So Many Insane Plays – Reconsidering CounterTop

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Monday, March 22nd – With Legacy gaining popularity across the board, Stephen Menendian looks at the popular CounterTop strategy. He shares his list, explains some of the more esoteric card choices, and runs it through a local tournament with promising results.

The key to solving the Legacy metagame is finding a deck to beat both Merfolk and Zoo. Merfolk and Zoo are consistently two of the three most popular decks in any major Legacy metagame. At the same time, in large part, the decks that beat Zoo have difficulty with Merfolk, and vice versa.

This is why the 43 Land deck is so successful. It has strong matchups against both Zoo and Merfolk. True, it has bad matchups. But those matchups can be addressed with silver bullets in the sideboard. Reanimator can be disrupted with a combination of lands like Karakas and graveyard hate like Extirpate and Tormod’s Crypt. Speed storm combo decks can be slowed with cards like Chalice of the Void or Mindbreak Trap. And Burn is easily answered with cards like Zuran Orb.

43 Land could very well be the best deck in the format. It won the most recent SCG Open, and it almost won the SCG Open in Dallas, losing only because of a judge-imposed game loss in the finals. It’s also one of the most challenging decks to build, featuring the most expensive card in the format, The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale. This is also an advantage for 43 Land. It’s difficult to justify playing dedicated answers for a deck that will always be a tiny part of the field.

The SCG Open at Indy is the only SCG Open within reasonable driving distance, and I had long planned on attending the Legacy Open. Unfortunately, both of the people I planned on traveling with bailed at the last minute. And due to a major work conference that same weekend, I was too exhausted to travel by myself. I still want to attend at least one of these amazing events. I am going to try to fly to one of them later on in the year.

This is what I would have played:


Jotun Grunt

I have been running a single maindeck Jotun Grunt for a few months now. It performed so well that I put another in the sideboard.

Merfolk is a difficult matchup. Grunt has been critical to most of my game wins against Merfolk. Merfolk’s biggest weakness is dealing with large efficient men like Tarmogoyf and Grunt. Just when they’ve dealt with the Goyf, the Grunt comes into play and finishes the job.

Grunt is probably the best possible creature against Canadian Threshold. Their main threats are Tarmogoyf and Nimble Mongoose. Grunt can control the size of both creatures, keeping their Mongeese small. This card dominates Canadian Threshold, and they’ll need to counter it or use two burn spells to destroy it.

Grunt is very powerful against Loam decks. Since Loam can be recurred indefinitely, the only way to deal with it is to exile it or put it back into their library. Grunt does just that.

Grunt’s recursion should not be discounted either. I had an epic match against Enchantress in the final round of a Legacy tournament in February where I used Grunt to recur Force of Will and Krosan Grips over and over again in order to maintain control of the game. With all of the Brainstorm and shuffling effects, singletons and doubles in the mainboard or sideboard can be efficiently recycled and reused. Against many creature decks you’ll find yourself recurring Swords to Plowshares.

By removing Nimble Mongoose from the deck, I was able to move the sideboard Grunt into the mainboard. This deck already fought hard to grow Nimble Mongoose. It would often have to cycle multiple Brainstorm effects and use several fetchlands to get there. Jotun Grunt may not decimate your graveyard, but it will clean it up. Nimble Mongoose and Grunt are too anti-synergistic to run together as multiples.


This deck’s strongest early-game play is Counterbalance. Most decks that can will try to counter it. In that instance, Misdirection serves as an additional Force of Will by protecting your Counterbalance. It does this by redirecting their Force of Will or counterspell to your Misdirection. In addition, Misdirection can help you resolve Tarmogoyfs and Plow effects against both Merfolk and other CounterTop decks. For example, if you want to play Swords to Plowshares targeting a Lord of Atlantis or a Tarmogoyf, your opponent may wish to stop you. Misdirection helps ensure that your Swords resolves, much like a Force of Will.

If that were the extent of Misdirection’s utility, however, I would probably not run it. In addition to being useful against Merfolk and in the CounterTop mirror, Misdirection is particularly useful against Zoo. Zoo decks run many Misdirectable spells, such as Path to Exile, Lightning Bolt and Chain Lightning. In a Goyf standoff, they will try to burn or Path your Tarmogoyf.

In terms of pure card advantage, Misdirecting such a spell is technically a 2-for-2. However, its practical impact is much greater. For example, if you attack with a Tarmogoyf, and they block with a Nacatl or a Kird Ape, and then throw a Lightning Bolt at the Goyf, in an attempt to kill it, the Misdirection will both save your Goyf and cause them to lose their creature, and another creature besides. The same example holds if you are blocking. They attack you with a Wild Nacatl. You block with Tarmogoyf. They attempt to burn your Goyf. You Misdirect it to another one of their creatures (or their head). They lose their creature and your Goyf survives. Moreover, Misdirection is a big, unwelcome surprise. Because of the way that Magic players plan out their moves, such a trap can both swing the game in your favor and demoralize them, prompting them to make further errors.

Misdirection is also useful against decks other than the top three decks in the format. It’s obviously very strong against Burn, and useful against decks with burn and countermagic, like Canadian Threshold. In two matches against Enchantress, I’ve now Misdirected three Wild Growth/Utopia Sprawls. Enchantress will very often attempt to play a turn 1 Wild Growth or Utopia Sprawl. This allows the Enchantress player to accelerate out of the early game and cast a turn 2 Enchantresses Presence. Misdirecting a turn 1 Utopia Sprawl to your Tropical Island or a Wild Growth will accelerate your game (incidentally, helping you pay to attack through cards like Elephant Grass and Ghostly Prison) while slowing them down. That might not sound very exciting to some of you, but it’s stronger than cards that are actually dead in this matchup, such as Swords to Plowshares.

6 Plow Effects

In a controversial article earlier in the year I advocated running a high number of Plow effects. The reason is simple: Plows are perhaps the single most effective tactic against both Zoo and Merfolk. There are few cards that are as strong against both archetypes simultaneously. Also, I believe that Tarmogoyf is one of the central cards in the Legacy format. One of the ways that you break the limit of four Goyfs per deck is by running Plow effects. Plows give you Goyf superiority by removing opposing Goyfs. If you control one Goyf and your opponent controls one Goyf, a Plow effect is the same thing as playing another Goyf. If you control two Goyfs and your opponent controls two Goyfs, a Plow effects is actually better than a third Goyf. Plow is also great against the vast majority of the field, and only weak in a tiny number of matchups, such as Belcher, ANT, Enchantress, and some versions of Dredge.


Hibernation serves a number of very important purposes. First and foremost, Hibernation is this deck’s answer to Progenitus. It’s probably one of the best answers to Natural Order Progenitus in the format. This is because it’s a three-mana spell, so it is likely to resolve past a Counterbalance plus Top lock. Also, it puts the Progenitus into the one zone where they can’t easily get it back into play: their hand. At the same time, it bounces Goyfs and Geese and War Monks. If you have control over the game, and the CounterTop lock going, except that they have resolved Natural Order, then Hibernation fixes that problem and allows you to lock up the game entirely.

This card is also useful against a number of other archetypes. It’s surprisingly good against Enchantress, as it can bounce permanents like City of Solitude, Choke and Enchantresses simultaneously without having to waste Krosan Grip on each permanent. I confess surprise that I haven’t seen more Hibernations hibernating in sideboards.

Ethersworn Canonist

At first glance, many players mistake this card for a niche anti-combo card. That is a mistake. Canonists most obvious use is to shut down storm combo. After all, storm combo wins by chaining together spells in succession. That’s the definition of the storm mechanic. This card prevents players from doing that. It is also strong against decks like Belcher, which not only use Empty the Warrens, but need to play multiple mana accelerants in order to cast Goblin Charbelcher. After all, the deck only runs two lands, so it is not going to be able to play Belcher off of its reusable mana sources very easily.

Some players think that Gaddock Teeg is a stronger anti-combo card. I disagree. While Teeg shuts off Ad Nauseam, Tendrils of Agony, Goblin Charbelcher, and Empty the Warrens, it also prevents you from playing Force of Will. Also, Teeg does nothing against other storm combo variants, like High Tide. They can combo out with a Teeg in play. Finally, Teeg does not stop them from playing Burning Wish for an answer. Canonist makes Burning Wish a very slow answer, since it takes two mainphases to Burning Wish and then use the Burning Wish target. Similarly, with Canonist in play, they can’t chain cantrips and tutors to efficiently find and use whatever they are looking for. For example, they can’t play Duress, Ponder, and Mystical Tutor in the same turn. With Teeg in play, they can.

Ethersworn Canonists true value goes beyond answering combo. It’s useful across a range of matchups. For example, Canonist is quite strong against Enchantress in mid-game. Enchantress will draw many spells once its engine is going, and it will generate the mana to play those spells using Serra Sanctum and many Utopia Sprawls and Wild Growths. Canonist will limit the Enchantress player to a single spell per turn. They will be forced to decide which spells to play: City of Solitude or Sterling Grove? Solitary Confinement or Enchantresses Presence? This will slow down their engine, buy you time, and give you the ability to answer their threats. For example, because they won’t be able to play Moat and Sterling Grove or Karmic Justice on the same turn, your Krosan Grip is much more effective and has a greater impact on the game. They will not be able to overwhelm your counterspells as easily. Using Top and Brainstorms (especially with Grunt), you’ll be able to recur your Force of Wills before they can overwhelm you.

Another matchup in which I’ve found Canonist to be surprisingly impressive is Canadian Threshold. The Canadian Threshold pilot can turn a single mid-game Ponder into a Tarmogoyf by chaining it with Fire/Ice, other Ponders, and Brainstorms. By forcing them to separate those cantrips across turns, they will lose so much of their tempo advantage. Canonist also helps slow them down in other ways. If they Stifle a fetchland, they won’t be able to Spell Snare your Tarmogoyf. They can’t combine burn spells to kill your Goyf. Canadian Threshold is at its strongest when it can play spells like Submerge, Force, Spell Snare, Ponder, and a creature all on the same turn. Canonist slows down the game, and takes away their tempo advantage.

I wouldn’t hesitate to bring in Canonist against decks like Elves or Goblins, which try to play a ton of spells in a single turn.

Pithing Needle

This card is here for Merfolk. Counterbalance does not operate as a lock if they have an active Aether Vial. Pithing Needle is important to stop them from evading your lock. If they have Aether Vial, then that is what you name. If they have Mutavaults out, then name Mutavault. If you are vulnerable to Wasteland, name Wasteland.

Despite not being able to play in the SCG Open in Indy, I was able to compete in a local tournament. I played the same deck posted above, except that I was testing 3 Loam Lion instead of Rhox War Monk.

Loam Lion is a card that is currently underplayed in Legacy. It’s better than Kird Ape. In my deck, it is similar to Nimble Mongoose. Both are beefy one-drops. Nimble Mongoose is probably better against Zoo. This is because it can’t be burned or Pathed, and it beats Kird Ape and trades with Wild Nacatl in combat. Two Mongeese can defeat a Goyf in combat as well. However, Loam Lion is probably better against Merfolk. It is bigger sooner, and it can go on offense immediately. And two Loam Lion are much better against Merfolk than two Nimble Mongoose, at least in the early game.

Round 1: Mark Sun with Ad Nauseam Tendrils

Mark figured that ANT was a good deck choice in a field of Zoo and Merfolk. He’s probably right.

Game 1:

Mark won the roll, but mulliganed to 5. My opening hand had Force of Will, Ponder, Daze, and Counterbalance. I drew another Force of Will on turn 2, and a Brainstorm revealed Misdirection. I played Counterbalance on turn 2, and the only spell he played was Lotus Petal. He discarded a Rite of Flame, and eventually my Tarmogoyf won the game.

Game 2:

My opening hand had two Counterbalance, Force of Will, Ethersworn Canonist, and two lands. He played turn 1 City of Brass, Duress and took Force of Will. I played turn 1 Brainstorm and actually put Goyf back second from the top, since the rest of my cards were just better. He played another City of Brass. I played turn 2 Canonist instead of Counterbalance. He played Mystical Tutor, which I let resolve, and he found Krosan Grip. I played Counterbalance on my third turn, and he played Pyroblast. I regretted not playing Counterbalance before Canonist. Lesson learned. However, that was as far as he got. I attacked with Canonist for about 5 turns, and then a Goyf joined the party, and he came into the game with 6 power and I won the following turn.

Round 2: Merfolk

Game 1:

He wins the die roll. He opens with turn 1 Cursecatcher. I am relieved that he didn’t play Aether Vial. However, rather than play Top, I break a fetchland for basic Island and pass the turn. On turn 2 he plays Aether Vial. He evidently hoped to use his Cursecatcher to protect Aether Vial. I Force of Will his Aether Vial, and he has Force of Will backup. I am not terribly disturbed because I have two Swords in hand, but I’m not happy either. I play Counterbalance anyway. He attacks me with a Mutavault and Cursecatcher. I plan on Plowing the Mutavault the next time he attacks, but he doesn’t attack. Instead, he ramps the Vial to 3. Then, when he attacks, I Plow it and he Vials in Kira, the Great Glass-Spinner. Unfortunately, I only have one White mana source available, because I fetched only basic lands to prevent him from Wastelanding me. At this point, I am never able to recover. He eventually kills me.

Game 2:

My opening hand has a Goyf, two lands, Pithing Needle, Force of Will and Misdirection. I play turn 1 Pithing Needle, this time naming Mutavault. He has no turn 1 play. I play Goyf on turn 2, and it resolves. I Daze his Lord of Atlantis. On turn 3 I Brainstorm, but doesn’t see any more lands. I do see another Goyf, however. My turn 4 Goyf resolves as well. He attempts to Echoing Truth the Goyfs, but I counter it. His Mutavaults are kept in check by Pithing Needle. Instead, he taps down for Sower of Temptation and I Daze it. Then, he plays another, which resolves. I Swords it. I then win a few turns later.

Game 3:

My opening hand is weak: Pithing Needle, Jotun Grunt, and 5 land. I keep it on the strength of Needle. He has turn 1 Aether Vial. I play turn 1 Pithing Needle. Apparently, he kept a one-land hand, as he has no more land drops for several turns. Consequently, if Needle resolves he’s going to be in big trouble. He is able to counter it with Force of Will. I wait a few turns, and then play Jotun Grunt when both of our graveyards are big enough for him to survive for a few turns, particularly with the pair of Plows I have in hand. Unfortunately, he has Kira ready for me again. This time, I’m able to double Plow the creature, but at great cost to myself because he’s able to overwhelm me a few turns later.

Record: 1-1

Round 3: Enchantress

Game 1:

I won the die roll. My opening hand has CounterTop and double Daze. It’s probably not strong enough to beat Enchantress, but I’m a dog in game 1 anyway. I play turn 1 Top. He plays a Plains on turn 1 and passes the turn. I play Counterbalance on turn 2, and he responds with Enlightened Tutor. He plays another land and passes the turn. I Top and see Misdirection. He plays Wild Growth and I Misdirect it to one of my lands. He topdecks another land, and casts Enchantresses Presence, which I Daze. He plays City of Solitude the next turn, which I also Daze. I play Jotun Grunt. Unfortunately, it’s a turn too late. He found a fourth land and cast Replenish, and I don’t have a Force of Will. He is able to overwhelm me and I scoop rather than suffer.

Game 2:

He plays turn 1 land. I play Misty Rainforest. He plays turn 2 Utopia Sprawl, and I break the Misty Rainforest for Forest and Misdirect it to my land. I have turn 3 Ethersworn Canonist, which controls the entire game. He is only able to play a spell per turn, which allows me to match him one for one. He plays an Elephant Grass, but I pay so I can attack. I play a Goyf and a Tormod’s Crypt. He plays Ghostly Prison, but I pay to attack through that as well. In the final turn, he plays Solitary Confinement, but I Krosan Grip it, and march in for the win.

Game 3:

My opening hand is Krosan Grip, Force of Will, Force of Will, Sensei’s Divining Top, and three lands. On turn 2 he plays Argothian Enchantress. I activate Top, trying to draw a Blue spell blind, but do not. I’m forced to Force of Will his Enchantress, pitching Force. I replay Top and a land and pass the turn. He plays Utopia Sprawl, and I have a Misdirection on the top of my library, but no Blue spell to pitch to it. I get a Goyf on the table and a Jotun Grunt joins him, and I’m able to win the game in extra turns.

Record: 2-1

Round 4: Burn

Game 1:

I lost the die roll. My opponent opens with Chain Lightning. I Brainstorm and see Tarmogoyf. He plays turn 2 Keldon Marauder, and I Daze it. This allows my Goyf to survive a burn spell. I suck up some more burn, and then play Goyf. He plays Flame Javelin, aimed at my head, and I Misdirect it to him. I play Jotun Grunt, and win the game in two turns.

Game 2:

I sideboard out all of my Swords to Plowshares for Blue Elemental Blasts and Ethersworn Canonists. My opening hand is two lands, Goyf, Force of Will, Counterbalance, Blue Blast, and Top. I play turn 1 Top and turn 2 Counterbalance. He plays a bunch of burn spells. He plays Lightning Bolt on turn one, then Magma Jet on turn two. His Rift Bolt evades my Counterbalance. The Counterbalance hits a 3 power creature, but it has an ability that allows him to bring it back into play immediately, and he deals three more damage. Then, he Fireblasts me, and plays Barbarian Ring. This sends me to 3 life, and 1 if he is uses the Ring. However, at this point I’ve managed to attack him a few turns with Loam Lion, and a Goyf joins the battle. For the final blow, I Misdirect his final attempt to hit me and kill him.

Record: 3-1

Round 5: B/W Aggro-Control

My opponent is the only undefeated player. Since this is a swiss only tournament, we play it out. His deck is W/B with the following cards: Tombstalker, Sensei’s Divining Top, Dark Confidant, Gatekeeper of Malakir, Vampire Nighthawk, Swords to Plowshares, Wasteland, Umezawa’s Jitte, Diabolic Edict, and Tidehollow Sculler.

Game 1 was a pitched battle. I had turn 2 Counterbalance, but no Top. He had the Top. Counterbalance countered about 1 in every 3 spells he played. He was able to resolve multiple monsters, and Swords to take of each of them. I Swordsed a turn 2 Dark Confidant. I played double Goyf, but Gatekeeper killed one, and a Swords killed the other. He attacked me for about 10 damage with Gatekeeper before I found a Loam Lion to block the ground. Then he played Nighthawk, which met Swords, and a Tombstalker, which was Pathed. A Grunt of mine also met with Swords. Eventually, I found another Loam Lion, and my pair of Lion’s killed him.

Game 2 was very interesting. I assembled the CounterTop combo, and had a Goyf and a Loam Lion on the table. I sent him to 12 life, and decided to use Top to draw a fetchland so I could play Grunt and end the game next turn. Huge mistake. He Plowed both my Grunt and my Goyf. He played Jitte, and I Krosan Gripped his Top instead, only to find that he had another Top. I died.

Game 3 was much better. My opponent mulliganed to 6, and led with turn 1 Thoughtseize! Guess what? I had Misdirection. I Misdirected his Thoughtseize, and saw: Scrubland[/author]“][author name="Scrubland"]Scrubland[/author], Scrubland[/author]“][author name="Scrubland"]Scrubland[/author], Plains, Sensei’s Divining Top, Umezawa’s Jitte. He discarded Jitte and passed the turn. He played Top, but I overwhelmed him this game and quickly won.

Final Record: 4-1

My round 5 opponent ended up in first place after the swiss, and won the biggest chunk of store credit. I got 3rd, and walked out of there with some Legacy playables.

Loam Lion didn’t come up very often, but he’s probably not significantly worse than Rhox War Monk. And Loam Lion is almost certainly better against Merfolk. I only wish I had drawn him in that matchup to verify that assumption.

Until next time…

Stephen Menendian