Balancing to 11th, an SCG Phoenix Legacy Open Report Part 1

My name is Mike Lester, I’m a local Arizona Magic player and a columnist for, I am also a full-time law student at the University of Arizona. I have played Magic off and on since Ice Age, all the way back when Brainstorm was crap and Jester’s Cap was a $30 card. Under the old ELO-DCI system I was consistently ranked in the top five or six players in the State, until they ended the system earlier this year. Nowadays I mostly just battle in local Legacy tournaments, which is my format of choice.

Since entering law school in the fall I have taken a hiatus from any competitive Magic play. Needing a break from studying for my upcoming finals I decided to make the trek up to Phoenix from Tucson and battle. I was incredibly excited about Star City Games coming to Arizona. I felt I needed to vindicate myself after going 4-2 drop at SCG LA.

The first part of this article is about my deck choice and the individual card choices I made. Part 2 of the article will contain a round by round account.

Throughout the week leading up to the event I had been doing some theory crafting about what I should play, I initially was going to play something close to Nick Spagnolo’s BUG control deck. I wanted to play Pernicious Deed because that card is extremely powerful against an open field; it chews Affinity, Enchantress, and various creature decks apart by itself. The Life from the Loam, Liliana and Wasteland engine also appealed to me. Nick’s deck seemed well positioned against the big three deck; Maverick, RUG Tempo and Martell Stoneblade (I actually like the name Soulblade for Martell’s list), it seemed like a solid choice for the tournament, however it couldn’t beat Burn. I literally lost to an eight- year-old playing a stock burn list. The combination of a lack of instant speed removal that could kill Goblin Guide, and a strong vulnerability to Price of Progress left the matchup at virtually unwinnable. Discard and counter magic have limited utility against an opponent who’s spells all do the same thing.  Phoenix has a disproportionate number of Burn players compared to most metagames, I just couldn’t write the match-up off in an eight or nine round tournament.

I brewed for a bit, tested Kitchen Finks, but that was far from sufficient. It was simply a waste of board space. My issue was that I was thinking about Burn like it was an aggro deck, that’s simply not the case. Burn does not really interact with its opponent; it actually plays more like a combo deck. It plays a bunch of bad narrow cards and generally ends the game with 0 or 1 card in hand. Eventually I splashed a Tundra for a set of Warmth in the board. This fixed the match-up, but at far too great an expense to my sideboard to be a feasible option at a large open event. So I ditched BUG control, and decided to update my old standby, Counterbalance.

I’ve had a long love affair with Sensei’s Divining Top and its double blue partner in crime. Counterbalance had traditionally strong match-ups against Burn and Storm, both of which are prevalent decks on the West Coast. I assumed that RUG Tempo would be a strong match-up as well, since old Canadian Threshold lists were favorable match-ups, and the RUG decks have been siding into Counterbalance to fight the mirror. Stoneblade seemed like a coin flip, with the U/W version being easier than the Soulblade version, although I haven’t tested this. I really only needed to solve how Counterbalance could beat Maverick.

I looked up some more modern Counterbalance lists for inspiration; on a number of websites including The Source. I found almost all the lists looked pretty poor for the current metagame. They all seemed to be fighting the old war, trying to fix matches like Merfolk and Goblins that just didn’t exist anymore. Most lists had continued to run Stoneforge Mystic and Batterskull. Stoneforge Mystic was great against Tribal Aggro because they lacked spot removal and Batterskull was generally difficult for them to answer. That’s not the case with most modern decks. Almost every “fair” deck is packing 6-8 ways to kill Stoneforge, along with either Pridemage or Stifle. Stoneforge is also pretty bad in the combo matches. It’s a main-phase only card that cannot pressure your opponent until turn 4.  In sideboard games it also makes Ancient Grudge a live card against you. One Grudge and your deck is full of Squires.  Obviously Stoneforge Mystic is pretty amazing when you have your opponent Counterbalance locked, but that is a game you’re already winning. It’s more important for your cards to be consistently good when you don’t have Counterbalance-Top then when you do.

The other anachronism was the lack of consideration given to beating Green Sun Zenith and Thrun. In combination with Mental Misstep and Survival of the Fittest, these cards are responsible for driving Counterbalance from its once dominant position as a metagame staple.

Initially I planned to play Trinket Mage with a package of Pithing Needle and Grafdigger’s Cage to beat Green Sun. Against Maverick, using Pithing Needle on Quasali Pridemage often left them with no outs to the Counterbalance lock or to Vedalken Shackles. That package proved to clunky, I only tested it for a few games. A grizzly bear creature is not quite what it used to be. Instead I elected for a package of Counterspell and Spell Pierce. Most lists I saw eschewed Spell Pierce for Spell Snare. Both are good cards, but I think Pierce is probably the stronger card right now.  Had I played an additional Spell Pierce over Spell Snare I think I would have won my Hive Mind matchup in Round 4. I’m convinced that at least four solid answers to Green Sun Zenith are required to stand a chance. I thought the Spell Pierce-Counterspell split would prove to be good enough and versatile enough in other matchups. Spell Pierce also proved awesome at stopping me from getting Choked on the draw by Maverick decks, and a forcing Counterbalance through opposing Spell Pierces and Pyroblasts.

The other problem I needed to solve was Thrun. That card is such an incredible beating against traditional lists. A single main deck Thrun could turn an unloseable position into an unwinnable one against some of the older Blue-White lists. The addition of Lingering Souls helped, infinite chump blockers purchases time, but ultimately an answer is required. Since I was already splashing black for Souls and Dismember, Diabolic Edict seemed like a natural inclusion. That card is also strong against Reanimator and Sneak/Show. Innocent Blood was another option, but its lack of synergy with Snapcaster and Counterbalance curve considerations made the Edict better. Edict answers Progenitus and Emrakul as well, giving you some outs to otherwise unwinnable situations. I also decided that a Wrath of God in the main deck would be versatile enough to warrant inclusion. It kills Thrun, Progenitus and blows out the intuition-flashback three Lingering Souls game plan. Most opponents didn’t expect Wrath in the main deck. I had multiple opponents over-extend, flooding the board in order to beat a Jace. Wrath of God was a pretty big blowout.  The selection of Sensei’s Divining Top allows you to see far more cards than the average deck over the course of a game. Finding one-ofs like Diabolic Edict or Wrath of God is fairly likely. Snapcaster also gives you the option to rebuy for them for value in matches where they are particularly good.

Vendillion Clique was another traditional staple that I felt needed to leave the deck. It matches up poorly with other commonly played cards in the metagame. Lingering Souls, Scryb Ranger, Darkblast, Forked Bolt are all cards that match-up very well against Vendillion Clique. Lowell Thompson, Arizona’s best (and likely only) Doomsday player, suggested that I play Lingering Souls in the slot instead. Souls allows you a way to defeat resolved planeswalkers, blocks down other people’s resolved Lingering Souls and purchases a ton of time to find Wrath or Jace against aggressive decks. The Souls proved to be strong, and also gave the deck a critical three-drop to fill out the Counterbalance curve.

One difficulty with modifying existing Counterbalance lists the need to maintain a correct curve for the Counterbalance. You need at least 5 three drops to consistently be able to Counterbalance opposing 3 drops, six 3 drops probably would have been preferable. Dismember seemed like a strong and underutilized option by most of the lists I saw. The deck really wants six or seven pieces of spot removal, Dismember being a three-drop that can kill Mother or Delver early was especially solid. I had seen other lists load-up on Vindicates for three drops, but I think that card is a little slow in a world full of Delvers, Mother of Runes and Dark Confidants.

The next step was building a mana base. Most of the lists I saw online played splash color basic lands, like Plains or Swamps. Some even ran colorless lands like Wasteland, Mutavault, Academy Ruins or Riptide Lab. I felt like this was a mistake. Adding non-blue producing lands drastically hinders the number of hands you can keep. I keep single land and Sensei Divining Top hands pretty regularly. If that land is a basic Plains, Swamp or colorless land that hand must be mulliganed. These lands also make Shackles worse. The most compelling reason to play only blue producing lands is when you consider your need for triple or quadruple blue early in the game. Counterbalance backed by Spell Pierce, Counterbalance backed by Counterspell, Counterbalance and Brainstorm, Snapcaster Mage into Counterspell. These are some of the stronger lines of play, having these off-color basics is inhibits these combinations. The opportunity cost of playing these non-blue lands simply isn’t worth it they screw up your main game plan too often. All that being said I played a Karakas, which I consider to be the strongest of the off-color lands, it was easily the worst card in my deck. If I played again tomorrow I would replace it with a Glacial Fortress, for some Choke protection.

Without further ado, here is the list I registered:

Creatures (3)
Snapcaster Mage

Spells (35)
Sensei’s Divining Top
Vedalken Shackles
Diabolic Edict
Force of Will
Spell Pierce
Spell Snare
Swords to Plowshares
Jace, the Mind Sculptor
Lingering Souls
Wrath of God

Lands (22)
Misty Rainforest
Polluted Delta
Scalding Tarn
Underground Sea
Sideboard (15)
Engineered Explosives
Nihil Spellbomb
Jotun Grunt
Enlightened Tutor
Wrath of God

My sideboard was quite a mess, and could have definitely used some work. I wanted to play a Serenity to hose Affinity and Enchantress, but eventually decided against it. Warmth was just a little insurance against Burn. Hydroblast was actually for RUG Delver, some versions have been running Sulfuric Vortex, as well as Sulfur Elemental and Pyroblast, Hydroblast is a decent answer to all these cards in post-board games. Perish was disgustingly good; it came in a lot of different matches. It would have been excellent in the Top 8 of the tournament as well. It’s solid against Elves, the three RUG tempo decks and the NIC Fit deck. Did I mention its sick against Maverick? Perish is a reason to run black. It’s probably a mistake not to run it in any control deck with black cards in it.

Jotun Grunt probably looks a little strange, but it also was excellent. Against RUG it blocks down Mongoose and usually Tarmogoyf, and shrinks them both down to manageable size. It’s also difficult for them to remove, it usually requires trading a creature and a bolt, or 2 bolts. Either of these plans is dangerous because one Counterspell and they are back to where they started. Against Loam and Dredge Grunt has obvious applications; it prevents you from being Wastelocked or from being ground out by Ichorid in post-board games against Dredge.

The rest of the board was a mess, I never boarded in more than one Disenchant and I almost always wanted another Spell Pierce. Engineered Explosives is not a Pernicious Deed, which is what I wanted it to be, and probably should have been Vindicate or some other non-horrible answer to Choke.

To be continued…