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Brewer's Minute: Deep Delve—Counterspells


Hey everyone! It's time for another Brewer's Minute! A few weeks ago, we did a Deep Delve into targeted discard, and overall the feedback was pretty positive, so the Deep Delve subseries returns this week to talk about everyone's favorite blue instants: counterspells! What are counterspells? What are the benefits and downsides to putting counterspells in your decks? How do you play with them? What about against them? These are the questions we'll be looking at today as we take a Deep Delve into counterspells!

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What Are They?

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What are counterspells? This is actually a pretty easy question to answer: they say "counter target X" right on the card, so figuring out if something is a counterspell usually isn't too hard. On the other hand, delving deep on counterspells does have a big challenge: there are approximately a million counterspells in Magic, and there is a lot of variety in the group. Counters can be extremely narrow (like Dispel) or hit anything (like Counterspell). They can be cheap with a downside (like Swan Song) or more expensive with an upside (like Cryptic Command). Because of this, it isn't possible to break down every single counterspell and all of their implications, so today we're going to keep our focus wide and talk about counterspells in general. Then, in the future, maybe we'll delve deeper into specific types of counterspells or even individual counterspells.

What Makes Them Good?

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  1. Counterspells answer anything. Every format has some number of counterspells that simply say "counter target spell." In Standard, this includes Disallow and Cancel; in Modern, we have Mana Leak and Cryptic Command; and in Legacy, there are Force of Will and literal Counterspell. The biggest upside of these broad counters is they give you an answer to any problematic thing your opponent could possibly play. Think about all the great threats in Magic: planeswalkers like Karn Liberated, artifacts like [[Batterskull], enchantments like Survival of the Fittest, sorceries like Approach of the Second Sun, and instants like Lightning Bolt—no matter what threat your opponent plays, a counterspell provides an answer. Most answers, even great answers, have some sort of restriction, like Doom Blade and Path to Exile only hit creatures and can't save you from a planeswalker or a spell, but counterspells allow you to deal with anything your opponent can throw at you.
  2. Counters often trade up in mana. The second reason why counterspells are good is they often trade up in mana. For example, if your opponent plays an Approach of the Second Sun and you counter it with a Negate, you just used two mana to stop a seven-mana play from your opponent. This sometimes leads to the Time Walk effect, where your opponent spends their entire turn (and all of their mana) playing one big spell only to have it cheaply answered by a counter. This is almost the same as the opponent skipping their turn, which is a huge tempo swing (especially if you can advance your board with the mana you have left over after casting your counterspells).
  3. Counterspells are a safety net against unfair decks. Since counterspells hit anything, they work as safety nets against degenerate decks and strategies. For example, Goblin Charbelcher would be one of the best cards in Legacy if Force of Will weren't around to keep it in check, and Approach of the Second Sun would be even scarier in Standard if people couldn't sideboard in Negate to fight against the second copy's "I win" clause. 

What Makes Them Bad?

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  1. You have to leave up mana. Compared to other answers, the biggest downside of counters (and, assuming we are talking about broad counters that hit anything, perhaps the only downside) is that you have to leave up mana to cast the counterspell in response to your opponent casting a spell, or else they do nothing. If you look at other answers like Doom Blade or Hero's Downfall, you are free to spend your turn advancing your board, and then you can always kill what your opponent plays in the future after it is on the battlefield. With counters, you need to have the mana available when your opponent casts the spell, which reduces your flexibility. In the worst case, this can lead to situations where you Time Walk yourself (passing your turn to leave up a counterspell, only to have your opponent not cast a spell that you want to counter, which is basically like skipping your turn). Basically, the upside of counters is they give you a ton of flexibility as far as targets are concerned, since they can counter anything, but the price you pay is a lack of flexibility as far as timing is concerned, since you always need to leave up mana.
  2. They can be narrow or slow: While our main focus today is broad counters that hit anything, it's worth mentioning briefly that some counters are narrow (think Negate), which pushes them from main decks into sideboards. Also, while counters often trade up in mana, if you are playing against a deck like Burn in Modern where most of your opponent's plays are one mana, you are often stuck trading down in mana. Finally, if you don't have enough mana to cast your counter when your opponent does something powerful (for example, you have Cryptic Command in hand when your opponent casts Goryo's Vengeance on Turn 3), the counter doesn't do much of anything and can be too slow for certain matchups / situations.

Where to Play Them

There are three main places where counterspells see play, but this isn't an exclusive list, since in theory many different types of deck can run counterspells (in the past, we've seen aggressive aggro lists with counters, midrange with counters, and combo with counters, along with the more common homes.)

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First, the most common home for counterspells is control decks, which are often built to maximize the value of counterspells by playing threats with flash or other non-counterspell instants so you can leave up a counterspell during your opponent's turn and still advance your gameplay (by drawing cards or playing a creature) if you don't need to counter anything. Second, we have tempo decks, which are often similar to control decks but more about using counters to generate short-term value (usually by protecting a fast, powerful threat like Delver of Secrets or Bitterblossom) rather than making the game go long like control decks. Third, almost every blue deck in every format plays counters in the sideboard, even if they don't have any counterspells in the main deck. Part of the reason for this is that the sideboard is a good play for narrow matchup-dependent counters like Flusterstorm, Spell Pierce, and Dispel which answer specific problematic cards or decks.

How to Play Them

Normally, when it comes to playing counterspells, especially in control decks, the best counterspell in your deck is the one still in your hand when you win the game. Basically, the longer you can wait before using your counterspells, the more spells you see from your opponent's deck and the greater the odds of you countering an important spell. Of course, this varies based on the style of deck you play. Tempo decks are more likely to use their counters early and aggressively in an effort to close out the game, while control decks are more likely to sit back and hold their counters to get maximum value, knowing they have the advantage if the game goes long.

How to Play Against Counterspells

If you want more info on playing with or against counterspells, make sure to check out Playing With Counterspells by PVDDR over on Channel Fireball. Not only does the hall of famer cover how best to use your own counterspells, but he has a few handy tips for playing against opposing counterspells as well!

Conclusion

Anyway, that's all for today. As always, leave your thoughts, ideas, opinions, and suggestions in the comments, and you can reach me on Twitter @SaffronOlive or at SaffronOlive@MTGGoldfish.com.


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