Counterbalance in Legacy:
Every format is shaped by its most powerful spells. In Legacy, Tarmogoyf and a slew of other one and two casting-cost cards define it. Any deck that wants to have a shot at being competitive in Legacy needs to address them in order to be viable. One of the more powerful options is Counterbalance. When used in tandem with Sensei’s Divining Top, Counterbalance can completely lock an opponent out of the game. The two cards have found a home in many decks.
With the vastness of the Legacy card pool and the high power level of cards available, deck strategies must use the most efficient cards possible in order to not get run over by an opposing strategy. With the necessity of playing many low casting-cost spells (0-2), virtually every deck in the format has a weakness to being locked out by an opposing Counterbalance. In order to appreciate how much of an impact Counterbalance has on the Legacy format, here is a list of the more popular low casting-cost cards played in the format:
1-cc: Brainstorm, Ponder, Duress, Thoughtseize, Sensei’s Divining Top, Aether Vial, Grindstone, Swords to Plowshares, Nimble Mongoose, Goblin Lackey, Pithing Needle, Phyrexian Dreadnought, Lightning Bolt, Red Elemental Blast, Ghastly Demise, Stifle, Spell Snare, Disrupt, Kird Ape, Wild Nacatl, Portent, Orim’s Chant, Mystical Tutor, Rite of Flame, Dark Ritual, Birds of Paradise, Cabal Therapy, Pyroblast, Mogg Fanatic, Mind Harness, Careful Study, Putrid Imp, Disciple of the Vault, Arcbound Worker, Springleaf Drum, Mother of Runes, Extirpate, Isamaru, Savannah Lions, Worldly Tutor, Nomad’s en-Kor, Plated Sliver, Blue Elemental Blast, Hydroblast, Chain of Vapor, Relic of Progenitus, Cursecatcher, Llanowar Elves, Fyndhorn Elves, Chain Lightning, Grim Lavamancer, Figure of Destiny, Reanimate.
2-cc: Tarmogoyf, Counterbalance, Survival of the Fittest, Life from the Loam, Burning Wish, Infernal Tutor, Chalice of the Void (1), Dark Confidant, Meddling Mage, Jotun Grunt, Diabolic Edict, Cabal Ritual, Hymn to Tourarch, Sinkhole, Nantuko Shade, Daze, Lord of Atlantis, Umezawa’s Jitte, Devastating Dreams, Arcbound Ravager, Cranial Plating, Atog, Serra Avenger, Ethersworn Canonist, Fling, Cephalid Illusionist, Abeyance, Eladamri’s Call, Crystalline Sliver, Muscle Sliver, Sinew Sliver, Hibernation Sliver, Winged Sliver, Trickbind, Painter’s Servant, Standstill, Fire/Ice, Incinerate, Winter Orb, Engineered Explosives (2), Echoing Truth, Counterspell, Lord of Atlantis, Silvergill Adept, Priest of Titania, Goblin Piledriver, Keldon Marauders, Terminate, Pyroclasm, Smother, Disenchant, Silver Knight, Gaddock Teeg, True Believer, Predict, Animate Dead, Exhume.
With the majority of spells played in the format falling into the one/two casting-cost category, it seems like almost any deck running blue would want to run the Counterbalance/Top duo. However, that is not actually the case. While the combination can be devastating, it is not an automatic win if assembled. Deck builders have taken into account the presence of Counterbalance, and thus prepared for it by making minor changes to main deck configurations. Some decks already included solutions to Counterbalance such as Engineered Explosives, Pithing Needle (naming Sensei’s Divining Top), Pernicious Deed, Vindicate, Spell Snare, Trygon Predator, Echoing Truth, Burning Wish (for Reverent Silence, Hull Breach, etc.), Rushing River, and Oblivion Ring whereas others were forced to add cards like Wipe Away and Krosan Grip. Given the number of solutions to a resolved Counterbalance, a quick/moderate clock is needed in order to ensure that the opponent doesn’t have the time to find an answer and carry out their game plan.
The most successful implementation of the Counterbalance engine has come from blue-based aggro/control strategies. Virtually every deck that runs Counterbalance plays 4 Brainstorm and 4 Force of Will along with a combination of 2-4 Sensei’s Divining Top and other support cards like Daze, Ponder, Spell Snare, Stifle, Tarmogoyf, Thoughtseize, Swords to Plowshares, Dark Confidant, Nimble Mongoose, and Trinket Mage. Along with the necessity of tempo, a deck with Counterbalance must have a concentration of one and two casting-cost spells in order to consistently have one card of each varying cost in the top three cards of their library to utilize with Sensei’s Divining Top and to a lesser extent, Brainstorm, Ponder, and sometimes fetch lands.
Here are seven decks with the Counterbalance engine:
Of the decks with Counterbalance, Baseruption is one of the most aggressive; a straightforward aggro-control deck. It runs both 4 Brainstorm and 4 Ponder and 3 Sensei’s Divining Top for card quality as well as a robust draw engine in the form of 4 Dark Confidant and 4 Shadowmage Infiltrator. With those 19 cards, it isn’t difficult to find a Counterbalance and resolve it with the help of 4 Force of will and 4 Daze. There aren’t any cute tricks with this deck. Once either a draw component or Counterbalance is in play, it’ll win with a Tarmogoyf or the lone Tombstalker.
Epic Painter shows a different take on a Counterbalance deck. Instead of having a dedicated aggro-control gameplan, its main strategy, which is combo-control, is to resolve Painter’s Servant and Grindstone as quickly as possible and mill the opponent’s library. In addition to playing Brainstorm, Ponder, Sensei’s Divining Top, and Dark Confidant, Epic Painter also runs Lim-Dul’s Vault and Trinket Mage in order to assemble the combo as quickly as possible. Counterbalance is crucial in making sure that the Painter’s Servant is not removed from play in response to using Grindstone. In addition to Counterbalance, Academy Ruins, Executioner’s Capsule, Engineered Explosives, Echoing Truth, Thoughtseize, and Force of Will provide protection and resiliency from the opponent stopping your game plan.
Epic Painter also has the option to sideboard into a more aggro-control deck if there is too much hate for the Painter’s Servant/Grindstone combo post-board due to the significant card overlap that each game plan consists of. An opponent would not get much use out of a Krosan Grip against a Tarmogoyf or Tombstalker. The transformational sideboard would easily steal games in quite a few matches.
NOT QUITE GRO:
Not Quite Gro, or NQG for short, is one of the most controlling threshold builds. Unlike UG/r lists, which are more focused on playing the tempo game with cards like stifle, spell snare, wasteland, and fire/ice, NQG utilizes the Counterbalance engine to control the game until it can win with leisurely with a few of its creatures.
The inclusion of Nimble Mongoose, the last remaining iconic threshold creature, is somewhat debatable due to its lack of board presence. There are far fewer cards going to the graveyard in NQG when compared to other threshold lists. Cards like Oblivion Ring, Back to Basics, Counterbalance, and Sensei’s Divining Top don’t directly facilitate a 3/3 Nimble Mongoose. However, simply having shroud is enough of a benefit when facing many decks that pack lots of creature removal. Oftentimes, NQG won’t need to get into a counter war with its opponent over them trying to remove a creature simply because the opponent won’t be able to cast anything to remove a Nimble Mongoose. Cards like Lightning Bolt, Swords to Plowshares, Snuff Out, Smother, Submerge, etc. are useless against it. In addition to Nimble Mongoose, there are of course 4 Tarmogoyf and the last slots are filled with Mystic Enforcer in this list. Some alternatives to Mystic Enforcer are Trygon Predator, Meddling Mage, or Rhox War Monk.
In addition to the almost standard 4 Brainstorm, 4 Ponder, and 3 Sensei’s Divining Top for card quality, NQG also utilizes Predict which has synergy with all of the aforementioned cards as well as Counterbalance. There are also defensive uses for the card when in the Counterbalance mirror. For example, let’s say your opponent has Counterbalance and Sensei’s Divining Top in play. If you play a one casting-cost card and they don’t see a one casting-cost card in their top three cards, they will most likely draw with the top and place it on top of their deck in response to the Counterbalance trigger. After the Sensei’s Divining Top is on top of their deck, you can cast Predict targeting them which will resolve through they have Sensei’s Divining Top on top of their deck. In addition to them losing their Sensei’s Divining Top, your original one casting-cost card will also resolve, and you will have drawn two cards from Predict. Predict also serves as a defense against Mystical Tutor.
The lack of Spell Snare in NGQ is made up with the addition of Swords to Plowshares and Oblivion Ring. Not having Spell Snare means that it will be harder to stop opposing Counterbalances from resolving. However, as discussed earlier, NQG is more than capable of handling one once it’s hit play.
NOT QUITE SURVIVAL:
Not Quite Survival (NQS) is an interesting adaptation of Threshold. The standout card in the list is Survival of the Fittest, one of the most powerful tutor/attrition cards available in Legacy. In the Threshold Mirror, being able to resolve the most Tarmogoyfs is going to determine the eventual winner. Survival of the Fittest allows for immediate access to all four copies of Tarmogoyf, as well as removal for opposing Tarmogoyfs in the for of Shriekmaw. NQS also has Wonder, a game-winning card for Tarmogoyf standoffs. Squee, Goblin Nabob allows for continual searching with Survival of the Fittest without having to use actual creature card resources.
In addition to the Survival of the Fittest engine, NQS has the Counterbalance engine along with Dark Confidant. These three card groups allow for coming out on top of attrition wars. Due to the high number of slots dedicated to the three card advantage engines, NQS minimizes on its permission and card quality engines by running only 4 Force of Will, 3 Daze, and 3 Thoughtseize in the former and 4 Brainstorm, 3 Ponder, and 3 Sensei’s Divining Top in the latter areas.
Dreadstill, like NQG is highly customizable with regards to its splash color(s). There are many variations including mono blue, U/r, U/b, U/w, U/g, U/rg, and U/bw. What stands out from a Dreadstill list when looking at other Counterbalance deck strategies is: Standstill, Mishra’s Factory, Phyrexian Dreadnought, Trickbind, and Stifle.
Dreadstill has multiple game strategies based on what it’s playing against. Many decks in the format can’t handle the combination of Phyrexian Dreadnought plus Stifle on turn two or three. Other decks can’t handle playing against the card advantage gained from Mishra’s Factory plus Standstill. The Counterbalance plus Sensei’s Divining Top combination along with Trinket Mage and Engineered Explosives, Sensei’s Divining Top, and Phyrexian Dreadnought is a robust engine that will grind opposing decks down. Dreadstill can play aggro control with an early Phyrexian Dreadnought against tribal aggro decks like elves, goblins, merfolk, affinity, burn, et al. and just win or it can play the attrition war with Mishra’s Factory, Standstill, Counterbalance, Sensei’s Divining Top, Trinket Mage, and Engineered Explosives to win the long game. Dreadstill is very versatile.
Along with having multiple game plans, Dreadstill has a strong tempo disruption suite. Stifle and Trickbind serve as multi-purpose cards, effectively being pseudo time walks against fetch lands. In conjunction with Stifle and Trickbind, Dreadstill also has Wasteland which can be devastating when used in tandem. Due to the low permanent count, there is a higher permission content with 4 Force of Will, 4 Daze, and 3 Spell Snare in addition to the 3 Counterbalance.
IT’S THE FEAR:
It’s The Fear (ITF) is one of the most controlling Counterbalance decks. Its curve is a lot higher than most other decks running Counterbalance which means that it sometimes will have problems locating the appropriate spell costs on top of the deck.
There is heavy board control in the form of 3 Engineered Explosives, 4 Swords to Plowshares, 2 Pernicious Deed, and 1 Vedalken Shackles as well as a robust graveyard recursion strategy. With the help of 4 Intuition, ITF can set up graveyard recursion with Eternal Witness, Etched Oracle, Volrath’s Stronghold, Life from the Loam, Academy Ruins, along with the various control cards like Vedalken Shackles. Having access to Eternal Witness and Volrath’s Stronghold means that ITF doesn’t have to worry about destroying its own permanents like Counterbalance, Tarmogoyf, and Vedalken Shackles with Engineered Explosive or Pernicious Deed because it will be able to get them back eventually.
ITF doesn’t need to win the game quickly. The lack of tempo cards like Daze and inclusion of Counterspell demonstrate the slow nature of the deck. ITF is made for a creature-heavy metagame as the stock list does not have many anti-combo elements other than Force of Will, Counterbalance, and Counterspell. Due to the controlling qualities that ITF possesses, the number of win conditions can be minimized. Tarmogoyf is the obvious inclusion and needs no other support. Eternal Witness and Etched Oracle have a secondary role of attacking as well.
The 4-Color Counterbalance (4-CC) archetype has been around for a long time. It works under the premise of playing Counterbalance, Sensei’s Divining Top, and the best cards from each color. The list may look familiar to some readers; it should. It is the list that Gerry Thompson, Josh Utter-Leyton, Luis Scott-Vargas, Paulo Vitor Dama Da Rosa, and I brewed for GP: Chicago. We were working with the framework of 4 Counterbalance, 4 Sensei’s Divining Top, and all good cards. Granted, we didn’t have a lot of time to test (roughly 2 days) because we had been working on Standard for PT Kyoto. In the end, the results were very good with the GP win, one top-16 finish, one top-32 finish, and three top-64 finishes.
What sets 4-CC apart from other Counterbalance decks is the variance of threats. Cards like Vedalken Shackles, Sower of Temptation, and Dark Confidant are all problematic for opposing strategies. Four copies of Sensei’s Divining Top along with 4 Brainstorm and 4 Dark Confidant helps ensure that the card quality that 4-CC has remains high throughout the game. Dark Confidant in particular is very strong against control archetypes. An unchecked Confidant will often win the game.
Aggressive decks have many cards to deal with against 4-CC; Swords to Plowshares, Tarmogoyf, Vedalken Shackles, and Sower of Temptation are all problematic. The downside to these cards is the mana requirement. In order to play these awesome cards, lots of non-basic lands have to be in play during the early game which can open the deck up to being crippled by a timely Wasteland.
If I were to play this deck again, I’d probably make the following changes: -2 Ponder, -2 Trygon Predator; +1 Underground Sea, +1 Krosan Grip, +2 Spell Snare. Trygon Predator never really impressed me. It seemed good in theory, but didn’t perform as well as Krosan Grip did. Spell Snare was the one card that I wanted to fit in but couldn’t find the room for.
With a sudden lump of information being shoved down the reader’s throat, they might ask, “Okay. So like, what exactly does this all mean?”
Given that someone is sold on playing one of these decks, one method of determining which deck to play is to look at what everyone else is playing if they’re in an established metagame.
In a metagame with a lot of dedicated removal, I’d recommend playing It’s The Fear, Not Quite Gro, or Not Quite Survival. What separates the three decks from the other decks with Counterbalance is Nimble Mongoose and the recursive theme of It’s The Fear. Nimble Mongoose is the best creature against removal heavy decks because it will dodge most of the removal that the decks are playing. It’s The Fear will set up with Intuition for Life from the Loam, Volrath’s Stronghold, and either Etched Oracle or Eternal Witness to ensure that it never runs out of gas. Etched Oracle is better if the opponent is playing with Swords to Plowshares because they’ll never be able to remove it if mana is untapped.
If there is a heavy representation of tribal decks (such as Goblins, Merfolk, Elves, Affinity), Burn, and Zoo, I’d recommend playing It’s The Fear, 4-CC, or Dreadstill. 4-CC is capable of handling tribal decks because it has so much removal whereas Dreadstill will trump the opponent’s strategy by putting a Phyrexian Dreadnought into play in the first few turns. 4-CC has a many sources of raw card advantage like Dark Confidant and Vedalken Shackles as well as good creature control with Swords to Plowshares and Sower of Temptation. 4-CC also can play with Engineered Plague which can cripple a tribal deck. Against Affinity and decks with a lot of burn, Dreadstill should have the edge over 4-CC. When playing the latter, getting out a quick Counterbalance is crucial to stop them from winning from throwing burn spells at your face. Playing with a red splash in Dreadstill also gives you access to Pyroclasm and Firespout which punish all of the tribal strategies.
In a metagame where there is a strong combo element, I’d recommend Epic Painter or Dreadstill. Both decks have a quick win condition. Once you’ve gained control (i.e., not losing), being able to win in a short amount of time is imperative. Additionally, Dreadstill has a heavy contingent of counterspells and Epic Painter has Thoughtseize.
Last but not least is the Counterbalance mirror. Spell snare is very important at defending against an opposed Counterbalance. In decks, it is usually in the slot that Swords to Plowshares falls into. Additionally, a deck needs to have solutions to a resolved Counterbalance. Considering the aforementioned points, I’d recommend a Dreadstill list or 4-CC for combating the mirror. Trinket Mage gives access to various deck components whether it is finding Engineered Explosives to remove Counterbalance, Sensei’s Divining Top to complete your soft lock, or Phyrexian Dreadnought to seal the deal and win. Another overlooked aspect of the Counterbalance mirror is that most decks don’t run Wasteland. The absence of Wasteland gives Dreadstill the opportunity to play an early Standstill and attack under it with Mishra’s Factory. Sometimes, there will also be a Sensei’s Divining Top in play to use with fetch lands to filter suboptimal draws away.
The advantage of 4-CC compared to Dreadstill when playing against the Counterbalance mirror is that none of the spells are dead. The main argument against Dreadstill is that Phyrexian Dreadnought doesn’t actually do anything. Standstill and Stifle can be situational as well. If the opponent resolves a Tarmogoyf, playing a Standstill is going to be a bad idea most of the time. Stifle is good early if the opponent has a fetch land hand. Otherwise, the Stifles will sit until you try to resolve a Dreadnought.
Counterbalance, with the help of Sensei’s Divining Top, has proven to be one of the defining cards in Legacy. Its power can’t be denied. There are many approaches to what kind of a deck the Counterbalance engine is put into. While nearly every strategy is going to be a form of aggro-control, there is customizable scale for each person to settle into what suites their playing style/desires the best as well as the correct choice for the metagame.