Black Magic – Building a Control Counterbalance Deck in Legacy

StarCityGames.com Open Series: Indianapolis on March 13-14
Wednesday, March 10th – Legacy is becoming a hugely popular format, with a host of powerful decks and strategies. With this weekend’s StarCityGames.com Legacy Open in Indianapolis looming, Sam Black investigates building a Counterbalance Control deck… is this the deck that can power you to the top of this Sunday’s tournament?

I’d love to have more to tell you about Standard this week, but nothing has really changed. Jund is still winning, and I still don’t want to play it. To answer the forum posters who don’t understand why people refuse to play Jund even when it keeps winning: it also loses a lot. If you look at its percentages, they’re barely over 50, and I feel like there’s very little that can be done to increase that. I also feel that I can play a different deck that wins more than that – I also hate playing it, which isn’t going to increase my odds of doing well in a tournament. I’ve still been playing Mythic, and I don’t have a lot to add to what I’ve already said, particularly after Zvi’s articles on the subject.

Extended is another format I’d like to be able to talk about, but I haven’t been playing that at all. I know that if I play Faeries again, which is unlikely but not impossible, I’ll need even more hate for Zoo. Fortunately, more hate for Zoo isn’t out of the question, and I feel like it should be winnable if I’m willing to play 4 Smother, 4 Deathmark, and maybe 2 Damnations or some other removal spell in my 75. I’m a little curious, thinking about it just now, about Tombstalker, taking a page out of Legacy, but I’m guessing that without cards like Brainstorm and Ponder, he’s a bit harder to turn on. Still, I could imagine supporting one or two, since he seems pretty awesome against Zoo if they don’t have Path to Exile, and he’s bigger than everything in the mirror, can’t be countered by Sprite, and immune to all of their removal (though bad against Cryptic Command).

I really enjoyed Grand Prix: Madrid, and since playing it, I’ve been thinking more about Legacy and I’ve been playing some Classic online. I’m finally at the point in that format where I want to try playing Counterbalance, but for some reason I’ve decided that what I want to try doing with it is cutting Tarmogoyf, mostly because I’m stupid. For reference, a typical Counter-Top-Progenitus deck these days might look something like this deck played by Calosso Fuentes at the SCG Open in Richmond:

This deck is essentially an aggro-control deck that’s trying to use Counterbalance to protect a few monsters (either regular Goyfs or the super sized Progenitus) while they kill your opponent. Card advantage isn’t a concern, because the game shouldn’t really last long; you have a lot of ways to end it pretty quickly, and if you can stick a creature that can attack or a soft lock with Counterbalance, you’ve won, which makes this an excellent Force of Will deck.

The problem with this strategy, in so far as it has a problem, is that it devotes a lot of slots to being aggressive. If you can set up Counterbalance-Sensei’s Diving Top, I don’t really see why you have to be in a hurry to win the game. All the creatures don’t really do much against decks like ANT and Reanimator, that are either doing their thing and winning, or not doing their thing and losing. I want to try to build Counterbalance as a real control deck.

The actual reason I want to play Counterbalance is Predict. I don’t understand why this card doesn’t see more play. Well, that’s something of a lie… it’s not played in the above deck because, as I said, card advantage isn’t the name of the game, as you just need enough to protect your threat for a few turns, but Predict seems good enough that there should be at a deck taking advantage of it. Top, Brainstorm, Counterbalance, Ponder, and Jace, the Mind Sculptor are all ways that I would consider playing to know the top card of your deck, and Mystical Tutor and Enlightened Tutor from the opponent make it insane, not to mention killing an opposing Sensei’s Divining Top if they ever put it on top, or potentially hitting something off an opposing Counterbalance (most likely when it is without Top). I could even see an argument that Sphinx of Jwar Isle is Legacy playable, though that’s not a route I plan on taking myself.

Is it clear to people exactly how good Predict is when you can reliably draw two cards off it? This is not just two-mana draw 2. If you have Top or Brainstorm, you almost certainly didn’t want the card on top. This is basically a better effect than Thirst for Knowledge with an artifact to discard for one less mana. That’s huge.

The next thing I wanted was to play Mishra’s Factory and Wasteland. I’m not entirely sure that a Counterbalance deck can support both of them, but the rewards for doing so are huge. Those cards are just awesome, and have been responsible on their own for a huge number of my wins with Merfolk or Lands. Playing both with Fetchlands makes a single Crucible of Worlds very attractive. They also let you increase your mana count without getting flooded, which makes it easier to play things like Jace, the Mind Sculptor, who I’m pretty sure is actually awesome in Legacy. Mishra’s Factory is surprisingly good at picking up a lot of Tarmogoyf’s role as a blocker.

The list I’m thinking about is something like:

Maindeck Leylines give you a lot of value against decks like Dredge and Reanimator (and Lands, Threshold, etc), where they will be less prepared to deal with them game 1 than they would be in the next two games, particularly if you can do a lot of scouting and you’ll know when to mulligan for them in the first game. The Helm/Leyline kill takes up very few slots, and provides so much incidental value, that it’s pretty exciting, particularly when you can realistically get rid of extra copies.

I’m playing Counterspell over Daze because I’m trying to be a real control deck, and I can’t afford to have my cards go dead. I think Leylines, Force of Wills, and Counterbalance give me enough of an edge against decks where you need to be able to counter on the first turn that I can afford to not have Daze. Counterspell is awkward with Mishra’s Factory and Wasteland though, and if I want to play all of those colorless lands I may need to consider some Mana Leaks. Daze and Force Spike both seem like sweet potential one-ofs, but for this deck, I feel like I need the hard counter, particularly since my Counterbalance can’t deal with 3s unless I happen to have the one Crucible of Worlds on top.

Jace is really what I think allows a deck to be this controlling now. It’s funny to say that a one-of is doing that much to allow a deck, but Tops and Brainstorms are really good at finding cards. It should be noted, of course, that Jace is a realistic backup win condition (Plan C, after Factories, I suppose).

Engineered Explosives is just there for random utility. It helps against Zoo, deals with 3 mana spells that are otherwise problematic, and gives you something useful to do with Tolaria West and Academy Ruins

Mox Diamond may not be necessary, but if I have extra card draw from Predict, I like the idea of being able to turn it into extra speed if I have to. Playing Jace a turn early is always awesome. This also makes me feel better about the Maze of Ith and works well with Crucible of Worlds. It also kind of takes a spell slot, but gives me additional Blue sources, which helps allow me to play Factories, Wastelands, and the Maze, which take spell slots to varying degrees. I could see cutting this, but I think the first one you draw has enough value to play one or two. I don’t think I’d play more than that, since you never want to draw two.

Maze of Ith just felt like a pretty good card when I was playing lands. It deals with a lot of things. It protects Jace, it potentially allows 2 Factories to attack through one blocker, and it’s a “removal spell” that I can find with Tolaria West.

Tolaria West is another card I’m not sure about, however. I want the Blue source and the shuffler, but I’m playing a lot of mana for a Legacy deck, and this can help mitigate flooding. Still, it might be a little slow for the format. Also, something feels wrong about playing this and not having access to Tormod’s Crypt, but I just can’t justify it when I have Leylines main.

Academy Ruins is probably wrong. It lets me protect my Helm, but I have Factories and Jace, so I don’t need it to win. Protecting Crucible and reusing Explosives or awkwardly setting up Predict are good things to do, but I’d probably get more value out of a fetch land, which gives me another Blue source and another shuffler.

In the sideboard, I’m most specifically concerned with Zoo and Merfolk. Aether Vial is Merfolk’s best card, and, having played Merfolk a lot, I know that sometimes it just loses to Pithing Needle, so I really wanted those to help that match. The exact same sentence could be written for Engineered Plague. Tabernacle is also good against them, and Zoo, and any other tribal deck. The creatures are to come in against Zoo after they cut removal, but I can imagine bringing them in whenever I didn’t want Leylines, and it’s a transformation I’m pretty excited to be able to do. I’d really like an Edict effect for Progenitus, but I felt like all my sideboard removal had to be as good as possible against Zoo and Merfolk. If I find that the Merfolk matchup doesn’t want Path to Exile, I could potentially make them Submerge for value with Predict, which would be pretty awesome. Thoughtseize replaces Swords anywhere where that’s blank, and obviously has a lot of general value against any control or combo deck.

The “same deck” has an alternate build with Thopter Foundry as the kill instead of Leyline/Helm. This has the advantage of taking fewer slots, particularly if you want to skimp and just play one of each piece, but the disadvantage of the loss of value from maindeck Leylines. This is the deck I’ve been playing online in classic (over the Leyline version largely due to which cards I happen to own online). Just to spice things up and talk a bit about a format some people might be interested even though it doesn’t exist in paper Magic, I’ll use the list I’m playing in Classic, rather than the Legacy version:

The extra space allows me to play Ponder, Daze, Force Spike and Path to Exile. These should help against non-graveyard decks, which is important, because I have to make room in my sideboard to deal with graveyard decks, since I lose the maindeck hate. It’s possible that the Force Spike and Daze should just be more Ponders to help set up Predict and find the Thopter combo. Academy Ruins feels a little better here, even though protecting either combo is pretty similar. Maze of Ith doesn’t exist online, but thanks to the cards that are legal in Classic, they get to be replaced by Strip Mine and Balance, which are better anyway. (For the Legacy version, just switch Strip Mine and Balance back to Tolaria West and Maze of Ith.)

This deck has been doing particularly well for me in the few matches of Classic that I’ve played with it because the combo decks are so unreasonable in that format (did you know that Yawgmoth’s Will is in that format these days?), but they’re terrible against Counterbalance, and Predict is awesome against them.

The real issue that’s going on in these decks as compared to the Counterbalance decks that people are playing is Black versus Green. In some ways, this comes down to Thoughtseize against combo versus Goyf against aggro. Goyf is a better card overall, but I’ve fairly certain that, at least in Classic rather than Legacy, Thoughtseize is a more important card. Black also offers better graveyard hate and access to Engineered Plague, though it might not be the end of the world if those were all just Pithing Needles for Merfolk – although, Needle is a lot worse when you have your own Factories and Wastelands. On that note: Wasteland. That’s a card people aren’t playing in Green Counterbalance decks because those decks are more aggressive and therefore need more consistent early mana, and are playing fewer lands. Playing the control build allows you to get greedier with your mana and add Wasteland, a card that’s probably closer to Tarmogoyf’s power level, if a completely different kind of effect.

Oddly, I don’t feel like I’ve lost much with these decks as a result of my inability to win the game quickly the way that the Green deck can. The area where I feel I might have problems is just against decks where I’d like to be blocking. Still, cheap one-for-ones combined with cheap card draw seems like it should usually be enough to beat decks that are just attacking you, and that’s how I’m hoping these go.

Essentially, if the format shifts toward Entomb and storm decks, I think it is likely that Counterbalance should shift to more control/disruption, and this seems like approximately the way to do that.

That’s all I have for this week. I hope I have some exciting stories about the Grand Prix tournaments in the coming weeks.

Until then, thanks for reading…