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Making the Most of your Counterspells

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"No." is a Complete Sentence.

Counterspells are perhaps the most self-explanatory part of Magic and certainly one of the game's most integral components. Simple. Clean. Effective. Whether you love them or hate them, the words, "counter target spell" have been a part of Magic since Alpha and you shouldn't plan on them going anywhere. However, the time, place, and context for a given counter is a matter of debate.

So, You Want to Counter That Spell?

Congratulations! Your opponent has foolishly placed a spell on the stack and you have a castable counterspell. What should you do? Counter it? Well, maybe. Just because you can do something, doesn't mean you necessarily should. Before you do anything, ask yourself the following:

Is That Going to Kill Me?

This question is both the most straightforward and the hardest to answer. Much to our shared disappointment, some of our opponent's plays are probably going to have to resolve. We don't have infinite answers at our disposal to deal with everything, so it's best to go after the most threatening targets. Typically, cards you want to avoid countering are low mana value with minimal impact. Your counterspells are at their best when trading up for mana.

As such, you'll often want to ignore cantrips like Consider or cheap creatures like Luminarch Aspirant, especially when they can take a while to build up their threat level or if your deck has access to other forms of removal. Saving your counterspells and cleaning up your opponent's turn two Aspirant with a turn four-five board wipe like Doomskar opens up the possibility of a two-for-one or better by destroying multiple creatures.

Spot removal supplements your counterspells as well. A well-timed Spikefield Hazard // Spikefield Cave or Portable Hole also answers an Aspirant for less mana than your opponent spent and saves your flexible answers for something else. For control and tempo-based blue decks, these margins of card and mana advantage are what can win or lose you the game.

Instead, prioritize countering threats that are difficult to answer cleanly. One such example is Esika's Chariot which puts three permanents on the board. Using your board wipe may deal with the tokens, but it will leave the Chariot behind for future value. Typically, planeswalkers like Wrenn and Seven fall into this category as well by entering the battlefield and immediately drawing a card, creating a token, or some other value piece.

Also, keep in mind what your opponent's outs are based on the current board state. Let's say you have a Goldspan Dragon in play with your opponent at four life and no flying blockers. They have two cards in their hand, then cast an Esika's Chariot. You have a single Negate. The Chariot is immaterial to the outcome of the game on the current board, but you know your opponent has Fateful Absence in their deck. In this situation, Chariot is not a game-winning threat, so you should allow it to resolve. The only card your opponent could have to change the tide of the battle is a removal spell for your dragon. Don't open yourself up to that potential outcome unnecessarily.

Is This the Best It's Going to Get?

Another question to ask yourself is whether there even is another reasonable target in your opponent's deck. Not every counter you'll have is going to be unconditional, especially in smaller formats. Sometimes, your opponent may only have a few cards in their deck that fit the parameters of your Disdainful Stroke, Essence Scatter, or Spell Snare. You may just need to fire it off at the first potential target and move on with your life. Otherwise, you'll be stuck with a dead card in your hand collecting dust. If you plan to run conditional counters, it's important to know the metagame and what your opponent could have in their deck. This will help you prepare accordingly.

Another consideration is how to best utilize protective counters in a combo-based deck. Unfortunately, your opponent can also have access to counterspells, so you'll need to be able to play around that eventuality.

Cards like Force of Will and Pact of Negation (and occasionally Force of Negation) fit into this protective counterspell category. They help force through a powerful (sometimes winning) spell through opposing countermagic. Resolving your Show and Tell, Ad Nauseam, Violent Outburst/Crashing Footfalls, etc. typically results in you winning the game.

You want to protect your combo, but also stop your opponent from advancing their game plan if possible. Understanding when to curtail your opponent's advance versus protecting yours is a critical lesson for combo decks. Considering these examples come with fairly steep downsides, it goes without saying to use them only if you absolutely have to.

What Time is It?

Soft counters like Spell Pierce, Flusterstorm, and Mystical Dispute are excellent as they typically only cost a single mana and allow for interaction in the early stages of the game. However, their taxing effects get worse as the game progresses and your opponent is able to pay the additional costs. This incentivizes you to use them early.

Try to use these spells as early de-stabilizers for your opponent's setup turns to push back their clock. Alternatively, they shine as supplemental counters in a counter war. Your opponent will invest mana into their action spell, then respond to your counter with one of their own, typically limiting the amount of remaining mana they have in the exchange. This opens up the perfect opportunity to snipe their spell with your conditional follow-up counter.

The Cost of Doing Business

Holding up a counterspell lets you keep your shields up, but if your opponent doesn't cast a spell (or a spell that matters), you end up wasting your mana for the turn. These days, there are plenty of ways for your opponent to use their mana without putting a spell on the stack too. Creature lands like Den of the Bugbear can activate and kill you in short order. The same is true for a cycled Shark Typhoon. Supplement your counterspells with other instant-speed effects where possible. Instant speed card draw or flash creatures like Ice-Fang Coatl are good ways to use leftover mana. Alternatively, aim to include modal counters like Archmage's Charm and Drown in the Loch. These cards can be of use even if your opponent doesn't cast a spell, allowing you to maximize your mana efficiency.

End Step

There is certainly more to this topic that I haven't covered. Perhaps I'll revisit and elaborate at a future date. In the meantime, if you have any questions on how to get the most out of your counterspells, or have another area you'd like me to discuss, leave a comment or tweet me at @AdamECohen. I'll catch you all next week!

Adam Cohen

Adam is a tournament grinder on the SCG tour, Player's Tour competitor, MTG Drip enthusiast, and general knower-of-things in the Twittersphere. His content primarily focuses on developments in the constructed metagames and deep dives in various archetypes. Catch him on Twitter at @AdamECohen or on Twitch at twitch.tv/acexspades.

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