Arcane Teachings – Project Hollywood Week 3: So Close and Yet So Far

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Most Extended decks are built with one goal in mind, and that makes them very good at doing what they do and strategically simple to play. When you play Red deck or Domain Zoo in Extended, every game you win will involve small creatures attacking and some burn. When you play Doran, every game you win will end when your large creatures finally get through for twenty…

Project Hollywood Update

• 12/7: PTQ New York City (5-2, out after four rounds)
• 12/22: Winter King (8th, $75)
• 1/5: PTQ Roanoke, Virginia (6-2, out after six rounds)
• 1/6: Roanoke, Virginia Cash Tournament (5th, $75)
• 1/12: PTQ Cleveland, Ohio (2nd)
• 1/13: Cleveland, Ohio (Mox tournament) (4-2, out after five rounds)
• 1/26: PTQ Butler, Pennsylvania
• 2/9: PTQ Columbus, Ohio
• 2/16: PTQ Indianapolis, Indiana
• 2/23: PTQ Charleston, West Virginia
• 3/1: PTQ Nashville, Tennessee
• 3/15: Grand Prix: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
• 3/22: PTQ Indianapolis, Indiana
• 3/29: PTQ Columbus, Ohio

So close….

I played this:

4 Tarmogoyf
3 Loxodon Hierarch
3 Trinket Mage

3 Force Spike
4 Sensei’s Divining Top
4 Counterspell
4 Counterbalance
3 Thirst for Knowledge
4 Vedalken Shackles
1 Engineered Explosives
1 Tormod’s Crypt
1 Pithing Needle

4 Chrome Mox
4 Flooded Strand
4 Polluted Delta
1 Plains
7 Island
1 Hallowed Fountain
1 Breeding Pool
1 Steam Vents
1 Academy Ruins
1 Tree of Tales

2 Indrik Stomphowler
2 Gaddock Teeg
3 Threads of Disloyalty
1 Loxodon Hierarch
3 Ancient Grudge
2 Tormod’s Crypt
2 Kataki, War’s Wage

This deck went through Patrick Chapin, Gerry Thompson, Owen Turtenwald, and Luis Scott-Vargas before it got to me. Patrick Chapin posted the original Next Level Blue right here on StarCityGames.com, Gerry added White and Force Spikes to shore up aggressive matchups and changed Living Wish to Trinket Mage, Owen helped tune numbers in both the maindeck and the sideboard, and Luis convinced me to cut Gerry’s two Windswept Heaths and single Forest for a seventh Island and two Polluted Deltas to maximize the Island count. My single contribution to the list was to change the fourth Force Spike to the third Thirst for Knowledge. Gerry told me that that was “wrong” and “stupid,” but I was running out of gas in the late game too much so I did it anyway. “Stupid” is pretty close to the bottom of the Gerry Thompson tilt-o-meter, so I figured I was safe.

This deck is very good. It is also the most challenging to play non-Vintage Constructed deck that I have ever touched. While this deck is somewhat mechanically tricky due to Trinket Mage, Sensei’s Divining Top, and Onslaught fetchlands, the true difficulty in playing this deck comes from strategic issues. Most Extended decks are built with one goal in mind, and that makes them very good at doing what they do and strategically simple to play. When you play Red deck or Domain Zoo in Extended, every game you win will involve small creatures attacking and some burn. When you play Doran, every game you win will end when your large creatures finally get through for twenty. When you play Enduring Ideal, you will win by casting seven mana spells. The minor details about exactly how you get there may differ from game to game, but generally speaking the same things lead to victory in each matchup.

On the other hand, this deck has no single path that it takes to end games. In fact, it requires you to take different paths against every different archetype you face or you will have very little chance of winning. I think that willingly putting yourself into this position is almost always a very bad idea; building a deck that is truly good at doing one thing well is hard enough, let alone needing to make it good at doing multiple different things. However, this deck manages to be good at almost everything that it needs to do. All it asks is that its player be good enough at doing all of those things as well.

Before we talk about which plan you need to take in each matchup, we should talk about what the plans actually are. The obvious thing to say first is that this is truly a Counterbalance deck. Remi Fortier’s deck from Valencia may look similar, but it’s not really a Counterbalance deck; it’s just a blue deck that happens to have Counterbalance in it. If he was really planning on Counterbalancing people, he would have played more than two of them. This deck has all four Counterbalances and all four Tops, so you know it’s not just playing around. There are twelve twos and ten threes, so you should be able to consistently stop those casting costs. The three Loxodon Hierarchs are your only fours, so you can’t really count on them. Top can put itself on top of your deck to get ones, but people will often try to trick you into doing this so that they can get twos and threes by you. There are eight natural ones in the deck so you will often not have to pop the Top to stop a one, but you can solve this problem by finding a second Top. This allows you to pop one of them whenever you need to and still be able to stop twos and threes later that turn.

The other centerpiece of this deck is Vedalken Shackles. This card is a little bit slow, but it is also amazing and will completely take over a late game against any deck that is planning on using creatures to kill you. Given enough time, a Shackles with any kind of support will turn even a large opposing board presence into a rout for you. Loxodon Hierarch and Tarmogoyf help with this plan as well, but Shackles is the card that makes it all possible.

The last thing that I want to talk about specifically is Trinket Mage. I’m not a huge fan of Trinket Mage, but he solves many of this deck’s strategic problems very well. This deck is built to play long games with Counterbalance, Top, and Shackles, but lots of decks have cards that make that plan bad. Blue-white Tron decks play Decree of Justice and Mindslaver, various Rock-esque decks play Pernicious Deed, and Martyr of Sands decks have Proclamation of Rebirth; these are just a few examples of things that are huge long-term problems for a Counterbalance deck. Without Trinket Mage, those things would be very hard to beat, but with it you can deal with them handily.

For example, against Blue/White Tron you can set Pithing Needle to Mindslaver and use Engineered Explosives to protect against Decree of Justice, and suddenly they are just a Blue/White control deck that happens to have a lot of mana. Sundering Titan will still beat you, but they only have one or two of those and you have your own Counterspells. Gifts Rock may look imposing, but if you can name Pernicious Deed with Pithing Needle and protect it, they can’t do much to kill you through Shackles. An extreme case was a mono-white snow Martyr deck that I played against in the PTQ; he had Scrying Sheets, Decree of Justice, and Martyr of Sands with Proclamation of Rebirth. That matchup would be very hard without Trinket Mage, but I would have been able to Pithing Needle his Scrying Sheets, Tormod’s Crypt his Martyrs, and use Explosives repeatedly via Academy Ruins to kill his Oblivion Rings and Decrees of Justice, which is easy to set up when you are playing twenty plus turns of Magic with Sensei’s Divining Top and shuffle effects.

When you are sitting behind this deck, you can divide the rest of the format into four general categories of increasing threat level. This will guide how you play. Those categories are:

1. Decks that don’t play cards that cost more than three
2. Decks that play cards that cost more than three but that Shackles will beat
3. Decks that neither Counterbalance nor Shackles is good against
4. Decks that you have no chance of winning a fair fight against

Against the first category of decks, you will race to a Counterbalance lock. Once you have that, they will no longer resolve spells unless you let them. You must also be careful to not die before you can lock them and stabilize. Decks in this category include but are not limited to domain zoo, red deck, and Doran. Just don’t die before you can lock them, and then use Tarmogoyf, Hierarch, and Shackles to clean up while they no longer resolve spells.

Against the second category of decks, you have to think more long-term. There are many decks against whom a Counterbalance lock is quite useful, but won’t be good enough to win you the game alone. When you’re in this mode, you’ll use Counterbalance to protect your Shackles and slowly grind your opponent down until you win. The best example of this that I can think of is Goblins, but that isn’t very common these days. It’s more likely that you’ll end up in this position by using Trinket Mage targets to neutralize long-term problems like Mindslaver, Pernicious Deed, or whatever else they have that Shackles and Counterbalance don’t stop.

If neither Counterbalance nor Shackles matter, you’re in a bit of trouble. Important decks of this type include Tron and Enduring Ideal, but often strange homebrews will fall into this category. When this happens, you have to imitate a true Fish deck and beat your opponent down with creatures while using your actual counterspells to stop the expensive things that matter. A Counterbalance lock can help you by stopping small spells, but that won’t do anything against a Sundering Titan or Form of the Dragon. You won’t win a long game against these decks because their strategy beats yours, so you have to try to kill them with what you have. Try to use Trinket Mage to eliminate the reasons that your plans don’t work. After sideboard, you will use Counterbalance to protect Gaddock Teeg, which keeps them from casting spells that you can’t Counterbalance.

The only commonly-played decks that you don’t really have a chance of winning a fair fight against are Dredge and Affinity. Dredge is usually too fast, although Force Spike helps. Affinity isn’t as fast as dredge, but Vedalken Shackles is not a strong defensive measure against slippery +1/+1 counters or against creature decks whose entire hands are on the table on turn three. To beat these decks, you need hate in the form of Kataki and Tormod’s Crypt. Use Top to find your hate in sideboarded games and you’ll be fine.

The mirror is a very strange beast and the play of it is extremely context-specific, so there’s little substitute for practice. Getting a Counterbalance lock in place is usually really good because it blanks almost all of their deck, but most players have Engineered Explosives, Cryptic Command, or Venser, Shaper Savant in some small quantity to deal with it. Explosives is especially good, and be careful not to walk into it. Other than Counterbalance, the mirror is a strange and awkward race between Tarmogoyfs and Shackles. Counterbalance itself is much less important in sideboarded games since everyone will have Krosan Grip, Indrik Stomphowler, or more Engineered Explosives for it, so things become even more of a race. Shackles is also not safe after sideboard due to Ancient Grudge. Essentially the plans in both decks get shot to hell, so all you can do is just play good Magic and hope. There are tons of decisions, so if you know it better than your opponent you’ll probably win.

For flavor, here are the five mirror games that I played in the PTQ:

• Round 7 game 1: I get a turn one Counterbalance, turn two Top that sticks forever when I counter his Cryptic Command. I kill him with Tarmogoyf.
• Round 7 game 2: He gets an early Counterbalance and counters my Indrik Stomphowler and Engineered Explosives. He kills me with Tarmogoyf.
• Round 7 game 3: I play turn one Tarmogoyf, turn two Trinket Mage and kill him with them while I am Counterbalance locked but he can’t find any way to stop my creatures.
• Quarterfinals game 1: I have turn one Counterbalance, his only blue source is a Mox which my Counterbalance hits. He sits with a Forest and no other mana and scoops to my Top on turn 4.
• Quarterfinals game 2: I have an early Counterbalance. It dies to Explosives. He gets a Counterbalance and two Tarmogoyfs down, then casts Threads on my Tarmogoyf. I Stomphowler his Counterbalance, then Threads my Tarmogoyf back. I get another Counterbalance. I find a Shackles and kill him with a Stomphowler and two Tarmogoyfs after using Counterbalance with my second Stomphowler on top to stop his Stomphowler. This game was very long.

I want to talk specifically about Academy Ruins for a moment. This card looks like a throwaway one-of in the list, but it’s actually incredibly important. If you ever see it with Top, you should probably keep it and get it into play if you have the time. Once you have it, you stop caring about people trying to kill your Shackles and you can loop Tormod’s Crypt and Engineered Explosives. You may not know why this will matter at the time you play the Ruins, but it almost always comes up. I wish I could play a second copy of Ruins, but that’s just not justifiable. Respect this card; it will serve you well if you let it.

A final note is that you need to be patient with your fetchlands. I played a lot of Magic last weekend, but I also watched a lot of Magic too and most Counterbalance players I saw were far too willing to sacrifice fetchlands while they had a lock in play and the right costs on top of their deck. As long as your opponent can’t resolve spells, there’s nothing wrong with sitting with very little actual mana in play. I often was in situations where I had awkward mana due to having a Counterbalance lock in play but only two or three mana-producing lands with two or three fetchlands in play as well. However, I never blinked until I absolutely had to. Just be patient and let your Counterbalance do its thing as long as it can. You’ll get to find real lands when you really need to, and you may even eventually find enough real lands with Top in the meantime that you don’t need to throw away the cards on top of your deck.

There is only way to learn what the correct plan in each matchup actually is: practice. You may be able to figure out what is going on and what is important in a matchup, but without actual games under your belt it is easy to miss a small detail that throws everything off for you. I didn’t practice anywhere near enough with the deck, and I paid for that. As I mentioned earlier, I finished second at the Cleveland PTQ with this deck. I also I played it quite badly in some places. I unintentionally drew round 2 against Mono-White Snow because I didn’t figure out what my Trinket Mages needed to do until two or three turns too late, I threw away game 1 against Mike Krumb and his dredge deck in round 3 by deciding to be cute instead of just Trinket Mage for Tormod’s Crypt, and I punted game 1 of the finals to Cedric Phillips by not using Engineered Explosives properly against his team of Troll Ascetics. I also managed to never flip for blind Counterbalance against Cedric in game 2. However, it’s encouraging that I got so close. If I choose to play this deck again this coming weekend I’ll be much more practiced.

Counterbalance is not an easy deck to play, but the rewards are high if you decide to learn it. I hope that this made the deck a little bit less mysterious.

This coming weekend I will be going to the PTQ in Butler, Pennsylvania as opposed to the previously planned Louisville, Kentucky. Perhaps I will see you there?

Happy PTQing!

Tom LaPille