How to Sling the Blues

Posted in Serious Fun on June 10, 2008

By The Ferrett

Counterspells don't work in multiplayer," I hear. Then I arrive at our table, where you can almost always see one or two Counterspell decks, and wonder why Counterspells do work for some people.

The answer is in how you play Counterspells. Counterspell-packin' decks, particularly in multiplayer, require a level of finesse and understanding to pull off. Unlike beatdown decks, which can often win just by windmill-slamming your hand onto the table, Counterspell decks are much more vulnerable to losing thanks to poor decision-making.

So with that in mind, let me give you controlly novices five lessons in playing Counterspells.

Lesson #1: Play "The Game"

When I'm playing a control deck, I find it's best to play a fun little subgame of Magic. That game is called "How many cards can I keep in my hand?"

Whenever I'm tempted to play a spell, I ask, "Do I really need to play this now... or can I save it for later?" Sometimes I do need to play it—you always require mana acceleration and early defense—but often, when I'm playing Magic with my goal to keep as many cards in hand as possible, I find out that I'm a little too quick on the draw to expend my personal power. And cards in hand are power.

Mind_GamesWhat I've discovered in playing the "How many cards?" game is that often, other players will handle things for you. Sure, I'm terrified of someone's Grim Poppet / Torture combo... but so is everyone else at the table! And they'll often helpfully Shatter the Poppet for me if I'm quiet enough, thus saving me a card.

When you're playing control in multiplayer, particularly of the Counterspell variety, you have to lay back and let others do as much of the work as possible. They will come for you, no doubt; that's how this game works. But ideally, you want them to come to you with weakened hands and depleted resources, while you have a fresh grip of seven killer spells. That's what you seek.

Don't be foolish, of course. Sometimes you have to expend a card or two to stay in the game, or to cripple an opponent's plans before he can win—try to be as stingy as Ebenezer Scrooge and you might wind up more like Jacob Marley. But the "How many cards?" game forces you to question every play you might theoretically make, keeping both your board presence to a minimum and your power to a maximum.

When you're playing control, you want that.

Plus, every spell you do not play means that you have mana open for a counterspell. Too many fledgling blue players tap out all the time to play stuff, then get pantsed when they realize that they could have stopped this Profane Command if they hadn't tapped out to play this now-useless Mahamoti Djinn instead.

Most of the time, you can wait. Try it!

Lesson #2: Counterspells Are Not a Panacea

Novice players run into a wall of solid "No" and think, "Wow, Counterspells solve everything." Then they throw sixteen counterspells into a deck and wonder why they fail.

First off, remember that Counterspells don't win the game on their own. You need some way of killing your opponents—and unfortunately, there are only so many slots in a deck. Every Counterspell merely stops your opponent from winning. It does not let you win.

Secondly, you can't counter every spell. (Particularly in multiplayer, where opponents abound.) Every long-time blue player has had the frustration of having a hand full of stupid Counterspells when what they need is an answer to the 3/3 creature that's killing them right now. If you counter twelve spells, well, the thirteenth can still kill you.

MeddleCounterspells are not a magic wand that will make your deck great. Not every deck needs counterspells, or wants them.

What you use counterspells for is to ensure that an otherwise-winning strategy will be able to get through to completion. A Standard Faeries deck will win the game with cards like Bitterblossom and Mistbind Clique, if nobody interferes. Reveillark is going to combo you out, if nobody interferes. Merfolk is going to beat you to death with fins and gills, if nobody interferes.

Counterspells are there to make sure that nobody interferes. They're the insurance that guarantee that the good spells will do their work, and that your opponents can't stop them in time.

As such, your Counterspells are valuable. You only have a handful in any deck, and chances are good you won't see more than three or four in a given game. You have to hoard them like they're WMD, using them only when you absolutely have to—and you use them strategically, to ensure that your goals are being met.

Which leads me to the next lesson of playing counterspells....

Lesson #3: Know What Needs to Be Protected

In any given counterspell deck, you're going to use counterspells to protect your most precious resources from the evil spells of your enemies. But you have to know what's worth protecting. A Saudi prince who spends all of his time guarding the sand and not the oil is going to look mighty silly in the end.

To illustrate this, let's take a look at a successful control deck of mine in multiplayer, which has fared well in a variety of circumstances: Rebels.


Download Arena Decklist

Now let's be frank here: Lin Sivvi, Defiant Hero makes this deck tick. She's the legendary kick-butt babe who allows this deck to recurse Lawbringers and Lightbringers in the late game, giving you incredible long-term power. With Lin Sivvi, Defiant Hero, you can continually recur the Aven Riftwatcher every turn against some overwhelming attacker—"In response to your attack, I fetch the Riftwatcher as a blocker. Then, once it's dead, I put it back into my library with her second ability to be fetched again the next turn"—thus staving off damage and gaining you 4 life a turn. And unlike all the other Rebels, you can do it for the lowest possible cost: the Rebel's converted mana cost. (And every mana counts when you're trying to hold back mana for a counterspell.)

Lin Sivvi, Defiant Hero
Now here's the question: What's the most important thing to protect in this deck? Hint: It's not Lin Sivvi, Defiant Hero.

Thing is, while you need Lin Sivvi, Defiant Hero in this deck, you don't need to protect her. You have at least five other non-Sivvi Rebels who can search her up upon command—and if she's the target of a removal spell, just have her whip out a Defiant Falcon in response so you can chain right back into her your next turn. Plus, you can't have more than one Lin Sivvi, Defiant Hero on the board at a time anyway, so you can often go, "All right, she dies. Next turn, I'll play this other copy that's been stuck in my hand."

Sure, you still have to worry about "remove from game" effects like Eradicate. But if you wanna get sneaky, you can fizzle a lot of the nastier spells by fetching out a duplicate copy of Lin Sivvi, Defiant Hero in response to, say, a Biting Tether and watching both Sivvis (Sivvae? Sivvises?) hit the graveyard thanks to the legend rule. Then start the lather, rinse, repeat cycle all over again.

Lin Sivvi is critical to the deck.... but that doesn't mean she's not expendable. You can afford to let her die, so relax a little when someone Lightning Helixes your Rebel-in-Chief.

But again: you have to know your deck well enough to realize that Lin Sivvi, Defiant Hero is not your path to power. If you're wasting one of your four precious Absorbs to protect something that's not ultimately important, then you lose.

The first thing any good control player learns to say is, "Okay. That resolves." Too many articles on control focus on countering spells, as if the only thing a control deck does is just mindlessly counter every spell until it wins. But you can't do that, not even in a duel. Even behind a wall of solid Blue, your opponents are going to kill your creatures, destroy your enchantments, even counter your counterspells.

You're going to have to take some losses before you win.

Bad control players are afraid to let anything die, because to them, "losing things" means "I'm losing." The best control players know what to fight for—and, more importantly, when to let things go. And in this deck, Lin Sivvi, Defiant Hero isn't worth fighting for in all but the rarest of circumstances. She can die, because she's irrelevant to your longer-term strategy.

Don't mourn for her. The needs of the many outweigh the need of the few. Or the one.

But hey! Superfluous Star Trek references aside, you know what is vital to this deck?

Your land.

Look at this deck! It's so mana-hungry it might as well be Pac-Man. All that cool recursive stuff I talked about earlier about requires at least six mana, and that's if you don't leave any mana open for an Absorb. This deck functions best on nine lands in play – which is a lot to ask for anyone. One resolved Boom will ensure you're dead in the water.

(Which means that frankly, to play this deck properly you have to mulligan until you get hands with a lot of mana. Two-land hands won't cut it. Again, good control play involves knowing what matters.)

Thankfully, Armageddon-style effects are relatively rare these days. But should someone threaten your land with something crazy like a Deus of Calamity or a Wildfire or even a Winter Orb or a Stasis, that's something you want to counter, and fast.

Lin Sivvi? See ya. Land? Critical. * But you have to know what needs to be protected before you can start knocking spells out of the air with your counters.

Lesson #4: Know What the Real Threats Are

It's the midgame. You have a Lin Sivvi, Defiant Hero in hand, a Defiant Falcon, and an Absorb. On the board you have seven mana available—four white and three blue—and, thanks to your other active Lin Sivvi, Defiant Hero, you also have a Thermal Glider, a Jhovall Queen, a Nightwind Glider, and a Ballista Squad. Like any good control player, all of your mana is currently open.

Wrath of God
Your opponent plays Wrath of God. Do you counter?

The answer, nine times out of ten: "Oh, heck no." Because Wrath of God is not a threat to you.

While Wrath of God is traditionally a threat to all sorts of creature decks, this deck is different in that it can recycle creatures and grow new armies out of nothing at all. As long as you have a single fetching Rebel, you have an army that will grow by itself.

Yes, your opponent will destroy five of your creatures with that Wrath of God. But he'll also, God willing, destroy all the other creatures on the board, making it harder for your other opponents to win. You're losing five creatures, yes, but you can get them back. Your opponents most likely won't.

You, on the other hand, can plop down another Lin Sivvi, Defiant Hero on your next turn with three mana open for an Absorb should someone try to kill it before your next upkeep—and even if they succeed in that, you have a Defiant Falcon ready to go. Then, the next turn, you can start fetching up a new army and then start stuffing your graveyard back into your deck again.

Wrath of God is not a big threat to this deck. This deck eats Wrath of God for breakfast. But a bad counterspell player will panic and counter reflexively, without taking his own deck into account. "OMG, WRATH? ME LOSING CREATURES? THAT'S BAD!" they'll scream, countering blindly.

Not every Wrath of God is a must-counter. Quite often, the thunder of Jehova actually harms your opponents more than it does you.

Likewise, is Kokusho, the Evening Star a must-counter? It depends. If you have a Crib Swap in hand to remove Kokusho, the Evening Star should Mister Black 'N' Scaly look at you sideways, then the answer is usually a pretty clear "No."

Bad counterspell players tend to look at the raw power of any given spell, as opposed to the amount that spell hurts them, in this moment. They go on autopilot countering binges. They "know" that an Akroma, Angel of Wrath is unstoppable, so they'll burn a counterspell to get rid of it while forgetting that a) the other players are playing black and red and thus will now have to gang up on Ms. Akroma or lose, and b) they have a bounce spell in hand that can send Akroma flying back home if she decides to come for them.

Alternatively, Akroma isn't a threat to you if you're at 20 life and have enough damage on the board to kill Ms. Akroma's controller with a counterattack. (Ironically, the thing that would terrify you in that circumstance? Wrath of God.)

Every threat is situational. It depends on board position, your deck's strategy, and your opponent's goals.

So remember Lesson #1, and question every spell you're about to Cancel. Do you have other, non-Counterspell answers for this in hand? Will it do more overall damage to your opponents if you let this resolve, forcing them to counter or kill it? Is this damage going to put you so far back that it will kill you or cripple you? Does it really resolve your lead?

If not, quash the panicky impulses that tell you, "NO ONE SHOULD EVER HAVE A 9/9 FLYING GUY BUT ME!" and let it resolve. That 9/9 is not going to kill you. (The enchantment someone places on it might, but you'll still have the Counterspell for that if you need it.)

Gauge every threat appropriately, because they're all different to every deck. Wrath of God merits a shrug in the Rebels deck.... but large, trampling beef will stomp Rebels dead.

Seriously. A single resolved Deus of Calamity is nearly impossible for this deck to handle unless it gets the Defiant Vanguard / Big Game Hunter / Wrath of God right away. Because that Thermal Glider? It's only got 1 toughness. All your guys are teeny. They can't soak up enough of that trample damage, and you can't expect to win in combat when your biggest creature is a 4/6.

Thankfully, you do have some spot removal to get rid of things like that. One Deus can be handled.

Garruk Wildspeaker
Three or four of them means you might as well start digging your grave. Which is why a single Overrun effect means you are going to lose. Badly.

That is why you let that Wrath of God pass. Because though it seems counterintuitive, a Garruk Wildspeaker or a Bramblewood Paragon can actually be a more serious threat to your deck than Wrath of God, and when your opponent tries to cast that you can politely say, "No thank you" and let it slide. And thank the (Wrath of God of) God that you had the Power Sink in hand when you needed it.

Once you know your deck well enough to know where it's vulnerable, you'll know what matters. It might seem crazy to counter someone's third-turn Goblin Warchief when you have so much easily summoned red hate in this deck.... but this deck is very vulnerable to an early rush, and if you know you're going to be stuck at four mana without a Wrath of God in sight, sometimes it's the right move to slow down someone's army before they wipe you out.

Remember: Every counterspell is used to further your goals. Sometimes, using them aggressively in the early game is also the right move.

It all depends.

Lesson #5: Try Not to Tussle with the Other Counterspell Decks

If you waste all of your precious Counterspells in a fight to let one of your spells resolve, generally you've lost the longer game. Yes, sometimes that one spell is going to win the game right there, and it's absolutely correct to counter it in that instance.

Most of the time, however, fighting the other blue players is counterproductive. You've lost a lot of spells, and your other opponents haven't. More than one game has gone like this:

PLAYER #1: "I'll Spellstutter Sprite your Rune Snag."

PLAYER #2: "YES! I Broken Ambitions your Spellstutter Sprite... and finally, my Wren's Run Packmaster resolves!"

PLAYER #3: "I Terror it."

PLAYER #2: "Poop."

Yet novice counterspell players seem to positively relish the thrill of winning a counter-war, charging into battles just because they can!

Instead than getting into counterspell wars, try the old tried-and-true methods of getting around counterspells so you can keep your own:

  1. Whenever possible, play a threat right before your turn. Force them to burn up all of their mana and counterspells just before you untap and draw a new card. Ideally, they'll spend all of their strength halting the end-of-turn spell and fall prey to the spell you really wanted to play on your main phase.
  2. Stockpile threats. Your opponent can counter the first spell in your hand? Great. How about the second? Or the third? If you can save up enough cards to overload your Counterspell buddy, do it. Sometimes this means waiting a turn or two, but generally it's worth it (unless he's got seven cards now).
  3. Play threats one at a time. Many casual players plop down the three spells they were going to play this turn as though they were one entity. Don't. Give as little information as possible. Lay the first spell down, then make them decide whether it resolves. If you show them three spells at once, they can decide which, if any, are the real threat. One at a time, they have to guess. Which leads us to....
  4. Play spells in reverse order of importance. As a rule, play your least-relevant spell first. That way, if you have multiple spells in a turn—and your opponent never knows whether you do—he has to decide whether he wants to use up a Counterspell on what might be a feint, or whether he lets it go and discovers that really that's the spell you wanted most.

But before you start playing those threats willy-nilly, let me refer you to the first lesson. Should you be casting that guy? Shouldn't you wait? Maybe?

Don't get suckered. Play only when you have to. By and large, save your counterspells to stop opponents' threats from resolving, not to let your threat resolve.

Be sneaky and blue. That's the way to counter.

* – Which brings up the question of whether the land-thinning aspect of the two Flooded Strands here are correct in this deck, since it effectively means we're playing with 22 land. I worried about that initially, but as it turns out the more you Rebel-search the greater your chances of drawing a land are—you're reverse-thinning—and I haven't had that many problems in practice. Ah, land bases. Eat your vegetables, folks.

Latest Serious Fun Articles


January 5, 2016

Hedron Alignment by, Bruce Richard

When I first looked at my preview card, I couldn't really wrap my brain around it. The card does so much that I wasn't really understanding its value. Kind of a "forest for the trees" thi...

Learn More


December 29, 2015

Eternal Pilgrim by, Bruce Richard

When religious belief turns into religious fervor, things get problematic—particularly on Zendikar. When the Eldrazi were originally imprisoned, stories were told to ensure no one would t...

Learn More



Serious Fun Archive

Consult the archives for more articles!

See All