If you’re like the vast majority of us, you’ve been pampered for about two years with fantastic counterspells. Or, conversely, you’ve been pestered by them. It depends, really. For every one of us that loved, loved, loved casting Cryptic Command (and I was one of them), there were definitely people who were sick of it (and, in this case, I was one of them as well).
I think the thing that made me sick of Cryptic Command was the way that it just could nearly handle anything. It didn’t matter what it was; with few exceptions, Cryptic Command could be your solution. As a result, decks that might otherwise struggle against some kind of clever card or interaction of cards could always just say, “well, I’ll just find a Cryptic Command and bounce it.”
In a way, they made a Blue-only Nevinyrral’s Disk.
For those of you who don’t remember the long ago days of Nevinyrral’s Disk, it was a world in which any deck you’d like could have a solution to nearly any problem. Did you have problems against artifacts? Nevinyrral’s Disk! Enchantments? Nevinyrral’s Disk could smish-smash those pesky enchantments! And on and on — Disk just solved nearly any problem.
Of course, this in-and-of-itself was a problem. Standard was dominated, in some ways, by two artifacts: Nevinyrral’s Disk and Winter Orb. In both cases, these two cards could just eliminate the value of a ton of cards. Nevinyrral’s Disk would destroy them on the board and Winter Orb would rot them in someone’s hand, punishing you for choosing to play more expensive spells. For the most part, decks in this era of Standard (pre-6th) ending up gravitating to being either Disk decks or Orb decks. Every color could play them, and, basically, every color did. Why? Because they could answer nearly anything, all by themselves. Getting rid of these cards from 6th was a great move by Wizards of the Coast, if only because it meant that more cards were reasonable to play.
Blue held onto the ability to answer “anything” with its Boomerang effects, but for the most part these were limited in various ways. A simple Boomerang, whether it is Chain of Vapor, Echoing Truth, or the other variants, certainly had its applications, and would see play, but it was also typically a commitment to losing card advantage. Cryptic Command could be something altogether different. It didn’t demand you lose card advantage. In other situations, it could ignore card advantage and just remove the troublesome permanent and also give you some tempo or some life as well. Only dedicated Blue decks could really employ the crazy power of Cryptic Command (though some incredibly ambitious/lucky people did choose to include it in their 5cBlood lists). Again, though, we have the return to a card that can answer anything. Its departure is going to be one of those things that, no matter how much I loved casting the card, will make Standard a far more interesting place to be. When you combine that with the losses of Broken Ambitions and Spellstutter Sprite, countermagic is a shell of its formerly potent self.
What’s Left Behind
So, for those of us who are still interested in the possibility of casting a counterspell, what do we have to look forward to? The answer: not so much.
If we’re living in a world of pauperdom, we have to really mine the depths and accept the fact that we’re not going to be playing good cards.
Here are all of the legal ways to counter spells, in order of worst to best:
18) Lullmage Mentor — This card can counter a spell, but if you’ve gotten to the point where it is actually doing so, you’ve probably already won the game. Lullmage Mentor isn’t a card to put in your deck when you’re looking for a counterspell, it’s a card that you put into your deck when you’re looking for a creature generator.
17) Summoner’s Bane — It only counters creature spells, and in return for the “fantastic” cost of four mana, it rewards you with a 2/2. There are other spells that can do the same work, but don’t ask so much of you.
16) Spell Pierce — A turn 1 counter is something that we like to see in Magic. But this is certainly no Force Spike. Heck, it’s not even Disrupt. Disrupt, while it might not be able to counter a spell, could be backbreaking when it did. Typically, it could also “cycle.” This has none of that going for it.
15) Spell Snip — As an actual cycler, there is some value here, just because you can get rid of it. As far as a “counter” goes, it’s quite weak. You feel great when you get rid of this card and turn it into a knockout punch for a good spell, but a part of that is simply because of how much of an unbalanced trade you’re getting. We’re still not really in the realm of good here.
14) Offering to Asha — Again, four mana. You’re actually getting something reasonably valuable back for the mana (the life), but it is also not actually a hard counter. If they have the mana (four of it), they don’t lose their spell. Boo!
13) Cancel — Ah! The current “baseline” counterspell. Ugh. This is one of those cards you might decide to go to if you really need a “cheap” counter, but you’ll hope that you can go elsewhere…
12) Punish Ignorance — Even at a full mana more than Cancel (and a hideous set of color requirements), this is still better than the unexciting Cancel. The two-edged life swing, mixing Absorb and Undermine moves into the realm of impressive, if you can actually cast it. That part keeps the card from being truly good, but it is still worth thinking about when you’re going into the toolbox.
11) Hindering Light — Hindering Light is actually good, it’s just a card you’re probably not going to be putting into your main deck. Still, even if it is typically going to be just a sideboard card, it is fantastic for what it does, tearing a new one from the poor Cruel Ultimatum player when it hits.
10) Flashfreeze — Again, we’re looking at a sideboard card, but again, this card is at least good. Where Hindering Light is a card that you could risk and put in the main, Flashfreeze doesn’t have that luxury (unless you’re a bigger metagamer than I). Less powerful, overall, than Hindering Light, Flashfreeze makes up for it by being infinitely more reliable. There are times a Hindering Light will be a good card to side in, and you’ll be surprised how little it does when you need it. Flashfreeze, on the other hand, will nearly always work against the decks you want it to work against.
9) Countersquall — Another Negate variant, Countersquall is “strictly” better if you can count on getting the mana. Of course, if we could count on getting the mana we wanted every time, we’d be playing something closer to Versus than Magic. The Black mana symbol seriously hurts Countersquall.
8) Soul Manipulation — Yet another Remove Soul variant. This one has the big advantage of being able to simply be played as an instant Raise Dead, even if you’re not countering anything. If you manage to be able to live the dream, countering a creature spell and Raising Dead, you’ll find yourself smiling a big smile. This versatility makes Soul Manipulation a potent card. Unfortunately, it costs three and it has Black in its cost, otherwise it would be a more valuable card.
7) Mindbreak Trap — This card is definitely going to see a lot more play in other formats. In this format, though, it will primarily be there for its ability to deal with a massive Cascade and its ability to deal with the uncounterable cards. While not technically a “counter,” Exiling a spell is the same. Still, four mana is rough.
6) Lapse of Certainty — It might not be a Memory Lapse, but it’s still pretty damn good. Three mana still sucks, so why is this card rated so much higher than Cancel? The answer is simple: mana. Being able to be played in a deck with little or even no Blue mana is huge. When you’re beating down with a swarm of little White creatures and then you sit behind even a poor counterspell, but one that you can generally count on to do the job, that is huge.
5) Double Negative — This card is even less good in some measures than Cancel. But there is one big reason that Double Negative actually really begins to matter: Bloodbraid Elf. Bloodbraid Elf (and other Cascade cards) is a truly difficult problem for counter-based control decks. Being able to put the kibosh on them is important, even if the mana for Double Negative is often quite awkward.
4) Essence Scatter — Two mana is seriously a big deal. While you can only take out a creature with it, Standard is full of creatures. Unfortunately, there are a fair amount of decks that don’t really run much in the way of creatures. This puts quite the damper on this otherwise great card.
3) Bant Charm — Bant Charm is a truly powerful counterspell. If we just think of it as a set of counterspells on a card, Bant Charm counters an instant, and its ability to destroy a creature or artifact is, in practice, like an even better counterspell against those permanents (albeit weak against enters-the-battlefield abilities). Again, the mana requirements are a huge limitation, but that doesn’t change just how good this spell is.
2) Traumatic Visions — As good as Bant Charm is, I think Traumatic Visions is better. In this format, you can’t often sit around trying to be a counter spell deck. On the other hand, fixing your mana is a good ability. Stopping some kind of late-game potent ability like Cruel Ultimatum is a great thing to be able to do. Traumatic Visions doesn’t try to mess around with being a counterspell for the cheap stuff. It recognizes that it is there primarily to fix your mana and there to maybe be able to counter something. There is a reason this card was played in the Top 8 of Honolulu.
1) Negate — Negate might not be Counterspell or Mana Drain, but it is the two-mana counter spell of the moment. Critters are to be found everywhere, unfortunately, so it isn’t the end-all be-all. What it is able to do, though, is answer all of the random problems that an opponent can throw at you. Far more spells cause problems that can’t be answered by other means than a counterspell. For every creature that you can’t stop with a Negate, you can find a way to kill it without much effort.
Yes, Negate is the One-Eyed King. Lackluster, sure, but it’s what we’ve got.
What this means for the control player is to take a cue from Honolulu control decks:
Those are the true counter control decks. “Nice.”
Michal Hebky actually built a counter spell deck. Zac Hill did what most people are going to probably do when it comes to counters: just play a smidge.
Hebky’s list ran nine counters. Something inspired by this kind of list would probably upgrade to include 4 Negate, and it might switch over to Baneslayer Angels (though Sphinx of the Steel Wind’s resilience does make it interesting).
In this world of weak counters, playing the “big effect” becomes a good idea. Both Hill and Hebky share something in common: an attempt to stay alive long enough to get off the big effect. If this spell is a non-creature, this can mean that it might walk into a Negate, if you’re playing against a deck with counters, but the primary defense against the “big spell” is more likely to be discard. The alternatives to this plan are to either kill them before a big spell happens, or out-trumping their bomb with something more powerful.
As I said a few weeks ago, the format is really one of upheaval. Most of the people that are playing Magic these days haven’t played in formats that approach where we’re heading.
Simply killing people can be a solution to the “big spell.” Bloodbraid Elf is one of the big ways to get this goal actualized. If we look at the Honolulu decks, there are a ton of them with Bloodbraid Elf (even in the deck Zac Hill helmed). There are a ton of Blightnings, fulfilling the “kill them” plan and the “discard it” plan.
Against this angle of attack will be those cards that are going to try to hang onto life and then overwhelm opponents with their impressive abilities. I know I’ve already seen a ton of them. They cast their Wraths and Plows, and then finish with Cruel Ultimatum and friends. On the other side of the spectrum, we’ll have the Nacatls and Thoctars. In the middle (leaning towards the second side), we’ll have Vampires and Sludges.
A part of Magic’s appeal comes from constant change. Attempting to shoehorn your old deck into a new format is often an exercise in futility. Recognizing what tools you actually have at your disposal when things change is a big part of staying ahead of the curve.
Good luck at the StarCityGames.com $5000 Standard Open in Philadelphia this weekend!
Until next week…