City of Brass – So Many Inane Plays

Tuesday, November 16th – If before this event, a friend had asked, “Hey Andy, how many times are you going to play Pithing Needle naming Eye of Ugin today?” I wouldn’t have guessed correctly. Check out Andy’s SCG Open: Boston report!

My friend David Mayer from Atlanta tells me there’s a StarCityGames.com Open in Boston this weekend, and as I live in Boston, I can’t think of any reason not to go. I offer David a place to stay, and shortly after he buys a plane ticket I realize that “SCG Open: Boston” is really SCG Open: Boxborough, MA – about an hour and a half drive from Boston.

The first of many blowouts: David ends up having to rent a car to make it to the Standard event on Saturday. He’s three points away from SCG level 3 and isn’t going to let something like an hour drive keep him from the tournament. I feel like a jerk not just driving him there, but free time is a commodity in extremely short supply for me right now right now, and I knew Sunday was likely to be an all-day affair. My workweek had consisted of multiple twelve-hour days, and I was looking forward to getting a good night’s sleep.

Of course at around 8 am, I get a phone call from David. He hasn’t left. He’s calling from my living room.

My car just got towed.

“Your what?”

“My rental car got towed.”

“Who is this?”

David went through the requisite series of phone calls to find out where his car was – Call the police station, call the towing company, call the police station again to get their address, call the towing company again to get their address, find out that he’s been calling the wrong police station, call the new police station, and get

address, etc.

I drive David to the police station to get a release form, and then to the towing company to pick up his car, and things aren’t looking good for the event. All in all it went surprisingly smoothly, considering I was in a half-asleep stupor, and that David had no idea what the license plate number of his car was. Even with a quick turnaround at the lot, David only got his car back with about twenty minutes remaining until the event, and about an hour to drive there. I’m the type to generally assume the worst, but David decided to make a run for it. “These things always start late anyway.”

The event started late. He showed up during the player’s meeting, and they paired him, with a game 1 loss, against the player who had the round 1 bye. He won the match and Top 16ed the event, giving him enough points to hit level 3. As they say on the Internet, “Must be nice!”

Saturday night, like so many nights before tournaments, I stay up later than I ought to getting my deck together. At GP Columbus I played a U/W Counterbalance deck, and it felt really strong there. I was pretty rusty at Columbus, and I lost a few matches purely from pilot error, but the deck still got me into the $200 bracket, which was more than I expected considering my lack of testing.

At GP Columbus, the one matchup that I wasn’t 100% comfortable with was Merfolk. Beyond that, the meta had shifted a bit since then, as Survival of the Fittest decks are running rampant right now. I decide on an aggressive plan using Peacekeeper. I haven’t played it yet, but keep hearing from sources I trust that the card dominates the Merfolk matchup, and is pretty handy against Survival as well. I go all out and maindeck one Peacekeeper, while sideboarding two more. I’m a little dubious as to how relevant it is against Survival, so I bump maindeck Pithing Needle and Trinket Mage to two and three respectively. I’m really impressed with Needle right now, in a lot of matchups.

I don’t own Peacekeepers, but I don’t mind just buying or borrowing them at the venue; I build my sideboard around them and go to bed.

Of course, on Sunday morning, there are no Peacekeepers to be found. StarCityGames.com is sold out; I bother just about everyone I know on-site, and no one has any. This wouldn’t be so bad to have found out the night before, at home, with time to rebuild and my collection in front of me – but I had specifically planned on Peacekeeper being the centerpiece of what I considered to be the two most important matchups, and now I had no plan at all.

Ultimately they end up becoming a second Engineered Explosives, a Humility, and a Llawan, Cephalid Empress. These choices are born more from the small selection of cards I have available to me on-site than any particular strategic value. Here’s the list I registered:

Now a man without a plan, I sit down at the player meeting and just hope to dodge Merfolk. If I do have to play Merfolk, I’m hoping to get a soft pilot.

Round 1, of course, I’m paired against StarCityGames.com Open Player of the Year Alex Bertoncini, playing Merfolk. Not only do I basically have no idea how to approach this matchup with my haphazard sideboard, I decide to play extremely sloppy, just to be sure.

While Alex is making, you know, normal-people plays like turn 1 Mutavault into Aether Vial, turn 2 Wasteland your land, I’m trying out an alternative strategy. I try interesting plays like “Brainstorm into drop a Jace face up on the table” and “I guess I completely missed that Cursecatcher on the table.” You know, when you haven’t done any testing for a while, you have to try these kinds of plays out, just to see if they help your match win percentage. (ProTip: They don’t.)

Sideboard against Merfolk:

-2 Enlightened Tutor, -1 Thopter Foundry, -1 Sword of the Meek

+2 Swords to Plowshares, +1 Pithing Needle, +1 Llawan, Cephalid Empress

Post-board you’re basically a “find and protect Llawan” combo deck, which ultimately isn’t a bad plan if you have enough Llawans, but one may not be enough for the matchup, and it’s obviously a pretty narrow effect. I never get to see mine in game 2. I feel like I’m in the game the whole time. We go back and forth trading spells. He plays a Mutavault, I Needle it; he plays a Merrow Reejery, I Swords it. The whole time he’s picking away with some smaller creatures, while I’m digging for spells. He plays a Coralhelm Commander and levels it up a bit. I play an Engineered Explosives with Force of Will backup, expecting to blow him out, but he has double Force to defend it, then swings in for lethal. He was in control of the game the entire time, just waiting for me to play something relevant.


If before this event, a friend had asked, “Hey Andy, how many times are you going to play Pithing Needle naming Eye of Ugin today?” I wouldn’t have guessed correctly.

My opponent mulligans and keeps a hand he’s clearly displeased with. I play out a Tarmogoyf and a Trinket Mage, and on turn 4 all my opponent has done is played four Forests. Next turn he plays out two Candelabras of Tawnos and a Cloudpost. Now I don’t know exactly what he’s up to, but I figure he’s going to get a lot of mana soon. I kill the Candelabras with an Explosives and drop a Counterbalance, but it proves to be not enough. He follows up Cloudpost with two more and starts casting Deathcoil Wurms and Steel Hellkites. I actually hold off the first wave with some Swords to Plowshares and a Jace, but it’s not long before he draws and activates Eye of Ugin. First Ulamog comes and kills my Jace. Emrakul follows shortly thereafter.

Sideboard against Twelve-Post:

-2 Engineered Explosives, -2 Swords to Plowshares

+2 Vendilion Clique, +1 Thopter Foundry, +1 Sword of the Meek

I guess? I basically have to race here, which isn’t something my deck is built to do. Game 2 is worse than the first. He has a keepable hand this time, resolves an Explore, and hits the twelve-mana range well before I’ve put on enough pressure. Low point of my day: I’m actually forced to use a Jace, the Mind Sculptor to Unsummon a Kozilek, Butcher of Truth.


Round 3, and I’m already in the “self-deception” bracket. I know I’m out of Top 8 range, but prizes go fairly deep, and I felt so out of practice I thought I could use the extra games. I’m paired against Rob, who actually turns out to be a pretty fun guy to play with, despite starting the match with a story about his gun collection, and how many people those guns have killed. Rob is playing a homebrew deck that runs Tangle Wire, Braids, and Smokestack to lock down your board, and Bitterblossom and Bloodghast to keep yourself free while doing it. Oddly enough my experience playing against Mishra’s Workshop decks in Vintage gave me quite a bit of background for playing these long, drawn-out permanent wars.

Game 1 is a nail-biter. I have to play Top-free Counterbalances and Trinket Mages into zero-drop Engineered Explosives just to up my permanent count. I force him to overextend a Smokestack which ultimately brings us both down to just a land or two before sacrificing itself, but I’m more prepared for the follow-up than he is, and Tarmogoyf is pretty large at this point.

Sideboard against Mono-Black Braids:

-4 Counterbalances, -1 Moat, -2 Swords to Plowshares, -1 Jace, the Mind Stealer

+3 Spell Pierce, +1 Nihil Spellbomb, +2 Counterspell, +1 Thopter Foundry, +1 Sword of the Meek

Active Thopter-Swords should blow this deck out of the water. The only thing I’m worried about is a few bombs I saw him dredge away game 1, like Contamination or a particularly early Smokestack. Spell Pierce should help a lot there. The next game plays out that way – I find Thopter Sword relatively fast, and the game is over not long after.


In the next round I’m paired against Albert, who absolutely tears my hand apart in the first few turns. I play a Tarmogoyf, and he plays a Gatekeeper of Malakir. I play a Trinket Mage, and he plays another one. He two-for-ones me left and right, but I naturally draw into a Sword of the Meek and find an Enlightened Tutor with a Divining Top.

Sideboard against Mono-Black Rock:

-1 Engineered Explosives, -1 Pithing Needle, -1 Moat

+2 Swords to Plowshares, +1 Thopter Foundry, +1 Sword of the Meek

I didn’t see enough of his deck game 1 to know if Needles or Explosives were correct. I still don’t get to see, as game 2 plays out like a classic Counterbalance matchup; I play Counterbalance on turn 2, and he doesn’t resolve another spell

We talk for a bit after the match and seem to be in general agreement about why things played out as they did. Even though Albert had tons of cards to generate small advantages, the cards in my deck were just too powerful in the matchup. This is pretty much exactly the kind of thing I was getting at a few weeks ago, in a slightly different form.


Round 5 I’m paired against Mark. For reasons which will soon become clear, I remember this match far more vividly than the others.

I keep, and Mark agonizes over his seven. He keeps and is on the play. Mark makes what’s simultaneously one of the most terrifying and relieving openings you can sit across from.


Of course the gears in my head start turning. You don’t keep a hand like that unless you’re going to win off of one land. I’m thinking I might be up against Belcher, but I’m really in the dark. In any case, I don’t have a Force of Will, and my first priority is going to be to find one. I just have to play a land, pass, and hope the top card of his deck isn’t enough. He draws and looks disappointed. Phew. To skip discarding, he takes a card from his hand and lays it on the table. What could it be? A Lotus Petal, an un-imprinted Chrome Mox? Hopefully not a Lion’s Eye Diamond. It’s… It’s…

Now I’m far more confused than I was a turn ago. Some Vengevine Survival decks run zero-cost creatures; could my opponent be ballsy enough to keep a no-lander with Survival? Maybe if he has multiple Hierarchs and Survivals, though that still feels loose. I’ve seen combo decks based around zero-drops, Culling the Weak, and Diabolic Intent before; that seems more likely. But then I’ve been reading a lot of hype about new Affinity lists, packed with Scars cards. I can imagine no-land Affinity hands that just explode, though I’m not sure I’d keep them myself… and all of these decks require different game plans.

On my turn, I play Tarmogoyf. I don’t know for sure what he’s playing, but I know he’s a land away from doing something I don’t want him to, and without a Force of Will, my only option is to race him. He draws and plays

Phyrexian Walker. On my turn, I realize that my 2/3 Tarmogoyf is actually too small to punch through his 0/3s. Adding to my list of “plays I never thought I’d make today,” I Trinket Mage for an Engineered Explosives, and blow it at zero to kill two Phyrexian Walkers. This makes Tarmogoyf a 4/5 which, along with the Mage, applies a reasonable clock.

Turns pass, and Mark just cannot find a land. Every turn however, he plays an additional free creature. I see Memnites and Ornithopters, but no lands, until eventually he drops a Kobold. Now I still have no idea what he’s doing, but I’m pretty sure it’s not Affinity, and it’s definitely not Survival. All before he finds a land, I get an Academy Ruins to recur Engineered Explosives, which seals the deal that turn.

Game 2 Mark elects to draw first, and I keep a hand I’m pretty comfortable with against what appears to be some kind of combo deck. There’s no Force, but I have turn 1 Top, turn 2 Counterbalance, turn 3 Vendilion Clique. I play Top and pass, and he finally gets a chance to show me what he’s up to. He plays Forest, Glimpse of Nature, which I cannot stop, and proceeds to play ten creatures. He passes without playing anything else – it looks like he may have fizzled, but I still need to take care of his board. I play the Counterbalance and will start digging for an Explosives next turn. Mark has other plans. He draws a Gaea’s Cradle and plays it. He makes sure I know that he just drew the Cradle off the top. Thanks, Mark. He taps it for ten mana and plays a Garruk, the Wildspeaker – this will kill me next turn unless I draw a Pithing Needle, which is highly unlikely. The Garruk, however, was just counter-bait. He follows that up with:

And then attacks for 53.

Fortunately for me, our third game was far less interesting – I had counters; he didn’t win on turn 2, and after a Counterbalance hits, it’s hard for him to do much.


After five rounds, I’m back to playing against real decks. My opponent Jonas opens with Wasteland, Aether Vial, a familiar start. I’m able to drop an early Pithing Needle and have to decide which to name. I have a few duals in hand, so I can’t just play around the Wasteland, but I have a Counterbalance as well, which makes hitting the Vial more valuable. Wasteland isn’t particularly scary however, when the opponent has no pressure on you. I name Vial and follow that with Counterbalance and Trinket Mage for Sensei’s Divining Top. He sticks a Goblin Piledriver and puts on some reasonable pressure, but it all turns around when he goes to cast a Goblin Ringleader, and I Enlightened Tutor for Moat in response. The Moat on top is revealed to Counterbalance to stop the Ringleader and comes down on my turn. Jonas doesn’t scoop yet, but I assume his only out at this point is Siege-Gang Commander. When he finally finds one and realizes I’ve been floating a five-drop on top, he scoops it up.

Sideboard against Goblins:

-4 Counterbalance, -1 Jace, the Mind Sculptor, -1 Engineered Explosives

+2 Swords to Plowshares, +1 Humility, +1 Sword of the Meek, +1 Thopter Foundry, +1 Pithing Needle

Game 2 Jonas leads out with Badlands, Goblin Lackey, and I have nothing in my hand that answers it. I have a nonbasic-heavy hand, so I play a Needle naming Wasteland and pass, hoping for the best. Jonas swings in with Lackey and thankfully has no Ringleaders or Siege-Gangs in hand. He drops Mogg War Marshal with his Lackey and then Cabal Therapies me. He misses with the first guess and takes an Engineered Explosives with the second. Ultimately I think this is a mistake, as I have a Tarmogoyf in hand, and I find Goyf to be very powerful in this matchup. On my turn 2 I play the Tarmogoyf, which holds off the Lackey, and on my third turn, I draw a second Tarmogoyf, which lets me attack with the first. It doesn’t take long before Jonas is on the defensive. On the last turn I sacrifice a Thopter Foundry to itself to make the Goyfs 5/6s, and able to attack for lethal.


In round 7 I’m up against Ron with Enchantress. Enchantress can actually be a pretty tricky matchup for Counterbalance. They run a lot of awkwardly costed cards, they make it really hard to race, and if you can’t stop the Enchantress effects, they can just churn through their deck too fast for you to do anything about it. Luckily if you

stop their Enchantress effects, often they end up with pretty clunky draws – lots of filler-enchantments like Wild Growths and Elephant Grasses. Game 1 that’s exactly what happened. I had a hand with lots of Force of Wills and a Tarmogoyf, and he didn’t draw the Enchantresses he needed to power through.

Sideboard against Enchantress:

-2 Swords to Plowshares, -1 Moat, -2 Pithing Needle,

+2 Counterspell, +2 Vendilion Clique, +1 Nihil Spellbomb

Now I’m not sure what he’s bringing in, but the match can get pretty scary post-board. The must-answer count goes up if they bring in Choke and City of Solitude. It’s possible Spell Pierces are better than Cliques here, but Enchantress can use Wild Growth effects and Serra’s Sanctum to very quickly ramp outside of Pierce’s usable range.

This game I Force of Will a turn 2 Argothian Enchantress but am unable to stop a City of Solitude. This is fine though, as long as he doesn’t draw another Enchantress I’m not too worried. On my turn 2 I play a Thopter Foundry, as I have nothing better to do with my mana. Like a champ, I simply rip Sword of the Meek off the top on turn 3, and make a Thopter.

Ron draws a card and looks relieved. He plays out an Oblivion Ring removing my Sword and an Aura of Silence. At this point he’s out of cards though, so I’m pretty comfortable when I play a Jace and begin Fatesealing. I look at the top card of his deck and see a Replenish. Normally scary, he has no enchantments whatsoever in his graveyard, and I’m specifically looking for cards that answer Jace, so I let him have it, completely missing what he can do. On his turn he sacrifices Aura of Silence to kill his own Oblivion Ring, then Replenishes them both back. The new Oblivion Ring removes my Jace, and he sacrifices the Aura of Silence to kill my Thopter Foundry.

Nice play as it was, it wouldn’t prove to be enough… A single Trinket Mage and the 2/3 Thopter token attacked for the next few turns, even after Ron played multiple Elephant Grasses. Eventually I draw Academy Ruins, which can get back the Thopter Foundry, but the game is over by then anyway.


And then we come to the last round, where for the first time since round 2, I actually feel like something’s on the line (foreshadowing?).

Me and Shane both mulligan to six, but his six has a Hymn to Tourach and a Dark Confidant, where mine just has two Sensei’s Divining Tops and some land.

In game 2 I mulligan, keep a one-land, one-Brainstorm hand and miss two land drops. I quickly revert back to the same kind of plays I was making against Alex in round 1. The details elude me, but at some point I play an Engineered Explosives without the mana to activate it, against an on-the-board Pernicious Deed, completely missing that he can just sack it for zero and blow me out. Which of course he does.


So I finish up with nothing.

This isn’t entirely unexpected but certainly not desired. I’m not sure where that leaves me and Counterbalance for now. While the deck certainly could’ve performed worse, and I certainly could’ve played better, Merfolk feels like it’s shaping up to be a serious problem. If I get the chance to test Peacekeeper, that might make a difference, but I’m not holding my breath. Besides all that, I may want to switch to a deck with a better 12Post matchup. When you play non-linear, reactive decks, you’re just asking to run into someone who’s not playing the same game that you are. In those situations you’re forced to race, and even with Thopter-Sword, U/W Counterbalance isn’t really built for racing.

I think the next Legacy event I go to I’m going to sleeve this up:


Yes, that’s a thing.

Thanks for reading,
Andy Probasco