The Kitchen Table #235: The Casual Toolkit – Countermagic

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Tuesday, May 27th – Is Akroma scaring you? Do you fear that your combo deck will be stopped just as you are ready to go off? Perhaps you fear someone else playing the combo, and defeating your creature deck? That’s why you need… countermagic!

Hello folks and welcome to another article in the series that explores the nooks and crannies of the Magic mind, focusing on the casual. Come in, have a seat on the coach, and tell your therapist, Abe, all of your casual troubles. Is Akroma scaring you? Do you fear that your combo deck will be stopped just as you are ready to go off? Perhaps you fear someone else playing the combo, and defeating your creature deck?

That’s why you need… countermagic!

During my time as a Magic writer, I have been exposed to a lot of casual decks. People will post their decklists on the forums, e-mail them to me, show them to me in passing, “Abe, take a look at this kid’s deck and tell me what you think!” I also read a lot of articles and regularly investigate a number of sites.

I see the decks out there.

One of the problems that I have noted is that a lot of decks run the wrong support cards for their theme. They come up with a clever idea for a deck, toss those cards in, and then just run anything with it.

Today’s article might be the beginning of a series that touches on this phenomenon in detail, or it just may be a one-of. What I want to address today is the most egregious offender. Countermagic is often included in decks that are just Blue, with no concept that, perhaps, this deck might be better off without countermagic.

In this article, I want to explore the uses and needs of countermagic. Not every deck that wants countermagic wants Counterspell. Some decks have different needs, and that may mean they may want other types of countermagic.

I’ll be using examples of half-built decks to illustrate my points as we go, so you can see the ideas I espouse in action.

Negation, Protection, and Disruption

To begin, let’s discuss countermagic from a theoretical standpoint. Counterspell and others of its ilk can play one of three roles.

Negation — Countermagic is often used to negate opposing cards. Used this way, negation counters will act as removal, stopping painful permanents from hitting the board. If you use countermagic to counter an Akroma, then you are using countermagic as negation.

Protection — Often, counters are employed to protect the user or their permanents from various spells. This is using countermagic as protection. If you use a Counterspell to stop a Swords to Plowshares from taking out your own Akroma, then you are using counters as protection. A subset of protection is to use your counters to counter a counter. If you play a crucial spell, such as a Wrath of God, then you can use your countermagic to force it through and protect it.

Disruption — This is a very common use for counters in tournaments, but not as much around the kitchen table except for one subset. Counters used as disruption are played to disrupt an opponent. The main way of doing this is to counter spells that further the player’s development. Using Stifle on an opponent’s fetchland is a perfect example. A subset of this involves countering spells that win the game, or put the player into a dominating position. If they are the only ones with creatures out and they try to Armageddon, countering that spell is disruption. Similarly, if they are the only ones with creatures out and they play Biorhythm, your counter is used as disruption.

It is vitally important to understand the three things that counters do. Once you understand this, you can then ask the first question.

The First Question

Now that you know the three roles that a counter can perform, you need to ask yourself a simple question. Does your deck need countermagic?

Some decks need counters, and others do not.

Let’s take a look at a few examples.

Sample Pebbles Combo Deck

4 Goblin Bombardment
4 Ornithopter
4 Shield Sphere
4 Enduring Renewal
1 Enlightened Tutor
2 Idyllic Tutor
1 Academy Rector

Is this a deck that is made stronger by adding Blue and counters? I don’t think so. Right now, you have a strong R/W theme going, and there are cards in those colors that support your deck. Toss in Replenish, Gamble, Swords to Plowshares, Browbeat, and so on. You can easily fill up the deck without having to dip into countermagic.

4 Browbeat
2 Replenish
2 Gamble
4 Swords to Plowshares
4 Seal of Cleansing

The Seals take out enchantments or artifacts that stop your combo from going off (such as Ivory Mask, Urza’s Armor, or Planar Void). Replenish allows your deck to keep going if your own enchantments are taken out. The Browbeat gives you some good generic draw, while the Gamble duplicates your tutoring and gives you depth.

This deck is not advantaged by adding Counterspell.

How about another example?

Sample Fish Deck

4 Lord of Atlantis
4 Merrow Reejerey
4 Winter Orb
4 River Merfolk
4 Tidal Warrior
4 Silvergill Adept
4 Deeptread Merrow
4 Grimoire Thief

Is this Fish deck made better by making the last six cards counters?

I believe so. Six extra creatures in a deck already chock full of creatures will have diminishing returns. However, six counters can be used either to protect a Lord or an Orb, or to disrupt the opponent and slow them down, making them food for the Orb and the quick beats.

How about this deck?

Sample Holy Fish Deck

4 Lord of Atlantis
4 Merrow Reejerey
4 Winter Orb
2 Sygg, River Guide
4 Galina’s Knight
4 Tidal Warrior
4 Silvergill Adept
4 Grimoire Thief
4 Silvergill Douser

What makes this deck better in the final four cards? Just like the previous deck, it has Blue and a bunch of merfolk beaters. However, access to White changes the deck around. Which do you think this deck needs more — Swords to Plowshares or Counterspell? Swords is the obvious winner here. Clearing a path for your merfolk, having a cheap one-mana spell against the Orb, and having cards that are both reactive and proactive is better for the aggro deck.

Not every Blue deck needs counters.

The Next Question

After determining if your deck needs countermagic, the next question is also pretty simple. What kind of countermagic does your deck need?

Not every deck will want to pack the same spells, but different spells suit different purposes. Take Force of Will as an excellent example. This is one of the most sought after Blue uncommons of all time. Its presence has warped Constructed formats for years. Many consider it to be the best counter of all time (and if they don’t, then they have it number two behind Mana Drain). Yet if you play Force of Will in most casual decks, especially at the multiplayer table, and you will be behind in card advantage so much that you will lose. Force of Will is not a good card in all decks, despite its massive power.

Now that we know the three roles counters can play, and that your deck needs counters, ask yourself which role your deck needs. Counters as negation often substitute for removal in colors without major options in that area. Alternatively, they are regularly used for negation in decks that run an abundance of countermagic, over and beyond an expected amount. They should not be included for negation in most other decks.

Take the following deck skeleton as an example:

2 Mahamoti Djinn
4 Clone
4 Tidings
2 Tidal Kraken

There is nothing wrong with this suite of 12 cards as the foundation for a Mono-Blue deck. Now, if you take this skeleton and bond 32 counters onto it, then you are using your counters as negation, since they will be in place of Disenchants, Swords, Wrath, Bounce, Terror, and so forth. Therefore, you will need counters that fulfill this specific purpose (more on how later).

Counters as protection are often seen in combo decks that are looking to resolve key components. They are also primarily used in decks with key permanents that want to ensure their permanents will continue. Take the following deck skeleton as an example:

4 Prodigal Sorcerer
4 Mawcor
4 Suq’ata Firewalker
4 Zuran Spellcaster
2 Reveka, Wizard Savant
2 Rod of Ruin
1 Aladdin’s Ring
3 Pirate Ship
4 Tidings

Suppose that you want to add counters to this deck. Does it need counters? Yeah, it probably does. The entire theme of the deck is built around a bunch of creatures that tap to deal damage, many of which are very fragile, and it needs protection. Counters will perfectly suit a protection role for you. Now you need to find counters that suit your protection (which, again, will be discussed later in the article).

Counters as disruption are used to either stall the development of a player in the early game, or to stop a key spell later in the game. The first type will suit a tempo-oriented deck, such as the Fish decks above with their Winter Orb.

Let’s take a look at the other type:

4 Lightning Bolt
2 Earthquake
4 Impulse
4 Air Elemental
2 Shivan Dragon
4 Dragon Whelp
2 Tidings
4 Fireball

Suppose that you had this decklist. You have asked yourself if it needs countermagic and have decided that yes, it does. (And I agree, this deck could really benefit from some counters). What sort of counters do you want? Do you want counters as protection? No, not really. You have plenty of winning conditions. I doubt you want counters to save a creature. You might want to protect a Fireball that is at lethal damage, but that is not going to be regular either. Do you want counters for negation? Probably not. Again, there might be a nasty artifact or enchantment you want to stop, but that’s not going to happen often and you have plenty of removal for the creatures. What you want is counters for disruption. Just a small number of counters to round out the deck and to protect you from other players’ winning conditions, such as a Biorhythm, Armageddon, Living Death, Traumatize, and more. You are relying on your counters to disrupt your opponents’ plans.

Now that you have identified what you want your counters to do, it’s time to identify some more factors.

Future Questions

This is the final step before selecting your counters. Here, we need to assess if there are other factors regarding your deck that you need to take into consideration.

First of all, there is the format you play. Some casual players don’t play any formats, and if that applies to you, then just skip this paragraph. At my table, we require that every deck be legal in some format. It can be Five Color, Vintage, Legacy, Standard, or whatever, but it has to be legal somewhere. Other kitchen tables may require certain formats. Just note that any format concerns you may have will likely impact your counters.

Next is the obvious collection question. You cannot include counters that you do not own or have access to. Mana Drain may be ideal for your combo deck, but if you don’t have them, then you’ll have to go elsewhere for your counters. Most counters of value are common, with a smattering of useful uncommon ones throughout time. As long as you have access to these, plus the occasional rare one, you’ll do fine. You may not want to get Mana Drains because of their cost, but nothing is stopping you from grabbing a set of Excludes or Confounds. Get those for your card stock, because some decks will want them over Counterspell.

Another consideration is the color of the deck. While a Mono-Blue deck can easily run a UU Counterspell, other decks may have mana issues by playing two or more colors. These decks may need counters, but without the ability to cast double Blue reliably, a different set of counters is needed.

A fourth question is whether you are building this deck for a specific variant of Magic. A deck built for a duel will want different counters than one built for Two-Headed Giant, which will want different counters than a deck built for general free-for-all multiplayer. The multiplayer deck needs its counters to be more than just a Counterspell. A Counterspell is card disadvantage in multiplayer. (In duels, all of your opponents draw one card per turn, as do you, so a one-for-one trade is equal. In multiplayer, you are being outdrawn significantly, so a one-for-one trade is very bad.) Ideal counters will allow you to draw cards, like Dismiss, or have a beneficial effect, like Desertion or Spelljack. Other good counters are ones that don’t upset your opponent too much, like Arcane Denial or Delay. There is a politics to multiplayer counters, and Arcane Denial plays well into that. Also, your multiplayer counters can sometimes be a bit more expensive. You often have an extra turn or three to develop before the big stuff flies.

The final question is about your kitchen table metagame. Every casual playgroup has a metagame. Are you seeing a lot of Green decks packing elves? How about lots of lifer decks built around Congregate and Test of Endurance? What about graveyard recursion? Is Obliterate a problem? If so, there are counters that can help in all of these situations (yes, even Obliterate — see Ertai’s Meddling and Time Stop).

Thus, before you can choose the specific counters that are best for your deck, you need to know the answers to these questions. Format, collection, colors, variant, and metagame are all important considerations when choosing any card for your deck, especially your countermagic.

Select Your Tool

Once you have decided that your deck does need counters, and what purpose the counters will serve, and then answered the above questions, you can now build your deck.

Many counters are good in certain situations as long as you understand their limitations. There are a few counters, like Fold into Aether, which I would never play. However, most counters have uses, so feel encouraged to use them.

Take a look through a list of all of the counters in Magic. Here is a link to the advanced search on SCG that will show you all instants in Magic with the phrase “counter target.”

Many counters are better than you might otherwise think.

Understand that there are a variety of counters out there, and then find the ones you need for your deck. Let’s take a look at some examples.

Suppose you have a deck that wants counters for negation, running Blue and Green as its colors. The deck has removal for artifacts, enchantments, even lands via Creeping Mold. It has flyers and beaters, but needs creature removal, and wants to use counters to fill that role.

This is a perfect deck for Exclude. Its one Blue mana allows it to seamlessly fit into the double colored deck. It stops a creature, and it draws you a card. It allows you to keep on going, without missing a beat. This is for multiplayer.

Now, that’s not to say that the only counters included are creature counters. There is something to say for versatility, and a Counterspell is maximally versatile. Just that Exclude does what you need it to, in terms of color, ability, and more. Sure, you can toss in Vex or Arcane Denial as well, but Exclude is a perfect fit.

Suppose you have a deck that wants counters for disruption; runs Blue, White, and Black; and has Swords, Rend Flesh, Disenchant, and a heaping of good creatures. It plays a bit more of a control style of deck, for a duel. This deck does not need counters as removal or for protection. It simply needs counters as an answer to the opponent’s key spells later in the game, and not early.

For this deck, a great counter might be Negate. It’s cheap, so you can play it alongside other spells. It only requires a single Blue, which is fine for your deck. Another option might be Spite/Malice, with a slower need, but it gives you a backup Dark Banishing type effect.

The Prodigal Sorcerer deck above wants Confounds. A Five Color Green deck might want Evasive Action. A fast graveyard filler or discard deck wants Circular Logic. A wizard deck likes Ixidor’s Will.

When you see a counter, ask yourself where that would be useful. For example, Induce Paranoia is not just good in a B/U deck that has a milling strategy, it is also good against someone who played a “Top of Deck” tutor like Imperial Seal, or against someone who put their good cards on top of their library with a Scroll Rack to avoid losing them to their Balance. Now counter their Balance and mill the top two cards off.

There are many other examples. Know that Hindering Touch is a counter against storm cards as well as useful on its own. Last Word allows you to counter a spell without fear that your counter will be countered — giving you great “no” ability. Counters like Faerie Trickery, Dissipate, and even Hinder are great against graveyard recursion. Teferi’s Response will save your manlands as well as normal lands, so activate your Mutavault and swing, comfortable that you can counter an Incinerate. Trickbind is a perfect Stifle card, with split second and the “no more this turn” ability combined. It’s great as disruption. Undermine works well in aggro decks, Absorb and Suffocating Blast work well in control decks. Mystic Snake and Familiar’s Ruse work perfect together, and each works lovely in decks designed to abuse 187 creatures. Power Sink combines a counter with a Mana Short — great against control players in general or combo players trying to go off this turn.

Counters like Quash, Avoid Fate, Remand, Bind, Controvert, Delay, Vex, Rewind, Dismal Failure, Assert Authority, Force Spike, Mana Tithe, Burnout, Discombobulate, Broken Ambitions, Rethink, Complicate, and more all have their various uses in various decks.

The key to building a deck with countermagic is understanding their uses.

As a reminder from last week, I am traveling back home from a visit to my home state of West Virginia, and thus I will not be able to respond to your comments. I will read them when I get back, however, you can be assured about that.

Until later…

Abe Sargent