As we all know, Magic is very much an interactive game. Instants alone add a whole layer of reactive gameplay compared to many other card games. Some people refer to creatures as "interaction with the opponent's life total," and all joking aside attackers and blockers do interact with each other too. But today I want to discuss interaction in a more commonly understood way, namely spells that prevent our opponent from fully enacting their game plan.
Different decks use various methods to do so, and they mostly boil down to discard, countermagic, and removal. Let's look closer at the characteristics of each of them and at how they compare to each other. At the end of each section, I provide a summary of their respective pros and cons.
Usually you'll face cards such as Duress, Inquisition of Kozilek, or Thoughtseize. They seem brutally efficient as they get rid of a card from your hand for, often, just one mana. Nowadays, most permanents played have some kind of enter-the-battlefield effect like Snapcaster Mage, Skyclave Apparition, Stoneforge Mystic, or are planeswalkers that can be used first before allowing a removal spell by the sheer fact that priority is not passed just after their resolution. Discarding these cards prevents our opponent from playing them out altogether and, hence, not allowing them to reap their immediate benefits.
On top of that discard allows you to pre-commit mana. It enables you to use your interaction proactively contrary to having to wait until your opponent has played their spell. Another key upside is that they punish your opponent heavily if they've mulliganed. When your opponent is on six or five, you can poke a hole in their hand by removing a key piece as soon as turn one and then proceed to enact your own game plan starting on turn two. Last but not least, you know what your opponent has in hand. However trivial it may sound, there is a reason why Magic is a game of imperfect information. Can you imagine playing poker knowing exactly what your opponent has? The asymmetry of information is what makes the game so challenging and discard makes it infinitely easier for you as you don't have to speculate what to play around—you know what to play around, while your opponent doesn't.
However, discard spells do have their own drawback: they dispose of a card for which the opponent has not paid any mana. It basically means that you are spending a card and a mana to get rid of something into which the opponent has not had to invest any mana. To illustrate how key this drawback is, imagine playing against a monored deck. On turn one they play a creature, while you play a discard spell, next they cast another creature. So far, you have not affected the board at all, despite having played an interaction piece. If you play another discard spell, you're being pounded on the battlefield.
Additionally, discard spells become dead late in the game when the opponent's hand is empty and they just play spells off the top. That's why we've got the famous saying, "You cannot Thoughtseize the top of their deck." In such an endgame situation, a discard spell neither affects the battlefield nor helps in the future turns as the opponent is just going to play out whatever they've drawn.
As far as I'm concerned, discard spells are also dubious design as they restrict your options, such as completely invalidating your mulligan decision while offering little counterplay. There are some very narrow answers such as Veil of Summer, but even then you have to be on the play. Mulligan decisions are among the most interesting and challenging aspects of the game and the way such cards invalidate them is what I heavily dislike.
+ Prevent enter-the-battlefield effects.
+ Pre-commit mana.
+ Punish mulligans.
+ Glean information about their hand.
− Remove a card that has not been paid for.
− Dead late in the game.
Arguably the most popular means of interaction is removal. Usually seen in the form of Path to Exile, Lightning Bolt, Fatal Push, or so-called mass removal like Damnation, Supreme Verdict, or Anger of the Gods, there are so many flavors of removal spells that it's virtually impossible to cover all of them. However, they still share similar characteristics. The main advantage is their timing flexibility. You can get rid of matching permanents, and you can do it at basically any time. With removal, contrary to other means of interaction, the spell in question has to have resolved and the card has to sit on the battlefield. This flexibility translates into a plethora of use cases.
In addition, the presence of mass removal spells allows for a complete reset of the board. It's usually taken advantage of by decks that themselves don't play out many creatures. You can even throw in one point removal spell earlier to make your opponent overextend into your mass removal spell. For a lot of decks it's backbreaking.
There are downsides though. Due to it being the most popular means of interaction there is plenty of counterplay, be it in the form of shroud or hexproof, spells like Village Rites, or enter-the-battlefield effects. As I've already mentioned in the article, ETBs are omnipresent nowadays, and you can be sure that you will at some point kill a creature that has already done something. Clearly, that's going to leave you at a disadvantage. It doesn't feel great to kill a Snapcaster Mage that has already flashed back a card draw spell or an Ice-Fang Coatl that has drawn a card. One way to mitigate this is to either play an aggressive deck so that your opponent has no time to use the extra resources or run a lot of card advantage yourself.
+ Flexible timing.
+ Board reset.
− Different threats demand different removal.
− A lot of counterplay by the opponent.
My beloved way of interacting with the opponent. So much so that I've written a whole bible of countermagic theory. Allow me to briefly summarize the key points. The main upside combines upsides of both removal and discard. Namely, you get rid of a spell to which resources have been committed (as you do with removal) but prevent enter-the-battlefield effects (like discard does). It's a huge advantage and the whole point of playing counterspells.
If we pair it with the fact that most common counterspells, including Counterspell, tag any spell, we've got the ultimate interaction piece. As spells get more expensive, they exert more powerful effects, and you can avoid all the problems with a simple Mana Leak. Countering an expensive creature both stops the creature itself as well as the attendant enter-the-battlefield trigger, often at a mana advantage to boot! It also gives you a sense of security. If your opponent is reduced to topdecking but you have a counterspell, you can be almost certainly there is nothing they could draw to mess up your plan.
Does that mean counterspells are the most powerful interaction pieces? It doesn't! Their downside might not be apparent but is significant. There are three main downsides, actually. The first one is that countermagic is maximally timing sensitive. We can play our counterspell only when our opponent allows us to, by which I mean when they put it on the stack. Once the opponent has found a window to resolve a spell, there is no way back and we have to wait until they cast something else. Additionally, the opponent might multispell, which makes our decisions on what to counter very difficult. Lastly, if you're leaving mana up to cast a counterspell, you're not committing it main phase to do something else. If the opponent does not play into it, the mana we're holding up goes to waste.
+ Get rid of any spell, typically.
+ Prevent enter-the-battlefield effects.
+ Get rid of a spell to which resources have been committed.
− Inflexible timing.
− Hard to play against an opponent slinging multiple spells per turn.
− Need to hold up mana.
It's impossible to make such a judgment. If you browse the interactive decks in all the formats, you will quickly realize that most of the top performers employ some mix of discard, removal, and/or counters, usually two out of three. Their characteristics are so unique that there is no clear answer to which one is best, and I think this makes the game interesting. All of them are valid, albeit in different ways and shells.
I hope you've found this breakdown on what function each of them performs useful and clear. I am a counterspell-removal person myself and enjoy the play patterns this particular mix promotes most of all. What type of player are you?
Thanks for your time. If you like this type of content, let us know in the comments and check out my writer section on Cardmarket Insight for more similarly theoretical-minded articles. As always, hold my hand and let's pass the turn together. Cheers!
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, not of Cardmarket.