With Grand Prix Seattle this weekend, which I will be attending, the Magic community is abuzz about the Legacy format. I have always loved Legacy, but today I would like to talk about something I do not love at all—Counterbalance.
Probably the single least enjoyable aspect of Magic would have to be any situation in which you’re unable to cast your spells. Counterbalance takes not having fun to a whole new level. Today I’m going to detail the cards you can use and tactics you can employ to help you increase your win percentage against what might be the most frustrating card in the format.
The simple answer to the question “what card can I play to beat Counterbalance?” is Krosan Grip.
Krosan Grip has split second and is a common sideboard card for decks that are soft to Counterbalance. I used to play all types of Life from the Loam decks, and Counterbalance was public enemy #1, and for that reason Krosan Grip was a staple in my sideboards. Fair warning though, it’s an easy mistake to conflate split second with uncounterable, but they are not the same thing. Split second says that the opponent can’t cast spells or activate abilities when the card is on the stack, but they can still trigger their abilities, which means if you cast Krosan Grip on Counterbalance, they will still be able to reveal their top card—though they will not be able to respond with Sensei’s Divining Top to try and find a 3-mana-cost card. Krosan Grip is a reliable answer, but keep in mind that savvy Counterbalance players will periodically “float” a 3-mana card on top of their deck when they don’t have a reason to keep a different card on top, so when you think their defenses are down they might just be trapping you. The best time to use a Krosan Grip is after the opponent has used their Top at end of turn and it seems as though they’re intending to draw that card for their turn. They’ll usually be in the habit of doing things in a specific manner every turn so pay attention to these subtle hints.
Engineered Explosives is another cute way to kill a Counterbalance.
Engineered Explosives has a casting cost of X and sunburst, which checks the different-colored mana symbols spent on X. So you can cast it with X=7 and sunburst=1 as long as you tapped 7 Forests to cast it. The practical application of this would be to tap a Bayou, Tropical Island, and Underground Sea to cast an Engineered Explosives and declare “I’ll spend blue, blue, and black mana for X equaling 3.” Now the sunburst is for 2 and when activated it will destroy all nonland permanents with converted mana cost equal to 2, but for Counterbalance to counter it they would need to reveal a 3-mana-cost card. You can use your judgement here and pay for X as much as 4 or 5 mana if you can afford it and you believe that X is an unlikely cost for them to be able to counter.
Now resolving 1-mana-cost spells is going to be hard—at any moment they can tap the Top and place it on top of their library, where it can be revealed to counter your spell. Resolving 1-drops is hard, but not impossible. One thing to remember is that any time the opponent taps the Top in an effort to counter 1-mana-cost spells, you can respond with more 1-drops.
I like to start with something like a Ponder to test the waters. They can look at the top 3 cards of their library and reveal a 1-drop—but it’s good to make them have it. This is low risk as well, since Ponder is a sorcery and all it can ever hope to accomplish is being cast in your main phase, in the face of the combo. In addition to this, the Miracles player can’t always have a counter, since each turn they’re forced to draw a card in their draw phase, which means if they get a 2-, 3-, and 4-drop on top of their library, they can’t just demonstrate a loop and say all your spells are countered forever. In fact, it’s to their advantage to draw the 1-cost spells since they know that in case of an emergency, they can tap the Top and always counter at least one problematic spell.
Starting with a sorcery speed 1-cmc spell is smart because even if it’s countered, it was highly unlikely to ever resolve anyways, and if they do try to counter it, they have to tap their Top—at which point you can start to cast Brainstorms. Usually when they have Counterbalance and Top in play, there is a long lull in the game where each player draws and passes the turn. In this time, you can stockpile some fetchlands. When the time comes for you start to casting Brainstorms, you’re in a position where your spells can’t easily be countered and look innocuous enough, where it’s easy for opponents to just let your spells resolve. Here, you can put dead cards (that are easily countered) back into your library where they can be shuffled away. The hope here is that you draw into threats that cost 4 or 5 mana, which are above the threshold where the Counterbalance player can reliably have an answer. Cards like Natural Order, Sneak Attack, and even Goblin Ringleader are best here.
Make no mistake, if the opponent has Counterbalance in play alongside Sensei’s Divining Top, you’re going to lose a massive percentage of those games. But it’s the never-say-die attitude and being constantly on the lookout for any edge that sets the good players apart from the great ones.
How do you beat Counterbalance?