Modern’s Newest Free Counterspell Lacks Subtlety

Shaheen Soorani thinks the power of Subtlety is the opposite of its name. Where does he see the Modern Horizons 2 preview fitting into control and combo?

Subtetly, illustrated by Anastasia Ovchinnikova

Preview season arrives more frequently these days.

Back in my day, there were four to five sets a year and that did it for big changes to the competitive formats. In my old age, I tend to reminisce about the days that have passed; however, there are some perks that come with the new method of card development. More sets provide brewers like me with additional opportunities to revamp control strategies, as well as craft groundbreaking combo decks to take on the older formats.

With Modern Horizons 2, the talk of the town is the impact its arrival will have on Modern. It doesn’t take many cards to break through in this format, with the original set prompting bans after a few months. I have no interest in Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis and other cards with raw, predictable power. I look for the unique prints, like a Scrap Trawler here or an Unmarked Grave there, which provide me with the resources to stress test the limitations of the format.

Force of Negation

Force of Negation was my best friend from Modern Horizons, especially after the bannings that effectively nerfed Urza, Lord High Artificer. I knew it would define Modern, which is why I loaded up on copies of the free counterspell early. Even though I knew it was amazing, it didn’t wow the public in the way I thought it would.

In my colleagues’ defense, there were plenty of egregiously powerful cards that overshadowed the free Negate. Although there were more powerful cards, Force of Negation’s mana cost set it apart from the competition. It may not be format-breaking, but it’s strong enough to warp deck choices and the overall metagame. Some of the biggest victims of its existence are Urzatron players, where their giant payoff cards never have a chance to resolve, even when the control player is tapped out.

The fact is that most players know how destructive free spells are to metagame health, yet WotC continues to create them at a rapid pace. I didn’t complain when Force of Negation arrived, but it’s not the only free spell from a Modern Horizons set as of last week.


Once I saw Grief previewed, I knew the next set of free spells would ramp up the emotions of entrenched players. Some players responded with excitement, going over various ways to blink it and take chunks away from the opposing player’s hand right off the bat.

I know it will be a format staple, destroying disruption hopes, while setting up for the combo kill. In the first Modern Pro Tour ever, I played a Footsteps of the Goryo + Protean Hulk combo deck. With Unmarked Grave as the combo piece, and Grief as the disruption, I’m about to kick it like it was 2011 again, but with more winning this time around. Grief will not be a friend of the control player; however, it will assist aggressive, black-based aggro and combo decks with defeating Celestial Colonnade.

There has been speculation about the other free spells, including jokes aimed at the white variant. I hope it does the cycle some justice with a strong effect attached. White has historically received the short end of the stick in terms of power level and the competition in this free evoke cycle is fierce.

I wasn’t expecting another counterspell out of blue, due to the beautiful reframing of Force of Negation and the introduction of Counterspell to Modern. The combination of these two cards provides all control shells a very strong floor, able to disrupt all walks of the format with ease. To my absolute astonishment, the development team provided us with Subtlety, another free counterspell with big late-game upside.


Force of Negation has a three-mana counterspell option, with a nice exile component built in. That’s not bad, especially considering it’s free to cast in the other mode. Subtlety joins the upside club, boasting a 3/3 flying body attached to the counterspell when mana is available. For four mana, Subtlety flashes in, puts the problematic creature or planeswalker on top of the opponent’s library, and then provides instant pressure.

A flash, 3/3 flyer for four mana is already something that many Modern players are used to in the form of Restoration Angel. I will trade the one toughness and the blink ability for a guaranteed answer to any creature or planeswalker. As a nod to one of my favorite white creatures, it plays nicely with the evoke series from Modern Horizons 2. If there’s a competitive deck that can repeatedly trigger the ability of Subtlety, I’m all ears.

A great perk of Subtlety is that it dodges uncounterable things, with all eyes on Cavern of Souls. Cavern of Souls is a Modern staple that has been the thorn in my side since its initial arrival into competitive Magic. It destroys my beautiful hand full of blue disruption when played, making games that seemed unlosable flip in an instant.

No wonder a card like Aether Gust has gained so much popularity. Not only is it a versatile answer against big green decks and red aggro, but it also works through a Cavern of Souls or anything else that would make spells uncounterable. Subtlety has the same wording, allowing you to choose up to one target creature spell or planeswalker spell and have the opponent put it on top or bottom of their library.

Even though it gives control players assistance against uncounterable spells, there are scenarios where that strength becomes a weakness. Memory Lapse is a perfect example of a card I rarely played but did enjoy having access to. Putting the problematic spell on top of the opponent’s library can delay an inevitable loss, where permanently answering it results in a victory.

This scenario can occur more often than I’m comfortable with, especially in Modern. The fact that it hits a different set of spells from Force of Negation is important and will come up in deckbuilding for control players. In a world full of dangerous, must-answer permanents, Subtlety will save the day on a regular basis. If that world is instead run by spells, Force of Negation may not be cool with sharing that deck space. I can see a split for now, with the main justification being Subtlety’s ability to interact with the planeswalkers of control decks.

Karn Liberated Teferi, Hero of Dominaria

Most decks in Modern have creatures, and for those that do not, they have planeswalkers. Ramp and control decks are not where you want an Essence Scatter effect, but both decks have must-answer planeswalkers. Force of Negation would be the stronger spell; however, Subtlety can provide the controller a threat if the free disruption ability is not required in the early-game.

Putting a Karn Liberated on top of a Mono-Green Tron player’s deck is not exactly the play I want to make, unless done on Turn 4 with pressure attached. Being able to untap, get in there for three, and then have the shields back up is a huge swing in the control player’s favor. The same logic holds true for answering a Teferi, Hero of Dominaria, all while having the evoke backup plan.

I’m not excited about getting hit by my own two-for-one against aggro players early, so Subtlety is not exactly for those decks either. Putting a Goblin Guide on top of the opponent’s library is another lackluster play but could be necessary for survival. There have been many matches where my hand lacked a one-mana removal spell, the opponent gets aggressive right off the start, and I take six damage while fumbling around with cantrips. Subtlety provides insurance against that scenario and is in the color that has the best chance to recoup card loss.

Drown in the Loch

Putting the card on top of the opponent’s library can be a liability; however, mitigation is available. There are control decks that already take full advantage of Drown in the Loch, using cards like Thought Scour that boost the efficiency tenfold. That same Dimir Control shell will gladly accept assistance from Subtlety, having the supporting cast of characters to make sure threats put on top of the library do not return.

Decks like these in Modern have long intrigued me due to my undying love for Drown in the Loch. Thinking about that deck, now with Counterspell and Subtlety, makes it hard to focus on the business at hand in other formats. All I want to do is start proxying control decks with the new Modern Horizons 2 tools and get to work, finding the best possible build for release day. We’re still early in previews and there are more free spells to come.

I’m confident that this cycle, and others like it, are a mistake for the health of competitive Magic. That concern I have is valid; however, I support the development team in stretching the boundaries of card creation. I still think about what it was like to hard-cast Decree of Justice, using my Temple of the False God for extra mana, but the game has evolved since then. Cards are much stronger, resulting in more frequent bannings. I hope that WotC found the happy medium between creative, powerful spells and those that destroy formats.