Welcome back to my series on Modern archetypes; you can find a link to my original article here:
Last week I talked about the various archetypes of Magic. This week I’ll showcase the first archetype on the list: CounterSliver.
Countersliver is defined as such: Aggro Control strategies that specialize in small creatures, quick clocks, disruption, and permission. These decks focus on playing a creature that gets under counter magic and permission, which will disrupt the game and eventually kill the opponent. Michael Flores says these decks shine in Weisman heavy fields and often fold to Prison heavy strategies.
In the spirit of definitions, here are a few important concepts and how I understand them:
Disruption: Temporary delay of opponent’s plan. Ex. Spell Pierce can slow an opponent or reduce options within a turn by eating up additional mana, Thoughtseize can delay their board production by taking key spells, and Lightning Bolt can kill early creatures. Disruption is much better in the early game than the late game.
Removal: Terminate rather than Bolt. Permanent spells to completely deal with big or small creatures.
Tempo: A play or a spell that temporarily influences the pace of the game. Either slowing your opponent down or speeding yourself up. Ex. Using Vapor Snag to “time walk” your opponent by bouncing a creature. Tempo is not permanent and, without the means to capitalize on the time it gives you, disappears and no longer favors you.
In his article, Flores provides the following decklist:
After I looked up all these cards, there were a few that caught my eye in differentiating the CounterSliver archetype from that of others:
CounterSliver focuses on disruptive, evasive creatures and late-game permission to halt your opponent from staving off your early aggression. CounterSliver thrives against control strategies because of its early aggression and tempo-oriented permission that will likely trump all the battles in the early stages of the game. As you can see, Spiketail Hatchling embodies all of those elements perfectly. Hatchling comes down on the 2nd turn and can fly over walls and other creatures on the ground while also allowing you to sacrifice it in order to stop your opponent from casting a spell unless he or she pay (1), which, inevitably, will stop them from curving out in the early turns and works to disrupt the primary setup cards. Cards like Spiketail Hatchling are key for CounterSliver decks. When I see Spiketail Hatchling, I think of cards like Judge’s Familiar, Cursecatcher, Voidmage Prodigy, but, also cards like Kami of Ancient Law, Qasali Pridemage, Mogg Fanatic, and Burrelton Forge-Tender. These types of creatures offer disruption while still providing beat downs in the early game.
Thwart, on the other hand, is a different card entirely. Thwart allows you to leverage the maximum number of resources while you’re ahead to stay ahead. Granted, a card like Thwart is probably not playable now, but, the waxing and waning of your tempo plan is a huge element to aggro control. Whether you decide to let your opponent gain a small foothold to produce resources that can maximize cards like Thwart or spend a Spiketail Hatchling to sacrifice some of your aggression and slow your opponent down can be a make or break decision. CounterSliver decks are granted a lot of options and, in exchange, are limited by their resources. CounterSliver comes in different forms and the two most common versions in Modern are URx Delver strategies and Merfolk.
At first glance, the 25+ creature Merfolk deck and the 12-14 creature Delver decks don’t look like they have much in common, but, if we examine the roles that each card plays in the list, we’ll see there’s a lot more similarities than meets the eye. Firstly, while Merfolk has 30 creatures, cards like Cursecatcher and Harbinger of the Tides (not to mention the occasional Tidebinder Mage or even Reflector Mage) get to perform double duty and work as the disruptive elements within the Merfolk shell. Additionally, the Delver + Pyromancer strategy is commonly known for its early aggression and eking out every possible advantage on the backs of very cheap, early-game cards. Typically, a UR Delver deck will easily put its opponent to 7 life and then scrap and claw its way to those last few points of damage. UR Delver, perhaps even more so than a deck like Burn or Affinity, is the ultimate “game of inches” deck. In summary, both decks are disruptive, but, while Delver uses spells to disrupt, the fishies favor creatures.
The Name of the Game is Utility:
As I continue through this guide, I’d like you to remember that many cards in CounterSliver will look identical. While some cards, like Cursecatcher, will come down on the first turn and start out being a threat, they can easily become disruption in the middle game. Similarly, cards like Harbinger of the Tides or Remand can be tempo spells AND disruption spells. Both cards can be used offensively or defensively to protect your advantages. CounterSliver wins on the back of creatures, but, its spell suite is always a Swiss army knife. Cards like Boomerang can curb your opponent’s early defenses, protect a utility creature of your own, bounce a problem permanent or even gain quick tempo by setting your opponent back a land! These cards are ideal because they give you as many choices as possible.
The Advent of Phyrexian Mana:
Aggressively slanted decks have always tried to take advantage of every resource at the their disposal. Recently, the introduction of Phyrexian mana has given new life to the “Suicide” archetype, allowing tempo strategies to, once again, utilize their life total as a resource. Cards like Porcelain Legionnaire, Gut Shot, Surgical Extraction, and Dismember let CounterSliver decks play lower land counts and still keep up with midrange and control strategies. This additional dimension is huge when you consider that tempo is now able hold up permission and removal. A common example would be a Delver deck that plays Delver of Secrets and Young Pyromancer can hold up Dismember AND a counterspell like Mana Leak or Remand with only 3 mana. Or, a Young Pyromancer can produce multiple tokens on turn 2 with cards like Gitaxian Probe, Surgical Extraction, or Gut Shot. However, the most important thing that Phyrexian mana has done for CounterSliver is allowing fluid 1-2 color decks access to an easily splashable color. For example, Merfolk is a solidly one color deck, but, the aggression that it displays in the first few turns offers it the ability to splash Phyrexian mana symbols for cards like Dismember and Gut Shot, offering a color (Blue) that is light on removal, an option other than Psionic Blast.
The Perfect CounterSliver Deck:
These creatures need to be low CMC or come down early in order to put pressure on your opponents before they have a chance to counter or disrupt them. The most emblematic is a card like Delver of Secrets. However, other great examples include Cursecatcher, Grim Lavamancer, and Goblin Guide.
In order to fulfill this role, the card must provide utility early while offering a midgame benefit when it becomes inevitably outclassed. While Merfolk’s lords are not inherently powerful, they offer collective anthems to maintain relevancy in the midgame. Cards like Grim Lavamancer, Cursecatcher, Spellstutter Sprite, Voidmage Prodigy, Qasali Pridemage, Diffusion Sliver, and the like come with relevant text that assists your advantage while providing damage. Finally, cards like Tasigur, Vendilion Clique, Young Pyromancer, Snapcaster Mage, and other similar cards provide additional utility for your early spells, allowing you to maximize the advantages of having a deck full of low-set-up-cost spells.
8-12 Disruptive Elements
These are the bread and butter of CounterSliver decks. These cards stifle your opponent (sometimes literally) and offer your early threats more opportunities to stay relevant and get in chunks of damage as you try to keep your opponent on the back foot for as long as possible. Great examples of disruptive cards are Gut Shot, Mana Leak, Spell Pierce, Lightning Bolt, Boomerang, Thoughtseize, Inquisition of Kozilek, Spreading Seas, Blood Moon, and Remand. While these cards will never be what immediately wins you the game, their specialty is hindering your opponents in their early development.
2-6 Permission Elements
These are your nail-in-the-coffin spells. Delver decks feature a hard counterspell like Cryptic Command or Negate at the top of their curve to stop their opponent’s last gasp attempt to stabilize. This would be where Thwart comes in.
2-6 Tempo Elements
These are disruptive elements that are created specifically to blank your opponent’s answers to your spells and to speed the game up in your favor. Does your opponent play a Wall of Frost to stop your attack? Play Vapor Snag to bounce the threat and get in for the last few points. Is your opponent stocking up on sorcery speed removal? AEther Vial offers you the ability to play multiple threats per turn, at instant speed. These cards are always good early and often backbreaking when sequenced correctly. You don’t need as many of these cards as your general disruption and early aggression are already working to build incremental tempo. Think of these cards as your “power-up” that primes the engine.
2-4 Removal Spells
These are your safety valves. If your opponent gums up the ground with a big beater or a wall, you’re not going to be able to attack through it without a few hard removal spells. These spells, like your hard permission, should be competing for the last few slots in your deck and playing too many will dilute your aggression.
To close out my article, I’d like to show you all a decklist my friend Alex has been championing for a while. Alex is a big fan of versatile cards and an even bigger fan of cards with flash. This UR Faeries deck is a great example of utility, flexibility, and aggression.
This list is a perfect example of what a CounterSliver deck wants to be positioning itself to do. Cards like Spellstutter Sprite and Snapcaster Mage get to be permission and aggression while cards like Scion of Oona and Vendilion Clique get to protect your creatures and build aggression. Cards like Burst Lightning are key to the CounterSliver archetype because they answer cards early and get better in the mid to late game. You’ll notice that because of the flash elements in Alex’s deck, he’s honed in on more permission and operating almost entirely at instant speed to always keep his opponent guessing. Cards like Turn // Burn and Mistbind Clique are also really good at dealing with games that are getting out of your hand, providing that nail-in-the-coffin effect I mentioned above.
If we break down Alex’s deck into categories it looks like this:
All creatures, with the exception of Mistbind Clique, come down under most counter magic and offer a multi-purpose threat, even when drawn in the midgame. We can also include the Faerie Conclave and the Mutavaults in this role despite the fact that I’ve omitted them from the count.
2 Cryptic Commands and 2 Spell Snare are the only hard counters in the maindeck. Spell Snare is one of my favorite cards in CounterSliver archetypes, offering you the ability to catch up on the draw and to stop some of the biggest problem cards of the Modern format.
Alex uses damage-based disruption in Burst Lightning and Lightning Bolt and also used counter magic in Mana Leak and Spell Pierce. It’s important to note that creatures like Scion of Oona, Spellstutter, and Vendilion Clique also perform double duty here, offering disruptive elements in addition to their power and toughness.
While Remand and Vapor Snag are also elements of disruption, these cards are most often filling the tempo role in the deck. These cards offer the ability to take advantage of a fortunate board state. These cards define the tempo archetype and it’s no surprise to see them in the deck. Mistbind Clique is also a tempo play, as it can tap down your opponent’s lands and gain you a time-walk of sorts if you’re already ahead on board.
Alex is light on removal with Turn // Burn and Electrolyze being his hard removal spells. I’ve included Electrolyze in the removal section as it is based in tempo’s need to erase its opponent’s early creatures. Lingering Souls tokens and early Vault Skirges are problematic cards for a deck that wants to beat down early. Turn // Burn is another interesting card as it, again, serves multiple roles. It can deal direct damage, cripple a large threat in combat, or just kill anything for 5 mana.
The thing I like most about this list is the way in which the sideboard answers CounterSliver’s problems post-board. Cards like Roast help deal with the larger creatures that overwhelm or race better than CounterSliver, while cards like Magma Spray avoid expending additional resources on two for one creatures like Voice of Resurgence or Kitchen Finks. Alex also has a “go big” post-board plan in Batterskull to edge out those extra points in long games, while having plenty of answers to tokens when his opponents try and go wide.
In conclusion, CounterSliver is an exciting archetype that seeks to obtain early advantages and maintain those advantages through selective use of tempo and disruption throughout the early and midgame. Tempo thrives at crippling strategies with cumbersome early-game setup like Weisman and offers wide-ranged, versatile cards that can be useful at all stages in multiple ways. When building CounterSliver the two most important things to remember are: fill your deck with disruptive early creatures and make sure your spells are adaptable and efficient in every stage of the game.
That’s all I’ve got for this week. Head on over next week as I talk about my favorite archetype: Necro. If you have any suggestions about this article, you can find me on Twitter at @MTGZach or write in the comments.
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