Maximum Value – (Counter)Balancing Legacy


Legacy is an awesome format. I started playing Legacy when I was fourteen and the format was Type 1.5. I still moderate the main site for English-based Legacy discussion on the Internet, www.mtgthesource.com and battle whenever I can.

Legacy has many poles defining its extremes. Tendrils, Dredge, and Charbelcher combo decks all boast turn two kills. Counterbalance decks can lock their opponent out of the game on turn three. Daze-based aggro decks aggressively Stifle fetchlands and use Wasteland to keep their opponents from ever resolving a spell. Zoo and Goblins can goldfish on turn four; conversely, Enchantress and Lands can both easily lock down the combat step by then.

Poles are useful for determining the most powerful thing you can do in a given format, but Zac Hill would argue that stopping the other guy from doing the most powerful thing in the format is equally important. Certainly, if you show up with forty-three lands in your deck and play Manabond on turn one, putting Glacial Chasm and five other lands into play while discarding Life from the Loam, you have broken a lot of Magic‘s fundamental rules. But if your opponent takes his turn and plays land, Dark Ritual, Dark Ritual, Ad Nauseam drawing fifteen cards, then kills you with more fast mana and Tendrils of Agony, so has he.

Because there are so many broken things you can do in Legacy, you need to either out-broken your opponent or stop him from breaking you. A lot of people are content to play Legacy decks that interact with the combat step in a pretty unfair fashion and roll the dice with their matchups, hoping to not get paired with someone breaking Magic in a fashion they can’t handle. I don’t mean to deride Glass Cannon decks, but I think Magic is more fun when I get to actively interact with my opponents in every match rather than have my tournament be determined by my pairings.

All of the combo decks are very good at doing brutally powerful things, but they are also pretty soft to decks that choose to stop the combo decks from killing them on turn one. Fair enough. In that case, what is the best way to stop someone from executing their powerful gameplan?


Yeah, that should do.

// I got beat up a lot in high school

4 Force of Will
4 Spell Snare

//derf derf derf

4 Counterbalance
4 Sensei’s Divining Top

// for the miser in all of us

3 Ponder
4 Brainstorm

// point and click

2 Firespout
3 Vedalken Shackles
1 Engineered Explosives

// to battle werewolves

1 Pithing Needle
1 Tormod’s Crypt

// ragtag crew of champions

3 Trinket Mage
4 Tarmogoyf

// gorgeous ocean views

3 Tropical Island
2 Tundra
2 Volcanic Island
2 Flooded Strand
2 Polluted Delta
2 Scalding Tarn
2 Misty Rainforest
4 Island
1 Seat of the Synod
2 Academy Ruins

// put me in, coach

4 Swords to Plowshares
3 Krosan Grip
2 Firespout
2 Spell Pierce
2 Ravenous Trap
1 Tormod’s Crypt
1 Engineered Explosives

Andy Probasco provided quite a bit of input on this list, which is a derivative of the one he rode to second place at Grand Prix: Chicago last year. This list has taken the Counterbalance shell and gone in a very different direction from most builds; I have more lands, Vedalken Shackles, a [card]Trinket Mage[/card] package, but no Daze, no Natural Order, no Rhox War Monk, and Swords to Plowshares has been relegated to the sideboard.

I’ll start with the last point, which is the one most often criticized. In a lot of Legacy matchups, you don’t really need to kill a guy that badly. Pretty much all of the linears that don’t try to attack you don’t care about Plow, and it’s also pretty loose in the mirror. Sure, Zoo, Goblins, and Merfolk are real, but that’s why Plow is in the board: you can, you know, bring it in.

Instead, I go after creatures with Vedalken Shackles, Firespout, and Engineered Explosives, which all generate a lot more advantage than Plow’s tempo gain. Shackles just annihilates the midrange decks that try to attack with a couple of animals, and is completely sick in the mirror. Firespout, meanwhile, is much more effective than Plow against the decks that you really want to be Plowing – the ones that plan on curving out and attacking you with several creatures.

Similarly, a lot of people are playing Rhox War Monk in Counterbalance to get edge against Merfolk and Zoo. This is a little misguided; War Monk rarely gets to block against a deck featuring Lord of Atlantis, Merrow Reejery, Wake Thrasher, and Merfolk Sovereign, and is fairly awkward against Zoo decks that have [card]Woolly Thoctars[/card], Tarmogoyfs, and Qasali Pridemages powering up Wild Nacatls. To be sure, the Trinket Mage package is not particularly insane against beatdown either, but getting Engineered Explosives and gaining some life by chump blocking is pretty reasonable. [card]Trinket Mage[/card] also gives you more access to Top in the mirror and makes your game one matchup against Dredge winnable. The [card]Pithing Needle[/card] is useful against Qasali Pridemage, Aether Vial, Wasteland, Maze of Ith, opposing Tops, and Planeswalkers.

It has recently become popular to add a hypercombo finish to Counterbalance. Most people have opted for Natural Order into Progenitus. Steve Menendian advocates freeing Marit Lage with Vampire Hexmage and Dark Depths. I am not a fan of either option. It is said that Progenitus and Marit Lage improve your aggro matchups, but I find the most exciting part about playing black is getting access to Dark Confidant in the mirror and Thoughtseize in the sideboa, not being able to have a 20/20 on demand. It’s hard to assemble Hexmage/Depths quickly against a Wasteland, and without Counterbalance, Path to Exile undoes all your work. Proponents of both plans claim that they are superior when Counterbalance is in play, but rarely do I find myself needing extra ammo when I have my opponent locked.

Progenitus might also not be good enough if you aren’t at a healthy life total; getting raced by a few creatures and some Fireblasts happens more than you’d think. Playing Natural Order also requires playing a bunch of mediocre Green creatures. I already elaborated on why I am not a fan of Rhox War Monk, and Noble Hierarch is competing with vastly superior cards at one mana. Wall of Blossoms is even more embarrassing against the beatdown staples listed above than Rhox War Monk, and playing something like Wall of Roots just to make Natural Order live is embarrassing in itself. It’s also awkward if the other guy has a counterspell: “Tap four, sacrifice my guy, go.” What a deal. Both combos are good in the mirror, but are not particularly impressive against the field.

I also play more lands than most people. This is partially due to color requirements, but mostly I prefer to use my Brainstorms and [card]Ponder[/card]s to improve the quality of my spells for a given matchup instead of just digging for land. Further, if you are on the draw and have to spend your first turn casting Ponder, your opponent might play a two drop and never give you a window to cast your Spell Snare. Hitting your first five land drops is also important for Vedalken Shackles. You also get to play the second Academy Ruins, which lets you set up a soft lock against Threshold and Zoo. The extra lands also give you more flexibility against mana denial strategies, making Wasteland and Stifle pure tempo plays instead of completely locking you out of your spells. You can actually board a land out against decks that don’t have Wasteland, but you often want the second Ruins and may need the basic Islands.

Playing Daze allows you to continue making land drops, but it’s actively detrimental to your midgame when you would like to cast and activate Vedalken Shackles or Engineered Explosives, or play the Top you get off Trinket Mage. Daze is also often quite dead after turn four or five, or sooner if your opponent simply chooses to play around it. Honestly, the most compelling draw of Daze is that it costs two mana; the list is a little light on two’s for Counterbalance. The fourth Spell Snare was added to compensate.

Your strategies in most matchups are pretty straightforward – resolve Counterbalance and/or beat your opponent firmly about the head and shoulders with Tarmogoyf – but the tactics can be a bit subtle. Luis Scott-Vargas wrote about the mechanics of playing with Brainstorm, Ponder, Top, and fetchlands here, but I want to emphasize the importance of holding fetchlands to eke full value out of your manipulation.

I do want to point out that if you are going to be casting Counterbalance on turn two, it is better to play Brainstorm or Ponder on turn one so that your opponent can’t just freely play a two-mana creature. With just Counterbalance, I often prefer to play Top on turn one and spend my second turn casting either Spell Snare or Tarmogoyf before playing Counterbalance on three. It’s particularly important against Zoo, where Qasali Pridemage can be very frustrating.

When you have Counterbalance and Top in play and have two- and three- mana spells on top of your library, avoid shuffling at all costs, including not searching with Trinket Mage. If you must shuffle, try to find Brainstorm and allow yourself to draw the two and three over a couple turns before shuffling and Brainstorming them back. The ideal board state is Top, Top, Counterbalance, with a two and a three on top. At that point, if you just keep drawing your third card every turn, it may not look like you are getting anywhere, but neither is your opponent. At this point, your Counterbalance is what is winning you the game, and you will eventually draw a spare Tarmogoyf to kill your opponent with. Don’t jump the gun and make your opponent’s hand live.

Against decks with Wasteland, don’t fetch out a colored mana source you don’t immediately intend to use. Similarly, if you don’t want to get Stifled, it can be strong to lead with a fetchland into a basic Island on the play, or to fetch in response to their fetchland if you are on the draw.

Before I go into matchups and sideboarding, I want to mention that I board Force of Will out quite often, particularly against aggro decks and the mirror. Against aggro decks, you don’t want to spend an extra card trading for a random threat, and in the mirror, the only card you want to Force is Counterbalance, which you have Krosan Grip for if your Snares and Pierces prove insufficient.

Also, after boarding against any deck with green mana, you generally want to leave a three on top of your deck when you pass the turn to foil your opponent’s Krosan Grips. Many opponents will be greedy and hope to get your Counterbalance in your end step. Disappoint them.

Zoo: Their creature heavy draws are the worst for you because it can be hard to stabilize the board in game one. Spell Snare and Tarmogoyf are the best ways to prevent the board from getting out of control, with Trinket Mage for Explosives acting as a panic button. If you can establish the lock quickly, you can usually handle their onboard threats eventually, but if you don’t draw Counterbalance and they keep deploying creatures every turn, things get tough. After boarding, you are much better equipped to handle their early game before locking out the midgame with Shackles or Counterbalance. Try to fetch basics and keep a Spell Snare handy for Price of Progress. If you can Ponder on turn one, do so to push your Tarmogoyfs to 3/4; you almost never want to trade Tarmogoyf for Lightning Bolt.

-4 Force of Will -1 Tormod’s Crypt -1 Tropical Island -1 Vedalken Shackles +4 Swords to Plowshares +2 Firespout +1 Engineered Explosives

Merfolk: The games where they have Aether Vial are drastically different from the games without. If they have Vial, you will get to turn three or four and all of a sudden they have three extra mana every turn. Getting Vial with Needle or Explosives should be a high priority. Without Vial, you can fight their curve fairly, particularly if you can find a Firespout. If you are leaning on Shackles, be aware that Lord of Atlantis gives all other Merfolk islandwalk and that Reejery can untap Shackles. If they lead on Standstill with no other play or just have Cursecatcher, try to break it with Brainstorm at the end of their turn when they have seven cards and will be forced to discard.

-4 Force of Will -1 Tormod’s Crypt -1 Engineered Explosives +4 Swords to Plowshares +2 Firespout

Canadian Threshold: Try not to get Dazed, and don’t let them Stifle you if your hand isn’t mana heavy. Your biggest concern is them being on the play and casting Tarmogoyf with Daze for your Spell Snare on turn two; Nimble Mongoose isn’t a huge threat early in the game, and Vendilion Clique, while frustrating, is pretty slow. Your Tarmogoyfs don’t block too effectively because of Fire and Lightning Bolt, but your Explosives and Shackles are excellent. If you can handle their attack on your mana and just kill every creature they play, you will do quite well. Firespouts come in to help kill Nimble Mongoose. Do note that Trinket Mage for Tormod’s Crypt can bring a Mongoose attack to a screeching halt. It is worth taking some extra damage to play around Daze, but recognize that they have Bolt, Fire, and possibly Price of Progress to close with direct damage.

-4 Force of Will -1 Pithing Needle -1 Tormod’s Crypt +4 Swords to Plowshares +2 Firespout

Mirror: Counterbalance is incredibly important. Don’t let them set up a sequence that will let them force a Counterbalance through with Daze if you can possibly avoid it. If they get the lock down, you are usually drawing to Explosives. Without Counterbalance, it is just a fight over Tarmogoyf in which they have Plows, but you have the huge trump of Vedalken Shackles. After boarding, you have Grips and Pierce to minimize the dangers of Counterbalance.

-2 Firespout -1 Tormod’s Crypt -1 Pithing Needle -1 Force of Will +3 Krosan Grip +2 Spell Pierce

Dark Depths: You actually want the Plows in for this psuedo-mirror, although it’s mostly to handle Dark Confidant rather than Marit Lage. Counterbalance is still the best card for both of you, but they have Confidants and Hexmages to break the symmetry. Explosives comes out because it’s worse than Pierce.

-4 Force of Will -2 Firespout -1 Engineered Explosives -1 Tormod’s Crypt +3 Swords to Plowshares +3 Krosan Grip +2 Spell Pierce

Natural Order: You have to keep Force of Will in because of Natural Order, but other than that, it’s just the Counterbalance mirror. If you have opportunities to keep them off of green creatures with Explosives or Shackles, by all means take them, but usually you are going to have to be content with holding Spell Pierce and/or Force of Will while trying to set up Shackles or the lock. Recognize that they can fetch out Dryad Arbor for Natural Order.

-2 Firespout -1 Tormod’s Crypt -1 Pithing Needle -1 Tropical Island +3 Krosan Grip +2 Spell Pierce

Tendrils: You are favored against all of the Dark Ritual combo decks for sure, but you have to recognize that they still have Duress and Orim’s Chant, and that you can’t just show them Force of Will and expect them to concede. Counterbalance is very important, and you’d like to have Force or Pierce combined with Counterbalance or Tarmogoyf to quickly close out a game. Plows come in to handle Xantid Swarm and/or Dark Confidant. Explosives stays in; sometimes you can get free wins with it at zero.

-3 Vedalken Shackles -2 Firespout -1 Pithing Needle +4 Swords to Plowshares +2 Spell Pierce

Belcher: Again, you’re favored, but you need to mulligan aggressively for the cards that make you so. Belcher is a little easier than Tendrils because if they go after you with Empty the Warrens you can show them Firespout or Explosives, and if they cast Belcher and say go, you might be able to steal a game with Pithing Needle. Fewer Belcher players run Xantid Swarm in their board; leave in Firespouts for Plows unless they cover you in bees in game two.

-3 Vedalken Shackles -1 Academy Ruins +2 Firespout +2 Spell Pierce

Dredge: Game one is all about finding Trinket Mage for Tormod’s Crypt and then Academy Ruins, but that is by no means game over. You will probably have to blow the Crypt to prevent Ichorids and Bridge from getting out of control, but if they still have a discard outlet in play all of their draw spells become extremely potent threats. If you can Force Tribe or Imp, do it. Things are better after boarding when you get Traps and the extra Crypt, but the matchup is pretty dicey. Firespouts help battle Zombie tokens. Counterbalance and Spell Snare are pretty effective against Ancient Grudge and their outlets, but you can trim a few.

-3 Vedalken Shackles -2 Spell Snare -1 Pithing Needle -1 Engineered Explosives -1 Counterbalance -1 Tropical Island +4 Swords to Plowshares +2 Ravenous Trap +2 Firespout +1 Tormod’s Crypt

Goblins: Like against Merfolk, if they don’t have Aether Vial, you can fight fairly, and stall their board with Shackles and Tarmogoyf until you can find a Firespout to kill their team with. With Vial in the mix, life becomes quite a bit harder as their Matrons and Ringleaders can dump more men into play than you can handle. Explosives isn’t particularly strong because of how wide their curve is, but you will usually want it at two to get Piledriver prior to playing your Tarmogoyf or Counterbalance.

-4 Force of Will -1 Tormod’s Crypt -1 Engineered Explosives +4 Swords to Plowshares +2 Firespout

Midrange Green decks, usually with Survival of the Fittest: There’s no definitive sideboarding plan against them; it sort of depends on what they are trying to do. If they are using Rofellos to generate a ton of mana and do unfair things with Tradewind Rider or Masticore, you probably want Plows, and if they are super aggressive with Elves, you want the Firespouts. Grip on Survival is usually not that awesome because of the tempo disadvantage and Eternal Witness, but Tormod’s Crypt to get their Genesis and Squee can be very strong. The maindeck is configured well against them, too.

You’re certainly not doing anything particularly broken with Counterbalance, but neither is your opponent, and that is good enough. I’ll be happy to answer more questions in the forums.

Max McCall

max dot mccall at gmail dot com

(frogboy on The Source)


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