Islandwalk or: How ILearned to Stop Worrying and Forgive the Counterspell

Posted in Serious Fun on March 9, 2010

When Kelly, our fabulously fun-focused editor hiding in the shadows behind the site, declared that there was going to be an Adventure Week, I was thrilled. Adventures are part of the shared human experience: wild, outlandish tales that convey a message or lesson (such as the Aesop's fables); engrossing, convoluted journeys of heroes and villains (such as the great Hellenic epics); whimsical, entertaining thirty-minute bits of predicable-yet-comforting scripting that dominate the television interests of children .... Adventures of all shapes and sizes are ever-present in the culture around us.

While I could wax philosophic about the nature and meaning of these vast array of adventures, I wanted to preface this week by explaining how I perceive adventures: a vast continuum of experiences to share. Today I'm going to share some of my experiences that, I hope, will help broaden your horizon in Magic game play.


A few weeks ago I shared that there is a color that I dislike more than the others. This wasn't hyperbole to emphasize a point; I used to utterly despise this color. My natural reaction was flinching and revilement for the player who pulled it out. This isn't to say there aren't things I don't like with other colors, but that most of the things this color does are the things I don't enjoy. Take a moment to ready your guess, then click here to find out.

The color I dislike the most is blue.

Yet before I hated it, and then (mostly) got over it, I truly loved it above all others.

And that's where I'm going to start: the beginning of my love of blue; the beginning of my love of Magic.

As I mentioned in my introduction article, Magic started as it remains for me today as just an awesome game that became the social gel for my group of friends. Although I had managed to acquire what, I thought, was quite a large collection I never seemed to have as many, or as awesome, cards as my classmate Tim.

Tim seemed to have the cerebral edge over all of us in terms of synergies, strategies, and combinations of cards. While would later discover that his well of knowledge was mostly the result of his subscription to Inquest magazine, I genuinely admired how he could handle a table full of players gunning for him. After Urza's Saga had been released, he was the lucky one to receive many packs for his summertime birthday—and came back to school more than well prepared. Tim had found Worship.

His white and blue control deck was pretty awesome at our table. He had Cataclysm and Wrath of God, Worship and Wall of Junk, Counterspell and Capsize, and even a Tradewind Rider and Man-o'-War. I loved it. So I built a blue and white deck as well which, although lacking many of the key cards that made his deck tick, was pretty good too.

I had two copies of Counterspell and one copy of Capsize, but they sure got shuffled a lot. I later traded for my own copies of Wall of Junk, and shoehorned in Hermetic Study, Horseshoe Crab, and a Vigilant Drake. It was solid but really struggled in the long game (it would be some time before I understood that board-sweeping effects could be a good thing).

As the final years of school strung along I was distracted by other interests (theater, tennis, and being a teenager) but I would always pull out my blue deck if the chance arose. College, the great destroyer of high school social circles, allowed me to see Magic again with fresh eyes: Mirrodin block was about as awesome of a time as a blue-loving player could hope for to come back in full force.

With disposable income burning a hole in my pocket I quickly acquired new cards to have fun with: completed playsets of Capsize and Counterspell, Fabricate for Urza's Armor, and Broodstar. Playing against my old friends' still unchanged decks was a blast; I was winning games! A beastly air force backed by stiff resistance wasn't something my friends had accounted for—or had the newest cards to help combat.

I felt a twinge that my old friends at home weren't that thrilled by the changes to Magic they saw with my deck. Recalling the absurdity of Unglued, I bought up lots of Unhinged when it was released—surely there would be hilariously awesome things here! Cheatyface, Number Crunch, and Loose Lips all seemed like wacky cool things for my blue deck.

When I played the deck next it wasn't what I hoped for at all. Capsize and Number Crunch kept most of my buddies' permanents off the table. Cheatyface joined the game when they stepped away to take a break. Loose Lips would make them say either numbers or something embarrassing. By the end of the second or third game they played in total silence with intense, grating disdain in their eyes.

Gifts Ungiven

They left unhappy, leaving me alone and unhappy as well. I had clearly upset my friends playing the same game that had brought us together. I moved quickly: out came the Unhinged cards, Capsize, and Boomerang. Ravnica came along and shifted my focus to what still is my favorite card: Glimpse the Unthinkable. Milling, the action of putting cards from your library into your graveyard (or exiling them), was something I always liked but never seemed to have enough firepower to use. A playset of Glimpse the Unthinkable later, I was downgrading my "hard" counterspells into Remand and Arcane Denial—surely those weren't so bad!

One of my three (simultaneously employed) summer jobs was as a youth counselor for a day camp. The kids and fellow counselors introduced me to Duel Masters and other card games. Of course, Magic was on their collective radar, and I gleefully encouraged them to play it. I made some attempts to instill the "values" passed to me by the players who taught me—fair value in trades, getting enough lands in your deck, attacking with creatures is awesome—and started bring my blue deck for some games.

There was one kid who really liked Magic and wanted to learn more. He had a kind of aggressive hunger for knowledge—something I really appreciated—so I took him under my wing. He wanted help building decks, tuning decks, and "fixing" problems with decks. His parents loved Magic because it made him more social and was intellectually challenging for him. After a few weeks he was begging to play against my blue deck instead of having me use one of his.

And so I played Remand and Arcane Denial, Twincast on Glimpse the Unthinkable, and, over the course of several games, it became abundantly clear that my deck was going to ravage his nearly every time. But he kept trying to beat it, over and over, day after day. After a week or so of playing he stopped asking me about Magic and started bringing his Duel Master decks again. He avoided me and dodged talking about Magic at all, even with the other kids.

My deck had shattered his perceptions and enjoyment for playing Magic. My deck was certainly beatable (and had been crushed by others at the camp), but his desire to beat my deck with his decks seemed an impassable wall. The flurry of countering spells, milling his library, defensive creatures, and tapping effects was too much for him to handle.

I forced a new player out of Magic.

I was upset by what I had done. I meant well and played with cards I thought were fun.

But when the dominating force of my terms of fun forced a player away from me—a young, fresh, impressionable player—the cards I had been in love with for so long weren't fun for me anymore.

Blue became a sort of anathema to me. I began to hate it passionately. Bouncing, countering, and milling were all strictly unfun things never to be used casually. Blue meant bad things would happen to players who didn't deserve it.

Sure, it was an irrational line of belief, but all I saw in the competitive realm of Magic were blue-based decks winning big events. Mystical Teachings seemed so innocent in Time Spiral but became an engine unto itself. Remand was a highly sought after card. Coldsnap brought Rune Snag into the mix. Blue was definitely a strong color, yet I felt that I couldn't turn to it and that those who did didn't belong with me slinging spells for fun.

My red and white deck packing lots of burn was loved by the players at college. Sure, there would be random blowouts of massive flaming proportions, but they felt it was fun. They had a chance, somehow, of fighting through an onslaught of damage. They wanted to see cards more like Galvanic Arc than Gifts Ungiven. They liked that Lightning Helix was a Lightning Bolt stapled to a Healing Salve but hated that Glimpse the Unthinkable was just overpowered milling. They thought that Protean Hulk was a fun card and that Flash, its namesake partner in the powerful Hulk Flash competitive deck, had no business ever being near a big green fatty. They showed me creative theme decks and the even crazier cards they contained.

They showed me more ways to play Magic while having a total blast than I had ever seen up to that point, and most of it was completely devoid of blue.

And so I was done with blue, my perception colored irreversibly.

Spreading Seas

Stepping forward a few years I found myself staring in awe at the large gathering of players on a Thursday night, all of whom were presumably there to play "casual" Magic. Clusters of people playing Group Game Draft and EDH were strewn across more than a half dozen different tables. Chaos Multiplayer and Star games were firing off the following week. I had found my home after moving into the urban jungle of Washington, D.C. It wasn't long before I pulled my collection out of storage (no small feat considering that it was neatly stored quite a drive away) and started fishing through everything for component cards. My fanatical EDH addiction had taken its hold.

To say that all EDH is about is playing the biggest, splashiest spells in Magic is to do it a disservice. There are lots of little spells that do very important things. Eternal Witness and Regrowth get back great stuff you've already used. Demonic Tutor and Enlightened Tutor dig for amazing cards. Even Lightning Bolt makes appearances for being just plain good fun burn. But if a deck is playing blue, the chances are that it's playing Counterspell and Hinder.

I can say that without a Greven il-Vec level of Hatred because while I truly despise seeing my spells shot down in a flurry of blue mana, I've been saved from truly deep despair by the little blue spells that could. Darksteel Reactor, a surprise Rout, a kicked Rite of Replication targeting a Woodfall Primus—these are all things I've seen a counterspell counter in an EDH game.

I still try to fan the flames of passion with blue. The last result was a socially disastrous demonstration of why Brain Freeze is banned in Peasant, even for multiplayer tables. It's less a love-hate relationship type of deal than one of mutual respect: I won't try to put unfun blue cards into decks, and blue will continue to be more helpful than hurtful when other players are wielding its power. The unspoken agreement only applies to casual games—this I know is certain.

Blue gets a bad enough rap for having Boomerang and Counterspell type effects in its repertoire, but those abilities serve unique and valuable purposes. I don't have to want to use them to know they're useful. I don't have to like them to know that it's okay to play them. Even when it's my about-to-be-game-winning Insurrection that meets the "Counter target spell" fate of so many great plays, I recognize that it's justified—I was about to win the game after all.

And so here I am today, plaintively looking at four copies of Jace, the Mind Sculptor and wondering what all the fuss is about. He doesn't excite me. I see his free Brainstorm. I see his repeatable Unsummon. His ultimate would be everything I wanted in a milling spell a few years back. In so many words: Jace is really cool.

But Jace isn't for me. Instead, I look for new ways to abuse Sarkhan Vol in my Kresh the Bloodbraided deck. I shove Garruk Wildspeaker into every deck running green. I even like Espeth, Knight-Errant in my Rhys the Redeemed deck despite her "Just shoot me now!" ultimate ability.

Blue isn't what excites me in Magic anymore, but it is a great part of what makes Magic that much more of an experience. Whatever you have fun playing, however you play to have fun, Magic is that unique type of adventure for you. I don't need to share your style of story to acknowledge that it's a story nevertheless, and probably a good one too.

I hope the seas of Magic potential are just a tiny bit brighter today. There are new horizons for you to seek out, and new experiences to share. Whatever your colors, whatever your style, Magic is always about the experiences in and around the games that brings us together.

What made you pick up your deck today?

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