Counterspell Conundrum

Posted in Latest Developments on April 19, 2002

By Randy Buehler

I knew I must have stumbled onto an interesting topic when I got to work last Friday morning and I already had thirty-some e-mails in my Inbox responding to one thing or another that I said in my article “Asking Permission.” Sixty more emails have come in since then. Anyway, I know I’m supposed to talk about creature enchantments this week, but this other issue is just too pressing. I struck a nerve and that’s too interesting and important to ignore.

In case you don’t want to reread last week’s column, I’ll summarize the gist of it here. I argued that permission decks and land destruction decks are different in kind. Even though both kinds of decks can put you into “The Lock” where it’s impossible to play any spells, I argued that permission decks create really interesting situations before the game gets to that point. The turns before the blue mage “gains control” are spectacularly interesting, and that makes all the difference.

Anyway, I then went on to acknowledge that blue has gotten out of control at various times in Magic’s past and that R&D needs to make sure it isn’t too easy for a permission player to gain control. Moving card drawing spells to sorcery speed is one way to do that and at the end of the article I wondered aloud if Counterspell itself is too powerful. The poll results were pretty interesting -- given all the anti-blue bias that has been obvious during the You Make the Card contest, I expected everyone to just vote “Down with Counterspell! Of course it’s too powerful!” but that’s not at all what happened:

Is Counterspell too powerful?
Yes 2345 32%
No 5068 68%
Total 7413 100%

In addition, both my Inbox and the Message Boards are full of players explaining why it would be a Bad Thing™ to take away Counterspell.

First, I would like to clarify a couple of potential misunderstandings. I certainly did not mean to suggest that R&D would even consider taking away blue’s ability to counter spells. Countermagic is inherent to what makes blue blue, just as discard is essential to black and direct damage is essential to red. Take Lightning Bolt, for example. Richard’s initial guess was that 3 damage to any target for was fair. After Magic had been around for a couple of years, though, R&D realized that was just too good. Incinerate was somewhat controversial when it came out in Ice Age, but players quickly realized even though Incinerate isn’t as good as Lightning Bolt, it’s still pretty good. Eventually, even Incinerate was deemed to be too good to keep reprinting. Nowadays, Volcanic Hammer shows up at the very top levels of Standard tournament play. I think Shock and Volcanic Hammer are both at an appropriate power-level -- unlike Lightning Bolt, we could keep printing those two forever, in my opinion.

So when I wonder aloud about whether Counterspell is too good, I’m not saying that the effect should go away. Rather, I wonder sometimes if the vanilla version of the effect “Counter target spell” should maybe cost (instead of ).

A lot of responses to last week’s column pointed out that Counterspell itself is fine as long as there aren’t a bunch of other versions of it running around. The potentially unhealthy thing, according to this line of thought, is when permission decks achieve a critical mass of countermagic and suddenly they can realistically counter every single threat the opponent plays. I think this is pretty much correct, as far as it goes, but I disagree with the conclusion most people seem to draw. I agree that our choices might boil down to a) leave Counterspell in print but don’t do any other good counters or b) phase out Counterspell itself, but print a steady stream of variants so it’s always possible to play control in Standard. I haven’t done enough thinking or playtesting to actually make this decision, but at first blush “b)” sounds better than “a)” to me. We know that each block is going to have new mechanics and we know we’re going to be tempted to try them out on a permission spell, but having Counterspell sitting in the base set, constantly constraining what we can do is kind of unfortunate.

Does the presence of Counterspell make these cards more troublesome?

For example, look at Fervent Denial. It’s really not very good and the reason why is that we had just printed several good counters in the Invasion block (Absorb, Undermine, Mystic Snake, etc.) and we were worried that we were in danger of putting too many mana-efficient counters into the Standard environment. If, hypothetically, Counterspell was not in Seventh then we might have been able to release Fervent Denial with a base cost of (not ) and/or a flashback cost of (not ).

I haven’t fully worked through this issue in my head, but that’s the kind of thing we in R&D spend a lot of time thinking about. Thank you for all your feedback -- it sparked some really interesting conversations here in Renton.

I’m actually curious to clarify my question from last week and see if the results turn out the same way. So here goes …

[The survey originally included in this article has been removed.]

Footnote: R&D believes that “hard counters” (that is, unconditional permission spells that stop any type of spell) need to have two blue mana in their cost. We don’t want it to be easy to splash this effect into non-blue decks. Syncopate and Force Spike are OK because they are conditional -- the opponent can get out of it by paying mana. Remove Soul is OK because it only counters creatures. But “Counter target spell” will always be double-blue.

Footnote to the footnote: After much debate, we broke this rule on Dromar's Charm because we figured having both white and black in the mana cost required decks to be blue-centered, so it was effectively a double-blue spell, or at least not effectively splashable, which was the intent. The only other card I’m aware of where the rule was broken was Arcane Denial, which is now considered a mistake and was the very card that sparked the conversation that led to us invent this rule.

Randy may be reached at

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