Captain America: Playing Counter-Trenches

It’s the most popular deck that no one was playing… But now the cat’s out of the bag after Milwaukee. How do you play the deck that crushes the hated Psychatog?

Before I talk Magic, I have an obligation as an avid comic book collector to digress for a bit. The name of the deck and the colors used in it provide too much opportunity…

Step back from reality and listen for a moment as I tell you the history of Captain America. Injected with the Super Soldier Serum, which pushed his strength, agility, and endurance beyond peak human levels, Steve Rogers (also known as Captain America) helped the Allies win World War II.

Despite his costume, which resembles a spandex American flag stretched across his body and complete with red boots, there are some great Captain America stories – and if you’re even vaguely interested in comic books, you should check out my recommendations. And if you’re not at all interested in comic books, then now’s the time to start.

Without a doubt, the Mark Waid and Ron Garney run on Captain America was one of the best. Sometimes a writer and an artist work so well together that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts; Waid’s story telling and Garney’s pencils are a case in point. Together, they made Captain America cool again. Facing flagging sales and the threat of cancellation, the new creative team immediately injected new life into an old hero. Suddenly, the incarnate symbol of America’s principles and fight for freedom became an outlaw in the very country he so vehemently defended. Unwittingly caught in a conspiracy, the unthinkable happens and Steve Rogers is branded as an outlaw of the State…

Interested? Garney/Waid worked on the title back in 1995, but you can easily find the trade paperbacks collecting their story arcs at your local comic store. Look for Operation Rebirth and Man without a Country.

More recently, only last month, Captain America was relaunched in an effort to merge it more closely with current events and today’s geopolitical concerns. The first issue begins with Cap assisting rescue workers at the ruins of the World Trade Center Towers in New York City. His former outmoded fight versus Nazis is reframed as a fight versus terrorism. John Ney Rieber and John Cassady write and pencil the book and you may be able to find the first issue still on the stands.

Just like how Captain America was frozen cryogenically after WWII, the Invasion block Counter-Trenches deck disappeared for some time after the release of Odyssey. Then suddenly, perhaps to meet the demands of tackling a diverse metagame rather than a Nazi menace, numerous players around the world resurrected the old deck. More astonishing still, many of them top-eighted at Regionals and Nationals.

I can tell that you’re still skeptical. A bona fide three-color deck facing off against the hordes of popular two-color decks like Zevatog and R/G Beatdown and winning?



If you don’t believe me, then believe these guys:

Paul Murray – 8th U.S. South Regionals

Khoo Rei Ren – 3rd Malaysian Nationals

Paniotis Zaharias – 3rd Greece Nationals

Dante Rosati – 2nd Australian Nationals

Filip Hajduk – 2nd Canada Central Regionals

Cole Swannack – 1st New Zealand Nationals

Tomi Walamies – 1st Finnish Nationals

Eric Taylor – 1st Grand Prix Milwaukee

Counter-Trenches is the best deck in the format that no one-or almost no one-is playing. Think about decks in terms of numbers. If a disproportionately large number of people play what isn’t necessarily the best deck, that deck will often nonetheless place into the top-eight. But what about a deck that has a relatively small following and still manages to place in myriad top-eights around the world.

Welcome to Counter-Trenches.

It is also interesting to note that of the eight success stories listed above, all of the decks are very similar, varying by only four to eight cards in most cases. This suggests that the deck is pretty close to its optimal form, leaving the debatable slots for metagame tweaks.


Played by Eric Taylor

7 Island

3 Mountain

4 Shivan Reef

3 Forge[/author]“]Battlefield [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]

2 Adarkar Wastes

4 Coastal Tower

3 Skycloud Expanse

4 Counterspell

4 Memory Lapse

4 Repulse

4 Fact or Fiction

2 Syncopate

4 Absorb

2 Wrath of God

4 Fire/Ice

3 Prophetic Bolt

3 Goblin Trenches


4 Flametongue Kavu

4 Meddling Mage

3 Lightning Angel

2 Gainsay

2 Aura Blast

What makes the Taylor build unique is the absence of Urza’s Rage and the presence of a 26th land. Both Swannack and Walamies played Urza’s Rage (three copies and two copies, respectively). Rage is a powerful late-game win condition, since the damage cannot be countered or prevented by Circle of Protection: Red. In the early game, it can pick off creatures that slip past counters. But what bothers me about playing Rage is that more often than not, you’re going to be sacking lands to Trenches before you have enough mana to cast it with kicker.

I think you really miss the Rages when you play versus Psychatog or any other deck that is heavy with counters.

The 26th land is something I definitely support. Ideally, you want to cast Fact or Fiction and Wrath of God with counter back up. More lands means more Goblin Tokens. Having extra mana to dump into Syncopate is also great. Repulse and Prophetic Bolt get even better when you can immediately cast whatever spell you draw.


But let’s take a closer look at the deck’s construction. Let’s start with what is my biggest concern: the color consistency of mana sources. Or to phrase it another way, how often is an opening hand going to screw you with spells that don’t match the mana your lands produce? Counting up all the mana symbols and mana sources, here’s what you get:

Blue: 33 (37)

Mana: 20

White: 11

Mana: 12

Red: 6 (10)

Mana: 10

Contrary to appearances, there are not too many red or white mana sources. You want to be able to play Fire on turn 2 if necessary. You want to be able to cast Absorb on turn 3. And against R/G, you need Wrath of God to hit as quickly as possible. In short, you want all three colors of mana available early in the game.

But what happens if you only have access to two colors of mana for the first bunch of turns? What if you don’t get that ideal three-color draw?

Basically, the blue spells can stall and give you time to develop your mana base. Memory Lapse and Counterspell can cover you for a while until you draw into white mana for that Absorb. Fire/Ice cycles for 1U. And Trenches and Prophetic Bolt are non-factors, since they are already intended to be played late game.

So according to probability, you will have blue mana sources in your opening hand. And thanks to the deck’s construction, you can usually afford to wait a little while (to search for the right colored mana sources) before casting non-blue spells. More often than not, as long as you get an opening hand with three lands, one of which produces blue mana, you are in good shape.

The mana base and timing of non-blue spells makes the deck draw very consistently despite its three colors.


What about the mana curve? Breaking it down by converted mana cost, here’s what we get:

I: 0

II: 12

III: 11

IV: 6

V: 3

X: 2 (Syncopate)

Beatdown players may be disappointed about the lack of one-drops, but Coastal Tower fills that role more or less. For a control deck, the curve is surprisingly smooth, concentrated at two and three mana, but quickly dropping off at four and five mana.

Counter-Trenches also has a number of spells that pack a surprising ability to swing the tempo of a game in your favor. Fire/Ice can often knock off several small creatures. Repulse is fabulous for taking care of green token creatures. And Wrath of God is such a powerful card because it can generate tempo and card advantage at the same time.

An often-overlooked ability of Memory Lapse is that it can make opponents miss land drops during the first few turns. This combined, with the Trench player’s twenty-six lands, can quickly lead to a massive swing in the mana development race, which then translates nicely into gaining tempo since you’re able to cast more spells per turn than your opponent.


What creatures? Exactly.

Innocent Blood.

Chainer’s Edict.

Aether Burst.


Flametongue Kavu.

Wrath of God.


See anyone playing with those spells lately? Well they’re all pretty useless against Counter-Trenches. So while you are generating card advantage with Fact or Fiction and Prophetic Bolt, your opponent is pulling dead cards off the top of his or her library.

More than perhaps ever before in the history of Magic, creatures are the number one road to victory for decks. Therefore, creature removal is massively popular. And Counter-Trenches laughs at the limited scope of spells that can only remove creatures.

For me, this is one of the best reasons to build and play this deck.

And of course, you do have the Goblin creature tokens. They serve the dual purpose of generating chump blockers when needed and swarming through for the kill later on. Often, the little dorks are entirely immune to sorcery-speed removal spells. You simply play Trenches, make a bunch of guys during your opponent’s end step (thereby leaving them only vulnerable to instants and avoiding summoning sickness on your turn), untap, upkeep, draw, and send in the horde.


Scroll back up to the deck listing and count the number of different uses each spell has. Counters and direct damage are able to stop threats from entering play, remove creatures, and go straight to the dome.

Prophetic Bolt is search, removal, and card advantage at instant speed.

Wrath of God and Repulse stand out as the narrow cards, since they can only deal with creatures… But even they fill certain specialized rolls. Wrath has the advantage of not targeting and it is guaranteed to wipe out every creatures on the board (at least until Anurid Brushhopper from Judgment is released). Even the mighty Spiritmonger and Iridescent Angel bite the dust.

Repulse bounces anything that can be targeted and doesn’t have protection from blue. And it replaces itself. And it’s especially good versus tokens. And it buys you time to look for permanent answers.


Without a doubt, here is where one sees the greatest variation in Counter-Trenches. Eric Taylor took the transformation approach. While his opponent sides out formerly dead creature removal spells, in come Meddling Mage, Flametongue Kavu, and Lightning Angel. These cards combine with existing tempo elements in the deck to complete the switch to aggro control.

Even here, the flexibility is considerable. Meddling Mage is the solution to literally any threat you can name (Opposition, Urza’s Rage, and Obliterate, to name a few), provided that you can protect it from removal spells.

Flametongue Kavu is removal, card advantage, and a win condition wrapped up in one. We all know how good that is.

Lightning Angel doesn’t care if Static Orb is in play, flies over R/G ground-pounders, and it simultaneously plays defense versus Call of the Herd.

For the last four slots, Taylor plays some utility spells. Gainsay is always helpful against Tog and U/G builds. And Aura Blast provides insurance against annoying enchantments like Compulsion, Opposition, and Worship. Personally, I’d go one step further and play Disenchant just because I’ve tortured a few too many players with Ensnaring Bridge and Static Orb. But then again, I’m sure the metagame where I live is much scrubbier than that of GP Milwaukee.

Closing Words

Now is the time to play three colors – before Invasion block rotates out and we lose the enemy pain lands and the comes-into-play-tapped allied dual lands.

It’s tough to be Chris Pikula, but you can play him in your sideboard.

Making good cards like Flametongue Kavu and Chainer’s Edict become bad card is fun.

If Eric Taylor won with it and the deck list is plastered on sideboard.com, then it’s a net deck that has proved itself – so it has to be good, right?

Take it easy, and remember that Captain America kicks ass.

Rick Rust

[email protected]

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