Talking to a lot of the more seasoned Magic players, you get the feeling that now is a boring time for the Standard format of Magic. They seem to feel that we are stuck in limbo. Coldsnap is in but Kamigawa isn’t yet out. Most of the Nationals have finished and therefore there isn’t any need to look at Standard. I, on the other hand, have never been one to stand still. I think this is a very exciting time. There are plenty of non-premier tournaments happening around the globe plus FNM, Arena League and, of course, don’t forget MODO. That gives us Standard watchers plenty of reason to create and innovate. With that spirit in mind, I’m going to present you with a deck list that you can tinker with, have fun with and yet it is strong enough to beat people up with. I’ll discuss its high points and its low points, possible improvements, good synergy and bad synergy. You can fiddle with it to your hearts content and match it to your current metagame.
Here’s the deck…
|"Computer says 'No'..."Magic OnlineOCTGN2ApprenticeBuy These Cards|
1 Yosei, the Morning Star
1 Keiga, the Tide Star
1 Debtor’s Knell
3 Jötun Grunt
3 Gifts Ungiven
3 Telling Time
4 Sensei's Divining Top
|Control vs Aggro|
4 Wrath of God
3 Cover of Winter
4 Scrying Sheets
4 Boreal Shelf
4 Hallowed Fountain
2 Ghost Quarter
4 Snow-Covered Plains
6 Snow-Covered Island
3 Jester’s Cap
3 Pithing Needle
3 Jester’s Scepter
1 Jötun Grunt
2 Mouth of Ronom
So let’s look at some of the deck's mechanisms and cards and explain their presence. Firstly the much talked about…
Counterbalance/Sensei’s Divining Top/Telling Time
Balanced?! I think not!
Balanced?! I think not!
Fairly simple synergy. Play Top, play Counterbalance, use Top to fiddle with your library so that you get the most from Counterbalance. Once this pair get online they provide great controlling power to your side of the table, but let’s consider some of the strategy you need to know. Firstly, and fairly obviously, this mechanism works best if you keep two relevant cards on top of your library constantly using Top to take the third card each turn. If you’re facing white you’ll need to keep a two-mana spell in there to stop Ronom Unicorn and Kami of Ancient Law. Both of these hurt if they hit the table. If you’re facing any of the multi-coloured green decks you need to keep a three-mana spell on there to stop Mortify. The other card you want on top depends on the deck you're facing but usually a four-mana spell stops a whole host of problems such as Persecute, Gifts Ungiven, Wrath of God, Cranial Extraction, Glare of Subdual, Loxodon Hierarch… you get the picture.
Some of the card choices for the deck have been made to maximise the spread of mana costs in your deck. For example, there are only 3 Telling Time but 4 Hinder. This is to increase the number of three-mana spells in the deck.
Next issue, Pithing Needle. Okay, so an early Pithing Needle hoses your combo and there’s not a whole lot you can do about it. However, you still have Telling Time to mess with. But that’s obvious. It is the late game Pithing Needle you have to watch for. The obvious answer here is to stack Counterbalance’s trigger, activate the Top swapping it for the top card of your library and countering the Pithing Needle. Good play? Be careful. Usually this is just your opponent setting you up for something else. With the Top firmly ensconced on top of your library and no manipulation, they are free to cast around your Counterbalance. If you do this trick, make you sure you have 2 tops in play or a counter/Telling Time or two in hand.[/p]
A quick word on Telling Time. There are better card drawing spells for control to be playing, but you’ve got to play to your synergies and Telling Time plus Counterbalance is good. If your metagame is more aggro orientated, or you think that they’ll be packing lots of enchantment removal, you can play Compulsive Research instead. You can also add an extra Jötun Grunt, thus moving the focus of the deck away from Counterbalance.
Not a lot to be said here. This card will be attacked with Pithing Needle, Ghost Quarter and… well there’s a host of things that will be aimed at your sheets, (oo-er missus) but it shouldn’t stop you playing four of. In a two colour deck with 8 dual colour lands, there’s no reason a few colourless creators can’t play ball, and the good news is you may even be able to get them back with…
Super-sized Speed Bump
I love this card. It has such great synergy with so much of your deck. If only it were a snow dude. Still, let’s explain why this guy’s got game. Firstly, early game, this guy will buy you a turn. Against aggressive decks don’t be afraid to play him even if he dies next turn. He’ll eat one of there dude’s, draw a counter spell, stop them attacking for a turn or simply make them scratch their head and go, ‘What the hell is that!?’ Any of these reactions are fine. Against the aggressive decks, a lot of the time all you need is a few turns to gain control. But you already knew that, since you’ve been playing this game for years! However, unlike the other infamous Standard format speed bump, Sakura-Tribe Elder, he’s still really good late game. He’ll put all your best spells back on the bottom of your library ready to be shuffled in by Gifts Ungiven, he’ll remove unwanted creatures and spells from your opponent's graveyard (No Zombify for you, Japanimator! And no more snakes for Sosuke to Summon), and he’ll attack for 4 which isn’t too shabby.
Cover of Winter
Good at freezing-out your opponent.
I was at English Nationals when a friend mine gave me a ring. He, by the way, is James McCafferty and this deck's original designer. He said, ‘Find out how much Cover of Winter is.’ I did. I was told 50p (90 cents). I relayed this information and the text I got back was, ‘How many do they have? Buy them all!’
At firsts I was really dubious. James has given me a few bum steers in the past and I was dubious of all of the cumulative upkeep cards. But when I saw this card in action I realised why JC wanted them. Some decks struggle to answer this card. This is almost like Wrath #5, 6 and 7. If attacking is their win condition and they can’t kill an enchantment they’re hosed. Like Counterbalance/Top this card is not unstoppable. There are plenty of answers around it but first they have to find them and then they have to play them and all the while you're collecting cards and playing draw/go. It forces games to go long. And that’s good for the control player.
Everything else is pretty much as you see. Gifts Ungiven is card-drawing, deck-shuffling, Grunt-empowering, threat-getting goodness. Wrath of God does what it says on the tin. The threats threaten and the counters counter.
I’ll warn you now. This deck is good at stalling and, like Solar Flare, will force a lot of games to go very long. Sometimes you’ll only get to play one game. However, if a game goes that long, you’re probably going to win. The sideboard has been chosen with two considerations in mind. Obviously to improve your deck versus other decks, but also to better utilise Counterbalance against various decks.
Solar Flare has some similarities to Computer says ‘No’. It stalls and disrupts the early game and then owns the opposition with its late game threats. This match-up comes down to whether they can Persecute you early and whether you can hold off Angel of Despair from destroying your Counterbalance. Also, look out for Mortify. If you can get a Top/Counterbalance online with a and casting cost spell on top you are in good shape.
-3 Cover of Winter +3 Jester’s Scepter
Once again a deck that wants to take the game late. However, they attack your mana base and that can be a problem. The good news is that they don’t have any enchantment removal other than either Boomerang or Repeal. The bad news is that Cover of Winter minus land won’t stop a pumped up Magnivore.
-3 Cover of Winter +3 Jester’s Cap
And the prize for silliest
looking dragon goes to...
This deck is similar to vore, except their threats are more numerous. But again there is good news. Their countering isn’t as good as yours and most of the threats (Keiga and especially Meloku plus his illusions) don’t hurt much with a Cover of Winter in play. Try to have a hard counter in hand as Demonfire (assuming a non-empty hand) just wins. Don’t panic about the Tron. It really only fuels the fire against you. Use your Ghost Quarters sparingly. Focus on one Tron land if you can and never the first one they play as it’s usually the one they are most confident about you killing (i.e. play a Mine with another in hand).
-3 Cover of Winter +3 Jester’s Cap
Snakes (On a plane)
The only things you need to watch out for are the Chord of Calling fetched creatures such as Indrik Stomphowler or Nikko-Onna to disrupt your control. Their snakes need to get really big to get past Cover of Winter and a timely Wrath will put paid to that. Use Jötun Grunt and Hinder to put those pesky Sosuke's Summons back in the pack.
Sideboarding -1 Sensei’s Divining Top -3 Rewind +3 Evacuation +1 Jötun Grunt
NB Evacuation got the call here over Final Judgment as the casting cost is more effective against Coat of Arms and Meloku the Clouded Mirror when Counterbalance is in play. Plus it effectively does the same job for you killing all their tokens.
One way of getting the
snakes off the plane.
The amount of control and card advantage you have should win this battle. Needle for their transmute stuff starting with Drift of Phantasms unless you have a casting cost card on top of your library and Counterbalance in play. Watch out for their aggro sideboard transformation. If you see a lot of sideboarding, be wary.
Sideboarding -4 Wrath -3 Cover of Winter -2 Rewind -1 Sensei’s Divining Top + 3 Jester’s Cap +3 Jester’s Scepter +3 Pithing Needle +1 Jötun Grunt
Structure and Force
Apparently a terrible card...
...according to me.
Since starting this article a similar deck to this appeared at Japanese Nationals and online, called ‘Top Control’ by Frank Karsten. I’ll let you decide on the merits of the two decks. The brief testing I’ve done against online opponents suggests that the match-up is about 50-50. They are able to be a bit more aggressive with the Court Hussars and Dark Confidants. However, the confidant will often do more damage to them than it does to you.
Sideboarding -2 Wrath -3 Cover of Winter -1 Sensei’s Divining Top +3 Jester’s Cap +3 Jester’s Scepter
When building and tinkering with this deck there were plenty of cards that I really wanted to play and plenty that we tried but couldn’t make work. There were also cards that I saw my opponents using and didn’t have time to crow bar them in. However, I include them here for you to have fun with.
Miren, the Moaning Well
I saw Top Control players using this land on their Court Hussars. It occasionally kept them alive just long enough to win. Using this on Jötun Grunt also seems like a plan.
Vitu-Ghazi, the City-Tree
I small splash for green to makes chumps or to slowly overrun your opponents. Sounds good.
This replaces the other threats in the deck. It smoothes out your draws a bit and makes you slightly more aggro. It also makes your gifts a bit less useful. It’s worth a try.
This guy’s are great. In a deck not-so focused on Counterbalance it would be ideal. If you take the deck away from the balance then seriously think about Court Hussar.
Well I hope all this has given you food for thought and I hope you experience the same fun I’ve had playing this deck. It will infuriate your FNM opponents and rattle your friends. Trust me, they will learn to love or loathe Counterbalance.