So Many Insane Plays – Reassembling CounterTop To Beat the Metagame

The StarCityGames.com Open Series returns to Dallas/Fort Worth!
Monday, January 4th – With yesterday’s StarCityGames.com Legacy Open in Los Angeles fresh on our minds, Stephen Menendian takes a fresh look at the CounterTop archetype for Legacy play. Using his excellent Five-Step construction process, he rebuilds the deck for 2010, and runs it through a local tournament to a promising result…

The CounterTop strategy is the Archimedean point in the Legacy metagame. The first major tournament of the year, Grand Prix: Chicago, was won by CounterTop. The Legacy metagame has been swiftly evolving ever sense, responding to the initial metagame conditions set at the GP. Without being exhaustive, its main contours have been:

• The Rise of Merfolk. At first StarCityGames.com Legacy Open of the year, Fish was by far the most popular deck in the field. Fish was so popular because it appeared to have a favorable matchup against the CounterTop decks.
• The Brief Dominance of Dreadtill. At that same StarCityGames.com Legacy Open, Dreadtill dominated the tournament putting multiple players in the top 4, and winning the event.
• The Rise of Zoo. Qasali Pridemage was, by most accounts, the biggest printing of the year for Legacy. Pridemage gave Zoo decks, R/G/W aggro decks that pound Merfolk, the ability to compete with Counterbalance decks and smash Dreadtill. The effect was to check Merfolk and knock Dreadtill out of the metagame.
• The Rise of Loam Decks. Decks like Land and Aggro-Loam all emerged as decks that can compete with the CounterTop, Merfolk, and Zoo metagame. As we closed out the year, the Loam decks dominated the last major SCG Legacy event.

These developments have forced CounterTop decks to evolve. Discovered just before the Grand Prix, Natural Order decks, using then-newly minted Progenitus, were on the horizon. The persistence of Merfolk and Zoo strategies have forced CounterTop decks to rely on the combo finish of Natural Order to win games. Thus, the most successful American CounterTop strategy of the last 6 months has looked something like this:

The other major change has been Rhox War Monk, which has been used to bolster the Zoo matchup and provide some more beef to survive and combat Merfolk strategies.

Some pilots resisted the Natural Order plan, and have adopted the Japanese solution:

In short, the main solutions appear to be a mixture of Rhox War Monk and either Natural Order or Firespout. This makes sense. These are the cards that help you in the Zoo and Merfolk matchups. But, what if there is a better approach? What if there is a better way?

I believe that there is. I present:

I will explain why this deck is so well positioned in the current metagame and highlight key features.

Leading up to the Grand Prix, I enjoyed a great deal of success with a CounterTop deck similar to the one that won GP: Chicago, in UGbw, winning or top 4 splitting several local Legacy tournaments. Since the Grand Prix, I lost 100 ratings points with the same decklist, too stubborn to make a major overhaul. The key was finally letting go of Dark Confidant. This opened up other design options.

This deck was constructing using my 5-step deck building method.

Step 1:
Identify the expected metagame. Draw up a list, in order, of the archetypes you expect to face. One way to do this is to simply break down your entire metagame.

Step 2:
Build a version of the deck designed to beat each of the major archetypes in the metagame.

Step 3:
Begin to build a composite list by synthesizing your decklists. First, put into a “composite” list all of the unanimous card choices or all of the cards that showed up in every version of the deck. Then, include all the cards that made it into this list in a majority of your decklists.

Step 4:
Choose a tiebreaker to select the rest of your decklist by matchup importance. In doing so, be sure to give greater weight to some decklists you expect to face in the Top 8 despite their frequency in the metagame as a whole. Also, when choosing among final cards, make sure that you give some weight to the fact that you want internal synergies.

Step 5:
Build your sideboard to fill gaps and address matchup weaknesses. Use cards that showed up in Step 2 here. Make sure you have functional sideboard plans. You don’t want to go into a tournament with more sideboard cards for a match than you have the capacity to sideboard in.

I did just that. My expected metagame was mostly: Merfolk, Canadian Threshold, Zoo, and CounterTop w/ Progenitus. I also expected a good deal of Dredge. I built 5 CounterTop lists, one for each of those matchups, and then synthesized them.

This time, I won’t walk through each of the steps, except to explain the results. However, I will say that this method is perhaps most useful in Legacy due to the fact that you’ll run mostly four-ofs. That means for most decks you’ll be choosing 11-12 spells per deck, and 8-9 of those spells will be playsets.

Seven Plow Effects
The one card that is uniformly great against all four decks is Swords to Plowshares and Path to Exile. Path and Swords also help you grow Mongoose quickly. They are also great against the matchups that you may face, but are not necessarily the most popular decks, like Aggro-Loam, B/G, B/G/W, and Goblins.

The Japanese “Supreme Blue” CounterTop list attempts a similar move, but with Firespout. Despite the possibility of card advantage with Firespout, there are at least three limitations to it. First, you can’t run Mongoose. Mongoose is actually amazing against the field. The Canadian Threshold decks can’t burn it out, and it trades with their geese or holds them off, buying you a ton of time. In addition, the Zoo decks can’t Path/burn your goose either, and it holds off their Nacalts and Pridemages. Firespout forces you to play 4 colors and lose mana stability that is so important against Merfolk and Threshold. If you stick to 3 colors, you can run basics in all of the colors and you’ll be much better off in those matchups. Firespout doesn’t even kill Goyfs. Why run Firespout when you can run Paths? It just doesn’t make sense. The Supreme Blue deck doesn’t even have any other Red cards. It’s silly to splash for a fourth color when there is a better card in one of your existing colors that has a similar function.

Path may actually be superior to Swords. Swords gives your opponent life. Against Canadian Threshold, for example, Path is better than Swords. It may be better against Merfolk and Zoo a great deal of the time. Tempo matters, and giving your opponent life is not always a great idea.

19 Land
When I ran step 2, I discovered that, in many of my matchups, 20 lands was optimal. For example, against Canadian Threshold (tempo thresh), you really want 20 lands to survive the Stifle/Wasteland assault. Thus, when I built the composite list in Step 3 and Step 4, I ended up with 19 lands. The 19th land is sideboarded out in the matchups that don’t assault your manabase.

Notice also that you have four basic lands. The fetchland configurations is designed to maximize your chances of being able to fetch out all three basic lands as quickly as possible. These basics will also help when you face Chokes.

No Rhox War Monk
Rhox War Monk is a good card in CounterTop, as almost all of the successful lists have been running it. But I think it is slightly too clunky, and, more importantly, I prefer Mongoose, which is faster and much better in the Canadian Threshold matchup, and probably better in every matchup except Zoo.

One Jotun Grunt
This was the last card added to the deck, and it’s proved amazing. The thing that makes Jotun Grunt so good is its particular strengths in certain matchups. Against Canadian Threshold, he is devastating, as he ravages your opponent’s graveyard, shrinking their Mongeese, while yours stay fully powered. He’s a large beater, and is good against Merfolk and Zoo for that reason as well. He’s also good at manipulating Goyf stalemates, as you can control the power and toughness of the Goyfs on board. Finally, he’s very powerful against the Loam decks that dominated SCG St. Louis. He is great against Dredge and Aggro Loam and Lands, and is the reason that I actually have won game 1s against Dredge.

He’s so good in certain matchups, like Canadian Threshold, that there is another in the sideboard.

Now, I will explain the sideboard, card for card.

Blue Elemental Blast/Hydroblast
This card is necessary for the Goblins and Burn matchups. Also, it is necessary for the Zoo matchup. As you will see in a moment, I actually sideboard out Force of Will against Zoo (you can’t do that against Goblins, though).

Jotun Grunt
I just explained why it’s here above. It’s amazing in a host of matchups, like Canadian Threshold, Dredge, Aggro-Loam, and Land. It’s also another large beater in certain matchups where that is needed, like Zoo or even Merfolk. In short, he’s just great.

Tormod’s Crypt
I run this card because I don’t want to run Relic and I can’t run Leyline. 4 Tormod’s Crypt has been what the doctor ordered to help me beat Dredge post-board. It’s also coming in against Loam decks.

If there is one change to this deck I want to make but haven’t figured out how, it’s to add 2 more Submerge into the SB. This card is amazing. It’s great against Zoo, CounterTop mirrors, Threshold, B/G, B/G/W, and Aggro-Loam.

Ethersworn Canonist
Despite the fact that combo is now a tiny part of the field, you really do need sideboard cards for it, since there are no Duress effects maindeck. This guy is probably the best overall effect, particularly since he is also good against Canadian Threshold. With this guy in play, they can’t chain multiple cantrips and tag-team burn to kill Goyfs and Grunts. This guy is great.

Here are the SB plans:

-2 Trygon Predator
-4 Force of Will
-1 Island
+4 Blue Elemental Blast
+2 Submerge
+1 Jotun Grunt

Counterbalance is the key to the Zoo matchup. And Plows. Use Counterbalance to establish control and win the match. You beat Choke with basic lands and Dazes.

+2 Krosan Grip
-1 Sensei’s Divining Top
-1 Counterbalance

This matchup is close, but with 7 Plow effects you’ll have an edge.

Canadian Threshold:
+1 Jotun Grunt
+2 Ethersworn Canonist
+2 Submerge
-1 Sensei’s Divining Top
-4 Counterbalance

Your plan here is simple: have more men and race. Your decks are basically symmetrical, except that you run Plow effects and they run burn.

CounterTop w/ Progenitus:
+2 Submerge
+2 Krosan Grip
-3 Nimble Mongoose
-1 Forest

Kill every creature they play with Plows and Paths to prevent them from playing Natural Order. Beat down quick and hard. Set up CounterTop as quickly as you can.

I ran this deck at the Meandeck Open in Columbus, Ohio at the end of December. I went 4-1-1, getting 9th place on tiebreakers. My only loss was the CounterTop mirror, and that was due, in part, to a critical play error. The only difference in the maindeck is that I ran 4 Mongoose and 2 Path, instead of 3 and 3. Here is a brief report:

Round 1: GWB

By turn 2 I can tell he’s playing GWB. My hand was far too controlling for this game, with 3 Forces, and he poops out dudes too quickly. I am forced to trade 2-for-1 on a couple of Forces in mid-game, and he has more cards in his hand than I do. He eventually wins.

G2: I bring in 2 Submerge and 1 Jotun Grunt. I submerge his Goyf and path his Serra Avenger, shuffling his Goyf back into his deck. I beat down and win.

G3: Time is called mid-game. It was a little bit confusing. I passed the turn, and he Plowed something on my endstep. Shortly afterward, time was called, but it was unclear whether it was in his turn or mine. He claimed that I was turn zero, and I didn’t press it. It turned out to make all the difference in the world. Using chumps, he was able to end the game at 1 life on turn 5 of turns, with no creatures in play and me having Goyf and Goose. If only I had one more turn! First round draw.


Round 2: Nathan with CounterTop w/ Progenitus

When he played Noble Hierarch, I knew he was playing the Natural Order build. I had a Force in my opening hand and drew another shortly thereafter. I got Counterbalance down, but didn’t find a Top. I Plowed one of his Hierarchs, but he played another. My Counterbalance whiffed multiple times, and countered nothing. He plowed my Goyf, and I could have Double Dazed it, but instead played Force. This proved determinative as I needed that Force to counter his Natural Order (I drew Counterbalance which I could have pitched to Force). Progenitus killed me.

G2: I brought in 2 Submerge and 2 Grip for 1 Forest and 3 Geese.

This game was awful. I played turn 1 Ponder and Dazed turn 1 Hierarch. He played turn 2 Hierarch and Top. I debated my turn 3 play, either Predator or Krosan Grip. I played Grip, because I was concerned about him finding Natural Order. He used Hierarch and tapped his two lands (missing third land drop) and played Shackles! Darnit! I made the wrong play and now couldn’t play Predator. Instead, I played Nimble Mongoose. I lost the game within 5 turns after that, as Natural Order resolved.


Round 3: UGW Tempo

I saw his third land drop as Treetop Village, which I Plowed. I set up CounterTop and Goyf, but an Engineered Explosives, well-timed, got through and swung the game around. I was eventually overrun.

G2: This was a very close game that was won by Submerge.

G3: I countered Engineered Explosives and won.


Round 4: Mono White Control

G1: I mull to 6, and my hand has 2 Plows and a Path. He appears to be playing a mono White deck! I lead with a pair of Nimble Mongeese as he plays Snow-Covered Plains. He plays Wrath of God and then Grindstone. I play Goyf, but he, with one other card in hand, plays Isochron Scepter. I’m holding 3 Plows effects, Force and Daze. He has two mana up left. I Force it, but he has a Plow, and kills my Goyf. He plays Sacred Mesa, and he makes 3 Pegasi on his upkeep, and I Plow two of them. I then attack. He plays Enlightened Tutor for Painter’s Servant, and I Path it when he goes to activate Grindstone. I win.

G2: He slowly locks up the game. He gets Karmic Justice down first, which I let resolve even though I’m holding Force. He plays Moat and I Force that, but he has Replenish. I set up CounterTop to try to protect a Predator. Moat stops my Goyf attacks, but I get Predator down. He answers it with Story Circle, then Runed Halo. I Krosan Grip the wrong card – the non-Moat – and he kills a Counterbalance, forcing me to play another. I play Jotun Grunt to shuffle some of the enchantments I countered back into his deck, and to recur my own Krosan Grip. This game goes on and on, and eventually we draw.


Round 5: Zoo

He kills my first Goyf with burn, including his game winning turn 1 Grim Lavamancer, and then kills me with his own while I set up CounterTop. His Pridemage was pretty crucial.

G2: I bring in 2 Submerge and 1 Jotun Grunt for Plains and 2 Trygon Predator. I also sideboard out Forces for Blue Blasts. I have turn 1 Top, turn 2 Counterbalance, and I lock him out. He had a chance to break out. On his third turn he played Pridemage. Counterbalance, blind, flipped Path. I was forced to Daze his Pridemage, making him tap out to pay it, which allowed me to untap and Plows his Pridemage. However, he eventually finds Choke, which resolves, but I am able to use my basic Forest to get around the absolute worst of it, and I win.

G3: I bring back in the Plains for a basic Island. Again, I CounterTop him, with two Counterbalances and two Tops. It makes a difference to have multiple counterbalance triggers for each spell. You can flip blind on the first, and then, if it misses, spend mana to rearrange with Brainstorm or Top.


Round 6: Canadian Threshold

G1: He gets Mongoose, and I get Jotun Grunt. My Grunt keeps his Geese small. I get him low in life, but we come into a position where he has two 1/1 Geese and I have Trygon Predator, and it’s a pure race, two damage a turn. I’m at 7 and he’s at 6, and I have the initiative. I’ll swing him to 4, and he’ll get me to 5. He’ll swing me to 3, and I’ll swing him to 2. He’ll swing me to 1, and then I win. I can’t find a blocker despite multiple cantrips, and he finds Fire/ice to win the race.

G2: I bring in two Submerge for 2 Trygon Predator. I am on the play and have turn 2 Goyf, protected, and I quickly out-tempo him.

G3: I rethink my SB plan. I brought in two Ethersworn Canonist and the 2 Predators and take out 4 Counterbalance and a Top. This plan works, as I overwhelm him with creatures.


I finished 9th place, really disappointed. I was the only one of the four 13-pointers who didn’t make Top 8. My loss and arguably my draw were due to play-errors.

This is a great deck choice for the upcoming metagame, barring radical changes as a result of the Los Angeles results.

In some ways I feel like that was a metaphor of my year, which was a B/B+ performance overall. Some highs, but some mediocre performances, and a few dreadful ones. However, turning to my 5 step methodology has definitely boosted my performance in the final months of the year. It’s a method I’ll be using a lot in 2010. The one key, however, will be not just to use that method, but to also select archetypes that are well positioned to begin with. Thus, my most successful overall performance this year, 3rd place at the March Waterbury, the second largest Vintage tournament of the year, was a result of choosing a deck for the metagame, not just tuning a particular deck for the metagame. My goal in 2010 will be to fuse both processes. I hope to see a lot more winnings this year.

Until next time…

Stephen Menendian