To Counter or Not to Counter: ANT's Dark Ritual

It may just be a small step, but it affects the outcome of Legacy games tremendously. Do you counter Ad Nauseam Tendrils’ Dark Ritual or do you let it resolve?

Having played numerous matches with my trusty ANT against various decks from different eras of Legacy, I also enjoy being Storm’s opponent from time to time. Either with UR Delver, UB Reanimator, BUG Delve (-r), or Death’s Shadow, games against ANT demand a high level of precision and an understanding of Storm’s capabilities. Sometimes it feels like filleting an expensive fish and every wrongly executed cut spoils the fun.

In all my years of playing with and against ANT, Dark Ritual has always been a key card during combo turns. Deciding whether to counter it or let the ANT player gain three black mana is one of the most crucial aspects of the game.

The Variables

Careful Consideration

Let's look at some general examples and try to find a pattern that will answer the question Storm keeps asking: Do you counter Dark Ritual or do you let it resolve? Keep in mind that in a game of Magic: The Gathering, there are too many variables to find only one suitable solution to this question. Each scenario has hard factors, such as decklists, the exact setting of the game regarding the incorporation of cards in the hands and graveyards or both players, and life totals, that need to be taken into consideration. Soft factors, like player skill, the intention of playing Dark Ritual in first place, and analyses that deal with how fast players decide on playing their spells, must also be likewise considered.

I personally base my decisions on experience and a feeling for the deck that tells me what is possible in certain situations, paired with simple probability calculations. Let us assume that we are playing some kind of non-combo blue deck that runs a healthy number of creatures, spells, and lands. Keeping it rather unspecific allows for shorter and exemplary answers that can be projected onto more precise situations.

The Turn One Ritual

Dark Ritual
Play Preboard
Turn 1
OTP / OTD On the Draw
Cards in Hand 7
No. of Force of Wills 1
Pitch Cards Available Multiple

The game has not yet even started, and the Storm player already fetches for… let us say, Underground Sea and casts Dark Ritual. Do you counter it? Generally speaking, I would always reply with Force of Will here. Storm players usually agree on going for the turn 1 kill, even when doing so might mean losing to Force. That said, it becomes very compelling to simply resolve Ritual and take aim at Infernal Tutor. However, Duress, Thoughtseize, or Cabal Therapy as follow-ups bring this calculation to nought. A Past in Flames or an Empty the Warrens in hand can force their way through one permission spell in the opponent’s hand. Therefore, the conclusion is rather simple: Countering Ritual lets you stay in the game, and trading Force and a pitch card for Dark Ritual is the price I will gladly pay for not losing the game on turn 1. Not having a counter for next turn is not too big of a deal because Dark Ritual is an extremely valuable card for ANT and one of the few cards that provide fast wins. It is very likely that the Storm player has to use their cantrips to accelerate again.

Now, will this consideration change when the Storm player fetches for a Swamp, and how will their number of cards in hand alter the calculation? I think the first part of the question is irrelevant in most cases. Many Storm players search for basics first to prevent Wasteland from hitting their land base. However, against unknown opponents, fetching for a dual opens more possibilities for the next turn and does not limit one’s game patterns.

Regarding the number of cards in their hand, keep in mind that Storm needs at least four cards to win a game on turn 1. One of the most common scenarios is: land, Dark Ritual, Dark Ritual, Ad Nauseam. Breaking this simple chain with a discard spell demands two extra cards: the discard spell itself and any mana source like Lotus Petal or another Ritual, which makes a total of six cards. Another common combination is: land, Dark Ritual, Lion’s Eye Diamond, Infernal Tutor. This line can only search up Empty the Warrens if the Storm player does not have a Past in Flames that they can discard and flashback, after grabbing an additional Ritual with the Infernal Tutor.

Of course, most factors play into the equation, but countering Dark Ritual is the better way to approach this situation.

Counter it!

The End of Turn Ritual

Ad Nauseam
Play Postboard
Turn 5
OTP / OTD On the Draw
Cards in Hand 4
No. of Force of Wills 1
Pitch Cards Available 1

This one is rather easy but at the same time could set a trap for the opponent. The only real card that can be played during the opponent’s turn is Ad Nauseam. Some players tend to forget that Ad Nauseam is an instant and is pretty powerful when played in response to a discard spell or at the end of an opponent’s turn. Obviously, the Storm player cannot cast an instant speed discard spell. Thus, letting the Dark Ritual resolve at the end of one’s turn is more than tempting. You are very likely to hit the payoff card and hurt the opponent's game plan.

There is, however, one nuance to take into consideration: Flusterstorm. Flusterstorm can place the Storm player back in the driver’s seat. Be careful and do the math before letting Dark Ritual resolve – Can you pay for a potential Flusterstorm? What are the odds that the Storm player has one in hand? It is, of course, a huge advantage to know in which match-ups Storm players bring in Flusterstorm postboard. Even then, there are chances that a presumably wrongly sided-in counterspell can win the game.

All in all, I would let Dark Ritual resolve. Sometimes, Dark Ritual is used as a bait spell to make up for the lack of discard spells in hand. Sometimes, it also tries to ramp into a "value" Ad Nauseam. Take the risk and let it resolve.

Don't counter it!

The Mid-Game Dark Ritual

Play Preboard
Turn 8
OTP / OTD On the Play
Cards in Hand 3
No. of Force of Wills 1
Pitch Cards Available 1

Most combo turns start off with Dark Ritual and oftentimes the board state is quite advanced. Both players have already traded blows, but at some point, Storm decides to break the standstill and put a Ritual on the stack. One thing is clear: The opponent must choose wisely because his decision will most likely end the game for someone.

The most important action in this scenario is calculating what the Storm player is capable of doing when Ritual resolves. First of all, how many cards does he have in hand and how many mana sources are available to him? Let's say that your opponent has two untapped lands and one tapped land that paid for Ritual. If you counter Ritual, your opponent can win with either two or three cards: a combination of Cabal Ritual, assuming that enough cards are in his graveyard and a business spell, or two Lion’s Eye Diamonds and Infernal Tutor. Of course, this all depends on the cards available in his graveyard and the life totals.

Take your time and evaluate the board state. Why did your opponent start with Dark Ritual and not with a discard spell? Look at his mana base. I am inclined to counter Ritual if my opponent only has one black mana source. However, this might mean that he will slow-roll his land drop in order to make Dark Ritual a discard spell then proceed from there. I like to cast my Dark Ritual first then play cantrips during a combo turn because then I know that I have enough mana to play a discard spell and go for the kill, since cantrips are less likely to be countered.

In the end, there is no one correct answer because every game state is unique. On the average, I am willing to counter Dark Ritual slightly more than to let it resolve. This is simply because keeping an opponent short on mana when having actual threats on the board is a potent way to win games against ANT. It is extremely difficult to establish a formula for this one, but I would argue that the number of cards in the opponent’s hand is the biggest factor that interrelates with their previous turns and why they have not attempted to combo off before.

Almost impossible to tell!

How to Deal with So Many Insane Plays

One should never forget that Dark Ritual is one of Alpha’s five original one mana instants that represent the color pie. It is the most powerful ritual in the history of the game and an all-star no matter which deck it finds a home in. It creates insane plays by paying for taxing counter spells like Spell Pierce, or by allowing broken starts in BR Reanimator and fringe decks like Spanish Inquisition or Oops All Spells.

Do not ever underestimate its value. Try to find a way to assess its impact by approaching the situation step by step and by ticking off variables, such as a) the amount of cards in hand, b) the life totals (i.e. is Ad Nauseam an option), c) which cards are in the graveyard, d) what other interactions are possible (Flusterstorm), and finally e) what is the worst thing that can happen when resolved. There is no formula for everything.

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