Counterspells are fundamentally different from almost every other kind of card. With counterspells, you can deal with anything—but only at a very specific time. Compare, for example, a counterspell to a removal spell. When they play a creature, I don’t have to Lightning Bolt it immediately—I can wait, and then, if it becomes a problem, I’ll kill it. With counterspells, I can’t do that. If I miss my window, it’s gone forever. I have to make the decision to counter the spell the moment it is played, without fully knowing how important it’s going to be to the game. I can’t assess only what it is doing now, but I have to think about what it’s going to do until the very last turn of the game. For this reason, counterspells are some of the hardest cards to play with. In today’s article, I’ll talk a little about playing counterspells and what I think are ways you might improve your counterspelling experience.
One of the hardest things about counterspells is knowing when you should cast them and when you shouldn’t. Obviously we would like to hit our opponent’s best spell, but there is a significant opportunity cost in holding up a counterspell, since they constrain your mana and your ability to play the game. It’s natural to want to be free of that constraint; if I cast this counterspell now, I can finally tap out next turn! There are two key factors at play here:
The longer you hold a counterspell in your hand, the more value it provides.
Having a counterspell isn’t only about being able to counter a spell—it’s about security. When you have a counterspell in your hand, you’re free to do many things knowing you won’t be stopped. Being able to counter their Lightning Bolt does not mean you can simply trade with the card Lightning Bolt—it means you can now make a play that will take you to 3 life or less that you otherwise wouldn’t be able to, for example. Take this simple scenario:
You are at 7 life, your opponent is at 4. He attacks with his 4/4 into your 4/4, and you’ve seen burn in his deck. If you don’t have a counterspell in your hand, you might want to block—maybe he has Lightning Bolt, and you don’t want to die. He attacked, after all, and he is not a maniac.
If you do have a counterspell, however, then you can just take the damage if you want to. It does not matter if he actually has the Lightning Bolt—the fact that you are now able to stop it lets you make a different play than you otherwise would, and more possibilities is always better.
Another example would be when you commit all your resources—such as auras—to one creature. When you have a counterspell, you know you can do that, because you can stop their answer. If you don’t have a counterspell, then perhaps you can’t do it—it’s irrelevant whether they actually have the answer or not, you’re not going to gamble the entire game on the fact that they don’t. But having a counterspell means you can do that, and it’s not actually a gamble. Having a counterspell in your hand protects you from what your opponent has, but it also protects you from what he doesn’t have when there is no way for you to know.
The longer you hold onto your counterspell, the longer you get that feeling of security. A counterspell is the kind of card that adds constant value to your game, without you even having to cast it. Knowing that you can cast it will make your game easier and will make other plays possible. I’ve certainly won games because I had a counterspell in hand, without ever actually casting it. If I didn’t have a counterspell, I would have played in a certain way and I would have lost, but, since I did have it, I could play in a different way and win.
In general, I don’t think people are patient enough when they have counterspells, and cast them way too early, so please think of the power you’re giving up next time you decide to actually cast your counterspell!
Counterspells cost mana even when you don’t cast them.
This is the counterpoint, and it’s partially the reason why you don’t just wait twenty turns to cast every counterspell (the other reason being that sometimes you just have to counter something). As I said before, counterspells can, for the most part, hit anything, but they must be cast at the exact right time, which means you need to keep mana up and give up on doing something because you want to be able to cast a counterspell. If you do not cast the counterspell, then that mana is still gone.
Back in the day, decks mitigated that by playing a lot of instants. One of my favorite decks ever, Counter Rebels, did that very well. It always passed with mana up, and then it would either cast a counterspell or search for a Rebel, depending on what happened. Faeries did that as well—if you cast something, I Rune Snag it, if you don’t, then I can play Scion of Oona and my mana is not wasted. Counterspells are much more powerful in this type of deck because one of the biggest downsides to playing them—the fact that they cost mana even when you don’t cast them—is basically non-existent.
This creates an interesting dichotomy. The longer you hold a counterspell in your hand, the more powerful it becomes, but at the same time the cost keeps adding up. This tells you to wait as long as possible to cast it, but also to cast it as soon as you can. So, how do you know which one you’re supposed to do? I think one way to look at it is to split them in two general groups: “late game” counterspells and “early game” counterspells.
Late Game Counterspells
Late game counterspells are the ones you use to stop things that nothing else in your deck can stop. Their goal is not to stop a curve—to be a proxy for removal or creature—their goal is to stop powerful effects. They will deal with your opponent’s Whip of Erebos, Angel of Serenity, or their mythic rare in Limited. Examples of late game counterspells are Dissolve in Esper, Counterspell in the late game of UW Miracles, and most games of Limited. In those scenarios, you should avoid casting your counterspell unless you really have to.
You generally have late game counterspells if:
• There is one card, or a group of cards, whose power level is way higher than most other cards. Those cards will have so much impact on the game that they can nullify whatever happened before, including you having countered other things. One example is Aetherling in the Esper mirror. If they resolve Aetherling, it will not have mattered if you countered Jace or not, if you’ve resolved Sphinx's Revelation or not—you’re just going to lose, so you want to save your counterspells to fight their Aetherling or for your own. Another example is a card like Rakdos's Return, which can randomly kill you in a game you thought you had won.
This also applies if they have a low threat density in general. When you’re playing against a Ramp deck, for example, they have about 40 mana sources and about 10 spells that you really care about. In this case, you should really try to not counter something that is not one of those 10 spells.
• You have few counterspells in your deck. Obviously, the less you have the more important they are. In a deck with 20 counterspells you can counter anything. In a deck with two, you cannot. Pre-board Esper mirror is both this and the previous point together, which makes holding your counterspells even more important.
• You’re playing Limited and you don’t need it for your curve.
Unless you have no board presence, you generally want to save your counterspells for bombs in Limited—especially if it’s Sealed. This is also a consequence of the two previous points. In Limited, cards have radically different values, and the ones played early are worse, so you want to get a good one with your lone counterspell. This is different from Constructed, where a turn two card can be decisive for the game. In Limited, the real powerful stuff comes later. I will cast a counterspell on their 3-drop if doing so acts as my 3-drop and I’m behind, but I would prefer doing just about anything else. Once we get to the late game, I am very cautious with what I’m countering—my ideal world is the one where I only cast the counterspell in the very last turn of the game, while my opponent is tapped out.
• You have a lot of ways to deal with permanents. If you can deal with permanents in other ways, then you want to save the counterspells for spells. In a deck full of removal, I’d be wary of countering a creature, even if I don’t currently have a removal spell in hand. I know I’ll draw some eventually, so I want to save my counterspell for things I cannot deal with, such as big spells that kill you (Armageddon, Rakdos's Return), creatures with powerful comes-into-play effects that will do something even if you kill them (Angel of Serenity, Gray Merchant) or creatures that are very hard to kill (Lotleth Troll, Geist of Saint Traft). This is obviously going to change from deck to deck, but a good rule is that, since counterspells deal with anything and your other cards do not, save them for whatever it is your deck is worst at handling.
Early Game Counterspells
Early game counterspells, on the other hand, are the ones you use to stop your opponent’s curve. You use them much like you’d use removal spells, or how you’d use one extra creature—instead of playing a second Tarmogoyf, you counter their removal spell. Instead of Doom Bladeing their creature, you counter it, which amounts to basically the same thing. Examples of early game counterspells are Daze and Spell Pierce in the Delver decks, Mana Leak in Standard Delver, and Counterspell in the early game of a control deck (say, UW Miracles). With early game counterspells, you should be less picky on what you target. In general, you have early game counterspells if:
• Your counterspell has an expiration date. This is very obvious in the case of cards like Daze. If you don’t use it now, you might not have the chance to use it later. Given the opportunity, I’ll almost always Daze a Ponder or a Brainstorm, for example, because I don’t think it’ll get much better than this—unless I know my opponent is going to tap out soon. This aspect changes a lot depending on what you’re playing against. A card like Mana Leak loses efficiency very quickly against mono-red aggro, but it’s basically a hard counter until very late against a deck that has a lot of 6-drops, so I’m way more wary of “wasting” it then.
• You are going to have to tap out in critical turns, so you won’t be able to use your counterspell later anyway. In this case, you simply don’t want to pay the price of keeping mana up every turn. A counterspell when you don’t have mana is worth exactly zero, so you might as well use it before that point.
At Worlds in Chiba, I was playing UB versus UW and, in game five, I Mana Leaked an early Preordain, which raised some eyebrows as that’s usually not the kind of card you counter in the control mirror. I did that because I wanted to tap out for Sea-Gate Oracle and subsequently Jace, and I wanted to use that counterspell while I could. I knew the game would be decided early, so I wanted him to be as little prepared as possible for those fights. I could not get value from my counterspell early, since I would not have access to enough mana to play a spell and fight for it, so I tried to make it count by casting it on a different turn and hopefully stopping him from finding answers.
Another example comes from playing Caw-Blade versus Valakut. Valakut is a deck with a very light threat density, so normally you’d want to save your counterspells for the big threats, but it was sometimes worth it to counter their Rampant Growth on turn three so that you could just tap out for Jace on turn four without fear of a Primeval Titan.
• Your opponent’s cards are interchangeable. This is the case with many of the aggro decks, where countering a 2/2 is no different than countering another 2/2. In this case, you might as well just counter the earlier one, because you will get the same value but you will effectively pay less. Against an aggro deck, if my hand is Doom Blade and Counterspell, I’ll just counterspell the creature, because I know that Counterspell requires me to have mana open at all times and Doom Blade does not.
• You will win the late game no matter what. In this scenario, the opponent does not have some game-breaking card that will beat you, and you do not need to hold up a counterspell. If that is the case, then by all means just use it early—counter Kird Ape if you have to.
• You will lose the late game. If your opponent has 10 Fireballs in his deck and they are all lethal, then it does not make much sense to save your one counterspell for his first Fireball—he will just draw another and kill you. In this case, you should use your counterspells to stop him from getting to a scenario where a Fireball kills you, either by using it aggressively, to stop blockers or removal spells, or to stop any kind of setup, mana or cards-wise. When you’re playing against Esper, you might save your counterspell for Aetherling, but if you’re surely going to lose to Elspeth or to Jace ultimate even if you counter the Aetherling then that’s a moot point, try to use it to win before that.
• You have many counterspells. Sometimes you really need to keep mana up to deal with something (such as against a combo deck), but you can’t keep infinite mana up. If you have, say, four Counterspells, then you probably aren’t going to be able to cast all of them in the same turn. In that case, you try to hit the spells that help your opponent assemble his stuff, such as card drawing. If you counter his Pyroblast or his Ponder that was going to draw the Pyroblast, that’s basically the same thing, except you both save mana, and that might be good for you if the mana variable is constraining you more than it’s constraining him. Incidentally, when your opponent counters what looks like bad spells, it’s usually an indication that he has more counterspells in hand.
You can clearly see this point (again) in Esper mirrors, where the goal of the game shifts post-board from resolving Aetherling on turn 50 to maybe winning the mid-game. Part of the reason is that players bring in way more counterspells, and as such they use them more freely. You can Gainsay that turn four Jace, because you have so many counterspells in your deck that you know by the time they cast Aetherling you will have another one (and you also know they have many more to draw into).
Be careful here, though. It’s not because you have many counterspells that you should waste them. I remember watching a match of Faeries versus 5cc in old Standard, in which the Faeries player had three Cryptic Commands in hand. At some point, at the end of the turn, he simply bounced a land and drew a card, because, you know, he had three of them, so might as well. That turned out to be very wrong; the game went long, and he got through his first, and then his second Cryptic Command, and then, when he needed his third, he didn’t have it. Basically, don’t go around countering Ornithopters because you have two counterspells—a game can last for a very long time and surely your opponent is going to present better targets.
Another important aspect is knowing when to hold mana up for counters and when to just ignore them and play your spells. This is very game-state-dependent. I think that, in general, you want to hold counterspell mana up if:
• You do not need to develop your board. When you make a move and tap out, you’re making a decision—you’re not countering whatever it is they are going to play. By waiting, you transfer the choice to the opponent—they can choose whether you’re going to have the opportunity to trade counterspells for their card or not. They can simply not cast anything and pass the turn back to you. You should only wait if you are OK with that decision. Normally, in a control deck, that is a good thing—if no one does anything that benefits you—but not necessarily, and, if you are not happy with a cycle of turns where no one does anything, do not leave mana up. The exception is when you have reason to believe they will not just pass the turn—maybe you think they really want to cast something or they are just the type of player that never worries about anything.
If you’re playing an aggro deck with counterspells, then you need to have some pressure before sitting back, because doing nothing will generally benefit the opponent. If you do have enough pressure to force a reaction, though (attacking a UB deck with a 1/1 for 20 turns is notpressure—they have to be threatened), then it’s usually better to wait with counterspells to stop their reaction rather than simply adding more pressure to the board.
• They can punish you heavily next turn. In the beginning of the article, I wrote that, with counterspells, you had to make a decision on the spot—you couldn’t change your mind later. That’s actually not true—you have to make a decision the turn before the spell is even cast, because, if your decisions is, “no, I do not want to counter it,” then you can tap out. This requires you knowing everything your opponent can do, and then assessing whether you think those spells are worth countering or not. There will be certain mana thresholds in each matchup where your opponent can resolve a card that you can’t deal with (or that will still be good even if you deal with later)—planeswalkers, Thragtusks, and so on. Think about which ones they can have and then decide before you make your play. As a bonus, it will also help you disguise what you have—if they play something and you let it resolve on the spot, because you’ve already thought about it, then they get no information about whether you have a counterspell.
You do not want to hold mana if:
• You will be put in the exact same spot next turn. When you have the choice between casting a 6-drop and holding a Dissolve, and you have six lands, you are guaranteed to have to wait at the very least three turns doing nothing before you can cast your guy, unless they just run their spell into your Dissolve. In this scenario, whatever it is you want to counter has to be really important for you to Time Walk yourself three times. In most situations like this, what ends up happening is you wait two turns, start drawing other expensive spells that you can’t cast, get tired of it, and play your 6-drop without counter mana up, which basically stalls and gives the opponent two extra chances to topdeck something. If you have eight lands, however, then it’s a lot more reasonable to just wait a turn, in the event that you might want to counter something. If you do not, then you can play your 6-drop and keep counter mana up next turn, so you don’t lose much.
• You’re playing Limited and it’s early on. In Limited, it’s almost always better to develop your board rather than leave up counterspells, because board presence is too important in the early game, and you don’t want to have to spend your counterspells on early dudes anyway. Also important is the fact that if you pass with open mana in the early game it makes your opponent suspicious, but in the late game it usually does not because you have mana left anyway. Unless your opponent has an unbeatable bomb that they will just play turn four (Bloodline Keeper, Olivia), just cast your 3-drop.
Playing against counterspells
Playing with counterspells is hard, but playing against them is also very hard. Your ability to play against counterspells is usually proportional to how much you’re winning the game—if you are way ahead, then you can do whatever it takes to not walk into one, but if you’re way behind then you usually have to ignore all this and just hope he doesn’t have it. I can think of four good ways to do it:
1) Cast your spells at inconvenient times. If your opponent has Mana Leak and passes turn three with no play, then if you do not cast anything you make them waste a turn. If they pass on turn four and you do not cast anything, however, then they can just cast Restoration Angel. In this scenario, it’s better to wait until turn four to cast something that you think is going to get Mana Leaked anyway, because at least you make him wait an entire turn.
2) Baiting. You know what spells you have, and you know which ones are the best for your game plan, but your opponent might not. If you think he is holding a counterspell, try to play spells of lower value first, so he might be tempted to counter those and, if he does, slam your big bomb. If he does not counter the bait, then do not cast your spell—make sure he wastes his mana for many turns.
3) Try to constrain his mana. People will usually leave up 1UU if they have a counterspell, but they will not often leave 2UUUU up every single turn if they have two, because that’s too much work. In those scenarios, you can try to cast two key spells in the same turn rather than just walking both into his counterspells one at a time. Casting a spell at the end of the turn is perfect for that, because it lets you untap your lands while they do not. To play this way, you need to be patient. Wait until he spends mana and then go for it, otherwise you will get to a position where you tapped him out but then you have nothing left to punish him with.
4) Brute-force your spells. Sometimes you just have more important cards than they have counterspells, and waiting just gives them more time to draw answers. Sometimes you’re low on mana yourself, so you can’t constrain them in this department. In this case, just play your spells—one every turn—and hope he runs out of stuff to do.
That’s what I have for today! Playing with counterspells is tricky and depends so much on what the game is looking like, but hopefully I was able to present some guidelines to make your decision easier in the future. I hope you’ve enjoyed it and see you next week!