Grand Prix: Columbus is upon us. I couldn’t be more excited. It’s going to be a hectic couple of weeks, with GP: Columbus and then GenCon (both the Vintage and Legacy Champs) the following weekend. I haven’t been to GenCon in three years. Last year I couldn’t attend on account of my sister’s wedding, and the year before I skipped it because the Vintage Championship was featured at U.S. Nationals. I’ve got an insane Vintage brew ready for GenCon, so I’m looking forward to making another run at the title.
From this vantage point, I wouldn’t change a thing about the GP metagame prediction I offered a few weeks ago. I’ve heard rumblings about Aluren tearing up MTGO (and I wouldn’t be surprised if Chapin is reviving the Aluren bandwagon again), a new Iggy Pop list abusing Preordain, Show and Tell variants, Hypergenesis, Doomsday Combo, with Landstill getting more than its fair share of attention, and Enchantress getting a lot of grapevine buzz from players I respect. The trend in the format, oddly enough, seems to be creatureless control decks. And I’m not talking about Landstill. CounterTop Thopter is just the tip of that iceberg; Enchantress is another.
The cautionary word I have for you is not to get swept up in the rumor mill. My predictions were based on solid longitudinal data, and none of the rumors I’ve heard make me question those stats. In fact, while the rumors swirl about us, I’m confident that when the decklists are finally submitted and the GP begins, it will look very much like the metagame I predicted. At times like this, Magic players like to entertain their options and explore all of the intriguing possibilities offered by the format. But as the GP comes closer and closer, testing will reveal flaws or weaknesses in many of these strategies, and players will revert back to tried and tested strategies.
GP Madrid held no big surprises in the sense that virtually every archetype present was known beforehand. The difference was that GP Madrid (and SCG Richmond the same weekend) marked a breakout tournament for a few previously-marginal archetypes. With Mystical Tutor banned, I expect that this GP could likewise trigger such a shift. It’s not that I expect new archetypes to emerge, but a few rogue options could ascend into the top tier.
Last week I examined the Merfolk versus Goblins matchup. Merfolk and Goblins both posted two players in the top five of the last StarCityGames.com Legacy Open, and both archetypes should be in the Top 6 most popular archetypes at the GP. The purpose of the article was not to determine which archetype is favored in the matchup (an examination of one game could not do that), but to explore the decision-making processes that confront each archetype. That’s why I include polls, to get players to consider the options, select an option, and then open their minds to alternatives they may not have considered, in the hopes of educating, enlightening, and entertaining. While the most memorable moments arise when the obvious or the intuitive play is actually the wrong play, the deepest learning occurs when we examine options without clear answers. Last week’s article had several such situations, including Goblins turn 3 and 4 plays. I disagree with Sean McKeown that the best turn 3 play for Goblins is Piledriver #2, rather than Goblin Matron. I also disagree with Cedric Phillips that the correct play for Merfolk on turn 2 is double Cursecatcher, rather than Lord of Atlantis. However, evaluating each of these options proved very complicated, as my analysis in the forums illustrated. The debate over the turn 4 sequence has been the most intriguing of all, since there are four solid Goblin options, and while the differences are quite stark, they all appear to be great choices. Engaging these possibilities generates the deepest analysis, and produces the greatest learning. Even if we get it wrong, our understanding grows, and our game improves.
In my final article published before the GP, I want to take a look at two very hot options: CounterTop Thopter and a reconstituted Reanimator. CounterTop-Thopter won the last StarCityGames.com Legacy Open. And a very familiar Reanimator list placed 3rd in a large European tournament, a model for the GP.
Take a look at the list that Josh Guibalt used to win the SCG St. Louis Legacy Open:
According to my teammate and friend Doug Linn, Josh ported this built from MTGO online, where my teammate Steve O'Connell pioneered this approach in Legacy.
I’ve been playing CounterTop for a long time in Legacy, and when I started playing around with this deck, I was really impressed. It felt totally different from every CounterTop list I’d tried. This deck uses Enlightened Tutor as abusively as ANT or Reanimator used Mystical Tutor, largely because of its interaction with Counterbalance. What’s really intriguing about the deck is the fact that it’s apparently so strong versus aggro decks. During the Top 8, Josh claimed that he doesn’t lose to decks with creatures in them, and proved it by beating Merfolk, Goblins, etc. While Landstill pilots often make such claims, the CounterTop Thopter actually did it. A Blue control deck with solid matchups against creatures decks is naturally well positioned in this format.
Beyond the solid aggro matchups, there are a couple of other things that really impress me about this deck. First, the deck has an amazing manabase. Even the Black splash versions that Gerry Thompson has been advocating have a rock solid manabase. This deck can just run out basics indefinitely, and never needs to rely on a dual land. That’s a first for a CounterTop deck. Having such a basic heavy manabase provides another key defense against the format, and all of the decks that exploit manabase vulnerability. Second, Enlightened Tutor gives this deck a toolbox suite. Cards like Moat, Oblivion Ring, Engineered Explosives, Tormod’s Crypt, Counterbalance, etc provide an answer for almost every situation. The answers are so efficient that the toolbox actually works on a realistic time frame. But then Enlightened Tutor assembles the combo to win the game. Third, Counterbalance is near impenetrable, when managed well. Enlightened Tutor gives Counterbalance a new oomph, and sustainability, at a much wider range of mana costs. Crucible and Oblivion Ring sit at 3, and Moat sits at 4, as do the double Jaces (which, of course, can’t be Enlightened Tutored). Finally, this deck has inevitability out the wazoo. The Sword of the Meek/Thopter Foundry combo not only generates creatures faster than Sacred Mesa, it generates life at the same time, making it doubly defensive, and nearly impossible for an opponent to overwhelm you. It’s a great deck, and I expect it to do very well at the GP.
Perhaps the most disconcerting aspect of the deck is how innocuous, if not weak, opening hands with the deck appear. This deck will open with hands that look downright suboptimal, but then morph into a dominant position within just a couple of turns. This makes mulligan decisions with the deck particularly challenging.
Let me show you what I mean. Here are a few sample hands I drew:
Sample Hand 1:
Sensei’s Divining Top
Assume you sat down round one, and you have no idea what your opponent is playing. You draw this hand.
The obvious problem with this hand is the lack of mana, and Blue mana in particular. The main question posed by this hand is whether you have faith that you’ll see another mana source in your top 4 cards.
In terms of other reasons to mulligan this hand, Counterspell and Counterbalance are a nombo, particularly this early in the game. Some of those cards are just blanks to shuffle back with Brainstorm, assuming you can even play a Brainstorm in the next few turns. Another way of looking at this question is to ask is whether a hand of six with the possibility of more immediately useful cards is better than having 7 cards with a few blanks here, assuming, of course, you believe you’ll see a Blue mana source when you Top. How much do you weight the presence of an additional card in your hand, especially in decks that run Brainstorm?
In terms of reasons to keep this hand, another card that could be seen with top or drawn is Enlightened Tutor. An Enlightened Tutor on top or near the top can help you shuffle your library, increasing your chances of seeing Blue mana by accessing new cards. Granted, that takes up more time, but it does increase the odds that you will be able to find a Blue source.
If you voted to mulligan this hand, I can’t blame you. Counterbalance can’t be cast for at least three turns, and there’s a good chance it will take longer than that to find a second Blue mana source. I would probably mulligan this hand, but if I were on the draw, I might be inclined to keep it. I’m interested to see what the poll results indicate.
Sample Hand 2:
Swords to Plowshares
Sensei’s Divining Top
Again, assume you are against a random opponent and you don’t know what they are playing.
There are several features to this hand that I want to point out. First of all, while this hand has mana, the mana is actually bad. You have three White spells, but your fetchland can’t find a Plains, except for Tundra. This hand could lose to a Wasteland deck.
The other feature that’s interesting about this hand is how tutor-heavy it is. Despite having Counterbalance, it’s not a very controlling hand. If you are facing a matchup where your silver bullets are very powerful, then the toolbox package here is great. Getting your Counterbalance countered, though, will be a huge tempo loss, as it will be at least two more turns before you can tutor up and play another. I’d probably keep this hand, though.
Sample Hand 3:
Force of Will
Force of Will
Crucible of Worlds
Another hand with awkward mana. This hand poses a fundamental question that many Legacy players have to deal with: do you keep a one land (let alone a Fetchland) hand with Brainstorm? While many would answer affirmatively, I think the correct answer is: It depends.
When playing Bant CounterTop, I generally keep one land hands with either Ponder or Brainstorm. My general rule of thumb is to wait one turn to play Brainstorm, so that you see one more draw step. Thus, if I’m on the play, I’ll play Brainstorm on turn 2, after I’ve drawn my card for the turn. That’s a rule of thumb I developed from years and years of playing with Brainstorm + Fetchlands in Vintage, and have applied pretty consistently in Legacy. Thus, I would probably keep this hand, unless I knew I was in a particular matchup where I wanted the assurance of having more lands in hand.
All mulligan decisions generally pose this question: is a 6 card hand likely to be better than this hand? The features of this hand are genuinely mixed on this question. The Oblivion Ring and Crucible are top of the curve silver bullets, as part of your toolbox. They are great in some matchups, and miserable in others. In that respect, probably one of those is just a blank, a placeholder to shuffle back when you play Brainstorm. On the flip side, this hand has double Force of Will, and two Blue spells, making it more attractive, in my view.
I don’t know if there is a right or wrong answer to these questions, and even if there is, it’s enormously complicated to calculate. Calculating optimal hands on the play against an unknown opponent would require some sort of comprehensive metagame assessment, which may, in itself, be unknowable before a tournament, making the answers to these questions unknowable as well. What matters here is the reasoning process, and the considerations brought to bear.
Only a few days after Mystical Tutor was officially banned, this list placed third at a large European Legacy tournament:
- 1 Blazing Archon
- 1 Inkwell Leviathan
- 1 Sphinx of the Steel Wind
- 2 Iona, Shield of Emeria
- 1 Terastodon
- 1 It That Betrays
While I like the look of Matt Elias Reanimator, this list is a proven winner. The key here is that the banning of Mystical Tutor hasn’t actually changed many fundamentals of Reanimator: you still have the same 8 ways to get a creature into the graveyard (4 Entomb and 4 Careful Study), and you still have access to the same 8 Reanimation spells (4 Reanimate and 4 Exhume), although Alex cut a Reanimate.
The main difference is the use of Personal Tutor in lieu of Mystical Tutor. Personal Tutor can still tutor up many of the cards that Mystical found, such as Show and Tell and Reanimator/Exhume, and disruption like Thoughtseize. The most significant addition is the inclusion of Turbulent Dreams, another discard outlet for additional versatility.
Because of M11 being released in the interim, I cut Blazing Archon for Stormtide Leviathan, the only change I made to the deck. Blazing Archon is better against Merfolk, but I like Stormtide Leviathan against the rest of the field.
CounterTop versus Reanimator
CounterTop Thopter won the die roll, and elected to play first.
CounterTop opened this hand:
Force of Will
Force of Will
Sensei’s Divining Top
This hand has a healthy mixture of mana and spells. It also has disruption and draw, so that this hand can potentially stop an early Reanimate, and has the means to dig deeper into the deck. The Top should be allow the CounterTop player to maximize the use of multiple Force of Wills, by bumping blue spells to the top of the deck.
In this matchup, the CounterTop Thopter deck is the control deck. Its primary objective is to stop Reanimator from Reanimating/Exhuming large monsters. Assembling CounterTop is a top priority (no pun intended) in pursuit of that objective, as it can prevent multiple copies of Exhume or Reanimate from resolving, and it can’t be countered by conventional means. Any creatures that slip through can be destroyed with Swords to Plowshares, except for Inkwell Leviathan and Iona naming White. Iona on white not only shuts down most of the decks removal, but it also prevents the CounterTop player from eventually winning with Thopter Foundry. However, if Iona resolves, the CounterTop player can still win by using Jace to bounce Iona, if he/she can find and resolve Jace before losing. Jace is another key trump in this matchup, and an alternative win condition. However, Jace can’t stop Inkwell Leviathan, which is also deadly here. If Inkwell hits the board, there is almost nothing the CounterTop pilot can do about it except race or find and resolve Moat.
This hand seems well suited to implementing this game plan. It’s got the mana to develop, Top and Brainstorm, and countermagic to stop early Reanimates. The CounterTop player announces that he’ll keep.
Reanimator drew this hand:
Force of Will
The Reanimator player is the aggressor in this matchup. The Reanimator pilot’s game plan is to force through a Reanimate or Exhume, targeting some large monster. However, Entombing for the right creature is context sensitive. Iona can shut out all countermagic and prevent CounterTop from being assembled. However, if Counterbalance is already in play, then Iona naming Blue is less attractive. Iona on White is very powerful, but can’t stop Jace from resolving and bouncing her. Inkwell Leviathan is immune to almost all forms of creature disruption that CounterTop is running, but it can be stopped by a Moat. If the Reanimator player is confident that they can stop Moat, destroy it with Terastodon, or bounce it with Turbulent Dreams, then Inkwell may be the best route to victory. In short, every possible Reanimation target is, by itself, insufficient to protect itself and win the game. It needs to be paired with other cards to guarantee a game win.
This hand is solid, and should be kept. It has two discard outlets with Entomb and Careful Study. It has disruption with Thoughtsieze and Force of Will. And it has Personal Tutor to find Exhume to Reanimator the creature found with Entomb. This game should be a pitched battle.
Recall, again, CounterTop’s opening hand:
Force of Will
Force of Will
Sensei’s Divining Top
If we aren’t going to Brainstorm on either player’s first turn, I can’t think of a single reason why we wouldn’t play Top. So, we can eliminate the third option. My instinct is to play Top. The faster you invest in putting Top onto the table, the more opportunities you will have to take advantage of it. In my experience, Top is also very good at helping support Force of Will. Top can usher Blue spells towards the top of your library and into your hand, and then allow you to optimize and maximize your Force of Wills. I’ve done this in both Legacy and Vintage, and stretched out the use of multi-Force hands. On the other hand, Brainstorm digs us deeper into our deck now. And, it can be used to protect or shield certain cards from a turn 1 Duress/Thoughtseize. Not playing Brainstorm also leaves more Blue spells in hand to support Force. So the main advantages from Brainstorming over Top here are protection from Thoughtseize and digging one card deeper into the deck now. The problem is that there is nothing really to protect from Thoughtseize since there are two Forces in hand. You wouldn’t Force a Thoughtseize in a situation like this. Top seems like a superior play here.
But, one other consideration which may influence the decision of which spell to play on turn one is: which land should CounterTop play on turn one?
In my experience teaching Eternal Magic, many of the most glaring but unwitting mistakes are errors in developing one’s manabase. While it may seem like the land drop here is of little consequence, there are subtle advantages and disadvantages to each land drop here. Flooded Strand is the only fetchland in the deck that can find a Plains. This doesn’t matter in this matchup, but it matters in many matchups, and it’s something that should be kept in mind.
If we play Plains here, on turn 1, we cut ourselves off from being able to Counterspell or Counterbalance on turn 2 (assuming we draw one). In addition, if we Brainstorm, there is a non-trivial chance that we’ll put the Plains back into the Library. On the other hand, if we play Plains, and cast Top, we can maximize the number of cards we see with Top in the early game via Fetchland shuffling. I honestly don’t know what the correct land drop here is. I think it’s something we could debate endlessly, but — in the main — it’s probably not going to be a decision that will change the outcome of the game. Because I want to be able to play a topdecked Counterbalance or a Counterspell, and because I don’t think that the second shuffle with a Top in play is that important, I will rule out turn 1 Plains here. As between the two fetchlands, it doesn’t really matter since Reanimator doesn’t run Wastelands or Sundering Titan, so dual lands are just as effective here as basics.
We play Polluted Delta, break it for an Island, and cast Sensei’s Divining Top, and pass the turn.
Reanimator draws Careful Study for the turn. The Reanimator player’s hand is now:
Force of Will
There are four different turn 1 options here.
Thoughtseize is a natural play here. Discard effects like Thoughtsieze and Duress are at peak value on turn one because you have the most discard options, and the value of the Duress/Thoughtseize is proportional to the value of the card taken. The information they reveal can also help you calculate a well-tailored plan, and inform subsequent plays. If those general considerations aren’t enough, Thoughtseize is also one of the few cards here that can stop Counterbalance from being played. A turn 2 Counterbalance here can be Forced or Dazed, but if the CounterTop player also has Force, then it will resolve, and likely win the game. Since the CounterTop player had turn 1 Top, turn 2 Counterbalance is a significant danger. The reasons to play Thoughtseize here are compelling.
Personal Tutor can set up turn 2 Entomb and Reanimate, with Force of Will backup. If we get Inkwell Leviathan into play that way, the CounterTop player will have only four turns (turns 2-5) to find and resolve Moat. And, even if they do, we’ll still have time to find and resolve Terastodon or Turbulent Dreams to answer Moat. That seems like a very attractive line of play as well.
Entomb on turn 1 is inferior to playing either Personal Tutor or Thoughtseize, since it can follow both plays without losing a beat. Therefore, we can rule out Entomb here.
Careful Study is a discard outlet for large monsters, and helps the Reanimator player mold their hand. The problem here is that there are no large monsters in hand, so Careful Study is efficient search, but it’s also card disadvantage. The reasons to play Careful Study aren’t as compelling as the reasons to play either Personal Tutor or Thoughtsieze.
As between those two options, I think Thoughtseize has the edge. Both plays have reasons behind them, and will advance the Reanimator player’s game plan. The information acquired by Thoughtseizing the opponent will help the Reanimator player play around the CounterTop player’s hand. But the decisive factor, for me, is the danger presented by Counterbalance. If the opponent has Force of Will, their turn 2 Counterbalance will resolve (if they have one). If we Thoughtseize here, we can take the Counterbalance or prompt them to Force of Will, in which case we will just counter their Counterbalance.
There is another decision, of which land to play on turn 1. I think playing Underground Sea makes the most sense, since you may want to save your fetchlands for a time when you have Brainstorm.
Reanimator plays Underground Sea, and casts Thoughtsieze. It resolves, for obvious reasons.
In many situations like this, taking the Brainstorm is a sensible decision, since it not only takes their draw spell, but it cuts them off from being able to play Force of Will. Part of the problem is that the CounterTop player has two Force of Wills. So, taking Brainstorm won’t prevent CounterTop pilot from playing Force. But, neither will taking a Force, so that reason cuts both ways. On the other hand, taking one of the Forces will prevent the CounterTop player from being able to use both of them. The question is: how likely is it that the CounterTop player will be able to use both Forces if we take Brainstorm? With the Top in play, I’d say it’s pretty likely. Without the Top, it would be much less likely. The Top also reduces the need for Brainstorm here. The presence of Top in play reduces the value of Brainstorm and increases the chance that both Force of Wills can be cast separately. Those two facts support of the play of taking a Force of Will here over Brainstorm. That’s what I do.
The first question the CounterTop player has to confront on their second turn is whether to activate Top in the upkeep. The main reason to use Top here is to manipulate the top of our library to draw to draw the best possible card this turn. However, if we use Top, we won’t be able to play a naturally drawn Counterbalance or Counterspell. More importantly, if we activate Top here, we won’t be able to use that Island to play Brainstorm, and follow it up by breaking the fetchland to see new cards. This also matters because if we draw a weak card this turn, we can always put it back with Brainstorm. While there is a reason to use top, there are more reasons not to use Top, and the main reason to use Top is addressed by one of the reasons to not use Top. Therefore, not using Top here seems to be the best play.
The CounterTop player declined to use Top on its upkeep, and the CounterTop player draws another Force of Will for the turn. They play Flooded Strand, and pass the turn.
Their hand is now:
Force of Will
Force of Will
Force of Will
And their board is:
Island, Flooded Strand, Sensei’s Divining Top, all untapped.
The Reanimator player draws Polluted Delta on their turn. The Reanimator player plays Verdant Catacombs, and breaks it for an Underground Sea.
Assume that by “Entomb,” I mean on the opponent’s endstep, unless it’s paired with Personal Tutor. In that case, you’ll have to Entomb first, and then Personal Tutor, meaning that you’ll have to play Entomb on your turn.
We have three cards we can play this turn: Careful Study, Entomb, and Personal Tutor, and various combinations of those cards. I think we can eliminate the 8th option, of doing nothing, as a waste of time for failing to advance our game plan.
The game plan is to Reanimate a monster as quickly as possible, before the opponent can establish defenses. The key limitation in this hand is the lack of a Reanimation spell, like Reanimate or Exhume. Personal Tutor can find one, but then we won’t be able to use it until next turn, at the earliest. Careful Study might also draw a Reanimation spell, so that’s a consideration. Given that our goal is to Reanimate as quickly as possible, and we need to tutor or draw a Reanimation spell, we can eliminate the option of just playing Entomb, Option 3. Option 5 is just better, if we want to Entomb this turn.
We can eliminate Option 6 for similar reasons. If our goal is to Reanimate as quickly as possible, playing Careful Study and then Entomb (Option 6) seems inferior to Option 4, unless we draw a Reanimation spell, since we want to Personal Tutor now, to be able to play Reanimate or Exhume next turn.
The first option, of just playing Careful Study, can be eliminated for similar reasons. If we draw a Reanimation spell with Careful Study, then we’d want to Entomb on our opponent’s endstep, untap and Reanimate/Exhume. Thus, the first option is inferior to Option 6, which we already eliminated, and Option 4, which we haven’t.
We can eliminate Option 7 because it will reduce our hand size, such that it precludes the ability to Entomb, Personal Tutor for Exhume/Reanimate, and using Force of Will next turn to protect it. That seems bad, since that’s the leading plan right now.
That leaves three options remaining: Option 2: Personal Tutor and pass, Option 4: Careful study and Personal Tutor, and Option 5: Entomb and Personal Tutor.
Playing Careful Study here is tempting. There is a general principle that seeing more cards gives you more options. I can see many of you selecting the Careful Study play because of that general principle. But I think we need to think with greater specificity than that.
The function of Careful Study is to filter your hand. This may mean discarding large monsters for better spells. Or it may mean discarding superfluous or unimportant cards for situationally important spells, whether it is disruption like Thoughtseize or Reanimation effects like Exhume. The cost of filtering is — 1 card disadvantage.
Consider the Reanimator player’s hand, once more:
Force of Will
This hand is already nicely sculpted. The second Careful Study is here to pitch to Force of Will. The Personal Tutor can find your Exhume now, and Entomb can put the creature of choice into your graveyard.
The reason to play Careful Study here is the possibility that might turn up a Reanimation effect, precluding the need to play Personal Tutor, or the possibility that we draw and discard a creature that we might want to Entomb for. Specifically, if Careful Study drew a Reanimation spell, then we could Entomb on the opponent’s endstep, and untap and Reanimate/Exhume. Alternatively, if we draw Iona or Inkwell Leviathan, we could Personal Tutor for the Reanimation spell and use that next turn. Against this, there are several reasons not to Careful Study.
The first reason not to play Careful Study here is that we don’t need to. We can just Entomb and Personal Tutor to play Exhume next turn. The second reason not to play Careful Study here is that we may want to save that Careful Study for later in the game, should we naturally draw a creature we’d want to discard. Third, if Careful Study doesn’t hit any of those cards, you are down a card in hand for no good reason, for no benefit. You haven’t gotten a creature into the graveyard. You haven’t found a Reanimation spell.
In short, there are two generally possible outcomes: 1) a low probability outcome (15/50) that we hit a key card (Thoughtsieze, Reanimate, Exhume, or a monster), but which greatly advances our game plan. 2) A higher probability (35/50) that we whiff, filter, and Careful Study reduces our hand size by one. In short, it’s a question of low probability, high reward versus high probability, low-moderate harm. The question is: how do you weigh or balance these possible combinations of outcomes against each other? Part of the answer has to be in terms of how much that card loss might matter if we whiff. It’s possible that that card loss could determine the outcome of the game, in which we are frantically trying to assemble the win from topdecks, and cards like Brainstorm and future Careful Study’s become decisive. It’s also possible that that one card won’t make a difference in the game. Ultimately, the decision comes down to which you think is more likely.
In my mind, it’s a very close call. I imagine that most you would probably be inclined to play Careful Study, for the general principle that I discussed earlier, that seeing more cards = good. What’s decisive for me, here, is the consideration that this hand really doesn’t need to filter for —1 card advantage, combined with the fact that I may want this Careful Study to filter later in the game, and the other one may be pitched to Force. If I play Careful Study, and I whiff, my hand will likely be:
Land/Blue spell, Careful Study, Entomb, and Force of Will at the end of the turn, after I play Personal Tutor.
My hand will be smaller for no clear benefit, and long-term costs. Losing two Careful Studies without discarding a monster means that monsters may accumulate in your hand later in the game, should it go long.
I can’t wait to see the forum reaction, but I think the correct play is Option 5: Entomb and Personal Tutor. In retrospect, just playing Personal Tutor, Option 2, does seem attractive, if only because it gives your opponent less information.
That leaves two options: Personal Tutor and pass, or Entomb and then Personal Tutor.
Since we have another land in hand, playing just Personal Tutor would not prevent us from playing Entomb and Exhume next turn. However, we may not want to play that land, so that we have more cards in hand to filter with Careful Study in the future.
The main issue here is whether to maximize your available mana or to minimize the amount of information your opponent has. By playing Entomb and Personal Tutor, you maximize your mana usage. However, you also give your opponent more information. This information could be important, especially when they Top on your endstep. For example, if you Entomb for Iona, then they may keep a Swords to Plowshares on top of their library. If you Entomb for Inkwell Leviathan, they may start digging for Moat. And so on.
Both considerations, maximizing available mana and minimizing the information your opponent has, matter. The question is: which matters more? I’m not sure that there is a clear answer to this question. With a Top in play, I think the information could matter more. Therefore, I select Option 2. I play Personal Tutor for Reanimate, and pass the turn. The reason I chose Reanimate over Exhume is because I probably won’t want to play the land next turn, so that I can keep it in my hand to filter with Careful Study later in the game.
Whew! That’s a lot of reasoning to contemplate for just one turn, and a short sequence of plays. I’m gonna go out on a limb here, and guess that not many of you voted for Option 2. Let the forum discussion begin.
I tap Sea and play Personal Tutor for Reanimate.
On the Reanimator player’s endstep, the CounterTop player has the option of activating Top or Brainstorming. In play, he has Island, Flooded Strand, and Sensei’s Top, all untapped.
I tap the Island and use the Top, to see:
Sword of the Meek
Jace, the Mind Sculptor
I rearrange those cards to put Tormod’s Crypt on top, and Jace just below it. The rationale here is that we can draw and play Tormod’s Crypt, making Jace the top card of the library. At that point, CounterTop will then have double Force available, between the Brainstorm in hand and Jace on top of the library.
Draw and play Tormod’s Crypt.
The reason to attempt to counter the Tormod’s Crypt is that it is a 2-for-1 counterspell. It not only removes the creature you have gone to great lengths to get into your graveyard, but it also counters your Reanimation spell. Granted, if you have another Entomb, you can cleverly Entomb in response to Tormod’s Crypt. But we don’t have another Entomb in hand. The only reason I can think of not to Force it is to save the Force for another spell, like Counterbalance. On balance, Forcing it seems to make the most sense. I Force, pitching a Careful Study.
Now, the CounterTop Thopter player has to decide two interrelated questions: Should they Force the Force, and if so, what should they pitch?
The reason not to use a Force is that we can save the Force for the Reanimation spell. The reason to use the Force is because Tormod’s Crypt is better than a counterspell because it removes the Reanimation target from game, precluding the possibility of another Reanimation attempt. For that reason, Tormod’s Crypt is worth Forcing. But the question is, what should be pitched, Brainstorm or Jace? To pitch Jace, we have to activate Top. In this position, Jace seems more valuable than Brainstorm, but that’s a largely subjective determination. Jace is both tactically and strategically useful here. Brainstorm is less important with Top going.
I Force the Force, pitching Brainstorm.
Now that Brainstorm has been pitched, there is no reason not to play the Plains in the main phase. I play Plains and pass the turn.
The Reanimator pilot draws Reanimate and considers their options once more. Their hand is now:
Their board is two Underground Seas.
The CounterTop Thopter’s board is:
Plains, Island, Flooded Strand, Top, and Tormod’s Crypt. They have one card in hand.
None of these options are attractive. Doing nothing is obviously bad because the opponent has Top in play, and will be optimizing every draw. Playing Entomb and Reanimate seems like a waste of resources, since it will allow your opponent 2-for-1 you. Playing Careful Study here is weak because you may be filtering into nothing helpful, and we may want it if we draw a creature later. In short, all three options seem bad. I look forward to reading the forum response to this particular decision.
The question, then, is which play is â€˜least bad’? It’s difficult to evaluate because each of the costs are so different. It’s hard to weigh the cost of not having a Careful Study later against the cost of being slowly outdrawn by Top against the cost of being 2-for-1 in order to get Tormod’s Crypt out of play.
I think, despite the fact that we are facing an opposing Top, we can afford to wait one more turn to increase your hand size and increase the filtering power of Careful Study. And, ideally, we want to find a way to beat Tormod’s Crypt, by finding another Entomb. Therefore, I decide to do nothing, and pass the turn.
On Reanimator’s endstep, CounterTop activates Top, seeing:
Jace, the Mind Sculptor
Sword of the Meek
Swords to Plowshares
We put Swords above Sword, and leave the Jace on top.
CounterTop Thopter draws Jace, and passes the turn. The CounterTop player considers tapping the Plains to Top, but there is only one unknown card, and it’s unlikely to be Counterbalance. It’s better to be able to Top into Swords, if need be, and leave that Plains open, without having to shuffle away the Top by using the Flooded Strand for a Tundra.
The Reanimator player draws Brainstorm. Now what?
There is no cost to using Brainstorm here, except the loss of one mana, so that seems like the best play.
I tap a Sea and play Brainstorm, drawing:
Iona, Shield of Emeria
Before putting two cards back, the Reanimator’s hand becomes:
The natural plan, from this position, is to Careful Study Iona into the bin, and then Reanimate it, hoping to get them to Crypt you, and then respond with Entomb, to find another monster, probably Inkwell.
There are a number of questions involved in executing this plan, however. For example, do we Careful Study now? Or do we wait? What cards do we put back with Brainstorm? Should we try to shuffle our library, so we can see more cards?
I think it makes the most sense to just Careful Study now, putting Iona in the bin along with a Delta. Then, next turn, we untap and Reanimate and then Entomb, after letting Crypt resolve. That’s what I do. I tap the other Sea, and play Careful Study, discarding Iona and a Delta. I then pass the turn.
On Reanimator’s endstep, CounterTop taps the Plains and activates Top, seeing:
Swords to Plowshares
Sword of the Meek
If we put Delta on top, we can play Jace this turn. If we put Swords on top, we can kill an Iona naming blue. And if the Iona comes into play naming White, then we can play the Jace to bounce it. However, if we play Jace, then we can’t play Force of Will, unless we blind Top into a blue spell. Planning to play Jace next turn, then, seems suboptimal. On the other hand, not planning to play Jace doesn’t mean you don’t want to draw Delta here. Playing Delta means that you can try to play consecutive lands so that you can Jace and Top on turn 6.
CounterTop draws Polluted Delta, plays it, and passes the turn. Playing Jace here is very tempting, except that it loses if somehow the Reanimator player can successfully Reanimate Inkwell Leviathan next turn. We want to be able to Jace and have Force of Will up, which we hope to accomplish next turn.
Reanimator untaps and draws Verdant Catacombs. Now is the time.
Reanimator announces Reanimate, targeting Iona.
If you do nothing, you can Swords the Iona if it names blue, or play Jace if it names White. The problem is that if the Reanimator player has a Force in hand, and your Swords gets Forced, you probably lose the game if they play blue. For that reason, while doing nothing seems attractive, it’s not something you can risk. Force of Will on Reanimate is not something you want to do either, because you’ll have to pitch Jace, or shuffle away the Swords. You decide to activate Tormod’s Crypt, instead.
The Reanimator player lets Tormod’s Crypt resolve, but then casts Entomb! You want to Force that, but you don’t want to pitch Jace. You tap the untapped Island, and activate Top, seeing:
Swords to Plowshares
Sword of the Meek
No Blue cards. You break your Flooded Strand for a Tundra, and then you tap your Plains, and Top again, seeing:
Sensei’s Divining Top
Perfect. If they get Inkwell Leviathan, you can just play Moat. You could break the other fetchland, to try one more time to find a blue spell. But that seems unnecessary, now that Moat is on top of your deck. You let Entomb resolve.
From this position, the first three choices all seem strong, and risky. The bottom three options all die to Swords. Iona naming White can stop everything but Jace. Inkwell Leviathan can only be stopped by Moat. And Terastodon can destroy up to three of the CounterTop’s permanents, including lands, and then be Re-Exhumed if it dies somehow. Terastodon dies to Swords, though, and even if we destroy Tundra, Plains, and an Island, they still have a fetchland in play. The safest play is probably to just get Inkwell Leviathan. The opponent has to find an Enlightened Tutor or a Moat, and then resolve the Moat. Even if that happens, we can still try to Reanimate a Terastodon or find Turbulent Dreams and resolve it.
The Reanimator player gets Inkwell Leviathan, and then Reanimate resolves.
The CounterTop player draws Moat, breaks Polluted Delta for a Tundra, and casts Moat, which resolves.
The Reanimator player draws Thoughtseize. With only 7 life, they can Thoughtsieze the CounterTop player, or save the Thoughtseize for themselves to Exhume something later. They decide to Thoughtseize the CounterTop player.
If they take Jace, they know they’ll have to play through Force. If they take Force, then Jace will come down and start dominating the game, by controlling your topdecks. The Reanimator player takes Jace, and passes the turn.
The CounterTop player activates Top in their upkeep, seeing:
You can guess what was put on top.
The Countertop player draws Counterbalance and plays it, and passes the turn.
The Reanimator player draws It That Betrays and passes the turn.
End of turn, the Countertop player Tops and sees Enlightened Tutor, which it puts to the top.
The CounterTop player draws Enlightened Tutor and passes the turn.
The Reanimator player draws Personal Tutor.
Their hand is now:
It That Betrays
The Reanimator player wants to play Personal Tutor.
Show and Tell isn’t useful here because there is nothing that could get through the Moat. Careful Study can help the Reanimator player filter out the additional land and the It That Betrays. The Turbulent Dreams is the Reanimator player’s main answer to Moat, and if it’s countered, it would be devastating here. The problem is that Careful Study can be easily countered with Top and Counterbalance, so the Reanimator player went for Turbulent Dreams.
On the Reanimator players’ endstep, the CounterTop player Topped, and then Enlightened Tutored for Thopter Foundry, a two casting cost spell. Then, they Topped again, seeing:
Swords to Plowshares
They put Counterspell on top, and drew it, and passed the turn.
With the Thopter Foundry of the top of the library, a Top and Counterbalance in play, and Force and Counterspell in hand, this game is over. Within about ten turns, the CounterTop player has ten lands on the table, and has Enlightened Tutor for the Sword of the Meek, to combo out.
Both decks had strong opening hands, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if Reanimator had won this game. It had the tools to punch through early on. The problem, besides being on the draw, was Sensei’s Divining Top. Top found Tormod’s Crypt, Moat, Jace and Counterbalance, each long before those cards would have been naturally drawn. It’s too bad, too, because this game didn’t fully illustrate how powerful Reanimator is post-banning. It did illustrate how good the CounterTop deck is. I’m sure there will be plenty of debate and disagreement over some of the plays in this article, and I look forward to hearing the responses.
I wish I had the time to write up a full match because the Reanimator list brings in Null Rods and Pithing Needles. Null Rod is probably the best single card solution to the CounterTop Thopter deck in the format. CounterTop Thopter, as you can see, is amazing. Null Rod stops not only the Thopter combo, but it stops Sensei’s Divining Top, Engineered Explosives, Tormod’s Crypt, etc.
It’s hard to believe that after so long the Grand Prix is here. I wish I had more time to break down some of these intriguing matchups, to discuss other deck options, and explore deck ideas. If I had time, I’d take a look at Enchantress versus CounterTop Thopter, Goblins versus CounterTop Thopter, the CounterTop mirror match (Natural Order versus Thopter), explore possible builds of Show and Tell – Emrakul, take a closer look at Aluren, and tinker with Doomsday Tendrils. There is just too much to do and too little time. Still, I hope I’ve given you a lot to consider and think about in the last couple of weeks.
The last, and perhaps most important, piece of advice is take a look at my metagame prediction in my Guide to Grand Prix: Columbus one last time. It will be worth your time.
If you run into me at the GP, please introduce yourself and say hello.
See you this weekend…