Here’s Your Chance

Posted in Feature on January 4, 2006

By Zvi Mowshowitz

I got a lot of feedback from the rerun columns, much of it from readers who seemed not to realize that I had been writing a column for several weeks and suggesting that I write one. That sounds like a fine plan to me. I also noticed that there's a subject that seems to be on the minds of a lot of the readers who wrote in recently with situations, so that's what I'll be addressing today: The basics of playing against a deck with a lot of counters.

I don't know who sent this in as they didn't include anywhere to reply to, but I got this situation sent in minus any data on how many cards the opponent has in his hand (so I've added in a guess to give us something to work with):

Opponent (14 life)

in play:
1 Waterveil Cavern (tapped)
3 Watery Grave (all tapped)

in graveyard:
1 Hinder
1 Rewind

in hand:
6 unknown cards

Me (20 life)

in hand:
1 Mana Leak
1 Loxodon Hierarch
1 Meloku the Clouded Mirror
1 Selesnya Guildmage

in play:
1 Saproling Token (1/1)
3 Island
1 Tendo Ice Bridge (no counter on it)
1 Plains
1 Forest
1 Vitu-Ghazi, the City-Tree

"My opponent is playing UB control. And I am playing WGU with counterspells. Which threat or threats should I cast this turn?"

Your opponent is tapped out. Hurray! Now the question becomes, what is the best way to take advantage of the situation? In this case, the choice is easy. Meloku is by far the most dangerous card in your hand and playing it allows you to keep up the mana for Mana Leak in case he wants to untap and play something you would like to possibly counter. On future turns you can play your other threats with a much better chance to have them resolve and a much better chance to keep mana up for counter backup.

That's what he did, and two turns later his opponent conceded the game.

A simple variant he asked about: What if you don't have the Mana Leak, and he had five cards in hand instead of six?

That takes away one reason to play Meloku, but you had an overabundance of reasons to do that. It is still an easy choice.

At first I found it fascinating that the question was even asked. This player had what I considered a straightforward choice, made the right decision and won the game without incident two turns later. Those are not the things grand inquiries are made of, but if he cared enough to take the time to write in and ask me chances are that he doesn't have the rules of thumb down for situations like this and I don't think he is alone.

Opponents with a lot of countermagic present a unique challenge. Against them, your fate will often be determined by which spells you can resolve when they are unable to use a counter. When an opponent playing a deck full of counterspells taps out, he is giving you an opportunity and you need to make the most of it. What is the card you least want your opponent to counter? In this case, the answer is clearly Meloku. Selesnya Guildmage can field just as big an army in the long term as Meloku, but then so can the City-Tree. Meloku is a much, much bigger threat as it forces him to come up with an answer right now or he will lose the game. Loxodon Hierarch and Selesnya Guildmage together can do ten damage a turn when combined with the token in play but they are easier to contain and can be used as separate threats later in the game.

So, let's get to a more central question: What would you do in the original scenario if your opponent's lands were untapped rather than tapped?

At this point you have to assume that your opponent probably has countermagic ready. The question is, can he counter twice? If he can counter only once, you can play Meloku backed up by Mana Leak, a move which could easily become unavailable to you once your opponent gets to five or six mana. At that point counters like Hinder and Rewind can be used to double counter or counter and then pay for Mana Leak. The flip side of that is that casting Meloku makes you vulnerable to Mana Leak. You can then cast Mana Leak on his Mana Leak, but he could easily have Rewind and Mana Leak or two copies of Mana Leak, in which case trying for Meloku would be a disaster.

At this point, you have to evaluate both risks. If your opponent has not yet had a good opportunity to cast Mana Leak and you have good reason to think he is playing four copies of it then there is a lot to be said for casting Loxodon Hierarch and deciding that you will not allow Mana Leak to counter any important spells for the rest of this game. However, if your opponent has only had a few draws in which he could plausibly have picked up Mana Leak or you suspect he is not running it then you absolutely need to go for it right away.

Another thing worth noting is that if you had the lands in play to provide the necessary colored mana I would strongly consider playing Selesnya Guildmage and then creating a Saproling with Vitu-Ghazi or the Guildmage. This lets you save counter backup, get an important threat onto the table and generate an extra creature no matter what your opponent does. I'd probably make this play instead of the Loxodon Hierarch if I decided that it was not yet time to play Meloku.

Playing into counters was the subject of another recent inquiry I received from Andrew Temple:

Dear Zvi Mowshowitz,

Here is a situation I found myself in at a PTQ for Honolulu. I am playing Black/White control with Phyrexian Arena, Pulse of the Fields, Wrath of God, Duress and Gerrard's Verdict. My win conditions are 2 Exalted Angel, 3 Eternal Dragon, and 2 Decree of Justice. My opponent is playing Dredge-a-Tog.

My opponent has four lands untapped including two Islands, and has one unknown card in hand.

I have Exalted Angel and a land in hand and four mana open after making my land drop.

I had duressed and verdicted away a Circular Logic, Counterspell, and Force Spike earlier.

Note that I chose not to flesh out the rest of the details here because we have all the details we need. Should he cast the Exalted Angel here?

Yes, he should cast Exalted Angel. This is a great time for Exalted Angel: His opponent has only one card, has not had much time to draw a counter and will not have enough time to cast Gifts Ungiven, Fact or Fiction or Cunning Wish and then use a counter. Every turn you wait gives him that much more time to recover from all of your discard, finding counters or worse.

As it turned out, his opponent had drawn Mana Leak and countered Exalted Angel. That was obviously a possibility, as were other counters or removal spells, but you need to have an awful lot of discard in your deck to dare try and hold out for creating an opponent with a completely known or empty hand. It can be worth holding out for the perfect scenario, but that only makes sense when you either can reliably get to it soon or are in danger of being unable to win if your opponent has the counter. Waiting in Magic always carries some level of risk.

Most of the time, the need to untap your mana will mean that you will have no choice but to accept the consequences if your opponent draws a counter on the same turn that you have concluded that the coast is clear for a key spell. You'll need to use a spell to remove the card you need to draw out of your opponents' hand, either by making him discard it, seeing his hand or putting him in a situation where he would have used it.

Now it's time for an even more general version of the question, from Michael Fletcher:

Dear Zvi Mowshowitz,

Hi, I've been playing Magic for a while. Just wondering, you have a single card left in your hand but it's a game winning play that you only just have enough mana for etc. However, your opponent is running blue and you have fallen victim to several counterspells. He has three cards in his hand and plenty of mana - what should you do? If you play the spell then there is a good chance it will be countered but if you don't then he will be able to build up his army of flyers and unblockable nasties and then kill you.

That's one way of putting it. What to do, based on what he gave us to work with?

"What will happen if you wait?"

Obviously the answer will depend on the details of the situation but Michael has already focused on what matters in this situation. What will happen if you wait? The only reason to wait on a game winning play is if waiting accomplishes something. Perhaps you have other spells you can use to draw out counters, or you have some anti-counter weapon like discard that you can use. Game winning plays are valuable and when you wait you risk them no longer being game winning plays. There's nothing worse than holding out to play around a counter only to find that your spell will no longer do its job. Even if he has the counter he may not even need to counter it anymore! Now your position is even worse.

This taps you out, so one thing to think about is whether playing around cards like Force Spike and Daze is worthwhile to you. If your opponent is likely to have one in hand, it could make sense to wait for one more land if the play will hold up for a few turns. Mana Leak is harder to outwait, and it is unlikely you will want to in this type of situation. Most of the time, it is best to go for it unless you have a concrete plan for getting that spell to resolve.

The central question is the key here however. When facing decks with significant amounts of coutnermagic, the main question once you have to decide whether to cast a key threat will be: "What will happen if you wait?"

It has been a long time since the days of decks with twenty counters and long, drawn-out battles where one player tries to draw out the most useful long term counter each turn for ten straight turns. I miss them, but they're gone at least for now. What we have instead are decks that have a more moderate number of counters but which will generate gigantic amounts of card advantage in short order if you give them a chance to breathe. No matter what version you face, you need to play in the way that makes it most likely you'll be able to resolve the spells you need to win the game in time for them to do the job. That can often mean not leading with your strongest spells, but if the mail I get is any judge many players are making the mistake of holding onto important spells because their opponent might be able to counter them and doing so without any plan to change the situation.

Trying to avoid counters is a good cause, but if you have no realistic chance to play around that counter then waiting only gives them more time to find another one. When players choose to play counter decks, they're choosing a color and playing reactive cards, giving up power in other areas for the right to counter your spells. Sometimes you can prevent them from having their way with the counters they've drawn by making the most of your weapons and your opponents' limited resources, but it is important to be willing to acknowledge when that is not possible. By living in fear, you grant that which you fear even more power.

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