I met jeers of”you suck” and”You have no skill.” People were furious, ready to slap me across the face, fuming in frustration. I definitely felt unwelcome, and I wanted to leave as quickly as possible to avoid any confrontation or possible problems. People were screaming, angry.
All because I tapped two Islands, played a card and said,”No.”
Counterspells have a controversial history and role in Magic. One of blue’s greatest abilities along with card drawing and bounce, it is with the former that countering has made Blue the best color in one-on-one competition, be it casual or competitive, in a very long time – a trend that has only changed recently with Onslaught Block.
Countering also leads to a lot of anger. After all, Magic is more fun when your spells resolve. New players often believe that counterspells are much too powerful, and I will admit that I felt that way, too; many a fledgling Magic career was cut short by too many utterances of”in response, tap two Islands and play Counterspell.”
But as many magic veterans know, counterspells are not all-powerful. In fact, in the realm of Multiplayer Casual, counterspells are not frequently seen at all. Getting past that initial bias of counterspells being all-powerful is indeed a sign of growth and improvement in understanding of the multiplayer game.
The effect of a counterspell does not change, nor does its value or demand outside of normal market factors. So, what makes counterspells so good in other formats, and yet, not that good in multiplayer?
My goal in this article is to define a counterspell, and settle on a definition of what makes a good counterspell. I then want to elaborate on generally-accepted theory on how to play counterspells, and then define the influences that Multiplayer Casual has on playing counterspells. Finally, I want to go over some favorites of mine.
A counterspell is a special class of card that… well… counters spells. Spells are countered by other spells, game rules, or abilities. When a spell is countered, it is removed from the stack, and no part of the spell occurs. As long as a spell is on the stack and it is counterable, a counterspell can target it, even if there is a counterspell already targeting the spell.
The old term for when a spell is countered by game rules is”fizzle,” as in,”That spell didn’t do anything, and it fizzled.” The modern term is”countered on resolution.” For instance, I cast a Lightning Bolt on your Prodigal Sorcerer. In response, you Unsummon it. The Lightning Bolt, when it tries to resolve, sees no legal targets, and is”countered on resolution.” Despite the fact that it’s not longer officially used, fizzle is still in common usage today.
There are two kinds of counters, each having a common subclass. The two kinds of counters are Hard and Soft.
Hard counters are unconditional. They quite simply say,”counter target spell,” with no ifs or unlesses. Hard counters tend to be more color intensive, requiring very specific mana or a large quantity of it, and they can have other effects, like how Rewind lets you untap lands, Dismiss draws you a card, and so forth. But by definition, because there is no way around the”counter target spell” clause, hard counters are also more powerful as a whole over soft counters.
Soft counters, on the other hand, also have the clause”Counter target spell” but have an additional clause”unless X.” In other words, someone playing with soft counters has a way to get around the countering part. This kind of wiggle room allows soft counters to cost less mana, or less colored mana. But this wiggle room also makes soft counters less powerful than hard counters. The best soft counters are those where the X clause is so steep that it cannot be done. A great example is Circular Logic – later in the game, most players cannot pay for the extra mana that Circular Logic demands.
There exists a subclass of counters is something I like to call Conditional Counters. There are both soft and hard conditional counters, though because of their inherent restrictions, most conditional counters are hard counters. Conditional counters counter spells with particular characteristics. Take the following spells:
- Bind: One of a few cards that can affect abilities, Bind is out of color, draws you a card, and is an archetypical conditional counter.
- Interdict: After errata, a much more limited card, but similar in purpose to Bind.
- Disrupt: An example of a soft conditional counter, this only counters instants or sorceries, amd only if your opponent doesn’t pay one mana.
Conditional counters don’t usually shine because of the restrictions placed on them. However, because some of these counters do things that aren’t otherwise seen in standard Magic cards, they have a unique role. Teferi’s Response in land destruction-heavy environments is a great example.
Permanent-based counters emulate the effects of counterspells, from Lifeforce, Deathgrip, and Withering Boon, to various creatures. Ertai (The Corrupted and Wizard Adept), Voidmage Prodigy, and Patron Wizard are examples.
Good Counterspells Defined
What defines a good counterspell? A good counterspell cannot be reversed easily and is easily cast. In other words, a hard counter is better than a soft counter most of the time. The fewer the restrictions on a counterspell, the better. The cheaper the mana cost, the better. Unless it does something special, a counterspell should be one for one or better. For instance, Abjure, despite its one-mana casting cost, causes you to lose two cards to your opponent’s one. However, Force of Will, on the other hand, despite causing you to lose two cards and a life, allows you to counter even when you’re tapped out. Its high mana cost or card disadvantage is offset by its sheer surprise value.
Now, unlike other abilities such as Visara’s or Avatar of Woe’s, counterspells are aided by their surprise value almost as much as the advantage that visible reusability can generate. Force of Will, Foil, Thwart, and Daze gain such power from this. Force Spike also bears this power, and is used because most people don’t expect it, despite it being an easy-to-pay-for soft counter.
That factor of the unknown, however, can also be balanced out by the simple fact that no one likes getting his or her spell countered. A Forbid that has been bought back, a bounced Mystic Snake, or even a Voidmage Prodigy with mana open – these things can delay any problems coming your way
There are two generally accepted, conventional methods of using counterspells. The first is as a form of protection, and the other, is as a follow up question to answers that opponents have. (Such as,”Gee, are you trying to kill my permanent that’s going to kill you? I don’t think so.”)
Counterspells keep unpleasant enemy spells off your back. They are the ultimate defense, preventing comes-into-play abilities, otherwise-unremovable permanents, and answer any sort of threat, be it spell or permanent, something no other kind of spell can. Moreover, they defend you from rather unpleasant spells. They are unique and powerful in this effect.
On the other hand, Counterspells can also serve as a way to augment an offense, by keeping your opponents from being able to eliminate your threats and keeping the pressure on them. They are usually not offenses in and of themselves, though few counterspells work that angle again.
Special Counters of Note:
There are counterspells of note, mainly because of their alternate casting costs that demand special attention. Mana Drain and Force of Will demand special attention because of their power.
Foil, Thwart, and Daze are all particularly significant because of their alternate play costs. They set you back a turn or more, and cost you significantly in cards (Daze being the exception – but it’s a Force Spike, which could be easily paid for unless you’re good). These are counters that you cannot simply cast willy-nilly.
Mana Drain: R&D claimed that they would have to be run over by a bus before they’d reprint this. Why is it so powerful? Is it the fact that it’s a hard counter for UU? Is it the fact that it nets you colorless mana that you can spend to play spells much faster than you normally would? Yes. Of Course! Mana Acceleration has always been a dangerous thing, and Mana Drain, to some extent, is no exception. There is no arguing that Mana Drain is a powerful spell, as evidenced by its price (okay, okay, some of that is due to its rarity) and extensive appearances in Type 1 tournament decks everywhere.
The problem is, will you have a place to sink that mana? I’ve seen one out of every four uses of Mana Drain end in some form of Mana Burn. If it’s the only spell in your hand, and you cast it, and draw a card you can’t sink the mana into, you’re in for a world of hurt. Just like when someone burns your Su-Chi to death at the worst possible time, Mana Drain can also be a problem. Contrary to popular opinion, Mana Drain is not all-powerful, and is not always necessarily superior to good ol’ Counterspell. Be careful when trying to sling this card every which way.
Force of Will: A five-mana hard counter that does nothing more than counter a spell, Force of Will’s power obviously lies in its alternate play cost. It is the least restrictive alternate play cost counterspell, and does not set you back in terms of mana development. That said, it does cost you one life and one blue card, so it had better counter a big threat, because the card you pitch might be the one that could have saved your ass.
Arcane Denial: It’s seen as a bad counter in competitive play for one major reason: it is almost always bad to give your opponents card advantage. But in multiplayer, there is something to consider that you don’t have to in duels, and that is political implications.
Getting a spell countered in duels means that you’re stopping an opponent, and they’re more than happy to draw the cards. In multiplayer, especially free-for-alls, your opponent is concerned with several targets, and giving him cards will leave him not as angry with you, and willing to cut you a little slack to find someone else who’s not so desperate as to let him or her draw cards. You countered a spell, drew a card, your opponent drew a card or two… You’re not in it as deep.
One other fun bit about Arcane Denial is countering your own spells for fun and profit. Consider that if you counter your own spell, you draw three cards. When would you want to do this? It’s rare, but it’s a fun little tidbit to remember.
- Example: You Balance, and your opponent responds by using his Zuran Orb on all his lands, and you don’t necessarily want to be Armageddon’d.
- Example: Your opponent Spelljacks your spell. Always a bad thing.
In any case, letting your opponent draw cards is a bad thing. Use with caution!
Counterspells are not the only way to defend yourself and your permanents. Spells and abilities are not the only way to”counter a spell.” Remember that term”countered on resolution?” Certain spells and abilities will allow you to do just that. Untargetability and Protection from X are the most common routes, followed very closely by spells that redirect or change targets.
In the aspect that they can only defend against certain spells, these”fake” counterspells can be classified as conditional counters. Consider the following examples:
Untargetable spells: Mage’s Guile is the best example of a spell that counters spells by making a target simply untargetable. It may not be able to stop everything, but it does quite a bit. It cycles too, if you can’t use it. These tend to be the weakest of the alternative”fake” counterspells.
Redirection spells: Misdirection is the shining beacon of redirection spells. It has a similar (read: relatively easy to pay) alternate casting cost as Force of Will, and has just as powerful of an effect, if not more, particularly when dealing with burn spells.
Protection from Color spells: Untargetability is the benefit granted by this spell, never mind preventing damage-based spells. Moreover,”protection from color” spells tend to be cheap. Shelter is a great example of a cheap spell that works well.
These spells have similar end results to counterspells, and can also have other effects. Protection from Color spells can aid in combat, and redirection spells work better on burn spells than just countering them. These can also be somewhat easier to put into a deck, since most counterspells are blue. Protection from Color goes into white, and untargetable effects are in green and blue.
A special note for the card Willbender: This card is significant because it’s one of few things that can redirect abilities. That, too, is unique. Consider it!
Advantages of Counterspells
Counterspells can answer any threat given the right mana availability. Even conditional counters answer threats in their condition, provided you have the resources (usually mana) available. Moreover, the mana you invest in a standard counterspell (usually two to four mana) can return an investment when it counters a higher cost spell. This stunts your opponent’s development and tempo severely. Unless it says”Cannot Be Countered,” your counterspell will be an answer to just about any question.
Counterspells also bear surprise value to them – and as long as you don’t have a big fat grin on your face when an opponent is playing a critical spell that will turn a game around for them, opponents in multiplayer generally don’t expect counters (for good reason). Moreover, the expression”once bitten, twice shy” can apply here, keeping your opponent wary, and keeping targeted spells off your back, trying to avoid wasting cards.
Problems of Counters in Multiplayer
With all that said, counterspells have very severe setbacks in multiplayer.
Increased Number Of Threats:
In a multiplayer game, your sixty cards have to go further. Consider, for instance, if your deck has ten counters. One on one, your only other opponent will have to deal with all ten. Two opponents? You have to now split your counters among twice as many threats. As the number of opponents rise, the number of answers you have to opponents’ questions decrease. Your resources are spread thin, and that’s never a good thing.
Keeping Mana Open Slows Your Development:
To cast a counterspell, you will have to keep mana open. Alternate-cost counterspells won’t be able to save you sometimes – and even worse, most of them will set back your mana development severely. To play something with counter backup, you need at least one or two more mana open. To keep mana open to cast counterspells just in case, you have to not spend mana and decrease the general speed of your deck.
Counterspells Rarely Provide Card Advantage In Multiplayer:
Counterspells are usually one-for-one exchanges, a card and a (usually) small mana investment to answer a threat. But what happens when there are too many threats to counter? They’re now on the board, and counterspells can’t help you then. There are counterspells that do gain you more than just one-for-one, but these are rare.
Counterspells Cannot Change Board Position:
They can only keep things the way they are, or from getting worse. There’s not much more to say to that, though there are advantages to making sure that some spells never get cast.
No cards in hand? No counterspells. Even though this is true for all other types of cards (you can’t bluff with nothing in hand), it’s especially detrimental for control. Moreover, bluffing without counterspells require keeping cards in hand rather than using them sometimes.
Countering The Right Card At The Right Time:
How do you know when you’re being baited? How do you know to bluff, to hold, and when to really cast the spell? This is a difficult skill to develop.
Counterspells MUST Be Paired With Card Drawing Or Advantage:
In and of themselves, counters do not provide questions. Not only do you need to draw the counterspells, but also you need to have something to back them up. If all you have are answers in the form of counterspells, then you’ll run out of cards, especially in multiplayer. The questions get harder as the game goes on, and there are a lot more of them too.
Counterspells do not win games on their own:
Unless you somehow recur three Undermines to cast seven of them, counterspells don’t do it- and even then, that’s a very clunky win condition. Counterspells are support for other strategies, and seldom the main thrust. Even Monoblue Ophidian needs other threats to finish the game.
As I said, though, there are exceptions to the statement that counters do not gain you card or tempo advantage. With that statement, I present to you…
The Best Multiplayer Counterspells
Despite the problems I listed above, counterspells still have a special role in Magic. The best ones either give you card advantage, a boost on mana and/or tempo, or come out to save your ass from a fire of your or someone’s making.
Assuming that you built your mana base right, you won’t be having much trouble casting the following spells, with the exception of the last one. These spells provide the most flexibility or advantage in Multiplayer. Besides the old standby of Counterspell, these spells give you the most for your mana. Invest wisely! I want to make the disclaimer that these are my personal picks.
This card gives you two effects for one. A 2/2 creature can attack and block over and over again, giving you something long term. Remember, you can play this at any time, even if there is no spell to target. Even if the spell is uncounterable (like Urza’s Rage) you still get the 2/2. If you’re lucky, this spell will get you a surprise blocker, too! Two-for-one advantage is what makes this spell so great, along with the fact that you get a permanent in the process. Another benefit, especially for newer players, is that this spell is not in high demand for competitive fields – and as such, is easy and cheap to obtain.
This loses out because it is castable in fewer situations than Mystic Snake. You need two targets to cast it… And even when it is castable, it may not be the best thing, like when you control the only creatures on the table. However, that said, there will almost always be another creature to target with the other part of the spell. You are getting plain and simple, two-cards-for-one gain. Be informed that the spell and the creature don’t have to be controlled by the same player… But be warned that pissing off two people at once is hardly the best thing to do. Like Mystic Snake, this card is cheap. In fact, because of the greater number of limitations, this card is very cheap.
It seems almost blasphemous to rank such an expensive card so low, but there are times that you would wish that you didn’t have to take all that colorless mana. That said, mana acceleration is a wonderful thing – and for such a low cost of UU, then, well, if you can, then why not? A boost in mana allows you to do many, many wonderful things…
This spell shines when used as an answer to a threat, giving you more of a buffer zone to lengthen the time you’re alive to draw an answer of your own. For three colored mana, this spell is a good deal. Keep in mind that if this spell is countered, you don’t gain three life. Best of all, they’re slowly dropping in price, making these very affordable.
On the other hand, this spell is best used to protect your own permanents, placing even more pressure on a select opponent. Three life is not an insignificant amount, and the fact that it’s life loss is a bonus. While not true card advantage, this certainly improves your board position by worsening someone else’s.
Force of Will
The best”free” counterspell also loses you a card and a life to control one spell from one opponent. That said, free is free, and the freedom to counter something so long as you’ve got at least two life and a blue card in hand is powerful. Force of Will may not be the best multiplayer card on the list, but it’s not this low by far. It can be your MVP most of the time, but other times, it will frustratingly put you behind in cards. But if you’ve got a good way to draw cards regularly, then the removing extra cards clause disappears, and this zooms up to the top of the charts.
The fact that this”counterspell” can be accessed by any color is wonderful, and it serves as a great warning. The”discard your hand” bit is harsh, but if put to good use (reanimator decks, madness, threshold) then it’s almost negligible.
There’s always going to be someone casting creatures in a multiplayer game. The fact that you’re getting a free creature is just as good as the look on your opponent’s face when they realize what you’ve done. And even worse, your opponent is going to have to waste more resources to get rid of the creature that should be gaining them advantage in board position. Desertion does this, too, but Spelljack gets you any spell for one more mana. In multiplayer games where your mana curve has a little more flexibility, Spelljack gets the nod as being the more versatile of the two, and a counterspell to be feared.
Without buyback, it’s a plain Counterspell for three mana, which makes it strictly worse. The reality is, though, that it does have buyback, and for two cards. Force of Will had card disadvantage, but you could play it without the mana cost. Forbid gives your useless or bulk cards a new use, acts as a madness and discard outlet for threshold and Flashback, all while countering a spell and at least letting you keep one card, and gives your opponents some pause when they realize that you do have a counterspell in hand.
Another note on this spell – even without buyback, it’s a hard counter for three mana, which isn’t that horrible in and of itself.
Three spells in one, this acts as a buffer zone of five life at instant speed, small creature removal, or a hard counterspell – but it comes with a difficult cost of UBW. Oscar Tan has stated that this card, despite its difficult casting cost, is very versatile and useful. If you have the mana base to support it, Dromar’s Charm is an excellent spell that will almost always get used. At worst, it’s a blue card you can pitch to Force of Will.
Counterspells, like any other card, have their limits, especially in Multiplayer. The rules in Multiplayer change dramatically, and as such, the effectiveness of certain cards change. Because of the inherent power in counters to just say”No” to almost any spell, Counterspells will never really be useless. But again, because of the changes in multiplayer, counters need to be evaluated in a different light. At the very least, take a walk in the other guy’s shoes. With three to four people staring down on you whenever you finger two Islands, maybe next time you might sympathize with the control player.
Confessions from a control player,
John A. Liu
“It’s been my general observation that, on a rare card, the words”can’t be countered” or”protection from blue” tend to raise the value of a rare by a dollar or even more.”