Innovations – Counterbalance-Flash in Vintage

Read Patrick Chapin every Monday... at StarCityGames.com!Monday, March 10th – Patrick Chapin, it seems, is in love with Counterbalance. Not content with shaping the Extended metagame with Next Level Blue, or watching Threshold take the little Blue enchantment and run to the hills, The Innovator is determined to see it played in every format available. Today, he squeezes the Coldsnap control staple into Vintage Flash, with surprising and promising results…

This week I return to Vintage with a brew I came up with today while hanging out with Luis Scott-Vargas (in town testing for the Grand Prix) and Brian DeMars. They were battling Vintage, with LSV on Gush-Long and DeMars on Counterbalance-Slaver.

The games went back and forth, but were tons of fun to watch. LSV let me play a couple with his pimped-out combo deck, but I quickly realized that every turn I don’t cast Flash when I legally could have is a wasted opportunity.

I decided to mix it up a little and try out a Counterbalance package in my Flash deck. Some of the shell is a derivative of the Flash deck Owen Turtenwald and I have been working on. This includes the Hulk package now made famous in extended Bubble-Hulk, which is far superior to the Sliver kill, as I will detail below.

Here is what I played.

To begin with, you will notice 3 Sensei’s Divining Tops. These not only enable the Counterbalance lock, but also work as a sort of Brainstorm every turn. Seeing as Brainstorm is just about the best card in the deck, this is a pretty good deal. Between fetchlands, Merchant Scrolls, and other Tutors, you have plenty of shufflers to ensure continual new looks at the top of your library.

It cannot be stressed enough how much the Top allows you to sculpt the perfect hand against GAT or Drain decks. If you can get it to stick, you can almost get a mini-tutor every turn until you are pretty sure your opponent won’t be able to stop your onslaught. It is also nice that it allows you to Mystical or Vamp and then draw the card immediately. Finally, it is very common in this deck to have extra colorless mana as a result of off-color Moxes. What better way to spend it could you possibly ask for?

I made room for the three Tops by shaving a Merchant Scroll and two Summoner’s Pacts. The library manipulation provided by Top makes up for the lessening of tutor capabilities.

There are only two Counterbalances, as the lock is not your main plan. It is merely a better way to disrupt people than Thoughtseize or Misdirection. I actually cut the two Thoughtseizes I was playing to make room for the Counterbalances.

Aside from the Top-Counterbalance combo that acts as a Chalice on 1, 2, and 3 on your opponent, as in Extended, there are actually some fantastic other synergies to look for. First of all, one can take a page from the Legacy playbook and Brainstorm with Counterbalance in play, serving as a super Dismiss for a single mana.

Mystical Tutor and Vampiric Tutor become insane with Counterbalance in play. I am somewhat concerned about not having a three maindeck, but so far it has not cost me. It is worth considering a stronger Counterbalance package, increasing the Counterbalance count as well as increasing the count of cards that manipulate the top of library. Lim-Dul’s Vault or Worldly Tutor might be interesting.

The Bubble-Hulk kill is superior to the Sliver kill for a variety of reasons. First of all, Sliver beatdown is decent, but Mogg Fanatic, Body Snatcher, Body Double and Reveillark are all decent in the right contexts. Carrion Feeder is the weak link, but he is not much worse than Heart Sliver.

Also, now you don’t need an attack phase to kill, so you can win at instant speed, such as when an opponent cracks a fetch land or in response to a Pact Trigger killing you. This opens up the door to such plays as Merchant Scroll for Flash turn 1. Then Pact of Negation their Trinisphere or Necropotence or whatever. Then Flash on upkeep in response to the Pact trigger.

This greatly increases the value of the already amazing Pact of Negations. Being able to randomly Pact anything, even a Duress, is incredible.

For those out of the loop, the Bubble-Hulk kill goes as follows:

1. Flash a Hulk.
2. Search for a Body Snatcher, Carrion Feeder, and Mogg Fanatic.
3. Discard whichever piece of the combo you may have in your hand to Body Snatcher (if Snatcher is the piece in your hand, just skip straight to Body Double and get the Fanatic when you get Reveillark).
4. Sacrifice Body Snatcher to Carrion Feeder to get back Hulk.
5. Sacrifice Hulk to Carrion Feeder to get Body Double.
6. Sacrifice Body Double copying Hulk to Carrion Feeder to get Reveillark.
7. Sacrifice Mogg Fanatic to deal 1 damage to opponent.
8. Sacrifice Reveillark to Carrion Feeder to get back Body Double and Mogg Fanatic.
9. Sacrifice Mogg Fanatic to deal 1 damage to opponent.
10. Sacrifice Body Double copying Reveillark to Carrion Feeder to get back Body Double and Mogg Fanatic.
11. Repeat steps 9 and 10 until you win.

This combo is vulnerable to Tormod’s Crypt, unlike the Sliver Kill. However, all Tormod’s Crypt usually does is prevent you from winning that turn, which matters with Pacts. Usually if one player plays a Crypt it plays out like this:

Enemy: Tormod’s Crypt

Hero: Flash Hulk. If they don’t respond to Hulk Trigger, we get a Body Double copying Hulk and a Carrion Feeder. Now they can’t Crypt us or we win in response. Meanwhile, we have 7 power worth of creatures on the board and the ability to produce Reveillark, Body Snatcher, or Mogg Fanatic at instant speed.

If they Crypt us in response to the Hulk Trigger, we get Reveillark and Carrion Feeder or Mogg Fanatic, or we get Body Snatcher, Carrion Feeder, and Mogg Fanatic. Either way, that is a solid clock.

Still, the increased vulnerability to Tormod’s Crypt is by far worth the value added by being able to kill at instant speed. I can’t tell you how many games I win by Flashing in response to a fetchland or a Thirst for Knowledge.

The Sliver kill was always a nice option, but there are tactics available to the Bubble-Hulk style, such as Fanatic against Dredge or Welder.

Body Double is a Blue card to pitch to Force of Will if you are desperate, or an interesting beater in the right situation. Reveillark is usually a bad Air Elemental, but sometimes a great one.

Body Snatcher is interesting in that he can allow you to put a Hulk in your graveyard to power up your Body Double or to threaten to bring back by blocking an opponent’s Juggernaut. Also, sometimes you just randomly Body Snatcher plus Carrion Feeder and go off without Flashing.

I was asked last night how I would beat a Mogg Fanatic from a Goblin player.
Well, one Fanatic is easy. You just go off like normal, except that you sac your Fanatic to your Carrion Feeder first. If they shoot your guy in response you can sac your Body Snatcher. If they don’t, your guy will be a 2/2.

So how do you beat double Fanatic?

Goblins: Land, Ruby, Mogg Fanatic, Mogg Fanatic

Hero: Flash Hulk, go get Body Double copying Hulk and Carrion Feeder. Unless there is a compelling reason to act, you can say go here. You have a 6/6 and a Carrion Feeder. What are they gonna do? If they try to kill your Carrion Feeder it is the same as if you try to go off yourself, except that they force the issue, but lose a second Fanatic.

Let’s say you are looking at some serious pressure though, and a 6/6 and a 1/1 is not enough. Well, you can sacrifice the Body Double to get a Reveillark and a Fanatic. They will cash in a Fanatic to kill your Feeder, but now you have a Reveillark and a Fanatic. If your Reveillark ever dies, you will get back Body double and Carrion Feeder and go off immediately.

That means that against double Fanatic, a Flashed Hulk will produce a 6/6 and a 1/1 and the ability to instantly produce a Mogg Fanatic and a Reveillark that will auto-win if it ever dies. This makes it very hard on a Goblin player, as it is tough for they to win in a single hit. You can even attack with the Hulk and if they counter-attack, sac it to Feeder to get the Reveillark to block with.

I am not convinced that Counterbalance is the right direction to take Flash, but it is an interesting step in mixing up Flash’s playbook. In my testing with LSV and DeMars, I found that my win percentage against Slaver was helped by the addition, whereas I think my Gush-Long Match-up suffered a little.

It is possible that the Tops should be maindeck and that the Counterbalances should be in the board, primarily for GAT and Drain decks. The more I think about it, the more I think that is probably the right direction for the deck.

The only real new addition to the sideboard, Boseiju, is not only great against GAT and Drain decks, it can also be used against Workshop decks as an additional land to fight Wasteland, as well as an answer to Chalice on two.

This is random, but it seems to happen to me all the time. Let’s say you are on the draw. Your opponent plays a land and a Sol Ring and passes. Now you have a turn 1 kill, but would need to Pact. Do you go for it (risking losing to Force of Will) or wait to set your hand up more?

This is where it is so vital to read your opponent. Wait 20 seconds or so until you are well into your turn, without doing anything. Your opponent might get bored and start revealing information. If they have a Force of Will, they will tend to look at their hand a lot. They will look at their hand, then look away, then back to their hand, over and over.

However, if they do not have a Force of Will, most people will do things like look at the top of their library or put their hand down on the table. It is important to watch what notable body language you see from your opponent, then play a spell to see how much strength they had. Then you will have learned information about whether or not the body language you observed was a sign of strength or weakness. Then when you see the same behavior later, you will have a better idea of what to link to it.

Some people always move their face the same way when they have Force of Will. Or they will fidget when they don’t have it. Or they may touch their ear when they do. You have to watch and observe what you can, then find out through experience what it meant. If they touch their ear when they had Force of Will game 1, but didn’t touch their ear game 2 (turning out to not have it), when you see them touch their ear again in game 3 you should be mindful of opening yourself up to Force.

Also, when your opponent Force of Wills they may play the Force of Will immediately, but not remove a Blue card until after much deliberation. This is usually a very good tell that they have another Blue card in their hand, usually of comparable power level to the one they remove. However, if they remove a card immediately, it is often a good indicator that that was clearly the only choice to remove.

Sorry if this type of stuff is obvious to you, but Flores says I should point this stuff out more often.

For reference, here is LSV’s Gush Long deck designed by Previous Level Blue creator Eric Becker.

I asked LSV for his thoughts on Vintage these days, as he is well known for being more attuned to the format than most Pros.

LSV: I like the current format. There are a lot of good, interesting strategies and cards. Gush becoming unrestricted surprisingly turned out really well. Storm, GAT, TyrantOath, Flash, Mono-R Workshop, and Dredge are all Tier 1 strategies.

I would like to see Gifts Ungiven and Fact or Fiction unrestricted. Drain decks are already underpowered now, and I think that with all the Gushes and Spheres floating around there would not be big problems with letting people play these expensive card drawers.

Wish me luck at the GP this weekend guys! By the way, I would totally ship you guys my list if I knew what I was playing. Right now I am torn between Next Level Blue, some sort of Chase Rare variant, and a bad but fun five-color control deck.

See you guys next week.

Patrick Chapin
“The Innovator”