Fundamentally, every good deck seeks to exploit some vulnerability in the metagame. Sometimes it’s a broad vulnerability, like “almost nothing beats a resolved Enduring Ideal on turn 4.” Sometimes it’s narrow, such as “certain decks are vulnerable to Trinket Mage fetching Tormod’s Crypt.” No matter how popular the vulnerabilities you choose to attack, there will be some decks that simply don’t have them – and no matter how foolish the pilot might be for constructing his deck that way, there is nothing you can do about getting paired against him in the early rounds of a PTQ.
I had a bad experience playing Destructive Flow last year. I started off the season playing our freshly-minted Tenacious Tron, posting an early PTQ Top 8 in which I died in the quarterfinals to a turn 1 Destructive Flow. As I watched the PTQ metagame evolve, I predicted that Destructive Flow decks would be popular at the upcoming qualifiers, and did not want to play a deck that was such an underdog to them. I therefore switched to a Destructive Flow deck of my own design, which splashed Trinket Mage and Trygon Predator – both deadly in the metagame at the time. (The mana was never a problem, believe it or not.)
I went 1-3 at the following PTQ, losing to three consecutive off-the-radar decks: CAL (not regular Loam; if not for the game 1 Solitary Confinement, the match was easily mine), U/G Heartbeat from the previous Extended season, and Goblins. Then I went to GP: Dallas, punted a very close mirror match (after my byes), lost to a Wizards deck, and dropped from the tournament.
The problem with my Flow deck wasn’t necessarily that its Plan A sucked – after all, I didn’t get to apply it in a single one of the sanctioned matches I played – but rather that when I encountered a deck that did not possess the vulnerabilities I sought to exploit, I had to revert to Plan B…and the Flow deck’s Plan B was about as fair as they come.
See, the Flow deck wasn’t actually powerful, it was just set up to exploit a few specific vulnerabilities shared by many of the top decks. If you were vulnerable to Destructive Flow, and if I resolved it early, you were in trouble. Many of the top decks folded like a napkin to an early Flow, but the decks I paired against simply didn’t care. If you were vulnerable to Trinket Mage, and if I had it early, or if you were vulnerable to Trygon Predator, or if you were vulnerable to equipment… you get the idea. Although most of the top decks fit right into my crosshairs, far too many off-the-radar decks did not, and it cost me.
True power doesn’t merely exploit deck-specific vulnerabilities, it’s strong against the common vulnerabilities of the environment as well. Compare Engineered Plague to Damnation in a control deck. In a Tribal-heavy environment, Plague will do a lot more long-term damage – for less mana – than the all-purpose sweeper will, but in a wide-open environment where you can’t count on solid tribal pairings, you’re in a lot of trouble if you choose Plague over Damnation. You’ll be a dog to the homebrew Red deck that didn’t bother to include a single tribal synergy, and while that might not matter in the later rounds where everyone’s got a killer tribal deck, you have to recognize that your success in the tournament will be contingent on your ability to mise your way past the early-tournament chaff.
If I’d made it through the first couple of rounds of the PTQ with the Flow deck, and into the realm of the format-defining decks I’d actually playtested against, I might well have won the tournament for all I know. Instead, I posted the most miserable PTQ finish of my career, and was left with nothing but the grim realization that the easy early-round “gimmes” I’d taken for granted with Tenacious Tron were real problems for the Flow deck.
I’ve seen a lot of decks repeat the mistake I made, which is why I took the time to rank what I considered the (pre-Lorwyn) most powerful Extended decks two weeks ago. Powerful decks have a higher concentration of broken draws by the standards of the format as a whole, which make for a sound Plan B when the primary plan misses its target.
In a wide open environment, you can get into a lot of trouble by aiming to take down a Top 8 and assuming the early rounds are already in the bank.
Counterbalance’s Plan B
While Flow aims to exploit decks that play almost exclusively nonbasic lands, Counterbalance aims for decks that primarily play spells with a converted mana cost of one or two. And while most of the decks Counterbalance locks out are – by and large – among the top decks in the format, that speaks nothing to a Counterbalance deck’s ability to defeat something unexpected in the Swiss – a deck which does not employ the mana cost composition that Counterbalance seeks to exploit.
Indeed, any deck which includes Counterbalance as a key part of its Plan A will find a slew of matchups in which it will have to fall back on Plan B to finish games. Risky or no, people will Dredge at the PTQs, and Dredge does not give two craps about Counterbalance. Enduring Ideal largely shrugs it off as well – just look at the finals of PT: Valencia. Remi had active Counterbalances in three out of five games, and they did nothing for him. His win had nothing to do with the enchantment and everything to do with the fact that Venser dodges Boseiju but does not give the Ideal player a refund on his spent Lotus Blooms and sac-lands.
People will also Tron at the PTQs. Zac and I built Tenacious Tron because the lack of one-cost, two-cost, and three-cost cards in the deck made Chalice of the Void a viable – and busted – card choice. Counterbalance is fine against Affinity, but hardly locks it out of the game; Thoughtcast is still fair play, and any Frogmites and Myr Enforcers drawn off it can easily slip through the cracks. People will also Goblins at PTQs, and they will definitely Gifts Rock at PTQs. Fortier had a Counterbalance that actually countered things in his match against Tine Rus and Gifts Rock in the Top 8… but it only happened in the first of the five games they played.
Last week, Patrick Chapin struck a chord with me when he wrote the following, nearly all of which I agree with. “What are the best decks? Dredge is the best graveyard deck. It takes it the farthest. Best non-graveyard combo? Ideal. Best linear aggro? Affinity. Best non-linear aggro? Domain Zoo. Best controlling deck? Counterbalance. Best fair deck? Rock or B/G or whatever.”
As I see it, Counterbalance does not necessarily underlie the best control strategy. It’s certainly one of the best tools available to a control deck, but there are so many decks in the format that do not care about it (and the Pairings Gods do not care one whit about whether or not these decks are good enough to win a PTQ), I reject the idea that the best control deck in the format must finish with it.
Certainly, any deck with Counterbalance and Sensei’s Divining Top gets exceptional value out of locking a vulnerable opponent out of a stable late game. It’s a reliable way to finish a game in a world where creature-based finishers of comparable cost die to everything from Tribal Flames to Vindicate and Putrefy, and often can’t race the opponent’s topdecks besides.
However, other control decks finish reliably in other ways – Tron has the Slaver lock, Sundering Titan, Decree of Justice, and so on, for example. The real test of whether Counterbalance is the best way endgame for a control deck is how reliably the decks surrounding the Counterbalances get to the stable late game where the Counterbalances can take over (Plan A), and how well the decks do when they fail to draw Counterbalance, encounter an opponent who does not care about Counterbalance, or have their Counterbalance removed (Plan B).
Next Level Blue is a good example of a Counterbalance deck I can get behind, but not because of the Counterbalances as much the deck’s power level when it isn’t leaning on a Counterbalance to win – in other words, how the Flow deck performed when it couldn’t just devastate the opponent with an early Flow, Trinket Mage, or the like.
In many ways, Next Level Blue resembles the Psychatog lists of old, but with Goyfs instead of Togs. I played Tog with Vedalken Shackles back in the day, and I remember vividly that resolving and defending a Shackles took down a staggering array of creature-based strategies. Next Level plays to maximize that strategy, disrupting the opponent with countermagic, Repeal, Explosives, and Living Wish, locating Shackles with the multitude of search effects and cantrips in the deck, and then defending it with the usual Blue cards. Against a deck that does not fold to Counterbalance, Next Level plays the role of a serious control deck, and plays it well. It will win plenty of games off Tarmogoyf beatdown plus counters, or Living Wish for a well-timed hoser, or even just active Vedalken Shackles against a creature deck.
Compare Patrick’s Next Level Blue to his Elf Opposition deck from last week. The comparison is not entirely fair, as Patrick explicitly noted that the Elf deck is experimental, and has not yet been tuned for tournament play, but the difference between the two decks is fundamental enough that I don’t think tuning will have much of an impact on this comparison.
When Next Level doesn’t have Shackles yet, or needs to buy time to set up Counterbalance against a vulnerable foe, it falls back on a very strong control strategy. When Elf Opposition doesn’t have Opposition yet, or needs to buy time to set up Counterbalance, it falls back on… well, Elves. As Patrick said, the best linear deck is Affinity. Second-best is Goblins, and there’s a pretty substantial drop-off between the two. I don’t know if Elves is the third-best, but if so, it’s a lot less powerful than Goblins – even if it does support Opposition better – and Goblins are pretty far down the totem pole this season.
The two most powerful cards in the Elf deck have got to be Counterbalance and Opposition. Sensei’s Divining Top is surely third, but what’s the fourth-most powerful? Man. Imperious Perfect? Wren’s Run Vanquisher? Holy Preconstructed Deck.
Again, compare to Next Level Blue. The two most powerful cards are clearly flagships Counterbalance and Vedalken Shackles, but what’s third? Not Divining Top, certainly – this deck’s far more powered than that. Tarmogoyf is a good candidate, though there’s a case for Living Wish as well. After those comes a lineup of some of the most fantastic support cards in the entire format. Engineered Explosives. Thirst for Knowledge. Ponder. Repeal. Top. Counterspell. Elves are susceptible to disruption (kill your Symbiote. Nice Coiling Oracle and Wirewood Hivemaster) and irrelevance (nice… array of 1/1s. Crack Lotus Bloom for Enduring Ideal.), but Counterspell will always be dependable old Counterspell.
Both decks aspire to soft locks with Counterbalance and then either Shackles or Opposition, but although Opposition is more versatile – being able to attack both lands and creatures – the whole deck pays the price for the capacity to have that enchantment as its Plan A. While Shackles can’t tap lands, it is free to surround itself with a wealth of amazing support cards rather than a forced host of underpowered Elves.
Opposition skews the power level of your deck towards one card – one which is just as vulnerable to Krosan Grip as alternative powerhouses such as Shackles – and asks, in sacrifice, the power level of the remainder of your deck. In order for it to be good, you must put so many eggs in the Opposition basket, your Plan A will inevitably be to resolve Opposition and ride it to victory, while your Plan B will be something in the realm of Standard or possibly even Block Constructed in terms of power level.
Plan A might work great when the stars align, but as surely as you’ll suffer mana-light and mana-flooded hands in that next PTQ of yours, you also won’t have Opposition every game, and the opponent won’t always care about a four-mana enchantment. (The cards Breakthrough and Golgari Grave-Troll come to mind, to say nothing of Duress and Cabal Therapy.)
Patrick said “Opposition is a very powerful fundamental strategy that is not seeing the kind of play that it deserves.” I disagree; I see building around Opposition as a trap. Even if you don’t surround it with Elves, you still have to pair it with a ton of creatures for it to work – and it’s tough to find enough worthwhile creatures in Extended to properly fuel Opposition within one list. The only way to avoid the trap of building around it is to find a deck which is powerful without Opposition – that is, one that has a Plan A that has nothing to do with the enchantment – and to then supercharge that deck by working in the mass tapper.
I think a lot of the reason Next Level Blue has been testing so well for so many people is that, fundamentally, it’s a good control deck that has been supercharged by Counterbalance rather than a deck built around Counterbalance without a solid deck underlying it.
Tron’s Plan B
Compare Next Level Blue’s Plan A to Tenacious Tron’s Plan A. Tron also disrupts you with counters, Explosives, Repeals, Wraths, and so on – and then Mindslaver locks you. Or, if that would take too long, drops Sundering Titan with Academy Ruins backup. Instead of a soft Counterbalance lock, there’s an actual hard lock. They don’t make locks any harder than the Mindslaver lock. That makes it a more reliable finisher, but it’s also disrutped by a different set of cards (Academy Ruins removal and graveyard hate instead of enchantment destruction) and is considerably more time-consuming to set up.
Still, Tenacious Tron’s Plan A against a lot of decks is to shut down large chunks of their deck with Chalice of the Void and then to achieve inevitability via the Mindslaver lock. What if they don’t care about losing all their one-drops or two-drops on turn 2 or 4? What if there’s no time to set up the Mindslaver lock? What if they’re playing Adrian Sullivan Miser Rock deck and cast the maindeck Extirpate in response to the Slaver activation? Like Next Level Blue trying to close the deal against a Beasts deck, it’s time for Plan B.
Tron’s Plan B is to simply disrupt the opponent (via countermagic, Wrath, Explosives, and all that good stuff) until the Urzatron comes online and universally broken things like Sundering Titan (with or without Academy Ruins), Decree of Justice, and Platinum Angel come into the picture. When it gets lucky, Tron starts doing these broken things as early as turn 3, shrugging off the fact that the opponent has dodged Plan A by comboing out with a powerful Plan B and ending the game before the opponent has a chance to get his footing.
In one PTQ match against last year’s Opposition deck, I Remanded an opponent’s turn 3 Opposition, then played Sundering Titan on turn 4. Boom. Out of the game. Later in that same tournament, I was playing for Top 8 against a heavily anti-control Rock deck that thought he had set up inevitability with Genesis after my Mindslavers had been removed… until I cast Gifts for recurring Titan. Boom. Vedalken Shackles is a powerful card, but things like Platinum Angel with counter backup and recurring Sundering Titan turn games around against all sorts of strategies, not just creature decks.
A Counterbalance deck is necessarily full of two-drops in order to abuse its namesake enchantment. There are a lot of two-cost cards that can come together for a solid Plan B, but when Tron encounters a largely Chalice-proof list, or one that renders the Mindslaver endgame untenable, it is brimming with facesmashery to fall back on.
My single objection to Patrick’s list of archetype all-stars is the same one that poster Melbourne_junkie raised on the forums, regarding Counterbalance as the best control strategy. “Better than Tron… ?” he asked, and I echo it. I’m not necessarily sold on Counterbalance as the best Plan A – compared to Chalice, Mindslaver, and such – but I certainly like Tron’s Plan B better against the environment as a whole. True, Tron is a lot more vulnerable to Gaddock Teeg than Counterbalance decks are, but it is a lot easier to tweak a deck to be able to handle a 2/2 than it is to make it suddenly powerful against a wide variety of opponents.
So if you’re sold on a Counterbalance deck for this PTQ season, make sure it’s fundamentally powerful. If you’re sold on a metagame deck, make sure it can do something broken when it isn’t paired against the matchups you anticipate. Don’t get so focused on honing your Plan A that you end up with a deck that trips you up when Plan A unexpectedly doesn’t come together.
Having a good Plan B is fundamental to a deck’s success in a wide-open environment, and after the experience I had with Four Color Flow, I’ve learned better than to rely on Plan A to carry me through the PTQs.
See you next week, and happy new year!
PS: U/W Tron players who live in fear of Gaddock Teeg can go black, sacrifice Decree of Justice – the only truly important White card – and add Slaughter Pact to the main for Tolaria West purposes. Smother is one of the best available sideboard for that archetype, so might as well pick it up while you’re at it. I might try a Bringer of the Black Dawn to make up for the loss of Decree, but I make no promises. That guy dies to Tribal Flames and Vindicate and stuff, even if he does probably make you win if you untap with him.
By the way, I’ve heard a rumor that Zac and I stole Tenacious Tron from the Japanese. To whoever started it, I would like to thank you for paying us one of the greatest compliments a deckbuilder could hope to receive!