Do you remember the card that showed you how intricate Magic can be? You know, the one that took you beyond a game of Giant Growths and the Grizzly
Bears and onto a whole other level of play. Maybe it was when you first realized that getting to attack for two on the second turn made Jackal Pup
worth the drawback. Maybe it was when you first cast Gifts Ungiven and created the perfect puzzle. Maybe it was casting Mind’s Desire for twelve
and seeing a cascade of spells swirl into an overwhelming victory.
For me, that card was Counterbalance.
My competitive spark really started with Legacy. It was May 2008; there was a local tournament for some dual lands, and a friend of mine had loaned me
Dragon Stompy – if you’re not familiar with the name, think All-In Red with Chalice of the Voids and Trinispheres.
The deck required way too many informed decisions for a format newcomer to play it anywhere close to optimally. I dropped at 0-3 and walked around the
room, dejected. The format felt way above my head. I didn’t understand what was going on with any of the decks, why I’d won, why I’d
lost, or what a good deck was supposed to look like. My feet came to a stop at a table splattered with blue dual lands and foreign foils.
I looked at a game state that involved a Phyrexian Dreadnought getting Stifled, an ensuing Swords to Plowshares getting Force of Willed, and an
end-step Intuition getting a trio of Pernicious Deeds, one of which made it to the battlefield to blow the Dreadnought up. The four-color player then
cast Brainstorm, dredged Life from the Loam (flipping Engineered Explosives, Eternal Witness, and Counterbalance), and cast it targeting Polluted
Delta, Academy Ruins, and Volrath’s Stronghold. My lower jaw lost its purchase on the rest of my face as I realized how many things this deck
As soon as the tournament ended, I persuaded the player – who had just won the whole thing – to give me the list. He introduced himself as
David Gearhart, graciously gave me his list, and recommended several changes. The list was, roughly, the following:
Oh, how fondly I remember the time before Lord of Atlantis and Steppe Lynx roamed the land. The deck was a classic do-nothing, Danger of Cool Things
control deck. It was untuned and is simply too slow to exist now, but I mention it because of its importance to my Magic career. I have always harbored
a fondness for long-game control decks that do flashy things, and this deck fits the description to a tee.
The most appealing part of Counterbalance for me is that it allows me to play so much more Magic than my opponent. The combination of recursion lands and Counterbalance allowed me to lock
my opponents out of the game, draw cards, recur Eternal Witness, play multiple spells every turn, and generally feel really smart.
Playing the deck felt like manipulating a Rubik’s Cube where, every time I completed a side, I got to punch my opponent in the face.
I ended up taking a version of the deck to Chicago in March 2009. I had zero byes, and it was my first Constructed Grand Prix. I ultimately ended up
losing my bubble match for day two. I don’t remember much of the tournament, but there’s one retrospectively memorable match that was heretofore
lost to history:
09-03-1790839, Grand Prix Chicago 2009: 2009-03-07 – 2009-03-08
6 Craig D. Wescoe Win 1724
Chicago taught me more than I could absorb about Legacy. I had taken losses to Storm, a 59-card mirror, and Mono-Red, and those losses made me hungry
to learn more about the format and how to play this mindbogglingly complex deck.
In the following year, I played countless matches of Legacy and gleaned as much information from Gearhart and his friends as possible. Where I had once
rejected Daze out of hand because I thought, “Oh, that card looks like it just doesn’t do anything,” I began to experiment. I learned
how Daze and Wasteland impact Legacy and how the inclusion and exclusion of certain cards could make or break a deck.
I had learned the basics of Goblins, Survival, black disruption decks, and various Lion’s Eye Diamond combo decks. I practiced attacking for two
so that I would know how to stop the people deploying angry red animals. I was told to broaden my horizons, to try playing combo or aggro or a tempo
deck for a while. I did; I played combo for a few months and tested various aggressive decks with friends. I had fun with each of them, enjoyed my time
playing a new strategy and learning the ins and outs, but they simply couldn’t measure up. My love affair with Counterbalance continued apace.
From October 2009 to February 2010, I played combo. It was interesting but ultimately unfulfilling, and I was eager to come back to my favorite
two-mana enchantment. Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait long.
In early February 2010, Max McCall wrote an article on Counterbalance for another strategy website. I disagreed with much of his reasoning, and I let
him know about it in the forums, writing a response about as long as his article. His focus, however – a no-black, four-color Counterbalance deck
– was a starting point that intrigued me. Ultimately, the article inspired me to make a good four-color Counterbalance deck.
At the time, I was busy with my final semester of college and so didn’t have much time to test. Thankfully, my good friend and mentor David
Gearhart had come up with a reasonable starting point for the archetype by the time I had graduated and returned to Virginia. I wanted something that
could go over the top of aggressive decks and provide a quick, combo-like kill against decks such as Dredge and Storm. I decided that instead of
grinding people out with something like Knight of the Reliquary, I would build in a Plan C that I had learned of one year prior: Painter’s
Servant plus Grindstone.
The rest of the deck fell into place quickly. With Trinket Mages and Painters, I had my secondary creature slot covered. I could add an Engineered
Explosives to the maindeck for value against Zoo and Vials (as well as being an out to getting Counterbalance locked game 1), and the sideboard
developed as a natural extension of the maindeck. My list for Columbus, then, was this:
To break the deck down:
The Painter package (2 Trinket Mage, 2 Painter’s Servant, 1 Grindstone // 1 Trinket Mage, 1 Painter’s Servant, 1 Grindstone)
– These cards took the deck to another level. Yes, I got my fair share of do-nothing draws – you know, the ones with Grindstone, Trinket
Mage, and Tarmogoyf – but I also got a few absurd nut draws. I had the distinct pleasure of curving turn 1 Grindstone into turn 2 Painter into
turn 3 “kill you” in one game, much to the dismay of my opponent.
My goal was not to add cards that would give me wildly different draws from game to game, though – there was a method to my madness. I wanted a
plan against Merfolk and Goblins that didn’t involve attacking with my Tarmogoyf. When I thought of what tribal decks have in common, what I
first came to was “a lack of instant-speed removal.” After adding the Painter package, I found myself capable of playing a control game
that sandbagged Painter and Grindstone until I hit six or seven mana and then treated the two cards as a six-mana, two-part Door to Nothingness.
The Painter’s Servant/Grindstone combo also gave me the game plan I wanted against heavier, controlling decks. I could leverage Painter’s
Servant on blue to protect himself from cards such as Pernicious Deed with Red Elemental Blasts, waiting until they tapped low to slam
Painter/Grindstone with multiple Blasts up to stop their Swords to Plowshares or what-have-you.
In my comments on Max McCall’s article, I criticized him for including Trinket Mages that didn’t provide enough value. The addition of
Grindstone completely changed how Trinket Mage functioned in the deck, since he could search for a one-mana Crystal Ball instead of a mostly redundant
second Sensei’s Divining Top. Grindstone-as-Crystal Ball gave me a way to guarantee card quality going long, giving me a three-mana shuffle
effect in late-game situations where I wanted to hit very specific cards. To be clear, a lone Grindstone still isn’t worth the card, but
it’s invaluable in conjunction with Top.
The deck had the ability to become a controlling, removal-heavy deck with four Tarmogoyf, four Firespout, six white removal spells, and the
Counterbalance/Top lock. It also had the ability to – as I did against New Horizons decks – become a zero-Tarmogoyf, pure Painter combo
deck with Counterbalances and Forces for protection. It had three very distinct ways to win and had a kill that could come out of nowhere, deploying
two cards and six mana to one-shot an unsuspecting opponent.
I was fifteen seconds away from submitting a decklist that had Counterspells over Dazes. David Gearhart all but threatened me with physical harm if I
played Counterspells instead of Dazes. Ultimately, the cards support very different styles of play – with Daze, you can’t really wait
around and play a draw-go game without Counterbalance. If you’re tapping out or tapping low every turn, though, you will want a free counter like
Daze over Counterspell. In Legacy, if you’re holding up Counterspell, you might as well just staple it to your forehead. I felt that the deck
wanted to tap out almost every turn, and so I went with Daze.
Was I wrong? No, but I had Ponders. Were those wrong? No, but I had a kill that involved a two-of and a one-of. Were those wrong? Maybe, but if you
change eleven cards, it becomes a completely different deck. Within context of one another, they created a coherent deck design. Whether that design
had merit is another question altogether.
My tournament went well, and I ended round 15 in Top 8 contention. As serendipity would have it, my Top 8 bubble match was against Craig Wescoe. The
story is well known by now and is one that I feel has been told enough. If you don’t know what happened, my account of it ishere and Craig’s is here. Suffice it to say that I
have grown tremendously from the experience and that we have both made our peaces with each other. Of course, such an experience only further
solidified my love of Counterbalance…
Currently, I think that Spell Snares, Counterspells, Predicts, and Vendilion Cliques are probably better than Ponders, Dazes, Painter’s Servants,
and Trinket Mages. What changed? Well, it could beat a metagame that had Merfolk without Standstills, but Saito’s deck completely changed the
face of the matchup. Prior to that, the stock list was Alex Bertoncini’s Kansas City decklist, which played a zillion lords and zero Standstills.
Against that deck, I could board out my counters and play a one-for-one game of attrition until I had two cards in hand: Painter and Grindstone. With
Standstill and Spell Pierce, Merfolk went from reasonable to unwinnable.
So if this deck isn’t any good right now, what would I recommend for modern times such as these?
Given the recent success of Goblins and Merfolk, I think Counterbalance decks need to get more proactive. It’s not enough to rely on Firespout to
hold the fort against decks with Aether Vials, Wastelands, Cursecatchers, Spell Pierces, Rishadan Ports, Mutavaults, and haste creatures. Gerry
Thompson and Luis Scott-Vargas did an admirable job of fighting the good fight with Repeal, but I don’t want to be a pure control deck right now.
Building a deck that starts me off on the back heel of a fight against a field dominated by Aether Vial is not appealing. I’d rather be more
proactive in such an aggressive format, and Natural Order and Rhox War Monk are better strategies against aggressive decks than Firespout is.
Speaking of insane three-drops, Knight of the Reliquary is very well positioned right now. In a field of Mutavault, Rishadan Port, and four-color mana
bases, I want to be able to tutor up Wastelands. In a pinch, it even does a passable impression of AJ Sacher’s Wall of Roots, jumping from three
mana to four so that we can go get our
10/10and kill them. Against Goblins, it’s very valuable to have more “real creatures” – you know, the ones that can
block 2/2s and live – than just four Tarmogoyfs. By playing four Tarmogoyf, four Knight, and two Rhox War Monk, their Warren Weirdings
aren’t going to be the difference between punching through on the ground and not punching through on the ground. Sure, it’s an Edict, but
it’s not the game breaker that it is against four-color builds.
The lack of Ponder and Daze is a nod to just wanting to play guys and smash. It’s very possible that the Jace, the Mind Sculptors should be Dazes
since the two-drop slot is very light, but Jace gets us out of a lot of otherwise-unwinnable situations. Also, Daze is pretty miserable against Aether
Vials and Counterbalance decks that aren’t tapping out early. The best part of playing zero Dazes in this deck is that people will often play
around it whether or not you have it in your hand or even in your deck, so you’ll still get some value out of the card’s existence without ever having
it stuck in your hand.
I don’t think the deck wants Ponder that much at all. Whereas AJ’s U/G Natural Order list is very focused on resolving Natural
Order, this deck is a much more aggressive animal. The general redundancy among cards – would I rather have this Tarmogoyf, Knight of the Reliquary, or Rhox War Monk? I don’t care, just attack! – makes a card selection
tool worse, and cycling for U isn’t what we want cards to be doing in this deck.
As for the sideboard, the absence of Red Elemental Blasts means that I’ve moved on to Llawan, Cephalid Empress as the sideboard slot of choice
against Merfolk. As I mentioned earlier, I don’t want to try to resolve actual sweepers in a world of Cursecatchers and Spell Pierces. Instead,
I’d rather just play a four-mana creature that they have to Daze, Force, or lose to. When you take into account that they can just lose to Noble
Hierarch into Rhox War Monk with any reasonable follow-up, Llawan becomes a very reasonable means of overloading their reactive capacity.
The Vendilion Cliques are there because AJ Sacher was 100% right about that card being really good, and I was wrong. Sorry for making you cut one of
those. That said, it still sucks against every Aether Vial deck ever. So what do I want it against? Two specific cards: Counterspell and Lion’s
Eye Diamond. I’ll explain.
Clique is already a generically fine card against control decks. The thing is this deck really wants to be able to resolve Natural Order. This used to
be easier before Columbus, but Counterspell has become a more widely played card since August 2010. Having a sideboard slot capable of shoving their
Counterspell out of their hand and allowing me to untap and resolve my Natural Order is a worthwhile investment. If Counterspell weren’t a played
card in the Legacy metagame, this card would probably not be in my 75 – I’d just rather play something like Spell Pierce.
As you may have noticed, not playing Counterspell or Spell Snare or Daze leaves us a little more open to combo decks than I’d like. Since I want
to cut Rhox War Monk, Natural Order, and Progenitus against Lion’s Eye Diamond decks and am bringing in three Krosan Grips and one Pithing
Needle, I needed a two-of that would be reasonable against Painter’s Servant, Goblin Charbelcher, and any other decks that are overly eager to
cast a specific card. As we can’t play any of the superior black or red disruption options, Vendilion Clique is the best card for the job.
There are two major weaknesses in this deck that I’m still working to fix. First, it doesn’t have enough two-drops for Counterbalance
reveals. Four Tarmogoyf and four Counterbalance aren’t really enough slots to reliably flip-counter such a ubiquitous casting cost. The second
problem is that it only has seventeen blue cards for Force of Will, which is close to the bare minimum needed to reliably cast Force of Will for its
alternate cost. Of course, adding a pair of Daze would ameliorate both of these problems, so don’t think that this list is beyond improvement.
I’ve played Counterbalance in almost every major Legacy event I’ve played in, and I don’t think this will be the one to break that
trend. I believe that this iteration is positioned well in the SCG Open metagame, and I’d encourage anyone with experience casting Counterbalance to
take it for a spin. If you have any questions about the article, the format, or you just want help figuring out a brew you’re working on, come
chat with me on Twitter. If social media websites aren’t your cup of tea, come chat with me in Indianapolis, Washington, or Edison!