more often than not. Relic of Progenitus is not an option here, because five mana (Trinket Mage + cast Relic + pop Relic) is far more than three (Trinket Mage + Tormod’s Crypt).

  • Engineered Explosives

    — I’m actually not a big fan of this card, as it’s very inefficient for what generally amounts to spot removal. I don’t bring this card in against Merfolk, for example: they have too much mana denial to make this expensive card worth having. I vastly prefer Cursed Scroll against Merfolk, although I’m always surprised by the flexibility this card can provide against cards like Empty the Warrens — even if I have to pay for that flexibility.

  • Cursed Scroll

    — Speaking of the Scroll, unlike Explosives, Cursed Scroll is far more than spot removal. It’s certainly a strange card to see out of a control deck, but I assure you that it belongs here. You don’t have the card drawing, so you don’t try to get it going until late — but when you do, it’s a powerhouse. The Top can manipulate your hand size very well, and this can start gunning down the creatures out of any of the tribal/swarm decks.

  • Pithing Needle

    – I have a new love of Pithing Needle, primarily in a world where Survival of the Fittest and Aether Vial are dominant threats, especially against our strategy. I love having two of them when they are good, and Pithing Needle is probably the only Trinket Mage target (other than Top, of course that I

    play if I wasn’t able to fetch it.

Vendilion Clique and Jace, the Mind Sculptor

I group these cards together because they serve the same purpose: controlling your opponents draws while winning the game for you.

Jace is clearly the more powerful card, but the Clique is excellent at serving multiple functions in nearly every game. You do want a certain amount of three-drops in your deck to be able to make the soft lock closer to a hard lock, and the Clique is simply a very versatile role player that does things that other cards in the deck don’t do.

(Karakas also makes the Vendilion Clique stronger — although the Karakas would be valuable simply for its ability to bounce opposing Legends without much cost.)

Jace is very similar, but its power is far more obvious. Using the fateseal ability allows the soft lock to become a hard lock the majority of the time,

it gives you a clock. For those of you who are used to the tragically short lives of Jaces in Standard, prepare for your Jace to have a much longer life expectancy.

The rest of the maindeck is packed with the best defensive cards in the history of Magic: Counterspell and Swords to Plowshares. Both of these removal spells work in nearly all situations, and they’ll get the job done.

The sideboard, on the other hand, takes a different approach. There are far more specific cards resting in the sideboard to try to get an edge on certain matchups. I still like multi-purpose cards in the sideboard, so that I can always improve my deck in between game 2 and 3 — but the cards in the sideboard are not as universally useful as the cards in the main deck.

Moat is a complete beating against Goblins, and, to a lesser extent, Merfolk. Merfolk has Coralhelm Commander and Daze to make Moat a little worse; God forbid they ever land a Kira, Great Glass-Spinner. Moat isn’t as good against any of the green decks like Zoo, because each and every one of them will be siding in Krosan Grip, and four mana is a huge investment in Legacy.

(Truth be told, Jace, the Mind Sculptor is on the low end of power level for four-mana cards in Legacy. I used to play Sower of Temptation, and it simply died far too often to be worth the huge investment I was making.)

Path to Exile is a catch-all, acting as Swords #5 and 6. When Swords to Plowshares is good, it is among your best cards, and I often use all my manipulation to find all my Swords.

Vindicate is something I tried just for the Denver 5k, and I wasn’t very pleased with it. Choke can be a real issue — but I don’t want to side in something narrow against a deck that may or may not have Choke.

Oblivion Ring’s not an option — remember when I discussed Krosan Grip? I once decided to play the Ring; I thought I was real clever when an opponent put an Emrakul, the Aeons Torn into play with Show and Tell. Of course, I promptly cast an Oblivion Ring. A Krosan Grip a few turns later, and my ego, my board,

my chance to win were all annihilated.

So I’m not sure what the answer is to potential Chokes (and other unfun cards that aren’t commonly played), but I wasn’t happy with Vindicate, primarily because it made me play with some gross Underground Seas.

On the other hand, Thoughtseize was fantastic, and just further reinforced the very positive combo matchups. The combo decks in Legacy are either too fragile to beat a Force of Will or too slow to kill you before you set up. Therefore, they have to sculpt a perfect hand to barrage you with a bunch of spells in one turn (generally starting with a Krosan Grip or Wipe Away on your Counterbalance). I’m not sure if it is worth the black splash, but I was happy with Thoughtseize. It was also helpful in the mirror.

The unsung hero of the sideboard is Jotun Grunt, another multi-purpose all-star. It’s a monster against the Tarmogoyf aggro decks (Zoo, Canadian Thresh, etc) and a nice addition to fight graveyard-based decks. It is nice to be able to combat graveyard-based decks without resorting to dedicating more than a single slot to dedicated hate.

Flexible cards like Jotun Grunt are what allow control decks to operate in Legacy. If you look closely, all of my creatures have spell-like qualities. This allows every card in my deck to be dedicated to controlling the game, with winning being incidental.

While one might associate a linear theme with Goblins or Affinity, this deck is also fairly linear in my eyes. Every card in the deck is focused around the Counterbalance + Sensei’s Divining Top combination — either by digging for it, keeping the board clear until the lock hits play, or stopping things that fall through the cracks of the lock.

Finally, I’d like to propose an alternate (and more budget friendly) sideboard. Replacing the two Underground Seas with basic Islands is a positive change that makes the deck slightly more stable, leaving space to combat individual decks specifically. This particular sideboard doesn’t provide removal for Choke, Smokestack, City of Solitude, and company — but then again, I can’t think of a flexible card that does the trick. Cryptic Command isn’t the worst card in the world here, but it is very low powered for a four-mana card.

(I never thought I would say that Cryptic Command is underpowered, but that’s Legacy!)

2 Jotun Grunt
1 Cursed Scroll
1 Engineered Explosives
1 Pithing Needle
1 Tormod’s Crypt
3 Submerge
3 Hydroblast
2 Spell Pierce
1 Vedalken Shackles

Enjoy your next tournament — hopefully by not allowing your opponents to resolve too many spells!

Adam Prosak
Ihatepants on Magic Online, once upon a time