There are a million ways to build a better mousetrap.
Counterbalance was a card that was slow to pick up steam in Legacy. Even with the pre-existence of Senseis Divining Top, and a home for it ready made in the Threshold decks of the time, it took months for the combo to find its way into the metagame. Fortunately, those of us working on the format at the time managed to discover how good the combination of the two was before the Extended metagame spelled it out for us, so we managed to avoid the feeling of egg on our face, but it was still a much longer process to adapt to this new soft lock than it probably should have been.
Really, that was the problem in and of itself. What good was a lock in the mirror match against the best deck in the format, when the best deck is Goblins, possibly the worst matchup for the combo? It wasn’t until we could look past “turn 1 Goblin Lackey on the play” and see the rest of the forest that we recognized the amount of advantage that was inherent in “in response to the Counterbalance trigger, Top. Still in response, fetch. Still in response, Top. Reveal a two.”
At the time of Coldsnap’s release, the decks above looked very different. They were the very definition of Aggro-Control, much more akin to the Canadian Thresh decks of this era than the Counterbalance decks, and for good reason. Combo in its current form did not exist. Bryant Cook, largely credited for the defining Storm Combo deck of this era, was playing Red-based Threshold at the time, and didn’t even own cards like Lions Eye Diamond. The earliest incarnations of that storm deck were still being discovered, and those incarnations revolved largely around the interaction between LED, Infernal Tutor, and Ill-Gotten Gains. Mike Bomholdt, who just made the finals of SCG Indy with an insane Metalworker deck, was the developer and major proponent of Iggy-Pop (yet another stupid deck name), and while the deck did have a significant amount of power, even fewer people played that deck than play combo now, so you were lucky to see it once per event. On the other hand, Goblins was basically the exact same deck it is today, so you can imagine the kind of format that would revolve around the deck. Although Goblins has gotten a few new toys in the last five years, it’s hard to argue that in comparison, the rest of the format has gotten much, much more. At the same time, Merfolk as a deck simply didn’t exist. There were blue Vial decks with Standstill which were referred to as “fish,” but very few of them actually ran Merfolk, and were much more likely to run Grim Lavamancer, Voidmage Prodigy, etc. It was more of a Wizard deck than a Fish deck, in reality.
While I’m tossing around decklists, here’s a list of a Ugw Thresh build that I piloted to second in a major East Coast event right around the time of Coldsnap’s release:
As you can see, we were much more focused on a different uncommon from the “new set.” Jotun Grunt was theorized as the Great White Hope for Threshold, as it regulated and limited the size of your opponent’s Mongeese and Werebears, as well as tangling with both in combat. This was a stage in the decks’ development where there was still a mantra of “4 Werebear, 4 Nimble Mongoose, 1-2 GIANT MONSTER TO BASH WITH.” Mystic Enforcer was insane (at the time), and often games would revolve completely around who could stick an Enforcer first, and ride it to victory. The red versions of the deck all ran Fledgling Drake in that slot, along with Lightning Bolt in the Swords slot, to create a significant clock out of nowhere. I was a bit different in that my list ran Counterspell, Needle, and Explosives, which were not as commonplace then as they are now. My build had a hard time dealing with Mongoose, and needed a way to break the parity of the creature standoffs.
That’s right – Portent AND Mental Note. When your deck is terrible at attacking with any less than 7 cards in your graveyard, getting to the magic number was of paramount importance. Remember that this was a time long before Ponder or Preordain, and the quality of cantrips fell off quite rapidly after 4x Brainstorm. I recall many, many debates over the proper number of cantrips and the proper configuration. They all seem so quaint these days with our embarrassment of riches.
In reality, it should have been a simple change to take out 4 Meddling Mage (which were often insanely good for me, and at worst chumped and died) along with a playset of some bad cantrip to make room for Counterbalances and Tops. However, it’s difficult to break out of the status quo, and those changes would have taken the deck away from the aggro-control status it had, and moved it into the realm of pure(r) control. Realistically, that should have been what I wanted with this deck anyway, as it wasn’t capable of really performing the aggro role in the same way that the red deck was, since it had nowhere near the amount of reach, and the Swords lent themselves to a more controlling deck anyway. Still, I was from the school of Ernhamageddon, and I wanted to lay a threat, counter a few spells, and blow up the world for the win.
Honest confession – Counterbalance was originally a sideboard card in my Thresh deck. It took almost a year for it to make its way into its rightful place as the primary plan for me. Sigh. Live and learn. At least I didn’t sleep on Tarmogoyf.
End history lesson (for today).
Each of the half dozen decks at the beginning of the article have proven themselves as capable of performing on a large stage (with the exception of the Grindstone deck, which is a theoretical different take by yours truly). I’d like to examine what they have in common, in order to establish what works, and then extrapolate that information onto the theoretical deck that I’ve included.
First, let’s crunch numbers.
Each deck contains the following similarities:
3 Senseis Divining Top
4 Force of Will
4 Swords to Plowshares
2 Jace, the Mind Sculptor
1 (splash basic)
8 Fetch lands
< The maximum number of each splash color dual land
Some of these seem obvious, like Force of Will and Brainstorm being good in decks that want to cantrip and counter spells. However, there are a few things that doing this sort of comparison has shown me –
• The only deck that runs less than the full suite of Sensei’s Tops does not run Trinket Mage. However, it does run Enlightened Tutor as an alternative that has additional flexibility.
• Two of the five decks compared do not run Tarmogoyf. They could, via a splash, and all three which don’t run it actually do splash another color – some even splash green. This points to the idea that Goyf is not a sacred calf, and that you shouldn’t be going out of your way to fit it in if you don’t need to.
• On the other hand, all of the decks - regardless of context – splash white for Swords to Plowshares. Two of them for no other white cards. It would appear that White is worthwhile.
• There is no debate about whether Jace has proven himself worthy of the slots. The question seems to be “how many.”
• There is a shift of focus from maximizing your access to colored mana requirements via Dual Lands toward minimizing their presence and upping the basic lands and fetches. With decks like Merfolk and Goblins sideboarding problematic enchantments like Back to Basics, Blood Moon, etc. this seems like it may be a wise decision.
Looking past the cards that the decks have in common, but into the themes that the remaining cards represent, we can observe a few more things:
• Each of the decks have a “trump” to deal with their aggro matchups. This comes in various forms, but they all have some way of dealing with creature swarms. Firespout, Engineered Explosives, Wrath of God, and Moat all accomplish this.
• The one deck with no sweeper has a trump in Natural Order to race the aggressive decks, or utilizes Rhox War Monk to dominate the red zone.
• Planeswalkers are excellent at providing a source of card advantage to a deck that relies on answering their opponent’s threats. Control decks are adapting to be more comfortable with spending a one-time mana and turn investment on dropping a Planeswalker, and protecting it for the turn that they need to begin reaping significant advantage from them. With ‘Walkers like Jace and Elspeth, which can buy that turn themselves by protecting via their creature creating or bouncing abilities, the controlling deck is at a natural advantage that allows them to be played on less-than-parity board states.
• Winning via Tarmogoyf beats is still a viable way to end the game. However, should you choose not to do so, you’ll need to come up with another way to win the game. Planeswalkers, 10/10 Protection from Everything’s, and nearly infinite 1/1 fliers are all viable plans.
In applying these observations to the sixth list, along with the intuition I’ve developed from years of playing and analyzing similar lists, I can say with some confidence that this build has a lot to offer when compared with the other decks.
First, being a combo/control deck, as opposed to an aggro/control deck allows you to play a similar role as the Levin Natural Order deck above – you can largely ignore the more traditional aggressive decks by winning in a fashion that they aren’t easily able to interact with. When you’re trying to throw Tarmogoyfs and soldier tokens at them, you’re playing the game they want to be playing – and they’re going to win – at leas some of the time - because they were built with those types of interactions in mind. By operating outside the paradigm that they’re prepared for, you effectively become the beatdown deck, and leave the aggro deck in a mode of trying to either race your combo or control you from establishing it. Either way, you’re taking them out of their comfort zone, and forcing them to play your game, rather than playing theirs with them. On the other side of things, you can operate in two very distinct, but equally viable roles against other decks which are capable of legitimately assuming the control role against you. These methods should be familiar to any of you who have previously played combo in Vintage. Your options are to attack in one of two ways – you can build to the point of inevitability through attrition, by sculpting a control hand that can’t lose to any combination of reactive spells from your opponent, and then pushing through your combo. Alternatively, you can throw bomb after bomb at them, until they run out of ways to stop you and one of your haymakers eventually resolves. The reason you’re better equipped to perform this type of assault when compared to a deck like Tendrils, is that your haymakers require no set up, and cost only one or two cards, as opposed to a wind up like generating appropriate storm. Often your threats are comparatively cheaper, or on par with the cost of their counters, so you can afford to throw a few away to clear the path. This ability to play the controlling role or the aggressive one is the primary advantage of playing aggro/control over pure control – however, your “aggro” plan wins the game on the spot.
Since this deck is based on two separate combinations of two cards – similar in fashion to the extended Thopter/Depths deck – which are both pairs of artifacts, it seems reasonable that we’d be pairing them with other cards that favorably interact with artifacts. For the purposes of testing, I wanted to give Tezzeret his fair shake. I’ve expressed my thoughts on this new ‘Walker in other articles, so I won’t belabor it here, but he has all of the hallmarks of the other Legacy playable Planeswalkers:
• He has a reasonable mana cost, and along with it, a reasonable starting Loyalty
• He has a + ability that generates card advantage and card selection
• Using his + ability immediately puts him out of Bolt range
• His – ability creates a threat/blocker to protect him from potentially being attacked to death on the turn he’s played, or to generate a Juzam Djinn, should you need to attack on the spot
• His ultimate will win you the game in a deck that is properly built to be conducive
• His ultimate can activate the turn after he comes into play
• He’s blue
All of these are independent of the specific deck you’re trying to place him into, but there are a few other points based on this specific deck:
• His + ability digs deeper than any other card selection tool (aside from Lim-Duls Vault) to find the missing combo piece
• Even when you don’t actually win the game by his ultimate, it will usually swing life totals by enough to buy a reasonable amount of time to either ramp to 4 again, or to set up one of the other combo wins.
• His ultimate ability plays exceedingly well with Thopter Foundry/Sword of the Meek
As we’ve established from the dissection of the other Countertop decks, Planeswalkers are Some Good™. It stands to reason that Tezzeret, when positioned in the proper deck, can be on-par with, or potentially even better than, Jace the Mind Sculptor. Fortunately, there’s no reason not to play both. While they don’t play together quite as nicely as Jace v1 and Liliana Vess, they are absolutely fine together, and in my play so far with the two of them, they’re nearly impossible to lose with when they’re playing in tandem. The most interesting thing to me is the decision it puts onto your opponent in terms of which is the greater threat – should they be focused on taking out the ‘Walker they know is going to be terrible for them, or the one they haven’t established as a real threat yet? So far, they almost always choose wrong.
I was listening to the coverage from SCG Indy this weekend, and at one point, Glenn Jones and Adrian Sullivan were discussing why Thopter Depths was so good in Extended. Glenn ultimately pointed out that the true reason the deck was so strong was its ability to punish the opponent for making mistakes. Often, when your opponent screws up, you get to make an advantageous trade, or resolve a spell that’s more important than the one you threw away, etc. With Thopter Depths, when your opponent messed up, they took 20 to the face, or they were buried under a massive amount of fliers, etc. This deck operates on the same basis – forcing your opponent to have the right answers at the right time, and punishing them with losses should they fail. It has a diverse threat base that can attack them from significantly different angles, and does not rely on any of the pieces of the puzzle falling perfectly in place to succeed.
On the subject of mana issues, this build has a few positive and negative points in comparison to the other type of decks that are running the CB engine. It’s greatest strength is in its win conditions lack of reliance on specific color combinations – only one of the four main win conditions retains any colored mana constraints at all. While Jace and Tezzeret, along with Counterbalance all constrain the type of mana you’re looking to produce, you can survive without access to colored mana, in the event that you play against a deck which attacks that particular resource. Alongside this, access to multiple non-land sources of mana allow you to both accelerate out your threats early, as well as establish mana from sources which don’t typically attract disruption. Both types of Moxen are strong here, as each of course, have their own significant drawback that makes you think carefully about when and how to best utilize them. Chrome Mox is the better accelerant, as it has less of a constraint for its use, however Opal has a negligible requirement for activation beyond turn 3 – if you can’t assemble two other artifacts by then, you’re doing it wrong. Unfortunately, the fact that Opal is Legendary makes me hesitant to run many of them, although I believe it is the stronger Mox. The side benefit of the Opal tapping for off-colored mana is yet to come up, but I have no doubt that it will in time. I have found myself playing the Chromes with no imprint, simply to increase the artifact count for Tezz or to sacrifice to the Thopter Foundry. This isn’t ideal, but it gets you where you want to be.
This build has not been adapted to take full advantage of Painters Servant naming blue. I believe with further testing, the likelihood of reworking the mana base to include some amount of Volcanic Island, along with Red Blasts from the board, is likely. Should that be the case, it’s also quite possible that the numbers for the Moxen will be reworked. I believe this is an important change that needs to be worked on, to address the lack of Swords to Plowshares. As the data above establishes, the most successful builds of the CB decks have had some amount of spot removal. While the StPs are not available, having access to a number of “situational” Vindicates seems a step in the right direction.
Keep in mind, while you’re trying to assemble your doomsday machine, you’re still representing one of the strongest archetypes in the format, and are perfectly willing to play the “reveal for Counterbalance” game.
I have high hopes for this build. I had a fair amount of success with a similar deck that capitalized on the Painter/Grindstone interaction a year or two ago, and this is a strict upgrade to that deck. While the metagame is not yet perfectly poised to allow the Painter combo to be uncontested (Emrakul is seeing far too much play for that to happen anytime soon), the backup plans that this build has in place for the games where the Grind plan fails are first rate. The deck is packed full of powerful cards, and I believe – just as Caleb Durward does – that the time is right to paint the world blue. Until next time, pick up a brush, and remember – keep your stick on the ice.