The Long & Winding Road – Darwinism on Display: Legacy Counterbalance

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Tuesday, November 10th – Have you heard the news? “Legacy defeats Counterbalance!” is the headline of the day. After winning Grand Prix: Chicago and the Boston $5K, Counterbalance seemed poised to dominate the Legacy metagame… until, suddenly, it didn’t.

Have you heard the news? “Legacy defeats Counterbalance!” is the headline of the day. After winning Grand Prix: Chicago and the Boston $5K, Counterbalance seemed poised to dominate the Legacy metagame… until, suddenly, it didn’t. Counterbalance decks failed to crack the top 4 of this year’s Legacy Champs, and could manage no better than fourth place at either the Charlotte or Philadelphia $5Ks. Doug Linn recent article showed that Counterbalance (as a card) is not nearly as prevalent in top 8s as one might think. Doug said:

“I devote a lot of my testing toward beating Counterbalance decks and I’ve scrapped lists that perform poorly. This has really made me rethink what I’m going to test against, which is liberating (no Counterbalance!) but also confounding (what to replace it with?). It’s a good example of how popular wisdom doesn’t really play out on the Magical battlefield.”

Is Counterbalance, the boogeyman that has helped keep strategies such as ANT in check, really on its way out? Is it time to consider strategies that are out-and-out dogs in the Counterbalance match-up, or even time to remove Counterbalance from your testing gauntlet?

For better or worse, I’m going to say… no.

Using Morphling.de and Deckcheck.net, I reviewed all of the Legacy tournaments in 2009 (starting with Grand Prix: Chicago in March) with more than 100 players, and then compiled every Counterbalance deck that made the top 8 (and in instances where the top 16 was available, such as the Grand Prix and SCG $5Ks, I included those decks as well). Below, you’ll find links to or listings of all of those decks, along with a brief summary. In doing so, you’ll be able to track the evolution of Counterbalance as a strategy throughout 2009. If you take the time to examine the top 8s in their entirety, you can also follow the rise and decline of Merfolk in the U.S. and the ascension of Bant in Europe. Here goes:

Grand Prix: Chicago, 3/8/2009:

12th — Rich Shay:

Rich played B/U/G Dreadtill, splashing red for the sideboard. His list played 3 Counterbalance and 2 Sensei’s Divining Top. He would pilot a similar deck in June at the Boston $5K.

10th — Louis Scott-Vargas:

LSV’s list is nearly identical to Nassif’s, without the highlander/singleton sideboard. He played four-color Counter/Top (no Red), with White for Swords to Plowshares, and has Vedalken Shackles, Sower of Temptation, and Trygon Predator in the main. LSV played full sets of four Counterbalance and Top, and one Krosan Grip main.

2nd – Andy Probasco:

Andy’s list is also four-color Counter/Top, but his lacks White. Red is used for sideboard cards like Firespout and Ancient Grudge. Andy also played two Krosan Grip in the main (which helps show the grip this style of deck had on the format at the time), and full sets of Counterbalance and Top. He also had two Academy Ruins.

1st — Gabriel Nassif:

Nassif’s list is nearly identical to LSV’s, except he has a singleton sideboard with fifteen different cards (although in reality, the sideboard is functionally similar to LSV’s).

Annecy, 5/2/09:

4th — Stefan Czolk:

Stefan played a Bant version of Counter/Top, with Qasali Pridemage and Rhox War Monk supplemented by a Trinket Mage package and full sets of Counterbalance and Top. The basic framework of this deck is similar to Counter/Top with Natural Order.

Grand Prix: Barcelona — Legacy Side Event, 5/24/09

8th — Joan Anton Mateo:

Joan’s deck is the first top 8 I found (for a large event) for the Natural Order / Progenitus combo grafted into a Bant Counterbalance/Top shell. This version played two War Monk and two Trygon Predator, with three Top, four Counterbalance, and a full set of Ponder. The sideboard is also very interesting, with Jotun Grunt, Gaddock Teeg (presumably a swap for Natural Order against Storm combo), and Back to Basics.

Jupiter Games in Vestal NY, 5/30/09:

No Counterbalance / Top decks in the Top 8. (note: three Merfolk decks in the top 8).

Earthquake 2, 5/31/09:

No Counterbalance / Top decks in the top 8.

Boston $5K, 6/21/09:

10th — Steve Sadin:

Steve played a U/G/W build that had a minor Intuition package with Life from the Loam, 3 Mishra’s Factory, and a singleton Wasteland. He played full sets of Counterbalance and Top.

3rd — Rich Shay:

1st — Scott Blumenthal:

Rich and Scott played very similar B/U/G Dreadtill lists. Rich has 3 Counterbalance and 3 Top, while Scott has 4 Counterbalance and 3 Top.

Master of Geddon, 6/21/09:

5th — Marco Doldi:

Marco played a deck similar to the Nassif/LSV build from GP: Chicago, but played a full set of Trygon Predator main, along with full sets of Counterbalance, Top, and Vedalken Shackles.

1st — Andrea Milillo:

Andrea played a full set of Tarmogoyf and also played two Sower of Temptation, with a full set of Counterbalance and two Tops. He also played two Dreadnoughts; I would guess that to some extent this was a nod to the Bant strategy that was already becoming popular in Europe (which plays both Swords to Plowshares and Trygon Predator). Note that two Goblins decks were in the top 4 of this event (and three in the top 8), suggesting a metagame far different than that of the U.S. Andrea’s sideboard has Blue Elemental Blast and Firespout.

Legacy Champs 2009, 8/15/09:

8th — Ben Steiner:

Ben is playing U/G/W Counter/Top with Natural Order and Progenitus. He has two Ponder, with three Rhox War Monk and a singleton Trygon Predator. His list plays full sets of Counterbalance and Top. He also played Swords to Plowshares over Path to Exile, something carried over into the versions of this deck that made the top 16 at the Philadelphia $5K. Note that this deck was significantly impacted by the printing of Misty Rainforest, as having extra fetchlands that find Dryad Arbor is a big boost to the deck (as opposed to the Polluted Delta in this build, pre-Zendikar).

7th — Devon Ducummon:

Devon’s list is similar to Timothy’s (below) in many respects, and also has three Top with four Counterbalance. He has Trygon Predator in the main-deck and has no Putrefy or Pernicious Deed.

5th — Timothy Hunt:

Timothy played a B/U/G Counter/Top deck, in the style that was popular at GP: Chicago, with Daze, Force of Will, Thoughtseize, Dark Confidant, and Stifle. This build has four Counterbalance and three Top. His list acknowledges changes in the metagame in that he has more spot removal (Smother, Putrefy) to survive to get his CB/Top engine online, and less colors to avoid weakness to mana disruption. He is playing two Sower of Temptation main and rocking three Pernicious Deed in the sideboard. He would play this same list at the Philly $5K, while a nearly identical build made the top 4 at the Charlotte $5K.

Ovino 4 (Milan), 9/12/09:

No Counterbalance / Top decks in the top 8.

Charlotte $5K, 9/13/09:

6th — Oliver Russ:

Oliver played B/U/R Dreadtill splashing Red for some sideboard cards, and playing without any Green at all (so no Tarmogoyf). He also had a singleton Tundra with no White cards, so that was probably to bluff Swords to Plowshares and to power up Engineered Explosives.

4th — Joe Leigh:

Joe Leigh played a nearly-identical build of Timothy Hunt’s 5th-place list from the 2009 Legacy Champs.

Philadelphia $5K, 10/11/09:

9th — Vincent Pau:

Vincent played U/G/W Counterbalance/Top with full sets of each, plus 3 Natural Order and a Progenitus. Although he missed the top 8, I actually like Vincent’s list as compared to Ben Steiner’s list from Legacy Champs (also played by Johnathan Mosier, below). It gives up some consistency without Ponder (and some ability to find Natural Order), but it should have an easier time finding three-cost spells for Counterbalance, and the extra Trygon Predators and fourth War Monk seem like good metagame calls (and extra Green creatures are always useful with Natural Order). Vincent is also splashing Red for sideboard cards.

5th — Timothy Hunt:

Timothy played his deck from the 2009 Legacy Champs, above.

4th — Johnathan Mosier:

Johnathan played Ben Steiner’s build from the 2009 Legacy Champs.

Bourgoin-Jallieu, 10/17/09:

No Counterbalance / Top decks in the top 8.

The Evolution of Counter/Top:

“I have called this principle, by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved, by the term of Natural Selection.” — Charles Darwin

We can reach a number of conclusions from the results, above. First, any sort of pronouncement regarding the death of Counter/Top decks in Legacy is premature — at least, in the U.S. In every Legacy event in the United States this year that had more than 100 players, at least two of the top 8 decks were Counter/Top decks, with the exception of the Jupiter Games tournament in May (which was dominated by Merfolk, probably as a reaction to the results of the Grand Prix). This suggests that if you want to win a large Legacy tournament, you still need to have a plan against Counter/Top decks… unless you live in Europe.

Second, Counter/Top has shown itself to be a resilient strategy. The traditional B/U/G-style from GP: Chicago is still around, using spot removal and sweepers to give itself a gameplan against Zoo and Merfolk. Dreadtill hasn’t been putting up the same results as it did early in 2009 (see below), as Zoo has eight outs maindeck for Dreadnought; however, Zoo has no such answer for Progenitus, leading to better performance from Counterbalance decks using Natural Order instead of Dreadnought. The use of Rhox War Monk in Bant-style decks (with or without CB/Top or Natural Order), and the lack of cards like Thoughtseize and Dark Confidant in many Counterbalance/Top decks, shows how much influence Zoo is having on the Legacy metagame in the U.S.

What also stands out to me is how earlier Counterbalance decks were designed to be broad in nature to combat what was a relatively unformed and wide-open metagame. Dreadtill is a good example — it has Counterbalance and Top, Standstill as a draw engine, mana denial in Stifle/Trickbind and Wasteland, and Spell Snare, Daze, and Force of Will to counter opposing spells and resolve its threats. As a strategy, it is designed to be resilient against an open field; the precursors to the Nassif / LSV Counter/Top decks were similar, while the specific builds played by those two pros in Chicago were metagamed against the mirror. Today’s Counterbalance decks have had to acknowledge the existence of Zoo and Merfolk, and adapt accordingly. They are clearly targeting certain decks, and attempting to dodge or blank specific cards. The use of Rhox War Monk, which is so good against Zoo, is a great example of this. Similarly, some of the cards that are “good” in the abstract (such as Dark Confidant or Thoughtseize) are actually a bit out of step with today’s Legacy metagame, and have been cut.

I think Darwin would approve.

Effects on Merfolk and Zoo

I also believe we can make a few predictions as far as where Legacy is moving as we reach the end of 2009. In the U.S., one of the striking things about the results above is the almost complete absence of Merfolk from the top 8s of American Legacy tournaments in the latter half of the year (after it dominated at the Jupiter Games tournament in NY last May). Merfolk has been an oft-discussed strategy this year and mostly exists because of Counterbalance/Top; the Merfolk strategy, while solid overall against many Legacy decks, is particularly good against traditional CB/Top decks and against Storm combo such as ANT. These decks were probably the most-discussed leading up to and coming out of Grand Prix: Chicago.

Without Storm making up a significant portion of the metagame, and with Counterbalance decks declining in number and diversifying in strategy while Zoo becomes one of the most common decks, it is hard to believe that Merfolk is an ideal choice to bring to a large American Legacy tournament. In some ways, it now sits in the same position as Goblins (although Goblins can adapt more to Zoo than Merfolk can); Goblins also has a better match-up against Dredge, but a worse match-up against other combo decks such as Storm.

I would also guess that Zoo is headed to a similar place as Counterbalance earlier in the year: Zoo decks will need to acknowledge each other’s existence and begin to dedicate cards to winning the mirror match. I expect that we’ll continue to see the use of Umezawa’s Jitte in Zoo, and might even see cards like Kitchen Finks that are so powerful in a mirror match between two aggro decks.

In Europe, Storm continues to put up solid results, but Counterbalance as a strategy is not performing well at all. This could be because of a larger percentage of Merfolk players, as Merfolk has done well in Europe — again, this is logical, as Merfolk is very good against Storm. Similarly, Aggro Loam is more popular in Europe than in the U.S., and as a strategy it is also good against Zoo. It is quite possible that the prevalence of Bant, Storm, and Aggro Loam have kept Zoo in check in Europe (unlike in the U.S., where it runs rampant), meaning that Merfolk as a strategy is better-positioned there than it is here. This is something worth keeping in mind when you data-mine the internet for decks.

Wherefore art thou, Landstill?

Each time I write a Legacy article, someone comments that I haven’t discussed Landstill, and am therefore leaving out a significant portion of the metagame. I’ve responded that I’m only writing about what I see in the results of large tournaments. In 2008 and the first half of 2009, especially in Europe, Landstill was one of the dominant players in the metagame. Its hybrid with Counterbalance/Top, Dreadtill, was one of the top performers in the U.S. Clearly something changed over the course of 2009, as both of those decks, especially Landstill, have really fallen off the map. What happened to alter the landscape so drastically as far as these two decks are concerned?

1. Wild Nacatl exists. Older aggro decks like Goyf Sligh needed to rely on burn spells to finish out games; Dreadtill could establish a Counter/Top lock to save itself from being burned out. Other aggro decks like Boros or Dark Boros had creatures that were slower and therefore easily trumped by Goyf or Engineered Explosives, or countered with Spell Snare. Now, modern Zoo decks have both Kird Ape and Wild Nacatl that they can slip in before Counterbalance or Standstill are in play; these creatures dodge Spell Snare and are awkward to counter with Daze in the early game. If Landstill or Dreadtill choose to sweep the board with Firespout or Explosives, they’re open to being slaughtered by a flurry of burn spells.

2. Qasali Pridemage exists. Not only does Pridemage let Wild Nacatl swing for four damage on turn 2, it also gives Zoo a maindeck out against Counterbalance, something it lacked before, and it gives it an answer for an early Phyrexian Dreadnought. It can also destroy Crucible of Worlds, Mishra’s Factory, and so on.

3. Path to Exile exists. Swords to Plowshares is clearly a suboptimal choice when you’re playing aggro and need to deal with a 12/12 creature; Path to Exile provides Zoo with another answer to an early Dreadnought, one that doesn’t trump 3-4 of its own burn spells, and also gives it a better option against opposing Goyfs.

4. Standstill is no longer well-positioned. Two of the more popular decks, Zoo and Merfolk, can turn Standstill into a liability. Merfolk is able to deploy creatures in the face of Standstill using Aether Vial, and Zoo can turn Standstill into dead weight by keeping Dreadtill / Landstill backpedaling through the early turns of the game.

5. Stifle and Trickbind are not as reliable as they were before in terms of disrupting an opponent’s development; to a lesser extent this is also true of Wasteland. Although Zoo runs fetchlands, it only needs three lands to function, and can often get by on one or two; Merfolk only runs fetchlands if it’s running a splash color, and even then will have a solid count of basic lands. Both of these decks are somewhat difficult to disrupt using Trickbind and Stifle, and both have basic lands they can use to function against a Wasteland strategy. The printing of Zendikar fetchlands makes a deck like Zoo or Bant even better-positioned against Wasteland.

6. Merfolk is popular. Although Counterbalance/Top decks were the main target for Merfolk players, Landstill definitely got caught in the crossfire. Merfolk is able to fight counter-wars and use its own disruption, and has Aether Vial to blank opposing counterspells. The use of so many “lords” can make sweepers like Firespout ineffective.

7. Dredge continues to grow in popularity as a strategy. That is always a bad thing for Blue control decks, but even more so when your strategy is already under attack by metagame changes.

8. Tarmogoyf is ubiquitous. Decks that relied on Goyf as their primary win condition are at a disadvantage, because the card is so prevalent throughout the format. Nearly every deck outside of dedicated combo plays Goyf, and acknowledges and respects the card and therefore has answers to it.

I’ve never meant to suggest that either Dreadtill or Landstill are “bad” decks, because they aren’t. There is a world of difference between a deck that is flat-out bad, as compared to a good deck that is poorly positioned in a metagame. Dreadtill and Landstill are both in the latter category.

Next week: I played in a Legacy tournament (the first Legacy Showdown at Alternate Universe — Blue Bell) on Saturday, 11/7 and will recap that tournament in next week’s article. This tournament was won by Landstill.

Bonus Vintage: Updating Zen Oath

And you thought the section on Natural Order Rock last week was random…

Anyway, I’ve received quite a few emails about sideboarding with Zen Oath, as there are common match-ups that I didn’t face at the NYSE III and therefore weren’t in my tournament report. Let’s address that now.

First, I made some slight changes to my list:

I cut the Thirst for Knowledge completely to make room for a second Ancient Grudge, swapped Wipe Away for Rebuild, and made some minor sideboard adjustments. Ancient Grudge has been so good against Null Rod strategies and Tezzeret that I wanted another in the main. The extra Wasteland is for the mirror and Ichorid.

Additional Sideboard Strategies:

Sideboard against Ichorid:

In: 1 Wasteland, 4 Leyline of the Void, 1 Pithing Needle, 1 Tormod’s Crypt, 1 Ravenous Trap, 2 REB

Out: 1 Rebuild, 3 Thoughtseize, 1 Duress, 1 Hellkite Overlord, 2 Ancient Grudge, 2 Spell Pierce

You definitely want to try to mulligan into hate, to a point. With 2 Wasteland, 1 Strip Mine and the 7 dedicated hate cards, it’s easy to find one hate card to buy time. If you’re on the play with a first-turn Orchard + Mox + Oath hand, you can probably keep it and win quickly enough that way. Red Elemental Blast protects Leyline of the Void from Chain of Vapor, and also counters draw spells from Mana Ichorid.

Sideboard against Stax:

In: 1 Krosan Grip, 1 Oxidize, 1 Karrthus

Out: 1 Iona, 1 Ancient Grudge, 1 Merchant Scroll

I haven’t found Merchant Scroll to be that effective against Stax, as mana is usually at a premium in that match-up. I also consider bringing in Pithing Needle, as it can blank Wasteland and Welder. I will often sideboard out the Duress in favor of a Needle for games on the draw. If you’re expecting a very heavy shop presence, I would probably suggest moving the second Ancient Grudge back to the board and adding a third Spell Pierce main, and cutting one of the anti-Ichorid cards for another Oxidize, as Chalice of the Void on 2 is a serious problem. Additionally not all Stax players use Chalice of the Void, so Ancient Grudge is occasionally very good in that match-up.

Sideboard against TPS:

In: 2 Red Elemental Blast, 1 Tormod’s Crypt

Out: 1 Hellkite Overlord, 2 Ancient Grudge

This is not a particularly good match-up for my version of Oath, but it is definitely winnable. Cutting a Hellkite makes it more likely that you’ll Oath into Iona. Red Elemental Blast counters some of the best spells in TPS, and Tormod’s Crypt can randomly save games by denying Threshold for Cabal Ritual and blanking Yawgmoth’s Will. Again, if you’re worried about TPS, you should modify the sideboard for that match-up; I have plenty of Ichorid hate because of that deck’s presence in my metagame, but your mileage out of those cards will vary.

Last but not least…

If you didn’t catch it, the Grand Prix schedule for 2010 is live on the Wizards homepage. For Legacy, there is a Grand Prix in Columbus next year in July (now with 100% less Flash) as well as a Legacy Grand Prix in Madrid in February.

Without a doubt, this is a great time to be playing Legacy…

Matt Elias
[email protected]
Voltron00x on SCG, TMD, and The Source