A Look at Counterbalance in cEDH

Harvey McGuinness • April 21, 2024

Counterbalance by Joseph Meehan

When you think of interaction in cEDH, what comes to mind? Spot removal like Swords to Plowshares or Abrupt Decay? Flexible bounce spells like Chain of Vapor and Cyclonic Rift? How about the classic counterspell suite? Force of Will, Pact of Negation, Dispel and so many more?

These are all well and good - they're all established powerhouses of the format for a reason - but what about something a bit more...permanent? It's time to talk about Counterbalance - the best countermagic you probably aren't playing.  

What is Counterbalance

First, a look at the card. For two blue mana, Counterbalance is an enchantment with the text "Whenever an opponent casts a spell, you may reveal the top card of your library. If you do, counter that spell if it has the same mana value as the revealed card." These two lines of text may seem straightforward, and in most respects they are, but those who have played with this card long enough will agree that this ability needs to be read line by line.

Crucially, Counterbalance's triggered ability is optional. That one word - "may" - enables Counterbalance to both be a tool for political leverage as well as granting its controller discretion over when to reveal the valuable (hidden) information that is the top card of their library.

Wise opponents will keep note of whenever a Counterbalance trigger results in a card being flipped, not just because it provides intel as to which cards will and won't resolve that turn cycle, but also because the incremental insights will eventually enable players to track the cards in the Counterbalance player's hand. Here's an example:

This reveals the real cost to using Counterbalance - information. Wise opponents will track everything, which means that Counterbalance can incrementally reveal your hand. Burst draw gets around this, as does topdeck manipulation courtesy of Fetchlands and tutors (more on that in a moment), but it nonetheless highlights the importance of the "may" in Counterbalance's text. 

Next, the second line. Counterbalance's requirement to counter a spell rests entirely in mana value - not cost, color, or any other stipulations. It doesn't even have the dreaded "noncreature" attached to it. While cEDH as a singleton format has a more varied mana curve than other eternal formats, it nonetheless has some pretty standard statistics.

Cards with mana value zero, one, and two comprise the majority of the meta, so most spells have a decently high chance of being countered without Counterbalance's controller needing to know if the top card is a match. Sure, certainty is great, but when Thassa's Oracle is on the stack and I'm out of free countermagic then I'll take any chance I can get.

Speaking of certainty, Counterbalance is anything but unbreakable (*cough* Sensei's Divining Top *cough*).  

I won't go so far as to say that every cEDH deck - or really any cEDH deck - should start running the cantrip suite necessary to reliably know the top card of its owner's library every turn so as to fully abuse Counterbalance, but we still have the next best thing: top-of-library tutor effects. Worldly Tutor, Mystical Tutor, Enlightened Tutor, Vampiric Tutor - all of these and more become counterspells in addition to their other effects when Counterbalance is in play.

Underworld Breach on the stack giving you trouble? Counter it by tutoring up your own (in response to the Counterbalance trigger) and then *POOF* problem solved. Similarly, if you know the top card of your deck isn't going to solve an issue later down in the turn, you can roll the dice and crack a Fetchland. It's not the guarantee provided by a tutor, but it still gives you a new spin on your next Counterbalance trigger.

Who Should Play It

Alright, so, we know what Counterbalance is - now, what decks are primed to best use it? The short answer - blue decks that want the game to go long, or at least can pivot when turbo becomes less of an option and the game ends up going long regardless. Let's look at some examples.

First up on our list is a top-tier deck that has already been playing Counterbalance somewhat frequently over its various lists for a while now. Tivit is an excellent control list which doesn't just succeed as the game goes long, but actively pushes for more and more turns as a part of its primary gameplan (and I don't just mean via Time Sieve). Backed up by stax pieces like Dauntless Dismantler, Blind Obedience, and Drannith Magistrate - plus more counterspells than many other cEDH lists - and you have this format's epitome of a control deck.

Like most control decks, though, Tivit traditionally has a slightly more extended mana curve than other decks, running a higher than average count of cards at three or more mana value. This means that, without manipulation, blind resolutions of Counterbalance will be statistically less likely to work out in comparison to some of the other decks on our list, but not by a sufficiently significant margin that I'd recommend cutting Counterbalance

Next up is cEDH's midrange Grixis list, the Partner pair of Tevesh Szat and Kraum, Ludevic's Opus (TevKraum). Unlike other Grixis lists, such as the infamous turbo partners Rograkh, Son of Rohgahh and Silas Renn, Seeker Adept, this pair isn't just capable of playing a midrange game, it's designed for it.

With two powerful value engines helming the deck, TevKraum can either play into Grixis's strengths and turbo out a well-timed Ad Nauseam or wait patiently and seize the spotlight after its opponents have exhausted themselves.

It's precisely this flexibility which enables it to seize upon the strengths of Counterbalance - either pitch it early on to a Chrome Mox or Force of Will in pursuit of seizing an early win, or cast it and wait for the game to come to you. Plus, with all the extra cards you'll draw off of your commanders, the information cost associated with Counterbalance becomes drastically diminished while the opportunity for multiple flips in a turn - each being preceded by a card drawn and thus, a new card on top - skyrockets. 

Finally, we can't talk about midrange without talking about Blue Farm. This deck is the face of cEDH right now, and for good reason. Like TevKraum, both of its commanders are incredible value engines which generate significant card advantage, negating Counterbalance's information cost and increasing the potential for distinct flips over the course of a single turn cycle.

Blue Farm has all the characteristics of a deck primed to bring out the best in Counterbalance, but struggles from its own success; the card quality is just so high in the average Blue Farm list that cutting a card to make space for Counterbalance is incredibly difficult. That being said, it was something I did when I ran the deck, and I was not disappointed. If you ever feel like finding a flex slot in your Blue Farm list, I highly encourage you to look at adding in Counterbalance.

Who Shouldn't Play It

Now that we've wrapped up the best of Counterbalance, let's look at the decks where this card probably won't shine, or at least not as much. 

First up is Kinnan, Bonder Prodigy. Now, Kinnan can thrive in a long game and often wants to win-out in a midrange slog, so why would I recommend against playing Counterbalance in this low-color list? Well, it comes down to average mana cost and Kinnan's mana curve.

Like Tivit, Seller of Secrets, Kinnan, Bonder Prodigy likes to run a lot of big cards. From Hullbreaker Horror to Wandering Archaic, "Big Flips" Kinnan is a list with a mana curve much higher than most other lists. While saying bimodal distribution might be a bit too strong of a word to describe it, there is truth to saying that Kinnan's average decklist has a significant cluster of cards with much higher mana costs than the rest of the format.

Unlike Tivit, however, Kinnan is neither a control deck nor is it buttressed by a larger concentration of medium-cost cEDH spells. Yes, Kinnan runs its fair share of one and two drops, but Tivit runs just enough more to make Counterbalance work. Don't be fooled by Kinnan's low-cost as commander - this deck will lose more flips than it wins.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is a list with a concentrated mana curve which works perfectly with Counterbalance's trigger but which doesn't want the game to go nearly long enough for the card to truly shine. Now, I'll lead here with a bit of contrarian take - I'm not fully against Counterbalance being a test card in RogSi. As cEDH as a whole slows down and turbo decks begin looking for ways to survive, I think Counterbalance could be a card which sees experimental usage here-and-there.

That being said, I don't quite think that RogSi has changed so much in the past year that it would get enough out of Counterbalance. The deck just plays too fast - if it's spending two blue mana, at sorcery speed, to maybe counter some spells later down the line, then the game has already faltered and it's pilot is likely trying to dig themselves back out of last place. Counterbalance isn't unlikely to win a flip in RogSi, but just because it will work doesn't mean it has the time to.

Wrap Up

I hope this article has given you something to think about as your experiment with your blue lists in the ever-twisting midrange meta which cEDH now finds itself stuck in. As we've seen across the decklists above, there is some real promise for Counterbalance across the top tier contenders of cEDH, but by no means are all blue decks created equal. That being said, test it out, flip a few cards, and have fun with it - you'll never really know until you try.

Harvey McGuinness is a student at Johns Hopkins University who has been playing Magic since the release of Return to Ravnica. After spending a few years in the Legacy arena bouncing between Miracles and other blue-white control shells, he now spends his time enjoying Magic through cEDH games and understanding the finance perspective.