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By: spg, spg
Apr 21 2009 11:14am
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Explorations #24 - Fighting Counterbalance/Top

Today I wanted to write an article about how to fight against the combo of Counterbalance + Sensei's Divining Top, which is one of the definitive board states in current day Classic (as well as paper Legacy). This board state is powerful enough, and common enough, that any serious classic player should make sure that they have a plan to deal with it whenever they head into a tournament. Hopefully this article will give you some ammunition for this battle.

To defeat something, you must first understand it.

Counterbalance + Sensei's Divining Top is probably the most common strategy utilized in Classic today. The basic idea is to get Counterbalance in play, and then abuse the fact that most decks in the format are filled with cards that cast one or two mana by manipulating the top of your deck to prevent your opponent from resolving any of his spells. Sensei's Divining Top provides a cheap, easy, and reusable way to manipulate the top of your deck - especially in conjunction with fetchlands (or Ponder) to shuffle your deck when necessary.

Here's a quick example list that utilizes Counterbalance/Top as part of its primary strategy:

prolepsis9 - Classic Legal
4 Dark Confidant
1 Sower of Temptation
4 Tarmogoyf
2 Trygon Predator
11 cards

Other Spells
4 Brainstorm
4 Counterbalance
4 Daze
1 Engineered Explosives
4 Force of Will
2 Ponder
4 Sensei's Divining Top
4 Swords to Plowshares
27 cards
3 Breeding Pool
4 Flooded Strand
2 Island
4 Polluted Delta
3 Tundra
4 Underground Sea
2 Wasteland
22 cards

1 Emperor Crocodile
1 Engineered Explosives
2 Krosan Grip
3 Pithing Needle
1 Sower of Temptation
3 Threads of Disloyalty
1 Umezawa's Jitte
3 Tormod's Crypt
11 cards

Taking a look at this deck, it's easy to see how brutal this combo can be.  Lots of factors combine to make Counterbalance/Top a strong strategy. As mentioned above, the majority of decks in Classic are filled with cards that cost one and two, this gives us a much easier target to hit when firing off Counterbalance. This fact also makes Counterbalance by itself a somewhat decent play, even without any library manipulation to back it up. This obviously isn't ideal, but the fact is that Counterbalance is definitely not a dead card on its own. Combine this with the knowledge that Sensei's Diving Top is a strong card by itself, and you have a soft lock combo with two independantly useful parts - this is a great property for your lock components to have!

If you do run a Counterbalance out there without the Top, then many other strong cards (that decks often want to play anyway) can take its place in the short term. Cards like Brainstorm, Ponder, and (Serum Vision) allow you stack the top of your deck, something like Academy Ruins can return a relevant artifact to the top of your deck to counter a spell, and fetchlands allow you to shuffle chaff away if you know the top of your library and it doesn't match the mana cost of a spell that you need to counter. These tricks give you lots of different ways to hold your ground while trying to get a Top into play.

Once Sensei's Divining Top comes into play, your ability to manipulate the top of your deck skyrockets. Both abilities of the Top are relevant. The first ability is obviously useful, allowing you to stack the top three cards of your deck for just a single colorless mana. Don't like what you see? Fire off a fetchland, shuffle up, and take a look at another three. This is useful to stack your deck for Counterbalance (or something like Dark Confidant), and is just a generally useful way to filter your draw step and maximize the strength of the cards coming into your hand.

Here's a tip for how to use the first ability of Sensei's Divining Top to maximum efficiency: REMEMBER YOUR DAMN CARDS! I always make absolutely sure to remember the cards on top of my library, as well as the order that they are in after each Top activation. I can't even tell you how many times in Legacy or Classic I've seen people forced to activate their Top multiple times due to simple carelessness. Don't do this! It may not seem like a big deal to spend one more mana in order to take another look, but this can lose you games!

The second ability of Top is very powerful, can get you out of a lot of tough spots, and is often overlooked. This ability allows you to counter any spell with a converted mana cost of one: draw a card, flip the Top onto your library, and reveal the Top with a mana cost of one. Not bad! This same ability also allows you to dodge most conventional removal targeting your Top. Let's say your opponent casts Disenchant on your Divining Top, and you're unable to counter it. Just flip the Top onto your library in response to dodge the artifact removal spell. Some players don't see this coming, and it can really swing a game!

Another important aspect of the Counterbalance/Top combo to understand is that it protects itself, which is fairly uncommon when we're talking about on board card combinations. Your average multi-card combo is generally very fragile. All that your opponent has to do is find some way to remove one permanent, and your soft lock disappears. This is also true for Counterbalance/Top. If your opponent manages to remove Counterbalance or Sensei's Divining Top, then you'll find yourself in a much weakened state - but they will need to do so through your combo! Removing an artifact or enchantment sounds easy enough, but it becomes a lot harder to do when your opponent can counter most of your spells at will.

Battling Counterbalance/Top

Fighting against Counterbalance/Top is one of the most discouraging things that I've experienced in Magic. Once the soft-lock is in play, it often feels as though you will never resolve another spell again. And this is often the case! What a helpless feeling! How do you fight something like this? I'm going to present a list of nine different ways:

Attack the Hand

There are a number of ways to attack the Counterbalance/Top combo while it is still in your opponent's hand. Discard is the most obvious tactic. You can cast Duress and scalpel away the necessary cards, or cast the brute force Hymn to Tourach and hope to hit one of the combo pieces. In addition to discard, you can also use something like Meddling Mage to render one (or both) of the necessary spells uncastable.

Prevent the Combo From Resolving

This is one of the most obvious ways to fight against Counterbalance/Top: find a way to counter the necessary cards! This can range from using a Daze or Force of Will to stop a key card all the way to hustling and assembling Counterbalance/Top before your opponent is able to.  That last option is obviously ideal!

Proactively Attack the Combo

There are many cards that can come into play early (before the lock is in play) in order to proactively attack Counterbalance/Top somewhere down the line. Pithing Needle can shut down your opponent's ability to use Top, Trygon Predator can bust up both parts of the combo (and a bunch of other useful stuff), Seal of Primordium can hang out until they have a Top or Counterbalance in play, and Pernicious Deed can come down early and then break up the combo later on.

Some of the cards above can be tough to resolve with a full (or partial) Counterbalance-Top combo in play, so the earlier you can get them into play the better. It's a lot easier to fight a turn three or four Counterbalance-Top combo than a turn two Counterbalance-Top.

Krosan Grip / Split Second

Attacking the in-play combo is tough, due to the fact (discussed above) that Counterbalance/Top prevents itself - but split second helps a lot in fighting this. Krosan Grip will generally target Counterbalance, although it is capable of breaking up either part of the combo. The split second ability prevents your opponent from responding with library manipulation, although the Counterbalance trigger will still fire. Many Counterbalance/Top players make it a habit of leaving a spell that costs three on top of their deck whenever possible, this is generally the only way to fight Krosan Grip.

Trickbind is another card that can be used in a similar way, although it only stalls this combo temporarily - and you still need to hope that your opponent doesn't have a two mana spell on top of their library.

Cast Spells That Can't be Countered

If your opponent is countering everything that you cast then the natural thing to do is cast spells that can't be countered, right? The best option in this option in this category for most decks is Vexing Shusher. This little guy comes down with no worry of counterspells, and then (with a little mana investment) turns each spell that you cast moving forward into something that Counterbalance/Top is helpless to battle. Watch out for Swords to Plowshares though!

Burn decks in the past have played Urza's Rage as an uncounterable way to finish off the game, and Volcanic Fallout is a solid way to take out Dark Confidants. Demonfire and Banefire are options that have seen play in other formats, but six mana is a lot for Classic. Maybe hellbent is good enough? Hard to say.

Put Cards Into Play Without Casting Them

There are a few popular ways in Classic to get creatures into play without casting them. One way is Aether Vial. Bring down this card on turn one and then you'll never need to worry about forcing a creature through Counterbalance/Top again... unless they destroy your Vial, or you mess up the number of counters on it.

The second way can be seen when examining a creature such as Ichorid. When using his ability, you're not casting him from the graveyard - you're returning him to play. This means that Counterbalance/Top can't do a damn thing about it!

The final way I want to point out involves playing lands that provide utility. Mishra's Factory (and the other various manlands) allow you to bring a creature into battle without actually casting anything, Wasteland provides land destruction, and Volrath's Stronghold provides recursion. Lands are a great way to bring uncounterable functionality to the table.

Utilize Artificially High Casting Costs

Play spells that have a high mana cost, which makes it much more difficult for your opponent to successfully abuse Counterbalance. One option is something like Tombstalker - your opponent isn't likely to have an eight to counter the big guy. This doesn't break up the combo, but it gets a 5/5 in play for your opponent to worry about.

If you're interested in breaking up the combo, then you could try Engineered Explosives. The trick here is to sunburst for two, but actually play for much more. While on the stack, spells with X in the cost count X in their converted mana cost. So if you play Engineered Explosives for UUUBBB then it will sunburst for two (enough to destroy Counterbalance), but your opponent will need a six on top of their deck to counter it.

Overload Their Mana

If you don't have any specific cards to battle Counterbalance/Top with, then you can attempt to overload your opponent with a critical mass of spells that he can't handle. This involves volleying as many spells as possible with different converted mana costs at your opponent, ideally while they are somewhat low on mana. The hope here is to save your most important spells for the end of this sequence, with an aim towards resolving something that can help get you into the game. This strategy is best used when your opponent is somewhat low on mana. Maybe they just spent some of their mana to cast a threat, or maybe you've managed to Wasteland a few of their lands away.

One potentially strong tactic for this situation is to lead with a powerful one-mana spell (if you have it). With any luck your opponent will have to flip their Top onto their deck in order to counter it, which makes it easier to force through subsequent spells.

Just Win Anyways

This is an important one that can be easy to forget. Sometimes it doesn't matter if your opponent has Counterblance/Top. Sometimes you can just win anyways. Maybe you've managed to resolve a few Goblins before the lock came down, or maybe you're just able to NecroSpike your way to victory before your opponent has time to get their combo online. No matter how you achieve victory, sometimes you are able to do it without worrying about Counterbalance/Top.


Hopefully this article gave you a decent idea of how to battle the brutal Counterbalance/Top combo. Did I forget anything? Do you have a method to add to my list? Let me know! Thanks for reading!

Steve Gargolinski


no love for... by hamtastic at Tue, 04/21/2009 - 13:03
hamtastic's picture

...Burning Tree Shaman?

He's uber-aggro, vialable, and really nails the Top Player to the wall. Good against Sensei-Sensei as well.

Good article on how to approach beating a very irritating deck!

Pithing Needle by Appollus (not verified) at Tue, 04/21/2009 - 14:21
Appollus's picture

Some counterbalance-top players main deck pithing needle, and it renders Shusher useless, although he is still a good strategy, you have to watch out for that as well.

Teferi by Appollus (not verified) at Tue, 04/21/2009 - 14:49
Appollus's picture

Oh too Teferi helps to stop the hard counters on your turn when you do try to kill the counterbalance after they have run out of mana or put sensei on top.

This article is very, very by LOurs at Tue, 04/21/2009 - 14:35
LOurs's picture

This article is very, very important to someone who wants to join competitive classic. Any classic player's deck must consider that he would have to beat a countertop the win a tournament. So this article wont learn revolutionnary technics to most of usual classic player, but this is nuts for any player joining the format.

About solutions, i maybe could add something to this great analyzis with another angle.

Solution #1, #2 & #4 are tempo solutions : a usual countertop deck is running x4 counterbalance & x4 top. So to counter, to destroy or to make discard one of the needed element wont prevent you from a middle/late lock. (if you destroy the counterbalance, the top will help the opponent to find another one and if you destroy the top, you are still sensitive to counterbalance counters). So you have to consider theses solution if you only need a few turns to win before the lock comes again on board(if you are running vial, combo, rdw or any fast deck ...)

Solution #3, #5, & #6 are general blue hate solution : these options are viable against almost any blue decks, countertop included as well. They are also the most efficient solution imho if you are scared by blue counters.

Solution #7 & #8 are specific anticipations vs countertop : The Rock's players know that countertop is harmful for them (for example, true with some other decks too) so they anticipate the lock during the conception of the deck to have a protection against it. Most of The Rock deck are playing 3 or 4 mana spell (doran, kitchen, loxodon hierarch,vindicate, pernicious ...) because of the countertop : some theses cards could be replaced by some faster other spell, but wont be in order to be free to play them even if the lock is already on board.

Solution #9 is not a real solution : it is a question to well manage priorities in a classic deck. The aim is not to harm to this usual lock, but still to win the game...

Take care mate, great work and looks good.

Importance? by Katastrophe at Wed, 04/22/2009 - 22:34
Katastrophe's picture

Solution #9 is not a real solution : it is a question to well manage priorities in a classic deck. The aim is not to harm to this usual lock, but still to win the game...

Would you say that it is important to present threats regardless of the lock, and not so urgent to destroy the lock? :)

i mean sometimes you are so by LOurs at Thu, 04/23/2009 - 05:32
LOurs's picture

i mean sometimes you are so enervated by the lock that you are focusing to destroy the CB or the the Top to quietly go on to play although you could only focus on your opponent ftw ... a countertop is a awesome counter engine but it could never kill you by itself. Even with a full countertop lock on the board, sometimes your opponent wont manage to find his CMC2 or CMC3 spells to counter yours although you are considering your spell as countered for sure... It is different in each situations though. :)

I have no knowledge about the by Lord Erman at Tue, 04/21/2009 - 14:56
Lord Erman's picture

I have no knowledge about the format and all I know about this deck comes from these articles. But I'm wondering: What kind of a game is CounterTop vs CounterTop? How does one win? What are the important cards for the miror match and how to play? He who gets down a Trygon Predator first and keeps it alive wins?

Just wondering.


a mirror of countertop deck by LOurs at Tue, 04/21/2009 - 15:09
LOurs's picture

a mirror of countertop deck could be compared to a sprint race : the first player who manages to resolve the full lock is almost all the time the winner. In a mirror, you will see a turn (T2 or T3 usualy) where there is a big war of counters (it happens to double FoW +Daze, or even double FoW + double Daze) when a player is trying to implement the lock. This is a "tempo war" in fact.
Trygon could be a breakdown also, but most of countertop deck are running a full playset of swords to plowshare, so it is more complicated to keep the trygon on the board than to lock the opponent ... and finish it with mishra or something else...

From my experience LOurs is by spg at Tue, 04/21/2009 - 16:13
spg's picture

From my experience LOurs is absolutely correct. Winning a mirror match when your opponent has in-play Counterbalance/Top and you don't is EXTREMELY difficult. The mirror match largely comes down to a race to resolve this combo, and then a secondary race to either draw Krosan Grip or keep it on top of your library to protect your lock.

In the cases where Counterbalance/Top is disrupted or doesn't show up for either player, then the best route to victory that I have found is Dark Confidant card advantage - obviously preferably alongside Sensei's Divning Top. This not only increases your ability to draw into the lock, but also increases the ammunition that you have available in the cases where your opponent draws into the lock.

The problem, as mentioned above, is that 4x Swords to Plowshares is all over the place and Dark Confidant is often not long for this world.

Absolutely wrong by walkerdog at Thu, 04/23/2009 - 17:14
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While on the surface, yea, you want to stick countertop before your opponent, the right build has almost no trouble breaking the lock. You have threats that can just bypass CT like Trinket Mage, and Engineered Explosives to just kill Top. Bob is awesome in the mirror obvs, and I feel pretty good if I stick him while they have Top... it's hard to deal with 2 cards a turn, CT or not.

REMEMBER YOUR DAMN CARDS! by dangerlinto at Tue, 04/21/2009 - 16:46
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Love that advice - it's so true. A lot of times you are looking at only 1 mana available, in order to pressure the opponent (or take pressure off yourself.

It's especially important to remember when you have Trinket Mage/Trygon Predator on top to keep Grip from resolving, because you don't get a chance to look again.

countertop mirrors by whiffy at Tue, 04/21/2009 - 20:19
whiffy's picture

The mirror comes down to who can keep a sdt on the table in my oppoinion.
there are plenty of built in wyas to fight an oppsing balance but really who ever can get the better card quality will generally win out.