Ideas Unbound – Legacy: Zoo versus Counterbalance

Grand Prix GP Columbus July 30-August 1, 2010
Wednesday, July 21st – With Grand Prix: Columbus on the horizon, I imagine that a lot of people turning to pick up a Legacy deck will gravitate towards Zoo decks and Counterbalance decks somewhat reminiscent of Extended decks of old. I want to look deeper into the matchup between Zoo and various incarnations of Counterbalance decks.

With Grand Prix: Columbus on the horizon, I imagine that a lot of people turning to pick up a Legacy deck will gravitate towards Zoo decks and Counterbalance decks somewhat reminiscent of Extended decks of old. I want to look deeper into the matchup between Zoo and various incarnations of Counterbalance decks. In general, I feel that Zoo is a slight favorite, but there are several mitigating factors that can give the edge to Counterbalance, particularly if the Zoo list isn’t built with an eye towards beating the Blue deck and the Blue mage decided that he really wanted to beat Wild Nacatl. It is difficult to write about a matchup where lists can be so different and sideboards can vary wildly; I’ve tried to allow for sideboards being reasonably broad while also including some matchup-specific cards.

Most Zoo lists share similar shells. Twenty-one land, about a dozen burn spells, twenty-three creatures with ten or twelve one-drops, and Path to Exile. There is certainly considerable room for innovation as to which creatures and burn spells to include, but after the creatures, land, and removal, there’s precious little room for further technology. Most Zoo pilots use their last couple of slots to pad their creature or burn count, but some run a couple of copies of Sylvan Library or Umezawa’s Jitte to have a little staying power in the late game. Still, if the other guy leads with Taiga, Wild Nacatl, you probably know at least fifty cards on their list.

Counterbalance decks, however, are all over the map. First, you have to divide Counterbalance lists into the “Thopter Foundry” and “Natural Order” categories — and there are some Counterbalance lists that run neither. Most of the Thopter Foundry lists run Enlightened Tutor; what are their bullets? What creatures are the Natural Order builds running to fuel the Green Tinker? For the decks without Thopter Foundry or Natural Order, what are they running in those slots? Most of the Natural Order lists have Noble Hierarchs, so they can’t run Firespout… but does the Thopter list have Firespout? Does it have more maindeck spot removal spells, instead? Engineered Explosives? What about the permission package? Daze is fairly popular in the Tarmogoyf versions, but it’s less powerful in the long game that the Thopter Foundry lists are working towards. Do they have Daze anyway, or have they gone with Counterspell? What about Spell Snare?

Now you start to see why the short answer to “how is the Counterbalance/Zoo matchup” is basically always “it depends.”

Even in-game, ideal lines can be very dependent on the other guy’s draw. Zoo basically always wants to open on a one-drop and another few creatures, sure, but sometimes the creatures have to go all the way (when, for example, Counterbalance curves Top into Counterbalance) and sometimes the other guy draws all removal and no Counterbalance and you have to close with burn spells.

Still, there are many ways to get an edge with both deck construction and in-game tactics.

Consider a Zoo deck that really wants to beat Counterbalance. Zoo always wants to have a one-drop. Four Wild Nacatl is obligatory, and Grim Lavamancer, though not particularly powerful against Counterbalance, adds so much value in other matchups that you will probably play at least three of them. However, you’d really like to play twelve or more big one-drops. The remaining playable options are Kird Ape, Loam Lion, Steppe Lynx, and Figure of Destiny. Figure of Destiny is pretty bad if you are curving Figure into a two-drop, and if you get Plowed in response to level two you are in pretty bad shape. Steppe Lynx is an interesting option. Lynx is usually good for at least four damage, usually six, and sometimes more, but is usually a miserable draw in the midgame. However, a Lynx that you’ve played on turn 1 is also usually capable of battling through Tarmogoyf and Rhox War Monk in the midgame.

Still, in general, I’m not impressed by Lynx in the matchup. Games tend to go rather long, and you’ll run out of landfall triggers fairly quickly. Further, you occasionally have to landfall at inopportune times simply because you need to use a fetchland to cast a spell. If you play Lynx, get in for eight, you might finish them off with burn spells, or you might run out of land and lose to a Counterbalance. I think that Lion and Ape are both superior to Lynx, and that Lion is superior to Ape because you usually want to be fetching for green and white in the early game, rather than red.

Whenever I play Counterbalance against Zoo and Zoo says “go” on turn 1, I feel like it’s pretty difficult to lose. (Note that Grim Lavamancer is only slightly better than “go”.) Accordingly, I think that Zoo wants at least twelve one-drops, preferably more: Four Wild Nacatl, three Grim Lavamancer, four Loam Lion, two Kird Ape.

There is much less controversy over the two-drops. Four Tarmogoyf is a gimme, and while Qasali Pridemage is strong in virtually every matchup, it is particularly powerful against Counterbalance. Rounding out the animals, three Knight of the Reliquary can make an appearance as a huge threat that is hard to get with Counterbalance and can outclass Tarmogoyf given time. Trying to support four Knights off of twenty-one lands is a bit greedy, so three it is. The alternative three-drop, Woolly Thoctar, is inferior to Knight because Tarmogoyf is frequently a 4/5 in the matchup, so Thoctar simply trades while Knight can beat Tarmogoyf straight up.

The decisions on burn and removal are a little trickier. You want basically the same creature base in Zoo for every matchup, with the exception of Lynx being a little better against combo and significantly worse in any sort of aggressive mirror, so you don’t give up a ton of edge by tweaking your creatures for the Counterbalance matchup. Your choice of burn spells, though, is pretty important in those matchups. You almost have to play four Paths because of Tarmogoyf mirrors, but Path is pretty atrocious against the Thopter Foundry decks. Similarly, Lightning Helix has a lot of value in aggressive mirrors, but the lifegain is almost irrelevant against Counterbalance.

Assuming twenty-one lands, twenty-four creatures, and four Path to Exile, you have eleven spots left over for burn. With such a high creature count, you’re less of a combo deck based around the Philosophy of Fire, and so you want your burn spells to be able to add value beyond simply going to the dome. It’s hard to do that with Fireblast, and if your Fireblast ever gets countered you’ll want to stand in traffic. Lightning Bolt and Chain Lightning are basically mainstays. Price of Progress used to be a devastating trump against greedy manabases, but people have gotten better about building their manabases recently. Most Counterbalance decks have five or more basics and a bunch of fetchlands to get them; a careful Counterbalance player can probably manage to keep Price of Progress damage down to four or so, particularly with Daze. Price of Progress is still crushing against decks like Lands, but it’s utility against Counterbalance is on the decline unless you suspect your opponent is trying to get greedy with a fourth color. Helix might be a better option than Price to ensure that you can always trade a burn spell and a 2/3 for a Tarmogoyf or War Monk if you need to.

There are a few other options for the Zoo builder. Sylvan Library is a source of midgame card advantage, but it’s also quite slow. The tempo sacrifice of playing an early Library is hard to overcome, and it may not be good enough in the lategame when under a Thopter Foundry or locked out by Counterbalance. Umezawa’s Jitte is incredibly powerful in non-Counterbalance matchups, but it’s not particularly strong against Counterbalance except as a slow way of winning a Tarmogoyf standoff.

When building Counterbalance to beat Zoo, you have even more options. Virtually all Counterbalance decks begin with four copies each of Sensei’s Divining Top, Counterbalance, Force of Will, Brainstorm, and Swords to Plowshares. From there, they split into versions that include a Thopter Foundry/Sword of the Meek kill with an Enlightened Tutor engine and versions that include several Green creatures to fuel Natural Order for Progenitus. Other versions play neither engine, and usually include more value cards such as Trinket Mage.

First, consider a Thopter Foundry build. With twenty-two lands and the above spells, forty-two slots are spoken for. The Thopter Foundry deck will probably also feature three or four Enlightened Tutor, along with some silver bullets for the Tutor. Possible bullets include Engineered Explosives, Thopter Foundry, Sword of the Meek, Humility, Moat, Ensnaring Bridge, Crucible of Worlds, Oblivion Ring, Pithing Needle, Tormod’s Crypt, Relic of Progenitus, and so on, but clearly you can’t just play all of those.

A Foundry and a Sword are rather mandatory, and a redundant Foundry goes a long way in games where you can’t find Academy Ruins and get hit by Krosan Grip or Pridemage. Engineered Explosives is a powerful catchall answer to creatures, opposing Counterbalances, and opposing planeswalkers. You probably need a bullet that beats graveyard decks; you’ll probably want Relic over Crypt both because it cycles and because you can randomly get value against Tarmogoyf and Terravore. Most Merfolk decks have at most two answers to Ensnaring Bridge in their maindeck, and it’s also quite powerful against Reanimator. Moat is an option against beatdown decks, but I’ve had a lot of rough experience with playing Moat and being promptly blown out by Qasali Pridemage; I prefer Humility. It’s true that with Humility you need to find some other answer to their creatures eventually, but Humility usually cuts their clock by a third or more, giving you time to find that answer. Pithing Needle is a strong enough value card that you might have to include it against the field, although I’m still not sure if it’s worth a card outside of hitting Aether Vial and Rishadan Port. You could include Oblivion Ring as another catchall, but Engineered Explosives is usually better at doing what you want to do with Ring and is also better with Academy Ruins. Ring’s best attribute is probably that it costs three, but you don’t need to have Ensnaring Bridge in play against any of the decks where you need to be Counterbalancing on three, so, mise.

Assuming a package of four Tutor, two Foundries, one Sword, one Explosives, one Relic, one Needle, one Humility, we’re at fifty-four cards and probably need to add a few more counterspells and an alternative way to win if the Foundry plan doesn’t work out.

Running two copies of Jace, the Mind Sculptor is an attractive backup plan, because not only is Jace a win condition, he also adds tremendous value in virtually every matchup, both as a source of defense and as card advantage.

It merely remains to be seen what to do with the last four slots. Having extra counters is probably desirable in mirror matchups and against combo decks, but Daze, while powerful when playing an early Counterbalance, isn’t as desirable in a deck that is trying to get to the late game as badly as the Thopter version. However, Counterspell isn’t that awesome in a deck with Sensei’s Divining Top, and it’s also pretty vulnerable to Daze and Spell Pierce when you’re on the draw. Spell Snare is very powerful against beatdown strategies, but can only really go after Counterbalance in the mirror. I would probably split the difference and play two of each; drawing two of either Snare or Counterspell early can be pretty bad, but drawing one of either is fine, and they are both reasonable draws in the midgame.

(Note that because Counterbalance isn’t particularly strong until the midgame against most decks, a reasonable argument could be made for cutting down to one Counterbalance as a Tutor bullet and including more cards to shore up beatdown matchups, but that’s probably a topic for a different article.)

Alternatively, you could include a Natural Order package and play more Green creatures, instead. This option is more attractive against Zoo in that most of the Green creatures you want to play (Rhox War Monk) are strong against the animals, but it’s worth noting that they tend to be less powerful against the Daze aggro decks and combo decks. I should also point out that it’s not particularly difficult for Zoo to race a turn four Progenitus, particularly when on the play. I am not nearly as familiar with the Natural Order lists as I am with the Thopter Foundry lists, so I’m going to pull Jim Orr’s deck from the StarCityGames.com Legacy Open in Philadelphia:

(Note that his sideboard is configured for a metagame wherein Mystical Tutor exists.)

Here, the focus is less on the Counterbalance package and more on being a midrange Green deck with some permission. Jitte, in particular, is a notable inclusion. I feel strongly about playing the fourth Top; you always want one Top, you want a second Top in play when you have a Counterbalance lock going, and if you have a Top it’s not like you’ll ever draw a second one unless you want to. Even if you have two Tops in your opening hand, you can cycle them away with a fetchland.

Regardless. Onto actual battling:

Zoo’s gameplan is the same against both versions of Counterbalance: Play men, battle, and burn the other guy out. Some tactical plays are more important in certain matchups than others, though. Against Thopter Foundry, Qasali Pridemage is one of Zoo’s best cards, since it can break through Moat or break up the actual Thopter Foundry combination, but against Natural Order, Pridemage is merely “very good” as it allows Nacatl to break through War Monk as well as keep Jitte offline. Using burn spells on Noble Hierarch is fairly obvious; the Natural Order deck has all of nineteen lands; containing their Hierarchs is very important.

The Thopter Foundry deck will usually have to race either to the combo or to Bridge/Moat/Humility. Because Pridemage is a trump to both plans, reserving a counter or removal spell for it is important, though obviously sometimes you have to burn your last Plow and hope they don’t have the bear in the grip. The Natural Order deck has a few options; containing Zoo’s bigger creatures with Plow and permission while using Rhox War Monk and Jitte to win is a reasonable plan, as is assembling a Natural Order in the midgame. If under heavy pressure, Natural Order will frequently not be good enough, and you’ll want to focus instead on assembling removal spells and multiple War Monks to buy you the time you’ll need.

Both decks would like to assemble Counterbalance against Zoo, but unless you can Brainstorm and set up a turn-two Counterbalance with a two-mana spell on top and a Top in your hand, you’ll usually be behind on the board when you get Counterbalance up and running. That’s fine if you can begin assembling blockers or Thopter Foundry while using Counterbalance to stymie anything else your opponent does, but you’ll probably need to be extraordinarily quick about it.

Having access to Spell Snare is very important when you’re on the draw, as it’s one of the few ways you can contain a Nacatl/Pridemage draw when you don’t have a Plow without resorting to Force of Will. It’s especially strong in the Thopter Foundry versions, because Zoo will rarely want to move in on a triple one-drop draw against a deck that can Tutor for Engineered Explosives. Note that Snare gets worse if you are relying on Noble Hierarch or Ponder to hit your mana; playing Top on turn two or three is usually fine, but having to delay your Hierarch and Ponder can Time Walk you.

Despite how important containing Pridemage is for both Counterbalance decks, usually Swords to Plowshares has to take out Zoo’s one-drop unless you have a Tarmogoyf that you can play and protect to hold the ground.

Academy Ruins is pretty important for the Thopter Foundry deck. Consider playing a second to ensure that you’ll have access to it in the midgame if you need to battle through multiple Pridemages or even just want to set up an Explosives lock.

Zoo players should be more wary of Daze out of the Tarmogoyf builds than the Thopter Foundry builds. Daze is generally better the more two-drops you have because you are less hindered by bouncing a land and because of how powerful it is to play a two and counter your opponent’s. Forcing your Counterbalance opponent to return a land isn’t a particularly bad thing, but you do want to ensure that you don’t just trade your Tarmogoyf for Daze and get locked out of combat by their Tarmogoyf.

Zoo’s Tarmogoyfs are much better than Counterbalance’s. Zoo has burn and exalted creatures to break Tarmogoyf parity, and Counterbalance has basically nothing in return. Counterbalance should try very hard to avoid getting into situations where it has to trade Tarmogoyf for a few life and a burn spell. Grim Lavamancer, while not particularly frightening on turn one, is another powerful card in Tarmogoyf standoffs.

Zoo needs to ensure that it keeps an aggressive hand. Starting on turn 2 with a 1/2 Tarmogoyf is not going to be good enough. Counterbalance has an excellent midgame if it can focus on containing the spells Zoo is playing while not needing to worry about bringing the board back to parity. If you have a Nacatl to generate pressure, on the other hand, Counterbalance will have a lot of things to deal with. You also risk getting Spell Snared right out of the game if you miss your one drop.

Usually, in order for either Counterbalance deck to win, they will need to keep the board close to neutral for as long as possible while setting up Counterbalance and grinding out a long game, or quickly setting up Foundry/Sword or Progenitus before Zoo can start fighting back.

Mechanically, with Counterbalance, avoid using fetchlands in the early game if possible so that you can get more looks with Top, but once you have the lock going, you’ll want to avoid shuffling at all so as to avoid losing the one- and two-mana spells that are locking your opponent out of the game. Similarly, Zoo players will want to test opposing Counterbalances immediately after the opponent shuffles. Try to sandbag Brainstorms in the midgame to help reset Counterbalance after a shuffle.


In general, Zoo has relatively few options for sideboarding against Counterbalance, both because Zoo is the natural favorite against Counterbalance and other Blue decks and because there aren’t many cards that Zoo can bring in to profitably supplement it’s natural strategy. Matt Elias has recently pointed to Choke, but Choke is pretty slow and only tangentially addresses Counterbalance, which is what tends to lock Zoo out of the midgame. Krosan Grip is the obvious answer to Counterbalance, but Grip is pretty miserable if you draw it and don’t have a good target, and drawing two is pretty much the worst. It’s less bad against Thopter Foundry, because they’ll give you a target eventually, but if you let them continue to make land drops and sculpt their hand while Grip rots away in your hand instead of helping pressure them, you’ll be in a bad way.

Red Elemental Blast is a powerful alternative to Grip. It isn’t as good for fighting Counterbalance, but it’s nearly as strong as Grip against Thopter Foundry, and you can also use it to fight back against Spell Snare or disrupt opposing Brainstorms or even get a Rhox War Monk. Red Blast is also an attractive card against the combo decks. The first two Grips are better than Blasts against Counterbalance, but if you need to pick up some sideboard slots, Red Blast is a good way to do it. I like the first Blast over the third Grip so that you don’t run into situations where you have reactive cards with no targets as often.

Price of Progress is quite strong if you think your opponent will be on four or more colors after boarding (say, with a Firespout plan in addition to Tarmogoyf) because instead of playing one dual land early and fetching up basics, they’ll probably have to play an early dual to have access to Plow, and then have to fetch up their fourth color to cast whatever sideboard card they have. Now you have Flame Rift, and if they ever draw another dual or an Academy Ruins, your Prices become quite attractive.

As far as making cuts, the three-mana burn spells, while serviceable, aren’t super exciting. Lightning Helix is generally worse than Chain Lightning, because you’ll usually want to play Chain Lightning plus another spell on the same turn, and Helix being an instant is rarely relevant. They can Snare it, too. Grim Lavamancer isn’t that sweet on turn one, but he’s still a solid source of damage in the midgame and is strong against any creature-based plan they’ve sideboarded in; leave him in. You can usually cut Path to Exile against the Thopter Foundry decks, but be prepared to bring them back in if they have any sort of transformational plan.

(A note that is neither here nor there: A single Wasteland in the sideboard of Zoo decks to Knight up and kill Glacial Chasm with seems awesome. Why hasn’t that been happening? I get that Bog does similar things, but if Lands has Orb and Manabond going, they may never need to yard their Chasm, and while they might have two in their deck, they’ll rarely have two in play.)

The Counterbalance decks have considerably more options in their sideboards. Bringing in four copies of Path to Exile to supplement their Swords to Plowshares goes a long way towards keeping the early game under control. Alternatively, Firespout can be splashed as a way to reset the board on turn three while saving your Plows for Tarmogoyf and Knight of the Reliquary. Blue Elemental Blast is another option, although it’s not particularly strong except for fighting burn spells. One option that Kyle Boddy has been recently trumpeting is playing Descendant of Kiyomaro, particularly out of the Thopter Foundry decks that Zoo players will probably cut Paths against, though Descendant isn’t as strong against Merfolk and other Daze aggro decks.

The Foundry decks can start their sideboarding by cutting any bullets they have that aren’t good against Zoo, and if you’re bringing in Path to Exile you’ll usually want to cut Daze, but after that I usually start axing Force of Will to make room. The matchup frequently has an attrition-based endgame, and actively two-for-one-ing yourself isn’t that sweet when you aren’t doing something brutal in the meantime, especially since you usually have to pitch something like Rhox War Monk. Force is important in game one because it’s an answer to early threats, but it’s not a good one.

How Counterbalance wants to play post-board depends on how exactly they’ve sideboarded. If the Counterbalance deck brought in Paths and is on a plan revolving around one-for-one removal, they’ve usually got to burn their removal aggressively to keep their head above water and get into the midgame in a situation where they can set up Foundry or Natural Order. Usually, the one-for-one plan is better out of Tarmogoyf versions, because with Tarmogoyf in play Counterbalance can take more advantage of Zoo’s empty board. Conversely, the Thopter Foundry versions may move towards a Firespout version to focus on staying ahead on cards. That requires taking a little more damage in early turns, but rewards the Foundry deck in the midgame. Still, doing so requires drawing the right answers at the right time; drawing all Firespouts when your opponent is all Tarmogoyfs and Knights is pretty unfortunate.

As far as the tension between Krosan Grip and Counterbalance goes, usually the Counterbalance player will want to keep a three on top during their turn to fight end step Grips, and usually the Zoo player will want to upkeep the Grip after Counterbalance has Topped. In game one, it’s not important for Counterbalance to assemble multiple enchantments, but after boarding doing so is quite strong to fight Grip.

Once Zoo believes that Counterbalance is on a Firespout plan, Zoo will be forced into an uneasy situation wherein Zoo will want to ensure that it exerts sufficient pressure on Counterbalance that Counterbalance doesn’t get a bunch of extra draw steps, but where Zoo wants to avoid being blown out by losing several cards to a Firespout. Ideally, Zoo will be able to team up a Firespout-proof creature with a Kird Ape, but most Counterbalance players will focus their removal on those creatures and force Zoo to commit multiple small creatures to the board. Usually, having four or five damage going every turn is a sufficient clock to force Counterbalance to pull the trigger, but Zoo might have to play even more creatures than that if the board is stalling or Thopter Foundry is in play. Note that if Zoo doesn’t have enough creatures to form any sort of second wave that it is best to try to overwhelm Counterbalance before they draw a Firespout.

Aside from the above, there are relatively few tactical changes after sideboarding; most of the matchup dynamics remain the same.

Against most configurations of Counterbalance, Zoo is a moderate favorite in game one, but a strong sideboard can easily swing the matchup into Counterbalance’s favor. I expect this matchup to be played out many times in Columbus; you’ll want to make sure that you’ve tested enough to be aware of the common lines and have a handle on your sideboarding. Good luck in Columbus.

Max McCall
max dot mccall at gmail dot com