Thank You WotC! Counterspell Is Modern-Legal!

The early Modern Horizons 2 previews were of mild interest to Shaheen Soorani. Just kidding. Counterspell is coming to Modern and he is thrilled.

Counterspell, illustrated by Zack Stella

The preview season for Modern Horizons 2 has begun. This series is based on high-impact creations, cards meant to have an immediate effect on the Modern format. Normal sets that are produced for Standard may have a card or two, if we’re lucky, that is usable in the older formats. The high power level of Modern Horizons has helped amp up my excitement for Modern Horizons 2, with the clear expectation that control will receive some powerful spell to assist in its eternal fight for viability.

Control has had more obstacles staying relevant in Modern than in any other competitive format. The power level of the combo and aggro decks, combined with the lack of strong blue-based disruption, has caused my favorite archetype to fall from grace on many occasions. It was Modern Horizons, producing Force of Negation, that pulled control back up from the gutter and allowed me to have a strong run in the tournaments to follow.

Force of Negation Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis Urza, Lord High Artificer

Modern Horizons had its issues that stemmed from the very nature of its creation. To plug cards directly into competitive Modern, they must exceed the typical card strength that you would see from sets introduced as Standard-legal. There was a laundry list of spells produced that fundamentally broke the format, some more egregious than others. Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis was an in-your-face blunder that never should have been printed, where Urza, Lord High Artificer was behind the banning of multiple artifacts in the format. This has not affected my excitement with Modern Horizons 2, because control has always had one thing going for it to prevent the power creep from hitting it.

Since control decks have been historically weak in Modern, cards printed to assist it are unlikely to get banned. Giving control an eleven-out-of-ten spell would not warp the format, since the archetype lacks the oppressive elements to warp the Modern format. This dynamic could change if enough new disruption, removal, and win conditions were elevated to astronomically high power levels, but that’s an unlikely scenario. Force of Negation was great and lifted up control decks everywhere; however, it didn’t fix the fundamental deficit that control has in Modern.

Godless Shrine Watery Grave Hallowed Fountain

The glaring issues control has in Modern are centered around the lack of universal answers. Path to Exile is a great catch-all to creatures, but it’s the only strong option that Azorius Control has access to. If additional removal spells are needed, a third color must be introduced, which explains the rise of Esper Control in the last few months. If aggro decks adapt properly, the penalty of shocklands could mandate us back to a two-color existence. Life loss and an inconsistent manabase aside, the third color has given control players additional removal, as well as universal solutions to a large swath of the format.

Drown in the Loch and Kaya’s Guile are beautiful answers to most of the threats the format produces. Having the ability to counter most spells late and answer most aggro threats early makes Drown in the Loch a control superstar. It fits perfectly in the two-mana slot, sometimes usable on the second turn, but more often coming through in the clutch later in the game when the control player needs to cast two spells on the same turn. Yet with these strengths, Drown in the Loch still cannot be more than a two-of in control decks. Drawing them in multiples when the opposing graveyard is dry is detrimental and strips the disruption spell of its usefulness early on.

Drown in the Loch Kaya's Guile

Kaya’s Guile is not as strong a reward as Drown in the Loch in Esper Control, but its versatility wins games on its own. Having Game 1 lifegain is the strongest aspect, but being able to nuke a graveyard is a special action that control decks rarely have access to in Game 1.

The stars lined up in Modern for control to make a big splash in competitive play, as I covered in my article on Esper Control. The risky manabase is the obvious downside in a world that contains Blood Moon and aggro decks that can punish shockland users. Unfortunately, two-color control decks lack the universal answers that a third color provides. If we stick with Azorius Control, the counterspells and removal and weak. For Dimir Control, the planeswalkers and sweepers are lackluster, further pushing competitive players to take the leap of faith to a three-color control deck.

Modern Horizons 2 is likely to contain cards to strengthen one of the two-color control options or make life easier for three-color control enthusiasts. This was my initial thought going into Modern Horizons 2 preview season, but after Weekly MTG last Thursday, it seems the best possible scenario happened. The R&D team reprinted Counterspell.

Not a type of counterspell, but the actual card itself!

As I type this article I am still in shock, carrying over from this Tweet I sent the night it released before I went to sleep.

Counterspell is one of the most iconic blue spells in the history of the game and for good reason. I still play it in competitive Legacy as a true-blue disruption spell that answers almost everything. The imitators have come and gone over the years, with weaker, watered-down versions being tossed our way with every set released. To get this effect in Standard-legal sets, we must pay three mana minimum. Anything cheaper has a heavy stipulation attached, the most famous placeholder being Mana Leak.

Mana Leak has been the go-to blue disruption spell for control players in Modern since the format arrived. I played four copies at first, quickly trimming them as I saw games going late and the lack of synergy it has with Path to Exile. Even without Path to Exile, control decks do not kill quickly, and the games are not locked up in the late-game when the opponent has run out of resources.

In newer formats like Standard and Historic, control can create a point of no return, even with mediocre disruption. However, the cards are too powerful in Modern and holding a bunch of conditional disruption spells can lead to easy games being lost, which Mana Leak was famous for doing. I was one of the first to fall in love with Logic Knot, which eventually became a mainstream staple for control players.

Mana Leak Logic Knot

Logic Knot was the closest thing we had to Counterspell in Modern. In the early-game, a single fetchland provides a Force Spike effect, making it a consistent Turn 2 play. The graveyard builds up over time, allowing Logic Knot to stop spells from resolving, even if the opponent had a ton of open mana at their disposal.

Logic Knot and Mana Leak were passable blue disruption spells for the last ten years, but I’m officially retiring both from my Modern spellbook forever. There are arguments to the splashing nature of Mana Leak; however, that’s not an applicable scenario for me. My control decks have Cryptic Command; Jace, the Mind Sculptor; and Archmage’s Charm, cards that aren’t friendly to a blue splash in the first place. Even if your Modern deck splashes blue, the upside to having Counterspell over Mana Leak is too high to play it safe.

There will be some hipsters who pack a few Mana Leaks in their Omnath, Locus of Creation deck, but that fad will fade. Counterspell has officially killed all its close competitors and the future for control looks glorious because of it.

Counterspell automatically upgrades control to one of the best archetypes in the Modern format. Control was already on its way up, but this addition is enough to increase the win rate against all non-aggro matchups on its own. Each blue-based control deck will start its deckbuilding with four copies of Counterspell and four copies of Snapcaster Mage, a combination of cards that will torment all midrange, control, big mana, and combo decks for the foreseeable future. This upgrade in the two-mana disruption slot is enough to push the viability of two-color control back up, although I’m unsure it dethrones Esper Control just yet.

Fatal Push Drown in the Loch

Esper Control still has the best removal package against the most aggressive decks, making it the frontrunner for best in class. Fatal Push and Drown in the Loch still run circles around Path to Exile and Oust, which isn’t impacted by the existence of Counterspell. Regardless of which control deck you play, Counterspell will join the ranks as a four-of and enhance what’s already working there. Even though Counterspell increases the win rate against the slow decks, it’s not a dead card against aggro.

On the play, I usually keep in Mana Leak against every aggro deck out there. Counterspell will play the same role but better in these matchups, making it fine against the fast creature decks. There are some scenarios where threats can sneak under the situational blue disruption that we have just recently retired, making Counterspell a strict upgrade in those scenarios. Counterspell will have the biggest impact on slower decks but will increase the win rate against all Modern decks for control users.

Spell Snare

I’m unsure how the other archetypes in Modern will adapt to the addition of Counterspell. Spell Snare gains some stock as the cleanest answer to Counterspell in a counter war while having strong application on the draw against most decks. I wasn’t a fan of it in Esper Control for space reasons, but I can see it being a staple in Azorius Control moving forward.

Having to Path to Exile something on Turn 2 is a pain, which is why Spell Snare plays such an important role there. Having that clean answer Turn 1 on the draw and then having Counterspell online on Turn 2 is a series of plays I can get behind. Expect to see more decks using Spell Snare once Modern Horizons 2 goes live.

The stock of control is at a must-buy with the news of Counterspell breaking. This is just the first gift we have received from Modern Horizons 2, with most of the set still unknown. If there’s another busted planeswalker, removal, or card draw spell waiting in the wings, control could easily be the best deck by a comfortable margin.

I brag about control dodging the banhammer time after time due to its inherent weaknesses, but that comfort could be shattered once this set is released. With the current removal, planeswalkers, and now Counterspell that we have access to, control is nearing the highest point of its potential in Modern.

I couldn’t be more excited!