The Dynamics of Playing Counterspells

Counterspells are the most beloved and hated forms of interaction in all of Magic. Beginners despise them as they seem impossible to play around and advanced players learn to abuse their weaknesses. Today, I want to look into the play patterns that counterspells promote and how to approach them.

Blue mages love countering spells. There is no better feeling than not allowing your opponent's threat to hit the battlefield. At the most basic level, this form of interaction might seem overpowered compared to discard or removal. In this article, I want to discuss why exactly it's far from overpowered and how the dynamic of playing them changes depending on the type of counterspell.

Pure Counterspells


counterspell

To begin with, let's talk about counterspells in general. The upside of a card like Counterspell is obvious—you get rid of your opponent's spell, any spell, without allowing it to do anything. There is, however, a huge downside. I want to mention the three main disadvantages of countermagic.

  • Contrary to removal, which can be played at any time, permission spells restrict your timing heavily. You can only counter a spell that's being cast. This means your opponent decides when you get to use your interaction and can make it awkward for you by casting spells either during their main phase, in their combat, your end step, or any other time they wish to. Naturally, you expect most spells to be cast on your opponent's main phase, yet that's not a given.

  • Additionally, you might face multi-spell turns. Your opponent has three mana up and casts Death's Shadow. Are they playing their worst card first and want to draw out the counterspell? Or do they just want you to think that. Maybe they have no followup anyway and that's their only spell. The problem here is that you and you alone have to find the answer to these questions, not the opponent. You once again find yourself put in an awkward position.

  • On top of all of that, when you decide to hold up a counterspell, you're giving something up—the opportunity to commit mana during your main phase. When it comes to removal, you can easily play Jace, the Mind Sculptor now and later remove whatever they've played. With permission that's just not the case, so you have to make what is, once again, a tough decision: keep mana up, or play your own threat or mass removal sorcery or whatever. There is, unfortunately, another layer of awkwardness to this situation. What if they don't play anything? They may just attack and pass, or activate their Treetop Village and attack, or hold up Collected Company or Kolaghan's Command and cast that on your end step or upkeep. In that case, you've wasted the mana for an entire turn cycle, because you've neither progressed your own plan nor impeded them.

As you see, it's your opponent who decides when the spell is cast and, therefore, interacted with; your opponent might multi-spell to put you in an awkward position; you might not get to counter anything if they do not play into your permission. It's clearly not pure upside. Be mindful of that—both at the deck-building level, such as whether and how many counterspells to include, but also at the gameplay level. All of the above will still apply in the sections that follow.

Soft Counterspells


mana leak

Let's add another layer. In this section, I define soft counterspells as the ones that offer your opponent an alternative choice, usually in the form of a mana payment—Spell Pierce, Mana Leak, Quench, Stubborn Denial all qualify.

The first aspect of gameplay that the inclusion of such cards changes is the relevance of time passing in the game. If your Mana Leak demands that your opponent pays three, then as the game progresses, it's going to become easier and easier to meet the condition and not get the spell countered. In a way it forces you to use this type of interaction as early as possible, as this is when it's as close to a pure Counterspell as it gets. Mana Leak will probably be a hard counter through until turn five. However, control wants to play games which are ten to fifteen turns long. Consequently, there is an inherent need to convert such counterspells early in the game, as later they will be as good as a blank effect.

Or will they? Once you understand how soft permission works, you can try to convert its downside but not to counter a spell. How? To tap your opponent out. If my opponent plays a threat that I am actually not afraid of, I might still fire off my Mana Leak to make them tap three lands in order to restrict their options this turn. You might try to make it look as if it was as accident, yet it's a trap—your opponent does not know that the point is not countering the spell but tapping them low. Additionally, we can combine soft permission spells to create one hard counter. Late in the game, we might cast a Mystical Dispute, make them pay three and then immediately follow it up with another one. Is it worth it? Depends on the situation, but it's probably good to turn two potentially useless cards into one impactful. If it's the lategame, it's worth considering to cast your soft counters last—if there is a counter war, both players will tap low and, in the end, your Mana Leak might actually counter something after all.

Why would people play soft permission anyway? The answer is surprisingly simple: there are no better counterspells in those formats, for example in Modern. Furthermore, because Modern is so fast and most threats hover around two mana with many games being six turns long at maximum, Mana Leak is as good as a hard counter most of the time. Finally, the fact that they are soft is made up for in the rate—Spell Pierce and Mystical Dispute are brutally efficient early in the game.

Counterspells with Additional Effects


absorb

The next layer I want to outline is the wide array of extras counterspell come with. Absorb provides you with at times much needed life gain, Remand offers card draw, Cryptic Command comes with a bajillion options, Condescend brings scry to the table … There are plenty of possible add-ons.

Sometimes, you'll encounter a situation when you want to use the counter for its additional effect more than for its counterspell nature. The most classic example is Absorb. If you are at 3 life against an aggressive red deck and have a million removal spells in hand, you might still absorb their creature just to get the sweet, sweet 3 life. Another time you might use Remand on an uncounterable spell. The result is that the spell resolves, obviously, but you still get to draw a card. This way you turn a card that's dead now into a fresh card that maybe isn't. The same goes for Condescend. Maybe you don't care much, or at all, about this spell your opponent is casting, but you do care about making your next land drop.

Always look at what your permission spells do in addition to countering spells. There will be situations when these effects are exactly what you need.

Modal Counterspells


archmage's charm

The previous group was made up of cards that both counter and provide an additional effect. Here, I want to talk about cards with whom you either counter or get another effect. Such cards would be Izzet Charm, Archmage's Charm, Bant Charm, or in a weird way Cryptic Command.

The whole subset of Magic's charms and commands is unbelievably interesting gameplay-wise, especially the ones that also offer another form interaction. You have to make the tough choice of whether to accept all the drawbacks mentioned in the first section of the article and hold the card up as a counterspell or to cash it in for a different effect like card draw. Thankfully, the most playable specimens offer, in a way, both. When you keep up Archmage's Charm, you can see what happens in a given turn and then decide at the end if you want to draw a fresh couple of cards. However, you are still faced with the decision of whether to hang on to that Charm for the following turn or to cash it in now.

Unfortunately, it's impossible to provide a rule of thumb on when and what to counter—it's way too context specific. There are some generic tips like, "If it does not kill me, I don't counter it." Then again, while that's often true, such heuristics are far too simplistic and won't help you in difficult situations—which is when you need help the most. The modality of these spells offer you options and more difficult decisions along with it. Let's stay with the Archmage's Charm example. I will try to gauge whether two random cards are worth more than this specific spell that is being cast. On top of that, I will look whether I've got other counterspells in hand. Last, I will try to determine whether the other tools I've got, such as removal, will offset the damage caused by letting the spell resolve.

Summary of Key Points

  • Permission requires specific timing. Your opponent controls when you get to counter the spell.
  • Your opponent might multispell.
  • When you hold up permission, you don't get to commit mana main phase. If your opponent does not play into the counterspell, the mana is wasted.
  • Soft permission is at its best early in the game.
  • Late in the game you might want to cast soft permission last so that it has a chance to become a hard counter.
  • You can combine a couple of soft counterspells into one hard counter.
  • You can use soft permission to make your opponent tap low.
  • Counterspells with additional effects might be cast predominantly for their additional effect rather than the countering.
  • Modal spells pose difficult decisions turn-to-turn. Try to gauge the downside of not countering compared to the upside of using a different effect such as card draw.

I hope you've found this guide useful. Let me know if you enjoy such theory-oriented articles. You can find many more in my writer section of Cardmarket Insight. Until next time—hold my hand and let's pass the turn together. Cheers!


Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily Cardmarket.



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