Here in the US, our Thanksgiving holiday is right around the corner.
But don't mind that for now—Happy Nothanksgiving!
Well, today we're going to discuss one of the most beloved or dreaded (depending on who you ask) card effects in Magic. They're Magic's way to tell your opponent "no thanks" or "Sorry." And they only need three words to strike terror into the heart of your opponent.
Counter. Target. Spell.
At the end of each of my articles, I leave my social media contact information for both questions and suggestions—and that's not just for show. I read through every reply I receive; after all, I do want to write about what you want to hear! And today's topic comes from the inquiring mind of Zac Boone.
@GavinVerhey Could you recommend (or write) articles on how to know what to make you opponent discard/what spells of their's to counter?— Zac Boone (@gingitsune23) September 22, 2016
We'll save the discard chat (which is a whole different article) for another day. But this is a great topic, indeed. Blue control decks are historically known as one of the more complex decks in Magic, and counterspells are a main component of that.
When should you counter a spell? When should you let it slide by? Let's take a look at some of the big factors that go into that decision!
You're at 1 life. Your opponent casts Shock targeting you. Clearly, you should counter that spell.
While simplistic, this example illustrates one of the basic questions to consider when you have a counterspell in your hand: "What immediate impact would this have on the game?"
When you spend a card countering a spell, you need to make sure that what you're countering actually matters. You shouldn't be thinking of how strong or weak a card generally is, how this is the namesake card of their deck, or anything else like that. Every single time, you need to look at the current situation and reevaluate.
How does this card impact the game we're in right now, over the next couple of turns?
For example, let's say you're playing Limited and have both a Wind Drake and a Consulate Skygate on the battlefield. You're at 6 and your opponent is at 8. Your opponent casts the last card in hand, a Brazen Scourge.
You have Disappearing Act as the last card in your hand. Should you counter it?
In this situation, the Scourge, while normally a strong card, is very low impact. Your Consulate Skygate can keep those Gremlins stuck in customs all day long.
What actually matters in this game? The key is going to be connecting four more times with your Wind Drake. What's really important is that your Drake stays alive and unimpeded. If that Scourge flew instead of having haste, I would absolutely consider countering it. But because the 0/4 Skygate more or less obviates that 3/3, it's pretty safe to let it stick.
Remember: Everything you counter comes at the cost of not countering something else. (Unless, of course, you lose the game while still holding your countermagic—in which case, that's a sign that you may have missed an opportunity to counter something along the way.) And in this case, you'd far rather counter the next play that actually impacts the game than a 3/3.
If you take away the Skygate, however, then you definitely need to counter those Gremlins. You're going to be killed in two hits, and you can't rely on drawing a blocker next turn.
Whenever your opponent casts a spell and you're trying to figure out if it's worth countering or not, think what will happen if it resolves through the next turn or two. How does it impact your current plan? Do you have another counterspell for a follow-up spell? What else might be more important to counter? Is your opponent "baiting" you with something weaker while they have a stronger option left in their hand? These questions will help out a lot.
If you're playing a tempo-based deck with counterspells—a deck that uses counterspells to buy time to attack your opponent with creatures—then evaluating short-term decisions is especially important.
But some cards have much more far-reaching effects; some decks really care about what's going to be happening many, many turns in advance. And that's where we start to take a look at...
It's turn three. You're playing a very traditional Constructed White-Blue Control deck, full of counterspells and removal with a couple late-game win conditions. On turn three, your opponent casts Mobilization.
Do you counter it?
Unless your deck has plenty of answers to enchantments or other ways to permanently shut Mobilization down, the answer is very likely yes.
Why is that?
Mobilization doesn't do anything on turn three. (Discounting vigilance, which your White-Blue Control deck probably doesn't care much about.) In fact, before it does anything, your opponent needs to spend three more mana. And then all they have is a 1/1 token. What's so bad about that?
Here's the problem: how are you going to beat that in the long game?
But what it does give your opponent is massive inevitability. An endless source of 1/1s that, when the game goes late and you're gripping a fistful of counterspells and removal spells, they can continuously sink all of their mana into and slowly but surely whittle you down with. It's a source of virtual card advantage that will trump all of the action you have in your hand.
And if you have no way to answer it? Well, you're probably going to lose.
A more modern-day example (that's also far more immediately impactful) is planeswalkers.
With repeated effects that build up to a game-changing ultimate, this trickle of advantage can eventually overwhelm a control strategy. Even just a bunch of 0/1 tokens that get a counter every now and then can be a problem for control (to say nothing of an ultimate that threatens huge card advantage).
Let's try another question. You're at 5. Your opponent casts Char, targeting you. It's the last card in their hand. You have a counterspell in your hand. Do you counter it?
This one is a little trickier. It depends a lot on your deck, what's left in your hand, and what you know of your opponent's deck. If you go down to 1 life, you're basically signing yourself up to counter every burn spell and deal with every creature that gets cast for the rest of the game (unless you have a way to gain life).
If your opponent's deck is full of 2-damage burn spells and your hand is all creature removal, then maybe you want to counter it. If you have a Sphinx's Revelation in your deck you're trying to just buy time to draw, that makes a difference. If you have another counterspell in your hand, maybe you're safe countering this one. Context is extremely important here.
But regardless, this is a decision that, while it doesn't impact the board right away, will dictate how the rest of the game plays out—and it can often be the difference between winning and losing.
Okay, let's look at one more example. You're in a control mirror and your opponent casts Jace's Ingenuity. Should you counter that?
In general, card drawing is important to counter in a control mirror.
Though there have been times and matchups where it's not important—for example, Carlos Romão famously won the Magic World Championship in 2002 with the game plan of letting his opponent's card drawing spells all resolve and saving countermagic exclusively for the limited number of threats in his opponent's deck—having more resources generally is what dictates the winner of a long control match. Your biggest constraints tend to be mana and action spells, and card drawing helps you dig to find both.
This is very much a long-term thing: your opponent is drawing three cards you don't see right away. But it can quickly become a runaway train as their card drawing finds more card drawing and their own counterspells, which puts a lockdown on what you can effectively do.
One final note I want to touch on quickly is use of mana.
Counterspells can be gigantic mana black holes. What I mean by this is that, unlike discard or targeted removal, you have to leave up mana for your counterspell regardless of whether you actually use it.
While it is situation-dependent, in general I favor casting the Elemental.
If you untap with it and have Contradict in your hand to counter anything your opponent does to deal with it, that is going to be very strong. But furthermore, it's a far more efficient use of your mana. If you pass with Contradict and they don't cast anything worth countering, then you essentially wasted five mana. Next turn you're just going to be posed with the exact same question. If you play the Elemental, then you can set up to use both of your cards.
Finally, on a similar note, sometimes, it can be correct to counter something a little weaker than you would ideally like to make sure that your next turn is optimized.
For example, let's say you're playing a Standard control deck versus an aggressive deck. If you have both Void Shatter and Glimmer of Genius in your hand, you will probably want to fire off the Void Shatter to counter what they play on turn three so that you can freely Glimmer on turn four.
Factoring counterspells into using your mana is very important. You want to use them effectively and in the best way possible—without them hindering your other plays by accidentally making you play with fewer lands than you have.
Thanks, but No Thanks
And that about wraps up this look at countermagic! Hopefully you find it helpful as you begin to look at how to spend your counterspells as efficiently as possible.
As always, it's great to hear from you with what you're thinking. And as you saw at the beginning, I'm totally happy to field reader questions, too! If you're wondering something, there's a good chance you're not alone. Perhaps your question will inspire a future article.
Have fun with counterspells; Happy Nothanksgiving! (And, if you celebrate American Thanksgiving, a happy early Thanksgiving to you as well!)