Arcane Teachings – The Counterbalance Mirror

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Watch over Tom’s shoulder as he takes an in-depth video look into the Counterbalance mirror in Extended, discussing common tricks, traps, and situations through the lens of one recorded game on Magic Online. He also talks about how to best use mirror-directed sideboard cards.

The mirror is an extremely important consideration for anyone who wants to play Counterbalance in Extended. The deck is difficult to play as is, and the mirror is probably the trickiest matchup. Today, we’ll walk together through a mirror game I played on Magic Online. This should give you some flavor for how the games go and show you a few common tricks and traps.

Although I’m done with PTQs, I’m still in the lab because of the two Grand Prix tournaments on my schedule. I am testing Force Spike again; it goes dead in the late game, but I feel strong enough in the late game that I want a card that ensures that I actually get to play one. Other than that, the list is pretty similar to last week’s. Sphere of Law is a feeble attempt to fix the matchup against Goblins, and I have no idea yet if it works or not. If it doesn’t, Krosan Grip is probably the right thing to replace it with although I think you can win the mirror without it. Miren is back because Gerry and Patrick are right about it being good enough with Shackles to warrant playing one more non-Island land.

I’m experimenting with video as a medium; this match was one of the first I recorded with audio commentary. I put game 1 on YouTube, although it is split into two parts to get under their length maximum. I’ll be covering everything I talk about in the video in the write-up here so don’t fret if you can’t watch it. The audio is a little bit low and I am rather inarticulate at times, but I’m still new to this so don’t come after me with pitchforks and torches yet. The video also turned out rather small, so it’s hard to see. Magic Online replays don’t really work at a resolution lower than 640 by 480, and YouTube doesn’t seem to let videos stay at that quality when I upload them.

I apologize for sounding like a drooling idiot at times during the recording. Playing Magic properly is hard enough; talking coherently about playing Magic while playing Magic properly is even harder.

Here’s the first video. This covers the new build of the deck and the first third of the game. You’ll find the second part further down.

I lose the roll. My opening hand is two Islands, Breeding Pool, Polluted Delta, Counterspell, Counterbalance, and Threads of Disloyalty. This is not an exciting hand, especially on the draw. However, it’s not hopeless. Against a creature opponent, we have Counterspell for their third turn play and Threads of Disloyalty for our third turn. If our opponent is playing a slower deck, it’ll be fine that we don’t do anything proactive for a while. This hand is hopeless against dredge, but about half of them are and you can’t mulligan every time that is the case.

Our opponent plays Chrome Mox imprinting Threads of Disloyalty, Sensei’s Divining Top, and then Flooded Strand. I draw a second Delta and play Breeding Pool tapped. Against a Red deck I would avoid playing the Breeding Pool because when it gets hit with Molten Rain or Vindicate it’s difficult to play Tarmogoyf, but that won’t happen to us here. Our opponent sacrifices his Delta in our end step and Tops, then untaps, plays Breeding Pool tapped, and passes.

I draw a Chrome Mox and play Island. I now must decide between leaving up Counterspell and playing Counterbalance. Landing Counterbalance is a huge deal in this matchup. Game 1 is essentially defined by jockeying for a Counterbalance lock, and even a naked Counterbalance is useful if you have some fetchlands. That interaction lets you filter your deck in much the same way that the clash mechanic does, and sometimes you even get to counter a spell. However, Blue decks seem to be split down the middle lately in terms of whether they play Force Spike or Spell Snare. If he has Force Spike, we never want to let him actually use one so that his Spikes go dead later. If he has Spell Snare, it doesn’t matter when we play the Counterbalance. Leaving up Counterspell is safer, but he would still be able to force whatever he wanted through with a potential Force Spike against our lone two mana. I decide to play Counterbalance, and he has the Force Spike. In hindsight, I think this was a mistake because of how much of a win stranding a Force Spike is. I can always just play the Counterbalance later and not expose it to an otherwise dead card. At the time, I didn’t even think about playing the Chrome Mox imprinting Threads. I think that would be wrong because we aren’t in a race, I don’t need the mana immediately for anything pressing, and that Threads will be useful later. Of course, now that I know he has Spikes, I will never let him Spike me again.

I am now tapped out and open to him landing a threat. Tarmogoyf isn’t a big deal because I have Threads, Shackles wouldn’t be a problem now but would be annoying later, and Counterbalance would be near-fatal. Happily, he just plays an Island and passes. This was very fortunate for me. I draw Tree of Tales, play a Polluted Delta, and pass. He Tops, does nothing, and passes. I draw Strand, play Delta, and pass. At this point, I’m somewhat concerned. My opponent is working a Top, while I am sitting with no action. Any way for him to shuffle his deck will show him three fresh cards that could threaten me. I need to take the aggressive role here to fight his superior card selection, but I currently have no tools with which to do that. On my end step, my opponent casts Thirst for Knowledge, which I elect to Counterspell so that he does not get to see three fresh cards. If I were trying to play the control role, I could let it resolve and attempt to deal with the cards he drew, but we have to be the beatdown even though we haven’t started any actual beating down yet. The Counterspell is good, and my opponent just draws and passes again.

Three notes. First, I’m extremely lucky that he has drawn no fetchlands. He has a Top, and even one fetchland would put him pretty far ahead of me. Second, note that I have not sacrificed any of my own fetchlands. At PTQs, I often saw Blue players randomly sacrificing their fetchlands when they did not need the mana, with the goal of thinning out their deck. This is an extremely short-sighted view of what the fetchlands can do for you. Between Counterbalance and Sensei’s Divining Top, later on the value of the ability to shuffle your deck can be enormous and far outweigh the marginal benefits of thinning out a land. You need to plan for the long game, so wait on getting land with them until you need the mana or you need a shuffle. Third, never hold excessive amounts of lands. Although the cards in the deck are very cheap, there will be turns when you go through multiple shuffle effects, Thirsts, and Trinket Mages while using Sensei’s Divining Top that will be very expensive. You will need all the mana you can get for those turns. Planning for Thirst discards is a worthy goal, but holding a single extra artifact will serve that purpose just fine. Don’t miss land drops deliberately; you will often regret it later.

We continue to go back and forth, him Topping and not playing lands with us playing lands and doing nothing. I also draw two more Counterspells during this time, which will be useful eventually.

This is where the second part of the video starts:

I finally draw a Tarmogoyf. My hand at this point is Threads, Tarmogoyf, two Counterspell, Tree of Tales, and Chrome Mox. Given that my opponent has six cards in hand and hasn’t been playing lands, I have to assume that he has some action. Before we go ahead and play the Tree of Tales and Tarmogoyf, let’s ponder his possible responses. We would like this Tarmogoyf to go all the way because we want to kill him before his Top finds some shuffling effects that let him overwhelm us with card selection. If he attempts a Threads of Disloyalty, we will allow that because we have our own Threads that we can protect with Counterspell. Engineered Explosives and Vedalken Shackles both would require a Counterspell, but we have two to burn so hopefully this will work. I play Tree of Tales and Tarmogoyf.

Our opponent untaps and goes for Threads of Disloyalty. That’s fine, since I’ll just take it back with my Threads. I untap and draw, and my Threads on my Tarmogoyf resolves. His next attempt is a Vedalken Shackles next turn, which I Counterspell. I draw a Force Spike, attack, and pass. He plays a fifth land to go with his Chrome Mox attempts an Engineered Explosives with X=3 and sunbust 2 to play around Spell Snare, which I use my other Counterspell on. He then taps out for a Trinket Mage, which I am happily able to Force Spike. This is huge for me because that shuffle would have shown him more cards with Top, and the Spike is otherwise dead.

Lightning strikes for me next turn when I draw a Trinket Mage. This is awesome both because it’s a beater to help Tarmogoyf and I get a Top. I still have two fetchlands, so my Top is suddenly way better than his because I have sat on those lands for so long. I use Tarmogoyf to attack him to ten life after I play my Top, then I activate the Top and see Explosives, Academy Ruins, and Counterbalance. This is really exciting. Even if he somehow stops my Tarmogoyf and Trinket Mage, Explosives and Academy Ruins together are incredibly powerful in the mirror long game and my Sensei’s Divining Top is way better than his. Suddenly I am simultaneously on the attack and winning the long game, which is a very powerful position to be in.

Our opponent untaps and plays a Counterbalance, which seems annoying but is not a huge deal since we are about to attack him to three life. I have nothing profitable to do with Explosives or Ruins, so I decide to test his Counterbalance with my own Counterbalance next turn after attacking him to three with our two creatures. If it does not resolve, no big deal and it wasn’t ever going to resolve. If it hits, however, we have two shuffle effects with which to guarantee that we can find an appropriate casting cost next turn. Happily, it hits and now we have every possible advantage.

Our opponent draws Flooded Strand, plays it, and sacrifices it to shuffle. He neglects to use Top before shuffling, which means that there was one card he could have looked at but didn’t see. He activates Top, doesn’t like what he sees, and scoops.

This was a very strange game. My opponent never did anything real, and I was fortunate enough to draw a Tarmogoyf and three Counterspells to protect it. I was also fortunate that he never drew fetchlands early in the game. However, this game does demonstrate two things about the mirror. First, you must always be aware of what role you need to take. If your opponent’s Top is working better than yours, you need to try to kill him before that card selection advantage overwhelms you. The second thing is that you need to ration your resources very carefully. The game will go very, very long, and if you don’t use every last card you have in the very best way possible, you will run out of answers and die. If I had Counterspelled his Threads of Disloyalty, my Tarmogoyf would have seen the sharp end of an Engineered Explosives and the game would have gone on much longer. If I had sacrificed my fetchlands to thin my deck earlier, my own Top would have been just as lame as my opponent’s when I found it. This also works in reverse; you can work to make sure that your opponent’s spells are not used to the best of their ability. If you have Tarmogoyf and Miren, always keep the Miren around in case of Shackles or Threads of Disloyalty. They may be able to remove your Goyf, but they won’t be able to get one of their own. There is a similar principle at work with Force Spike. If you know your opponent has Spike, you can blank them by never walking into one. They can use Top to make sure they never draw them later, but you’ll be able to make the ones they’ve already drawn go dead.

I would tell you how to sideboard, but I don’t know how to do it myself so that seems irresponsible of me. In this case, I boarded out four Spikes, Tormod’s Crypt, and Pithing Needle. Crypt and Needle are blanks and Spikes go dead late. However, Adam Prosak tells me that that is wrong because according to him the only thing that matters is the Counterbalance lock, and Spike is the only way to stop it early. The only other cards that I could see boarding out are the Trinket Mages, which were what I was boarding out according to Gerry’s sideboarding plan when I played Spell Snares. Regardless, we need to put in the Ancient Grudges and Sowers of Temptation so I’m cutting those six cards. It’s also possible that Threads of Disloyalty can leave in the mirror because there are only eight Tarmogoyfs total to fight over with them and Shackles and Sowers are enough to fight that fight, but I’m honestly on the fence about that.

There were problems with the recordings of game 2 and game 3, since I’m still figuring out this whole video thing. I was running out of time near the end of game 2 and made a few mechanical mistakes to lose and then timed out in game 3. Game 2 was long and complicated and I have an audio-less recording of it; if there’s a ton of interest I may write it up for next week but I hope to do something a little different then.

Before I finish, I want to talk about how to play sideboarded games. Game 1 is strange in that Shackles and Counterbalances don’t die very often, so when you stick one you know you can count on it staying around. Sideboarded games are very different. Ancient Grudges and Krosan Grips will be in the air constantly, so your artifacts and enchantments are not safe. Sower of Temptation doesn’t really change the dynamics much other than being far better than Threads because of how much harder it is to kill, so that aspect of the matchup will not change, but

Krosan Grip is very good at killing Counterbalances, and there is no reason that you should ever find a three on top of your opponent’s deck when you cast one. The best way to ensure this is to toss out a sacrificial spell right before you Grip them. If they don’t have a Top, just get them to flip in response to any random card to make sure it isn’t a three. If they do have a Top, let them stop a two or a one and then Grip. In game 2 of this match I was fortunate enough to have my opponent toss a Grip at my Counterbalance when I had been floating a three on top, and if he had not done that he would have won easily instead of needing to depend on me to screw up. Ancient Grudge is great for killing Shackles, but it is also nice in that you can use it to make Tops go away. I try to keep a Grudge in my hand at all times and so that I can fire one at a Top any time my opponent puts a shuffling effect on the stack. This may not outright destroy the Top, but it does make it go away for the time being which is basically the same thing. Another nice trick is that you can activate Top without passing priority and then sacrifice a fetchland in response to that. That way if you get your Top Grudged, you still get to rearrange your top three after you shuffle.

This is the first time I’ve done something like this, both in the sense of the video and the in-depth look at one game. I’m curious to see how much it helped everyone. Let me know in the forums.

Two final notes: I will be taking a victory lap at the PTQ in Columbus, Ohio next weekend. Columbus’s convention center was the recent recipient of a flood due to a water main break, so the tournament is now located at a hotel north of Columbus as opposed to the previously scheduled location. Don’t go to the wrong place, and I’ll see you there. I will have both my cube and LLM sets ready for drafting. I may even want to playtest more Extended for the approaching Grand Prix. Stop by and say hello if you feel so inclined, and good luck to everyone this weekend.

Happy PTQing!

Tom LaPille