Mining The Crystal Quarry: Okay, So You Countered This…

>Elske van der Vaart’s article reminded me of one very important point that I only barely touched on in my original article, Counter This! I would have been content to leave it at that – but a second opinion has come to light, making the statement that Elske and I were bashing counterspells in multiplayer games, particularly free-for-all games. So it’s time once again to defend myself – and moreover, further expand on a previous idea.

Elske van der Vaart’s article reminded me of one very important point that I only barely touched on in my original article, Counter This! I would have been content to leave it at that – but a second opinion has come to light, making the statement that Elske and I were bashing counterspells in multiplayer games, particularly free-for-all games.

So it’s that time again to defend myself, and moreover, further expand on a previous idea.

Did you click over to read the articles? Don’t worry; I’ll sum them up here for you. First of all, in my original article, Counter This!, I originally made the assertion that there is a perception that Counterspells are all-powerful, and that there is a general disdain for them. I then proceeded to try to make a comprehensive definition for counterspells, for the reference of new players or current players like myself, who might need a quick review course.

Counters Defined

Counterspells remove abilities from the stack, by way of a spell or an ability. The end result is that the spell that the Counterspell targets has no effect. Counterspells can be hard, with no ways to get around them, or soft, with a condition that can be fulfilled to nullify the”counter” effect. Hard and soft counters can be conditional, countering a specific class of abilities or spells, or unconditional, which usually means countering played spells, but usually not abilities. Counters can come from permanents or instants played from the hand or elsewhere. Counters are always played any time you can play an instant, or are instants in and of themselves.

Hard, unconditional counters are the best type of counter, but tend to be more expensive or color-intensive. Soft counters can be cheaper to cast, but the best soft counters are those with difficult-to-fulfill conditions.

Counters are used to defend your permanents, or to defend you. When in defense of your permanents, they are used as pressure, and to defend you, they are used to prevent nasty spells from happening to you. Several types of spells can mimic the effect of counterspells: Untargetability, misdirection, and protection from x spells. Similar results can be achieved, but tend to do nothing to global effects.

Counterspells are valuable because they can answer any threat – something the other colors cannot boast. Also, counterspells cannot always be played around, especially if they are not expected. Problematically, the increased number of threats in multiplayer dilute the amount of counterspells you have to use, tempo is lost by keeping lands untapped, or in the case of Foil or Thwart, resources are lost via return to hand, or loss of cards in hand. Their one-for-one nature is what limits their power. Additionally, counterspells seldom affect board position (notable exceptions include Spelljack, Desertion, Suffocating Blast, and Mystic Snake). They need to be used at the moment the spell is cast, or are rendered useless in regards to that spell once it’s been played.

Finally – and this is critical when you compare it with the”use it or lose it” nature mentioned above – counterspells cannot win games on their own, and must be paired with some sort of card advantage.

That about sums it up for my article. Mike Flores (yes, this is the second time I’m referencing him) and Oscar Tan made the statement that control decks win by eventually generating card advantage, particularly from the other spells in their deck.

That is the biggest problem with control decks in multiplayer. I am by no means trashing counters in multi, and I am sure that Elske did not mean to either. In this case, I must caution my fellow multiplayer brethren out there to not place too much faith in their counterspells. The old saying is that Control > Combo> Aggro >Control, and for good reason. But does the saying hold true when the list now reads Control > Combo and Aggro?

Elske van der Vaart makes a firmer statement that Counterspells don’t work in multiplayer, and elaborates on two points, that the increased number of threats in multiplayer reduces counterspells’ effectiveness, and that counterspells do not affect board position. When a threat is played, you have that duration of the stack to decide whether or not that spell is a threat. Burn spells are easier to analyze, but a creature like Visara is more difficult. You do not have the luxury of waiting to see if it’s coming your way.

It’s true that counters can be a deterrent once they’re played. Elske elaborates the problem with counterspells, because they are, in her words, stealing. You take away the flashy play, and most certainly, earn that player’s ire. Even if to save someone else, people remember and realize injustices and insults before compliments and favors. Whenever you are countering a spell, you are denying someone an opportunity. When you counter a spell, you are interfering and interrupting someone. I don’t know anyone who likes to be interrupted or interfered with.

This is where Bruno Stella’s arguments fall apart – in the contention that counterspells bring fear with them, so much it overrides any instinct for vengeance. Certainly, countering key spells that would disrupt your game plan or set wheels in motion for that player to win is going to be a bad thing, but never threaten with a Counterspell.

Bruno makes the assertion that counterspells are deterrents when played, leaving you free to cast whatever spells you want. There’s only one problem with this plan, however: The disruption is more of an influence than the threat of”That’s one Counterspell, now be careful, since I might have one more!”

There’s an issue. Might have. How many counterspells do you have? You only have as many counterspells as you do permanents that can counter, or cards in hand, or mana you have available. These are limiting factors, usually in combination. If you are tapped out, you may still have Thwart, Daze, or Force of Will. If you have no cards in hand but have a Douse out, you can counter red spells. Morphs that counter spells (Voidmage Prodigy and Voidmage Apprentice, as well as Disruptive Pitmage) all require you have mana available.

Opponents will press you for resources, and constant countering is definitely impossible in multiplayer. Moreover, an educated opponent can discern what you may or may not have based on the above factors.

Tutoring for a Counterspell with something like Merchant Scroll, or declaring,”Look what I have in my hand!” is the only real way to use counterspells as a deterrent from future attacks on your person. What’s to stop a Flamewave Invoker or Latulla, Keldon Overseer in play from using its ability on you? What’s to stop someone from playing a series of spells to bait out any counters you may have? What’s to stop a Duress from coming your way, much less an Abeyance, Orim’s Chant, City of Solitude, or a variety of other spells that will screw your Island-playing behind?

And what kind of idiots are you playing, that, after one Counterspell, they will leave you alone for fear of their spells getting countered? That’s just going to mean that one-shot effects may or may not come your way – may being the key word. You have to keep UU open, or whatever requirement you have for your spells, and a counter for each threat that comes your way before deterrence can be effective.

Elske states that alliances are fleeting in multiplayer – but to illustrate, my old multiplayer group had a little truce clause: Whoever’s got the Morphling has to die. (Or at least, the Morphling has to die.) Circumstances can bring people together, even people whose ultimate intent is to kill each other. If you can keep up that kind of Counterspell lock, then I bow down to you. Until then, there are spells that are going to slip by, even by precious Walls of Ice.

I’m going to avoid critiquing Mr. Stella’s deck, respecting the price of playing Magic, but the key thing to remember is that other decks will have ways of getting around peoples’ defenses, creatures with large toughness being no exception.

Anyone who plays Magic knows – or should know – that leaving someone alone for too long only leads to bad things.

As I stated before, counterspells play a special role, one that can never be filled by other cards, because of their unique ability to deny any spell its effects given the right counter. No coming into play effects, no nothing (though abilities like the Enchantresses’ still occur) to put up with, and no other spell type can compare to the definitiveness.

Counterspells are not the end-all deterrent because of their quantity-based limitations, but by no means are they useless. What I find really interesting is that Mr. Stella is at the opposite end of the spectrum, given the impression one gets from his article.

Oh, one last thing – combo players will be playing measures to deal with control. Otherwise, they have no business being in the game. In fact, combo decks start as control, keeping themselves alive until the combo pieces come out, and then have a way to protect said spells.

Allow me to reiterate my position in that one must know the limitations and abilities of counterspells before using them in a multiplayer game, or when they are used against you. Counterspells can never be the main thrust of a deck, as they are not a win condition. Counterspells, however, are excellent in terms of support, preventing disruption and breathing room that no other type of card can do.

Upheaval is a classic example of this. Without a counter available, there is no way to stop it, and all players must be subject to its whim. That is the Counterspell’s true power – the simple ability to say”no” to any spell. Not in the deterrence it brings. Let me tell you right now: The rule in my multiplayer games code of fun,”Always go after the combo deck first,” came about for a reason. If you think countering spells is a way to keep people off your back, think again.

A competent player will recognize the weakness of a deck, should it be relying on counters, on key points, such as being tapped out or handless, and take advantage of that situation. The best way to win at multiplayer has been touched on – to lay back and let everyone else do their thing while you pick up the pieces. This, however, will not always happen, and sometimes, one has to take the initiative. Counterspells will not let you do this. Mr. Stella was on the right track by using creatures that discourage attacks. However, aggressive creatures will eventually trump simply defensive creatures. A flurry of spells will overwhelm any player.

The simple truth is that if you’re not losing, that doesn’t mean you’re winning. I think it’s important to make the distinction between something that can win you the game, versus a win condition. Because, in truth, even a Fugitive Wizard can win the game. Damage is damage. The question is, how can you set up a win condition and keep it effective? Creature hordes do it by sheer numbers, combo decks make it such that their combos are game ending (or by leaving the game in such a situation that losing is extremely difficult).

In a one-on-one match, there is a possibility that one could have enough counterspells in hand to protect whatever spell he has to cast to win, but to do so in multiplayer is a near-impossibility. Someone can have Duresses to strip your hand, and another player may have counterspells of their own. There is no way a counter-based deck can handle the focus of multiple players’ wrath.

Let me make the statement plain and clear: Counterspells are not win conditions. They support your spells, protect you and your permanents, and slow down and possibly even stop opposing threats. But counters do not win games alone, because they slowly but surely deplete your hand. Without a way to take advantage of the disruption that counterspells create, there is no way to win.

The very simple truth is that counterspells, as I stated before, by and large trade one-for-one. In the late game, counters can be baited out with diversionary spells. Counters are inherently limited, and the point of my previous articles is to be aware of those limitations. The best counters in multiplayer are those that net you card advantage – Suffocating Blast, Mystic Snake, Quash, even Desertion.

If you’re going to use a deck with counterspells, you’ve got to make sure that the turn and mana you spend countering a spell is not wasted. Counterspells buy you time. It’s up to you to make the best use of that time, be it by finishing with your threat, or playing a threat, or just plain crippling your opponent.

Once again, there’s no denying that counterspells can serve as a powerful support and defense to a deck, even in multiplayer. But the key to using counterspells is that they give you time, particularly in multiplayer.

Use them wisely.

John A. Liu

“I think Serra Angel is one of those cards that was designed after they saw the art. Some stereotypical gamer geek probably said, ‘gee, I’d love to tap that ass.’ And the designers, realizing the impossibility of this, made it such.”