In order to give you ideas on how to upgrade your new Counter Surge Challenger Deck, I’ll share the theory behind the card selections and the overall deck strategy so that you can determine other cards you might want to add yourself. I’ll also give my upgrade priority list so that you can make your deck more competitive with as few changes as possible. If you’re looking to upgrade on a budget instead, see Frank Karsten’s thoughts on the subject. If you’re looking for a different Challenger Deck, see my last article on the Hazoret Red list or stay tuned for future editions.
The Counter Surge Challenger deck’s strategy is to create large creatures bigger than what your opponent can deal with in combat and to use cheap protection spells like Blossoming Defense to protect them until your opponent runs out of answers (and life). You also have access to removal spells like Fatal Push to slow down your opponent enough to give yourself time to assemble your large threats.
Here, the Walking Ballista is the first place that I would start. It is a flexible card that you can cast on turn 2 or on turn 10 and it is good in both scenarios against opponents with creatures. It also helps you stave off multiple small creatures from your opponent like Earthshaker Khenra or Toolcraft Exemplar. It even has synergy with the Winding Constrictor, Verdurous Gearhulk, and Rishkar, Peema Renegade It really is the most versatile card, and that’s why it would be my pick for the first upgrade.
+3 Walking Ballista
Dreamstealer is my recommendation for the first card to cut. It’s slow, low impact, and does not have much synergy with other cards in the deck. It has utility in slower matchups that are reliant on card advantage, but the Scrapheap Scrounger and even the Walking Ballista both fill that role while also being able to attack early and often.
Speaking of slow cards that do not align with your strategy of creating giant monsters to crush your opponent, I would look to move the Gonti, Lord of Luxury into the sideboard for the matchups where having more cards than your opponent is a priority. Since we added the Walking Ballistas, we can reduce the importance of cards for aggressive matchups and remove two Cartouche of Ambitions from the sideboard to make room for your luxurious friend.
-2 Gonti, Lord of Luxury (Main Deck)
+2 Gonti, Lord of Luxury (Sideboard)
-2 Cartouche of Ambition (Sideboard)
In the void left by Gonti, I would add the two remaining Scrapheap Scroungers because they can be a real annoyance for opponents who do not have ways to exile them and are a safe place to dump counters from Rishkar or Verdurous Gearhulk.
+2 Scrapheap Scroungers
Like Gonti, Glint-Sleeve Siphoner is a card advantage creature when you actually would rather play creatures that can do some serious damage as well. Jadelight Ranger is a powerful creature that has +1/+1 counter synergies with the Winding Constrictor while also giving you the ability to draw lands or fix the top of your deck. It seems like the perfect fit to me! It also moves your mana more toward green, which will hopefully make your spells easier to cast.
-4 Glint-Sleeve Siphoner
+4 Jadelight Ranger
Longtusk Cub is a relic of the days when you could play Attune with Aether and have loads of energy. Another option here instead is Merfolk Branchwalker because it again has synergy with Winding Constrictor and, like Jadelight Ranger, it can sometimes draw you a card or help you smooth out your next draws by removing the card on top of your deck. When your creature drew you a card when it entered the battlefield, the thought of trading with your opponent’s Ahn-Crop Crasher doesn’t feel so bad.
-4 Longtusk Cub
+4 Merfolk Branchwalker
Now that the energy synergy is out of your deck, you should reconfigure the mana. Instead of Aether Hub, which is an inconsistent source of colored mana, you want to be playing Blooming Marsh. This allows you to have as much green or black mana as you want and is better than a Forest or Swamp on the first three turns of the game. You will also want to change the sideboard Die Young to another removal spell since you won’t have energy lying around. Fatal Push is the best there is at removing small creatures in Standard, so you can swap that right into the sideboard and give yourself some flexibility since it is an instant instead of a sorcery.
-4 Aether Hub
+4 Blooming Marsh
-2 Die Young (Sideboard)
+2 Fatal Push (Sideboard)
While you’re updating the mana, you can replace some Forests with Hashep Oasis and some Swamps with Ifnir Deadlands. These spell lands are another source of card advantage, and we’re making the deck much more aggressive, so the downside of sometimes having to pay life is not as bad since you’re putting your opponent on the back foot more often. Since you also removed Gonti, which requires 2 black mana sources to cast and a black 2-mana creature in Glint-Sleeve Siphoner, you can increase the ratio of black-producing lands and increase the green-producing lands.
+2 Hashep Oasis
+4 Ifnir Deadlands
Walk the Plank is a worse removal spell than Fatal Push in many situations since it’s a sorcery and doesn’t destroy Merfolk, so I would change one of these for a Fatal Push and one for Vraska’s Contempt. Exiling creatures is very important to answer your opponent’s Rekindling Phoenix or their The Scarab God and makes this an important inclusion for Standard now.
-2 Walk the Plank
+1 Fatal Push
+1 Vraska’s Contempt
Vraska’s Contempt is an upgrade over Hour of Glory since the life gain can be relevant, but it is harder to cast because it requires 2 black mana sources. For this reason I would consider making this change once all other changes have been made, but it is marginally better.
-2 Hour of Glory
+2 Vraska’s Contempt
Your goal of casting large creatures should be represented here as well, and I would replace both of the Appetite for the Unnaturals with Thrashing Brontodon. If your opponent does not draw their artifact or enchantment, then you can at least play a creature that can attack and be a target for your counters from Rishkar or Verdurous Gearhulk while you wait for your opponent to draw it. Again, we are making a narrow card flexible like we did with the addition of Walking Ballista. This is an important tenet of deckbuilding and I always look to make my sideboard flexible whenever possible.`
-2 Appetite for the Unnatural (Sideboard)
+2 Thrashing Brontodon (Sideboard)
Your Hazoret Red opponents will sometimes get the upper hand on you early in the game, and so you would like a way to gain some life. Oh, and if you can have that effect attached to a creature for flexibility that would be great. That’s where Deathgorge Scavenger comes in! Plus, it has the added bonus of being graveyard removal if your opponent has their own Scrapheap Scroungers, The Scarab God, Earthshaker Khenra, or Sacred Cat. The Brontodon does so well against artifacts and enchantments that you can also remove the Slice in Twain, and the Deathgorge gains enough life that you can remove the last Cartouche of Ambition.
+2 Deathgorge Scavenger (Sideboard)
-1 Slice in Twain (Sideboard)
-1 Cartouche of Ambition (Sideboard)
Lifecrafter’s Bestiary helps you draw cards against opponents with a ton of removal, but since those decks have ways to win the game that are difficult for you to deal with, provide a lot of card advantage themselves, or create an insurmountable boardstate, you still want to end the game as quickly as possible (i.e., let’s get another giant monster in here). Carnage Tyrant is large, difficult to answer, and helps you win the game before your opponent can amass an advantage. I like it better here in those matchups, especially when it is not so easily answered by Abrade like the Bestiary is.
-2 Lifecrafter’s Bestiary (Sideboard)
+2 Carnage Tyrant (Sideboard)
As general sideboarding advice, bring in Gonti, Duress, and Carnage Tyrant against your slower, controlling opponents that are just interested in countering your spells and drawing cards with Search for Azcanta. You’d want to swap out the Fatal Push, Walking Ballista, and perhaps some copies of Vraska’s Contempt against these opponents.
Fatal Push, Deathgorge Scavenger, and Thrashing Brontodon are good cards to bring in against your aggressive opponents because they all allow you to slow down the game and catch up to your opponent and let your big creatures close the game for you.
Gonti, Lord of Luxury is for games where your opponent is trying to play a lot of big creatures against you as well. Blossoming Defense is less important in those matchups so I would trade that out for Gonti. Thrashing Brontodon is for troublesome cards like Search for Azcanta and God-Pharaoh’s Gift, also Dispossess if it’s the latter.
My Final Product
After all of those upgrades, here’s what my final product would look like! For your final version, feel free to make incremental changes or large deviations from what I have posted based on your personal preferences or your trial and error.
What changes would you make to help the Counter Surge deck be competitive at Friday Night Magic and Standard Showdown? Which change do you think should be the first priority? Which Challenger deck to you think is the most fun right out of the box? Let me know in the comments!