Jeremy casts spells in between his careers as a chemical analyst and campus manager.
Counterspells in Magic
Each color in Magic has certain advantages, and blue is king when it comes to control strategies: playing for a long-term win via manipulating the board. Blue usually does this with extra draws and counterspells, thwarting opposing plays as they're cast.
Counterspells have an infamous reputation within the Magic community, with some finding them completely fine, others believing them overpowered—are they really broken? Here's an analysis of both sides of the debate regarding blue counterspells in Magic: The Gathering!
1. Creature Traits Don't Help Against Them
One reason counterspells are so deadly is that they circumvent almost all creature defenses. For instance, white, black, and red utilize destruction and damage removals, but these can be prevented using keyword traits like indestructible, hexproof, regeneration, protection, ward, and (in damage's case) simply sufficient toughness. Also, many creatures have entrance or death effects, so even if they're immediately removed, they provide an advantage.
But for any of these keywords to matter, your creature has to actually exist first, so even the mighty "Progenitus" (who has protection from everything) falls to a simple "Cancel." To be fair, counterspells only work right when a spell is cast (and can't do anything about them afterward), but since most are three or less mana, it's usually not hard for control players to have them ready against big threats.
So, the only real way to beat counterspells are with your own counterspells (emphasizing their power), with "when cast" effects (cards like "Genesis Hydra") or cards that simply can't be countered ("Carnage Tyrant"), but these are rare enough to only mildly alleviate blue's reign.
2. Baiting Counterspells Only Goes so Far
One route to beat counterspells is to try to bait their use on your weaker plays. In other words, instead of tapping out to cast "Platinum Angel," you make a smaller "Cultivate" play. While this strategy has merits, issues still arise. For one, if your opponent was bluffing (and didn't actually have a counter), then you've slowed your setup by playing a subpar move.
More than that, it's hard to "wait out" counterspells because of other things players can devote their mana towards. Maybe you didn't fall for their "Negate" and hope to have wasted their turn's mana, but then they just cast "Into the Story" for some instant-speed draws. Or, they utilize a creature with flash ("Stunt Double") or a land's activated ability ("Crawling Barrens").
Basically, even when players suspect a counterspell and play accordingly, it often fails to gain an advantage since foes can do other things with their mana. One reason why the blue/black rogue strategy worked so well in the Zendikar Uprising era was because of its versatility; it would wait to see whether it needed to counter with "Drown in the Loch," and if opponents held off, it would just flash in rogues for aggro/mill dominance.
3. Many Counterspells Offer Additional Effects
Another counterspell issue is their added bonuses. And I'm not talking about the resource advantage of playing a two-cost counter against a five-cost threat (itself a big plus), but the actual bonuses many counterspells offer.
For instance, "Rewind" (often legal in standard) counters a spell for four mana, then untaps four lands, meaning no resources are effectively lost. Infamous "Cryptic Command" counters while tapping opposing permanents, drawing a card, or bouncing a creature, and "Sublime Epiphany" counters while drawing, creating a token creature copy, and bouncing a permanent!
4. Commander Favors Control
Part of the great counterspell debate is their prominence in commander. Don't get me wrong, I love EDH, but the format favors control strategies. For instance, doubling traditional standard life from 20 to 40 gives blue far more time to stave off aggro and set up a win (and conversely makes red struggle to earn an aggro kill). Red aggro is often the best way to reliably out-speed control in standard, but when you give players that much more life in EDH, you lose some of the game's balance by making aggro unreliable.
Also, older blue counterspells like "Mana Drain" (which may never see standard play again) are legal in commander, allowing a massive advantage if drawn.
5. No Other Color Counters Like Blue
One problem with counters are the fact that they're almost non-existent outside blue. Sure, red is king with direct damage, but black and white have similar destruction-based nukes, and green can inflict damage via creatures with cards like "Primal Might." Similarly, white has the most lifegain, but black and green aren't far behind.
Yet counterspells are firmly etched into blue, more color-locked than nearly any other game mechanic. And their relative obscurity (belonging to one just color) means there aren't as many checks to balance them, so when they do show up, options to thwart them are limited.
6. Blue Has Other Useful Advantages
On a very basic level, red has damage and a little artifact destruction. Green has big creatures and mana ramp. But blue has tons of tools in addition to its counterspell dominance. Card draw being chief among them, but also milling, extra turns, bouncing creatures, preventing them from untapping, cloning them, artifact synergy, and more.
Plus, many of blue's downsides (weak creatures and weak removals for things already on the field) are easily compensated for by mixing in a second color, often white or black. And that's easier than ever with powerful multicolor lands like the Pathways.
Looking at many of standard's bans over the past years reveals a disturbing blue-favoring trend, from "Growth Spiral" to "Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath," which highlights that blue is dangerous both with and without its primary mechanic.
7. Most Gameplay Is Best-of-1
Counterspells decks fare better in best-of-one, because in best-of-3, players can dip into their sideboard for cheaper spells or specific anti-counterspell tactics. But the thing is, most games just aren't best-of-3. Whether you're playing a commander night at your local game shop, or a virtual duel in MTG Arena, bo1 is much more common.
This explains why counterspells rarely win competitive tournaments, as they're not as strong in bo3 (which official events tend to use), but play a prominent role in other arenas.
8. Most Counterspells Work on All Card Types
Another huge advantage to counterspells is the fact that most simply work on too many card types. "Rewind," "Unwind," "Mana Drain," and many more can hit any spell. Plus, even most of the type-restricted counters still work on everything except creatures ("Negate," "Countersquall," "Silumgar's Command"), which means there's very rarely a "wasted" opportunity because of a mismatched opposing spell type.
Again, look at cards from other colors for comparison. Black and red have great low-cost removals ("Heartless Act," "Lightning Bolt," etc.), but these really only help against creatures (and sometimes planeswalkers). On artifacts, enchantments, sorceries, and the like, they're often a dead card in hand.
With these benefits in mind, it's easy to see why some consider counterspells broken, or at the very least, unfun. That said, there are opposing points to consider.
1. They Feel Worse Than They Are
As frustrating as counterspells can be, they arguably gain more hate than deserved because they're boring. For instance, compare casting a big creature like "Sheoldred, Whispering One," only for her to be destroyed by "Heartless Act" to her simply being countered by "Cancel." In both cases, effectively the same thing happened, but the former offers a "one step forward, one back" situation, dynamic and interesting. The latter counterspell scenario, while effectively the same, feels worse because you never succeeded with your casting in the first place.
Another reason counterspells amass hate is the slow speed they win at. Compared to red aggro, which either kills quick or gets demolished after a failed assault—either way, a tense and interesting game, even if you lose to it. But slowly falling to a blue control deck is continuous suffocation, less fun since you're locked into a losing game while your opponent steadily builds their control win.
2. They're Less Effective in Multiplayer
While EDH extended life veers games towards control, most commander matches are played with at least four people. This helps diminish counterspell power since it's much harder to successfully counter threats from numerous foes than one. Compared to field-wide nukes like "Wrath of God," counterspellers really have to think about which opponent (if any) to negate that round.
This can also make alliances difficult to form since players you counter are less likely to want to team up with you, whereas when everyone loses via a nuke, it doesn't feel like targeted hate.
3. Anti-Counterspell Effects
As much as commander opens up devastating counterspells like Mana Drain, it also accesses some of the best tools to thwart them. Whether that's using "Grand Abolisher" to prevent opposing spells during your turn or "Rhythm of the Wild" to protect your creatures from counters, options exist to protect your plays (although it should be noted these spells have to successfully arrive in the first place).
So, are Counterspells Broken?
So, what's the verdict? Are counterspells overpowered? To me, it really does depend on the format. Standard and legacy games (especially best-of-3), where aggro is more viable, provide enough threat to keep counterspells relatively in check. Commander has superior counterspells that pose a bigger threat, plus larger life totals for stalling, but has the mechanic somewhat balanced by generally being multiplayer.
In essence, I wouldn't call counterspells overpowered, but it would be nice to have more defenses to stop them when they do arise. Include answers in your deck or sideboard to stop the best counterspells, but for now, share your thoughts and I'll see you at our next MTG countdown!
© 2021 Jeremy Gill