The Intricacies of Improvement, and Dissecting the Counterbalance Deck

Last week, facing down a lack of questions, Jeroen sent out a cry for help. It seems that people responded kindly, and Jeroen’s inbox is bursting at the seams once more! This week, Jeroen looks at how a player can improve from adequate to exceptional, and gives a nod to the Japanese deckbuilding masters with a fan’s-eye look at the Conterbalance deck thet destroyed the field at Japanese Nationals.


Just wow.

When you guys redeem yourselves, you do it right, that’s for sure!

Not only did I get more questions in one day than I could answer in three or four columns, but there were even some guys that asked me thirty questions in a single email! Now that’s something!

I’ll do my best to, over the course of the coming weeks, to answer all of the questions I got, so don’t be afraid or mad if I don’t cover you just now – you will come up eventually. I will also be playing my Nationals this weekend, and if I do well (and if the tournament is interesting), I’ll write a big report. If not, I’ll gloss over it in these here articles. In the meantime, keep more questions coming at [email protected], I love having a huge batch to choose from, so keep bringing em on!

With so many questions waiting for me, I’ll dive right in with the first one, by Yannis Guerra:

1) What does your family think about your Magic Pro Player life? Do they approve? How did you convince them that it was a good thing?
2) Sometimes you have a bad matchup, and you know it. Is there any special point of view/technique that you use it to give you a better chance in this situation?

Hey Yannis,

Of course my mom doesn’t approve of my choice to live as a bum, traveling over the world, dropping out of school, and doing nothing with my life! Luckily, she is very supportive. She is my greatest fan, always glued to the Internet when I am away. I promised her that I would finish school soon enough, which keeps her happy, and with the total amount of PT points I have this year that might be sooner rather then later. My brother and sister love my career as a semi-celebrity, and carry around and show off my Pro Player card to anyone who wants to see it.

As for your second question… when you are playing a bad matchup, the first thing you always feel like is throwing in the cards, whining about your unlucky pairings. Don’t do this. The way I go about it is to always appear to be very confident about what is going on. Sure, stuff needs to go perfectly for you to win in most cases, but a lot of people mulligan, a lot of people make mistakes, and if that happens here you aren’t that much of an underdog most of the time. Try and make the fewest mistakes, and try and play in such a way as to take maximum advantage if your opponent doesn’t draw well or makes a mistake. Then after boarding your chances should rise a lot, and you will be back in the game most of the time. Don’t feel bad after losing game 1 – that was expected, and now it’s time to strike back.

What it comes down to is this: stay confident, never feel bad about what is going on, and you are expected to lose. Play hard, and you can win… but if you lose, there’s always next round.

The next question ties in to what was just asked, and it came to me by way of Ben Frenchman:

Obviously some players are just better than others, and have natural skill at the game. Kenji, Jon, Kai – they were born with talent. But do you think it’s possible for someone who regularly fails to make the Top 8 of PTQs, never makes Day 2 of a Grand Prix, etc (like… well, me) to actually make it to the Big Time? I don’t think I fall into the classic “bad player” camp, but I just never seem to do well. What are some of the reasons you see people losing at Magic, which they themselves may not see?

It is funny you should name those three players as an example, but I tend to disagree with you. Despite all three being incredibly great players, only Jon is the player born with actual sheer talent for the game. Sure, there are other players that run on sheer talent – Jelger Wiegersma, Mark Herberholz, and Gadiel Szleifer spring to mind – but Jon is one of the biggest examples. Kai on the other hand – and the same goes for Kenji – was one of the best players of all time, despite not being that talented. He made up for things that didn’t come naturally though by working his ass off. During the highlight of his career, it was not uncommon for Kai to be testing twelve hours a day, seven days a week, and that is why he was so good.

Of course, there is also some part that needs to come naturally. Thinking strategically, making quick decisions, “seeing” the game… and I know not everyone is blessed with those abilities. Sadly, those are also the few things that cannot really be trained. Usually, when a person starts playing the game, you can see this develop very quickly, and then you will have an idea if the player will become good or not. It then depends on whether the player is willing to put in the hours to develop these skills, to actually grow out to make it to the PT. On the other hand you also have people that don’t have these skills, and no matter how much they play, they will only learn to copy tricks and plays, and not develop a keen “Magic sense” for themselves.

What kind of player are you? One who plays a lot but still doesn’t see the plays, or someone who has the basic senses, but doesn’t play enough to develop them? I am the kind of player that needs to work hard to be good, and it took me at least thirty PTQs to build up the skills I needed to make a Top 8. Of course, after that I progressed quickly, so don’t get down if you fail to get there the first couple of tries. Work hard, if you feel you have the “talent”, to get where you think you belong.

Regular Hanno Terbuyken offers the next question:

What are your thoughts on the new MTGO Beta policy, which will offer no more drafts on the Beta server?

I totally agree with this policy, although it does suck for me personally. I think the object of the Beta is to test the cards and see how they interact, not offer free drafts to the few that were lucky enough to get in. Of course, Beta will now become less popular, but I am sure that the level of testing will improve, hopefully giving us a bug-free Magic Online environment.

Next up, an excellent question by JP Voilleque:

Your plea for questions put me in a mind to ask about Japanese Nationals and, in particular, the winning deck. I think it’s not a stretch to say that this was a funky list, with the tech-y (or else silly) pair of Remove Souls, Meloku as the sole win condition (apart from equipped Hussar beatdown), and the Top / Counterbalance / Confidant trickiness. I very much liked the card selection / drawing engine, which eschewed actual “draw cards” spells in favor of Bob and Hussar. This allowed more room for good stuff, like ten zillion counterspells. But I also kept looking for the copies of Gifts Ungiven, particularly when looking at the sideboard, which had some very toolkit-looking cards as singletons.

So, first question: what did you think of the list? Hard to complain about a deck that went all the way, but what aspects (if any) would you change?

Second question: in such an open format (big National tourneys won by Solar Flare, then Heartbeat, then Ninja/Erayo, then Mori’s Structure deck), does it make more sense to run a control-heavy deck like Mori’s, even if it’s a little funky? Or is it better to simply pick the deck you’re most comfortable with and go with that? Are you willing to talk about what you’re going to play at Nationals?

Like you, I am hard-pressed to critique a player that just went 10-0 with his deck, as well as being one of the premier deck builders in the world. I agree with you that the deck looks a bit funky, and uses cards that aren’t utilized very often. When you look closely though, it becomes pretty clear that all cards serve a function. Remove Souls are extra two-mana counters he otherwise can’t have that take care of the decks biggest weakness, efficient creatures (as there are only a set of Condemns to deal with them if they resolve). Muddle the Mixture, besides being a decent counterspell, is a tutor for the Silver Bullet cards that are there to dominate matchups – Counterbalance in slower matchups, and Jitte versus decks with men. Those cards and the creature base, which has card advantage and the best creature in the format in a straight up fight, seem to all fit perfectly. After working on it, I don’t really see what I can cut from the main. The deck is even great at using a Jitte, which is usually only reserved for beatdown creature decks! It may look funky to you, but every card and every number is worked out perfectly. The Japanese are masters at using cards no one usually thinks off just to fit the exact need they have.

On the sideboard though, I do agree with you – it needs work. It seems to lack focus, mainly due to not knowing what to expect in the metagame, but even then I can’t really understand why there are three Last Gasps and a Threads of Disloyaly against small creatures (instead of four of one or four of the other). Why there is a single Augustus, which seems fine as help to the Yosei’s and can be an extra Jitte wielder… but why only one? And what, exactly, does it come in against? That is probably what makes Katsu such a master, and these are definitely cards I would change immediately if I were to play the deck, as I have no idea what to do with them…

I disagree with your suggestion of Gifts Ungiven, because this is a card that shines in decks that have either graveyard recursion or a lot of similar cards that serve the same role. This deck has neither, as most cards are fairly specific at what they do, and it can’t get exactly what you need at the right time. Note that Gifts is very bad at searching out one-ofs.

As for the current format, the presence of Ninja/Erayo means I am a little reluctant to play a control deck in the current metagame, as the deck just crushes those. I feel that Dutch Nationals will see a lot of Ninjas around the table. At this point, four days before the tournament, I do not know yet exactly what I will want to play, but I have narrowed it down to a couple of decks. 8StoneRain.dec – as written about by Mike Flores and Josh Ravitz last week – Rakdos Burn, Regular Sea Stompy… and, of course, the Rock! (GB splash Demonfire.) These decks seem to fit my style of play best, and seem to work well in the current metagame. Some long test sessions will be needed for me to make a final decision.

Today’s final questions are silly, and were sent to me by a very well known pro using a pseudonym. A little side-contest, can you guys guess who sent them?

I read that you were short on questions, so I figured I’d help out.

1. Can you tell me what movie this quote is from: “What is this? A center for
2. Why aren’t you going to PT: Kobe?
3. “Boten Anna” is a song that is a huge hit in the Netherlands. It is about
a bot called Anna in a mIRC channel. Can you explain why everyone in the
Netherlands is going crazy and dances on a song about an IRC bot? What’s up
with that strange country you live in?
4. Would you rather live in America or in the Netherlands if you had the
5. Can you tell me something about the whining qualities of Peter v.d. Pad?

Rotiv Elmer

Hey Rotiv, good to have you back asking me some crazy questions! Here we go:

  • The same movie that brought us genius quotes such as: “I’m pretty sure there’s a lot more to life than being really, really good looking. And I plan on finding out what that is,” and, “At the Derek Zoolander Center For Children Who Can’t Read Good And Wanna Learn To Do Other Stuff Good Too, we teach you that there’s more to life than being really, really good looking.” It is also the movie that taught us the genius of the Orange Mocha Frappuccino, and reveals that there really isn’t much more to life then being really, really, incredibly, fantastically good looking: Zoolander.
  • I am probably going to skip Kobe, because lately I have lost the fire to compete at every Pro Tour. That, and the fact that the prices of tickets are incredibly high, I have little or no time to prepare, and that this season hasn’t been my best, means I am going to sit this one out.
  • This strange country loves songs that have a catchy trance beat, and don’t really care about anything else. To be honest, I think only a cool 10% of the people that listen to the song know what it is about, and only a 10th of those people know what mIRC is. It’s just catchy, has a nice beat, and no one can understand it anyway. Nice song.
  • If I had the choice, I would live in America for sure. The fact that my family lives here, and I don’t have a real purpose in the USA, means I will stay here for the next couple of years. Who knows? If a job requires me to relocate, or I get an offer I can’t refuse or win a Green-card, try and stop me! I love a US of A, and to me it is the greatest country in the world.
  • For those of you who do not know Peter vd Padt, he is a local Dutch player who complains more then any other person on Planet Earth. I have seen this person whine about drawing his seventh land in a Limited game, and then be happy about drawing his eighth the next turn so he could cast his White Myojin, or Akroma, and just win the game. His catchphrase of “Of course, another land! I am so unlucky!” is known throughout the land.

Thanks for those questions, buddy… heh.

That’s it for this week! Wish me luck at Nats, and I’ll be back here, same time, same channel, to tell you all about how, or what, I did. I’ll also be answering the next bunch of questions sent to [email protected]. Keep em coming, boys! (And girls.)